Mainers have joined in the Free Little Art Gallery movement. Here's a look at a few of these mini neighborhood exhibition spaces.
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Hattie Redfield, 3, examines the newest diorama in Sylvia Thompson’s little free art gallery for children outside Thompson’s home in South Portland. Hattie’s mother, Hillary Barter, holds 5-month-old Beatrice while she chats with Thompson. Michele McDonald/Photo Editor
Carol Carriuolo used to make art in a small studio in a Westbrook mill, but she didn’t feel safe going into a shared building during the COVID-19 pandemic. So she packed up her supplies and relocated to the cellar at her Falmouth home. She was feeling isolated and disconnected from the world when she read about a “Free Little Art Gallery” in Washington state.
It was just like a Little Free Library, but instead of books, it housed tiny works of art.
“I thought, ‘Oh, what a wonderful way to engage people with one another in an expressive way without people having to gather anywhere,’” Carriuolo, 73, said.
These mini galleries have popped up across the country in recent years, fueled in part by the buzz about the one that Carriuolo saw by Seattle artist Sarah Milrany. Milrany opened hers in December 2020 and wrote on her website that she, too, wanted to find a shared human experience during the pandemic. Hers has a little bench in the middle, mimicking a much larger museum. Passersby can take and leave their own artwork. Earlier examples could be found in Canada and Texas, and since then, they have appeared everywhere from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., to Castine.
“I believe that more art should be more accessible to more people – paintings, poems, song, and dance – these personal expressions of our ‘human-ness,’ and I hope this little gallery might contribute to that little dream,” Milrany wrote.
Carol Carriuolo set up a free little art gallery outside her Falmouth home during the pandemic to provide safe opportunities for connection and inspiration for her neighbors. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer
There is no formal network or database of these homegrown galleries. Some curators add them to nationwide maps online such as freelittleartgalleries.art or create social media accounts with regular updates, while others prefer to keep them a little harder to find. Here are three tiny galleries in the Greater Portland area, plus a bonus exhibition space in an unlikely venue.
GIVE AND TAKE
Sarah Compton, 54, owned a gallery years ago, in the back of her home goods store in San Francisco. But she left the retail grind to focus on raising her kids.
This summer, she opened one again: 159 Art Exchange, right outside her house in Portland’s Deering Center neighborhood.
Compton found herself with more time for creative projects as her sons entered in high school. She submitted a quilt to an annual open-call exhibition at Buoy Gallery in Kittery, where she felt inspired by the community spirit of the show and the owner. Then she visited Portland, Oregon, and saw Little Free Libraries for books, toys, plants and all sorts of things. She ordered a library kit online and installed it at the intersection of Glenwood Avenue and Concord Street this summer.
“When the windows are open, we can hear people being like, ‘Oh, look at this!’ And I’ll be like, ‘Take some art!’ ” she said.
Sarah Compton runs a free little art gallery called 159 Art Exchange outside her house in Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer
She peeked inside recently to find a watercolor mountain scene with an actual frame. On the same day, 159 Art Exchange housed a dried flower, a pencil drawing of a barn on a piece of lined notebook paper, a child’s painting of a rainbow, an abstract piece in shades of green and yellow, and a tiny collage made by local artist Amanda Petrozzini. Compton set up an Instagram account (@159_art_exchange) and posts regular updates. She wasn’t sure what to do with pieces that were lingering for weeks, but a curator friend suggested that she could remove them for now and return them in December, when visitors might be on the hunt for holiday gifts.
Compton prefers to call her project an exchange rather than a gallery because the give-and-take is what appeals to her most. She feels overwhelmed at times by the amount of stuff in the world, and she feels more freedom to create art herself when she has a venue to give it away to her neighbors.
“I love the idea of art flowing,” she said. “We have such preciousness around it. You collect it, you hold onto it and you pass it down in your family. I like the idea of, how about you live with it for a little while and enjoy it and then pass it on to its new home?”
She is already thinking about how the exchange could host a pop-up show or even a mini residency. One of her kids asked what she would do if a graffiti artist tags the box.
“I would put a little card for ‘Anonymous Artist,’” she suggested. “It just feels sweet to me. We’ll see what happens.”
Inside Carriuolo’s free little art gallery in Falmouth. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer
A WAY TO CONNECT
Carriuolo was surprised by the immediate response when she set up her tiny gallery in spring 2021.
“It has given me more pleasure than I thought,” she said. “It’s not about art with a capital A that can be intimidating to folks. I did it as a way of connecting to my community.”
She loves to see what people contribute: small wreaths made of marine rope scraps from the beach, painted rocks, tiny paintings, tin foil figures made by a kindergartener, unsigned drawings made by a well-known artist in the neighborhood.
“I’m not curating it,” she said. “I’m not deciding whether it’s worthy or not of being displayed. If you feel it’s worthy, it’s worthy.”
Even more than the art, she loves to see the way the gallery has added something special to the neighborhood. She has received thank-you notes from visitors. Two women who lived in the house decades ago once knocked on the door, and Carriuolo proudly showed them the new addition. The Portland Wheelers, a nonprofit that provides adapted bike rides, sometimes travel up her street, and Carriuolo once gifted a picture she made of a crow to a rider. A friend who works as a child therapist gave her tiny figures for patrons, and passersby sometimes rearrange the scene inside. She made an informational flyer (“All ages and abilities are welcomed,” it says) and has to replenish them every couple months. Some people just look, others take and give.
Carriuolo doesn’t usually claim art for herself, but one day, she overheard a young neighbor lamenting to her mother that no one had taken the clay doughnut she made for the gallery.
“I heard the disappointment in her voice that someone didn’t love her doughnut,” she said. “I loved her doughnut, so I took it out of the gallery and have it in my house.”
The tiny gallery has also impacted her own practice. When she is struggling to find inspiration for a bigger piece, she makes something small to give away. She normally closes the gallery in November but is brainstorming ideas for a holiday display with lights and ornaments.
Carriuolo hasn’t listed her gallery online or on social media, and she prefers not to disclose its exact location in Falmouth.
“The discovery of it is part of the process,” she said.
FOR THE KIDS
Sylvia Thompson, 80, likes to paint, but she didn’t make her miniature gallery for her own work. She lives on Churchill Street in South Portland, and her neighborhood is full of children riding their bikes or walking with their parents.
“There’s always somebody walking with their kid or their dog, or their dog and their kid,” she said. “I get to know all the kids, and then they grow up and we replace them with other ones.”
Like a free little library, Sylvia Thompson has a free little art gallery especially for children, outside of her South Portland home. Michele McDonald/Photo Editor
She heard about Free Little Art Galleries from her daughter, and she liked the idea for her own grandchildren and the kids who live on her street. So she asked her partner to build the box a couple years ago and now keeps it stocked with blank canvases for local children. She just asks them to return their artwork when they are done, so she can display it.
She doesn’t advertise or post on social media, but her target audience of neighborhood kids has found the gallery just fine on their own.
“They paint like crazy,” she said.
To keep the gallery interesting, Thompson usually tries to create a scene inside the box. Most recently, she had decorated the inside like a fairy house. For fall, she was brainstorming how to create the inside of a chipmunk’s winter den. She did learn not to put objects in the gallery that she didn’t want to give away; she thought the knitted creatures made by a friend would be “star characters” in her shows, but they proved too cute for the kids to resist taking home.
Thompson often sets up a diorama in the South Portland little art gallery she has for kids. She often stacks the gallery with blank canvases, and hangs the art the kids return. Photo by Sylvia Thompson
Thompson has lived in her neighborhood for 13 years and said the project has helped her meet nearby residents in a way she had never done before, especially as young families move into the area.
“It’s great because not only have I gotten to know the kids, I get to know all the parents,” she said. “It’s been a really good way to meet people in the neighborhood.”
It was 2020, and Karen Gelardi was really tired of looking at the telephone pole outside her home in South Portland’s Meetinghouse Hill neighborhood.
“It’s basically right in my face,” she said. “I wanted to have something better to look at.”
Gelardi, 56, is an artist whose work often explores themes of resiliency and adaptation. That summer, she started hanging artwork by friends and family on the telephone pole. She invited artist Meghan Brady to be a “gardener in residence,” and they created welcoming beds in Gelardi’s yard next to the stretch of sidewalk. Other established artists who have contributed work to “Sidewalk” include Jannik Lindegaard, Anna Hepler, Emily Funkhouser and Rachel Adams.
Karen Gelardi, an artist from South Portland, turned her lawn into an artistic garden. Her goal is to integrate art into daily life for people who are walking or driving down her street. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer
Gelardi likes to see how people respond to the little surprise as they pass her home. (She preferred to not give the exact street.) Some people walk right past, but others pause to consider the art print hanging where they might have expected a flyer for a lost cat. There’s no gallery text or explanatory sign. The project feels both intellectual and whimsical. Either way, Gelardi wants people to see art in their everyday lives.
“I don’t think there’s enough places for that,” she said. “I love galleries, but I find it really hard to get there. If you have artwork in your home, that’s where you’d see it. On an everyday level, I don’t think we have enough of it around us. I see the work as in conversation with our regular life.”
“Sidewalk” is not a Free Little Art Gallery; the work is not there for the taking. Gelardi hung a Polaroid her sister took at a national park on a second telephone pole nearby, and they were both disappointed when it disappeared. So Gelardi put up a poster (“Have you seen this Polaroid?”), and then last year, the photograph was quietly returned to the telephone pole. She displays work year-round and is interested in how the different pieces interact with the elements; for example, Hepler made a sculpture out of cardboard that held up surprisingly well in wet weather.
“Hello” by Michael Capotosto, of New York City, hangs from a utility pole on Cottage Road in South Portland. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer
The work there right now is by Michael Capotosto, a Brooklyn artist and Gelardi’s cousin. He has been waiting for a turn on the telephone pole since he first heard about the project and said he liked the idea of people discovering the piece inadvertently while driving or walking on a major thoroughfare. Not everyone wants to or can make time to see art in more traditional spaces such as galleries, but they might connect with whatever is on the telephone pole.
“I just love that it’s outside of an expected environment,” he said. “It’s open to everybody, and you can interact with it or not. You can get something from it or not. And unless you know that you’re specifically going to this pole to see what’s there, it’s an unplanned interaction.”
He draws in ink and also creates sculptures that usually involve knots, and he created a piece for “Sidewalk” from knotted orange cord, not knowing how well the color would echo the orange construction signs in her neighborhood.
“They might say from a distance, ‘What the heck is that?’ And then they get up to it and still say, ‘What the heck is that?’” he said.
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