What’s wrong with this picture?
Downtown Portsmouth is like one of those photos in a children’s activity book, asking "what doesn’t belong here?"
Many of you may have already noticed the out of place police
message board flashing incomplete sentences and fragments of thoughts
in Market Square. Even more of you may have stopped to read the message
board and question what it is and who is behind the public display of
The community art project is called "Portsmouth Says ‘Hi,’"
part of the Overnight Art! public art competition that has run since
April 1 and will end on Monday, April 18. This particular installment,
organized by two local artists Tim Gaudreau and Jennifer Belkus, is
about the Portsmouth community, allowing anyone in town to submit
thoughts and entries to be used in the public poem.
People leave notes in any of the seven themed orange boxes
located throughout downtown to be collected by Gaudreau and Belkus each
night and compiled as a collective poem. Lieutenant Fred Hoysradt of
the Portsmouth Police Department then takes the poem and enters it into
the message board daily, on his own time before and after work, and
even on days off to help out.
Hoysradt said that going into the project he had no
expectations. He was unfamiliar with it when the idea was first
presented to him by Deputy Chief Dave Young, the motivator for the
police department’s involvement.
"He presented it to me as a chance for the police department
to work in partnership with the community on a cultural level,
something I believe is important," Hoysradt said in an e-mail. "I truly
believe that ‘this’ is what a great police department does, and I’m
glad to be a part of it. I know that our willingness to help out with
projects like this is what helps to make Portsmouth such a great
community to live in and is what separates us from other police
The two artists running the project said that it has been far
more successful than they though it would be. They thought that people
already connected to the art world would be those who would react the
most, but it has been the people who aren’t usually involved who have
really stepped up, Gaudreau said.
"This has provided a really unique opportunity for the
teenagers and younger people in town, giving them a chance to have a
dialogue with the city," he said. "We are providing them with a way of
participating with the community. Some are writing stories and poems
but some are speaking their minds and saying how they want to be
involved in the town."
There has been a small theme building on the notes from the
local youth asking for a graffiti wall or a place to legally express
themselves without doing harm to the buildings or the town in general,
Brian Polansky, 23, hangs out in Market Square regularly and
said that he likes the message board because it’s a compilation of
everyone’s poetry and writing. He said that he thinks Portsmouth needs
a graffiti wall because it would be a positive place for them to do art
without harming the community.
"People don’t condone it as art but we don’t have a place to
express ourselves so it’s an outlet for us and also art," Polansky
said. "(With a graffiti wall,) instead of someone saying you’re going
to get arrested for that, we could get positive feedback."
Kayla Lawry, 16, agreed with Polansky and said that Portsmouth
needs a graffiti wall because then there would be a place for them to
not only write, but to show off their work like they want to.
"(The message board) is a good idea and good community
outreach because it helps get people ideas where they can be seen,
there are a lot of people always walking around the Square," she said.
The art installation called "Portsmouth Says Hi" is located in Market
Square and was created by Tim Gaurdeau and Jennifer Belkus. The media:
mixed media letterboxes: digital sign, and found poetry. It is an
Photo by Deb Cram
The two main components of the "Portsmouth Says ‘Hi’" project
are the public display of poetry but also the public participation,
said Beth Shepard-Rabadam, coordinator of Art Speak for the City of
Portsmouth Cultural Commission. People never expected to participate
have been, for example the kids who hang out in Market Square have been
dropping tons of letters in, she said.
"Instead of graffiti art they are using this (message board)
as a way of expressing their ideas," Shepard-Rabadam said. "The police
department donated use of that sign for free and here they are offering
a positive way for these kids to express their energy. The partnership
between the Portsmouth Police Department and Tim and Jennifer, along
with the positive way this allows kids to express themselves, is just
Although it’s hard to estimate how many responses there have
been without actually counting, Gaudreau said they could easily have
about 500 notes. However, he and Belkus had 2,500 pens made up with
"Portsmouth Says ‘Hi’" inscribed on them for people to take as
souvenirs after they wrote or looked in the boxes, and they are almost
"I would be surprised if we even have 100 (pens) left," Gaudreau said.
One of the challenges of the project was finding a way to
create something that was unexpected and so out of the ordinary that
people would stop and pay attention to it, Gaudreau said.
"One of the major struggles that we had was how to reach our
audience," he said. "With how busy people are now, we needed to find a
way to capture their attention."
By using something that people already have a preconceived
idea about, like a police message board, the two artists were able to
do just that.
"Part of the inspiration was to take a fixture from our daily
surroundings and put a spin on it so that the expectation people had of
it and the message they would get from it, is an alternative message,"
Belkus said. "This message (on the police equipment) is obviously not
in the voice of the police department. We wanted to first shake people
out of their daily routine so they would go, ‘what’s that?’ and
secondly have them react to what it says on the sign, and lastly to
make the connection between the orange boxes and how these people can
get their own voices up there."
Pablo Contreras, 29, a Portsmouth resident frequents Breaking
New Grounds in Market Square and admitted that he has been watching the
sign for the last two weeks and trying to make sense of it.
"My friends and I were here and we were trying to figure out
what it was, because that (sign) belongs to the police and we didn’t
know why the police would write that," Contreras said. "The first time
I noticed it was at night and I thought it would say, ‘drive slowly’ or
‘don’t drink and drive,’ but it says this."
What people write
Although it took a little while to figure it out, Contreras
said he will submit something now that he knows what the sign is about.
"I like it, it’s really neat," he said. "It’s a good way to
express yourself and it’s located in a spot where everyone can see it.
I think they should keep it the whole summer long, it keeps (downtown)
Part of the excitement of the project has been that everyone
has had some kind of a reaction, regardless of what the reaction is,
Belkus said. People sometimes don’t get it or don’t make the connection
with the orange boxes, but they are still noticing.
"In one instance there were two men dressed professionally who
didn’t know each other but were talking to each other to ask what it
was," Belkus said. "One of them was from out of town and one was a
local but it built some sort of community by just getting them to
interact with each other about it."
Putting something out in the community like that without much
explanation is risky because people don’t know how to react, Gaudreau
"From the notes and the conversations that I’ve had with
people, the project is really working in the way we had hoped," he
said. "It’s so unexpected that people don’t really know what to think
at first, but once they read the messages and look at the boxes, they
want to get involved. They walk away still thinking about it."
Hoysradt, who Gaudreau called the "silent collaborator," said
that the response has been wonderful and that although the police
department’s role has been small, it’s good to have been a part of it.
"I’m glad that the police department was able to help the
community make this so successful. I credit Dave Young and the chief
for their open-mindedness," he said.
The project began with Gaudreau and Belkus questioning what
makes Portsmouth such a great place to be, Gaudreau said. As it comes
to a close the two artists plan to continue working with the responses
they have received although they don’t have anything specific planned
yet. They may find a way to work with the complete set of notes or to
continue creating community poetry, Gaudreau said.
"One of the things that really struck us was the variety of
people and the energy in this city," Gaudreau said. "The vitality of
our community comes from the people and we wanted to find a way to
bring that together and collaborate with the community in a positive
way. People are actively participating and really enjoying the project.
They are interacting with the artists that they normally wouldn’t and
from that becoming artists themselves, and that’s really cool."
For information, visit www.art-speak.com.