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One Overnight Art! installation gives locals an alternative voice

By Abigail Smestad

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 poetry.

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 departments."

Overnight sensation

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, Gaudreau said.

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 interactive piece.
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 great."

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 out.

"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) fun."

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 said.

"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.

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