Westbrook’s art installation hopes to evoke them

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Amy Stacey Curtis stands in her work in progress, with three of the nine houses visible behind her. A cul-de-sac will be created on the floor of what was once a school gymnasium at Presumpscot Commons in Westbrook. Chance Viles/American Journal

Artist Amy Stacey Curtis is working on one of her biggest installations ever – a makeshift mini neighborhood in Westbrook meant to evoke memories.

Artist Lyman’s goal with “The Color of Memory” is to capture memories sparked by color and the experiences of everyday people, including his own struggle with memory and sanity after suffering brain damage caused by long-term Lyme disease.

For the interactive exhibit which opens later this month, Curtis is building small “homes” in a former gymnasium at the Presumpscot Commons Senior Living Center on Main Street. Each will be painted a different color.

Amy Stacey Curtis stands near the houses to show the scale of the installation. Chance Viles/American Journal

Houses will be furnished with items donated by the community, and each of the items will be painted to match the color of their particular house. The objects will help fuel memories, Curtis said, and give the home its own personality. The widow of a former hoarder has donated materials for a house, she said, and other donated items range from tricycles to doll heads and a small refrigerator.

At each house, visitors will be invited to record in a book the memories that the color evokes in them. Eventually, these books will be published under the title “The Color of Memory”, part of the project that will last longer than the exhibition itself.

Since last week, nine houses have been freshly painted and each is being furnished. Construction is being done with the help of some art students from the University of Southern Maine, and Presumpscot Commons residents and other community members have helped paint the donated items.

The covered gymnasium floor will be designed in a cul-de-sac with a grassy park and wooden walkways connecting the houses, all ADA accessible.

Once completed, visitors will roam the “neighborhood” moving from house to house, adding their memories to the books.

The White House is Curtis’ “self-portrait imprint” and, like the hoarder’s house, will reflect his own life.

“It’s inspired by what our home looks like after years of health issues,” said Curtis, whose illness took her “in and out of two psychiatric wards, dealing with psychosis.” Her speech was also affected, she lost muscle control.

“The seizures kept me sitting for 18 months,” Curtis said.

“The house wasn’t really a priority, so the grass wasn’t mowed, we didn’t rake leaves or acorns,” Curtis said. “There’s just random stuff in our desk drawers that reflects aspects of my brain injury, so there are medicine bottles but there are also puzzle pieces. One of the things we did to cope at the beginning was to do puzzles. It was something I used to do in psychiatric wards.

She sees collaborating with students and the community as a change of pace from her previous, more minimal works.

“It’s brighter now. It’s been about a year since I feel like the assistants are helping me again, not the other way around,” she said.

His crowning work of art was a series of large interactive installations in nine former factories in Maine over an 18-year period, from 1998 to 2016.

Westbrook’s piece is a nice change of pace, she said.

“This piece really exploded into elaborate fun and whimsy, which they normally weren’t,” Curtis said.

Art like the memory installation that both brings the community to Presumpscot Place and provides its residents with socially enriching entertainment is a welcome treat, said Chris LaRoche, director of the Westbrook Housing Authority, which runs the center of life for the elderly.

“It’s something we’re excited to be a part of,” LaRoche said. “Art like this enhances the connection to the neighborhood, the city-wide connection to having this precious historic space not only available to seniors, but also to the community at large.”

Presumpscot Common is located in what was once the town’s high school, then for a time the college. The building was erected in the 1800s and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“My piece is about memory, so the old gymnasium is so perfect. There are these amazing art deco tile walls that have so much character in them and a memory in themselves,” Curtis said.

The historic building works perfectly for the piece, said Kat Zagaria Buckley, USM’s director of art exhibits and outreach.

It’s a great place to think about the role of memory, being the old high school,” Buckley said. “Buildings like this hold so many memories for so many people. The gym is at the height of memory, emotion and adrenaline for many during their school years.

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