Pigeon's Mainer Project: who decides who belongs?

Mainer Project, 2015,
charcoal on paper by Pigeon

Orson Horchler, aka “Pigeon,” and Tilly Laskey, Outreach Curator at Maine Historical Society, curated this exhibition at Maine Historical Society in 2015.

With the Mainer Project, street artist Pigeon's artwork tackles the multifaceted topic of immigration. He portrays Maine residents, some who are asylum seekers, refugees, and immigrants—people who are often marginalized through state and federal policies—to ask questions about the dynamics of power in society, and who gets to call themselves a “Mainer.”

Pigeon was born in Pennsylvania to immigrant parents from Hungary and France, raised in a suburb of Paris, France, and moved to Maine as an adult. His background, combined with his legal assistance and homeless advocacy work, has informed Pigeon’s perspectives on immigration and identity.

Pigeon draws Mainers he personally knows and cares about, but whose histories he keeps confidential—because, shouldn’t it be enough that they live here? Pigeon's portraits could easily have depicted Chinese immigrant Hop Ling, who lived in Augusta in 1890, or residents of Berwick's Irish neighborhood who were turned out of their homes by a mob in 1853.

In this exhibit, Pigeon combined his art and current news with historic photographs and newspapers from the Maine Historical Society's collections to provide context to events in our past, and inform our future regarding the often contentious subject of immigration.

Mainer Project mural, Farmington, 2015

The Mainer Project: Pigeon's Artist Statement

Orson Horchler, aka "Pigeon" with Mainer murals he installed on the facade of Maine Historical Society, 2015

My primary concern as a street artist is: what are the many ways in which people get told they do not belong in the very place they live?

I was inspired to do my first installation of the Mainer Project in June 2015, after Maine Governor Paul LePage re-stated a key point of his 2014 re-election campaign: his promise to prevent asylum seekers from accessing General Assistance benefits.

Federal statute 8 U.S. Code, Section 1621(d) defines a person eligible for benefits as anyone lawfully in the United States, or who is pursuing a lawful process to apply for immigration relief. Asylum seekers are granted legal status in the United States through a Federal law process, guided by the ratification by the United States of the United Nations’ 1951 Convention on Refugees.

I felt obligated to break down this non-discriminatory legal statute with images of the Maine that I know: the faces of residents of the state who I knew personally, from a Native American lobsterman to a Congolese asylum seeker.

The Mainer Project eventually led to a much broader discussion about belonging in Maine. I was approached by people of all social classes, origins and ethnicities who had poignant stories to share about being told they were not allowed to describe themselves as Mainers, in spite of having committed their lives to the state of Maine.

I am interested in how memes that oppose integration of some residents based on national origin, race, class, sexual orientation or religion, originate and spread. For this reason, I pay close attention to political rhetoric, social media, and the online press, which offer an unprecedented insight into public opinion.

I am a street artist because I believe art should be accessible to all; that anybody should feel entitled to react to artwork and question why it is in their space. I am truly grateful to anyone who shares their opinion about my work.

"The Berwick Tragedy," June 11, 1853
"The Eastern Journal", Biddeford

"Affray at Berwick," June 11, 1853
"The Eclectic", Portland

Anxieties about minority populations often arise in difficult economic and social times. An influx of Irish Catholic immigrants to a predominately English Protestant population in Maine in the 1850s led to the rise of nativist groups like the Know Nothings, who enacted violent crimes against immigrants, especially the Irish.

In Berwick in 1853, three Irish immigrants, John Waters, James Waters, and Daniel Scannell, fought with and murdered a local man, Lewis Maxwell. That night, a mob described by the Eclectic Weekly newspaper as over one thousand people responded by marching to the Irish settlement, where they evicted the Irish residents and demolished their homes.

The Eastern Star article, published in Biddeford, balanced the news:
Amid the multitude of contradictory rumors, it is almost impossible to get at the true state of the facts in this sad affair. But this much is very evident, that the murder happened in the midst of a general fight, growing out of Grog-shops and the bitter hatred that some Yankees find it necessary to bear toward the Irish.

Maine Anti-Slavery Society constitution, ca. 1833

Maine Anti-Slavery Society constitution, ca. 1833

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

The Maine Anti-Slavery Society was founded in May 1833 with the intent to change American culture. This document contains signatures of the group's members, who organized to advocate for justice for freed men and against slavery.

The constitution states that the society will,
…encourage & promote the intellectual, moral & religious improvement of the free people of color, & by correcting prevailing & wicked prejudices, endeavor to obtain for them, as well as the enslaved, an equality with the whites in civil, intellectual & religious privileges; but will never countenance the oppressed in vindicating their rights by physical force.

Chinese immigrant men, Augusta, ca. 1890

Chinese immigrant men, Augusta, ca. 1890

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society

In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first major law restricting immigration to the United States. The law was largely in response to economic fears by Americans who blamed unemployment and declining wages on Chinese workers.

The Chinese Exclusion Act foreshadowed the National Origins Act of 1929, which capped all immigration to the United States at 150,000 people per year and barred Asian immigration altogether.

Immigration restrictions were slightly lifted in 1943, when 105 Chinese people per year were admitted into the country. Large-scale Chinese immigration to the United States was allowed when the Immigration Act of 1965 passed.

Chinese immigrant Hop Ling lived in Augusta in the 1890s. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, most of Maine's early Chinese residents were men who lived in a bachelor society, even though many had wives and families in China.

After the Great Depression, the Federal Home Loan Bank through its subsidiary the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) made critical loans to struggling homeowners, but also initiated a policy of institutionalized racism known as “redlining.”

Redlining is the practice of denying or limiting financial services to certain neighborhoods based on racial or ethnic composition without regard to the residents’ qualifications or solvency. The term “redlining” refers to using a red line on a map to delineate the area where financial institutions would not invest.

The HOLC’s printed guidelines directed assessors to rate neighborhoods based on housing stock, sales and rental rates, physical attributes, the occupations, income, and ethnicities of citizens, and “any threat of infiltration of foreign-born, negro, or lower grade population.” The HOLC used these ratings to create Residential Security Maps.

Maine Historical Society holds a copy of a Residential Security Map from 1935 that details Portland and South Portland. The standard HOLC legend delineates the newest areas, or those desirable for lending purposes, outlined in blue and known as "Type A" or Best. These were typically affluent suburbs on the outskirts of cities. "Type B" neighborhoods were considered, Still Desirable, whereas older "Type C" neighborhoods were labeled Definitely Declining and outlined in yellow. "Type D" neighborhoods were outlined in red (thus the term redlining) and were considered Hazardous and the most risky for lending.

Pigeon is a street artist who typically installs his work on building exteriors rather than in museum galleries. In 2015, the Pigeon team installed the Mainer Project in Farmington, Berwick, and Portland. The team affixes paper poster reproductions of his charcoal drawings to walls with wheat paste, an easily reversible glue.

Pigeon’s in-situ artworks are meant to engage the community in dialogue and to confront misconceptions and rhetoric about immigration.

On this map, notice the ethnic areas are shaded where Polish, Italian, Irish, and Jewish communities lived.

Pigeon, Titi de Baccarat and Gael Steve Taty installing The Mainer Project, Berwick, 2015
Photograph by Liz McGranaghan

Pigeon, Titi de Baccarat and Gael Steve Taty installing The Mainer Project, Berwick, 2015
Photograph by Liz McGranaghan

"Portrait of Hawa" Mainer project, Portland, 2016

"Portrait of Hawa" Mainer project, Portland, 2016

Item Contributed by
Maine Historical Society