"Now & Then: PPL Reconfigured"

The inspiration for my contribution to "150 Years: PPL Reconfigured", came from the collection of hundreds of letters saved after the great fire of 1866 in Portland, Maine, which I discovered via the Portland Public Library’s Digital Commons. The Library has a cataloged list of every item in this collection, with a handful of image scans, all online. Thus I was immediately attracted to the beautiful cursive handwriting that was common in 1866, having had incorporated hand script myself, using a dip pen, in past artwork of mine (See Archive 2009 - 2002/Prison Papers). I then visited the archive room to view and photograph dozens of letters in order to study the variety of cursive styles.
 
Further research online, of the description of the day of the fire, began to reveal strange coincidences and symbolic overtones to me; the fire occurred on the Fourth of July, the first Fourth after the end of the Civil War and the cry of “FIRE” was made by William Wilberforce Ruby, a local merchant who would eventually become one of the first African-American officers in the Portland Fire Department. Then after perusing the list and descriptions of hundreds of letters, written in sympathy towards those suffering loss of home and livelihood, I found a scathing, bitter note* from the south, expressing contempt and just deserts towards this northern city, against the destruction and loss of life endured within the writer’s home state of Alabama during the war. Now I had my touchstone with which to “reconfigure” the Portland Public Library’s collection. Who are the contemporary “Portland Sufferers” and who are their detractors? The parallels between the current phenomenon of African immigration to the Portland region since the early 2000’s, the understory of African slavery as one of the narratives of our national division and civil war and a fire occurring on the most important celebratory day in our nation, guided me to explore contemporary hate speech and the problems of patriotism and ex-patriotism all reconfigured as old, worn, singed artifacts.
 
*A piece of “fractional currency”, a paper denomination of $.25, {paper currency was issued during the war for small denominations, due to the hording of coins} is still attached to this 150 year old letter from Alabama, as yet undistributed to the Portland Sufferers of 1866! Further and strangely, but maybe chosen consciously, the portrait on the twenty-five cent bill is of William Pitt Fessenden, A lawyer and leading antislavery Whig from Maine. He built an antislavery coalition in the state legislature that elected him to the U.S. Senate, which became Maine's Republican organization. President Abraham Lincoln appointed Fessenden United States Secretary of the Treasury.

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