How this abstract sculpture made a real-life difference

Hello! Every seven days, for the rest of the year, This Week in Portland History is bringing to light a person or event from the city’s past.

This zig-zagging metal sculpture has been rusting into a distinguished patina since 1974. It’s called “Michael,” named both for the archangel and a friend of the artist. Back in the day, it helped bring this city a little closer together.

Portland vocational high school artist-in-residence, John Raimondi, designed it. His students fabricated it from half-ton sheets of cor-ten steel. They were finishing it up at their school on Casco Street 43 years ago this week.

The sculpture known as "Michael" has graced One City Center Plaza in Portland since 1974. It's the creation of artist John Raimadi and students at Portland's vocational high school. (Troy R. Bennett)

The sculpture known as “Michael” has graced One City Center Plaza in Portland since 1974. It’s the creation of artist John Raimondi and students at Portland’s vocational high school. (Troy R. Bennett)

As a student, John Raimondi had attended the Portland School of Art — now called the Maine College of Art. He came back to town for his school residency under the auspices of the National Endowment for the Arts. He spent eight months at the vocational school. He spent half his time teaching in class and half in the workshop.

Raimondi told his students:

“You will work and I will work, you will learn and I will learn, you will grow and I will grow, and together we will find out some things we can’t find in a text book.”

He took them to galleries and art museums, places many of them had never been before. He invited parents, teachers and students from across town to come see what they were making.

Students from Portland vocational high school, which was located on Casco Street in the Walker Manual building, helped artist John Riamadi create the sculpture known as "Michael" in 1973-4. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

Students from Portland vocational high school, which was located on Casco Street in the Walker Manual building, helped artist John Raimondi create the sculpture known as “Michael” in 1973-4. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

The NEA produced a documentary film about the Raimondi’s work. It shows the artist’s energy and real connections he forged with students. He gets them to think, to laugh and to work together.

Raimondi also had standards. He wanted folks who didn’t like the sculpture to gawk in amazement at the craftsmanship that went into it. No sloppy welding or cutting was allowed.

“A sixteenth of an inch means a sixteenth of an inch,” he said.

Students learned how to use special, precision cutting and welding tools. Raimondi even demanded that welds on the inside of the sculpture be as perfect and neat as those on the outside. This inspired his students. As installation day approached, many of them volunteered to stay after school — into the evening — to help finish the project.

On May 29, 1974, the sculpture was trucked from the school, to its final destination, in three sections. In total, it weighed 7,000 pounds.

In the film, you see the students riding together, in the back of a pickup truck. That’s hard to imagine these days.

All around them, you see a Portland in transition, in the full grip of urban renewal. Many of the modern buidlings that now stand around the site were not built yet. It’s barren, open ground. The sculpture sits in the center of what used to be the end of Middle Street, before it became a pedestrian path to Monument Square.

At the site, Raimondi and his students collaborate one last time, welding the pieces together. At the end, in a moment of triumph, they lift him over their heads while he goofs around.

It’s a wonderful moment. It’s a preview of what Portland was to blossom into and become.: A strong, capable city. One that knows how to make things, and make them well, while still understanding the value of creativity and having a good time.

Note: If anyone knows how to get in touch with any of the students who were involved, please let me know. I’d love to talk to them.

Disclaimer: I’m not a historian. I owe everything I know to the dedicated research of those who have come before me. These character sketches and historical tidbits are assembled from multiple (often antique) sources and sprinkled with my own conjecture. I’m happy to be set straight or to learn more.

John Raimondi's zig-zagging sculpture "Micheal" was just being finished 43 years ago this week in May of 1974. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

John Raimondi’s zig-zagging sculpture “Micheal” was just being finished 43 years ago this week in May of 1974. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

Troy R. Bennett

About Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.