PORTLAND, Maine — With its manicured grass, immaculate flower beds and expansive view stretching all the way to Mount Washington, some 80 miles away in New Hampshire, the Western Prom is a place of respite and a true jewel in the city’s extensive park system.
But it wasn’t always so.
Between 2.5 million and 10,000 years ago, around the time of the Pleistocene epoch, the area was buried under the two-and-a-half-mile-thick Laurentide Ice Sheet more than once. As the ice advanced and retreated, an amazing mix of prehistoric animals walked, swam and slithered across what’s now Portland’s premiere sunset-viewing location.
Those creatures, including polar bears, saber-toothed tigers and the Crenatocetus — or proto-whale with legs — are what inspired South Portland artist Chris Miller as he sculpted his “Carousel Cosmos” art installation now on view atop the prom through next year.
Each fanciful animal in the seven-piece colorful wooden collection also doubles as a park bench.
The temporary art project was installed last month and funded by Portland-based TEMPOart. A placard placed in the middle of the circle of animals speaks to the installation’s non-permanent status.
“It will travel once or twice around the sun without leaving the ground, then vanish,” it reads. “In the meanwhile, it is a place for conversation, contemplation, imagination, and snacks, with animals that once roamed here as your guides.”
We met Miller, and his dog Charlee, at the four-legged whale this week to learn more about the installation.
BDN: How did you decide to place the animals here, in a carousel-like circle?
Miller: If you look at old postcards of this place — this exact place 100 years ago — you’ll see there’s always been a circular garden here. Sometimes there were benches, sometimes there were walkways. I almost think of it as a model of the universe.
BDN: And all these animals lived here at one time or another?
Miller: Yeah, starting 230 million years ago with the rhynchosaur over there, which is actually an early dinosaur. If there are rhynchosaur bones here, they’re way deep underground, but they’ve been found in Nova Scotia. And then, as you kind of come up to the most recent ice age, the ice here was so thick that it actually pushed down the Earth’s crust. So, at different times, the water level was in different places and the level of the Earth was in different places. So, you can pretty well imagine that whale swimming overhead — and there’s a walrus here for that same reason. The polar bear is guaranteed.
Clockwise from far left: Chris Miller’s whale sculpture and park bench floats above an orange base on Portland’s Western Prom on Monday. A polar bear sculpture and park bench by the South Portland artist. Miller’s dragon sculpture and park bench grins in the grass on Portland’s Western Prom. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
BDN: What about the tiger? Did they live here, too?
Miller: The saber-toothed tiger is hypothetical. But they once found wooly mammoth bones in Scarborough and where there were mammoths, generally, there were saber-toothed cats.
BDN: But the dragon?
Miller: Actually, the dragon and the proto-cetus — the walking whale — they have double identities. The dragon, like the constellation Draco, is one of the oldest human myths or bedtime stories. He’s a take on a 15th-century map of Iceland showing a sea monster. And if you’ve seen the constellation Cetus on a map of the sky, he’s called a whale but is usually drawn with legs. Which is really ironic because whales evolved from land animals, and they were all over the world — like mythical serpents.
BDN: Are these things carved out of solid wood, from logs?
Miller: No, we did that the hard way. They’re made up of layers of hardwood and glued together — it’s just endless slabs and slabs of wood. I think we used two-and-a-half gallons of wood glue and then carved everything out.
BDN: That must have taken a lot of clamps.
Miller: Oh-so-much clamping. We had to borrow clamps from half the cabinet makers in South Portland.
BDN: Did you deliberately make them small-scale?
Miller: Yeah. The key thing is that a one- or two-year-old kid can run up and give them a hug. They’re sculpture, but they’re seating, too. They’re meant to be approachable. People can kind of come up and interact with them. I’ve seen a million selfies here.
BDN: I saw some theater camp kids here devising improv scenes around them.
Miller: I’m just so pleased with how they’ve been received.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.