Spend some time in Portland, Maine, and you’ll come away with a sense that it’s not just your average coastal city. There’s a grit to it, sure—a salty charm that comes with being a hard-working harbor town. It also retains a tight-knit community feel, despite it’s 65,000+ population, the state’s largest. But what really makes it stand out is all it has to offer—a world-class food scene, some of the freshest seafood on the planet, more local craft breweries than you can count, and a vibrant and active waterfront. Steeped in history and draped in New England character, this town plays host to sailors, hipsters, writers, entrepreneurs and artists. It also plays home to our friend Ryan Adams.
A painter, muralist and local business owner born and raised in Portland, Ryan is about as local as they come. During our time chatting, he spoke passionately about his hometown:
“I absolutely love Portland. I think it's just a wonderful place to raise kids. It's safe. It's small enough where you're able to get a great sense of community and a lot of supportive people in the art world. That's why we stick around.”
He does more than just stick around, though—he gives back, adding to the city’s character through his artwork. Take a walk around and you’re bound to run into one of his murals—he just finished his largest one to date, coming in at nearly 9,000 square feet—or one of his hand-painted signs for local businesses and organizations. His signature ‘gem’ style is easy to spot, too. It’s a geometric breakdown of letterforms with shadows and highlights included to create depth and movement throughout the pieces. Or as he explained in non-artsy language: “old Magic Eye books mixed with a little bit of cubism.”
Expressing himself artistically has always come naturally to Ryan. “Ever since I can remember, I've been drawing,” he told us. “My mom said that I used to just lay out a bunch of papers and comic books and try to emulate them as a kid. It's always been something that's a part of my life.”
Having found his calling early, Ryan has been picking up influences and inspiration ever since, starting with an underground style from about 300 miles to the southwest. “When I was about 10 or 11 years old, I received a copy of Subway Art, a book that chronicled New York City’s subway graffiti movement of the 70's and 80's. And that just totally changed the direction of my life. I was just enamored by it. I dove pretty deeply into that world of letter forms and spray paint. It steered me towards this direction that led me to where I am today.”
Now, Ryan splits his creative time between his hand-painted sign business, Better Letter, which he runs with his wife, Rachel, and his personal projects. He’s worked with businesses and organizations up and down the East Coast, always trying to find the sweet spot between the demands of commercial success and staying true to his artistic vision.
“It can be difficult keeping balance between the passionate side of the artwork and the business side of the artwork,” he told us. “It's important to me to separate the two. The personal side gives me the freedom to fail, I think a little bit more, whereas the commercial side has to be a little more tight. So, that's how I separate the two. I go a little farther left with my own personal work and that keeps that fire there, because it's still exploring.”
Case in point: Ryan started experimenting with spray paint portraiture a few years back and he still considers his very first piece—a painting of his then-newborn daughter—to be one of his favorites of his entire career.
With business running smoothly and a few art shows coming up, fall promises to be busy for Ryan. It’s also one of transition, as he steps away from the outdoor murals and moves back into the studio. But, even if the calendar is full with empty spaces to be painted, he’s still looking forward to enjoying plenty of time with his family, too.
“Whenever I have a moment to just be with my family, that’s the time I think Every day should feel this good,” Ryan told us. “I think with Rachel and I both running creative businesses, there's a tendency for work to continue 24/7. But we’re still able to carve out time and make it a point to just experience where we are with the kids. Those are the most special moments to me.”