Artists Rachel and Ryan Adams Are All Over Portland
Fast becoming the first family of Portland art, they're giving the city an overdue new look.
By Michaela Cavallaro Photographed by Tristan Spinski
Walking around Portland over the past year, one might have wondered if the whole city has been turned over to Ryan Adams and Rachel Gloria Adams. In East Bayside, the couple recently completed a pair of photo-realistic murals that portray neighborhood leaders Nyamuon Nguany Machar and the late Alain Nahimana (the former a South Sudan–born teacher and community organizer, the latter a Burundian expat and Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center cofounder). Across town, on a shuttered West End gas station slated to become a high-rise hotel, Ryan’s somber geometric forms spelled the rope they bear is long, a line from a Paul Laurence Dunbar poem about the lynching of a Black man from an old oak tree. Facing Monument Square, Rachel’s leafy plants, digitally printed on vinyl glass film, were draped in the windows of the public library.
In short order, the Adamses have gone from working on the periphery of Portland’s art scene to reimagining public spaces across the city. Ryan, a graduate of Jesuit-run Cheverus High School, first made his mark on local visual culture as a teenage graffitist. As his skills improved, he started working commercially — doing commissioned murals for bars, hand-lettering signs for breweries and restaurants, and occasionally showing his paintings in galleries, all while holding down a day job in Hannaford’s corporate office.
The Adamses in front of the second of Rachel’s murals at the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine.
Rachel, a Massachusetts native, was introduced to Ryan by a mutual friend in 2014. A Maine College of Art alum, her main interest was textiles, but without space for screen-printing equipment, she began to focus on painting. The couple married in 2016 and, by 2019, had two daughters. “We met at a perfect point in our lives on a lot of levels,” Ryan says, “but especially when it came to the creative career side of things. We both knew what we wanted to do professionally, but it hadn’t fully blossomed for either of us.”
For a couple of years, Rachel slowed down her creative output to raise their daughters while also working as a project manager at Designtex, a Portland-based digital-printing firm that specializes in fabrics and wallpaper, and managing Better Letter Hand Painted Signs, which she and Ryan own with artists Tess G. O’Brien and Will Sears. Last fall, though, Rachel launched Tachee, a line of hand-printed kids’ clothing and home goods, and this year, she completed her first solo mural project: two bright, graphical designs in the new Thompson’s Point home of the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine. Ryan, meanwhile, had booked enough work by last year to quit his Hannaford job.
The Adamses attribute their sudden prominence in Portland to years of developing their artistic styles and voices, but also to the broader cultural reckoning that followed George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers last spring. “It kind of slapped us in the face — there are people dying who look like us,” Rachel says. “We are in a state that’s mostly white, so this was our way to show up for the community and have our voices heard.”
Within 10 days of Floyd’s death, Ryan had painted a portrait of Floyd in the alley behind downtown concert venue Aura, one piece in a multipart mural he collaborated on with two other artists. The Portland Press Herald, Maine Public, and local television news stations all turned out to cover its completion. “Now, the spotlight is on Black creatives and other business owners that have been overlooked,” Ryan says. “It’s wonderful getting this attention, but I’ve literally been painting around the entire city for about a decade.”