A PIPER, HIS PIGEONS, THE PMA AND…PICASSO!

words SUSAN PEIREZ

Theprimary predicament for a pigeon Pied Piper: Starr Sarabia was standing in front of the Portland Museum of Art one afternoon when three pigeons fell out of the sky—their throats sliced open by the talons of a hawk on the hunt. As Starr stood there in a panic, grief-stricken and not knowing what to do, a local fisherman happened by and picked up all three pigeons by their feet––feathered corpses hanging upside down. “Starr,” he said, “we have to let the hawk finish the job.” He carried the pigeons across the street to Congress Square Park, where the hawk returned. But Starr Sarabia couldn’t watch.

After witnessing a scene like that, you might expect that this melancholy bird buff would start to reminisce and sadly warble Elton John’s “Skyline Pigeon”: Dreaming of the open, waiting for the day he can spread his wings and fly.

“When I first moved here,” Starr later recalls, “I was so homesick and told my sister, ‘I think I made a mistake. I want to come home.’ . When I hung up the phone, I broke down on the bench right here in Congress Square. When I was picking up my head, wiping my teary eyes, the pigeons were suddenly flying and climbing all over me. It was as if they felt my pain and were telling me all would be OK.”

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Starr Sarabia comforted by his friends.

The Congress Square catalyst to this impromptu pigeon shock––this daily treacherous dance among birds, man and other mammals—is the Charles Shipman Payson Building at the Portland Museum of Art. It is the creation of  I.M. Pei’s original partner, Henry Cobb, and the successful follow up to Boston’s innovative John Hancock skyscraper building in 1976. That same year, Falmouth native Charles Payson promised PMA his inheritance from late wife Joan Whitney Payson, daughter of business magnate Payne Whitney, which turned out to be 17 paintings by Winslow Homer. Recognizing the museum’s physical limitations, Payson gave an additional $8 million toward building the addition at Congress and High, which opened in 1983.
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Starr Sarabia and his flock in front of the Portland Museum of Art.

With this significant architectural commission, Cobb, who died last March at 93, catapulted Portland’s contemporary art renaissance and downtown cultural development in the 1980s. The curtained wall is made of brick, pine and other local materials. With its understated elegance and sensitivity to Portland’s environment, the structure naturally invites many feathered admirers (particularly this winter, because the museum is closed), punctuated by a rock pigeon cooing concert every day across its grand plaza featuring Starr’s winged friends bobbing, dancing and showing off for Portland’s passersby and, weather permitting, seasonal tourists in the downtown square.

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Don Reimer of Warren, Maine, is author of Seen Anything Good? Seasons of Birds in Midcoast Maine, and also a wildlife expert, photographer and a board member of the Midcoast Audubon Society and Friends of Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge. He says a life-threatening condition led him to appreciate vulnerable baby pigeons being fed by their parents outside his Maine Medical Center window as he convalesced after heart valve replacement surgery four years ago.

"Hauling myself out of bed, I padded down the outer hallway for a peek. Yes, the pebbled roof habitat was certainly conducive for pigeons' nests on window ledges," he says. “This was a definitive normalizing experience for me—emotionally therapeutic and nourishing in the fullest sense. Birds are truly good for the heart.”

Centuries before, Charles Darwin’s initial observations on the great variety of pigeon breeds, and the huge differences between captive and wild ones, helped him formulate some aspects of his theory of evolution. He concluded that pigeons are intelligent and resourceful—-more so than the more physically adept native gulls that sometimes gather atop city buildings. These brawny wild birds take flight daily to the square, seeking a free meal on Starr, literally!

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Dove, 1949 by Pablo Picasso

However, it was one of the 20th century’s most influential artists, Pablo Picasso, who gave this common bird its creative art pedigree. Picasso maintained a love-hate relationship with pigeons: As a child his father, also a painter, specialized in naturalistic depictions of birds and so kept pigeon coops that in later life, Picasso deemed dirty and disgusting. Still, many of Picasso’s works include the Spanish word paloma, which means both “pigeon” and “dove,” and would become the name of his daughter, Paloma Picasso, a jewelry designer. Beyond that, Picasso’s black and white lithograph Dove, in 1949, would be papered across post-war Europe as a symbol of freedom and world peace.

This winter, outdoor creativity in Portland is still on pause as humans continue to shelter during the pandemic. Yet, a furious flutter can be seen for brave and bundled folk outside the PMA in Congress Square. Starr’s beloved birds gather, waiting for him, as their perennial piper bicycles to and fro to play. He visits with his flock—more than 100 adoring pigeons—perhaps slightly less frequently than he’d like en route to critical work as a patient transporter at Maine Medical Center. But this daily bird routine, now more than ever, is his needed mental dose of meditative flying entertainment and unconditional love—his devoted, dancing flock since moving to Portland almost 18 years ago to start over in a new city.

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New Kim, the Belgian racing pigeon that sold at auction for $1.9 million.

Last November, a Belgian racing pigeon sold at auction for $1.9 million. Starr doesn’t need to know their value—to him, they’re priceless.

His love for quirky, fascinating, iridescent gray birds has provided a new-found muse for creative expression as a Pushcart Prize-nominated writer and published pigeon poet:

The Pigeons
in Congress Square

They scurry
for another flurry
of crumbs
from the next
human hand.

Noontime incites
frenzied flights
when careless feet
of city drifters
cause them to scatter
like thoughts,
stones.

. . .

Susan Peirez's pigeon perspective before meeting Starr Sarabia and his friends was based on her time spent with ‘the comedian of the keyboard,’ Victor Borge, who actually made his millions introducing the Rock Cornish game hen to American culinary housewives in the 1950s. A resident of Portland, Susan has been busy creating an artist incubator, Foxhole Productions, and has just completed her first screenplay.

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