Category Projects

A Space Called Home: Joe Rosshirt



Artist in his studio
Joe Rosshirt, owner of FortHouse Studios. © Brian Fitzgerald

“Kids from an early age all think they’re artists. They’ll raise their hands if you ask them in kindergarten class, says Joe Rosshirt. “Every year that goes by, less and less hands will come up, to a point where you’re self-conscious to put your hand up.”

Joe Rosshirt is an illustrator, animator and artist who operates FortHouse Studios out of his home studio in South Portland, Maine. Over the past 15 years, the Maine College of Art (MECA) graduate has worked with all types of clients incuding national and regional marketing agencies and sells his own creations at art festivals and other venues.

© Brian Fitzgerald

It’s a long way from his childhood, when he remembers doubting his dream of being an artist. “I thought, I shouldn’t be an artist because all artists are poor,” Rosshirt says. “You think that ‘starving artists’ is the one rule for artists. It’s a limiting belief.”

Rosshirt has operated out of other spaces, but this studio—he’s been here for about a year—is the first he’s owned. “I love the security. I don’t have to think where I’ll be next year. My rent’s not going up and I’m not getting pushed out. That was always a back-of-the-mind issue with all my other spaces,” he says.

Rosshirt’s previous studio was larger and ‘gorgeous’ but he says he realized after a few years that it wasn’t the space that made him an artist. “The space affects your creativity, turning into a creativity vacuum chamber. If you make the space your own, your ideas can live there. It feels like I can just access those ideas by being here.”

Rosshirt doesn’t have a set schedule, usually getting into the studio by 10 but often working odd hours. “I transition into work mode easily. Even in the middle of the night, I act on it,” he explains. “Nine-to-five never got me into a flow state. Lightning strikes of creativity can’t be predicted.” He adds: “The Stephen King style isn’t for me: ‘Show up, do work, get out.’ Not my approach.” 

One of the things Rosshirt loves most about his work is going to art shows, where he sells directly to the public.  “I have this tagline, ‘Make Happy Happen'”, he says.   “I just want to spread smiles.  That’s enough.  I don’t need to make the sale.”

© Brian Fitzgerald


Creating Spaces is a project that explores the connection between Maine artists and craftsmen and their physical workspaces-—places that are often hallowed grounds of creativity and solitude, far from the public eye or the gallery.


A Tradition Forged in Iron


The artists and craftsmen who call Maine home share a cultural heritage with those who have gone before them.  This link to the past is epitomized by Sam Smith, an aptly-named blacksmith who operates several forges across the state as guildmaster of the  Maine Blacksmith’s Guild.

Smith and the guild use and teach 19th-century techniques and practices and have an active apprenticeship program. Smith also teaches and works his trade in Germany and Brazil for months each year.

“Preserving the skill set of working iron by hand and not allowing machines to do the work is my mission,” says Smith.

I spent time with Smith last year as part of a larger project on Maine craftsmen and artists and am happy to be able to show it here.  Smith was crafting a Brazilian Churrasco BBQ knife with a handle made from Peroba wood reclaimed from a 120-year-old home.  


Brazilian Churrasco Knife, © Sam Smith

Triumph Over Trauma: Isaac’s Journey


Male Cancer Survivor
Isaac, testicular cancer survivor. © Brian Fitzgerald


A recurring theme in my work has been narrating the stories of those who battle adversity, survive and even thrive despite the trauma or disease they’ve encountered. This piece is part of an ongoing series featuring men who bear the physical scars of their trauma.

Isaac, a native of Auburn, Maine, recalls experiencing a persistent dull ache in his lower abdomen during his teenage years and early twenties. As he attempted, yet failed, to complete a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail at 20, the discomfort continued. But he kept his pain hidden. “In my childhood, if you weren’t seen, you weren’t getting beaten,” he said. “So you never voiced any concerns.”

At 22, Isaac received a diagnosis of testicular cancer, a disease often affecting younger and middle-aged men. The prospects for recovery can be favorable if the cancer is detected early.

The following years were a blur of chemotherapy sessions, numerous surgeries, including a retroperitoneal lymph node dissection in Boston requiring an incision along his entire abdomen. His weight plummeted from 180 to 110 pounds, his body branded with two feet of surgical scars. Faced with an uncertain future, the 23-year-old grappled with the harsh reality of potential permanent disability.

But for Isaac, resigning to such a fate wasn’t an option. “I could have been milking the system like some people, but what kind of life is that? There are people who legitimately can’t care for themselves, but I’m too stubborn,” he said. Instead he returned to school to became a certified nursing assistant, a role he maintained for the next eight years.

A decade after his initial attempt, Isaac made his way back to the Appalachian Trail. This time, he embarked on his journey from Maine, and after eight months of backtracking, pausing, and restarting, he finally completed the hike.

“Things have happened to me that I didn’t choose,” he reflected, “but I tried to find my own way.”

Arrested: Stories Behind the Badge

Arrested: Stories Behind the Badge
Maine Game Warden Pete Herring, photographed on the shore of Lake Arrowhead near Waterboro, ME.

For the first time, I’m publishing a few images from a project on Maine’s Peace Officers that I’ve been working on for over a year with the working title, Arrested:  Stories Behind the Badge.

Arrested’ is a series of portraits of law enforcement officers from across the state of Maine, photographed at the actual locations where they experienced a life-altering incident on the job.

The diversity of situations the officers I’ve interviewed have been incredible: some have been shot; others have had to use their weapons. Some have been injured, some have saved lives. All have had to react in situations that required skill, judgement and humanity.

Nationally, the idea that cops are dangerous and out of control, and are to be feared–this is an additional burden on officers in Maine, many of whom police the same communities they and their families live in. When a difficult incident occurs, they are reminded of it every time they pass the spot where it occurred.

Arrested: Stories Behind the Badge
Photographing at the scene of a house fire rescue, Old Orchard Beach, ME.

This project is an attempt to convey the reality of the difficult work officers do every day. I’m thankful to the officers who have participated. I’d like to say that it’s been a good experience for them to share their stories, but I also know it’s not been easy for people who tend to avoid the spotlight.

It’s been an incredible experience for me as well and I hope to share the complete project, as well as the many stories, soon.

Arrested: Stories Behind the Badge
York County Sheriff’s Deputy, Sgt. Steven Thistlewood.

The Oldest State

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As an editorial and commercial photographer, you just never know when an amazing assignment will come your way. It’s a good habit to train yourself to look for opportunities for project work that will stretch you creatively.

2013 has been a great one for interesting visual projects. I was fortunate enough to be involved with the Southern Maine Agency on Aging for a project early in the year, and as a result of that ended up meeting and photographing several senior athletes.

Now, when I think ‘senior athletes’ I usually imagine high school kids runnning around a track–the kind of assignment I routinely had as a newspaper staffer. These seniors are over the age of 50, and are extremely talented athletes. I ended up doing a series of portraits of these Maine athletes who compete at a national level at the National Senior Games in their respective sports.

Maine famously has a population with the highest median age in the entire country. My concept was to photograph senior athletes in the environment they train in, showing their connection to Maine. I ended up photographing each on white seamless as a way of separating them from that environment, illustrating that they are serious, talented athletes independent of their Maine address. I call the project “the Oldest State”, and hope that it shows what’s possible no matter your age.

Thanks to the SMAA and to all of the athletes. I hope I never again have to set up white seamless outside on the Maine coast…but meeting these folks was an amazing experience.


Smoke and fire in Auburn

I’ve been busy lately, working on a somewhat hush-hush project in the Lewiston-Auburn area.   Last night as we finished the 12th and final shoot, the Lewiston Sun-Journal showed up and so the cat’s partially out of the bag.  Here’s Charlie and me at work in Daryn Slover’s photo from today’s Sun-Journal, ….followed by an outtake from that same shoot, just to show what it looks like in-camera with all of the smoke and lights. Once the everything is complete, I’ll post more images and explain how I approached this complicated (and extremely fun) project.:


Photo by Daryn Slover/Sun-Journal
Photo by Daryn Slover/Sun-Journal



Portland’s MadGirl

This final portrait of Portland artist and designer Meredith Alex, AKA “MadGirl” is the last for the year-long Inspire Portland project.  It’s been a really fun ride.  I’ve met dozens of incredible, inspiring people, only a few of whom made it into Inspire Portland.  Many more deserve to be.   I never intended this to be a definitive roundup of Portland’s best and brightest, but a glimpse of the deep pool of talent here.
It’s up to you to find your own inspiration.
Meredith was a great subject—she shimmied into the coolest dress made from strips of photo paper and walked barefoot out on a jetty in Portland’s harbor.  It was actually pretty chilly when we took the photo and quite late in the evening, but she was a true trooper.  Take a look at some of the outtakes and the behind-the-scenes photos from the shooot.  And thanks for reading!
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Behind the scenes with the man in brown

This week’s Inspire Portland has actually been in the works for at least a year.   I’d had the idea to photograph Sean Wilkinson for a few reasons:  he has a distinctive sense of style, he seems to be connected to and know absolutely everyone in Portland, and he (to me) epitomizes the inherantly creative nature of many in Portland, who are working hard to fuse creative work, business and education into something viable and growing.

In the interest of full disclosure, Sean is a friend, and his company,  Might & Main, is located just below our studio in downtown Portland.  It was actually difficult to not ask to photograph Sean’s Might & Main cohorts, Arielle Walrath and Kevin Brooks, easily two of the nicest and most talented individuals I know.   I just felt that Sean’s involvement in so many projects in Portland, including as president of AIGA and organizer of the twice-annual Picnic arts and music festival, gave him the edge for this project.   You may not know Sean, but chances are that if you attend any arts event in Portland, he may have been involved.
And if you don’t yet know Might & Main, stay tuned.  You’ll be seeing their work, and their name, with increasing frequency.

The concept was to photograph Sean in a setting reminiscent of 70s kitsch, in a completly brown palette.   Sometime last year, Sean proudly displayed his new stuffed boar head, “Boris”, which I knew immediately had to figure in the final image.       The shoot itself was fairly simple, with only one real setup—a far cry from the variety I usually aim for.  The set was simple, and the lighting was specifically set up to aid in the post-production effect I wanted.   Check out the time-elapse video below to see the setup and shoot in action.  Enjoy!

Telling Maine’s stories

As a longtime photojournalist, I love good documentary work.  My favorite work tends to come from master visual storytellers like W. Eugene Smith (his iconic photo of Tomoko in her Bath, from his Minimata project, is still one of my top-five images of all time).

So I guess I was predisposed to like the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.   And it wasn’t much of a leap for me to ask Donna Galluzzo, Salt’s executive director, to participate in this week’s issue of Inspire Portland.   A photographer herself, Galluzzo has repositioned Salt for the future with a new space and a transformation to using digital tools for all of its tracks (radio, photography, writing).

She well understands that the tools may change, but good storytelling does not.  Looking at the work of her students, it’s quite timeless—in the way that Minimata would be as powerful today as it was almost four decades ago.

We met and I photographed Galluzzo in Salt’s sleek new headquarters on Congress Street—yep, that’s a bamboo floor you see in the photo.   I’ve posted a few outtakes from the shoot, though in this instance I knew what I was going for and moved around less than I normally would.    You can see our multiple light setup in one of the photos, with my assistant Charlie playing the part of subject.

I’m quite happy with the final image we used on Inspire Portland.  It’s less storytelling and more evocative.  To me, it gives a feel for the optimism and energy that Galluzzo brings to Salt and that Salt, with its body of storytellers, brings to Portland and Maine.  Enjoy.


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A man named Corky

My former next-door-neighbor Mike worked for a very mysterious-sounding tech company named Kepware Technologies.  Every so often, Mike would disappear to for a week or so and come back with tales of travels to Germany, Portugal or Eastern Europe for his job.   I recall a night at his place involving a couple of Russian business partners and some vodka.   He explained what they made—software drivers—leaving me as confused as before.

I thought again of Kepware when I started Inspire Portland after reading some articles about Kepware’s successes–and founder Corson “Corky” Ellis’ involvement in the promotion of entrepreneurship in Maine through ventures like the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development’s Top Gun program    I thought, I’ve got to meet this guy.   At a minimum, he might be able to explain what Kepware does in a way that my feeble brain can understand.

Two days after he agreed to the shoot, I found myself in the headquarters of Corky’s operation, above the Post Office in downtown Portland.   He looks a little like my good friend and photographer Brad Armstrong.   We had a good conversation, and Corky emphasized two things repeatedly:  one, the success of Kepware is entirely due to the efforts of many talented people besides himself; and two, that he is very concerned about the state of technology education among secondary school students.  From his perspective, the best way to keep and attract high-paying tech jobs here in Maine is to get our kids more interested in science and math.    He sees technology education as the key to creating a technology economy here in Maine.

The shoot went well and I had the run of their amazing space across from City Hall.   Corky is one of those talented entrepreneurs who actively chose to live in Portland and now, some 15 years later, is employing more than 60 people in highly-skilled jobs.    Almost as important, he finally explained to me what Kepware actually does in terms I can understand, comparing it to the printer drivers you download to allow your computer and printer to talk…just on a much bigger scale.

Read his interview and see the photos at Inspire Portland.   I chose the lead image because it seemed the least contrived, and the most revealing in terms of his expression.   You ask questions about what people carry in their pockets, and it tends to get people to drop their guard a bit.   See the outtakes and lighting scene shot in the gallery below (sorry, iUsers, you’ll need Flash).

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