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Salemi Chapel

Situated between Waterville’s South-End and the Kennebec river, the Salemi Chapel would be  a public monument dedicated to the memory of John Ignatius Salemi, an artist who lived in Waterville for over 35 years, producing hundreds upon hundreds of iconic paintings. For more information on Salemi and how he came to be the focus of this project, click here.

An example of Salemi's desire to mix the

The Salemi Chapel is, more than anything, a mausoleum to the memory of the countless "outsider artists" who dedicate their life to a craft for its own sake, operating outside of the art world, often by choice. In this way, the Salemi Chapel would also serve as an interactive memorial to people like John Salemi, operating as a what might be called the Tomb of the Unknown Artist.

Project Goals

The monument itself would manifest as a cylindrical, concrete structure with a domed roof. The interior walls would host a mural, initially painted by local artists, incorporating a variety of imagery lifted from Salemi’s own oeuvre. The exterior wall of the monument will be left intentionally blank, and will feature just one piece of signage giving a brief explanation of the monument’s conception and construction. Positioned roughly halfway between the structure’s wall and its center will run a circular, modest bench, encircling a statue of the “unknown artist”.  


The initial inspiration for the Salemi Chapel was based on a compulsion to ensure that Salemi’s legacy will endure in Waterville, given the relatively obscure reputation of the artist and the posthumous scattering of his artwork. Indeed, given John’s being a classically untrained artist who had no clear affiliation with the church, the art world proper, or any commercial entities, it seemed clear that a permanent display of Salemi’s work at an existing institution would be improbable. It was then suggested that a Rothko Chapelesque structure could be built to serve as both a monument to the artist as well as a permanent home for a selection of his works. However, as the idea was further interrogated, several problems began to present themselves.

In order to construct the monument so it might serve as a gallery-like space, the costs of the construction, maintenance, and staffing of a powered and heated space quickly eroded any realistic expectation that this monument would be anything except for a proposal. Ultimately, an independent gallery for Salemi's work would be an unsustainable project, given the artist's relative obscurity. The project was therefore reworked to drastically lower both the costs of construction and maintenance of the chapel. Replacing the chapel’s front door with a humble, open entryway, and replacing electrical lighting with naturally refracting sky lights allowed the chapel to take on a far more sustainable character, but there was still a major problem: the damage, theft, and/or vandalism of the structure and the works that it would house. The exterior wall was also designated at this time as a “blank canvas” which, as opposed to penalizing and criminalizing any community “vandals” who wished to mark this foreign structure, would allow these public (and often under-privileged) artists to interact with the monument in ways that were self-selected, rather than being designated and enforced by local authorities. After all, it's only vandalism if we choose to vilify the artist as a destroyer, and not a creator.

When dealing with the legacy and life work of an artist, it is essential that the surviving artworks be treated first phenomenologically (as opposed to as an art object) and then situated in its indigenous cultural context, as no contemporary artwork can be free from its socio-economic and personal origins (though it should also not be solely defined by them). Therefore, given Waterville’s propensity for public murals, the decision was made to replace what would have been original works of art by Salemi with a decorative mural based on Salemi's highly recognizable iconography.

Thus, the chapel’s intended goal, the commemoration of Salemi as an individual artist, was reworked as a monument that would encourage artistic expression and interaction with the community in which it would be placed. By orienting the monument to a design that encourages the addition of new expressive elements and markings by the community (versus attempting to suppress it and/or deny it), the project thus abandoned a (perhaps flawed) attempt to engrave Salemi’s legacy into the annals of art history in favor of creating a new fixture of the Waterville art scene that encourages honest and authentic reaction to the motive-less creation of community artwork. Put simply, the Chapel, as opposed to posthumously elevating (though a more appropriate word might be “co-opting”) the artwork of one of Maine's many outsider artists, the Salemi Chapel would passively invite both the reverence and interaction with Salemi’s legacy as not just an artist, but as a member of Waterville's art-oriented citizenry.


Without question, the Salemi Chapel would be built with its audience very much in mind. The monument has been specifically designed with the goal of inviting the members of the community in which it would sit to interact with, mark, and generally make the monument their own. The deliberate exclusion of a painted exterior, as well as the decision to leave the monument accessible (and vulnerable) to the elements constitutes this invitation, as would incorporating some conspicuous signage. The chapel will not act as a shrine to a single artist so much as it will act as an embodiment of his attitudes toward the visual mediums. Of course, Salemi's name is what links the Chapel to the artist, as he represents the quintessential outsider artist: he spent 35 years making his art for its own sake, and then distributing and disseminating this art at cost. He sold his paintings for extremely modest sums, and ultimately his estate was donated at the end of his life to a charity who sold it cheap to the same town that allowed Salemi to exist quietly and peacefully. Thus, the structure will not address an audience of solely art enthusiasts, but also the artists themselves. In this way, the Chapel is designed with its audience at its center.

Interior View Salemi Chapel.png




Designed as a continuous cylindrical body, with a domed ceiling, the structure is 12ft in diameter, with walls eight feet tall and a maximum height of 10ft. This will mean the monument will occupy ~82 square feet. The monument will sit on a solid concrete foundation. The monument will also boast a landscaped perimeter to blend it with its wooded surroundings.

Atop the concrete walls is a congruent, domed roof, with inset skylights, arranged in a ring pattern, offering an abundance of natural light to the decorated interior. Skylights like these will also prevent the monument's interior becoming host to mildew. These lights will also allow the monument's interior to be lit without a power source, thus making it far more sustainable.

As for the monument's interior, the design is simple. In the center of the cylinder is a faceless statue. Created by a local artist working in either chiseled stone or poured concrete, the statue will be geometric with no defined features, akin to an artist's lay figure. As Salemi was rarely seen not crosslegged, the figure will assume the favorite position of its titular muse. This will be its sole homage to the artist; it will bear no other resemblance, as this is integral to the monument's commemoration of the outsider artist, and not just the one that inspired it. Further, the statue will sit on a pedestal and will be enclosed by a circular bench, positioned midway between the statue and the wall, allowing visitors to sit and contemplate the monument, as well as preventing any comfortable use of the structure as more than a temporary refuge.

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The Salemi Chapel has been planned with sustainability as its core design principle, and in many ways transcends the notion of sustainability itself. By orienting the design and decorative components of the project with the long-term, the monument would last for as long as it’s constituent materials. Using concrete and metal as core elements in its design will allow the Salemi Chapel to survive and, more importantly, change as time goes by. The fundamentally transient and fleeting nature of the artist’s life is built in to the Chapel’s design. The jettisoning of electrical systems (replaced by sky lights), plumbing, and an enclosed (private) interior actively combat the commodification of the “high art” gallery, adopting the contemporary notions of pop-up destinations and non-consumable public art. Further, the omission of a way to secure the monument’s interior both removes the need for security or any extensive maintenance costs. Thus, when asking what exactly is sustainable about the Salemi Chapel, the better question is: what isn’t?


The Salemi Chapel will be built using the Monolithic Dome construction method, which utilizes an inflatable body over which concrete is poured. This method is not only incredibly cost-effective but also lends the structure incredibly high-durability and structural strength. For more information on how a Monolithic Dome is built, please visit their website .


The estimated cost of the Salemi Chapel's construction will be $8,000. Here is a breakdown of the estimated costs:


Airform (for Dome): ~$2,000

Framing (for Dome): ~$1,000

Other Construction Elements: ~$1,000

Labor + Construction: ~$2,000

Grounds + Interior + Statue: ~$2,000


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