October 2005

We pay, as a collective soul, for a person to keep track of all the public art in Portland, in our region in fact. That person – that database – has been offline, inaccessible, without sufficient explanation, for quite awhile.

It’s Robert Krueger, Public Art Collections Specialist, 503-823-5404, rkrueger@racc.org of the Regional Arts & Culture Council – or RACC, and the RACC database of public artwork. Which today or yesterday updated it’s placeholder site to no longer say the database would be back online “in late October.” This note has been slightly altered toward the unaccountable.

Here’s where the database should be – but it’s not!


October 30, 2005 version

We’re sorry…
Due to technology upgrades, the RACC Public Art Search page is currently unavailable, but will return soon. We apologize for the inconvenience. Thank you for visiting.


It’s not the Water Bureau, I know. We don’t need a public art database. (Which calls to question to point of the thing.) We don’t need to know where all this stuff is, or what condition its in, or who made it or when. I guess we don’t.

But the stickier question is, where is it when it isn’t anywhere at all, at least not yet?

The Multnomah County Library, a mighty finer municipal fiefdom, managed to switch it’s database systems last month, not comfortably but they switched. Nice difference – switched. Not stopped for a long unpredictable amount of time, only to be delayed longer.

Why not leave up what was there? Why evaporate entirely? Why not a clean switch? Is this some amateur deal where someone’s cousin got involved? But wait a second – I thought we paid to have someone keep track of all this public artwork.

So yeah, it’s not an amateur deal. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

US Federal Courthouses – the judges who live in them – have virtually unlimited budgets to build.

The Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse – 3rd and SW Salmon – finished in 1997 at a cost to taxpayers of $129,000,000 – that’s one hundred and twenty-nine million simoleons. Yikes! Time to fix a loophole! Wake up John Adams and James Monroe!

But aside from the constitutional corruption (BORING!), there’s art to be had here.

Specifically – there is a secret sculpture garden on the ninth floor, open to the public but without much notice. You can go almost any business hours if you can get through the polite but intent security gauntlet. The view is tremendous – looking out over Lownsdale Square and the Justice Center. The small bronze sculptures of animals are playful, like those in the small sidewalk fountains on Morrison and Yamhill Avenues below.

This would be a great downtown treat for children from 3 to 10 years old. Or for judges who need to smoke a quick joint after lunch. It’s pretty deserted.

But no cameras. Judges don’t allow it. We might sneak away from the art and try to take a picture of someone inside who is innocent until proven guilty. UNLIKELY.

I spent about four hours in the building over the past two weeks, sans camera, without seeing a single judge or jury. Often nothing no one no where. Don’t feel alone tho – the building bristels with securty. If you visit, expect candid camera at all times.

This government waste is well documented – a Willamette Week cover story when it opened.

From WW in 1997- “The new courthouse is very extravagant and opulent no matter how you describe it,” says Barnes Ellis, a lawyer with the Portland firm Stoel Rives and a former member of the State Bar’s board of governors. “And just across the green you see the state system is absolutely overwhelmed. It’s that disparity that troubles me most.”

Ellis has since retired. But there remains no better example of public hubris in the Pacific Northwest. Well, maybe Hanford. But there’s no art there. That I know about. Yet.

My favorite Portland artist – Isaka Shamsud-Din – made these TWO murals at Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard and NE Shaver Streets in 1989. Both sides of the building – now vacant – are part of the Irvington Covenant Church.

North Face.

South Face.

From the 200X RACC annual report (I think – those things are unsearchable) I found $10,000 was used to retouch Shamsud-Din’s MLK piece. About $60,000 short of a complete job, leaving major parts now unevenly faded.

I love the colors, his style, the form, the content. He’s a storyteller and a story -rememberer, someone who tends the flame of history, of a minority history, ruthlessly ignored and forgotten by the majority. Awkwardly, as a belonger of the majority I don’t know these stories. They’re not my stories. Shamsud-Din doesn’t care – neither do I. He makes me want to know, to be curious, which is the device which draws us together. He makes us curious.

The barriers to these murals are the surrounding cityscape. No pedestrians, just some junky busted stuff, funky trees, evil crows and rumbling traffic.

It’s really not enough to make the art, to buy it and secure it to a wall somewhere. The artwork continues and needs to be maintained as the treasure it comes to be, the value held by the community. Humboldt Neighborhood Association! Contact Metro Murals and Shamsud-Din immediately! Prove your relevance! Get this artwork fixed up!

Shamsud-Din’s first public painting is weirdly hung in a stairwell of Smith Memorial at Portland State – Vanport, 1965. Forty hard years later, the painting has weathered well considering opportunity for destruction with a thousands students a day milling past, it’s still striking and unique. And – different than much of Portland’s great art – no barriers between the art and the viewer.

Deliciously close. Shamsud-Din paints for the viewer twenty feet away and more. It bounces off the flat, bounding toward you, ready to engage.

There’s little left of Vanport, just a nice picture book put out by the OHS, and a few foundations hidden by brush. Shamsud-Din has made other historical paintings and murals about Vanport and the demolition of the African American community there. Oh well. I guess we’ve all been thinking about floods…

Shamsud-Din is repped by Lauro Russo in NW Portland.

So far, everything’s been pretty high brow here. Time for a break.

By now tens of thousands have swerved, what the f— is that! Looming up out of the darkness on Banfield southbound about 30th. Nevermind the subliminals, let’s get to the art.

The Oregonian’s Doug Bates linked the content to teenage alcoholism. I think that was his point. Maybe in Doug’s hot dream she drowns Brian Jones while shlurping her product. Schlock jock Michael Savage’s son, Russell Weiner, founded the Las Vegas-based energy-drink company. Brian Roeter of New Seasons says he won’t stock the stuff. Looks like hammerhead juice to me.

But no one – no heterosexual man – looks at the image and sees anything wrong. And that’s the marvel of it. We simply zip by happy there’s pornography out in the open and glad we didn’t smack bumpers with another driver. (Has the DMV made a complaint yet? Send me and win brass figligee with bronze oak leaf cluster!)

That wall is not flat. Not at all.

Ribbed with iron girders caked with cement, and windows, some pushing out 20 inches, rolling out a seeming flat image on to this surface is a mathematical marvel.

And TOTALLY post-modern. Unconscious pomo. Like a ornate Thai kickboxer heaving one in from halfcourt, swish – all net.

AK Media v Portland has screwed Portland’s mural artists completely but allowed commercial billboards relative freedom. (AK Media is the Clear Channel proxy in the NW.) Well, not the suit, but the city’s ridiculous response to the suit. Anyway, because Clear Channel is a commercial system with high-paying customers, it can demand premium locations, skilled artists and the new high tech.

This agreement has allowed Clear Channel to move in and monopolize huge surfaces with CAD murals which can portray a flat image on any convoluted surface. Fantastic!

Yes yes this is clearly a case which will be settled on first amendment grounds and Vera Katz is wrong wrong wrong, but the City under Potter continues to fight for pride or or paralyse or because the penalty will be large and probably against Portland. Put it on a future budget! Not mine, not now.

Clear Channel calls these images”Wallscapes” and advertises they can handpaint them – as this one seems to be, or print them on thin “skins” of vinyl which can be quickly hung over any surface. Clearly some mural artists have turned to the dark side.

Many comments on this fracas (the most interesting Oregon suit since Oregon v Ashcroft):

Willamette Week – 1997
Portland Mural Defense
Judge Marcus’ 2004 opinion in AK Media v Portland
The One True b!X reportage from January 2004.
Mural at Mirador – via Indymedia
Mural event reveals Clear Channel opposition – Portland Alliance

Portland may have something on its site about this stuff but I refuse to use / go to its site until it changes its registration policy.

The case goes back before Judge Marcus in March 2006.

Portland has had a robust arts community for generations. It’s collectors we lack. I estimate currently artists outnumber buyers of art at least 100 – 1. Those are rough odds.

Portland’s first collector and a generous character was Henry Waldo Coe, died around 1925. A public psychiatrist he owned a madhouse – Morningside Hospital – out in rural East Portland where he provided some sort of sanctuary to Alaskan Native Americans. (No publicly financed mental health services were available in Alaska until statehood in 1956.)

Coe bought many works of art for Portland. The Lincoln by George Fite Waters, the Roosevelt, by Phimister Proctor in the Park Blocks, the Washington, by Pornpeo Cappini on Sandy Blvd, and the Sacajawea in Washington Park by Alice Cooper. And as an unusual memorial for vets returning from Europe, he bought this Jeanne d’Arc, Maid of Orleans from the studio of Emmanuel Fremiet, died 1910.

Original? Coe traveled, his Portland neighbors didn’t. Originality wasn’t important. Nah – 100 years ago if it also set in a Parisian square, it was good.

Place des Pyramides, Paris.

You can buy a poster.

There’s one in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia, bought and donated about the same time. Nine copies are extant. Kinda like the Lichtenstein Brushstrokes deal at the PAM.

Here’s a nice one at the Museum d’Orsey.

This one in New Orleans. There are more.

Portland’s Joan has recently been terribly gilded by RACC, paid for in part by a grant from the Save Our Sculptures!, part of the National Institute for Conservation. I had to wait for a cloudy day to take pictures of it. The gleam is shockingly bright and dazzling. Not pleasant. Neighbors complained. Kids put pumpkins on her head and stole the flag.

She’s not situated well either. Sitting in a traffic circle, surrounded by beeping cars, this Joan is hard to see with more than a glance. Like many of Portland’s artworks, there are barriers. No parking for a block in any direction, then complicated traffic to jump through – no crosswalk. Once you clamber up to the pedestal, she’s still high out of reach, fenced by rose bushes.

But just look at her – up close!

Determined, feminine, fantastical, strident, bewitched, commanding. The horse is magnificent. Her firm face, female form, flowing scarf and flag, all excellent form. She doesn’t have anything to do with WWI, or really anything in the context of Oregon, but a slim connection to the cultural home of Paris, of Napoleon III, of civilization. This piece of Portland artwork is well-worth time and effort to see closely.

And – it’s a thoughtless tragedy this public artwork has been so badly handled, both in surrounding it with physical barriers and damaged by “restoration.” Thoughtless.

I don’t have a picture of Marty Christensen, so I’ll borrow a couple.

Astoria born, did some Navy time I think, then Portland State for polish but it didn’t take. He maintains a full time muse, paints with abstract oil, dissects words, grooves on KBOO jazz, smokes incessantly, knows all the bartenders, remembers all the poets, a true beatnik master, walks with a book in his pocket, cameos in Van Sant films, talks politics history chemistry madness aesthetics hermeneutics jail time night time bebop time any time my time life time.

The man has boundless energy, always making it new, always finding something somewhere to add to the mix, shy and vulgar, drunk and apprehensive, beaten and worn, he lives in the body of a poet, not a someone who folds socks or indulges students. He’s published only a scattering of his poems, a slim slim chapbook, My Flashlight Was Attacked By Bats, and on the audio compilation Talking Rain.

Marty’s done more public performance poetry than anyone around, and it is all the real thing, burst forth and such. Don’t think labels. They don’t apply. Try this one out, just say it to yourself like a long exasperated sentence.

Frisking the Cobwebs

poets wither endlessly away
like pearl-blooming oysters
harrowing the flux to make a little
something glitter out past dreaminess

not even their best friends
know quite what to say to them

published in Mr. Cogito, and again in Sweet Reason, Fall 1987

Both journals – the first from U of P and edited by poets John Gogol and Robert Davis, the second edited by playwright Charles Deemer – are more examples of Portland Public Artwork. Yes not all is bolted down!

But Marty, explosive with a aging prizefighter’s posse and potbelly could charge the Satyricon stage at midnight, after pumping up and down, working up a sweat a thirst a passion for the words, hearing the words, each tinkling, each questioning, each word a virtue, each word a song, each word a question, like an arrow for a target. What a sight, KABOOM and you’d have a little adrenaline surge, like, where’s the exit man this guy is apeshit, and then you’d stop looking and stop judging a man and start listening to the words, man its about the words not nothing else, just words, each a tinkling question, just words, and then you’d hear something which didn’t make sense but it stuck there and maybe stayed there for a moment all by itself, alone in your head.

“You could be a jukebox / I could be a dime.” Those words, properly applied as Marty can do, make you a better person.

Watch your toes and fine this gem.

AUDIT REPORT – Financial allocation process is informal, inconsistent, and may not fulfill requirements for public art

Full AUDIT available. (PDF file).

Comment from Commissioner Sam Adams’ web site (a blog! no less), by staffer Jesse Beason.

So far (only five weeks) no response to the audit from the city.

Local rag acknowledges audit has come into existance.


“It is the intent of the City of Portland that a percentage of the cost of certain City improvements be dedicated to public art. This audit was conducted to determine whether the required allocations for the “Percent for Art” program are appropriately identified and dedicated from City capital construction projects. City compliance with this program is in doubt for several reasons.

“We found that the City’s published Capital Improvement Plan does not contain sufficient financial information for identifying eligible Percent for Art projects. We also found that even with access to such financial information, calculating the correct contribution to public art requires a substantial number of assumptions to reliably and consistently identify eligible projects.

“Instead of a straightforward calculation, Project Managers are faced with a “murky” and “informal” process for determining a project’s Percent for Art eligibility. These problems challenge not just our ability to assess the City’s contribution to public art, but also the City’s ability to ensure correct implementation of the Program.

“We make several recommendations for the City and for the Regional Arts and Culture Council to improve the process and oversight of the program in order to ensure that the correct funds are dedicated to art in accordance with City Code.”

With the Central Library remodel, one of our city’s best kept secrets got a excellent sprucing up – but is no less secret. The John Wilson room.

Now it’s not a real secret. There is a stairway, a door, a new elegant web site. There’s a schedule, and a discreet librarian standing guard. If you can find it, go.

The collection began with John Wilson, a Portland book collector, turn of the century who turned his stacks over to what would later become our public library. The curator gives six themes to the collection, but it seems to be texts which have been designated as valuable for a variety of reasons. There are books on roses, books for children, Gwyneth Gamble Booth’s shelves of D. H. Lawrence, a nice first edition of Johnson’s Dictionary, a very beautiful Audubon with his hand-pulled engravings (which used to be laid out for all to see on the first floor in a special display – probably not good for the book tho), a Feldenheimer clock (Edith Feldenheimer was one of our first great arts patrons, died 1984), & quite a few other gems.

Don’t expect to waltz in and peruse with dirty fingers.

See the MCL intro web page + the featured works page for more details.

How the hell does anything interesting end up in this sort of place, this city, behind glass, with a guard standing by, near but far, ours but still not ours? Hmm. Each of the 10,000, I imagine, has a provenance: the author’s text, a place it was made, a place it was bought, the biography of the buyer, the travels it took, the shelves where it rested, the decision to donate, it’s new home.

The collection doesn’t represent Oregon culture, rather talismans of language and thought and the thousands of winding paths as they were brought to Portland.

Two small paintings, both By Charles Erskine Scott Wood, are most interesting. There is also a bronze bust of Wood, which shows him handsome and captivating.

According to a PAM web page, CES Wood and Childe Hassan would set their easels side by side out in the Oregon plains and together created impressionist paintings of sky and the sea of grasses.

A century ago, this was one of the dark places. Wood must have felt very alone in provincial Portland. Though he had friends and lovers, and was an enterprising spirit, his task too often was to rise above. We still feel a brain drain as our best and brightest leave the state for education and opportunity. So did Wood, but he returned and stayed and was satisfied.

Clearly Wood was influenced by Hassam, and perhaps in his travels saw Pissarro and other French painters. These two paintings are proud messages to stayers; they say, this air, these clouds, wide grass, white light, paint on canvas, the place does not matter, beauty maintains out of context, out of theory, out of fashion, out in the wild darkness of Oregon.

Note to youth: learn to correspond with peers elsewhere.

Well worth visiting is Portland’s best public art annex, the Portland Convention Center.

First – don’t go with the crowds. The place is open, free and comfortable to visit almost any reasonable hours, including it seems most weekends. Tourists are a drag. I’m not your tour guide, so figure things out for yourself.

Just a short list – six fairly uninteresting Carl Morris abstracts, a badly hung Louis Bunce, a perhaps one of Portland’s great paintings, Bilalian Odyssey by Isaka Shamsud-Din, a weird fairly awful Lucinda Parker – too large to see clearly from any position, literally as large as a Clear Channel billboard, dozens of “literary” brass plaques, all nicely designed (the Kesey quote has a pic of Brautigan who grew up in outer NW Portland but is ID’ed as a SF poet by bardologists, oh well) but uninformative, and a long wonderful poem by Olympian Gail Tremblay which is badly rendered on another set of plaques and, badly lit, is almost unreadable.

Oh here’s a tour guide thing. Don’t miss the bathrooms (which is another reason to go when no one else is around!) They are also filled with artwork, mostly glazed tiles, but also mirrors and painted tiles. Some with geographical gems, some with historical figures. See if you can find Joaquin Miller.

NYC artist Ming Fay wins the contest for big big big, has a thing about making fruit large large large. I’m not sure why. I tried to read a couple of essays from his web site (which tried to crash my machine) and averted my eyes just prior to slashing my wrists. Oh Tom Wolfe! The Theories!

One of the most impressive public rooms in Oregon, the new main hall of the Convention Center, facing Martin Luther King Blvd, holds the two LARGEST ginkoberrys in the world.

What’s a ginkoberry? Dunno. Fay proposes it’s an ancient fruit of some sort the size of a truck. It’s green like frosted bronze, smooth, beautiful, precious. I like them very much, but they would be just as interesting if they were the size of my thumbtip and tasted like pineapple.

The two ginkoberrys are set on high pedestals next to escalators which give a good, in motion view. Between and flying above are thick brown branches carrying bright ginko flowers (look like poppies) of blown glass. Every color of red, and the center globs of blue, clear and red glass turn purple in the changing light.

For the branches + flowers the hall is a distraction with noise and moving light, no neutral background, and lofted 25 feet above the viewer. From a accessible balcony the view is better.

The craft and execution of the work is fine, but Fay presents huge for the sake of huge. Ginkoberry Gwa is designed to fill up huge space, commissioned within the context of public construction. Fruit – how politically neutral can you get? Ah, make them prehistoric mythical fruit! Sweep up those percent-for-the-art contracts! What does this mean?

Think about it as the San Simeon Problem. Government contracts are almost inherently corrupt and present interesting public relations problems. Who benefits from airports, convention centers, dams, freeways? The people? No, foremost it’s Bechtel or Walsh Construction or other similar forces. And when the public discovers the truth? We get bread and circuses.

Take the smallest percentage possible, like 1%, giftwrap it as a windfall, and buy local decorative art or politically neutral art for these billion-dollar spaces. Subways, prisons, public colleges, tunnels. I wonder if FEMA reconstruction pays a dividend to the arts? In Portland, see our Transit Mall, our parks, our airport, our beautiful city hall and the Central Library.

Critics might describe most of this work as abstract, or decorative. Builders might describe it as inoffensive. Politicians avoid describing art at all, preferring for once silence.

Art should be evocative, provocative, and tell a story. Fay’s work at the Convention Center does all this, but within its context is pointlessly large and its neutrality points toward its selection as manipulative. The selectors, often co-op’ed artists within this tiny and conflicted community, please their masters and leave tourists pondering, “am I in Boise?”

I’ll write about art outside the Convention Center soon.