December 2005

Maya Lin: her name prompts superlatives. She of the Vietnam memorial, at all of 21 years old. How did she do it? As public art, her DC memorial is a complete success, by far the most popular attraction of its sort, bringing all to tears and men who survived that crazy war to their knees. A supreme triumph. Perhaps the most important artwork of the 20th Century.

But original? Nope. Portland’s forgotten memorial to Oregon veterans of World War II uses the same motif (all names solemnly carved in looming black marble) and was dedicated in 1961 – when Lin was a toddler.

Our memorial is located at the Memorial Coliseum (get it?) on a discreet lower level, off the beaten path so thousands pass within yards and never see, never know, never experience. The names of hundreds of Oregon men (and perhaps some women) who died in the war are cut into the stone. Ten feet tall and forty feet long, this elegant memorial stands alone, with a pretty tinkling fountain, and will soon, forgotten and unprotected by various veterans groups, be bulldozed with the rest of this obsolete building.

Lin’s memorial is more dramatic. It’s location on the mall, 50,000+ names going on and on, the walkway filled with weeping tourists. Both the memorial, and its environment are worth the visit. But after you’ve seen Oregon’s main WWII memorial (there are a couple of others), you won’t think Lin’s memorial such a giant leap.

To find Oregon’s WWII memorial, stand at the outdoor ticket booths in front of the Coliseum. There is a downward stairwell to your right. Follow and look and find.

There are Oregon memorials to just about every other imperialist war we’ve finagled ourselves into (and some ambitious artist should be considering the future potential of our current fiasco.)

Oregon has two Korean war memorials, one located on Mt Scott at Willamette National Cemetery in Portland. This cemetary contains over 100,000 veterans. The other is in Salem. Neither are very interesting. Our Vietnam memorial is particularly banal, tho its hills are good for rolling down in the summertime.

There are a handful of useful texts on Portland’s Public Art.

Simple, fact-checked and still available through Powell’s or Alibris is Chet Orloff and Norma Catherine Gleason’s Portland’s Public Art, a guide to the history and locations of the city’s art. Illustrated with historical and contemporary photographs, some commissioned especially for this book. Be sure to get a copy with the fold-out map. Published in 1983 – I paid $3 at Cameron’s. Someone at OHS should update this thing.

Orloff is former executive of the Oregon Historial Society (my docent pal says “Hysterical Society” without a smirk).

The Multnomah County Library still has a couple of copies. Published in 1983 as a pocket paperback suitable for tourists of all sorts, it’s a nice history of Portland gentility with some exceptional pictures, including a one of Rebecca at the Well, in the Park Blocks from I would guess the early 1920s from the OHS archive, surrounded by a bushy garden and curving paths. Quite a different from the current security-conscious layout. Coppini, Fairbanks, Borglum, this text gives sufficent background for most visitors.

PAM visitors are well advised to pick up Portland Art Museum: Selected Works, at their gift shop, a nicely printed trade paperback, also available online. I really like this text, an overview of the museum’s collection. The images are small, about postcard sized, but are really only meant to act as reference. I think the text descriptions are written by different curators and polished by a final unsigned editor.

The Portland Art Museum, until it’s current presentation, has presented an uneven collection, caused by the skills of different curators, the interest of donors and our provincial orientation. Classical art from China and Japan, especially ceramic, has been a standby. One of our town’s unsung living treasures is Donald Jenkins, recently retired curator of PAM’s Asian collection.

His text, Mysterious Spirits, Strange Beasts, Earthly Delights; Early Chinese Art from the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Collection, is “a definitive chronicle of one of the finest private collections of art from this period formed on the West Coast.”

PAM’s web site has kept some of this exemplary exhibition online for you to visit.

Well, not public art per se, but I am waiting for the estate sale.

And I am waiting for the Lonely Planet Guide to put out a Portland guide…

In Hilda Morris’ obituary, Oregonian art reviewer Barry Johnson wrote, “it’s hard to think of Ring of Time as being created by anyone. Like much of the work by Morris, it seems more found than created, as though some particularly wise and lucky archeologist or geologist had rescued it, undamaged and spirit intact, from the past. Her bronze is craggy, spiraling roughly in on itself, and it is pocked with a series of openings that allow space to seep into the broad curves at the bottom.”

In the outdoor foyer of the Standard Plaza at 1100 SW Sixth Avenue (west of the Portland Building), I gauge it at 11 feet high by 12 feet wide and four feet deep.

Morris’ small sculptures and paintings are repped by Laura Russo and Foster White in Seattle – her resume. Donald Jenkins considered her a master of sumi brush painting.

D K Row at The Oregonian wrote, “The late Morris was the greatest Oregon sculptor of her time, though she’s virtually unknown to the current generation of Portlanders. The twisting bronze “O” shape epitomizes the expressionism and love of natural forms that defined most of Morris’ work. Of course, it’s easy to appreciate Ring strictly as a stand-alone object. But its real value may be as a symbol of human engagement for those passing through the Standard building. Morris’ torquing bronze form, reputedly inspired by the Mobius strip, is a gesture of almost mystical delight at the entrance of this impressive yet constipated piece of modernist architecture. Read the Standard’s strange, M.C. Escher-like motto engraved on a nearby wall — “The Will to Achieve The Will to Achieve The Will to Achieve” — and Morris’ winding “O” shape assumes greater and more touching dimension: a reminder to stay human in the machine and computer age.”

Born Hilda Grossman, in 1940 she married Carl Morris, known for his WPA work at the Eugene Post Office and later for stormy dark abstracts. Ring of Time is one of her largest public sculptures (Winter Column now matches the new Lichtenstein in front of the Mark Building). After a long career making art, raising a family and teaching artists in Oregon, she died in 1991 at 79 years old.

Separated at birth?

Which came first, the Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever,” on the left and written by the incomparable Harlan Ellison, or Hilda Morris’ Ring of Time on the right?

Ellison’s Star Trek – first aired 1967.
Morris’ Ring of Time – installed 1977.

Most viewers of this blog are not in Portland, many not in the US. Before it seems just too insular, keeping a critical eye on our local arts and its database of public art, let’s introduce context.

Most Americans loath their governments, and both rational and irrational critics can be soothed by one thing – information. The absence of information – especially in this format where cost and convenience make it the most suitable defense – creates the assumption of corruption.

Here are a sample of public arts databases put up elsewhere in the US, in no particular order.

Baltimore – nice GUI, map-based. This is a cool, mis-estimated, overlooked arts community.

Phoenix – again map-based. Drill down for info on artist, photo, date purchased, location, dimensions, description. Looks complete.

Miami – work listed by artist or location; includes work in progress.

Minneapolis – three-page pdf. No pictures. Bleak.

Austin – Complete database, search by artist, bureaucratic department, or media, or by using a map.

San Jose – Completed, current and proposed artworks. Small collection from a city which grew up quick.

Atlanta – comprehensive database: search by title, artist, location or council district.

St Louis – Best of show with pics, lots of data including purchase prices and current owners, and public art in neighboring communities.

Scottsdale – 21 artworks in a “Self-Tour.”

Houston – photo-based db, no artist names, no dates, no descriptions. has map + zip code sort.

Philadelphia – excellent completed database. Good pictures, good data, tour schemes,

Charlotte? Nothing. Cleveland? Nothing. DC? Nothing. Tampa? They rooked F E Lykes for a hideous pdf. Seattle? No comprehensive database. LA? Lists but no database. Dallas? Nothing – very little public art to claim. Chicago? Filled with art from stem to stern and no accessible catalogue. Boston? Nope.

The Regional Arts & Cultural Council has uploaded it’s database of the publically owned artwork in the Portland metro area to the internet. Not, by far, a sufficient catalogue of the public art of the region. That’s quite a reach to claim.

See RACC Public Art Database Search.

This database holds the trove of the city, 1853 artworks, scattered all over, from different decades, different artists, different choosing processes, some were gifts, some are white elephants, some came dear, some opportune, many wonderful, a few regrettable.

Many are, my guess, unknown to you. And this is only a list, a shadow of a thing, not the thing itself. So wander and seek. Look for these artworks in situ.

The database has shortcomings. It does not work with Mozilla’s Firefox, rapidly becoming the browser de rigour, or Opera. Both are better browsers, for a variety of reasons, than Internet Explorer. Many entries do not have photos of the artwork, or other essential information (“Transit Mall” serves as an address for Lee Kelly’s Untitled Fountain). Few entries have descriptions. Some have almost nothing at all.

When will this “beta” version of the database become “alpha”? Unknown. Is all publicly-owned artwork from the Portland-metro area included? Unknown. 1853 is an impressive number for any agency to track, secure, maintain, promote.

RACC solicits your feedback on the database.

There are several locations in Portland where seemingly random governmental entities have slipped into the art business. Or at least showing the stuff. Typically these come as simple space fillers, when leases get complicated or facilities managers overreach. Some track lighting, a brochure, a call to RACC or some other clearinghouse, friendly signage and bingo. You’re in business.

Above, and below, are some snapshots of one of the oddest, the Justice Center Sidewalk Gallery. Originally the County jail was to be the awkward combo of jail + shopping mall (and at one time there were tenants, warmly remembered is Dave’s Delicatessen, which was extraordinarily funky in it’s first location, on Yamhill between 4th and 5th, in the old Corbett block – one of Portland’s only Jewish cafes; ahh I remember the knishes! Can you get a good knish now? No!)

But with an entrepreneurial and expansive criminal justice system and the excuse to raise the walls taken from 9/11, the mixed-use notion has mostly faded. Remaining is this goofy window space on SW Madison, between 2nd and 3rd. And it’s available for the asking. First come, first served.

Not much foot traffic – but you could be there. Your very artwork. Just think of it. In jail.

Write Mark Gustafson at

He is facilities manager for the Multnomah County Jail. His phone is 503-988-4208. Send him a description of the type of artwork to be displayed, the number of pieces and approximately when you would be ready to set up the display. There may be a waiting list of a few months. I am pretty certain gallery curator is not in his job description, so be nice.

Currently there is a display of masks and small sculptures.

Speaking of jails, looking how your percent for the arts dollars attached to the Wapato Jail were flushed down the toilet. I’ll write more about these later. It’s like getting stuck in a droll video game.

What will protect this mural?

This public artwork is located on the South face of the American State Bank on Martin Luther King Blvd and about Knott Street, in NE Portland.

A rare insight from a writer with the Portland Mercury describes the ACB interior in 2000. Formerly Albina Community Bank – I think – this building is currently empty and out of business. According to the Metro Murals database of Portland’s mural artwork (our city’s most accessable public arts database! Whew!) it was made by Paul Gilbert in 1999, and is 8′ by 25′, 200 square feet.

I haven’t discovered much about the muralist Paul Gilbert. I think the mural was made at the same time as the adjoining Gladys Sims McCoy Memorial Park was created to recognize McCoy, former Multnomah County Chair and longtime civic leader. The park was built by the neighboring American State Bank.

It uses a flat naive’ style with a rollercoaster perspective to show a banker welcoming customers and a band playing in a park. It’s got that content-by-committee feel to it. It’s nice, but bland and unremarkable.

The question of maintainance comes if two criteria are met – and I am not sure they are in the case of this nameless mural. With the bank closed and the building for sale or lease, the artwork does not have an internal protector. So does the community love it, cherish it, need it, remember with it, value it sufficiently to make it a unspoken requirement of owning it (possessing it along with the building)? I don’t get a sense of this. The McCoy Memorial, I assume, has the protection of both the McCoy family and the county or city, but this mural, both a extravagent commercial remainder and a reminder of the Albina boosters who launched the Albina Community Plan (see below). And then the harder question, does it qualify as art, a thing by its sheer creation and existance sufficiently convincing to secure and protect as a community treasure?

No. I think this mural fails both questions, and will be lost in time to renovation. Sad? I don’t think so. That it’s surroundings are also dreck isn’t a sufficient argument, and there are far to many other public artworks of great value which need protection and care.

Gladys McCoy, Portland Public Schools Board member from 1966, County Commissioner form 1979, and County Chair from 1986. Gladys and her husband Bill (a state legislator) also are remembered with McCoy Park on N. Woolsey and the McCoy Community Garden on Fessenden.

The Albina Community Plan was as much a process as a plan, a process to capture the acceptance of a community to rennovation. (All of the following documents are pdfs and slow-loading.)

See History of Portland’s African American Community (1805 to 1993).

See History of the Albina Plan Area.

See Albina Community Plan Process – 1990

See Albina Community Plan Design Guidelines – 1993