January 2006


If you haven’t read Gary Blackmer’s August 2005 report on the RACC-managed percent for the art program, you should.

So here’s the real problem. Clearly a bad decision was made with Facing The Crowd. (And let’s avoid an aesthetic argument – imagine we’re discussing a public artwork you don’t like). So what to do with a very large, very heavy, very permanent, high-profile thing which has been blessed as art, if we change our collective minds?

This is a vital difference between public art and private art. You want something I think is ugly hanging in your house? I don’t care – and I don’t have a right to care. It’s none of my business. It’s in your house. But this city is my house and your house and we need to decide collectively what art hangs here.

Can we throw them away? Melt them down and recast into a sculpture of Maurice Lucas? No, that would be indiscreet. Can we hide them in a warehouse, bury them Rose City Cemetery, pawn them off on Spokane or Stockton or Nampa, Idaho?

Should we ignore the creeping creepiness and just shuffle by? These things could literally exist indefinitely! Thousands and thousands of years! They look very sturdy. Could a bus knock one over? Could kids from Lincoln set one on fire during lunch period? Could a crazy person throw a tarp over one and start living inside the head?

What if a committee selected art for a big city museum? A disaster! The lowest common denominator of political decisions overwhelms a fine aesthetic. Bleck.

What if we hired a city curator, a person with zeal and personality and taste, able to make selections and defend them? Think Thomas Hoving – curiously one of John Buchanan’s first employers. (Read the SF Chronicle’s puff-piece on Buchanan.) HA! One, Portland can’t attract the talent. Two, we don’t have the balls to take their advice. Three, our petty covivial art scene would push itself into the forefront, demanding local purchases for gratitude.

Here’s the strikethrough version of the new city code on purchasing public art. Aside from the increase in funds, there’s not much change. (Someone cleaned up the grammar. That’s good.)

But 5.74.040 C.3. of the City code reads, The Regional Arts & Culture Council will report annually to Participating Bureaus on the disbursement of funds from the Public Art Trust Fund. No change there.

That’s good. That means someone knows how much RACC is spending on this stuff, and someday the “public art trust fund” could be a matter of public record. Until then, “informal” and “murky” remains standing procedure.

On the good side, sometimes the system works. Take a look at these cool cool brass plates adorn the front of the County Admin building on SE Hawthorne and Grand Avenue.

Connections is by Walla Walla artist Wayne Chabre. He writes on his brass plaque – “I hope this artwork makes people smile as they enter the building to conduct business with the County.” Very ambitious mission statement.

The right viewing distance from the artwork is fairly perilous – the middle of a busy street. If you can block out the flashing cars, these have the flavor of Chinese mountain paintings and fit nicely into the red brick of this old bank building. Clearly Chabre did homework – all the scale and proportion is true and informative. I like them.

Everyone sees things differently. With that relativistic caveat, let’s go.

This sculpture, Facing The Crowd, set at the gates of the Civic Stadium gives off a childish welcome to passersby. Seems fine, innocuous. Who cares? We’re here to see a ball game.

You might have a bit of a deja vu as you exit. Because the RACC selection committee decided somehow to collect two of the same sculpture, and one set at the West entrance and another at the East entrance. Both exactly alike. It’s a sculpture so nice they bought it twice. Must have loved that idea at the procurement office.

Any explanation? No. Continuity between the two? No. Perhaps they thought no one would notice?

Take a closer look and you’ll discern both are designed to be visible from a distance, impervious to weather or vandalism. No barrier between them and the viewer. You can touch to your heart’s content. And, if you’re observant, you’ll see kids give both sculptures a wide berth.

Why?

Cause
they’re
damn
creepy.

The artist is Michael Stutz, from San Diego. His is routine stuff, manly and clearly ready to market to governmental organizations which need to sink a large pot of 1% gold into a manageable artwork. On his web site he quotes himself, “I try to explore the dichotomies between permanent and impermanent, public and private, external and internal, to create an intimate and human ideal.” Whatta load of crap.

When a public building is built or rebuilt, as was the case of the Civic, 1.33% of the cost of the building is set aside in the “Public Art Trust Fund.” This money accumulates and is used to buy public artwork, to place it in a public place (or where government employees work – the mayor’s office for example has several really nice pieces), to maintain it, to promote it, and sometimes to warehouse it.

Look at this piece again next time you visit the Civic. Are they Gerber babies or crazed S&M totems? Remind yourself our city withholds the purchase price of artwork – and that the process for purchasing this work was recently defined by the City’s auditor as “informal” and “murky.” Commissioner Sam has promised to clean it all up, and recently the Mercury’s Scott Moore listed the promises. Ahh well, we shall see.

The 16th Annual Cascade Festival of African Films runs February 3 through March 4, at Terrell Hall at Portland Community College’s Cascade Campus.

Here’s your hint, a old Nigerian proverb, “Lack of knowledge is darker than night.”

The Festival of African Films was founded in 1991 by four Portland Community College faculty members. It’s goal is to educate people about Africa through films by Africans. The format of the festival was set in the first year: a an international film program held during Black History Month, organized and run by volunteers and offered to students, faculty, staff, and the public free of charge.

Here’s a calender of the films being presented. Be sure to park in the PCC lots and not in the adjoining neighborhood.

WEEK ONE: February 3 – 4

* February 3: Opening Night Gala – The Cascade Festival of African Films opens its sixteenth year. Three film showings at 5, 7 and 9 p.m.
* Local after-film speakers from film-related countries of Tanzania and Nigeria.

WEEK TWO: February 9, 10, 11

* February 9: Film Director Rafael Rebollar Corona presents film and discussion.
* February 11: Symposium on the “African Legacy in Mexico” followed by a Community Conversation.
* Local after-film speakers from film-related counties of Burkina Faso and Cuba.

WEEK THREE: February 16, 17, 18

* February 16 and 17: Remembering Rwanda Film Series
* February 16: “Keepers of Memory” filmmaker Eric Kabera will be present and discuss his film.
* February 18: Family Film Day with two films by local directors set in Mali, Welcome to Mali and Ko-Falen / The Gift Exchange.
* Local after-film speakers from film-related counties of Rwanda, Mali, Trinidad, Botswana and Namibia.

WEEK FOUR: February 23, 24, 25

* February 25: Forum on HIV/AIDS in Africa with local panelists.
* Local after-film speakers from film-related countries of Sudan, South Africa, Mozambique, Uganda, Algeria.

WEEK FIVE: March 2, 3, 4

* March 3: Visiting Director Sara Rashad will present and discuss her film.
* Local after-film speakers from film-related countries of Niger, Mozambique, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Angola.

Being a standard-issue all American patriot, the name “Hesse” is synonymous with “mercenary” so I dragged my tail going to see the Buchanan’s last farewell at the PAM. Ah well. No great loss. But I went.

BTW if you want to see the 4th floor NW section ALONE, go when tourists flock to the big big show. That’s nice – but who said Tom Holce knows how to pick art?

The big Holbein is nice and I am glad it gets to travel once a century or so, but one display stole the show for me – the Faberge jewelry.

Here’s a link to see these items up close. You want to see this stuff up close. And the photo is great but doesn’t do it justice. And better than seeing it is holding it and better than holding it is owning one of those cigarette cases and pulling it out at the right sort of party, something at Diane and Barry’s loft in NYC, I’d bet. Nice.

But it takes a certain sort of character to wear a top hat. On just anyone, it doesn’t work. The effect is not the one you want. The same for a Faberge cigarette case.

The guy who could pull it out with aplomb was Ernst Ludwig Karl Albrecht Wilhelm, Großherzog von Hessen und bei Rhein or Ernest Louis Charles Albert William, Grand Duke of Hesse-Darmstadt and By Rhine, one of the great weirdos of German royalty (and you historians scanning this will know what I mean!)

Seeing a show like this takes stamina and some strategy. First – there are always too many people. They talk, shuffle, gawk, tip over, chew gum, just about anything. Thank goodness for security guards (besides clearly being a big part of the Art School employment plan!) Avoid them by avoiding weekends or evenings. Eschew eye contact. If necessary, have a handkerchief with cologne in it.

Second, it’s a motley bunch of stuff, treasure trove from 400 hundred years of plunder and sack. Things from all over. Excess and sanctimony. What’s the point? To bring royalty to the provinces? How does this provide “public education”? How does this show “improve our community”? It’s easy to get frustrated with overwhelming questions which don’t have a straightforward answer. Just make sure you have a long walk home for pondering. While you’re in the galleries – absorb. Gulp it down like an owl.

Ernst Ludwig is the star of the show, clearly the aesthete cultivated from generations of warlords and landlords. His portrait – not shown here, sans armor, is as John B narrates, clearly shows captivation with art, with beauty. And having everything chose to surround himself and his family with beauty. What a nice choice.

Like the question, “why go to Pluto?” asking “why don’t the poor eat the rich?” somewhat misses the point. The purpose of Ernst Ludwig’s goofy life was to buy Faberge and give his five year old child a diamond tiara. There is no reason to go to Pluto, though it costs billions in cash and brain power. There’s no reason to make a diamond encrusted cigarette case, less to glom all over in 100 years later.

Except that they’re both – Pluto and Faberge, and Ernst Ludwig – fantastic and far out. And Ludwig could pick art.

Heroin has plagued in Portland for generations. Stigma, confusion and cost lay before the various solvers of this problem: county bureaucrats shuffled their feet and ponder early retirement if confronted with facts, treatment providers point fingers, civic leaders shield themselves with platitudes.

Yet humans have pointlessly died in Portland – thousands of them. Most went without sufficient medical intervention. Many end up in jail, prison, the madhouse, cycling through ineffective treatment centers and expensive hospitalizations.

Often by the end, junkies don’t really care if they are alive or dead. They’re cursed and know it.

Just off NE Broadway near the Memorial Coliseum is one family’s memory of their daughter, Jo-Lyn Rose who died in 1995.

Roses – our city’s emblem – rise from the left and create an arc of life, struck in the prime by lightening bolts. Then under gray rain clouds the blooms wilt and die. There is a tombstone, etc. Bleak.

Just after the mural was created I corresponded with one of the family members – I can’t quite remember, perhaps her mother. She was devastated, defeated, and perfectly aware her daughter had largely been abandoned by a complicated professional system of caretakers. She was sad, but also had resigned her daughters’ fate long before it occurred, withdrawing a safe distance to watch the slow motion disaster of her daughter’s death.

Of course it doesn’t have to happen. Actually Portland has one of the world’s best responses to heroin addiction – and addicts are eager to sign up. If they can get in the door. Independent assessment of the program’s success has been circulated for years. It’s been written about in the Oregonian extensively (Redemption Man – Clean For Real, the story of David Fitzgerald’s 12th Step is well worth reading). The program is managed by a thoughtful and respected agency.

People don’t have to die from heroin addiction in Portland. So the platitudes & shuffling as inexcusable as the long waits for treatment.

What’s utterly failed is leadership from Multnomah County’s Commissioners and executive healthcare management to fund this program.

Read about Central City Concern’s addiction programs.

You want evidence? There’s plenty. First – no one does this alone. See program evaluation from the CCC Mentor Program. Effective abstinance-based outpatient treatment is also well-documented. Finally, people places and things needs to change, and alcohol and drug free housing make that possible.

Without all three of these programs – it doesn’t work. Without sufficient funding – it doesn’t work.

But if you’re shooting dope and want to stop, or know someone else who is and does, this is the place to do whatever it takes to stop.

The late Robert Murase was one of Portland’s best regarded public artists when he passed away in the summer of 2005 at age 66. He slipped quietly off this planet leaving a family, friends, colleagues and a Randy Gragg obit.

How many public artists in Portland have a Wikipedia page? Okay, probably too many. Murase has one and deserves it.

Fellow of the ASLA, principal of Murase Associates.

Murase’s book, Robert Murase: Stone and Water, is out of print but can still be found in the usual places.

If you want to read – look at his writings, and writings about Murase, on his web site.

Or best see them in person. The Boley Library at Lewis & Clark, the faux trout stream at Esther Short Park in Vancouver (now stocked with toddlers every summer day), The Washington Park Max station (above ground), the surrounds of the Skidmore Fountain (called Ankeny Park), landscaping around the new Seminar Buildings at TESC (very impressive), and the Japanese American Historical Memorial at Waterfront Park.

The Memorial is on the West shore of the Willamette River between the Burnside and Steel Bridges. The landworks segue from a string of cherry trees along a walkway into a path of stone and a four foot berm. Set into the berm are stones with carved writing, some in English and some in Japanese. The path and surrounding stones are rough and flat, as if hewn from a prison wall. There is a brass plaque of the bill of rights, and a letter from Ronald Reagan.

The words are generous, trying to make sense of the blind fear and sullen stupidness of the act, where over 100,000 Americans – Japanese Americans – where imprisoned by our government, most for several years. Many innocent citizens lost everything.

To the West twenty years are two bronze columns set as a gateway. These thick, heavy columns, ten feet around and ten feet tall, are cast from clay molds and contain dozens of portraits of Japanese Americans, children, soldiers, fishermen, neighbors, grandparents, shop-owners, innocents. Together the columns swirl like black green smoke, carrying memories away into the clouds.

Artists need protectors – especially public artists in the provinces. Otherwise they are left to the whims of the committee, the public bureaucrat, the matron’s fundraising house gods. Murase had Bill Naito.

Bill died in 1996. With his brother Sam and his family, Bill ran Norcrest China at 55 W Burnside St., a importer of junk trinkets and “I (heart) You” mugs. Bill and Sam bought junky real estate on Portland’s Skid Road, old hotels and warehouses left over from a time when tall ships lined Portland’s waterfront and thousands of drunken sailors spent their pay on drink and dice.

There were ventures – Import Plaza sold all the junky items; hotels were rent cheap to the ancient mariners, and later to erstwhile social services; a hippy storefront ethos was promoted as “Old Town” and rents were collected.

I got a job working for Bill in about 1975. The interview went like this. I had to ask about a dozen people when he was. Huh? Who are you? Huh? These were the last days of the desk trolls, Dickensian characters who toiled at desks over long paper tapes of numbers. When I finally found him, with a scraggly beard, chewing on a long cigar and talking on a black telephone, he pointed for me to stand near his desk and to wait for his call to finish.

“Who are you?” Caterpillar, taking the narghile from his mouth. “Oh! Huh. Okay. How are your grades?” I lied. “Huh! Okay. Here’s the deal. If your grades go down I’ll let you go.” His desk was piled with papers, junk, an adding machine, pencils, trash, all seemed to flow over all the dozens of desks, but completely inundated Bill’s desk and his neighbors desk, a severe gray hair who spoke in Japanese over the phone. My job was to change light bulbs throughout the warehouse and run errands.

I had almost unlimited time to spy on Bill. He was on the phone, he was talking to the gray hair (who I later learned was his brother Sam), he toiled over papers, he chewed his cigar. I did notice a yellowed sheet of paper nailed to the wall behind him.

“You know what that is?” he drawled one day, pointing at the paper. “Do ya?” No. “They nailed it to my father’s door.” I looked it closely. “They put us in an internment camp in Eastern Oregon. I bet they don’t teach you that at school.” He picked up the phone and dialed a number. The conversation was over.

When everyone had gone home I went back and read it through. I knew what a concentration camp was, but not in Eastern Oregon. Later I looked at microfilms at the Central Branch, and quizzed the librarians on the 4th floor of the OHS. No one knew.

Bill knew exactly how precious education, family and individual rights are worth – because he’d had his taken from him. So had Robert Murase, a third-generation Japanese American (I think Bill and Sam were / are second-generation).

The backstory is Bill pushed the Portland Japanese American Historical Memorial project forward and financed it, or finagled the financing from the city. After years of prodding and waiting, finally in 1992 the Amendment of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was signed into law and reparations were made. Bill made the politic and Bob Murase made the artwork.

+++

Learn more about the Japanese American Internment Camps. You think it can’t happen here? Well, it already did.

Bill Naito needed a better will – See all the trouble. Only Stoel Rives got rich from squabbling.

Visit the Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center.

Here’s a cool VR rendering of the Japanese American Historical Memorial.