July 2007

All images, Portland postcards, Summer of 1920.

Consider – who do you know in Portland who isn’t from California, either physically or metaphysically? I mean – it’s just about everyone now. We eat California food, watch California stars, read California books, grow California plants, maintain California expectations, have California body mods, have California concerns and diagnosis.

Possibly the whole damn world is California. I thought explorers from the Mercury found stuff which isn’t California, but on second consideration, the notion of perusing funky groceries for shelf-stable imported food seems about a most California exercise.

Now you may say, I went to Bennington and came here for the theatre (you’d be a special sort of fool), or, we moved to Portland for better schools (gentrifiers, house flippers, and thoughtless racists – how San Diego), or, we couldn’t afford San Francisco anymore. Fact is if you could, you would.

One secret is Portland peaked – not in 2002, but in 1920. Much which is dreamy and funky and wild and weird about Portland comes from just after WWI. Certainly our best public art.

Mayor Tom Potter’s visioning project is drawing to a close. My guess is readers could substitute “Portland” with “San Jose” and draw the same conclusions.

What makes Portland Portland – unalterably and without which the city substantially is weakened? What makes this town wonderful and not San Jose?



In a vacant lot cleared of weeds and rubble
the figures of men in identical postures
knelt in worship or else in submission
to something irresistible.
Our friend shot photographs of them.
This is art that shows us how to turn away.

The shades of early winter lay low
and spread deeper. The bodies rested
all reddish in their their robes of clay,
so passive and patient.
I felt that words were called for somehow
without knowing what words to say.

Later, when I saw Moira’s photographs
I flipped through them quickly, as if
they were pornographic or from an autopsy,
something not to be dwelt on.
I fear her feelings were hurt. I was sorry,
but this art made me turn away.

It was hidden without hiding, empty quarter-
block just off the main drag, fugitive space
fit for public art, and if it bore a message,
I wondered if its creator
was entirely clear on the purpose or demonstration,
or just worked without the words to say.

We returned a couple of days later to a quiet
space that suddenly had become a killing field.
Someone had smashed the heads in, shattered
the bodies and kicked
their shards across the rain-drenched ground.
Horrified, I walked away,

searching for words to say.
Then, walking into a bookstore coffee shop,
I looked behind me and noticed
that my footsteps were marked
by clots of wet red clay.

What makes great art? An artist? A gallery? The context of a movement? An arts education? A museum? A critic? Well formulated oil and carefully stretched canvas?

No. Not at all.

What makes great art is opportunity to tell the truth about love. What happens when this opportunity arises is all about you – the artist. Can you tell me the truth today? Or does this truth get told at magical moments, during powerful ceremonies, where language and custom tie us in knots? Again, it’s all about you.

The photos here are of a roadside memorial for Nick Bucher at 26th and SE Stark Streets. Nick was hit by a car and killed riding his biking home from work.

Fault means nothing. Look at his eyes.

His friends and family made an arrangement on the sidewalk where he was hit. Someone chained up a ghost bike with a blue ribbon, Very Special Son. Candles, notes, flowers have blown away. A mix CD tucked into a crevice survives, Eliott Smith, Jeff Buckley, Sigor Ros and others. A cross made of straw and another hung on a tree. Two pictures, one recent, handsome and sly, another fifteen years ago, a birthday morning, Nick’s first bike.

Later, his parents wrote a beautiful letter to everyone.

    Comforted by strangers
    Our 24-year-old son, Nicholas, lost his life in a tragic car-bicycle accident at Southeast 26th Avenue and Stark Street on Feb. 3.
    We have received a number of e-mails and letters from those who were there at the time. There were two girls driving behind Nick who would have gladly taken the hit instead of our son. There were those who lived in the area or were passing by who immediately rendered what aid they could to Nick. They comforted him and encouraged him to keep breathing until the paramedics arrived.
    These people did not know our son but gladly gave of themselves during his time of need. We sincerely thank all of those who were there and helped our son. We also thank them for letting us know that he was not alone during his last hours. We are grateful that there are compassionate and caring Portlanders in our city.

Long thread with facts and opinions at Bike Portland. Keep safe.

Overheard at the opening of the DeSoto Cabal – “if you can’t say anything nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.”

What a Portland-sentiment, a lie by omission; this is what stifles our creative capacity. It’s proud provincialism, not new real estate, which we must overcome.

The adventurous part of owning an art gallery is the moment just before you say “go!” My understanding of the development of the business side of Portland – like city galleries showing local art is there is a slow building of opportunity to make more money by selling more mainstream artwork – kindly faces in frames which can go over mantelpieces and be admired by visitors. Accepting a difficult artist is often equivalent to accepting a loss.

Pearl District condo buyers considered the square footage of the floors, but they should have got estimates of the square footage of the walls – which all needed artwork, which all needed to be bought by “an up and coming artist who I met at a party and then read about in a magazine!” It’s such a thrill – being connected to something alive and creative.

These galleries now have serious mortgages. Bestsellers sell best. I would bank on Jim Riswold and Royal Nebecker-types remaining and a turgid campaign to tell us about how great they are. I don’t like to bet on underdogs, but this upmarket move bodes well for the cavalier and crafty and those who can live on tea and triscuits.

(Nice photo of stupid artwork from PORT by Sarah Henderson)

Avard Fairbanks (1897-1987) created two sets of external bronze doors in 1931 for the US Bank building on SW Stark Street, one set on SW Broadway, the other on SW Sixth Avenue.

Fairbanks created several Portland are artworks, including the World War I Memorials at Jefferson High School, the Standard Insurance Icon, and Pioneer Mother at Esther Short Park in Vancouver. At the time these works – and others – were made, Fairbanks was teaching sculpture at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

The slide show above shows the Broadway doors, and the eight panels of “historical” imagery.

You can see these bronze panels in more detail at the Portland Public Art archive.

Jails and prisons give a twist to the conventional percent-for-art formulas. Who is the audience? Inmates? Guards? Neighbors? The press? Politicians? The guy driving the delivery truck? Hard to tell.

Years ago I advised a state corrections system commissioning artwork for their new $100 million high security prison. After fussing quite a bit with the silliness of buying art in general, they set their collective hearts on buying ONE piece of art requiring ZERO maintenance and would sink to the center of the earth at the first opportunity.

They commissioned a $1,000,000 cast iron ball and chain and set it in the turnabout. At four tons, it’s sinking into the soil as I type.

I imagine the Multnomah County administrators who advocated for and built Wapato Jail in North Portland knew the $56,000,000 state-of-the-art jail would never open. Corruption? Likely; no one will ever investigate. Incompetence? Certainly; we’re too convivial to point out the obvious.

Wapato Jail was located on empty land owned by the County in the North Portland industrial area called Rivergate. Surrounded by flood channels, a polluted lake and a landfill, and with jets launching overhead every few moments, the parcel proved hard to lease.

The percent-for-the-arts artwork which came from the Wapato Jail construction, I think for the most part, is not at Wapato. The artwork is to the East across the polluted and vibrant Smith and Bybee Lakes, and in Delta Park scattered around a sewage treatment plant. It’s a series of hideous peeled trees with weird pods attached – perhaps for animal nests – by Fernanda D’Agostino and large molded concrete objects, shells, bones, ancient pods, by Valerie Otani – items expected on a science fiction movie set.

Anyway, at the Wapato Jail, empty, locked and surrounded by high fences and cameras, are a series of artifice river pilings aligning the entrance road. The first set are bound with steel cables and bolts, then come single posts, then a clutch of five or so pilings. Real pilings can still be found at the riversides, made from tall pines and soaked in tar and fuel oil, a toxic swill called creosote, possibly at the McCormick & Baxter Plant down the way.

Finally, in the parking lot turnaround are more pilings, set in a V-shape, various heights, the tip pointing generally toward the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, about a half mile off at Kelly Point Park. The V-shape can only been seen from the sky.

See the V-shape formation of pilings from high above by clicking here.

I’m certain there is some sort of artist’s statement which tries to make sense of this waste, set out before waste, surrounded by waste; but it’s unimportant because it’s overwhelmed by context, out of control by the artist. It’s just sad, another ball and chain.

From the RACC plaque – The Baobab tree, with its powerful symbolism and unique physical characteristics, has been a beacon for communities and cultures around the world. This abstracted tree illustrates our connection to nature and to each other through impressions of the four seasons in mosaic and solar lighting that glows according to the amount of light each season offers.

Ruth Frances Greenberg and David Joseph Laubenthal made Baobab in 2003. It’s had what looks like a series of maintenance problems since.

Currently the tilework, done by Greenberg, is wrapped in plastic. The small solar panels, not recognizable from the ground, are not functioning – or the wiring, or the light fixtures inside. Something’s not working.

I’m not certain how a Baobab came to Alberta or how it “has been a beacon for communities and cultures around the world”. The tree – Adansonia – is the national tree of Madagascar.

It’s one thing to amass an enormous collection of artwork, spread it all around and invite people to partake. It’s a completely different agenda to monitor, maintain, clean, repair, and secure Portland’s public artwork. After the unveiling, what happens to artwork which needs repair work?

The Regional Arts and Culture Council provides the conservation & maintenance, of the artworks in their collection – as Baobab is. Budgets are tight and RACC’s mission is spread thin. And this sculpture, on NE Alberta Street, must wait it’s turn to be repaired or removed.

The “powerful symbolism” is Portland can’t – or won’t – maintain it’s artwork.

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