Public Art

New Portland murals and the legacy of cultural appropriation

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

In late winter 2021, trail users on Portland’s Springwater Corridor were suddenly greeted with Northwest, Coastal Salish, and Alaskan Native imagery on utility towers and graffiti-covered surfaces of the Ross Island Bridge.

The artist, Stephen Cutler, appears to be a Portland-based creator who has been using Native imagery for years in his work. I do not know if he has Native ancestry or if he has worked with Native artists. I also do not know if groups whose iconography he uses have weighed in on these creations.

Appropriation of Coastal Salish, Tlingit, Haida, and other tribal cultural traditions has been going on for decades, sparking controversy about the rights of non-Native persons to use traditions that are not theirs. These important discussions about cultural appropriation have not ended—and the voices of those whose traditions are being used by others needs to be centered in all discussions and displays of such work.

At the same time, I also know that art is never meant to remain static. It never has been as long as humans have created art since they first painted wild animals in caves many millennia ago. Creation involves taking ideas and inspiration from others and reinventing those creations to make something new. In addition, anyone from the public who encounters art, I believe, can both like something that is beautiful and question the larger story around it.

As for these new murals, I like them, aesthetically. They are vital. They adhere to beautiful traditions I have seen first-hand in Southeast Alaska and British Columbia, including in living studios of Native and First Nations artists in those places. These pieces also bring life to an area that is shared by the public. It is a space used all residents for biking, hiking, walking, and other sports, and it is a de facto home to Portland’s large houseless population, who live in the elements a stone’s throw from where you see these pieces. So far, no graffiti artists who tag the concrete and steel spaces in this area have covered these pieces. It appears there is respect by that community too.

If you find yourself in Portland, take a stroll. They pieces can be found just underneath the Ross Island Bridge, on the east bank of the Willamette River.

The Murals of Cottage Grove

(Click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

In 1994 and 1995, I worked as a reporter in the small Willamette Valley community of Cottage Grove (pop. 10,000 as of 2017). The city is 20 miles south of Eugene, along the Interstate 5 corridor. When I was working there, the old economy based on timber production and milling was shutting down, and one in five residents was living near the poverty level. In terms of that grim statistic, not much has changed. Today, more than one in five live in poverty, according to the last Census count.

I reported on just about everything in Cottage Grove as a local reporter: crimes, sports, civic life, local government, police, fires, successes, tragedies, inspiring people, pets, redevelopment, land use battles, racism, anti-racism, and more. I loved how I was exposed to all of humanity by simply writing stories about people’s lives.

I paid a visit to Cottage Grove on my way through in early August 2017. I stopped at my old employer, the Cottage Grove Sentinel, and walked through the historic downtown. It is still a beautiful place, with old brick buildings and merchants working to keep civic life and that social place alive.

Some big murals caught my eye. One of the iconic Coca-Cola brand liights up an otherwise dull brick wall. The other celebrates the many covered bridges near Cottage Grove and the celebrated writer and local resident Opal Whitely, painted in 2001 by artists Connie Huston and Howard Tharpe. There are just some of the city’s mural art.

Whitely was born in 1897 and died in 1992. She was a child prodigy, and also schizophrenic. According to a Cottage Grove historian and writer, Stephen Williamson, at the age of 21, she traveled to Boston with her book, The Fairyland Around Us, considered one of the most remarkable blends of science and faith ever written. He writes, “The Atlantic Monthly turned that book down, but did publish her childhood diary. It quickly became a worldwide best seller. Presidents and kings read it. Mothers named their babies after her. Opal was an international star–at least outside Oregon. Opal’s diary describes the life of a lonely child from logging camps in the Cascade Mountains.”

Whitely eventually moved to Europe, where she spoke of abuse growing up and not being related to her family. Eventually her mental illness worsened and she was “committed” to England’s psychiatric system, where she was poorly treated. Says Williamson, “The gifted child genius from Oregon’s wilderness spent nearly fifty years buried in a tiny cell on a crowded asylum ward. In the 1950’s she was given a lobotomy.” She died in the place that imprisoned her for decades.

Today, however, Whitely lives on as one of the main tourist attractions for the community. If you are travelling down I-5, pull off. Travel to the city center. Take a walk. Shop. Eat at a local restaurant and see all of the murals. You can then pause and reflect upon one of Oregon’s most famous daughters who died in a virtual prison, whose only crime was being hyper-creative and afflicted with a mental illness.

 

St. Louis statues: a great tradition of public art

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

St. Louis has many great works of public art on display, throughout Forest Park, Tower Grove Park, and other locations in the city. They put to shame the public art of many other cities that are now more prosperous and populated.

During my recent visit, I accidentally stumbled on the statues of great white men, as I call them, in Tower Grove Park in the south central area of the city. Businessman and philanthropist Henry Shaw of St. Louis believed that public art played an important role in the welfare of a city, and left a legacy, including the statues.

The statues I photographed depict William Shakespeare, Alexander von Humboldt, and Christopher Colombus—a man whose controversial legacy is questioned today. The statues, regardless of their merits, evoke a period of wealth and pride, when the city chose to promote art when it was at the apex of its economic and political power. Much of that art celebrates European civilization and few other traditions and races. St. Louis has always been a city that did not recognize the contributions of non-European groups until the late 19th century.

I also discovered a wonderful bronze sculpture in the Dutchtown neighborhood, in South St. Louis, just off Grand Boulevard. Atop a neighborhood gate entrance sat two jolly foxes, swigging from pints and likely smoking pipes. These are located next to the popular Ted Drewes frozen custard stand, where I gulped down a delicious dessert. Now this was a real discovery.

There are no jolly foxes where I live in Portland. I think we need some. We take ourselves far too preciously, and we forget other cities have understood the power of public art better than the new cool capitals of the United States.