For two years, I worked at the Oregon Symphony's outreach department and often polled the department's volunteers and staff on why arts outreach should exist. Answers were varied, from helping improve standardized test scores (through the disputed Mozart Effect), to stopping the spread of rap, to creating future ticket-buyers, to elevating the lives of the unwashed masses. No one said what I expected: Because people like music. Instead, music, each person seemed to say, was only a byproduct of music education.
When P:EAR's staff members and founders--Joy Cartier, Pippa Arend and Beth Burns--discuss the art element in the program, they use words that a therapist would love: communication, expression and self-esteem improvement. But something more than self-esteem raising is happening at P:EAR.
The "kids" are creating pieces of art that sell (artists keep 90 percent of the asking price) and easily rival some local galleries' best works. The staff members, who founded P:EAR when the Salvation Army's similar Greenhouse Alternative Learning Center closed, will tell you getting a piece of art together is a lot easier than getting a life together. But both are happening here.
On a recent sunny day, a group sat around a table near the windows, making clay sculptures. Cups of pens and pencils sat on each of the three meeting tables, with larger supplies stored in a back room. All three staffers provide company and help, but they don't offer rigorous art instruction or typical assistance. None of them is a trained social worker or therapist. And only one, Arend, is a professional artist. She graduated from Pacific Northwest College of Art and works with metal, and she enlists fellow artists to demonstrate techniques and display work in the gallery.
One wall is dedicated to portraits Arend has drawn of the kids. "One guy, Tiny, who's a pretty big guy, came in and said, 'Come on Pippa, let's draw.' I said, 'What do you want to draw?'" she says. "Finally, I suggested we draw each other, and he didn't want to do that. So, I said, 'What? Tiny, are you afraid of a little realism?' And he said yes."
Many works currently in the gallery are packed with images, resembling collages, like Meghann Smith's Dreaming of Paris. Some are abstract and inventive, such as Ryan Pope's Video Games Ruined My Life. Others are fantastical images of castles, while still others are explorations of color values, where different shades of rust green compete and blend on a canvas.
On First Thursdays, visitors spill out of the narrow gallery onto the sidewalk, with the homeless youth mixing with professional artists, gallery representatives and passersby. The street-party atmosphere builds a link between the kids and the rest of the community, and creates a sense of equality.
Watching a man buy a bicycle painting in P:EAR's gallery, I felt that this outreach program got it right. Yes, there are social goods to be reaped from the experience of making art, but there's also the joy of art for art's sake.
809 SW Alder St., 228-6677. Open every First Thursday, or by request.
P:EAR gallery is not the latest venture of a pretentious speller. It stands for Program: Education, Art, Recreation.
Although organizations like Art Media make donations to the nonprofit, the government does not. Staff members felt government grants required them to ask questions that invade privacy. All of P:EAR's programs, like organizing outings to performances or providing a hot lunch, are designed to supplement, not replace, existing programs.