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March 20th, 2013 AARON MESH | Cover Story
 

Rise of the Falcon

Can one man’s millions keep struggling Portland artists aloft?

lede_falconsamirkhurshidIMAGE: Samir Khurshid
You won’t believe who is in Brian Wannamaker’s basement.

Against one wall, Modest Mouse frontman Isaac Brock plays electric guitar next to a wild boar. Nearby, rock chanteuse Storm Large belts out a song in nothing but a yellow bikini bottom. And in the corner, babies hatch from giant cream-colored eggs, menaced by a rattlesnake, a gorilla and a shark.

CELLAR DOOR: Brian Wannamaker looks out the coal chute in the basement of the Falcon Art Community. The developer wants to turn the last unimproved basement room into Ghost Bar, a club with proceeds going to painters.
IMAGE: James Rexroad
They’re all the subjects of huge oil paintings in a three-story apartment building on North Albina Avenue called the Falcon Art Community.

A 50-year-old Canadian-born real-estate developer, Wannamaker is best known as the man who gentrified North Mississippi Avenue, turning the street from a crack-blighted byway into a chic boutique strip a decade ago.

But he has made the Falcon his obsession, devoting a lot of money in a way that is unlike anyone in Portland has done before.

It’s not uncommon for a wealthy Portlander to support a struggling artist with commissions or grants. And a litany of developers have made fortunes turning warehouses into cheap studios in poor neighborhoods, where painters—between shifts as baristas or clerks—build a body of work and hope to land a gallery where they can sell it.

At the Falcon, Wannamaker does much more. He personally selects the 24 artists—painters, sculptors, musicians and authors—who work in Falcon’s basement studios and live in the upstairs apartments, often rent-free. He takes them on speedboat outings on the Columbia River, displays their work in “micro-galleries” in his North Mississippi buildings and throws lavish parties to get them noticed by gallery owners.

“He’s the Medici of Portland,” says Alexander Rokoff, who painted the Brock portrait and rents the Falcon’s center studio with his rabbit, Robert. “What Brian’s created here is a hub of creativity that’s hard to find.”

It’s unprecedented that so much money and attention would go to a handful of unknown talents simply because they caught the eye—the one good eye—of one man. The artists Wannamaker sponsors fly in the face of contemporary art trends. Their paintings are often big, deliberately anachronistic and flirting with tackiness.

“He doesn’t care about it getting the stamp of approval from the institutional world,” says Gavin Shettler, a former Falcon tenant who managed the city-backed artist community Milepost 5. “He’s running an old-school patronage that we see very little of, and definitely not on the West Coast.”

Public funding of the arts is as controversial as it’s ever been in Portland, as bills arrive for the city’s new $35-a-person arts tax passed by voters last November. The money raised from that tax (which Wannamaker supported) will go largely to established organizations already getting plenty of public subsidy.

Wannamaker, without planning to do so, honed a starkly different model, in which one man’s treasure can spur a movement—one some critics say borders on unironic kitsch—beyond the walls of his own art colony.

“Is he doing good? Yes,” says Bryan Suereth, director of nearby arts nonprofit Disjecta. “Supporting art is a valuable endeavor on any scale. But what he offers is within a construct of his own making—a vault of his own aesthetics.”


MR. MISSISSIPPI: Wannamaker walks down North Mississippi Avenue a decade after spurring its transformation.
IMAGE: James Rexroad

On the corner of North Killingsworth Street and Albina, the Falcon is a beige stucco hulk beached behind a convenience store and a furniture warehouse, just down the street from the Chapel Pub, a McMenamins bar built inside a former funeral home. The entryway is marked only by a shingle reading “Falcon Art Community” and a security buzzer that unlocks two black metal doors.

The building was built by Alaskan gold-rush tycoon William P. Sinnott in 1911. He named it the Peninsula, but after it burned 22 years later, the repaired building reopened as the Falcon.

In the basement—which Wannamaker says looked liked the Roman catacombs when he bought the building in 1997—the curving red hallways lead past distressed oak doors and concrete beams dangling crystal chandeliers. Piano tinkling pours out of the studio of musician Ben Darwish. Banjo player Tony Furtado is sculpting intricate clay elephants. Author Peter Zuckerman keeps a stack of his books by his door with a sign marked “for thieves, professional reviewers.”

The floor-to-ceiling paintings, combined with the artists’ shingles in front of studio doors, make the basement feel like a blend of medieval village and Victorian explorers’ club.

The work reflects the mood. Stephanie Buer draws photo-realist landscapes of abandoned buildings covered in graffiti. Molly Maine, who just moved out, based her paintings on European folklore during the Black Death; most feature deer skulls.

Brin Levinson draws familiar Portland industrial landmarks—the Burnside Bridge, the Alameda water tower—overtaken by elephants, raccoons and a rhinoceros. Levinson’s most recent work shows crows perched in a graveyard of AR-15 semiautomatic rifles outside an abandoned Wal-Mart. 

“That’s a murder of crows,” he says. “I was trying to be clever. Maybe too clever.”

The paintings made in the Falcon are old-fashioned, outsized and self-consciously cheesy—completely out of step with the trends in major art capitals like New York and Berlin.

“Who doesn’t want a 20-foot painting of yourself in a 1785 setting?” asks Portland art critic and show curator Jeff Jahn. “I don’t want that. But there are a lot of people who do.”

Wannamaker now funds Falcon artist Alexander Rokoff, who painted Wannamaker with pet parrots Inca and Manu (below).
IMAGE: James Rexroad
The resident artists have made a habit of producing oil paintings over 10 feet long. One of the gigantism painters is Rokoff, a jovial, bearded oil painter, the Falcon’s first signature artist. He paints towering nudes, often in the act of setting ships on fire. (The model is usually his girlfriend, fellow Falcon artist Lauren Garverick.)

Rokoff recently returned from an apprenticeship with Scandinavian painter Odd Nerdrum, founder of the “Kitsch Movement” that scorns abstract and conceptual trends in contemporary art. He painted the monumental portraits of Large and Brock in a grandiose, neo-Romantic style that evokes old masters like Rembrandt.

“I’ve been in other art communities that are really just Pabst-fests,” he says of Wannamaker’s choices. “To not be renting to people who aren’t deserving of the space really keeps the dynamic potent.”

The roster of current and former tenants is a who’s-who of Portland hip: Large, of course, and band members of Modest Mouse and the Decemberists, novelist Chelsea Cain, and Zuckerman, who is former Mayor Sam Adams’ partner. Mississippi Studios owner Jim Brunberg rents a recording studio. Former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, who played with Modest Mouse, left his iTunes library accessible for other tenants on the building’s Wi-Fi while he stayed in a room upstairs.

“If you can assimilate the right characters in a group,” Wannamaker says, “then all of a sudden it’s magic.”


Wannamaker has a wide smile and perpetual three-day stubble. He wears his designer shirts open to the second button, revealing ruddy brown chest hair. Legally blind in his left eye, he has just this year started wearing glasses, which he buys in packs of three at Walgreens because he keeps losing them.

He and his companies own 12 buildings with 150 residents and 10 businesses. In all, these holdings have a net worth of $12 million.

The son of an Electrolux appliance-company executive in Oakville, Ontario, Wannamaker dropped out of Toronto’s York University one Shakespeare term paper shy of his English degree, and moved to Portland in 1986 to join his brother Jeff. He started renovating houses in the Lloyd District—single-family homes, duplexes, four-plexes, and a 16-unit building on Northeast 7th Avenue and Fargo Street paid for in cash.

He discovered a knack for designing apartments. “Barn wood,” he says, pointing to the rough-hewn counter in the Red E Cafe, a coffee shop in another Killingsworth-neighborhood building he owns. “Things that probably a million years of evolution have told us we like.”

In between projects, Wannamaker financed trips around the globe, often visiting indigenous cultures before modernity: the Peruvian Amazon, Uganda, Kenya. In 1996, he visited tribes in Irian Jaya, the western mountain province of Papua New Guinea, where locals use stone tools and practice cannibalism. (Wannamaker’s translator discovered their hosts were planning to kill and eat a visiting Berkeley linguist. His group warned the professor before traveling on.)

In Portland, Wannamaker shifted his attention to commercial properties—especially on North Mississippi Avenue. 

He picked six apartment buildings, most near the intersection of North Mississippi and Shaver Street, and chose the retail anchors: the candlelit Crow Bar, the auteur-stocked DVD rental store Video Verite, the upscale soul-food purveyor Miss Delta.

“I felt like I could buy…the whole street is an exaggeration,” he says. “But a lot of the street.”

Shettler, who bartended at Crow Bar, says Wannamaker’s work changed North Mississippi. “Someone was parked out in front of the Crow Bar dealing crack at 2 o’clock in the afternoon,” he says. “In six months, they were gone. It changed so fast.”

But some longtime residents say the change made Mississippi—a mostly African-American neighborhood that had been left behind in the city’s growth—more exclusive but not more livable.

Huey Martin Jr. lives a block west on North Michigan Avenue, and has worked on or around Mississippi Avenue for more than 50 years. (He and Wannamaker have each been called “the mayor of Mississippi,” though by different demographics.)

Martin recalls a block filled with churches, and says he now can’t walk down the street without stepping around the vomit of partiers.

“Drunks. Every night, drunks,” he says. “Ten years ago, you could not buy alcohol on Mississippi. Now all it is, is drunks.”


BIGGER THAN SADDAM: Iraqi refugee Samir Khurshid was repeatedly forced to paint Saddam Hussein’s portrait. Now his paintings in the Falcon’s basement include the dreamscape D (above) and Cranes (below).
IMAGE: James Rexroad

Wannamaker is also dissatisfied by what became of North Mississippi Avenue, though for different reasons. He doesn’t like the second wave of development—the four- and five-story apartment complexes that look like Rainbow Brite was put in charge of Soviet housing.

He took a lesson from this: If he wanted to determine how a scene turned out, he would have to own it all himself. “If I was doing it over, I probably would have held on to more property,” he says, gazing south down the street from the Fresh Pot coffee shop. “I probably would have tried to have more of an influence, just by owning even more properties.”

He saw a chance to make the Falcon “its own little castle.” When he purchased the building for $900,000 in 1997, the halls were filled with crack addicts. He cleared out the troublemakers until the building had a core of longtime residents, mostly African-American, and he hired one resident to patrol at nights. The transformation was slow. New drug dealers set up shop on the corner. Drive-by shooters sprayed the Falcon. Wannamaker started carrying a 9 mm Glock.

Inside, Wannamaker partitioned the dark, leaky basement into studios. The first tenant he recruited was Rokoff, who agreed to paint portraits of the building residents in exchange for free rent.

“Most landlords know the quickest way to turn a ghetto swank is to make it into an arts district,” Rokoff says. “When I first met him, I thought, ‘I’ll get cheap rent for a certain period of time and then I’ll move on.’ Within five minutes, I realized I was talking to a different kind of player. He could see through walls.”

Not everyone has enjoyed their stay at the Falcon.

Wannamaker was sued by a tenant for housing discrimination in 1998, but the case was dismissed. The city has issued a handful of nuisance citations against his properties over the past decade, mostly for tenants dumping trash and construction materials in the buildings’ yards. Records show Wannamaker fixed all the problems promptly.

Last August, Beth Hodtwalker claimed black mold in her Falcon apartment was making her sick. A group of 37 housing-rights activists with the Portland Solidarity Network marched on the Falcon Art Community to demand her deposit back.

“He actually sent a check and then canceled it,” says Sam Junge, a Portland Solidarity Network organizer. “That gave us an idea of where he was coming from. He was pretty clearly not treating his tenant fairly.”

Wannamaker, who says the woman’s complaint was really about a neighbor smoking, says he canceled the check after Portland Solidarity Network called his house at 2 am and posted thousands of fliers calling him an exploiter.

“It seemed like terrorism to me, actually,” he says. “I was not feeling bad for the 26-year-old girl who wanted her deposit so she could move back to Nebraska.”

There were other troubles. Thieves stole 26 paintings in 2010, including six of Rokoff’s War On Nature series. The paintings explore systemic violence by perpetrating it against fruit—self-explanatory titles include The Only Good Pumpkin Is a Dead Pumpkin and Rape of the Grapefruit. He lost a painting of a lynched banana. 

“Now we have [security] cameras everywhere,” he says.

But those frustrations are eclipsed by successes, including Samir Khurshid, a 34-year-old Iraqi artist who in art school painted a few pictures of Saddam Hussein. Government officials took notice and commissioned portraits. They didn’t give him much choice: Saddam had Khurshid’s brother in prison, and threatened never to release him unless Khurshid agreed.

So he painted Saddam, 380 times—each time from photographs, never meeting the dictator. He imagined Saddam in heroic scenarios: launching a rocket, killing a snake.

After American forces invaded Iraq in 2003, Khurshid fled to Turkey, and was brought to Portland as a United Nations refugee in November 2010. Wannamaker offered him a free studio and apartment after reading a profile of him in The Oregonian.

Two years later, Khurshid still lives at the Falcon. A $390-a-month stipend from Catholic Charities has expired, and so has the yearlong, $110,000 fellowship he split with four other Falcon painters from a private donor called the Calligram Foundation. Khurshid now has a body of work but no gallery representing him yet.

His huge canvases show traces of folk art, but they are equally influenced by the hellscapes of medieval painter Hieronymus Bosch and the surrealism of Salvador Dalí. Khurshid says they are visions of the future. The children hatching from eggs represent people emerging from confusion and superstition. But they are beset by dangers: A rattlesnake lurks at the mouth of a cave, and a parrot yanks at the molar of a man suspended from chains. (It’s Wannamaker’s parrot, Manu.) Khurshid has painted one self-portrait. He is hunched like an ancient Greek discus thrower, holding an egg, escaping from hot lava at the bottom of the canvas. He is riding a falcon.

Through a translator, Khurshid says he hated Saddam and loves America. He says he is finally free. 

“Portland is like my second mother,” he says. “Brian is my father.”


Most of the art critics WW spoke to declined to go on the record about Falcon artists, describing them in terms ranging from condescending to scorching. But the audience has grown to include a lot of Portland tastemakers. 

Jahn says Wannamaker’s creation of an against-the-grain community is part of Portland’s charm.

“Portland appreciates it when people are pursuing their own bliss,” he says. “Are any of these artists going to end up in the Museum of Modern Art in New York? No. Most of the artists at the Falcon are not on that trajectory. Contemporary art is suspicious of something that puts more emphasis on the craft of art than the ideas behind it.”

Wannamaker himself says the Portland arts scene is mediocre. He says he’s chosen artists who are dedicating themselves to getting better but aren’t being recognized.

“I’m so specific in who I like to have at the Falcon,” he says. “The people at the Falcon are working endlessly. And they’re not being valued.”

In January, Khurshid’s paintings went on display in a Pearl District pop-up gallery with the work of the Falcon’s four other Calligram fellowship recipients. 

The Calligram Foundation didn’t renew its fellowship grants after the show. It moved them instead to the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art because the directors wanted to expand their styles and be less hands-on. Calligram executive director Satya Byock says the Falcon couldn’t take over grant operations, because it isn’t a nonprofit. 

But the gala was attended by two mayors: Sam Adams and Charlie Hales.

Adams had placed a Rokoff painting—the one featuring Isaac Brock and the boar—on the wall of the mayor’s office lobby in City Hall. Hales, who has taken a private tour of the Falcon, took the Rokoff painting down and replaced it with two Jack Portland oil and wax expressionist paintings of Cathedral Park arches. 

Adams and Wannamaker remain close friends. Adams has moved four oil paintings by Falcon alum Nate Praska into the offices at his new job as executive director at the City Club of Portland.

“City Club had no art on the walls when I got here,” Adams says. “Where there’s a blank wall, there’s a Falcon artist who can have space.”

“In terms of direct benefit, there is none,” Wannamaker says. “The closer ties the Falcon has with the political world, the more exposure the Falcon gets.”

Public subsidy for the arts in Portland grew more direct under Adams. He channeled hundreds of thousands of dollars to arts organizations through grants, and shepherded the $35-per-person arts tax voters passed in November. 

Wannamaker donated $5,000 to the arts-tax measure; he considered it a duty but dislikes the tax. Elections records show he didn’t vote in November.

“Part of why I left Canada was government was so involved in everything,” he says. “The marketplace of meaning gets perverted when you have the government saying, ‘We don’t care if you’re selling anything.’”

But Wannamaker seems content having his artists as an extended family. He and his partner, Celeste Trapp, founder of the HairM salon chain, have just had their first child, Hudson. Wannamaker, who just moved into a  $1 million Council Crest home, has been seen changing the infant’s diaper in the Falcon’s art sink. 

“It seems to be a drive in my life to have greater experiences, whether it’s tribes in New Guinea or the art community in Portland,” he says. “Who doesn’t want that? To be able to hang out with your friends all the time, and have them be great musicians or amazing painters.”

Jahn, the critic, says Wannamaker should want more. 

“Portland won the lottery by having this vacuum filled with young creatives,” says Jahn, the national art critic. “We’ve reached this point where simply being arty is not enough. Is Brian Wannamaker capable of doing this again for something that would gather major international attention? I wouldn’t put it past him.” 

 
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