In February 2006, 25-year-old graffiti artist Joshua Wallace was serving coffee at Mio Gelato on Northwest 23rd Avenue. He struck up a conversation with a customer who turned out to be real-estate developer Randy Rapaport. A year later, the pair has hatched an idea to turn Rapaport's 32,000-square-foot North Mississippi warehouse into a 13-day arts blowout. The warehouse, located at North Mississippi Avenue and Beech Street, across from Lorenzo's, is now home to Mississippi: May, a DIY extravaganza produced by Wallace's ad-hoc arts group, Independent Artist Movement.
The event, which kicks off with an opening party this Saturday, May 19, is a large-scale experiment that aims to fill the 32,000-square-foot warehouse with funky art installations by artists who fly below the blue-chip First Thursday radar—or even the Last Thursday sight line, for that matter.
"The show's based on real people who have their own form and style, rather than traditional gallery standards," says Wallace, a New Orleans-born military brat who moved to Portland in 2000. "I love the fact that the whole thing happened in the same way I live my life: synchronicity and positive thinking—if you constantly have ideas in your head, you're gonna find somebody to facilitate them."
Wallace, who took out a loan to work full time on the Mississippi project, somehow projects both a laid-back skater-boy persona and the hyper-caffeinated, fast-talking confidence of an up-and-comer. He's gathered 34 artists for the show, including WW cartoonist John Callahan (who will contribute six drawings of female nudes) and Julian Ansell, who has created a menagerie of golemlike creatures out of Sculpey polymer clay—during my walk-through, Ansell took one of the creatures out of its metal holding pen and repeatedly referred to it as "her" and "she."
The former bowling alley and textile factory is huge, allowing each of the little-known artists to commandeer a 10-by-10-foot space, if not more. Alisha Wessler has created an installation that looks like the Dagoba System as reimagined in papier-mâché in an alcove suspended above the warehouse's vast main floor, while Eric Lowenstein has fabricated three 16-foot-tall cargo boxes, which he calls "Fresh Produce Silos." In another elaborately constructed environment, artist Flavio Matsuo says he has "taken the game of basketball out of context and reintroduced it in a way that transforms it into a meditative mantra." Visitors to the show will be able to interact with the pieces by crawling into Jacob Sanders' multimedia snake hole and contributing their own graffiti to the warehouse's restroom.
For his part, Wallace himself has broken out the aerosol and painted a giant graffiti piece called Alphabet Manipulation. Forty-three feet long and 23 feet tall (about the size of a movie-theater screen), it deals with what the artist calls "a history of typography, which shows an evolution of iconic language." It looks invigorating, a jaunty blend of graphic design and graffiti styles. Over the course of the last three weeks, Wallace has built up layers of color, letters and shapes on the wall only to paint over then again and again. The final mural is actually the 23rd layer of paint.
The arts group putting on Mississippi: May had some logistical help from Portland Art Center's Gavin Shettler, an old hand at mounting massive art shows. Shettler, one of the forces behind 2003's Modern Zoo in St. Johns, counseled the group on the dos and don'ts of large-scale projects and arranged for PAC to donate two truckloads of equipment, including wall-building materials and lighting grids. "It's awesome to see other groups out there taking on large temporary exhibits," Shettler says. "Joshua has really talked to the right people to pull this together and get donations—he's definitely got the enthusiasm and the panache to do it."
As well as a P.T. Barnumlike gift for hyperbole, apparently. "When people leave here," Wallace says with a confidence that manages not to come across as cocky, "I want people to be fully shaken to the core and be like, 'Oh my God, I can't believe that!'" With plans already hatched to curate future shows in other warehouses, Wallace and his compatriots have proven they can raise expectations, but time will tell if they can also raise the bar—and sustain a DIY platform that not only has pizzazz, but substance and staying power, too.