Portland is known as a livable city where artists flock to precious sidewalk cafes to discuss Culture vs. Commerce, and where bands that make Important and Influential music replicate at a rate of eight per second. That image isn't the result of a well-orchestrated public-relations campaign (if it is, someone's pulling see-through strings.) No, Portland's reputation, disseminated in national magazines and bandied about in college dorms, was built on both fact and willful ignorance. The fact that drooled-over, groundbreaking artists (see Gus Van Sant, Chuck Palahniuk, Sleater-Kinney et al.) made it here and chose to stay is more effective than a neon "Portland is for Lovers" billboard in Times Square. The fact that the median price for a two-bedroom rental space in Portland is $779 per month compared to San Fran's $1,848 speaks for itself. But here are some facts that seem to be overlooked by the incoming who dream of this city's perceived Left Bank je ne sais quoi: Portland has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country; it's the whitest big city in America; and its meager population of just over half a million means it can be hard to find an audience sometimes.
The following are profiles of some recent artistic immigrants who've come to Portland's shores. Some came because of the city's reputation; some just found themselves here. Through their stories, we can see the various dimensions of Portland's artistic environment.
EXiLE iN WHiTeSViLLe
ARTIST damali ayo TAKES THE RACE.
damali ayo (she spells it lowercase because she likes the way it looks)
FIELD: Visual arts and theater.
HOW LONG IN PDX: Five years.
NEIGHBORHOOD: Has lived in every quadrant; now calls Northeast home.
ORIGINALLY FROM: Washington, D.C.
HATES MOST ABOUT PORTLAND: When white women with dreadlocks call her "sister."
LOVES MOST ABOUT PORTLAND: Says she can think well here.
STUDIO: A room in the Pearl District's Carleton/Hart Architecture Firm.
DAY JOB: New Renaissance bookshop.
Put on the earphones. Push play. A cartoonish white girl offers a litany of questions in Valley-speak: "It's just like regular hair? Can you go to the same salon as we go to? Do they know how to cut your hair?"
As you listen for 10 more minutes to this art installation called "white noise," you look at dreadlocked hair hanging on the wall. The former wearer of these displayed locks and creator of this piece is damali ayo, an African-American woman who, in five short years, has gone from self-taught "junk artist" to a sought-after conceptual artist showing confrontational race-based work in the Pearl District's trendy Mark Woolley gallery and in Portland Institute for Contemporary Art's exclusive Northwest Narrative show.
It is a career many Pacific Northwest College of Art grads strive for and some achieve in twice the time. How did ayo get so far so fast? She credits what she calls "Portland moments," little flashes of inspiration in which she envisions her next artistic development, then realizing that goal through dedicated persistence.
She moved to Portland on whim: All she knew about the city was that it rained a lot and it was whiter than tuna salad on Wonder Bread. At the end of the day, it's this cultural shock that has provided her inspiration.
In her short career, ayo has compared Mickey Mouse's visage to Al Jolson's blackface, handed out nametags at her shows reading "Hello, My Race is...," deconstructed the lyrics of the Rolling Stones song "Brown Sugar" onto sugar packets, and made a quilt using photographs of celebrities with whom her looks are often compared. (Her work at Mark Woolley usually runs $200-$500 a piece.)
"A lot of this work has been in me for a long time, because I've been in the white system a long time," says the Brown University grad, though she attributes her recent productivity to her overwhelming reaction to being immersed in such a white city. Though its racial makeup is not unique, ayo believes that Portland in particular lives "in a kind of delayed politic...all the communities that I've met are still dealing with issues that I dealt with 10 years ago." Ironically, the very culture ayo exposes as ignorant via her artwork has embraced and celebrated her creations. As curator Mark Woolley notes, ayo's status as a relative newcomer to Portland has given her the ability to "pick up sub-themes of community life."
Portland moments seem to be coming more frequently for ayo. She is one of the founders of the defunkt theatre company, which specializes in contemporary and unproduced works, and she has taken on the local theater community for its racism. While ayo stands fiercely behind her views on racial politics, she doesn't let her convictions or frustrations taint how she feels about her art. "People think I'm always angry when I'm making stuff, and I'm never angry. I'm having a blast."
Although ayo is starting to land her work outside of this city, showing as far away as New York, she plans to stay in one of the whitest cities in the country for the time being. While other artists may feel constrained by Portland's small size, ayo finds both the accessibility and the friction just what she needs. "I'm still shaking Portland up a bit," she says. "I guess I'm not entirely finished doing that." --Kim Colton
LiViNG THe RoCK CLiCHé
Intern extraordinaire JAMES BUONANTUONO is ALMOST FAMOUS.
NAME: James Buonantuono
HOW LONG IN PDX: Four months and counting.
NEIGHBORHOOD: The over-priced and underwhelming Alberta so-called Arts District.
ORIGINALLY FROM: New York via Washington, D.C., where I attended college.
HATES MOST ABOUT PORTLAND: The abundance of former liberal arts majors, much older than I, who are also unemployed.
LOVES MOST ABOUT PORTLAND: Hard work
can be rewarded.
STUDIO: At the behest of our neighbors, citing "rocking too hard" as a major concern, we are looking for both housing and practice space.
DAY JOB: Slave to this newspaper as an unpaid intern. Free coffee, though.
I've just been "relieved" of my duties as a servant of an eastside "gourmet" pizzeria. My housemates and I are on the verge of eviction from our house near Alberta due to multiple noise violations. For the last three months, we haven't had heat. There is a padlock on our garage without a key, so every Monday our band, ršck cliché (yes, this really is the name), hauls our oversized equipment up from the basement, through the house, and back down the front stoop to load it into our 1991 Honda Accord, the stereo of which was stolen a month ago. We then drive all of six blocks to the Medicine Hat Gallery, where we are the closing act playing for a taciturn open-mic crowd. We don't get paid. A few people actually clap.
Why would my bandmates and I trade in the flashy, run-and-dunk style of New York for Portland's fundamentally sound bounce passing? Like many others, we envisioned this city as a bohemian urban commune: art, intellectualism and collectivism. I would spend my days writing music and sipping coffee, and my nights making sweet, sweet jungle love under the stars with a sardonic, beautiful Northwestern female, with discussions of Sartre as pillow talk.
The four of us had the audacity to believe that Portland would drool over us, propelling ršck cliché to the forefront of a musical vanguard. Portland had allure: cheaper than New York, with quick accessibility to other West Coast cities.
The reality is harsh: I'm not a vegan, a lesbian or a punk. Sometimes I don't recycle, and I drive like a Manhattan cabby. All the packaging in the world isn't going to get me a job or help me pass a credit check. I'm pretty sure that everyone in Portland is in a band and that they're playing tonight and that they're cooler and better than we are. Is there enough room in Portland for a band that sounds like David Byrne's sister's band listening to a scratched copy of Slanted and Enchanted filtered through a dirty litter box? I hope so. At least I could get work as a barely paid, adjective-happy rock critic.
It isn't all bad. The precariousness of life on the margins is perfect inspiration for a band. We are already generating a slight following, and while I can reel off the names (first and last) of each member of that following, it has happened quickly. We've just finished recording our first demo and have eased into the business of music--i.e., marketing, press kits and recording, all with Martha Stewart-like patience and amicability. While our love affair might be short (the more anxious members of ršck cliché are looking back at New York in earnest), I know I'm finally beginning to understand this city. It may hurt, but the pleasure is within reach. -- James Buonantuono
Two established bands--PLEASURE FOREVER AND THE SHINS--move to the city that works.
NAME: Pleasure Forever
AGE: "Old enough to drink, too old to draft."
FIELD: Crazed, keyboard-heavy punk soaked in Weimar Berlin-esque decadence.
HOW LONG IN PDX: Four months.
ORIGINALLY FROM: San Francisco.
HATES MOST ABOUT PORTLAND: The rain.
LOVES MOST ABOUT PORTLAND: "PBR. It's cheap and easy to find at bars and convenience stores."
STUDIO: "We practice where we live, a major reason for moving here."
DAY JOB: Besides writing for WW, negative.
NAME: The Shins/James Mercer
AGE: Mercer is 31, Jesse Sandoval is 28.
FIELD: Spangly, shiny '60s-ish Brit-like pop.
HOW LONG IN PDX: "Since late August. I've been on tour quite a bit, so it doesn't seem very long at all."
NEIGHBORHOOD: "I'm on the hill above John's Landing in Southwest. Jesse is over by Southeast Holgate and 34th."
ORIGINALLY FROM: Albuquerque, N.M.
HATES MOST ABOUT PORTLAND: "Honestly, it would be hard for me to say anything at this point. Even the rain doesn't bother me too much--
it's kind of new to me, y'know, to live somewhere where it rains."
LOVES MOST ABOUT PORTLAND: "Aesthetically, I think the town is just really pretty. I think that's what thrills me the most about Portland so far."
STUDIO: Where we live.
DAY JOB: "I'm work-free. Jesse is working as a children's counselor for the state."
Neither the Census Bureau nor the Forest Service tags and tracks migrating musicians. But anecdotal evidence--ask a club booking agent--suggests that some unquantifiable nexus of economics, reputation, location and culture is, right now, drawing 'em to Portland in droves.
It's not hard to see why an unproven band from Anchorage or Idaho might make a big-city play in PDX. Compared to Seattle or San Francisco, rent is cheap--the Northwest's prolonged economic spasm, perversely, helps in this department. Live venues, independent record stores and small studios abound.
What's less obvious is why bands already, to a certain extent, established would move to Portland. Take Pleasure Forever and the Shins, two nationally known bands signed to Seattle's legendary Sub Pop Records. Rolling Stone gave the Shins a three-star review, and Cleveland Scene called Pleasure Forever "exceedingly grandiose and ambitious." Recent relocations to Rose City have something to do with the factors cited above, but more to do with the particular needs of each band.
Many hubris-ridden, artsy, new arrivals see Portland as a city ripe for conquest and re-education--and end up seeing their mouths write the proverbial check their asses can't cash. The three members of Pleasure Forever and Shins' singer-songwriter James Mercer seem more interested in what the city offers their respective agendas, rather than what their agendas offer the city.
"I didn't move here to be part of any scene, really," says Pleasure Forever singer-keyboardist Andy Rothbard, whose yowling vocals and louche piano flourishes cap the band's decadent, self-titled album from 2001. "I moved here to lower my profile a little bit and really focus on getting our next album written."
Rothbard, guitarist Josh Hughes and drummer Dave Clifford (who writes for WW's music section) have all found digs in Southeast Portland's Brooklyn neighborhood, where they live and rehearse at rates undreamed of in San Francisco, the hyper-inflated cashpit they left in mid-January.
"Here, we can practice in a house, not pay $300 a month for a practice space we have to share with another band," Rothbard says.
If Portland is home base--PF has played local clubs frequently since its move--it barely feels like home yet. The band's various tours have eaten up about 10 months of the past year.
"I've never been in a band that was big in any particular local scene, because we've always toured so much," says Hughes. "Only pretty recently did I start to feel like people in San Francisco really even knew who we were."
If Pleasure Forever's road addiction--the trio's on tour again as you read this--makes roots anywhere tenuous at best, consider the Shins' "long-distance relationship." Guitarist-singer James Mercer and drummer Jesse Sandoval moved to Portland last August, while keyboardist Marty Crandall and bassist Neal Langford stayed in the band's native Albuquerque. According to Mercer, the warm reception given the band's Brit-poppy 2001 album, Oh, Inverted World, made this unusual arrangement possible.
"The band's success kind of freed me up," he says. "I guess it doesn't sound very logical--it's sort of the reverse of what stereotypically happens."
Mercer echoes some of Pleasure Forever's vision of Portland as a congenial base for a national career, rather than an object for takeover in and of itself.
"It's a good-lookin' town," Mercer says. "People are really friendly. Most of my friends have already moved here, anyway, so I figured, why not?" --Zach Dundas
JaNiToRIaL WArS, SiCK HiLLBILLieS AnD NOVeLTY MoUSTACHeS
FILMMAKER David Potter FINDS PORTLAND architecturally sound.
NAME: David Potter
HOW LONG IN PDX: About four months.
ORIGINALLY FROM: Santa Monica, Calif.; born in Texas.
HATES MOST ABOUT PORTLAND: "Nothing."
LOVES MOST ABOUT PORTLAND: "It's very green."
DAY JOB: Freelance video editor.
Oh, the things people get up to when they have a lot of free time and a lot of film. David Potter, for instance, likes to gather a gang of his buddies and shoot "sometimes crude, sometimes bizarre"--and always head-scratchingly absurd--short films, including Beef Summer, a hicksploitation meditation on shotgun-toting, dentally damaged rednecks with a taste for bourbon and squirrel pussy. Troma Studios' Lloyd Kaufman called it, with typical tongue-in-cheek flippancy, "the best short film about the glorious Redneck-Beer conflict that I have ever seen." There was also Moustache 47 (miscellaneous hijinks of a Fu Manchu'd spy squad) and Weed Masters III (an extended, soundless montage of costumed nutballs toking up and joking around). Potter then compiled them on his indescribable brainstew of a website, www.speefnarkle.com--which features, among other lowbrow nuggets, a pin-the-moustache-on-Hervé-Villechaize animated "game" called Stash Blaster 4000--and a DIY new DVD titled The Speefnarkle Collection.
But that was during his days in sunny Santa Monica. In rainswept Portland since the beginning of 2002, this freelance-video-editor-by-trade just wrapped filming on his newest venture into twisted humor and vulgarity: Kobok Six. The feature-length movie was shot on a 16mm camera leased from the Northwest Film Center ("[they] gave me a really good deal," he says) and the plot, according to its creator, is about good janitors and evil janitors. The national janitorial games are coming up, and the evil janitors want to get the sponsorships and plush janitorial jobs that the national champions get. Currently Kobok and Saxon (the good janitors) are the national champs, living the good life. Hog Balls and Wino Jim (the evil janitors) are busy spiking the good janitors' coffee so they won't perform well in the games.
Potter flew his usual crew, the Speefnarkle Players, up from SoCal specifically for the shoot, which spurs the question: Why film it in Portland, rather than Santa Monica? No, he's not following Alexakis. In addition to naming the common reasons many come to town (cheap rent, relaxing atmosphere, access to nature and "a ton of creative people"), Potter says, "I'm into filming hillbilly scenes and also '70s action stuff, and the architecture here is good for that." So there you have it--toothless hicks and mustachioed detectives, too, can find their ideal home right here in Stumptown. Michael Graves, eat yer postmodern heart out. --John Graham
Filmmaker JAMES WESTBY left Portland for HOLLYWOOD--and came back again.
NAME: James Westby
HOW LONG IN PDX: Six months. Prior to that, seven years.
NEIGHBORHOOD: Multnomah Village.
ORIGINALLY FROM: Washington state.
HATES MOST ABOUT PORTLAND: The lack of diversity and the scent of patchouli.
LOVES MOST ABOUT PORTLAND: The discount movie theaters
STUDIO: In his apartment.
DAY JOB: Editing a documentary for Portland-based filmmakers Byrd McDonald and Brian Johnson.
It's hard to believe that James Westby is a veteran in any capacity. Even with a few days' worth of stubble, he still looks more like a teenager than a seasoned filmmaker.
Ten years ago, Westby moved to Portland to study at the Northwest Film Center. He quickly dropped out, choosing instead to make Subculture, a drama he hasn't watched in almost eight years and is quick to dismiss as "a feature-length student film." He created two more films--the noir thriller Bloody Mary, which critic Roger Ebert called "a diabolical film noir in the tradition of Blood Simple," and the surreal, screwball comedy Anoosh of the Airways--before moving to Los Angeles nearly three years ago.
After doing everything in L.A., from reading scripts to subtitling movies for foreign release--except landing a three-picture deal--Westby moved back to Portland last November when he got a job editing the documentary Haunters, which exposes the subculture of people who create haunted-house attractions. Westby was introduced to the producers of Haunters by a mutual acquaintance. "Ironically, the best-paying film job I've had took me out of L.A. and brought me back here," he says.
Haunters will be completed in September--in time for a Halloween release. Rather than returning to Los Angeles, which he hopes to do within the next few years, Westby will continue to work on his latest project, Trois Artistes, a three-part series of shorts starring frequent collaborator Melik Malkasian, the person Westby describes as the "Divine to my John Waters."
After Trois Artistes, Westby plans to produce another feature film. "It's all about the resources here--the actors, the equipment, the locations. There's nothing you can't do, from making a movie to showing it in theaters," he says. Though Westby praises the opportunities and resources available to Portland filmmakers, including the Film Center and more independently owned theaters than San Francisco or New York, he claims the film community is weak. "There seems to be much more of a support network for other arts that is lacking in film," he says. "The film community here is fragmented. You've got people making commercials and experimental stuff, but no one is making narrative, feature-length films. And no one seems to be interested in pooling their collective resources and talents, or at least just supporting each other." --David Walker
BoY ON THe BubBLe
SUKH DEEP is an outsider in the RESTAURANT COMMUNITY.
NAME: Sukh Deep
FIELD: Culinary arts
HOW LONG IN PDX: 1 year, 3 months
NEIGHBORHOOD: Southeast, off of Hawthorne
ORIGINALLY FROM: Northern Virginia
HATES MOST ABOUT PORTLAND: The lack of nightlife and diversity.
LOVES MOST ABOUT PORTLAND: It's a city that's still developing, and it's cheap compared to Seattle and San Francisco.
STUDIO: His restaurant, Kalga Kafe, at 4147 SE Division St.
DAY JOB: Pushing samosas.
When I first interviewed Sukh Deep in January, he was a man consumed with his vision. He had just opened his first restaurant, Kalga Kafe, a culmination of Deep's artistic and financial dreams.
While some may wonder where a restaurateur fits in a group of more traditional artists, a few minutes spent with Deep leaves no doubt that he sees himself as an architect of sensual experience and the manager of a particular kind of dinner theater. In Kalga, a late-serving restaurant trafficking in organic, vegetarian food in an international array of styles, he's created a unique stage, a curved, candlelit space infused with otherworldly glamour.
During our first meeting, Deep spoke endlessly about the art, the music and the way dishes are plated. He was picky, down to the curtains, which he had local clothing designers Seaplane create for him. Kate Towers, one-half of Seaplane, says of Deep's restaurant, "Making something from scratch is an artform."
But the difference between Deep and other artists profiled here is that his work, by nature, is affected much more by the vagaries of commerce. In January, even as his restaurant wobbled on baby legs, Deep's eyes shone with excitement about plans for warehouse parties and other elaborate projects. I knew the realities of the restaurant world would hit him hard. Three months later, indeed, things have changed for Deep and Kalga.
Originally the restaurant was open until four in the morning, but so far Portland can't support this particular business model; now the place closes at midnight, and has just started testing lunch service. Early plans for bicycle delivery using Tupperware containers were shelved when the everyday demands of survival warranted more attention. And the biggest change is that Deep's family, who invested their life savings in the restaurant, moved to Portland from Virginia.
Deep and clan now all live together in a Hawthorne house. His father, a turbaned follower of the Sikh faith who immigrated from India before Deep was born, now works at the restaurant, using his background as a project analyst to help balance the books. While Deep's discussions now center more on things such as prep time and staffing issues, he describes the little things he's had to give up as "temporary sacrifices."
Deep, like many newcomers, says he really doesn't know why he came here. He lived in India for three years, and when he returned, friends coaxed him to Portland with talk of cheap rent and good food--two areas he actually says are lacking here compared to Richmond, Va., his last stateside home. One thing Portland would seem to offer, however, would be a community of creative chefs, purveyors and diners sharing Kalga's interests in sustainable agriculture and organic ingredients. Deep, however, seems too embroiled in the day-to-day operations of his own restaurant to plug into Portland's inner circle.
"I'm stuck outside the bubble," he says. And, because he's had to let much of his original staff go, he's also stuck in the kitchen, which he says he doesn't mind.
"It's the heart and soul of the restaurant," he says.
--Caryn B. Brooks
CITY THeSE LiTtLe ToWN DUeS
Artists IAN GREENFIELD and ABIGAIL PIERCE defend Portland's honor.
NAMES: Ian Greenfield and Abigail Pierce
AGE: Both 25
FIELD: Theater, visual arts.
HOW LONG IN PDX: A year and a half.
NEIGHBORHOOD: Hawthorne District.
ORIGINALLY FROM: Salem (Greenfield).
LOVES MOST ABOUT PORTLAND: The great outdoors.
HATES MOST ABOUT PORTLAND: The great outdoors tends to draw away weekend audiences.
STUDIO: Gatsby Building in the Pearl.
DAY JOBS: Greenfield is a freelance Web designer; Pierce works for Portland Nursery.
Ian Greenfield and Abigail Pierce left Vermont's Bennington College three years ago to strike out on their own. "It was assumed that once you left the college you would head to New York," says Pierce. "But it's so expensive there, and it's difficult to do your own work." So the couple moved to San Francisco, where Pierce, an artist and scenic designer, immediately found work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. They only managed to stay for four months. "We couldn't find any studio space to work in," Pierce says. "Much less anywhere to live," adds Greenfield.
A native of Salem, Greenfield suggested trying Portland, and within a matter of months after arriving they were on the way to becoming established. The two founded the Catamount Theatre with other Bennington friends (they have since renamed their company the Lightbox Studio), and staged a daring production of Brecht's Galileo, with Greenfield directing and Pierce performing and designing. Alone, Pierce had two critically acclaimed exhibits of her art at fringe galleries. "Some of our friends in New York became rather jealous of us," says Greenfield. "We can afford to do our own work here, while they are struggling."
Since then, Greenfield has staged a haunting production of Synge's Riders to the Sea in the couple's studio space in the Pearl District, and Pierce's simple but innovative set design picked up one of last year's Drammy theater awards. Their most recent project, Taps, showed Lightbox gathering strength as a company. This week, Lightbox launches a production of Sarah Kane's tough 4.48 Psychosis.
James Moore, the artistic director of defunkt, another adventurous new theater company, says, "Lightbox creates some of the most physically demanding theater works that I have seen in Portland."
On the day that I spoke with Greenfield and Pierce, they were elated to learn that Lightbox had just been granted nonprofit status.
"There's a cheap kind of dismissal I've found among some artists here," says Greenfield. "The idea that 'Oh, this is just Portland.' Portland's problem is that it continually compares itself to other cities, and often thinks it falls short. What's happening in Portland has validity, and doesn't need to be reflected off San Francisco or Seattle."
"Plus," adds Pierce, "just because you're here doesn't mean that Portland has to be it for you. We really want to use Portland as a base to create work that can travel. Some long-term Portland artists don't seem to realize that this is possible."
"There are dangers of becoming too comfortable here," Pierce cautions. "But Portland has given us many opportunities that we couldn't find elsewhere."