On an afternoon last week, before the Old Town reopening of local nonprofit p:ear,
local musician and volunteer Sarah Dougher
sat in a sawdust-riddled corner waiting for a Nike representative to drop off donated soccer equipment for the kids. The corner she was briefly relaxing in was hugged by books that will soon grow and reproduce to become a library rivaling that of many cash-strapped public schools; so appropriate for an organization that refuses to employ social work lingo, instead referring to the homeless youth it serves as “students.”
P:ear's distinction from other charitable organizations doesn't stop there. The nonprofit, whose acronym stands for Project: Education Art Recreation, provides some facets of the traditional needs of the homeless through referrals to shelter and drug rehabilitation agencies. But the organization gives off more of an art-school vibe than anything else, with field trips to local art galleries and music classes taught by local rock stars (The Decemberists' Chris Funk among them.) Not quite an alternative high school, but a step beyond a drop-in center, p:ear offers to build a bridge between two disparate worlds: Portland's arts community, and the streets.
“We believe that if your soul is being fed, then you're better off,” says Dougher when asked why the organization chooses to pass on art skills instead of some more directly marketable kind of job training. “Not everyone is going to leave p:ear and become self-employed,” she said, “but what kind of life do you want? Do you want just a job at a Carl's Jr.? Here a kid leaves with the pride of having been in an art show in a gallery.” The program's art classes also carry the potential of leading a homeless teen to college. Dougher related the story of a p:ear student of three years who recently started working as a house painter and moved into his own place with roommates. “He's been cranking out paintings this summer like nobody's business,” she said, adding that the young artist, Wells Wait, was finishing his first semester of classes at PNCA and may soon enroll full-time.
A week later, Wednesday, Sept. 3, at an event to celebrate the new gallery space, Wait's work hangs next to that of visiting adult artists. His work is defined and focused—psychedelic impressionism in neon— and two of his paintings have already sold before the opening. P:ear's transition coordinator Rodolfo Serna recently took Wait along as an assistant on a mural project. Serna speaks of Wait with an obvious gleam of pride in the shining student. He says he feels a closeness to the kids he works with here, and that while other youth social service agencies he worked for in the past were “too rigid,” at p:ear he says he can go beyond simply counseling the kids on their housing options.
Many kids who utilize p:ear's resources have a lot in common: homelessness and the string of troubles that accompany it, from drugs to health problems. But they're also young adults and teens, and like their peers, they are creative, many with an innate love of music and art. The new p:ear space gives them, free of charge, one of the largest and most equipped studios in town.
“There are discreet places within the larger space for activity to happen. In our old space, the music and photography areas were down the street in this freezing, asbestos-laden dump with no hot water and one electrical outlet,” remembers Dougher. “We didn't have a kitchen, and now we'll have an extensive nutrition and food education program in the fall.” Among other programs slated to begin at the new location are a writer's residency, during which professional writers can not only use the newly constructed “quiet room” as a place to crank out their novels, they can also expand their own learning by teaching workshops for the kids.
What's most interesting about the new space isn't its lack of toxic waste, It's the fact that every small part of the building, from its purchase and design to the drawers full of art supplies against the wall, represents a bridge of donation and volunteerism between p:ear and the rest of the city. At the preview gala, director Beth Burns stands before the crowd meticulously thanking the many contributors to the process: local architecture firm Sera and contracting company Fortis, both of whom donated the work done on the new space, are especially noted.
Year-round, p:ear is a neutral zone where the contemporary art world merges with public conscience. It makes sense that the new building lies on a boundary line blurred by proximity to both the Pearl District and downtown's homeless encampments. The marriage of the two worlds draws a lot of response from an art world often distant from political and social responsibility, and according to Dougher, it's because p:ear doesn't skimp on the art half. “Our reputation as a place that is both doing good, and has a fairly high aesthetic and high demands for art education, draws people who are interested in the use of art for social change,” she says.
PNCA President Tom Manley and Attorney General John Kroger each take the mic at the preview party, separately urging attendees to contribute to a $1.3 million drive to buy the new building. Nick Fish also addresses the crowd, joking that though he is “a little broke from my campaign, I'm writing a $250 check tonight.” Fish captains an odd pairing of interests as both vice chair of the Oregon Cultural Trust and as newly minted housing commissioner for Portland. He reminds the partygoers why they are here: “1,400 Portland citizens will sleep on the streets tonight. But what brings us here is that there are too many children lacking a roof over their heads.”
Even without basic comforts, the p:ear kids manage to create art that is, across the board, eloquent and true. A walk through the new gallery provides a checkerboard overview of the adult and student work jointly curated by Portland Art Center's Kelly Rauer and p:ear's Joy Cartier, and the works harmonize astonishingly together. To see Marylhurst adjunct professor Hayley Barker's ink and gouache splatterings, in which detailed limbs and features are uncomfortably blurred out of sight and the creatures seem caught off guard by their sudden and intimate exposure to the dolls that investigate them, is to access discomforts regularly felt by homeless teens. Nicole Eriko Smith's wall graphics in drippy black sumi ink portray twin beast-children living alone on clouds, the drawings are another window to kids who are always on display but never attended to or cared for.
But most haunting of all is the work of former p:ear student Rastus Coaltrain. The Juggler
shows two dirtied faces of the same street busker as he is tossing skulls into the air. In the charcoaled work, one of the juggler's heads stares at nothing in particular, mouthless, while the other cranes its neck toward the viewer as if to acknowledge or challenge. With a death lottery at flight in his hands, a morbid cycle repeats as we watch without intervening.
The artist, who was also slated to become an assistant muralist with p:ear's transition coordinator, died this summer in a river accident near Portland.
New p:earspectives opens tonight during First Thursday from 6-9 pm, and will be on display until October 24. The new p:ear building is located at 338 NW 6th Avenue. For more information, go to www.pearmentor.org.
Images courtesy of www.pearmentor.org.