Illustrations and text by Carye Bye.
My name is Carye Bye and I make my living as an artist.
My work comes in many forms—some of it I get paid for and some I just do because it makes me happy.
You may know my wood-block prints of Portland's bridges or animals on bicycles, which I create in my one-person print shop called Red Bat Press.
Some know me as the Museum Lady or from the Hidden Portland for the Curious project, a 13,000-strong Facebook group where I encourage exploring the city as a museum. Or you may have donned a pair of bunny ears and rode in the Bunny on a Bike ride, which I led. Perhaps you attended one of the events I helped organize—printing, publishing, crafting, art-selling. And maybe some of you are meeting me for the first time today.
Until a few years ago, it looked like Portland could be my forever home. But Portland isn't an option for me anymore, thanks to the recent explosion of people, rising rents and the loss of character—the speedy chopping down of trees and demolition of modest older homes to build more huge, boxy houses without yards.
This has happened to me before. I'm from Minneapolis. Before moving to Portland, I tried living in San Francisco. It was a beautiful struggle from start to finish. In 18 months of living by the Bay, I wasn't making my ends meet. And when rent for my shared storefront apartment went from $900 to $1,500 on one month's notice, it was time to move on. But to where? More than once I had been told, "You look like you're from Portland."
I didn't know it yet, but I had arrived during Portland's magic hour, a golden era of affordability and creativity that started in the late 1990s and lasted through the first decade of the millennium.
I arrived without a car and took public transportation. MAX went only two places: Hillsboro or Gresham. The Red Line to the airport was just about to open. The bus mall on 5th and 6th avenues downtown used a brown beaver and purple raindrops as symbols.
Portland was still an obscurity between Seattle and San Francisco. Tres Shannon's X-Ray Cafe was closed and his next project, Voodoo Doughnut, was a few years from opening.
My favorite place to spend free time was the Indie Triangle Block, a collection of quirky book, thrift and vintage shops off Burnside Street, between Northwest 9th and 10th avenues. There was a coffee shop with a Dolly Parton record above the door and read-as-you-wish zines hanging above a long table with stools.
Catty-corner from Powell's, the DIY scene was abuzz at the toddler-aged Independent Publishing Resource Center, which is now on Southeast Division Street. Within a year, Zoobombers would leave their own mark on the block, permanently locking up their little bikes outside Rocco's Pizza, which is now Sizzle Pie.
Up in North Portland, where I found my first shared house, I saw rapid change. In my first year living off North Albina Avenue near Killingsworth Street, the neighborhood lost many houses, an old theater acting as a church, and a discount grocery store as the community college expanded.
One time a friend came to visit, and we wanted pizza for dinner, so we called the closest place, a chain a few miles away on Portland Boulevard—now Rosa Parks Way. They wouldn't deliver to Albina. In the next two to three years, five nonchain pizza restaurants opened nearby.
Portland wasn't going to hand me a job in the arts when I arrived. One job I applied for let me know I was one of 300 candidates. So I fell back on what I'd done back home in Minneapolis: office temp work. I worked with a lot of smaller independent companies and nonprofits such as White Bird Dance and Cascade AIDS Project.
In my spare time I made art.
Building on my printmaking background and the letterpress printing course I took in San Francisco, I became a regular at the IPRC print shop and began a series of postcard art featuring animals with captions in a children's-book style.
My third art postcard was Bunny on a Bike. My inspiration wasn't the local bike scene—I hadn't found that yet—but a Chinese harmonica decorated with biking animals. Perhaps it was a preamble to the work I do now via the Hidden Portland Project: reminding people to be curious and notice the little details, like that bunny, that come across their paths every day. Later, the Bunny on a Bike grew into performance art and bike activism—cleverly disguised as Bike Fun.
Oregon is for dreamers—or, at least, entrepreneurs.
The IPRC gave me the tools to create new art. Alberta Street's Last Thursday art walk gave me a place to sell it.
An artist friend invited me to sell, and I was hooked. I was a regular during the warmer months for the next five years.
I even tried to expand to the westside during First Thursday in the Pearl, but the galleries opposed that.
One thing we all thought would make the scene on Alberta better was closing the street to cars because the sidewalks would bottleneck as more and more people arrived. But when the streets closed to cars, my sales suddenly dropped.
Instead of walking by my meager table setup, potential buyers moved to the street, where performers and new restaurants attracted their attention and money.
I was still happy to see it flourish and morph—that's how artistic projects work.
Last Thursday, the IPRC and the DIY arts-and-crafts scene had all given me inspiration and opportunity. And I made a livelihood out of it.
I'd been going by my "art name" from college, Carye the Bee, but decided on Red Bat Press, remembering a whimsical hand-printed paper kite I picked up in San Francisco's Chinatown. From the beginning, the basis of my press has been hand-printed and hand-painted wood-block-printed postcards and cards.
Red bats symbolize luck.
I like to think I was lucky, but I also believe being an artist takes a lot of hard work. When I began, I had very little confidence. But I liked making art and expressing myself, so I kept doing it. I made contacts at stores, and kept making sales and getting custom clients. It took six years, but I went from full-time temp to part-time temp and then to full-time art.
My breakthrough was a postcard series on the 10 bridges of the Willamette. Until this point, I hand-printed and in many cases hand-painted every postcard I printed. I outsourced the printing of the entire series because it had gotten so popular I couldn't keep up.
Unfortunately, I chose the wrong partner to print my work. That cost me almost an entire summer of selling. It was a difficult period in which I had to learn to give up complete control but also find trustworthy collaborations.
I couldn't just pay as I went by printing small editions anymore. For several years, I let my business have debt on a credit card, but that was a vicious cycle. Eventually I asked stores if they would order more postcards upfront to help me pay off the printing. They did!
Here's the surprising thing I learned about Portland retail: Smaller stores took a larger risk and bought way more pieces than larger ones.
In 2011, I made a new leap: renting a solo studio space in the Central Eastside Industrial District.
When I moved in, there wasn't yet a streetcar connection to downtown. The building across the street was a storage facility for a local company, and nearby Taylor Electric Supply, which had been gutted by fire, was a popular graffiti spot. Now, a two-loop streetcar route travels across a new transit bridge, and a new building is emerging from the ashes of Taylor Electric. The district is alive in many positive ways.
My studio is great. Many of my suppliers and stores are close, which makes it easy for me to pick up or deliver by bike. Also, it has sturdy floors for heavy drawers of metal type and good ventilation—not easy to find. And it has a ground-floor space, instead of requiring me to schlep up several flights of stairs.
But there's a lot of pressure to change.
Over the summer, I got an email with bad news from a letterpress printing friend whose studio was at Towne Storage, one the most vibrant and affordable studio buildings for working artists in Portland. The year before, two locations in the building were on the Printdustrial tour, an event where I started to bring together all the hidden publishers and printers lurking in the district.
My friend said we needed to visit her press because she'd soon have to vacate: "The building will be gutted and turned into fancy condos because Portland definitely needs more of those."
Artists are valuable to a city. If you destroy their communities block by block and do away with affordable work spaces, you're losing character.
I'm not just an artist and tour guide. I also curate bathtub art.
The Bathtub Art Museum is over a decade old and began with an online museum and big art show on Alberta. The centerpiece of that show was an antique metal tub borrowed from A-Ball Plumbing Supply (RIP). In the pockets of a clear shower curtain hung a collection of mail art.
I also keep track of all the odd little museums in town like the 3D Center for Art & Photography (closed in 2011) and Kidd's Toy Museum, and since 2007 I've printed brochures and guide books and also led many bike and walking tours.
My biggest project, the Hidden Portland Library, has hundreds of books, articles and objects—including a piece of PDX carpet of course. When I move, I have no idea who to pass these projects on to—in my mind, this collection belongs to the city, not to me.
And I'm also active in the cycling community.
In 2004, I organized and led the Bunny on a Bike ride on Easter Sunday. I had discovered the Shift bike scene and was meeting all sorts of people eager to create what's known as Bike Fun.
More than 40 people wearing homemade bunny ears showed up to my inaugural ride.
Shift is also responsible for Pedalpalooza—a three-week festival of bike fun (secretly bike activism) every June. After the first Bunny on a Bike ride, I was hooked.
Some of my favorite rides: the Twin Spin (everyone came with a doppelgänger), the Short Shorts Scandinavian Pride Ride, the Oregon Sesquicentennial Ride (with Seski the Sasquatch, Oregon's sesquicentennial mascot, in a pedicab) and Sven Sparkle & Greta Glitter's Silver and Gold Mobile Dance Party.
There's just no better way to get out and see the city—I've been saying this for years: Go by bike!
Good citizens are the riches
of a city. —Inscription on the Skidmore Fountain.
If you look into Portland and Oregon history, you learn that we just do things differently. We're big on civic pride and making our home great.
That goes all the way back to Dr. John McLoughlin, the "Father of Oregon" (and my historical crush—swoon!), a British subject who disobeyed orders of his employer, the Hudson's Bay Company, and helped hungry and needy American settlers.
To me, that's the spirit of a true Oregonian.
Where did it go?
When I arrived in Portland, there seemed to be a sense we were underdogs with a secret: a beautiful lush, human-scale authentic city with careful planning and so many good citizens.
Today, Portland feels like a theme-park version of itself.
I can’t remember seeing such an outpouring of love for anyone not dead yet. You are very much appreciated here. —Barron of the Church O’ Fun in an email to me.
Portland, I am just getting going!
Except, oh yeah, I can't afford to live here anymore.
There's no other choice for me but to say goodbye to the city that has wooed me, but also let me down.
Let's talk about rent. I can't believe how fast rents went from reasonable to are-you-kidding?
Other people say they're glad they bought a house or wish they had. I like to rent and don't think I should be punished for that—renting doesn't mean I'm not invested in my community.
Until four years ago, I had been paying $400 a month for a room in a house with a studio space. I nearly doubled my monthly rent when I moved to an apartment in the basement of a house and rented an outside studio. The rent has gone up 60 percent in those four years—really not so unfair given what we were paying for two people and utilities, but still astounding.
My husband and I have been thankful for our little apartment in a beautiful tree-lined neighborhood, but we also live out of a dorm fridge and have one tiny window. When we looked at options for other apartments, our costs would suddenly nearly double what we're paying now. We were stuck.
Now, we're not stuck. We've been told to vacate the apartment so a family member of the owner can move in next month.
That news came right after my husband and I made the decision to leave Portland because options for close-in affordable rentals with a grassy patch for a garden and our outdoor cat have become so in-demand that landing one is like a contest. I already lived that life in San Francisco. No thanks. Rent should be no more than one-third of your income. Once it's half, you won't survive.
The arts scene, too, has changed since I arrived.
There's a new high-end maker scene. I'm not opposed to the work these artists are doing. But what I notice about today's artists is, many work, work and work and don't get as much time to wander the city or spend time giving back.
One experience that made me think twice about the art scene was when a local "hub" of makers drastically raised the fee for their holiday sale. It was $50 the first year, then $75 the second. The third year, the fee skyrocketed to $300. I sell items with a price range of $3.50 to $12. How am I going to earn the show fee back and make a profit in 11 hours of selling?
I didn't expect much when I showed up in Portland 15 years ago. What I found is amazing community—not one massive community, but small circles of people doing cool stuff.
Many of us could live close in, and our rent was reasonable, so we had time for our projects that involve collaboration. Many of the side projects I've done have had a small audience, but some have grown bigger than I ever imagined: By its 10th and final year, the Bunny on a Bike ride had 150 to 200 riders.
My Facebook group Hidden Portland for the Curious, which was originally a personal project, gets 50 new-member requests a day. Many actively share their finds, creating a growing archive of people-made and natural curiosities.
I'm not dumping Portland. I love the city too much. But what I learned from my brief time in San Francisco is that there's a line between swimming and sinking.
I'm starting to feel myself get soggy.
I built my career slowly over time, but Portland's cost of living changed too fast for me to keep up. If I stayed, chances are my savings would be blown to make up. I've worked too hard and have gained certain freedoms—like not having a boss.
Rather than move to the outskirts of my muse, I've decided I'd rather find another.
Early next year, I'm heading to Texas.
That's right. And not our sister in weirdness—I'm going to San Antonio.
I hope they don't already have a Museum Lady.
I have heard they have some pretty sweet missions.