No art form tells the story of Portland right now like our murals. Our brick walls are vision boards and the chalkboards of an al fresco history classroom.
Purple llamas watch over a gentrifying Southeast Foster Road. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery gaze onto Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard from the multicolor patchwork corner at Failing Street. Working Kirk Reeves smiles gently down Grand Avenue, rainbow staff lines adorned with half notes at his back.
If graffiti hints at the ways in which our city fractured during the pandemic, public art holds us together. It’s comforting to realize that so many Portlanders, who might otherwise never know the stories these images tell, pass under them each day. Reeves watches over people who never heard a note from his trumpet.
“It’s accessible to us all,” says Kristin Calhoun, director of public art for the Regional Arts & Culture Council, the Portland nonprofit providing funding to many of the artists and orgs responsible for the city’s murals. Alex Chiu, whose work adorns several public buildings, found his motive for making art changing: “Rather than making art for my own self-expression, I realized the importance of making art that resonated with the people that were going to see it on a regular basis.”
And new, large-scale works celebrating Portland’s communities, mythologies, legacies and potential keep going up across each quadrant. There’s even a mural project for the ‘burbs.
Consider these five developments in the past six months:
• The nonprofit Portland Street Art Alliance partnered with Portland muralist and community organizer Jaymeer to organize the painting of a hypercolor, collaborative graffiti wall at 66 SE Morrison St. honoring Jason Brown, the late streetwear guru and organizer whose advocacy work pushed Portland to loosen its restrictive mural laws.
• Anyone whose commute follows MLK is probably familiar with Fresh Paint, a temporary mural program from Open Signal and the RACC that presents work by different local muralists on the center’s west-facing wall on wall between Northeast Graham and Knott streets. Currently on display is Growth by Jerome Sloane, a son of Irvington who began working in the 1980s. Two hands with vines wrapped around them reach up towards the sun, and abstract letters spell the word “growth” in an alphabet created by Jerome and executed in the style that he developed growing up in the neighborhood.
• Travis Fields, aka Campographic, completed a two-story spray-painted mural on Blanchet House on Northwest Glisan Street to commemorate the organization’s 70 years of meal services. It depicts longtime breakfast volunteer Stacee Scott serving steaming plates piled high.
• Chiu unveiled his newest public work, located at the People’s Food Co-op on Southeast 21st Avenue and installed just in time for October Fair Trade Month. It’s a portrait of Deborah Osei-Mensah, a cocoa farmer from Ghana who plays a key role in the Asunafo Cocoa Farmers union.
• The next eye-catching mural might come from a program on the other side of the West Hills. Going Public is a partnership of the city of Hillsboro, TriMet, Miller Paint, and RACC wherein a cohort of emerging BIPOC muralists are paired with established Portland muralists to create a whole new slate of public works. The program is designed to support emerging muralists by providing not only mentorship and workshops, but also the opportunity to create a mural on one of the donated spaces.