This summer I am living in Portland, OR while working with the Portland Street Art Alliance (PSAA), funded by the Liberal Arts in the Workplace grant. PSAA is a small non-profit organization that was made to create, support, and advocate for street art in the city. Muralism and graffiti are often just as political as they are artistic, and unlike many other forms of art, can carry heavy punishments if done without the proper permitting. PSAA promotes street art by helping artists legally display their work, protecting them and their art, educating the community through bike tours and outreach, and conducting community projects involving murals.
My work this summer focuses on two projects in the Belmont District of southeast Portland, a historic neighborhood also called “Sunnyside.” Every year for the past 20 years residents of the neighborhood come out to repaint an intersection known as Sunnyside Piazza. The design, an intricate sunflower based off of Fibonacci geometry, is repainted every year with the same colors and pattern but with a different center image. During the long weekend one day was open to the community, where my tasks included a lot of child monitoring and paint distributing. There were people painting who had contributed for years, knowing a lot more about the painting and neighborhood than I did. The two other days were much more mellow, as it was just PSAA a smaller group of volunteers working to clean and prepare the space and later give it the finishing touches. Throughout the weekend it was incredible how much positive feedback from the community we received. People from the neighborhood walking by thanked us for the work we were doing to the intersection and were excited to see the sunflower retouched. Among the members of the neighborhood, there were also people walking through from other parts of the city, as well as those visiting Portland. It was so fun talking with people as I worked about the history of the intersection, PSAA, and the neighborhood. Admittedly it was a little odd being a representative for the project and the organization after having been there for only a week, but I also learned a lot from chatting with people passing by. At the intersection there is also a cob structure kiosk, which serves as a public space to share community postings, art, news, and events. There is also a space to share books, canned foods, clothes and more. It is inspiring to see a community give so much care to piece of art like this one, and on the other end, to see a piece of art bring together so many people.
The second part of my summer involves planning for an upcoming mural project in the same neighborhood, a few blocks from the Piazza. The Keep on the Sunnyside mural is a 100 foot long wall divided up into 10 wooden panels. In these ten sections, there will be a display of the history of the area including the peoples who have lived there and the local landmarks and business that have been established. A large portion of my work is dedicated to researching the Sunnyside neighborhood, focusing largely on the history of marginalized people in the area. We will be reaching out to people in the community looking for testimonies to share on the mural project website, visiting retirement homes, a homeless shelter, and a Native American community center.
Since it is such a small organization, acquiring funding is difficult. For example, while paint and supplies might be covered by grants from the city, artist labor and other costs are not always considered. This makes fundraising and outreach another big part of my work. Specifically with the mural, I am reaching out to businesses in the area and in relative fields. The response from individuals and businesses proves that mural projects such as this one truly are of and for the community.
An important part of this project was to work on securing a non-profit discount with a company that creates a special protective coating for murals. The shield is made up of two products and is used both to protect the paint from UV rays with a polyurethane coating, and protect the mural from graffiti with a layer of wax. If someone tags the mural with pen or spray paint, it can be power washed away with the wax layer, while keeping the underlying mural safe. A few weeks ago I got to see it in action, as I helped scrape off a tag that was made on the oldest mural in Portland, thankfully saved by this coating. While I’ve seen how important it is to protect murals from graffiti and tags, I’ve also had the opportunity to see and further understand the other side of the story. I’m learning how valuable it is for street artists to have a space to make their art, free from persecution or punishment. Like many crimes, the punishment graffiti artists face often exceeds the offense.
It has been incredibly eye opening learning about art of this sort, and the distinct problems that arise from it. PSAA works so hard to protect the artists that help make the city so intriguing, all while creating art for everyone. It is inspiring to work with a group of such passionate people.