Artists Who Fly Like Rocks

The Self-Taught Artist Fair opens Thursday at PNCA, expanding definitions and identities

September 7 is a big day in Portland arts and culture. Along with First Thursday festivities, which herald exhibition openings for many a gallery in the Pearl District, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art kicks off the 15th annual Time-Based Arts Festival with multiple (yes, multiple) performances and parties jam-packed into one evening. What a time to be in Portland! As the floodgates prepare to open with a barrage of visual art and performative offerings on Thursday evening, keep in mind a unique exhibition afoot at Pacific Northwest College of Art’s Commons Gallery: the Self-Taught Artist Fair: Flying Like a Rock.

The title of the exhibition, produced by The Center for Contemporary Art & Culture at PNCA and Public Annex, begs plenty of questions—for starters, what qualifies someone as a self-taught artist?

“Britney Spears,” by Dawn Westover, colored pencil and pen on paper, in the Self-Taught Artist Fair.

While, on the surface, it seems safe to assume that a self-taught artist is someone without any formal training, Public Annex’s Lara Ohland, the lead organizer on this exhibition, explains: “There have been a lot of questions, and I am continually trying to re-clarify for myself what this does mean.” As an artist with a level of formal training, Ohland emphasizes that she does not wish to be the “keeper to the definition,” noting instead, “I want to leave lots of space for people to choose their own identity in that.”

The STAF was initially developed by Columbia Care, but Public Annex’s team stepped in to see it through after Columbia Care lost funding for the project and walked away from it. An entirely volunteer-run nonprofit, Public Annex is made up of “artists, agriculturists, and activists concerned about accessibility issues which people with developmental disabilities encounter.” As a producing entity for the STAF, this focus has presented some interesting questions in the context of the exhibition.

Public Annex carefully considers accessibility needs for people with disabilities, but that’s not the whole story, Ohland says: “When people look into us and they see that we provide inclusive environments for people who experience disability, a lot of people have wondered if the show is exclusive to people who experience disability. And that’s not the case at all. A lot of what we try to do with Public Annex is create a space that is open community space. So…anybody feels they can show up.”

In essence, the STAF offers a point of access for people with and without disabilities to come into community and participate in creative engagement. This is what the organizers of Public Annex would call “a necessary step in creating a truly integrated society.” And thanks to sponsorship by PNCA, which donated space for the exhibition, Public Annex has been able to push STAF to fruition. “I feel honored that we’re able to help and that we’re able to showcase this work,” says Mack McFarland, director of the college’s Center for Contemporary Art & Culture, noting the reciprocal benefits for PNCA and Public Annex.

Untitled weaving, by Ricky Bearghost, synthetic and natural fibers with handmade ceramic beads.

The exhibition itself promises to feature work by both local artists and artists from other cities, including contributions of artwork from Creativity Explored in San Francisco; Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland; NIAD in Richmond, Calif.; UCPLA Washington Reid Gallery in Culver City, Calif.; Good Luck Gallery in Los Angeles; and First Street Gallery Art Center in Claremont, Calif. The show will host a wide range of mediums, including painting, drawing, papier mâché, works by pen, and ceramic work. Artwork by Portland-based artists include paper drawing by Dawn Westover and weaving by Ricky Bearghost—both of whom are deeply committed to making and selling art from their singular self-taught practices. The exhibition will also feature work by individuals who have taught themselves how to paint after becoming legally blind.

Flying Like a Rock, the title of the Self-Taught Artists Fair, gestures directly to the experience of many of the artists presented in the show. This metaphor was conceived by a Portland-based artist as he reflected on his own sense of being unseen by society. For Ohland, the metaphor echoes the experience of individuals who put themselves out into the world, but are not able to “act back” when people become openly dismissive of them:

“You know, a flying rock only has one choice to make, but it also feels like this very persistent spirit of continuing to try to make connections despite barriers…They [self-taught artists] will make what they will make because they have a need to make that thing or do that thing, and follow that practice through, regardless of whether it’s seen or whether there are barriers that exist for it being seen.”

In this sense, the STAF is a rare and much-needed opportunity to learn from artists who are flying like rocks, who are who are opening themselves up to the Portland community, and who have critical messages to share through their deep commitment to creative work in spite of countless barriers—this is, perhaps, the truest incarnation of what it means to be any kind of “artist.”

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Self-Taught Artists Fair: Flying Like a Rock opens Thursday, Sept. 7, and continues through Thursday, Sept. 28 at Pacific Northwest College of Art’s Center for Art and Design in the Commons Gallery. Opening reception will be 6-9 p.m. Thursday.

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