The winding sidewalk to North Coast Seed Building Studios is caught in a vice-grip between the hurried freight cars of the Union Pacific rail line and their fellow travelers, the cargo ships along the Willamette River below. Both sides are neatly ordered, and the hustle and bustle of behind-the-scenes raw materials and merchandise on the move make this industrial area between the Fremont and Broadway bridges in North Portland seem plucked from another time. Tall, bushy, and abundant dill plants spring from the space between the macadam and the gutter, fighting for space with monumental rosemary bushes. Maybe accidental escapees from the former seed storehouse, the out-of-place plants are a nice reminder of how tenacious life can be. There’s little pause between the trains as they create a small wind chamber; their weathered exteriors carry both loaded social commentary and amateur graffiti messages.
For the last seven years the artist Blaine Fontana has worked here. Inside, his studio looks like many in and around this sprawling artistic compound: projects stacked by studio doors; found pieces that look their age, but have enough of the right lines and material to deserve an eyeful. Near its high rafter ceilings Fontana’s studio has windows that face west and fill the room with an almost unfiltered light. The space is divided into sections, giving the unmistakable impression of a creative warehouse. With its stacked materials and framing of wooden beams, it’s playful, too. The smells of fresh lumber and 1950s filing-cabinet steel fill the air. Fontana is of a similar nature. He’s focused, grounded, driven, always on the hunt for something new to appreciate. He’s a tall man, with black swept hair and some well-placed tattoos. Around the edges of his thoughtful composure lurks a little of the bad boy.
His work lives on the critical divide between fine and commercial art, and he has a deep understanding of both from long practice. He grew up on Bainbridge Island, a ferry ride away from Seattle – a cozy nest of the more affluent compacted in a forest of trees. He keeps his studio in Portland and shows his work here. You can see his outdoor murals all around PDX: the bright and uplifting Arrows on SE 9th and Hawthorne, the long scrolling graphic bound Tri It by the Trimet operation center on SE 17th. But his career is widespread: His work has been shown also in Seattle, San Diego, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Denver, Austin, Miami, and New York, and internationally in London, Germany, Canada, Japan, and Brazil. He’s articulate and analytical, an artist who’s fine-crafted his discipline. That could be the real focus of his work.
While studying at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, he began to collect and incorporate objects he found in alleyways into his art. His color palette is ’70s earth tones on steroids, the flat orange mixed with a little gray next to a tinted aqua. His love of the spaces within a composition mix pop-culture icons, like ice cream trucks, with embellished pattern stamps that speak like Art Nouveau mavens dating comic-book superheroes. Fontana’s career was on a meteoric rise by 2007, when he was smart enough to see that a market oversaturation of his work could mean repeat customers for repeat work: artistic boredom. He went back to Bainbridge for a sabbatical and built a tiny wood shop with the help of his brother, who has a degree in environmental design and gave him some tips. The layered elements Fontana had been working in took on a new form.
In 2013, Fontana participated in Portland’s first Forest for the Trees, a citywide nonprofit mural event that creates contemporary public artworks in the midst of dramatic urban shift. His mural work, he says, created a fast organic change to his studio:
“When I was a graffiti writer, a lot of it, doing it illegally, there was graffiti and then there was public art. There was a huge separation; there’s a blur today. It’s interesting today there are still the pure artists in the graffiti world, but now there’s street art which takes traditional mural techniques such as the process or medium and (blends) it with spray paint. There’s not these rules or boundaries that people can put on themselves or others as far as creative work for the public.”
Still, he adds, there are restrictions, and his analysis of them explains a lot about his approach to art in general:
“The public sector in the art world has so much paperwork. So many cooks in the kitchen you have to placate, so many hoops and hurdles and so much bureaucracy. Everyone has a degree in art criticism at that moment. By the time something has been approved, it’s been so diluted by everyone’s input, feedback.
“That’s the difficulty of public art; it has to be culturally sensitive, but where it fails sometimes is it becomes so culturally sensitive, it’s too safe. There’s no dialogue to have. Even if you don’t like it, at least it’s causing some reaction. What does that do for me? There’s no engagement, mentally, narrative or even physically, sometimes. I take very seriously how you engage with sculptures: as you go around it, how does it make you feel, how does it make you move? As great and as badly as we need public art to inspire others, inspire youth especially, unfortunately sometimes it can have that watered-down effect.
“It’s just as intimate, but there’s so much more interaction with public pieces. They become vocal portfolio pieces. They have nurtured my career, in ways that are way out of my control, but everyone gets to enjoy. It’s not inside a home or a gallery; that can also come across as kind of clinical. That’s been my greatest joy over the last three years as the mural work has really taken off: it can be shared with everyone. I have the same approach and process with my work. Once I’m done with a work, I want it to be out, in someone’s home. Not just sitting here collecting dust.”
Fontana recently finished up two heavy weeks in Denver: a show in the RiNo district at the Svper Ordinary Gallery, completed a mural of Louis Pasteur for Colorado Crush and a mural for the city on the Cherry Creek Bike Path. Working with international mural and street artists at Colorado Crush, a collaboration much like Forest for the Trees, Fontana thrives with the work and in the community. He reaches a limit at Day Seven, he says, declaring that mural painting is the most demanding physical and mental discipline he practices. He loves putting his nose to the grindstone and meeting the challenge of his precise aesthetic. His murals look like blown-up editions of his paintings. They show a deep investigation into midcentury-modern design, with its fascination for modernity and human response:
“Over the years my work has gone on a diet. I’ve been trimming away the fat, whittling it down to its core. It’s become more minimal, more abstracted. I’ve always subscribed, tried to embrace that less-is-more approach. Let things lie when they really could be done and to not overwork it. That’s a challenge with any artist, to know when it’s done. I’ve always loved to show or share the entire process of the piece. I’m rarely sketching in a sketchbook; I’m sketching on the piece. I try to keep some of that information all the way to the end. If it’s become obliterated, which oftentimes it does, I like to come back to that first day and draw just barely, gesturally, over the finished work. I’ve had people ask: ‘Why didn’t he paint over that?’ It’s part of the aesthetic of the piece. Coming back with colored pencils or graphite and adding some grit, some playfulness to it.That uncomfortable edge: ‘I could do a little bit more, but it’s not necessary.’ ”
Fontana does most of his sketching on his computer: it allows him to edit and refine without having to go back inside the actual work. The computer allows him to play with the process, to keep within his fine borders, but stay fresh during the actual work. This year he was commissioned for a mural in the heart of Ipanema, Brazil. In an era when artists must self-promote on social media, he’s a master at sharing his exuberance with process and project. The final piece, which wraps around the second floor of a building, was done for the heritage brand, Redley. The community reaction, he says, was just as strong as with his mural work in the United States:
“It was the first time something [there] had been done that was three-dimensional and lifelike. What I thought was really fun, too, was that the community did make the connection between what is happening in the Brazilian rainforest with all of the tree poachers. OPB or NPR had done a weeklong series the week before I went down about the tree poachers and the farmers. The farmers had become shepherds of the forest. The timing of that, while I was doing the stump thing, was important. I don’t usually do political stuff; it’s just not my style, and with public art it’s just a kind of dangerous thing to do. But, in your own way and in your own read you could make that connection of something that was going on literally in their backyard. At the same time it still has an uplifting and positive message.”
When he returns home to Portland from Denver, he’s back to all the pots cooking on his burner. He’ll be putting together another book as art director with ZERO+ Publishing. His last imprint was titled Amalgamate, an accurate expression of his combining of materials and history. Fontana has been working for several months with MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility on a series of indoor murals. A group of the youths there was chosen to work with him, to create the phrases, images, patterns they felt would be empowering visuals.
“You have to be very sensitive with imagery, colors,” he says.” You can’t just isolate one kind of culture; you have to be totally inclusive, or not inclusive at all. I chose the path to go down, where each pod has a spirit animal that the kids can identify with. No one has introduced art inside a youth correctional facility; that will hopefully do well and inspire other facilities to follow suit. Jails are soul-sucking, not very inspiring places to be. A place that’s supposed to be all about rehabilitation, to have something that’s from the free world, creative, inspiring, might bring a little bit of light, life into where they live.”
Fontana’s Tedx Talk, CreativeSustainability, at Concordia University in Portland.