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127: License to thrill

Oregon unveils a new license plate with 127 cultural symbols and an interactive key to decode the design.


Oregon’s getting a new license to drive its cultural scene.

Beginning soon you’ll be able to spot cars with a new specialty plate speeding down the state’s freeways or puttering along its town and city streets. You might even be sporting it yourself, on the front and back of your own car. A new Oregon cultural license plate, designed and released in recognition of the 20th anniversary of the Oregon Cultural Trust, was unveiled on Wednesday and will be available October 1.

The new design, called Celebrate Oregon!, also will be reproduced in mural form at four Oregon airports and as a 38-foot banner to be hung outside the Portland Art Museum, and will be available as a poster and a limited-edition print.

Liza Mana Burns’s design for the new Oregon cultural license plate, which will be available to vehicle owners beginning October 1.

Designed by Eugene artist Liza Mana Burns, it replaces the familiar orange-hued abstract plate designed by artist Kelly Kievit in 2004. Graphically, it’s pretty much a total rethinking: Instead of a single image to represent all of Oregon culture, it’s a composite image, with 127 smaller images worked into it, representing 127 aspects of the state’s cultural life.

Burns’s challenge was to make the new plate read both as a bold graphic image easily recognizable as it flashes past on the street, and as a subtle and complex design that rewards contemplation of its many parts at a more leisurely pace. The idea, baked into the assignment, was to represent the many cultures and forms of expression that make up the complex and shifting character of the state.

Burns, an illustrator, designer, and muralist, met the challenge by creating blocks of images representing the state’s terrain – mountain, river, fields & forests, desert hues, sky – and filling them with detail. The approach is a bit like the fabulism of the 16th century Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s portraits of people made up of fruits and vegetables, and a bit like the meticulous work of one of Burns’s early artistic fascinations, Graeme Base, author of Animalia and other extravagantly illustrated children’s books. The new plate has a bit of a Where’s Waldo? feel, too, except that you want to find and identify everything, not just the kid in the red-striped shirt and cap.

Top: The old Cultural Trust plate, designed by Kelly Kievit and in use since 2004. Bottom: The new design, with lettering and numbering in place.

Sound confusing? Think of it as a game. To help people decode the puzzle, the Cultural Trust’s website has added a link to an interactive visual key that explains each of the design’s 127 symbols and how they connect to Oregon culture. “I proposed that as part of my original proposal” for the design, Burns said in a phone conversation a few days ago.


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The new cultural plate joins a host of other specialty designs available when you order new vehicle plates, from ones promoting Crater Lake, wine country, Smoky Bear, or gray whales to sports-booster plates for the likes of the Portland Trail Blazers or the Oregon Ducks, to interest groups ranging from Masonic members to paralyzed veterans to amateur HAM radio operators.

In the case of the cultural plate, the $50 surcharge for the specialty plate funnels to the Oregon Cultural Trust to the tune of $350,000 in an average year – an amount, the Trust’s Communications Manager Carrie Kikel says, that covers “all expenses related to the marketing and promotion of the cultural tax credit.”

That’s important, because the tax credit allows Oregon taxpayers to match donations to state nonprofit cultural organizations with a donation to the Cultural Trust, and receive a full reduction on their state taxes of the amount given to the Trust. In 2020, the Trust received a record $5.2 million through the donation match. That money, in turn, goes to arts, historical, and tribal organizations throughout the state.

The process of creating a new plate began, Kikel says, about a year and a half ago, when the Trust decided it wanted a new design “with the emphasis on the word ‘diverse.'”

Liza Mana Burns, working on a mural. Photo: Athena Delene

Thirty-three nominators made contact with artists they thought might be interested in the project, and 36 artists from around the state submitted work samples and statements of interest. A jury chose 20, each of whom received a $250 honorarium, to submit preliminary concepts. An expanded jury then sent the names of three finalists to the Trust’s board, with a recommendation that it select Burns. The board did, and awarded her a $5,000 contract. She then met with several content experts, chosen through the Governor’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, to help decide what the 127 symbols should be.

Burns remembers realizing “there’s going to be a lot of cooks in the kitchen on this.” She also realized that it fit with her meticulous approach – “that’s the kind of work I like doing, spending long hours on detail” – and that the help was a good thing if she was truly going to represent the state: “There’s so much that I didn’t know, and I’ve lived here most of my life.”

Mariotta Gary-Smith of the Oregon Commission on Black Affairs, for instance, told Burns about Vanport, the city built for shipyard workers and their families in World War II that was destroyed by floodwaters in 1948, leaving many Black and other workers homeless. “I didn’t know anything about it,” Burns says. Toc Soneoulay-Gillespie of the Oregon Commission on Asian Pacific Islander Affairs told her “about this basket that you use to make sticky rice,” and described in detail how it works and what it looks like. Charles “Chuck” Sams III, immediate past chair of the Cultural Trust and a leader of the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Reservation who was nominated last month by the Biden Administration to be director of the National Park Service, “reminded us about the American Indian Movement … what about activism?” Somewhere, on the license plate and the key map, it’s there.


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The interactive key map to the 127 symbols within the license plate design. Once you’ve accessed the map, hover your cursor over a number (they’ll show on the map) and find the explanation for what the symbol is and why it’s here.

This is where the interactive key map becomes a crucial player in the design, allowing anyone to hover their cursor over any of the 127 numbers and see what a group of about 40 experts and information sites have to say about the 127 symbols embedded in the new plate.

Click on 47, for instance, and up pops this: “OUD. The Oud is a stringed instrument thought to have have originated over 3,500 years ago in Persia. Considered the grandfather of the modern guitar, the Oud is central to most ensemble music in the Middle East and is featured in performances by Portland’s celebrated world music band, Brothers of the Baladi.”

Or, hover over 10: “HUMMINGBIRD. In many traditions, hummingbird feathers are treasured for their almost magical qualities. It is said that the hummingbird brings love as no other medicine can, and their presence brings joy to the observer. It is an important symbol for the Mexican and Indigenous communities.”

The Cultural Trust is using Burns’s design for more than license plates, a decision that gives people a chance to see the full design without letters and numbers obscuring parts of it. “I’m also a muralist,” she notes, adding that in a partnership with she’s re-creating her work four times for airport murals, transcribing what began as digital images to paint and markers “to achieve the pen-like effect that I have on the license plate.” Murals will be unveiled Sept. 24 at Rogue International-Medford Airport, Oct. 15 at FlyRedmond, Oct. 28 at Eugene Airport, and tentatively mid-November at the opening of Portland International Airport’s updated Concourse B.

The new plates will be available through the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles website, DMV field offices, and car dealerships throughout the state.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."


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