Like virtually every city, McMinnville is talking about homelessness and the unhoused. The conversation tends to be urgently pragmatic, driven largely by the discomforts and inconveniences of the haves, the need to get “them” and their “junk” off the street, away from schools, etc. When empathy prevails, the questions concern providing food and shelter, and sometimes the long game of mental health assistance and housing.
Which is to say, it seldom strays into the realm of art and creativity that, as the 30,000-year-old Chauvet Cave paintings remind us, has been as central to human experience as food and shelter since we were in hunter-gatherer mode.
The exhibition Blame It on Art: Creative Mentorship at Outside the Frame, at the Linfield University Art Gallery in McMinnville through Oct. 6, powerfully illustrates this by pulling art back into the frame of public discourse about homelessness.
The eclectic mix of photography, film, mixed media, literature, sculpture, painting, and installation work that composes the show was made by artists who mentor homeless youths; some of the artists have survived the streets themselves. One film, Nili Yosha’s The Lost Boys of Portlandia, puts them front and center, and I learned that one of the youths who appears in it created the art that fills most of one of the gallery’s walls.
The films, some of which may be seen in the exhibit itself, will be screened during a separate event at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 3, in Delkin Recital Hall in the Vivian Bull Music Center, across the quad from the gallery, which will remain open until 8 p.m. that night. The filmmakers will be available for questions and discussion afterward.
The show was conceived by gallery director Thea Gahr, a Linfield adjunct instructor since 2012 and longtime member of the Justseeds Artists’ Cooperative. She headed into the 2023-24 academic year wanting “to inspire new discourse and new dialogue,” as she told me during a walkthrough recently. “I was just thinking a lot about our community and what needs to be seen and heard right now,” she said. “I was thinking about art and mentorship and its power to create a support system.”
So Gahr reached out to Portland-area friends who create and nurture such systems for unhoused people with the nonprofit group Outside the Frame, which, according to its website, offers “a creative outlet, job skills, an audience and a sense of dignity and possibility through filmmaking.” The group works annually with about 125 young people 16 to 26 years old. The group’s internal surveys reveal other layers of marginalization that participants experience: Most identify as LGBTQ+ and/or BIPOC. More than half have a disability, and many have fled abuse, neglect, poverty, and have addiction problems.
“We engage youth around topics that come directly from them,” said Devon Riley, who as Outside the Frame’s culture and programs manager is known affectionately as the “den mom.” Her installation piece is a cozy reading nest, with books strewn about a quilt with a couple of pillows and water bowls, all ringed by wooden boxes and potted grass, and notes that elaborate on the scene.
“As someone who is most resourced in wild places, it’s important to me to remember that the Earth speaks through the cracks in the pavement, as well as the rustle of leaves in a forest,” she writes. “We are always home, in some way. As a mentor, I am curious about the brief homes we make together, with the unique ingredients we each bring from our wanderings.”
Riley said the artistic work created by participants in the program has over the years found its way into places such as the Portland Art Museum and the Hollywood Theatre. But the Linfield show affords Outside the Frame staff the opportunity to showcase their own work. “Being in practice as artists is a big part of what we bring to the youth that we work with,” she said. “And we talk a lot about how if you’re not making your own work, then you might start to think about that.”
Makayla Caldwell is among the dozen or so artists whose work is featured in Blame It on Art. She moved to Portland in December 2016 and soon found herself unable to afford rent. “I was homeless, living on the street and in a tent,” she said. “I found a cute little spot in Forest Grove and that’s how it was for, like, a year and a half.” Eventually, Caldwell stitched together a patchwork of part-time jobs and found her way to Outside the Frame. Not long after that, her work was featured in Portland Art Museum’s Object Stories exhibit. Today, she is Outside the Frame’s equipment manager, and her photography may be seen in the show and on her Instagram.
“I’m one of the few who has gone through the program and has become a mentor and contractor, and now I’m an employee,” said Caldwell, whose freelancing has landed her work on the Hulu series Shrill and on the Cartoon Network program The Shivering Truth. “It’s definitely a really safe place to learn how to collaborate and to find your own authority and confidence.” And, as the show’s notes pointedly remind us, “If youth experiencing homelessness can make films, they can do anything.”
A contribution by Outside the Frame’s operations manager Erin Yanke serves as a reminder that for minority populations, the streets can be a decidedly unsafe place. A self-taught documentarian who cut her journalistic teeth at her college radio station and also at KBOO, Yanke collaborated with several others on a book, It Did Happen Here: An Anti-Fascist People’s History, which is on display at the show and looks at how various groups organized in the wake of the 1988 murder of Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw by racist skinheads. It (and an accompanying podcast) offers a nuanced oral history of Portland’s mid-1980s punk scene.
“The economics of the Portland metro area are out of control, the inequity of the mayor having four residences while people have not one indoor choice is infuriating to me,” Yanke said. The unhoused youth who are making films and other art projects, she added, are doing more to help themselves than might be apparent at first glance.
“Movie-making is a great field for people who are creative, who work well with others, who see possibility and create something from nothing,” Yanke told me. “These kinds of skills are how homeless people survive. Being on a film set is not easy, but it fits well with the kind of people who are brave enough to leave traumatic situations like abuse and instability and find their own way.”
Yosha’s roughly 20-minute documentary The Lost Boys of Portlandia is one of several films that may be watched at Blame It on Art. While it showcases a homeless youth workshop done a few years ago under the auspices of another Portland nonprofit, Outside In, it essentially captures the spirit of what Outside the Frame does.
The film follows a group of homeless youth who are brought together to watch the 1953 Disney version of Peter Pan, which inspires them to film their own version of J.M. Barrie’s early 20th-century story on Portland’s streets. “I mean, they’re the real lost boys, right?” asked Yosha, the filmmaker and activist who founded Outside the Frame.
The film-within-a-film was guided in part by Vanessa Veselka, whose 2020 novel The Great Offshore Grounds won the Oregon Book Award. Having spent time on the streets as a youth, Veselka is seen in Yosha’s film collaborating with the group, all of whom have clearly given the Peter Pan-verse a lot of thought. “It gave them cover, a little bit,” Yosha said. “They’re not talking about themselves, they’re talking about Peter Pan.”
Another documentary short, Stories I’ve Told the Stars, was made by Outside the Frame alumna Rose Solomon. Subtitled, it features the stories of three men who fled civil war in Ethiopia in the 1980s and resettled in the Pacific Northwest.
A third, the compulsively watchable music video Padre Nuestro, features musician Mark Martinez and was directed by Venezuelan filmmaker Maria Moreno, a graduate of Portland State University’s School of Film and alumna of Outside the Frame, where she is now a film career coordinator. While Outside the Frame staff emphasize that their goal is not necessarily to crank out film school graduates, Moreno proudly notes that some participants do go on to find jobs in the industry.
“We’ve had tons of people who have gone on to work on films that are being produced by Paramount and Warner Bros. and Amazon Studios,” she said. “I’m just helping them get a foot in the door. I know myself that this can be really intimidating and it can be really difficult to get into, especially if you’re someone from a marginalized background, someone who maybe comes from a low-income background. So it’s been really a source of pride for me to be able to help folks get into the industry and fulfill their dreams through this training program.”
But Outside the Frame is as much about empowerment as it is about workforce development. That comes through particularly in a visual art display by board member and peer mentor Marcieline Novatore, whose own journey of self-discovery is reflected in a sprawling collection of images arranged vaguely in the shape of a cross that mirror each other across the vertical axis — a visual representation of centering. “The piece is about the spiritual and physical liberation of becoming a trans woman,” said Novatore, who spent a couple of years living on Portland’s streets.
“It’s really tough being homeless,” she said. “But being able to have this creative outlet and collaboration in a creative space, it’s very liberating.”
Other artists whose work is featured include Kai Tillman, Ben Bach, Travis Stanton, and cdavid Cottrill.
Blame It on Art was sponsored by the Lacroute Arts Series, made possible by local arts benefactor Ronni Lacroute. Lacroute spoke Sunday morning at the local Grange hall where the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of McMinnville holds services. Her topic was art as a spiritual practice with transformative powers — a power that, just to connect a couple of dots here, Outside the Frame harnesses daily to literally save lives and produce real-world change.
Perhaps just as intriguing as Blame It on Art popping up at Linfield is the fact that McMinnville is now on Outside the Frame’s radar. When I remarked to Yosha that Yamhill County homeless activists would be interested in learning about this mentorship work, her response was encouraging:
“We have a van and will travel,” Yosha said. “We’re happy to take the show on the road.”