Chatting with the new laureates

Portland's new creative laureates, Leila Haile and Joaquin Lopez, talk about the state of the arts.

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In 2012 Portland City Council appointed its first Creative Laureate, photographer Julie Keefe. The position, reporting to the City’s arts commissioner, is meant to serve as the official ambassador for the creative community in Portland. It’s an unusual distinction. Portland was the first city to create such a position, and the laureate may take on a variety of endeavors such as community education, advocacy, and ceremonial duties.

In 2018 Subashini “Suba” Ganesan-Forbes, an arts educator and dancer, was appointed into the position. As COVID shut down the arts scene in Portland, she and then-Oregon Poet Laureate Kim Stafford co-founded the PDX Area Artist Emergency Relief Fund, an effort that distributed $170,000 to 250 artists across the Portland tri-county region. Current Arts Commissioner Carmen Rubio has announced that the next Creative Laureate position will be held jointly be two artists: Joaquin Lopez and Leila Haile.

I sat down with the two for a casual interview to get to learn more about them, what they think about their new position, and what hopes they have for the future of the arts in Portland.

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T: Did you two know each other before becoming the Creative Laureates?

L: We know of each other, but we weren’t homies. It’s funny, in our last interview we were told they couldn’t have guessed that we didn’t know each other for years.

T: What are the artistic mediums you work in? And what draws you to them?

J: My education was in theater arts, I was an actor, and then I transitioned to being a musician. I’ve released a couple albums but the breadth of my work is community projects and arts producing. For about 10 years I produced an event for Latinx Pride called Voz Alta where I interviewed folks and rewrote their stories into a poetic narrative that was performed by musicians and actors.

L: I’ve been a tattoo artist for 10 years now. I’m a dancer when I have the time and space, I’m gonna take up quilting soon, and I co-founded Ori Gallery with Maya (Vivas). [You can read Martha Daghlian’s January 2020 ArtsWatch interview with Haile and Vivas here.] I believe that one of my creative strengths is my community work, the way I connect and activate people. It’s part of my healing work from the isolation of my youth. Tattooing and dance are both healing and collaborative work. I thrive off of building ideas with other people and that bleeds into my organizing.

New Cultural Laureate Leila Haile. Photo courtesy Ori Gallery

J: In short, when I was a kid I wanted to be famous. That’s why I wanted to be an actor. I never quite understood why people wasted their time in theater. But then I learned that theater was an art form, and the power of story, and I got over myself (kinda!). I realized that theater, especially new and devised works, offered an opportunity to explore not just my identity but the community’s identity through sharing personal stories and presenting new narratives. I love the collaboration, going back and forth over ideas, and bringing people together. I love having a role as a synthesizer. As a musician it’s an opportunity for me to get my feelings out and… feel. (laughs)

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T: In your personal artistic practices are you working on anything right now?

J: Right now, I’m curating a gallery for Hand2Mouth’s upcoming production of Danse Macabre. It’s a show about François Villon, a rabble-rouser from the 1400s who led a very short life. We’re bringing together some Latinx artists to express themes from the show. I’ve also been working on publishing a collection of personal stories with a group of Spanish speaking folks from the Latinx community. I’m a mental health counselor and I lead book groups oriented around personal development. I have two groups reading The Four Agreements through Multnomah County Library and the participants wanted to stay intact. So I proposed we write a book with stories about how they got over a challenge or obstacle in their lives. It will be an eBook, completely in Spanish, so they can share it with whoever they want. I really believe that access to education and leadership development should be free. It’s really exciting because I’m working with non-writers, some who have never texted before in their lives, and I’m figuring out how to teach them to tell a story and feel comfortable sharing their personal experiences with the world. Oh, and I’m also trying to build boundaries for myself and rest!

L: I’m really excited about an arts and activism project I’m doing with the (Independent Publishing Resource Center). We’re working with social justice nonprofits to create print campaigns using the IPCR’s resources. I’m hoping that a citywide flyer campaign comes out of it because I really want annoy some people. I’m also working with a lot of independent performers and The Circus Project to start a Black, Indigenous, and people of color circus. I have a group show with a bunch of other Black artists coming up in January with the Portland Art Museum, right now it’s called “the Black lives matter show”; hopefully they come up with a better name. It’s gonna feature mostly black tattoo clients that I’ve been working with. And I have a dance residency with Water in the Desert at Headwaters Theatre that started this month. I haven’t had space to dance during the entire pandemic so that’s great. I’m sure there’s something I’m forgetting…

T: This is the first time there have been two Creative Laureates. What new possibilities do you think this brings?

L: We’re both exited that we get to cover more ground. There’s not so much pressure on both of us to fill Suba’s shoes. We can take what she built and run with it.

J: I think we’re talented in different ways and have different communities that we’re heart-centered around. That’s cool; it takes the pressure off having to stand for everyone. It also gives us the opportunity to work together and model collaboration and the creative process. I’m really excited about that.

L: What Suba was really good at from jump was “lift as you climb,” shining the spotlight on other people, involving key players in community, and connecting them with money. That’s really important. I really want to build on that and keep those ties and keep that money flowing to the community. And I also think our work is really complementary, the way that healing and praxis interact with each other. That cycle is really necessary to keep us sustained with the work we have ahead of ourselves to make sure we don’t leave healing behind and we don’t stay static. We use the tools that we cultivate while we’re healing and I think that’s really sexy. I don’t think that’s something that’s had a lot of voice and power in Portland.

J: I’m interested in the intersection of healing and the arts. I love what Leila brings to the table; it’s very complimentary. They have a lot more guts than I do and are a lot more direct. I’m looking forward to seeing how we meld healing with activism. I think it could be very powerful.

New Creative Laureate Joaquin Lopez, from the cover of his recent album.

L: I think it will do a lot to dispel that activist superhero myth where folks are just waiting for the next Martin Luther King Jr. to show up and save us. I think that’s harmful and it keep people from realizing their power. We need to get to that healing place to realize that every single one of us is MLK. That’s what we need, everyone to step into their power. And we can only do that if we heal the wounds.

J: A phrase I like to use a lot is “I’m in the work of liberating myself.” So that when I speak for others, I can remind them that it’s possible for them to do that too. We can work together.

T: I know you’re still pretty new to this but has there been anything about this position that has surprised you?

L: We’re having our first meeting with Suba tomorrow. That will be the first time asking like, “Where are the keys?” and ,“Who is itching to spend some money on Black people?” I’m really interested in learning what does this position mean? What do I have access to? What strings can we pull?

J: We’re still waiting our debrief and welcome.

L: Yeah, we still need a phone number and email still!

T: How would you describe your personal experiences making art in Portland? What do you think has worked well in Portland’s art scene and what has not? Or even work against artists?

J: I’ve been fortunate that I’ve had mentors that have helped me along and given me confidence. The qualities that make me stand out are there because those mentors cultivated them in me. I should also say, my family owns La Bonita and that opened up a lot of doors because people would reach out for food donations and I’d get to know who they were and I’d learn about organizations I wanted to get involved. There was a level of power and access that I was given because my family owned a restaurant. I’ve enjoyed my time as an artist but I’ve also wished that there was more of a presence of Latino arts and culture. We have Milagro but wish my Rolodex was larger. I wish spaces were more accessible and easier to work with. I wish there was more money available and it wasn’t such a huge barrier to expressing ourselves, especially with cultural arts. Cultural arts serve the community. Money should not be an issue there, it’s a cultural service.

L: It’s complex. It’s easy to be poor here compared to other places in the country. We have easier access to social services, be that as it may, than you do in other places of the country. We have more access to creative spaces, things are made here, things are grown here. Getting access to those resources is easier than other places in the country. That being said, we live in a white supremacist homeland and those things are present at every single turn. I consider myself a proud PNCA dropout, and that’s for reasons of anti-blackness and classism. I got my start as a go-go dancer in Portland because I needed money. I didn’t make money if people didn’t like what they saw. I was catering to a largely white audience; that’s what I had access to as a dancer and that’s what shaped me. Conversely, as a tattoo artist, you wanna talk about a good-old-boys club? I went through it. I went through one of the most racist institutions for Portland at the time in order to get access to my license. For a lot of folks getting access to tattooing arts is that or prison. And again, I don’t have access to money unless the masses who have access to resources like what I’m putting out. It took a long time to get established as an artist that liberal white folks found palatable in order to get the skills, time, and space to serve my community. This is a large part of why now I almost serve exclusively Africans, folks of color, people with disabilities, and people who have been pushed to the margins. The people who brought this art. All of that was the impetus of wanting to start a Black-owned gallery. We didn’t have our spaces and I had to fight tooth and nail to get those. I don’t want other people to go through what I went through. I’m trying to open the floodgates for those who are coming in after me. I don’t want anyone who shared my identities to go through what I went through to find home, to find space, to find safety, to find a creative identity here in Portland.

Subashini Ganesan-Forbes, Portland’s most recent creative laureate. Photo: K.B. Dixon

T: The last year has changed the artistic landscape of Portland. What do you think is the greatest need for artists in Portland is right now? What are you hearing from other artists?

L: Rent money, the fall of capitalism, I would be elated if everyone had access to water. We’re struggling like everyone else is struggling. People don’t often recognize that artists make up most of the alternative economy because capitalism is not our jam. It does not serve us. Artists want to feel empowered, like our art isn’t just something that someone can consume really quickly on Instagram and be done with. Folks are ready to bring their paintbrushes to the streets. They want to see concrete action and a lot of Black and brown artists I know don’t feel like there’s a space for them in the Portland activists’ scene because it’s a lot of white anarchists. That’s not our lane. I really want to capitalize on a lot of the financial access that Suba has been able to build and I want to see how we can mobilize our people. Put artists in their rightful place in the revolution.

J: I support everything Leila said. I think what I’d like to give is mentorship, an ear for emerging artists to ask questions and to learn how to do whatever it is they need to do. Often times emerging artists don’t know that they can just go up to someone and forge a relationship with them. They can even do that with businesses like coffee shops or restaurants. Or they don’t know how to write a grant. Maybe they just need someone to believe in them. I’d love to be that person. People believed in me and that got me here. And more generally, make funding more available and accessible, and make the process not such a toothache. This is a more nuanced thing, but I’ve always resented being seen as a Latino artist. Because it wasn’t until people started seeing me more that I got labeled as a Latino artist. I know that, but I’m more than that too. I want to work against those kinds of narratives. I’m not from Mexico and I’m not from the United States. I’m interested in messing with all of that and seeing what I break through in myself that others can relate to.

L: On that note, something I’ve been pondering is how do we remain healthy and accessible to our community? There was a really big shift for me, opening Ori. All of a sudden there was a spotlight on me and I wondered what my responsibility was, how I was supposed to do it right? I didn’t have any press training, I still don’t! But I wonder how I keep my cup full enough so that I can give people my overflow and not what I need for me. This is an even bigger spotlight. I won’t say we have more responsibility, rather a big reach. This is a privilege. This is access. I want that to be an open conversation, something we are saying out loud. Especially working in government. If they are thinking about it they don’t let us know. We don’t know what is intentional and what is not. I’m thinking a lot about what transparency and radical leadership looks like. How do we not repeat shitty patterns that have been handed down within the system?

J: A system that rewards the shitty patterns. Leila touched on something important. This is not a job but there’s a lot of expectations that we’ll do these amazing things. That’s fine, but it’s not like we have carte blanche to do whatever we want. Suba called it a designation; we’ve been honored for the work we’ve done so we can celebrate that, not just start reinventing the wheel. This role is an ambassadorship; we’re here to represent the arts for the community, for our communities. (Leila laughs) What?

L: Sorry, I was just thinking you can’t spell ambassador without ‘bad ass’! That should be the theme of our laureate-ship.

J: That would be awesome.

L: Just thinking about how we’re setting the children up for success.

T: That seems like a high point to end on. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me!

About the author

TJ Acena is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. He studied creative writing at Western Washington University. His prose has been published most recently in Somnambulist, Pacifica Literary Journal, and Hello Mr. He fell into arts journalism by accident in 2015, becoming the theatre reviewer for PQ Monthly. In 2017 he was selected as a Rising Leader of Color in the field of arts journalism by Theatre Communications Group. He currently writes for American Theatre Magazine and The Oregonian in addition to his work here. You can find out more at his website. He also sporadically updates a burger-review blog for Portland as well. Twitter: @ihavequalities

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