At Nationale, the line between fine art and functional object has always been blurred. The iconic Portland gallery space is also part shop, thoughtfully curated with must-reads and apothecary curiosities. These days, the space contains a selection of Mixed Needs ceramics and Incidental Music’s tone poem, along with a selection of music, print, and home objects.
Nationale’s embrace of art in all its forms made the gallery a perfect venue for Banners on Cultivating Resilience, a project by The Living School Of Art (LSA). Facilitated by artist and neighbor Amanda Leigh Evans, LSA is an intergenerational art project based in an affordable housing development in east Portland. Neighbors in the community teach and participate in hands-on activities and present exhibitions in the eight apartment complex laundry rooms. The program includes a visiting artist residency, a community garden, a medicinal herb garden, and field trips. LSA draws participants are of all ages, though the banners featured in this exhibition were made exclusively by children.
For Cultivating Resilience, six strikingly-colorful banners adorn the gallery space. Several hang against metallic silver backdrops in the gallery’s expansive front windows, easily visible to passers-by on 22nd Avenue. Others are inside, displayed over the gallerist’s desk and shop shelving. They’re situated above eye level, towering over the space in a way that feels brave and celebratory. The banners began as smaller drawings made by each child artist, which Evans then enlarged into fabric banners. Participants meditated on the idea of cultivating resilience within themselves and their community. The results reveal a pattern of rich color and phrases, unified in their simplicity (“Hi, How R U?”, “Mantenerte Fuerte!”, meaning “Stay Strong!”, and “свобода”, meaning “freedom”).
It’s easy to forget that children also experience our anxious world, often without the same frames of reference that adulthood offers. Through these banners, LSA artists illustrate how collaboration can still exist amid confusion and turbulence. For young artists, creativity can function as an outlet through which to process circumstances outside of their control. Thus LSA’s banners become metaphoric, patched-together forms of resilience for our times, bright and bold even when bravery feels difficult to locate.
Textile work has seen a cultural resurgence in recent years. It’s a medium associated with repetition, usefulness, and repair, often functioning as a vehicle for subtle protest. Cultures worldwide have found ways to twist their unique textile traditions toward new definitions with accessible materials and adaptable techniques. In an Instagram post, Evans cites several textile movements as inspiration for the banner project—Gee’s Bend quilt makers, Aram Han Sifuentes’s Protest Banner Lending Library, Afghan War Rugs, and more. The Cultivating Resilience banners also bring to mind projects like Stephanie Syjuco’s CITIZENS and Marie Watt’s Companion Species. They join a rich history of textiles as symbols of support and strength.
Helai, age eleven: About being resilient, I just try not to overthink something. If something wrong or bad happens, I see that there are more chances in the future for change. People are worried about a lot of things. When life is hard, kids can teach adults how to get up and create, or explore the garden or relax. Kids are good at being outside and spending time with the people around them. They can teach adults to spend more time in nature and enjoy it with other people. My banner is a butterfly. This year we are captured in a cocoon and we are waiting to be free, to transform and find something beautiful.
To learn more about the project and how LSA has functioned during the pandemic, I checked in with LSA facilitator Amanda Leigh Evans.
Oregon Artswatch: The title of this project, Banners on Cultivating Resilience, encapsulates the spirit of the banners while also hinting at the difficulties of this year. In what ways has LSA adapted in response to recent challenges?
Amanda Leigh Evans: We are neighbors in a large affordable housing apartment complex. We work as an artist collective — we make creative projects together. Our work flows from our life together as neighbors in an interdependent relationship. Before COVID-19, on any given day neighbors might be hanging out in my apartment, or I might find myself leaving someone’s house several hours after knocking on their door to ask a “quick question”. Our life together includes sharing food, giving rides, going to the park, watching kids, moving a couch, or helping with this or that. This neighborly relationship is our foundation of The Living School of Art (LSA).
At the beginning of the pandemic, many people in our community temporarily or permanently lost their jobs. The majority of people in our community are considered, according to HUD standards, low-income or very low-income. Many people have limited emergency savings, and during this season they’re stretching to pay for basic needs. For many neighbors, the financial strain of the pandemic has also intersected with stress related to migration, racial injustice, education access, disability, or healthcare.
Currently, at LSA, I have been pivoting between connecting neighbors with emergency resources and teaching online art classes that focus on catharsis, connection, and hopefully some joy. A few artists in residence, particularly Laura Medina and Angela Saenz, have been doing some great remote work with us. I’ve also been doing maintenance on our garden and other projects we’ve built over the years.
OAW: Has the pandemic shifted your understanding of community and togetherness? Have there been any surprises?
ALE: Your bond with someone is really tested when you can’t be together for months and months. I am grateful to be part of my neighbors’ lives, and I feel incredibly privileged that they’ve chosen to be part of mine. Any gesture of kindness in this dark year touches me more profoundly. I find myself on the verge of crying whenever I am the recipient of an act of generosity here in our community. It has softened me and made me more compassionate, and I want to pass that energy along to others.
The pandemic has clarified for me what is important and what isn’t important. Some parts of art feel more important than ever, and other parts of art feel totally irrelevant and I never want them to be relevant again. I have always loved the process of making art more than the outcome. This season has clarified why LSA is more process-oriented than outcome-driven. The work is for us.
OAW: What perspective do you feel that children’s art offers during a time of intense societal conflict and change? What might we learn from these banners in particular?
ALE: One of my biggest role models is my 7-year-old friend and neighbor Deewa. She has taught me to shake off negative energy and just embrace the joy and mystery of a moment. Deewa is so open to the world. She also has great ideas for performance artwork, videos, sculptures, and paintings. We’ve made a lot of work together over the years.
I could say that about any of the kids who made banners, or any of the kids in our apartment complex. Each of my young neighbors teaches me something that impacts who I am and how I see the world, and I think I’m able to teach them a few things too. It’s reciprocal and generative for us both.
OAW: Many of the banners in Cultivating Resilience contain simple, mantra-like slogans of strength and joy. Do any of them resonate with you in particular? Or do you have your own affirmations?
ALE: The kids designed [the banners] knowing they would be large and public. When I was sewing each banner, I wondered why each kid decided to share this public message with our neighbors. The two that particularly struck me are Fiori’s banner, which says, “Hi, How are you?” and Vlada’s banner, which says, “Enjoy the World”. Both phrases are honest and straightforward on the surface but I think they both are about paying deep attention and care to everything around us.
Banners on Cultivating Resistance by The Living School of Art is on view at Nationale until November 15, 2020. Nationale is open at limited capacity, with visiting hours Thursday-Sunday from 11 AM-5 PM. Masks, hand sanitizer, and social distancing are required. Private appointments are also available.