Finn builds a galaxy… with help from a pro

Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr. and 6-year-old Finn Connaughton collaborate on an extraterrestrial installation at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg

The Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg features an exhibit, Finn Builds a Galaxy, that was created by two artists whose life experiences could scarcely be more different.

Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr. is 32 years old, has studied art at Alfred University School of Art and Design, and is doing graduate work at Portland State University. Stevenson has worked as a figure model, a cook, a grocery store clerk, and a community organizer. Born in Gaithersburg, Md., the artist has traveled to Mexico, Canada, Scotland, Italy, and Germany. For the past 10 years, Stevenson has worked on a variety of projects while also studying.

The exhibit is named after the other artist, Finn Connaughton. He’s 6 and attends first grade at Yamhill-Carlton Elementary School. The son of a pharmacist father, Erin, and Jacki, a stay-at-home mother, he’s fond of Minecraft, building with LEGOS, and Pokémon. And, of course, art. 

Finn Connaughton, 6, and Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr., 32, collaborated on an other-worldly exhibit on display through Oct. 31 at the Chehalem Cultural Center. Photo by: David Bates
Finn Connaughton, 6, and Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr., 32, collaborated on an other-worldly exhibit on display through Oct. 31 at the Chehalem Cultural Center. Photo by: David Bates

At a reception last week, Finn stood on the center’s spacious lobby mezzanine gazing at his galaxy — planets, stars, LEGO spaceships, and a few flying creatures — looking a bit awed by the attention but clearly proud of his galactic creation. Below, his parents and extended family, other visitors, and staff looked up, some taking pictures.

Next to him, Stevenson grinned and offered Finn one of many compliments: “You are even more famous in Newberg than I am!”

Finn’s mother said her son has always been artistically inclined. “He started trying to use a pencil when he was 2,” she laughed. Last spring, he was one of the youngest first-place winners in a contest celebrating the 103rd birthday of locally raised author Beverly Cleary, who was born in McMinnville and spent the first six years of her life on a farm in rural Yamhill before moving to Portland. 

Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr. (left) and Carissa Burkett of the Chehalem Cultural Center work on the installation of “Finn Builds a Galaxy.” Photo by: David Bates
Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr. and Carissa Burkett of the Chehalem Cultural Center work on the installation of “Finn Builds a Galaxy.” Photo by: David Bates

Finn is a familiar face at Newberg’s spacious nonprofit arts center, which offers workshops, classes and camps for youth year-round. When Stevenson asked center programmer Carissa Burkett to be paired up with a young person for a project using the mezzanine space, Finn seemed like the natural choice.

“Finn and his mom volunteer here a lot, so everyone here loves him,” Burkett said. “Everyone is super-excited for him to have a show here.”

For Stevenson (and, ultimately, for Finn) Finn Builds a Galaxy isn’t so much about the product as it is about the process and the experiences that went along with it. And the potential for that experience to reverberate into the future.

“It’s interesting working with young people,” said Stevenson, who uses the pronouns them, they, and their. “Because including them at all is already an extreme subversion of the process. So it’s like, if they’re making decisions of any kind, it’s flipping things on their head and bringing nuance to the world of production.”

The world of production of art under capitalism and the relationship between the two is a complex topic that Stevenson has thought about deeply and continues to work through. I asked about it after noticing an earlier project on their website called The Audit, the centerpiece of which is an accumulation of personal receipts and official documents requiring a signature — an economic snapshot of a human being.

“My practice does a delicate dance with capitalism,” Stevenson wrote. “I have no love for a capitalist society and the cultures it creates; however, we all must learn to navigate it as best we can. My life and practice consist of highly considered decisions about what to do, why I’m doing it, and what that should cost. I have no conclusions on this matter to share, other than that I am continuing to investigate this paradigm for myself and present that investigation to others in the form of an audit of my actions and what their economic and carbon footprints are.”

A pivotal moment in that delicate dance was hearing a victorious Barack Obama in 2008 declare that it was time for the “real work” to begin. Gradually, Stevenson’s practice shifted to more socially engaged work: food and event planning, community organizing, etc. The work evolved to include collaborative art — with individuals and small groups comprising students and also prisoners.

Stevenson draws, paints, sculpts, and works with mixed media. But click through a few of their projects (with titles like Rock HOUNDing With Fred, Bugz’ Birthday, and Ice Cream Speakeasy), and one gets the unmistakable sense of Stevenson’s artistic practice as a prism not just for seeing and interpreting the world, but for experiencing it and for relating to others: the art of being in the world.

When I suggested that this sort of collaborative work with youth is a bit like planting seeds, the ultimate fate of which might not be known for years, Stevenson agreed. “Exactly! Yes. Totally!”

Stevenson described the genesis of the project.

Finn Connaughton works on a piece for “Finn Builds a Galaxy” at his home. Photo courtesy: Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr.
Finn Connaughton works on a piece for “Finn Builds a Galaxy” at his home. Photo courtesy: Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr.

“I was interested in space, and I knew we had this mezzanine space, and I thought to try to make a galaxy,” they said. “I made a direct ask. I pitched the idea to Finn, he said yes. I spent some time with his mother, we got together and worked on the things, piece by piece, over the course of two weeks at his house. Some space was offered here, but it’s always good to work where they’re comfortable. I try to mitigate extra labor on the parents’ part. I’d go to their house, they had a little covered garage space, an open-barn situation. We just fooled around in there.”

The exhibit, and Stevenson’s other projects, are part of their Imagination Academy, described in the exhibit notes as “a project that interweaves programming into and between public schools to cultivate confidence and expand the perspective of young people’s minds.”

The child of “appropriately middle-class” parents, Stevenson attended a high school back east that had what they termed a robust ceramics program. Although the artist then went on to a college with similarly strong offerings in ceramics, Stevenson developed a “complicated relationship” with the medium.

“Ceramics is one of the oldest art forms, and so there are a slew of opportunities, but it’s also deeply tied to capitalism,” Stevenson said. “There are ceramic artists now who are interested in pushing their work into a socially engaged realm, but it’s bound to a material process that is often unsustainable, the mining of raw materials and shipping them all around — unless you’re digging your own clay, which some people do. Ultimately as a medium and as a process, it doesn’t meet my needs super well. It’s much easier to walk into a room with paint and cardboard.”

Between traditional pedagogical practices, cutbacks in school arts, and a consumerist-oriented, instant-gratification toy industry that leaves little room for real imagination, Stevenson said that young people sometimes struggle with the launch phase of an art project.

“It’s interesting,” Stevenson said. “I’ll approach it like, ‘You have infinite freedom! What do you want to do?’ And they’re like, ‘I don’t know’ and ‘Whatever I do is gonna be bad.’ It’s like, it has reinforced my awareness of how terrible as a species we are doing in nurturing young minds to feel confident and capable and experienced.”

A red planet of continents and lava is a centerpiece of “Finn Builds a Galaxy” at the Chehalem Cultural Center. Photo courtesy: Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr.
A red planet of continents and lava is a centerpiece of “Finn Builds a Galaxy” at the Chehalem Cultural Center. Photo courtesy: Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr.

Having transplanted from the East Coast to the West, Stevenson says the Portland area offers a relatively healthy environment for the type of creativity they are interested in. Stevenson is working at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Northeast Portland, where they have done cooking projects and also worked with a student to make a papier-mâché Batman cave on display at the school’s King School Museum of Contemporary Art. This year, they’ll study African history with students, beginning with the African continent and following slavery and the civil rights movement into a contemporary American context. The final project will likely be a film, to be screened at the King School Museum.

“Portland is interesting,” Stevenson said. “I came here with a chip on my shoulder, because the East Coast is stagnant and mired in the ways of old, and is very capitalistic-centric, it’s very high craft, high value. ‘Arts and crafts’ are reserved for kids and poorly paid public servants. Coming to Portland, I was immediately surprised. I was a little stand-offish with the art world, because I didn’t actually expect there would be interest in me or my activities, but there is interest, over a wide range of creative forms and styles and cultures, including some space for socially engaged forms of art, which is uncommon on the East Coast or other places generally. There seems to be an enhanced awareness and interest here.”

What is the fate of Finn’s galaxy?

It is, Stevenson pointedly observes, not for sale. It will go home with Finn, to merge with a galaxy of Minecraft, LEGO creations, drawings, and Pokémon… and whatever else the young artist from Yamhill is inspired to make.

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ARTS JOURNAL: I’ve started a tradition of asking those I interview for Oregon ArtsWatch if they have any recommendations of some type of art they’ve encountered — literary, film, musical, etc. Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr. had several. They ticked off an astonishing number of audio books, too many to list here, but a band and film came to mind: The Ghost of Paul Revere, where they have some alumni friends, will visit the Doug Fir Lounge in Portland on Nov. 12. Also, a song, Earth by Infinity Shred, and a film, Sylvain Chomet’s Attila Marcel.

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.

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