By ANDREW D. JANKOWSKI
Paint got politicized this summer. President Trump’s FOX News surrogates, including Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), cited the outlaw artform of graffiti as evidence of American collapse, comparing graffiti artists to 19th century insurrectionists back in July. Meanwhile, Trump claimed not to have seen footage of his followers shooting paintballs and other projectiles at unarmed Black Lives Matter demonstrators in downtown Portland back in late August and early September. As the Trump Administration failed to prevent both a recession and thousands of deaths in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, artists have used whatever means they’ve had to reflect the moment, brighten their communities, earn income, and gain exposure.
Street art, graffiti, and resistance-based aesthetics will dominate 2021 visuals. Large-scale street art, such as murals and window paintings, expose viewers to reflections of the moment from a socially safe distance that traditional galleries can’t guarantee. Graffiti and street art represent true freedom, especially with the latter’s outright rejection of formal authority. Graffiti is an outlaw art by nature, which is why it doesn’t figure into traditional academic avenues. The most common distinctions between murals and graffiti are: who authorized the art and for how long the art is authorized. When a borderless pandemic brings global society to a halt, of course, some rules fly out the window as those brakes hit.
Over the summer, artists worked with nonprofits, businesses, and individuals to paint forward-gazing visions of hope, joy, and the wonders of life. Some knowingly donated their time, but many artists were paid for their labor and ideas. As Portland became a national fixation during still-ongoing protests against racism and police brutality, so too did the focus of street art shift to affirm and celebrate Black and brown lives in America’s Whitest City.
Unlike some public art, murals rarely have esoteric pretext. Their impact is immediately understood, or at least begs a deeper reading with easy-to-find references. Street art can more immediately and intimately reflect a city’s character than words. In a year characterized by explicit racism, rampant disease, and historically devastating wildfires, images of unafraid people, healthy animals, and pristine nature scenes take on poignant new meaning. Portland’s pop-up murals are a greatly autonomous effort to boost the city’s morale while providing artists with revenue streams and creative outlets.
Most window boards first went up in March, but some went up in May and June, after protests started. Emma Berger was the first artist to paint on Apple’s window boards. “[Apple] painted the plywood black. They were basically asking for a canvas,” Berger told ArtsWatch in June, hours after first completing the mural.
After starting simply with the late George Floyd’s face, name, and some of his last words, Berger’s mural organically grew to include other names, faces, and messages left by protesters, artists, and visitors. Berger also collaborated on other Pioneer Place window coverings, including black and yellow portraits of Black women complementing Tiffany & Co.’s branded blue awnings. “You’ve got to protest in the ways you can,” Berger said in June. “I can paint really well.”
Berger told KOIN News in August that the mural is a public piece, and while she repaired white supremacist vandalism at the time: “… it’s everyone’s piece and it can have that type of vandalism on it.” Indeed, in early November, Floyd’s image had again been vandalized, this time with no one on alert to repair it. A message reading “Pay Steve Jobs Back” —a reference to Apple’s late co-founder, who died almost ten years ago, and the company’s broken windows —was scrawled on Floyd’s nose. On the building’s east side, a counter-image of Floyd faces a jewelry store’s unpainted boards. Unlike Berger’s curved lines with natural hues, this counter-image uses harsh, angular lines to drawn Floyd’s face, making him look like a villain. There are several messages disparaging Floyd written on this face, many of which are unfit to print. One reads “criminal.”
Willie Cannon, also known as Blue, is a graffiti artist who expanded to murals under COVID-19 restrictions. Blue’s artwork is characterized by psychedelic animals, especially lions, with multichromatic eyes. Blue has several murals in downtown Portland, and while he didn’t initially have contact with business owners, some did end up giving him free reign to draw what he wanted. Blue told ArtsWatch a store removed a set of his lions wearing pig masks from their storefront for being “too political.” He said he had the store’s unrestricted blessing, with no requests against political work, when he painted his lions. “They were supposed to be powerful and inspiring, but they were covered up for some magical reason,” Blue said of his work.
The photographer Intisar Abioto’s murals are among Portland’s more experimental public art installations. Abioto’s Old Town window collage, blk nw/s: black news: black northwests, celebrates the neighborhood’s Black origins, and honors Black journalists and newspapers excluded from Portland’s local and national white-centered narratives. Her Central Eastside mural, BabeSis, Aunts Tenn, Ms. W, Miss Choomby…& in Our Company, is an ode to Black women, especially those in her storied family. Each mural was respectively funded by the organizations Nat Turner Project and Forest For The Trees. Both murals are Abioto’s first public works since quarantine began, and her literal marks on the city she’s called home for over a decade.
“I want to be able to speak in company with other Black women, like a gathering,” Abioto said. “A lot of my work is about gathering, like bit by bit: stories, people portraits. In the process, there’s a mosaic, there’s a weaving. I love symbols, I love to feel the spirit of community.”
blk nw/s uses archival prints from her portraiture series as well as newspaper issues and images from the influential Rutherford family’s Portland State University (PSU) archive, and can be rearranged at her discretion. BabeSis utilized an experimental wallpaper glue process, combining larger than life family photos, and text from award-winning poets Nikky Finney and Samiya Bashir. BabeSis is susceptible to the elements by design. While there’s poetry to the physical act of attending to the words and images of Black women, Abioto says construction will ultimately obscure BabeSis. Abioto told ArtsWatch her murals’ temporal, mutable nature directly reflects experiences across the Black diaspora.
“It’s one thing being a Black woman photographer and a Black woman photographer here,” Abioto said, “Even as a storyteller, there are all these different ways you can be obscured as a Black photographer, where historical we haven’t been brought on to do work by either white-owned companies or even male-owned outlets, so being Black woman storyteller here, I’ve been doing this work a lot of the time on my own, just because I want to. It’s to document Black people in this city, but to also document my own time here, like I’m part of this place.”
Xochilt Ruvalcaba and Latoya Lovely are two emerging, autodidactic artists whose work features prominently around Portland. Lovely has worked on Portland Street Art Alliance (PSAA), Old Town Community Association (OTCA) and privately funded public projects. Ruvalcaba was commissioned a window board series at Mother’s Bistro dedicated to Floyd and murdered Black boys including Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice. Both artists were home studio painters before they were muralists. Both artists have a few college art credits, but have made art since childhood. Both artists’ rosters are now booked with highly visible new projects.
While neither artist worked together on their respective murals, their biographies and reasons for making art hold striking parallels. Both artists are mothers who envision happier, more colorful futures for their children. But even as racists have harassed both artists in their lives, Ruvalcaba and Lovely acknowledged how racism affects them differently from other people.
Ruvalcaba and her brother were called anti-Mexican and Indigenous slurs as children, while their white-passing sibling did not experience the same harassment. During quarantine, when they had to move out of their home near southeast Clinton St., Ruvalcaba’s family was accosted with racist epithets and threats by a white neighbor who decided they looked out of place.
“I’ve been directly affected by racism in my life —nothing in the comparison for what the mother of a Black child would feel, but I use that as a reference,” Ruvalcaba explained. “A mother of a Black child has so many worries every day in life that we can’t even grasp. I was feeling so pent-up. My dad has basically been afraid to drive over the last few years after Trump got elected, because Trump turned this perception on immigrants, especially Mexican males. I was raised to know what racism was at a real young age, but I think sometimes when we’re young, things happen and we just don’t process it that much.”
Ruvalcaba is a former Mother’s Bistro employee, and said her former boss, Mother’s owner Lisa Schroeder, commissioned her to tell the stories of Black children killed by cops after the two discussed Floyd’s heartbreaking final words, which included a call for his mother. These words ostensibly inspired mothers to appear at protests across the country this past summer, especially the so-called Wall of Moms. Ruvalcaba’s multidisciplinary approach is informed by printmaking. The Mother’s windows use tender portraiture and historical text with a warm, maternalistic font to catch focus.
Ruvalcaba’s husband assisted her after she was repeatedly harassed during the creation process, and because he feared what could happen to her if rightwing extremists including Trump supporters and Proud Boys found her alone. But she also had positive experiences with pedestrians: whether with a Black mother whose son is the age Tamir Rice should be; or with a white pre-teen boy who stopped to read each window cover against his parents’ wishes.
“I cried on and off the whole time I painted them, because it’s so sad,” she said. “They’re so young, and they still have no justice.”
Lovely prioritizes bright, sunny colors in her paintings and murals as homegrown medicine. Lovely moved to Portland from Florida, and developed seasonal depression adjusting to the Pacific Northwest’s weather. After a few years of practice watching YouTube videos, Lovely’s painting practice has expanded to murals seen in Old Town and downtown, as well as at businesses on northeast Killingsworth St. and northeast Sandy Blvd. She will soon illustrate a children’s book, and have permanent work on display at PSU and the new Multnomah County courthouse.
Lovely’s work is most inspired by her toddler son. As she revisits cartoons and kids’ media she loved as a child, Lovely was caught off guard by how few Black characters were represented. Lovely hopes her work will radically change how her son and his peers grow up and develop their own self image. “I want to see my son, and kids who look like him, see themselves in my art and say ‘That’s amazing, that’s beautiful,” she said of her work.
Since 2012, the Portland Street Art Alliance (PSAA) has acted as a liaison between city officials who’ve misunderstood street art, and artists affected by anti-graffiti policies. “The loophole is [that] they’re temporary and not on the building itself. They’re on temporarily boarded-up windows, said Tiffany Conklin, PSAA’s executive founding director. “We said early on, ‘Don’t get a permit for [board murals], there’s no way the City of Portland can even process permits for actual murals right now’ … We took it upon ourselves to say ‘Just go ahead and paint it, don’t worry about it.’”
PSAA coordinated large-scale murals, mostly on Portland’s east side, fueled in part by grants and private donations. When shelter in place orders were issued, PSAA’s traditional revenue dried up, and typical mural crews adapted to socially distant restrictions. PSAA helped coordinate window murals around downtown Portland’s World Trade Center, as well as window murals on northeast Sandy and southeast Hawthorne Boulevards.
“It’s been really impressive to see how grassroots it’s become, and people were just doing it” said Tomás Valladares, another PSAA founding director. “It ended up being that we didn’t need to be that involved in that process as a middle person.”
Old Town’s murals first appeared in early spring, before Black Lives Matter protests changed many curators’ priorities. The neighborhood’s beautification has long been underway, thanks to area businesses, leaders, and organizations. While painting the long-decommissioned House of Louie, OTCA Development Director Daniel Klinkert told ArtsWatch OTCA’s work roster was packed before the coronavirus, and their work’s urgency has been long understood.
“Through the pandemic, Old Town has had a lot of problems,” Klinkert said. “We’ve had everyone who was working —business owners, employees, patrons —leave the area at once, and we’ve had unfortunately a lot of struggling individuals who unfortunately have been left to themselves and left without meaningful assistance, and that’s been an unfortunate situation, first and foremost for the people who have unfortunately have live in the streets, so that’s again another motivating factor to brighten up the environment through what’s been a difficult time, really for everyone.”
Klinkert said OTCA developed a roster of emerging and established artists before the pandemic, prioritizing BIPOC artists as they planned the year’s projects. The House of Louie mural project would’ve been an early OTCA project before the pandemic, but wound up being one of the year’s last projects, celebrated with a socially distant party in July. OTCA’s mural initiative ultimately covered businesses in Ankeny Alley, Old Town-Chinatown, and the bus station recently winterized into a houseless shelter.
Regional Arts & Culture Council (RACC), the Oregon Historical Society (OHS), and other organizations have pledged to preserve Portland’s grassroots street art produced during the ongoing coronavirus. RACC-managed and city-managed funds have supported numerous murals and window cover paintings, whether supporting a sole artist, an entire team, or just reimbursing material costs.
Kristin Calhoun, RACC’s Director of Public Art, and Rachel Randles, OHS’ Director of Marketing & Communications, each confirmed their respective organization’s involvement with a preservation effort, along with the involvement of other organizations. Calhoun clarified, however, that the preservation effort has been paused for numerous reasons, including the ongoing pandemic and unprecedented wildfires in September.
“We had all these conversations in July, we thought we had to have it all together because we thought everything was opening, and nothing’s opening, or the boards aren’t coming down,” Calhoun told ArtsWatch in October.
Calhoun confirmed the preservation effort up to that point had focused on Pioneer Place and Old Town/Chinatown’s window covers, but RACC’s focus was also drawn toward emergency support for artists, as well as damage to public art. OHS similarly dealt with damage done to its building and displays.
“It’s the intersection of all the elements, as well as the artists’ intentions,” Calhoun said. “Did they want them to be saved, or did they expect them to be ephemeral? Who actually owns the boards? Is it a property owner, do they want to hold onto them, or have them be in a bigger collection? It’s a whole bunch of little lines of inquiry that we chase.”
As the coronavirus shows no signs of slowing its spread, and as Portland braces for the next wave of political demonstrations, window coverings and murals will feature prominently in the visual landscape. COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter response art now coexist alongside national political response art —such the Ruth Bader Ginsburg street painting in Portland’s Alameda neighborhood that debuted in September, depicting the late Supreme Court justice with boxing gloves (or lobster claws, depending on your perspective). As new boards go up, and as existing works get vandalized or stolen, Portland’s collection of indefinitely temporary window board paintings is sure to grow. The crucial work of ensuring artists are fairly compensated, however, carries on in a stagnant, unpredictable economy.
This article was made possible with support from The Ford Family Foundation’s Visual Arts Program.