Literary Arts Portland Book Festival 2022 Portland Oregon Events

Q&A: Liza Mana Burns, Cultural Trust license-plate artist, is on the bus

The Eugene muralist says seeing her work on the Oregon Coast Art Bus is both meaningful and flattering.

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Liza Mana Burns incorporated 127 Oregon symbols into her Cultural Trust license plate design -- which has been blown up to bus-size and will soon appear as murals at four Oregon airports. Photo by: Lori Tobias
Liza Mana Burns incorporated 127 Oregon symbols into her Cultural Trust license plate design — which has been blown up to bus-size and will soon appear as murals at four Oregon airports. Photo by: Lori Tobias

It was an everybody-who’s-anybody crowd Thursday afternoon at the unveiling of the Oregon Coast Art Bus outside the Newport Performing Arts Center. Among the elected officials and Oregon arts and cultural notables, one person was truly a guest of honor. That was Liza Mana Burns, the Eugene artist who created the composite image originally designed for Oregon’s new Cultural Trust license plate, then enlarged to mural-size for four Oregon airports, and now rendered bus-size.

“Before, I was working, but my art wasn’t on the side of a bus,” Burns told the small crowd. “It was a life-changer.”

We talked with Burns before the unveiling about her latest achievement.

It must be quite an experience to see your work move from a canvas the size of a license plate to a full-sized bus.

Burns: Well, this whole project has been nuts that way. It started as a piece of digital art that’s supposed to sit behind some letters, and then it turned into these four huge murals. And now to see it plastered on a bus is just bizarre. It’s so bizarre as an artist to watch your work take on its own life that way. You know, it’s gotten this second life and third life and fourth life and fifth life. It’s kind of hard to describe. I don’t think a lot of people get to experience that with their art. I’ve been so lucky. It’s very crazy.

I’m guessing that the fact that this particular rendering is on a bus meant to bring art to kids – many who otherwise may not get that exposure – is a bonus?

It’s an honor, honestly, to be a part of what these guys do, and have my art be something that these kids get to experience while they do all these other things. It’s really flattering. And it’s so meaningful, because I got access to all kinds of art, a ton, as a kid. I was super lucky. I got to do art classes and they gave it to me in school. I would have loved this when I was a kid, I would have been on this bus all the time. So, it’s very neat.

Was the interactive visual key that explains each of the design’s 127 symbols your idea?

When we were first conceiving this project, I got the brief that said to do Oregon culture in a license plate.  I started realizing, OK, I want to do symbols; I want to do imagery, because I want to try and pack it with a wide breadth of things. The more I did, the more I was like, man, there’s so many small, tiny symbols that you just want to know more about.  It’s a discovery. It’s a key for people so they can say, “All right, I want to learn more about what the heck is that thing right there?” Then we get a space to tell that story. That’s the fun part for me about this piece. There’s a lot of layers of discovery to it. You get this chance to really deep dive into these little niche parts of Oregon culture and the key lets you do that without overloading this one design.

Do you think it broadens the audience?

Oh, yeah. It’s this sort of jumping-off point where they say, “Here’s a piece I know,” or “I want to learn about that.” Recognizing something, there’s some pride in that, too. “That’s my part of Oregon. I know where that’s from.” That’s a neat part, too.

Lori Tobias is a journalist of many years, and was a staff writer for The Oregonian for more than a decade, and a columnist and features writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Her memoir “Storm Beat – A Journalist Reports from the Oregon Coast” was published in 2020 by Oregon State University press. She is also the author of the novel Wander, winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for literary fiction and a finalist for the 2017 International Book Awards for new fiction. She lives on the Oregon Coast with her husband Chan and rescue pups Luna and Monkey.

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