Portland Playhouse A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens Portland Oregon

Sending out a message of joy – with no strings attached

Photographer Julie Keefe explores community-building in a time of social distancing with "Love Letters."

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Lucinda Klicker stopped by the Love Letter Kiosk on her bike, pausing to write a message of joy and leave it for a neighbor to find. Photo: Julie Keefe.

One could say that Julie Keefe is no stranger to serendipitous meetings between strangers. As much as she is known as a Portland-based photographer, she is also known for getting people to talk with each other – not at or even to each other, but really with each other. Conversations inspire and shape some of her most important public art projects – even when they happen years before a project comes to fruition.

Portland artist Julie Keefe uses photography, personal narratives, and conversation to create connections between individuals and communities. Photo: Julie Keefe.

For example, more than two decades ago, when Keefe was just beginning her community-based arts career, she slung popcorn and tickets to Blue Velvet and Brother from Another Planet, among others, at the former Movie House on SW Taylor in downtown Portland. In exchange for a night of work a week, she earned free access to every movie theater in the city, a great deal for a young artist. Larry Yes was still in school at the Metropolitan Learning Center, but he was also at the Movie House, exchanging projectionist duties for his own movie tickets. Keefe and Yes became workplace friends, but reconnected over the years. Later, Yes worked at Keefe’s daughter’s Waldorf school, and later still, they became collaborators when Keefe received a grant to engage families in North Portland, where Yes lived, by then himself an artist.

The community of artists behind Love Letters, left to right, Larry Yes, Majik Hodges, and Julie Keefe. Photo, Larry Yes.

Around the same time Keefe met Yes, she started teaching with Majik Hodges at Caldera Arts,  a non-profit organization founded in 1996 that brings innovative arts and environmental programming to students and communities in Portland and in Central Oregon. In the early days of Caldera, both women mentored students in the arts and in relationship with the mountains and lakes around them. “I learned so much from her about working with children, and then,” Keefe said, chuckling, “just life.” Keefe’s work with Hodges and Caldera would lead to an idea “that changed my career” – Keefe’s Hello Neighbor project.

These chance meetings in the 1990s and the ideas Keefe developed early in the 2000s laid a foundation for the work she’s doing now, work which was conceived during the pandemic and through the recent political and social upheavals. Keefe, Yes, and Hodges are poised to launch Love Letters – public, interactive art that reconnects friends and introduces strangers.

Hello Neighbor

For Hello Neighbor, launched in 2007, Keefe led workshops in six Oregon cities with rapidly changing populations. She guided the communities’ young people to interview and photograph their existing and new neighbors, thereby “begin[ning] a conversation that included them.” Together, they got to the bottom of the age-old debate “Pancakes or Waffles?”- but also “Do you feel safe in your community?” and “If you could change anything about the place where you live, what would that be?” The project, supported not only by Caldera, but also by the National Endowment for the Arts, became the state’s largest collaborative art project.

The Hello Neighbors project included teaching kids how to interview, film, and photograph their subjects. Photo: Julie Keefe.

Hello Neighbor began with this idea – that a simple ‘hello’ could create a lasting connection,” Keefe’s website explains. In 2021, Keefe was feeling a similar call – she missed collaborating with her friends and she missed… just saying hello to neighbors. “What could we do that would join us all together and reach out to the community again?” she wondered.

Hello Neighbor traveled to six cities in Oregon, and worked with over 250 children and adults, becoming the state’s largest collaborative public art project. Photo: Julie Keefe.

Keefe has been widely recognized for her collaborations and community-building. In 2012, she had named Portland’s first Creative Laureate, a unique position of advocacy for the arts, arts equity, creative industries, and practices, with the goal of bolstering the city’s diverse cultural ecosystem. A year later, she was named one of Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative in Business. They admired the way Hello Neighbor-style gatherings could help companies build internal teams and the way she saw not “cities”, but collections of communities that were rejuvenated when individuals demonstrated care and connection. In 2013, she partnered with Coalition for a Livable Future “to bring her special mix of conversation-fostering and picture-making” to their Equity Atlas 2.0, a storytelling project about both regional inequality issues and individual resilience and creativity.

Building her own community of artists

Now, Keefe brought her ruminations to her friends. You may know Yes for his rainbow-striped message We Are Together painted on the bricks at Pioneer Square in March 2020 or his big and little 3-D rainbows and colorful planks emblazoned with Love around town, including at the Portland Night Market. Others will know Yes for his 30-year musical career, during which he’s played what he calls his “positive cosmic folk” in the US and Europe, solo and with Michael Hurley, Sonny and the Sunsets, and Elliot Smith. Currently, Yes’s Everyone On This Planet Is Family installation is on view at the Portland International Airport. When Keefe approached him, Yes was expanding his artistic focus from music only to include more visual art and was looking for grants to help fund that. 

Working on an early version of the Love Letters Kiosk. Photo: Julie Keefe.

Hodges has been a community-based activist, artist, and program founder and facilitator for going on 50 years. Not only has she run her own projects, as when she worked for more than 20 years with Caldera and in leadership at Self Enhancement, Inc (SEI) for more than 10 years, but also from when she facilitated Hello Neighbor with Keefe. When Keefe approached her about joining in a project again, Hodges was interested in exploring what workshops could look like in the time of social distancing. 

As a trio, Keefe, Yes, and Hodges felt they could create something unique. They started brainstorming, and, Keefe said, “I really can’t exactly remember how this kernel came to us. Suddenly there’s an idea, and then it goes into this other idea…” 

Julie Keefe experiences some joy of her own at the Joy Store, an interactive art experience by balloon artist Kameron Messmer in downtown Portland. Photo: Elayna Yussen.

A joy delivery campaign

Their final idea, Love Letters, has earned a Regional Arts & Culture Council (RACC) Make|Learn|Build grant. Just as Make|Learn|Build was established to help artists work during the challenges of Covid-19, Love Letters was created to help people live again during the challenges of the pandemic.

Larry Yes collaborated with local designer Elliott Houha on the creation of a portable kiosk at which there will be letter-writing supplies. Passersby can stop and create a letter and leave it at the kiosk for a friend or stranger. Keefe sees it as a “joy-delivery campaign” – “a little welcome for you as you’re walking down the street or as you’re having your cup of coffee outside your building.”

Majik Hodges chats with kiosk designer Elliott Houha about writing love letters at the Love Letters Kiosk. Photo, Julie Keefe.

To help explain and guide the process, Keefe and Hodges will lead workshops outside for the neighborhood. They plan to teach letter writing, which is one of the “lost arts” Hodges specializes in teaching. They will include creative ways to “write” a letter, for example, through photos. Some cultures around the world don’t have letter-writing traditions, so how could you show appreciation for someone in this way, but differently? The kiosk will stay in one place for a period of time and then move to another secure, but public and accessible area.

Majik Hodge’s hands as she writes a letter to her mother. Photo: Julie Keefe.

Keefe hopes that, eventually, there will be Love Letters kiosks like there are Little Free Libraries, but if being an artist and living through a pandemic has taught her anything, it’s to “go in with goals, but know they can always change.”

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Portland Playhouse A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens Portland Oregon
Lucinda Klicker stopped by the Love Letter Kiosk on her bike, pausing to write a message of joy and leave it for a neighbor to find. Photo: Julie Keefe.

Whatever happens with Love Letters in the future, the project is about to making a hopeful impact on our present. “Right now,” Keefe said, “we feel that sending messages out to each other without strings attached could be really beautiful.”

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Love Letters will debut from 5:30pm to 7:30pm on September 29 as part of Street Books’ Justice and Care: Fall Vigil and Celebration of Community event on the South Park Blocks, between SW Jefferson and SW Madison in downtown Portland.

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2 Responses

  1. Julie & Majik are angel connectors of community. They spread acceptance and love. Thankyou, you make our city better

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