Not long ago I was approached by Andy MacMillian to be a part of a group show exploring Portlandia — the statue whose namesake television show is far more famous than the statue itself.
Despite the intentions of the people who commissioned the statue, she never took off as an icon of the city — she never became for us what the Statue of Liberty is for New York — in large part, it seems, because of Raymond Kaskey’s vigorous protection of his exclusive rights to the image. Arguably a wise art-business move, but in the end a misguided step in the stingy Northwest, where it was unlikely anybody was actually going to shell out the money to use her ubiquitously on mugs, t-shirts, etc., particularly after the large commission fee, funded in large part by the public.
So there she sits, atop the back of a strange building downtown, off my usual bus lines and therefore for me a completely forgettable thing despite being the second largest copper statue in the country. She is completely unrecognizable to most people, even to locals, if they haven’t managed to take a city tour or walk underneath her on fifth avenue.
Andy had been doing some research on this, and had been incensed that Portland essentially wasted a golden opportunity to personify the city with a strong female character. She is based off the woman on the city seal — itself a complicated and generally uninspiring thing because it is so cluttered up with symbols, to wit:
“… a female figure in the center thereof, representing commerce, and holding in her right hand a trident and pointing with her left to a sheaf of wheat and a forest, with a representation of Mount Hood in the background, and at her feet a cogwheel and hammer, and on her right a steamship coming into port.”
It may have been moving and thrilling in 1878, when this was written in the ordinance, but nowadays the seal just looks clunky. Tepid. All redesigns have faithfully adhered to the ordinance, but for some reason have also always been rendered like an etching, so never ends up looking modern or representative of the city in any way.
Andy wanted a fresh take on all this, so he put out a call to various artists — all women or female-identified — to take a crack at this concept and see what we could do with it.
I found it to be a weirdly difficult concept — encapsulate a whole city in a single, strong female figure. Portland has changed so much over the scant nine years I’ve lived here — and had changed a good deal long before I got here — that it’s a tricky story to speak to. After all, my Portland isn’t Chuck Palahniuk’s Portland, not by a long shot, and the Portland I found when I got here during the Great Recession is worlds away from the Little California it’s becoming now. A city that once revered its history is quickly being consumed by boxy, high-end condos, and many of my cornerstone locals have begun to seek their fortunes elsewhere. (And it so easily could have been us, lest we forget.)
So it’s not exactly a warm and gushing moment to be asked to personify your city. I think a lot more of us would have gone the route Cate Andrews went if we’d had the guts.
On the other hand, calls like this are rarely this meaty and specific. And it was stimulating to try and wrestle the concept into something visually satisfying.
In these angry and divisive times I find myself longing for redemption. For hope. And because I survived our eviction and managed to land within the city limits in a good situation, I am able to cling hard to the idea that Portland is still a good place for artists. Not absolutely everybody I know has moved to Cleveland or Detroit or Butte. There are still a lot of us here. And a robust handful of us were in this show, displaying our courage and hope.
The show is up until September 3rd at Land Gallery: 3925 N Mississippi.
If you happen to be out of town, no matter: you can still view the digital gallery and buy a print here.
Proceeds from this show go towards Call to Safety (formerly Portland Women’s Crisis Line).