Here We Are Now: The Legacy of Portland’s Public Art by PNCA Alumni and Faculty
PNCA faculty member Victor Maldonado writes on the legacy of Portland’s public art through the work of PNCA alumni and faculty.
Pacific Northwest College of Art’s start as the Museum Art School 100 years ago began a legacy carried forward by hundreds of students, alumni and faculty. This long line of PNCA artists have traced an indelible pattern over the city of Portland—and over the last 10 decades both inside and outside its gallery and studio walls. PNCA’s community of artists has played a tangible role in the ongoing development of Portland as a living city of art. A walk through the heart of the city uncovers a trove of artistic endeavors.
For over 30 years, Portland has been busy selecting and caring for hundreds of the finest works produced by its resident artists. These works are comprised of what is traditionally thought of as “public art”—permanently sited public sculpture; innovative networks of portable wall works spread across city offices; and ethereal temporary projects deployed to foster Portland’s direct civic engagement with the public.
At the forefront of the engagement between public art and PNCA artists was the Metropolitan Arts Commission, which evolved into the Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC) in 1985. Portland’s public art collections are as varied as the neighborhood representatives—commercial developers, artists and designers—working alongside policy wonks to create a unified curatorial vision. Together, this community combines a civic engagement with artistic forces to shape the contours of Portland.
An early and striking example of RACC’s public art collection is a 1971 Jack McLarty acrylic painting, Man’s Past and the Garden of Possibilities, in the Keller Auditorium, first floor balcony. McLarty received his Painting degree in 1940, and 30 years later, executed a powerful allegory about the convictions of our environmentalism today, but also the mindful account of the pitfalls of progress that keep the urban growth boundary at bay.
A chapter unto himself in the history of PNCA’s early days as the Museum Art School and an influential practitioner of modern abstraction, Louis Bunce, an original East Coast transplant, taught at the School from 1946 to 1972 and helped set the pace and tone for an entire generation of artists. In Quiet Sea and Rocks, 1981, installed permanently in the Justice Center Lobby, it’s easy to relate the majestic power of the Oregon Coast to that of the city and its inhabitants. Bunce and Oregonians know not to turn their back on the Ocean; anything can happen.
Even for the most casual of strollers, Portland’s public art collection reveals an ingrained passion for innovation along with deep ecological concerns for sustainability and a resilient human nature that weathers the storms of a rugged Northwest city.
Class of 1950 and a faculty member from 1959 to 1984, George Johanson’s ceramic tile sculpture, Rain and River, 1987, in the Portland Building features two familiar players in mural form. Stewardship of our resources and the symbiosis available in the ecology of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers abound in a confluence of aesthetics and politics.
Time flies, especially if you’re an art school founded on observation and classical beauty and fostered by the canons of Modernism. PNCA willed an independent spirit marked by amnesia and the new. The last 100 years have brought us great cultural changes. Who an artist can be and what art is has been redefined at every stage of our history—PNCA has provided examples of each kind on many city streets.
Sheltered from the many storms that wash our city, the installation space in the lobby of the Portland Building has kept pace with the relentless influx of artists and students to exhibit the breadth and wealth of Portland’s art community. A prime example of a generous post-modern architecture and culture, the monthly installation space at the Portland Building has featured the work of many PNCA students including: Chandra Bocci (’02), Rachel Denny (’97) and Malia Jensen (’89), along with the work of instrumental faculty member Nan Curtis.
A few short blocks away in Pettygrove Park, you can see the formally beautiful and fluid bronze sculpture The Dreamer, 1979, by the phenomenal student-come-faculty emeritus Manuel Izquierdo (’51). Dripping and surreal, it is the synthesis that Izqueirdo passed to his students and what contemporary artists like current faculty Chris Gander continue to deploy in increasingly formal and astute geometric forms. These works belly an approachable humor and resilience, as in his abiding stainless steel Puzzle Tower on Southwest Fifth Avenue, between Main and Salmon Streets.
Daniel Duford expands on that whim with his recently installed The Legend of the Green Man of Portland, 2009. Combining bronze, cast concrete, porcelain enamel on steel and comprising 10 city blocks, Duford’s public art installation between Northeast Couch and Davis Streets is the city’s largest and most embedded work to date—mixing large-scale pedestals and figurative sculpture with scattered placards along Southwest Fifth and Sixth Avenues, that create a new kind of monumentalism.
Current faculty member and public artist extraordinaire Linda Wysong’s Portals, 2007, is a piece that we can apprehend through our eyes and carry in our mind, transfixed. Wysong’s concrete architectural integrations merge with the River East Center in a radical and fluid manner mediating our own amalgamation as artists into the face of our city. Creating spaces of reflection about inter-connections and multiple dimensions, Wysong’s works always carry a soulful character in the most accessible of materials.
Picking up on that theme, across the river in the outskirts of downtown on Southwest Sixth Avenue between Montgomery and Mills Streets is PNCA Intermedia Chair and faculty Emily Ginsburg’s Conduit, 2009. Scaling the flank of its host building, Ginsburg mediates the silent but enriching poetics of lives lived within the architecture of a city in a piece that combines the sophistication of design with the muscularity of porcelain enamel on steel. It depicts a gritty city made legible through her skillful renderings of graphic symbols of inhabitation and signs of activity in homes and workspaces.
Minutes away, on a fourth floor wall in City Hall, Lucinda Parker’s Rose City, City Rose 1998, imagines our city anew as an amalgam of impossible surfaces, unsustainable energy beating in waves of new activity. Parker received her degree in Painting from the Museum Art School in 1966 and was a PNCA pillar as a faculty member from 1979 to 2006. Her composition, like the folds of time, lives in tight quarters within its supports; squeezed for economy of space. Looking into Parker’s grand painting is difficult because we must first unfold our mental maps and physically retrace her steps.
With clear views on those rare grey-less days, not only are the city limits within our line of sight, but also the distant past through the ancient volcanoes Mount St Helens and Mount Hood. From the graduating class of ’59 Lee Kelly’s, Frank Beach Memorial Fountain, 1975, in the Rose Gardens of Washington Park, we are also afforded a quiet and contemplative site for a public piece of mind. Kelly’s acoustically receptive stainless steel sculpture is the perfect spot to get your bearings on the city amidst the fragrant bounty of roses to see exactly how we got to where we are now.