An Ecology of Murals


Painting alumnus Esteban Camacho Steffensen '11 takes environmental advocacy to the streets with his murals.

Recent graduate Esteban Camacho Steffensen ’11 painted his first mural – on a wall along an indoor pool at the local YMCA – when he was a junior in high school. He painted his second mural – for the science department at his school – a year later. Since then, Steffensen has painted more than a dozen murals in Portland and around the world and is now teaching mural painting internationally.

For Steffensen, the draw and challenge of mural painting is its potential to provoke change and conversation in a community, specifically around the topic of environmental sustainability.

“I’m always asking myself how I can use art to make cities more sustainable,” Steffensen explains. “The environment influences us. That’s undeniable. And where there’s a habitat for people, there’s a habitat for nature. I believe that public art can help society. My goal is to present ecology and to beautify existing urban environments.”

An early interest in science soon translated itself into his art practice. That interest in ecology endures: Steffensen says he often turns to nature to find inspiration on ways to transform the “concrete jungle.”

Esteban Camacho Steffensen ’10 at work on “Peoples of the Columbia,” an 80-foot long mural for the School of Social Work at Portland State University’s new Academic and Student Recreation Center facility. Photo by Heather Zinger ’10.

From Steffensen’s artist statement: “My art shows viewers how humans are still intricately connected to nature, despite the fact that we often work against it or destroy it. But I attempt to propose solutions and possible paths to return to a dynamic equilibrium with nature. My goal is to create images that give a sense of the constant flow, the give and take, the need to belong on Earth as a living link of a giant chain, which is always breaking and reconnecting itself.”

“It all comes down to this: how can we use creative minds and people to create beautiful spaces?”

Steffensen has thought seriously about the performative nature of mural painting and considers murals to be a form of social practice. Because murals require city permits and funding, each project often includes relationships with the client, with city officials and with passing pedestrians.

“Murals are special for a lot of reasons. For one thing, you get to work with people who want [a mural]. It’s rare and quite special for someone to ask for a mural, so there’s usually a reciprocal amount of energy and interest [in the project]. Also, murals always need contact with a community. The stakeholders make each project different. I spend most of my time establishing a relationship and a design.”

He adds, “Every project I’ve done, I’ve always had help.”

Detail of “Peoples of the Columbia,” by Esteban Camacho Steffensen. Photo by Heather Zinger ’10.

Today, Steffensen is focusing on collaborative projects with his students: he is currently teaching classes on mural painting and public art to international students in Costa Rica.

“Mural painting continues to challenge me,” says Steffensen. “Right now, I’m learning how to teach painting. I have to slow myself down and go through each step more deliberately.”

Looking ahead, Steffensen is considering a master’s degree in public policy or environmental studies and wants to continue exploring arts education in Portland and abroad.

“If I had any advice for graduating students,” Steffensen says, “I would give yourself room to fail even bigger. Don’t just repeat a project you know you did well in school. Dare something new. There are risks involved. Life drawing, public speaking, teaching a class, it doesn’t matter. Just do it.”

Steffensen at work on “Peoples of the Columbia,” at Portland State University. Photo by Heather Zinger ’10.

You can examples of Steffensen’s work on the walls of several buildings around Portland: on an upper wall of the School of Social Work at Portland State University, on the side of Community Energy Project at the corner of NE Alberta Street and NE Martin Luther King Jr Blvd and as a tromp-l’oeil stained glass window at St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church in Southwest Portland.

by Killeen Hanson '12

— Posted on 11/01 at 01:59 PM

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