S1 An underground venue... literally.
Scott Mayoral

YOU NEVER FORGET your first time walking into S1's subterranean complex. A narrow corridor leads you in from NE Hancock down a ramp and two flights of stairs, revealing a several-thousand-square-foot concrete gallery and venue space, part art paradise, part Doomsday Preppers compound, hidden beneath Portland's Hollywood District.

"I love standing there when people walk in," says Executive Director Felisha Ledesma. "They walk in and just look so shocked." The below-ground confines belie what's actually there: one of Portland's leading art and music spaces.

Since the summer of 2014, S1 has showcased a vanguard of international artists, numerous live acts, and diverse workshops and talks revolving around art and music production. The skating-rink-sized room has seen fist-pumping sing-alongs from local rock bands, rosters of women DJs, and even off-kilter Nordic noise acts.

Seated among a bevy of iMacs and synthesizers in the S1 office are the venue's directors: Ledesma, Education Director Erik Carlson, and Visual Art Director Alex Ian Smith. "Felisha showed me the space," Carlson says, "and I was like, 'We have to start a thing here.'"

"We called the owner 500 times and made it happen," Ledesma says with a laugh.

Carlson and Ledesma first met through the art world at the Everett Station Lofts, a row of minuscule live-in gallery spaces in Old Town. When their events and shows started outgrowing the 200-square-foot galleries, greener pastures beckoned. "You would throw a dance night," Carlson remembers, "and [if] it was like 20 people, the place felt over-packed already."

"Here," Ledesma says, referring to the cavernous hideaway, "there's no one to bother."

S1's education and seminar programming puts the space more in line with community centers and info-shops than a traditional gallery or venue. There are conventional exhibits with artists and DJs, but they go up alongside artist talks and workshops. Carlson recalls the infectious din of a synthesizer-building workshop held at S1: "That was a fun day being in the room with everyone being like, 'I just made this!'"

The Women's Beat League, a group run in part by Ledesma, is devoted to creating inclusive opportunities for community in electronic music for women. They've held workshops and gear-shares with local luminaries like Natasha Kmeto. A recent workshop called "Decolonizing Sound" explored the intersections of culture, identity, and marginalization through listening and playing techniques. Artists run most of these events; Carlson, Ledesma and Smith all emphasize the fluidity of the artist/teacher/attendee roles. 

Last November, the founders hit a milestone in terms of long-term viability: gaining nonprofit status. The tax status allows the founders to open up S1 to donations and broaden their horizons for possible grants. "It kind of is this proof that we're in it," Ledesma says. Many of Portland's art and music spaces run with a "'til the wheels come off" mentality, operating until either the funding or the good graces of local government and landlords run out. Nonprofit status will help S1 achieve what Smith describes as the space's main focus right now: "Just keeping our head above water." In the live-fast, die-young world of music and art spaces, S1 may now be able to live longer than the rest.