In the Shadows 

Don't Call it the Church of Elvis

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HERE I AM, standing inside the 24-Hour Church of Elvis. It's a tight space, a broom closet packed with Commodore 64 computers and a spider web of wires that light up the church's coin-operated art gallery from behind three windows on NW Couch.

Church founder, leader, and lead electrician Stephanie Pierce is wrangling with the prize chute. The first thing you should know about her is that she is not crazy. NOT CRAZY. Despite the fact that she holds a law degree but runs a 25-cent art gallery.

The second thing to know is that Pierce actually hates Elvis. The 24-Hour Church of Elvis is often visited by Elvis worshipers and they are often likely disappointed, because the only traces of the king in the gallery are three severed Elvis heads glued high up on the kitschy, cluttered structure that stares out at the street. The real name of the Church of Elvis is "Where's the Art?" But no one calls it that.

Pierce got the idea for the church while working as a waitress on a cruise ship in Hawaii, happy to be in paradise but pissed off about all the trash she waded through on beaches during her days off.

"I wanted to build a church that worshipped plastic. If people worship plastic, they would hoard it and not throw it on beaches. But I couldn't figure out how to make the dogma of the church bite-size," says Pierce, who has frizzy hair and black rimmed glasses, and speaks nonstop. If she were wearing a suit, I'd say she speaks with the fervor of a politician. But instead we're here, surrounded by a pile of hand-built art machines, so I'm not sure whom to compare her to. "Plastic. Styrofoam. Elvis. What we can't get rid of, we might as well worship," she says.

Pop 25 cents into one of the church's front slots and the wiring back here lights up, turning on the computers that promise to tell your fortune or kicking into motion a tiny movie that plays through a peephole. Pierce pulls a box out of somewhere and shows me what comes with the gallery's highest-price art, the-not-quite-legal $2 wedding: two neon rings, a tiny satchel of rice, and a finger-sized condom. The $25 fully legal wedding comes with more swag, including a marriage counseling handbook, with advice like, "Whose idea was it to get married anyway?"

During its 25 years in Portland, the coin-op gallery has moved through four locations, including an eight-foot deep storefront on SW 2nd and Ankeny that Pierce actually lived in one winter when she ran out of money. The way she tells it, Pierce hitchhiked to Portland during the Vietnam War with a jigsaw in her backpack, later going to law school and miserably working an office job in New York for a few years.

"My first thought when I came back to Portland was, 'I don't want to wear pantyhose,'" says Pierce.

When I first run into her, she's wearing rainbow socks. Rainbow socks, a poofy dress, a tiara, and looking absolutely distraught at 10:00 on a Saturday morning outside the church storefront, holding a sign reading, "Just Married." A would-be bride and groom were 20 minutes late to their own $25 wedding and Pierce was getting antsy. She's a very punctual, right-brained type.

She's so right-brained that, with the help of friends and a fat Commodore 64 manual, she programmed the church's flashing lights and electronic fortune-telling machine by herself way back in the '80s. And she makes tweaks daily.

"It's conceptual art, but my concept is accessible and fun," says Pierce. "I think that's actually a lot more difficult than being morbid, like putting together art about meat covered in flies or something. This gives you the chance to see something you never saw before. I know, because I invented it."

Back at the $25 wedding ceremony, the couple eventually arrived. The show went on.

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