BEFORE COMING ACROSS local painter Natalie Sept's Dishwasher Project, I'd mostly blocked out the time I spent working in a kitchen and my shifts in the dish pit: temperatures in the hundreds, haphazard towers of messy dishware, and that signature wet slop of Everything on the Menu collecting in the gigantic, stainless steel sink. I remember plates of nachos and half-eaten chiliburgers flying through the dish window, and biking home at the end of the night soaking wet and wearing some small part of each meal served over the course of the shift.
To work a dish pit, in the worst of restaurants, is to toil in a void of empathy and visibility. In the best of restaurants, the dish guy is revered by staff, but remains unseen by patrons. Either way, it's the most important job in a restaurant. No dishes, no food on the tables. Period.
And it's this meeting of integrality and invisibility that initially sparked Natalie Sept's interest in painting portraits of Portland's dishwashers. What began in 2010 as a project for a Portland State University painting class grew into a collaboration with Israel Bayer, Street Roots executive director and photographer, culminating in a series of paintings and photos that document the people who make sure you're eating off a clean plate.
Sept's paintings are inspired by interviews with the subjects of her portraits—interviews that, at times, were conducted through a translator—and she says her finished paintings reflect each person's story.
That said, these paintings and photographs are less about understanding the details of any one person's life, and more about the emotional nuances of humanity's relationship with labor: a man with a stoic brow and far-away eyes is painted against a bleak background of barely rendered damask wallpaper; a father-son duo look up from their work—the teenager, mid-scrub, and the father checking in on things with a whisk in his hand; and a man in a baseball cap smiles at the viewer as much with his eyes as he does with his mouth, the kitchen bustling behind him.
Dishwasher Project hung for the month of May at the Radio Room, but if you missed it, there's a final, one-night showing of the exhibit at the Cleaners at the Ace Hotel on Thursday, June 6. The men and women featured in Sept's oil paintings and Bayer's photographs will be in attendance.