I often wonder what it would be like to view Portland through fresh eyes again. My first night in town, which was nearly 10 years ago now, my aunt took me for sushi on the top floor of the Big Pink. It was dark out, so I failed to take in the quaint smallness of downtown and the rolling green scenery of the West Hills. However, when I arrived at the Society Hotel for a brief tour last week, I found myself stricken by a vague unfamiliarity with Chinatown and the breathtaking daytime views from the hotel’s rooftop lookout.
The hotel, located on the corner of NW 3rd and Davis, was built in 1881 to be a center of operations for the Seaman’s Friends Society of Portland. An affiliate of an organization originally stationed in New York City, the Pacific Northwest chapter was made up of such nineteenth-century local celebs as William S. Ladd and Simeon Reed, who sought out “to promote the temporal, moral, and spiritual welfare of the Seamen, Steamboatmen, and Longshoremen visiting or belonging to the port.” This is what I learned from the small notecard accompanying an image of a ship I was able to project onto one of the darkened hotel room walls.
A Colorful Life, an installation project envisioned by the Society’s general manager Jacob Halverson and artist Jen Fuller, aims to facilitate an intimate connection between the hotel’s guests and Portland’s local history, culture, and lore. Each room is equipped with a rotating LED light fixture and a transparent slide of a Portland-specific image that can be projected onto the walls and moved as desired. Guests are encouraged to interact with the image and the story that comes along with it by coloring in the negative space or providing their own visual interpretation of the story, the image, or their personal interaction with the city. “We are quite literally encouraging guests to color on the walls,” says Halverson, who thought up the idea after watching an intimate moment between guests captured in the flash of a camera during a photo shoot.
Halverson then began collecting stories from Society employees and guests—ranging from locals to international visitors—who shared their favorite stories about Portland or aspects of the city that they relished. The anecdotes range from whimsical to abstract to informational, giving hotel guests a sense of Portland’s dynamism. Some of the outstanding characteristics of the city are what one might expect, like horse rings punctuating our sidewalks, while others underline unexpected and oddly mythical lore, like the story of Tusko the Drunk Elephant. Taken together, these stories create a map through imagery that feels unique to the city I have called home for the past decade.
Working with artist Fuller, Halverson developed plastic slides, or “Personal Portland Projections,” that could be inserted into the light fixture installed in each of the 38 rooms. Each guest is provided with dry-erase markers, a card that further details the image, and an incentive to share their experience of Portland, as Halverson plans on showcasing the slides in tandem with other installations in Portland Winter Light Festival in February.
It is easy for hotel rooms to feel impersonal in their sterility, and I wonder if that prevents me from travelling as much as I should. However, what Halverson has accomplished, with creativity and enthusiasm, is a meeting place for a stranger and the new city in which they find themselves. A Colorful Life facilitates a connection between the Society Hotel’s guests, staff, and physical surroundings that enriches the idea of going somewhere uncharted. “These connections with people and places,” Halverson states on the hotel’s website, “are what makes travel so meaningful and rich.”