THERE'S A STATUE of a cat on the transit mall downtown. It's called "Cat in Repose" and I pet it every time I walk by it. There's also an abstract statue called "Thor," more than a few metal horses, and marble naked people. SE Division is populated by statues of miniature folk, George Washington stands stolidly over NE Sandy, Sacagawea watches over Washington Park, and Harvey Scott looms over Portland from the top of Mt. Tabor. Public art is everywhere.
According to Kristin Calhoun and Peggy Kendellen, two public art managers with the Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC), Portland got in early on the public art game.
"We were a pretty early adopter, especially for a community our size," says Calhoun. "I think it's a long-held and fundamental belief that when the city or state or county are building infrastructure that art should be part of the equation. It has become an expectation."
Kendellen points out that the oldest examples of public art in Portland—such as the Skidmore Fountain and the "Thompson Elk"—came from wealthy philanthropists gifting things to the city.
"That's how cities begin to build their public art programs—through donations, even nowadays," she says. "These cities get all these donations, and think, 'Oh my gosh... we need to have a program, or at least some rules, about how to accept donations.'"
Public art that's donated to the city now has to go through a rigorous process of approval.
"We have a really specific process for donating," says Calhoun. "We have a public art advisory committee that's made up of curators, artists, and collectors. They look at the role of [donations] in our collection."
Calhoun says the committee asks questions like, "Does this add to the city's collection, or is this someone trying to clean house? Every once in a while we get things that just don't fit."
For works commissioned for a specific building or site, the city, state, or county will have an open call for artists to submit their résumés, portfolios, and proposals for the project, and after that comes a months-long approval process that includes input from curators, architects, other artists, and sundry experts weighing in on artwork that everyone will have to look at for years to come.
Public art also has to deal with the weather and other logistics that gallery work never has to face. Artists are limited to sturdy, durable materials that can survive the elements. Also, artists have to think about how people are going to interact with the object.
"I used to tell my students that the public's stupid," says Paul Sutinen, who did "In the Shadow of the Elm" in the South Park Blocks. "If they can break it or hurt themselves on it, they will—so be very careful with what you put out [there]."
Sutinen also notes that artists tend to play it safe when doing public pieces.
"Lee Kelly [a sculptor with several pieces in Portland] told me, 'When you do public art, you work with the stuff you really know.' Whereas if you're doing something with a gallery, maybe you're trying out new stuff. You don't want to put those half-baked ideas in stone or steel."
But is Portland's public art any good or not? To find out, we talked to public art and sculpture experts to get their take on whether some of the more high-profile and eye-catching examples in Portland actually succeed. Our experts are Sutinen, Jim Gion (who sculpted the columns at the Japanese American Historical Plaza), Erik Geschke (who's created public projects for Seattle and teaches sculpture at Portland State), and Bonnie Laing-Malcolmson, a curator at the Portland Art Museum.
Nearly all of the experts emphasize that their opinions are just that: opinions. Informed opinions, yes—but still just opinions.
"When we talk about whether a sculpture is 'good' or 'bad,' there are no absolutes," says Gion. "There's only what you like or what you don't like. If you like Jesus on black velvet—then that's what you like. That's as good as it's going to get."
With that in mind, let's dive in.
- Thompson Elk
"Thompson Elk"SW Main between 3th & 4th, by Roland Perry, 1900, bronze
SW Main's gigantic antlered ungulate has loomed over downtown for 115 years, and was originally also a drinking fountain. The top section served humans, and the lower troughs were for horses, dogs, goats, or whatever other fauna were about, and when it was unveiled, it was the subject of controversy.
"The Elks [Lodge] refused to come to the dedication because they thought the sculpture was a monstrosity of nature," says Kendellen. "It is pretty thin."
The elk is disproportionate. The body, in relation to the head and gigantic antlers, is much smaller and skinnier than a real elk.
"In the '90s, there was some interest in turning it around," says Kendellen. Back in 1900 there obviously weren't cars or one-way streets. Now, though, commuters see the back of the elk's neck, as opposed to the statue facing them in any kind of well-framed way.
Despite anatomical issues, though, our artistic experts seemed okay with the elk.
"It's kind of wacky and out of proportion—but it's not too badly made," says Gion. "It's all right."
"In early Northwest paintings and sculpture, you see a lot of depictions of Mt. Hood, Mt. Rainier, and that kind of glorification of nature," says Laing-Malcolmson, who emphasizes the elk is representative of that artistic style.
"It typifies something that feels very Northwestern," she says.
"I think it's indicative of the region in which it was created," says Geschke, who notes that a statue of larger-than-life wildlife on a plinth—something usually reserved for lionized historical figures—puts nature in a place of prominence and speaks to the specific environment of the Northwest.
"Instead of being a founder of the city, it's a depiction of an anonymous animal," he says. "I respond to that in a positive way."
"I can't not like it," says Sutinen. "I've seen elk at a distance and at the zoo. Looks like an elk to me!"
- The Promised Land
- Another Believer
"The Promised Land"Chapman Square, SW 4th & Main, by David Manuel, 1993, bronze
One block away from the elk is a statue that's ignited more recent controversy. A trio of metallic pioneers looks off into the Western distance, like they just stepped out of a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel.
"That was a gift from a Portland family," says Calhoun, noting that its donation coincided with the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Oregon Trail.
"The Metropolitan Arts Commission [MAC] actually recommended against accepting that piece," she says, using RACC's former name. "But the city council accepted it, so it's in the city's collection."
Asked why MAC recommended against accepting the piece, Calhoun says, "The name was offensive to a lot of people. The rendering of the piece isn't what we'd typically accept, and didn't look like it was made to be seen in the round. The back doesn't have the same attention as the front."
Behind the pioneers, a wagon wheel sheers off into nothing, as if being cut off by an invisible wall.
Geschke doesn't find the statue impressive.
"It's like many different statues I've seen before," he says. "They're trying to mimic the style of an earlier time period."
Laing-Malcolmson calls it "typical public art... kind of a literal depiction. I think context and being in 'our time' is important, as well as not looking so derivative." She prefers her contemporary art to look more, well, contemporary.
"Fundamentally it's a well-crafted piece. It's not like they didn't know what they were doing when they made it," says Sutinen. "Its statement, if there is one, is 'there were pioneers.' The problem I have with it is that there's a broken wheel. In terms of form, it's arbitrary. It makes no sense."
Gion is less reserved with his criticism.
"That particular piece is overblown, sentimental, and sloppily modeled," he says. "The whole piece to me is not very interesting."
- The Quest
- Another Believer
"The Quest"900 SW 5th, by Count Alexander von Svoboda, 1970, marble
AKA Three Groins in a Fountain, AKA The Grope, AKA Quest for the Breast, AKA Saturday Night at the Y, AKA the big marble naked people on SW 5th. Everyone hates this one. Fortunately, "The Quest" isn't strictly public art. It's in public, but was entirely paid for with private money. Laing-Malcolmson just laughs when the sculpture was brought up.
"I think if you're doing figurative work," she says, "it needs to be clearly articulated. This just looks like it was made of rubber."
"I assume you're an intelligent person," says Sutinen, "so you know it's a piece of crap. It's a clumsy rendering of the human form, a huge waste of a nice piece of stone, and a stupid idea. There is no level on which that piece succeeds."
Geschke notes that white marble sculptures like this, imitative of Greek statuary, look nothing like the ancient originals.
"Greek sculptures had originally been polychromed, that is, painted," he says. "You couldn't even see the stone. The stone was just the structure." He also says, "The poses and content seem ridiculous."
Gion similarly hates it, saying, "It looks like the figures have been dipped in chewing gum."
- Joan of Arc, Maid of Orleans
"Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans"Coe Circle, NE César E. Chávez & Glisan, by Emmanuel Frémiet, 1924 (replica), bronze
More than a few commuters have been bewildered by the giant golden figure of Joan of Arc in the middle of Laurelhurst's traffic circle. The obvious question is: Why? Why does Portland (which is not in France) have a statue of Joan of Arc, who was, you know... French. The answer: World War I.
"There are nine of these statues around the world," says Kendellen.
Portland's was donated by Henry Waldo Coe, a wealthy doctor.
"He wanted to give the city something that would not be an official memorial," she says, "but honored the doughboys of WWI."
Kendellen also notes that if Coe had his way, the gleaming rider would be downtown. However, Laurelhurst—something of a Portland suburb post WWI—aggressively campaigned to have the landmark in their neighborhood, where it is today.
"I've always liked this piece," says Geschke. "It's over the top, but I kind of like that, as opposed to a dark patina bronze."
"I'm all for it," says Laing-Malcolmson, of the bright, arresting equestrian statue.
"Generally I really don't like the idea of drive-by art," says Sutinen, "but I think that one works because of its scale and its gesture. And since it's gilded, it's a pretty spectacular object. But not the kind of thing you go up to and look at as a piece of art. It's more like an image, or a symbol or trademark."
- Paul Bunyan
- Visitor 7
"Paul Bunyan"N Denver & Interstate, by Victor R. and Victor A. Nelson, 1959, concrete, plaster, and paint
Kenton's Paul Bunyan statue, installed in 1959 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Oregon's statehood, is universally beloved by all of the experts.
"Its scale is really good," says Sutinen. "It defines its own place. It doesn't need to relate to anything else around it. There's nothing formally bad about it at all. We might think of it as a more naive style of sculpture, but there's nothing not to like. It's a big cartoon of Paul Bunyan! It's just fun!"
Gion also describes the statue as "naive," but thinks that's part of the appeal.
"Whoever did it was certainly sincere, if not particularly skillful," he says.
"It works for me as folk art," says Laing-Malcolmson. "It fits in a category of whimsical outsider art by someone who wasn't particularly trained at being an artist. 'Bunyan' has a certain kind of charm."
"I like the funky depiction, and its connection to the region," says Geschke, who emphasized that Paul Bunyan statues are popular throughout the Western US, and play into a sense of place and region. "It's humble and populist. And that's why I like it."
- Little Prince
- Gary Halvorson
"Little Prince"1 N Center, by Ilan Averbuch, 1995, copper, steel, and wood
You're probably thinking, "What's the 'Little Prince'?" Oh, you've seen it. It's the overturned crown in front of the Rose Garden Moda Center, apparently inspired by the book of the same name. This one got an "okay" response.
"I like that it's site-specific," says Geschke. "It relates to what goes on there."
Geschke contrasts the overturned crown with what he calls "plop art."
"It's just plopped right there," he says. "It's not responding to the architecture or the context of the area. And public art generally works better when it's contextual and region-unique."
"I think it looks fine," says Gion, who has nothing more to add.
- Steve AM
"Portlandia"1120 SW 5th, by Raymond Kaskey, 1985, copper
And... the big one. It's huge, unavoidable, and named after the city. Reviews of "Portlandia" are mixed.
Gion remembers his first impression of the statue. "I was driving over the Fremont Bridge when she was coming in. They had her on the end of this huge barge in the Willamette River. On the side of the building it looks really big, but on the edge of this huge barge under the Fremont Bridge? It looked like a little dog turd. Despite that it looks like a turd from up high, it looks okay from the street."
"I like the oddness of the placement," says Geschke, who doesn't think a statue of that immensity or placement could work elsewhere.
"'Portlandia' does exactly what it's supposed to do," says Sutinen. "The scale fits the building... it's a logo."
Laing-Malcolmson disagrees, and following a series of "ums" and hesitations, reveals she doesn't care for Portland's eponymous statue in the least.
"I've never cared for 'Portlandia' very much," she says. "It's kind of flaccid. It's just kind of soft."
A perennial issue around 'Portlandia' is that the sculptor, Raymond Kaskey, retains the copyright to the statue's image. You can buy merchandise for other cities' monuments. If you want a Golden Gate snow globe or a Statue of Liberty T-shirt—no problem. However, any 'Portlandia' merch has to be approved by Kaskey. This is bad news for anyone who wants to complete their commemorative spoon collection, but according to the folks at RACC, it's not unusual.
"It came out of legislation in the '60s," says Calhoun. "Artists would create work, while someone else would make a ton of money off of it, with the artist never seeing a dime. Sometimes the artist's creativity would be corrupted. That's why it's not unusual for municipalities not to own the copyright to public art."
Still, it means the only place to see Portland's most notable piece of public art is in—well, public. Whether you think it's a logo or flaccid, the only place to see it is in the open air.