[Welcome to our "Say Nice Things About Portland" guide to the city! Did you know that this feature package is also in PRINT?? That's right, this is our first print product since the start of the pandemic, and we're psyched to produce a lot more. Find the "Say Nice Things" guide in over 500 locations around the city, and if you'd like to see more guides you can hold, please consider making a small contribution to the Mercury, please and thank you!—eds]
Art can easily get away with being nothing more than pretty, or technically impressive, or just plain old expensive. But here in Portland, artists aim for more than “good enough.” Our art scene has long been known for its DIY spirit, grounded in social responsibility and political activism, while embracing experimentation—and over the past few years we’ve been doubling down on all of the above. If you really want to understand the arts in Portland, get ready to explore far beyond the walls of any art museum. From a shopping mall reborn as a creative hub, to a lightbulb supplier that promotes local artists, to a cemetery that doubles as a 150 year-old sculpture garden, art is infused into nearly every corner of our city.
1. Sunlan Lighting
Sunlan Lighting’s colorful storefront bathes passersby in glowing light throughout Portland’s notoriously dark and drizzly winter months. Inside, owner and self-proclaimed “lightbulb lady” Kay Newell presides over a kaleidoscopic collection that encompasses seemingly every niche and novelty bulb and fixture ever invented. Over the years, Sunlan has achieved neighborhood-treasure status thanks to Newell’s hand-drawn lightbulb-themed comics and the eclectic display windows that wrap around the outside of the building, full of Lego creations, rare bulbs, and pop up installations by local artists. Blacksmith and welder Carson Terry recently outfitted a window with an array of custom lamps, made with parts sourced from Sunlan. “I was thrilled,” he said, adding a note of appreciation for Newell’s “clear aim to support local artists” by showing their work in a primo Mississippi Ave location.
2. Church of Film
Art-haus screening series Church of Film describes its programming as “a weekly gathering for the reverence and worship of cinema,” with two-to-three weekly showtimes at the quirky Clinton Street Theater and the mini park at North Portland’s Red Fox bar (Red Fox showings are on hiatus pending lawn re-seeding). Movie selections lean heavily towards folk horror, psychedelia, and Soviet cinema—picks that are far outside the mainstream, yet still pair well with some popcorn and a beer. Co-founder Muriel Lucas provides subtitles, homemade trailers for upcoming flicks, and delightful introductory statements that help audiences prepare for the ensuing weirdness. The devoted crowds that have shown up every week since 2013 bring a quasi-religious fervor to the scene that could convert any Marvel Universe fan into a beret-and-turtleneck-wearing auteur.
3. Lone Fir Cemetery
Looking for a tranquil arboretum? An idiosyncratic sculpture park? A history lesson that sheds light on turn-of-the-century Portland? You can find it all at Lone Fir Cemetery. Wander around the paved routes and you’ll see a vast range of memorials—watch for realistic stone tree stumps marking the graves of timber industry workers, and check out the dilapidated Bottler Tomb, which honors the founders of one of Portland’s first breweries. And yes, the original “lone fir” tree is still there! Most poignant, however, are the histories you can’t see: More than 2,000 Chinese and Chinese American residents were buried in unmarked graves between 1860-1920, a fact that was only officially recognized in recent years due to racist exclusion in cemetery ledgers. Nearly 200 patients of the Hawthorne Asylum are also buried at Lone Fir, just blocks away from the street named after Dr. James Hawthorne, who founded the hospital to care for those with mental illness. A memorial garden honoring both of these groups is slated for completion in 2026.
4. The Black Gallery
The small storefront space at 916 NW Flanders may look unassuming, but for years it has played host to a series of radical experiments in art, community, and activism. Until early 2023 it was the home of Holding Contemporary, a gallery that operated on a utopian “shareholder system.” Holding’s curators collaborated frequently with local racial justice activists to produce benefit auctions, exhibitions of archival materials from protests, and installations honoring victims of police violence. Picking up where their work with Holding left off, Don’t Shoot PDX recently opened The Black Gallery, which aims to “inspire and support artists in the movement for Black lives” with regular exhibitions, space for workshops, access to printing services, and consulting. Their inaugural group show was packed to capacity on opening night, signaling an exciting start for this welcome addition to the Pearl District’s lively gallery scene.
5. Lloyd Center
Amazon and other online retailers may have crushed the once-mighty American mall, but Portland’s Lloyd Center is rising from the rubble thanks in part to the energy of local businesses and artists who have abandoned online-only and traditional retail spaces. Independent record store Musique Plastique led the migration in 2022, followed by the legendary Floating World Comics and artist-run apparel label Dreem Street. Now you can also find the wacky outpost of Pearl District gallery ILY2 next to the indoor ice rink, semi-regular events like Secret Roller Disco and Public Acts of Dance roving around the mall, and pop-up art and craft markets and experimental exhibition spaces sprinkled in amongst the empty storefronts. All of that and a Hot Topic!? Get in loser, we’re going shopping.