Artists Transform Portland’s Blank Walls
The Forest for the Trees mural festival is turning the city into a big, open-air art museum.
Several years ago, when contemporary artist Gage Hamilton traveled to some of the world’s great cities, the myriad of striking murals he saw in the streets captivated him. He wondered why Portland had such colorless public spaces.
Not only did he find the neutral hues of blank walls uninspiring, they seemed at odds with the city’s reputation as an idiosyncratic hub for legions of artists, designers, musicians, filmmakers, writers and craftspeople.
“Portland is known as a really creative place,” says Hamilton, a University of Oregon alumnus, whose diverse portfolio includes large-scale installations, commissioned art and work exhibited in galleries around the world. “But to not have that creativity visible on the streets seemed to do the city a disservice; it didn’t match what people expected.”
The dissonance lingered in the back of his mind — until 2012, when he flew to Tokyo with curator Matt Wagner for his first solo international show. Hamilton stayed with Japan-based artist OJI, who invited him to paint at POW! WOW!, a world-famous mural festival in Hawaii.
“I started thinking, wouldn’t it be better if we had something like that in Portland?” he says. “Rather than trying to paint everywhere else, I thought we could paint right here, and bring artists from around the world to share their work with the public.”
That aha moment sparked Forest for the Trees NW, a festival that welcomes artists from Oregon and around the globe to paint contemporary murals throughout Portland each August. Now in its fifth year, the festival has given more than 60 walls a makeover and, in the process, gradually changed the atmosphere of the city.
That’s not to imply Portland lacks public art. The city lays claim to around 1,000 outdoor pieces, diverse in medium and inspiration. They range from the marine-like, luminescent Nepenthes sculptures to the surviving Lovejoy Columns to historic murals by renowned African American artist Isaka Shamsud-Din. Artists often produce this work with sponsorship from art commissions, community groups and organizations like TriMet, which integrates art into Portland’s public transit system.
What sets Forest for the Trees apart from Portland’s other public art is a grassroots ethos and an emphasis on contemporary work rather than community- or historic-based subject matter. The festival stands out as a prime example of international mural festivals. It’s a trend sweeping the world, which sees painters trading studios for city walls — taking inspiration from graffiti, street art and pop art.
But it’s a good bet that the artists who descend on Portland each year wouldn’t use the terms “street art” or “graffiti” to define their work. Forest for the Trees doesn’t vandalize, trespass or paint in unauthorized locations. Instead, the festival has put down roots in diverse neighborhoods, which welcome artists with open arms. Business owners provide the walls that serve as canvases, festival organizers secure city permits, and community members show up in droves to watch the artists’ works evolve over the course of the weeklong event.
Even as other cities launch similar events, Forest for the Trees remains distinctly Portland in spirit — by blazing a trail different than the ones other festivals have taken.
“At first we were challenging the perception of what public art can be in Portland,” says Hamilton. “Now we’re challenging our own perspectives of what Forest for the Trees can be.”
Many mural painters will travel the festival circuit, painting walls in every city along the way. Forest for the Trees instead focuses on recruiting artists you may not expect to paint a mural — illustrators, designers and other visual artists — and then blowing up their work to a massive scale.
“We’ll bring in artists who have never painted a mural,” says Wagner, festival co-producer and owner of Portland’s Hellion Gallery. “It’s like throwing them into the deep end of the pool and seeing what happens.”
Translating an ambitious vision onto a “canvas” that may stand as high as eight stories — as with Russian artist Rustam QBic’s massive mural facing the Portland Art Museum — comes with its fair share of logistical challenges. In fact, Forest for the Trees seems like a good premise for a mural-themed reality TV series: Take dozens of artists who rarely paint murals and give them no more than seven days to transform the face of Portland — oh, with virtually no budget, too.
The not-for-profit festival remains a labor of love for everyone involved; Hamilton and Wagner provide lodging, cans of paint, lifts, ladders and other must-have supplies. Artists, on the other hand, volunteer their time. In 2014, after the first year’s success, Hamilton and Wagner earned the support of the Regional Arts & Culture Council, which has provided small grants and matched donations to help cover expenses. Portlanders have also chipped in by supporting crowdfunding campaigns.
While the organizers and artists may never get a paycheck, Hamilton and Wagner believe their work tears down barriers of privilege in the art world — by starting conversations in diverse communities and making contemporary work accessible to everyone.
“I love Portland, but it can sometimes feel like a bubble,” says Wagner, who believes the presence of artists from far-flung places like Latin America and Asia expands local artists’ sense of possibility and challenges audience prejudice.
“There have been times before where people who don’t even speak the same language are collaborating on a wall,” he says. “I think we’re promoting the language of art — it’s a universal thing.”
The festival is an opportunity to introduce mind-expanding work to people who may never step foot in a gallery or museum, Hamilton says.
“I mean, really, it’s just a matter of being inspired accidentally,” he says. “Being able to just stumble across things I think makes people step out of their everyday.”
Map Out a Mural Tour Forest for the Trees’ murals double as a compass for exploring Portland. More than 60 modern murals — all painted since 2013 — adorn buildings around the city, with many scattered throughout neighborhoods far from downtown’s bustling commercial areas. You can visit the festival’s website to see which murals were painted in years past. Visitors are also welcome to watch artists paint: In advance of the August 2017 event, festival organizers will update the website with dates and locations so you can determine exactly when and where artists will work.
about author Jon Shadel
Jon Shadel spends his waking hours daydreaming about road trips — thank goodness that’s his job. As editor of Travel Oregon’s features and annual visitor guide, he rambles around the state for inspiration, eating and drinking a bit too much along the way.
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