Featured Stories

St. Johns flexes its creative muscles

Time-warped enclave hangs artists' work all over, even a gas station

St. Johns, the working-class outpost at the northern tip of the city, is not generally seen as pushing the envelope. Any envelope.

But artists and the organizations that support them are hoping to add a wrinkle to the neighborhood's blue-collar profile with a monthlong celebration of St. Johns' business and culture.

It all begins Saturday, July 12. Twenty-four artists, all of whom either live or work in North Portland, will display their work in the St. Johns Window Project, a collaboration of the city of Portland, Art on the Peninsula and St. Johns in the 21st Century.

The event kicks off at noon Saturday with live reggae music, belly-dancing and a hip-hop dance troupe in the parking lot of the US Bank, 7340 N. Philadelphia Ave.

More than 20 businesses, ranging from a plus-size clothing store to a gas station will serve as galleries in a walking exhibition that runs through Aug. 10. Visitors will be given maps with which to navigate the various spots along the tour.

The idea is to build community in St. Johns and to show Portlanders what the area has to offer, says Mary Jaron Kelley, community networking specialist for the city's Office of Neighborhood Involvement. 'There's a lot of artists who live here,' she says. 'We want people to know that there's art here. They don't have to go downtown. They don't have to go to First Thursday.'

'I think this is trying to say, 'If you do art, why not show it here?' ' says Jamie Noehren, who owns the John Street Cafe with his wife, Marie. 'One of the things they're trying to show is that this is an active place. There's a lot of things going on.'

'There is a notion that St. Johns is stuck in the '50s,' says Rhoda London, a participating artist. 'That is true. By the same token, there are some people who appreciate what that meant. It's OK to be in the '50s.

'The idea is to keep some of those values and bring it into the 21st century. If artists are part of that in a small way, people will take notice.'

'The windows project is about the artist, but it's also about the artist working in the community,' says Suzy Root, a North Portland artist. 'Some are in it to make a name for North Portland artists. Some are really interested in making a community piece and tying the community and art together.'

The project features some interesting pairings of art and commerce. Sculptor Peggy Flynn's 15-inch 'Party Girls' will be at the St. Johns Vision Clinic. Erik Palmer's photographs will hang at the Fencing Center Salle Trois Armes, and the sculptures of J.D. Perkin will grace the windows of the Wright Bros. Glass Co.

'The artists and the proprietors agreed that they're going to do it together, which means there is communication,' Noehren says.

Jaron Kelley says getting businesses on board was tricky at times. 'Some of the businesses we're working with have been there for 40 years or 60 years,' she says. 'This is a concept that is totally new. It wasn't easy.

'Overall, it was successful,' she says. 'There was a lot of excitement from many of the businesses. These people are willing to try something new. They're saying this could be fun.'

'St. Johns is a very traditional neighborhood,' says Rob Phillips of Renovation Properties, owner of the St. Johns Signal Gas Station on North Lombard Street. 'It's been a little bit isolated in the past, but it offers a lot of stable aspects. I see it as sort of an overlooked area.'

Phillips, a general contractor, says investment that helped resurrect areas such as Multnomah Village and the Kenton neighborhood in North Portland will find its way to St. Johns: 'Creative people that live in the area add to the quality of the businesses that locate there.

'It's a slow process because of the location,' Phillips says. 'It's taken a little longer for people to discover (St. Johns).'

'I think 25 years ago it was a more active community,' says cafe owner Noehren. 'People are trying to get some of that back.'

Contact Eric Bartels at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..