A Paige in History
- Gail Dana
- Portland Tribune - Features
When all went quiet at Andy Warhol's Factory, Portland's bicoastal culture doyenne rededicated herself to art and animals
In 1983, Andy Warhol held a Valentine's Day party at the Factory, his New York City office. The Factory was the hot place to be in the New York art world. Openly gay, Warhol loved stunning women. At this party, he was dazzled by a waif in a pink tulle dress with heart-shaped bodice.
Paige Powell became Warhol's valentine, business partner and compatriot Ñ he even dreamed of marrying her. 'For years, Andy made a project of looking for a wedding ring for Paige,' says Warhol pal Stuart Pivar.
They never married, but Powell became the New York art community's it girl. Warhol died in 1987, and seven years later Powell returned to Portland, where she eventually founded the Pearl Arts Foundation with developer Homer Williams, becoming its executive director. Formed in 1999, the foundation called it quits this year on Feb. 14.
'The projects were too experimental for Portland, and maybe too sophisticated,' Powell says. 'It's very regional here with art. Also, we didn't have a gallery. People couldn't absorb the art to put money behind it. And with the economy on the decline, people gravitate toward conservative institutions. We weren't conservative, nor were we an institution.'
This leaves Powell open for new adventure. Her credentials make her unique, among them running a national magazine, hosting a city art scene, building the careers of renowned artists and being an it girl, 'probably,' says actor, director and former boyfriend Vincent Gallo, 'the best girl ever.' What will she do next?
Zoo job fuels activism
Powell grew up in Southwest Portland, the daughter of the founding partner of a successful insurance agency. She was a child of the outdoors, surrounded by a menagerie of pets and rescued birds.
'Paige was beautiful,' says Warren Iliff, former director of the Oregon Zoo, who employed the twentysomething Powell first as a volunteer, then as public information director. 'But she was also a great, appealing person, the kind who has passion.'
Powell quickly advanced from nurturing animals to doing public relations, handlingÊthe dozens of dignitaries who came to the zoo.
'She dazzled them all,' Iliff recalls.
She took President Carter on a zoo train tour. 'Paige, do you suppose we can get some hot dogs?' Carter asked.
'He pulled out some dollars and asked if I would like one, too,' Powell recalls. 'I declined, not because I was a vegetarian yet, but because I was so excited about showing the Carters the wonderful animals. Even at that time, when security was so minimal, I thought that was rather down-home of him.'
Powell became a social activist. 'One of the things I've learned from Paige,' says novelist Tama Janowitz, 'is to always make a fuss if I have to, that I can do something about any unacceptable situation.' Powell campaigned for a zoo tax levy, which easily passed.
With Iliff she initiated Penguin Day, helped develop a sculpture garden and created events that tripled attendance at the zoo. She helped liberate the Multnomah Athletic Club, which then maintained separate bars and rules for men and women.
'Officers of the Multnomah Athletic Club have reaffirmed their stand against granting full membership rights to women members,' The Oregonian reported Dec. 10, 1976. Women picketed and petitioned to change the club's rules. 'Paige was always the ringleader,' says her cousin, James Alderman.
After two years, the club relented.Ê
New York, New York
Powell headed east in search of new opportunities.
'Paige had decided to work either for Andy Warhol or Woody Allen,' Iliff recalls.Ê
Former boyfriend Bill Burkett remembers that Powell was always focused: 'Most people know what they don't want to do. Paige knew exactly what she wanted to do.'
After Powell arrived in New York, Warhol hired her to join the staff at Interview magazine. Shortly thereafter, Allen offered her a job as a production assistant.
She joined Interview in 1983 as an ad saleswoman and rocketed to assistant publisher.
'She got up. She worked out. She was always on top of everything early in the morning,' says Gina Koper, who worked with Powell at the magazine. 'Paige worked late at night and was very persistent. She could always bring in a potential client, handle a business meeting, and always had proper etiquette.'
'Andy was struck by Paige,' says writer Pat Hackett, editor of 'The Andy Warhol Diaries.' 'Paige was artistic and had good business sense. Andy was thrilled by how she did her job, how she created new aspects of it and made it fun. Andy wouldn't hang around anyone just because it was good for business. They had to be fun.'
Friend to animals, artists
Always protective of animals, Powell and friend Janowitz created a Manhattan cable access program, 'It's a Dog's Life,' profiling adoptable animals. Janowitz narrated the award-winning program, which Powell designed, filmed and edited. Powell also shouldered countless animal rights causes. 'I just felt passionately about protecting helpless creatures,' she says.
Powell balanced her magazine and television careers with a frenetic social life. 'She was a major glamour girl,' recalls Patrick McMullan, a Vanity Fair photographer. 'She ran Interview. She knew everyone.'
'She was also the most beautiful girl on the New York art scene,' says British rocker Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran.
Powell used this leverage to spotlight young, talented artists.
'Paige was responsible for Jean-Michel Basquiat's career,' recalls Chris Murray of the Govinda gallery in Washington, D.C. Powell befriended the then-unknown New York artist in 1982. Struck by Basquiat's earnestness and eccentricity, she took responsibility for his career, arranging a show at her posh uptown apartment. Soon Basquiat moved into the apartment and Powell began handling dealers, collectors and fans. She priced his paintings from $2,000 to $8,000.Ê
Basquiat, whose biographer describes him as 'the Jimi Hendrix of the New York art world,' lived hard and died young. Artist-director Julian Schnabel produced a bio flick in which the character Claire represents a composite of Basquiat's girlfriends, including Powell.
'Paige was the one,' says Gerard Basquiat, Jean-Michel's father. 'She was a successful person, always there. Paige was the only person besides myself who did not take advantage of Jean-Michel financially.'
Powell met Afrika, a struggling Russian ŽmigrŽ artist, at the Factory following Warhol's death. Dazzled by his work, Powell featured him in a New York show attended by an A-list of New York art buyers. Once Afrika's name was on the lips of the art world elite, his work suddenly commanded high prices and his career skyrocketed.
'She changed my career,' Afrika says. 'She changed my life. Paige has changed so many people's lives forever.'
Powell spent her evenings going from one club to another, meeting with young artists and attending art performances to develop story ideas for Interview. She assembled a 'breakfast club' of friends who took turns inviting artists to join their group. 'Dancers, fashion people, all sorts of artists would come to breakfast,' recalls friend Terry Steiner, 'and it (early morning) was not their hour to shine.'
Powell, Warhol and Janowitz formed a blind date club to find ultimate mates.Ê Queen of the scene, Powell pioneered trendy dinners in restaurant kitchens. When her mother shipped crab to her from Gearhart, Powell arranged for it to be cooked and served to friends in the kitchen of the Plaza Hotel's Edwardian Room. This sparked a trend for kitchen dinners in elegant restaurants.
She also was a frequent guest at the celebrated restaurant Elaine's. 'She was just a bright kid with a lot to offer,' says owner Elaine Kaufman. 'I always had a table for her.'
'No one was as much fun to be with as Paige,' says Simon Brook, a documentary filmmaker who describes her as 'like Tinkerbell. Like a fairy.' A night out with Powell meant visiting countless nightspots, he says: 'It was a whirlwind of restaurants, parties and nightclubs. It was very exciting and also very disconcerting.'
Return to roots
During their years at Interview, Warhol called Powell every morning, spent more time in her office than in his own and went out with her virtually every night. His 1987 death following gallbladder surgery devastated her. Powell continued with Interview while trying unsuccessfully to protect Warhol's estate from auction.Ê
'I wanted to create a museum,' she says.
In 1994, Powell, still grieving, returned to Portland, where employment was tight.
In concert with developer Williams, she created the Pearl Arts Foundation, becoming its executive director. She contacted internationally renowned artists Ñ rarely seen outside of museums and galleries Ñ to create public works for Portland. The foundation successfully cultivated Kenny Scharf's totems in Jameson Square and the Wegman Dog Bowl in the North Park Blocks.
Powell persuaded artist-architect Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., to design a playground sculpture for Portland.Ê
'I admired what Paige was attempting to do by calling artists who don't do outdoor work,' Lin says, referring to artists such as Scharf and Wegman. 'The only reason I was involved is because Paige asked me.'
But a complicated public process frustrated Lin's plans. 'Timings were terrible; sitings weren't workable,' Lin says. 'The project is over.' The foundation soon collapsed from a lack of funding and inadequate public process support.
'Her contacts, vision and initiative have been responsible for two landmark gifts, which have placed Portland on the cutting edge of nationally acclaimed contemporary art.' says local art expert Paula Madden.
'Rescue' makes the news
Powell's animal rights activism has gotten her into trouble at times. She came under fire for an incident involving a dog owned by a local doctor. In the highly publicized case, Powell and her friend Kim Singer were sued over the kidnapping of the dog, which they believed was being neglected. During the 'rescue,' the dog developed stomach problems, needed an operation and, when no one volunteered to pay for it, was euthanized. Powell and Singer settled out of court with the dog's owner last year. Powell, who was not informed of the euthanizing until afterward, says she agonized over the dog's death.
Powell is ready for a new project and is weighing her options as friends speculate on what she'll do next. She's at work on a children's book called 'Sherlock,' about a coon hound-mutt she rescued and adopted. Novelist Janowitz is illustrating it, and 'Andy Warhol Diaries' editor Hackett will edit.
Powell also is compiling photographs for a book about the 1980s New York art scene. She took thousands of photos, many of which have been published in newspapers and magazines.
'I think she could be a senator from Oregon,' former boyfriend Burkett says.Ê
'For sure,' says Pink Martini maestro Thomas Lauderdale, a close friend who describes going to New York with Powell 'like traveling to heaven with the Virgin Mary.'
Says Lauderdale: 'She continues to make her life a work of art.'