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Orlo stages a sand blast

Environmental art group marks 10 years with block beach party, video 'heats'

What does 'environmental art' mean, anyway?

To the politically minded it conjures up tree-sitters' sketches and performance pieces in polluted fields. To the art crowd, it means conceptual works such as Robert Smithson's 'Spiral Jetty' or Christo wrapping everything in pink.

This summer, Portland arts organization Orlo is celebrating 10 years of sitting on that particular fence.

'Some people ask if we're an environmental organization, and we say, 'Yes,' and some ask if we're an arts organization, and we say, 'Yes,' ' says Tom Webb, 38, director of the Orlo Exhibition Space on Northwest 29th Avenue.

'We try to keep the standards high at both those levels.'

Case in point: Chandra Bocci's largely well-received installation that closed last week. 'This Would Suck a Lot Less' consisted of large mounds of torn-up cardboard boxes peopled with toy soldiers engaged in a pillow fight.

The Italian word 'orlo' means 'edge' or 'brink,' and Orlo deals with both cutting-edge art as well as the belief that the natural environment is on the brink of destruction.

The green of Forest Park looms behind the factories that surround Orlo in Northwest's industrial zone. There are signs of an upswing in cultural life in the area. The Steel Pond gallery at 1905 N.W. 26th Ave. makes creatures out of recycled metal, and Powells.com recently opened a warehouse at 2720 N.W. 29th Ave., which means book people soon will be prowling the streets. Webb says the owner of the block kitty-cornered from Powells.com is a model train enthusiast who plans to build an urban garden and model train yard.

On Saturday, July 19, Orlo plans to take over the block, transforming it into a beach party with tons of sand, bands, a dunk tank, water fountain art and bicycle valet parking. Spooky Dance Band had been scheduled to play, until one member was killed and another critically injured on their bikes by a van driver in June. There also will be a retrospective of artwork that has graced the walls of the exhibition space. Those walls recently had a makeover when they were painted white to make the place look less like a shed and more like a gallery.

There are a lot of cooks at Orlo, most working for free. Forty-one people make up the board, committees and working groups. Funding comes from grants and events, with a recent drive to make the latter more productive.

Jean Zondervan, 35, is the new chairwoman of the Orlo board. She works at the Portland Art Museum, but the Midwest native got involved in Orlo shortly after moving here in 1999 from an English teaching gig in South Korea.

Zondervan likes Portland's energy.

'A lot of the people who support us are more involved than they would be if they were in, say, the Sierra Club,' she says. Orlo's aim, she says, is to 'explain the natural environment through the visual and literary arts.'

Last year, Orlo put on a video slam, short videos on a cycling theme submitted and judged on the fly. The result was an only-in-Portland evening, with sped-up imagery of bike rides and a thriller in which a racing bike plays a murderer. Orlo also is hosting the video slam again this year over four nights.

Another example of Orlo work is the artist who dressed up in a white hazmat suit and wakeboarded along the Willamette River. 'It was a unique way of drawing attention to the fact that we have this huge Superfund site in the middle of town that no one talks about,' Webb says.

The pictures and write-up ran in The Bear Deluxe, Orlo's biannual magazine, which is perhaps a more effective (and nuanced) outlet for the organization. The Bear Deluxe is not your little brother's Green Anarchy. The standard of writing and reporting is high, and big-name writers such as Spalding Gray have been persuaded to contribute. Although it is distributed in some coffee shops back East, Orlo is still struggling to turn a Portland concept into a national phenomenon.

Bear Deluxe designer Thomas Cobb, a South Carolina native who came here eight years ago, says, 'Two of the vibrant communities in Portland are the environmentalists and artists, and there's a pretty solid overlapping area between them.'

Greens and galleristas, your time has come.

Contact Joseph Gallivan at

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