- Michaela Bancud
- Portland Tribune - Features
From 'old-lady trading cards' to drinking dolls, artist Alicia Justus unveils an eclectic vision
I'm an old woman trapped in a young woman's body,' says Alicia Justus, a 26-year-old artist perched atop a bar stool at her neighborhood local, Beulahland.
No, she's not crazy.
Justus (pronounced 'Justice') spends many hours here, crafting cunning little stories, drawings and paintings and making packs of trading cards that she wraps in wax paper. Usually presented under the name Red Star Art, her work also has been shown at Reading Frenzy in downtown Portland and here at Beulahland on Northeast 28th Avenue. In August, Justus has a solo show at the Know, a 'micro art forum' on Northeast Alberta Street.
'I've seen her making art in the corners of coffee shops for years,' says the Know's Josh Bovinette. 'So when I started this space I went and found her because I want everyone on Alberta Street to see it.'
Besides the painted spoons and paper dolls she creates at an almost compulsive rate, Justus creates 'old-lady trading cards.'
One side of the card has a tiny portrait rendered in gouache (an opaque watercolor technique). The other side has a bit of imagined story about the woman's life Ñ Viola Stubbs, Billie Gamble or Sudie Salts, as the case may be. Justus has sold the palm-sized decks, which include a few cards each, for the old-fashioned price of $4.25. Each deck is painstakingly wrapped in wax paper and sealed with a tiny 'old photo sticker.' A stick of gum and recipe card are enclosed, along with a kind of bemused nostalgia that's totally affecting.
When she isn't working as a nanny, Justus roots around in thrift stores for old photographs, dishes and spoons. She uses the detritus of the past as the basis of most of her feverishly detailed illustrations.
Particularly amazing in Justus' portfolio are her 'drinky dolls,' small figures she sculpts from Fimo clay and sews miniature outfits for. When a string is pulled, each palm-sized doll lifts an arm and throws its head back to swig from a bottle. It's creepy and wonderful.
A thread of oblivion runs through her work: Evil, lock-picking birds visit babies in their nurseries and upset their dreams; lonesome figures rattle around in the dark. Justus' childhood bedroom, she says, was decorated by her artist parents with illustrations from children's books, which may have contributed to her lingering affinity for fairy tales and Victoriana.
For now, Justus is happily making art outside the gallery system and under the radar. She sells art at unusual places such as the Twilight Rummage Sale, an event held once a month at the Eagles Club on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. 'I like being on the fringe, toiling in obscurity,' she says with a feigned dramatic voice.
Chloe Eudaly, owner of Reading Frenzy, met Justus two years ago. Justus has been in both solo and group shows there.
'I believe Alicia is compelled by forces almost beyond her control to express her visions, with no regard to trend, fad or style,' Eudaly says. 'The universe she's created is not just a stroll down memory lane. Her characters are complicated Ñ be they alcoholic, seductive, homicidal or just down on their luck.'
Justus has lived in Portland nearly nine years since moving to town from Klamath Falls. She loathed high school and dropped out her second year.
'It's got a dark cloud hanging over it,' Justus says of her south-central Oregon hometown. 'I've heard of people whose cars break down there, and they just never leave.'
Her parents still live there, and Justus' two grandmothers live right next door to one another. Justus took a tape recorder there recently to get the family history down on tape. Grandmother Alma was a country-western singer in West Virginia who performed on the radio under the name Little Brownie. Grandmother Dorothy lived in San Francisco and was a contralto singer with the opera. 'The craziest damn stories I've ever heard in my life,' Justus says.
Thankfully, Klamath Falls wasn't entirely dark clouds. Red Star Art is named in honor of a high school art teacher who Justus says used to place a red star on students' work. He let Justus compete in school art fairs even after she dropped out.
Justus will have a booth at the upcoming Portland Zine Symposium, Aug. 1 through Aug. 3, and she has another art show planned at Caffe Uno in Northeast Portland in September.
Contact Michaela Bancud at