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Citys art scene ripe for revitalization

MY VIEW • A roster of east-side projects can restore Portland's creative cachet
by: Jonathan House, An activist artist has some inspiring ideas for the old Washington High School complex at Southeast 12th Avenue and Stark Street.

Mayor-elect Sam Adams' tenure as arts commissioner has seen the closing of seven art galleries. The avant-garde art community at Milepost 5 in Northeast Portland is facing increasingly sharp birthing pains, and most artists I know are taking second or third jobs to make a go of it.

Portland, the darling of The New York Times' food, travel and arts writers, has taken a hit and is losing its artistic cachet.

Adams says he wants to focus on economic development, public works and electric cars when he moves to the mayor's office next month. He declared this agenda as a 'passion' in an Oregonian interview with Ryan Frank on Nov. 9, 2008. That is great and entirely appropriate for him as Portland's next mayor.

My passion as an artist is for the arts and our flagging regional art community. What we need is Rooseveltian in scope, well-funded and local in application.

The Civilian Conservation Corps, Works Progress Administration and the rest of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's alphabet agencies produced Timberline Lodge, beautifully elegant bridges and other lasting art projects across the country.

We need a local program that would link our students and parents to artists and artisans in their communities through collaborations, helping students to learn by doing art alongside older mentors.

For example, we are working on bringing students and parents to studios such as East Burnside Street's Hipbone Studio, where students learn anatomy for artists and then paint and draw from a clothed model.

Jeff Burke, Hipbone's owner and an artist/model himself, has taught a class focusing on the anatomy of the head. A contingent of da Vinci Arts Middle School students and parents will repeat the exercise at Hipbone.

Another project we are working on is the traffic circle project.

Southeast Portland's Buckman Elementary students will collaborate with their teacher, Michael Simmons, and local artists to design a mural that will be mounted on the walls surrounding some of the traffic circles located near Buckman. District Traffic Engineer Peter Mason is working with us to smooth the way and help this idea come to fruition.

The big idea is that students learn by doing art with artists. And the artists get paid for helping the students achieve their artistic vision.

Another project would be sited at the former Washington High School, an underutilized complex covering more than 6 acres near Southeast 12th Avenue and Stark Street.

We would like to promote a collaboration with Portland Parks and Recreation and Portland Public Schools to create gardens for neighbors and a community art gallery to show student work (and others) as well as house the school district's considerable art collection.

The complex presently serves as an off-leash dog area, and part of the site has been targeted by Parks and Recreation as a future community center when the economy rebounds.

While waiting for that day, Portland students could learn to do 'green thumb' urban agricultural projects and neighbors could grow fruits and vegetables.

The other collaboration we envision is a sculpture park brought about by students, parents and artists working together at the site. Part of the site would also serve as a Saturday farmers and crafts market.

The former Washington High building itself would serve the greater community with a renovated space for theater, arts and craft shops, community meeting rooms, a local senior center and possibly even a headquarters for a Meals on Wheels program.

And our students can help create reusable, sustainable resources by collaborating with Portland Community College and the Portland school district in making small, wind-powered turbines and placing them on the roof of the school along with solar panels to help generate power for the building.

While not strictly an art program per se, this initiative would teach skills that students could use in the real world of green, sustainable energy that we are heading for with President-elect Barack Obama.

Let us invest in our students, our families and our artists. Let us identify fallow and underutilized resources and use them to enrich our lives and strengthen our neighborhoods.

We should be rethinking the 'local,' not abdicating the thinking process.

Carpe diem.

Sheridan Grippen is a painter and sculptor living in Southeast Portland.