A group of preschoolers sit in miniature chairs around two tables, wide-eyed and eager, clad in tiny, paint-splattered aprons. When Leslie Tucker, the children's art teacher, asks how many of them have used scissors before, only about half raise their hands.
The kids, ages 3 to 6, are campers in a preschool art program from Vibe of Portland, a nonprofit that offers arts classes for young people and also works with area schools to supplement their art and music offerings. The camp's theme for the week? Dragons.
Without their realizing it, though, the children were engaged in something bigger: Community building.
Vibe of Portland is the latest group to occupy a corner of Southeast Portland that has been the subject of intense focus of neighborhood activists and concerned community members for more than a decade. For years, a rundown convenience store sat on the property. It was an eyesore and eventually a meth den; federal law enforcement agents discovered a secret stash of pseudoephedrine in the building in 2003, according to news reports in The Oregonian.
Fast forward to 2010, when the building at the intersection of Southeast Division Street and 57th Avenue reopened as Cafe au Play, a family-friendly coffee shop with bold, brightly colored murals and an enclosed play area outside. For five years, Cafe au Play offered concerts for kids and respite for weary parents, with help from the SE Uplift Neighborhood Coalition, the umbrella group for Southeast Portland neighborhood associations that helped community members purchase the lot.
That lively scene ended abruptly in December 2015 when Cafe au Play announced it would close for a variety of reasons that made the business unsustainable. For 18 months, the building known as Tabor Commons sat vacant and surrounded by high, chain-link fencing as SE Uplift sought to reimagine its use.
Enter Vibe of Portland.
Laura Streib, Vibe's executive director, started the nonprofit in 2007 as a collaboration with local schools to enhance art and music programs. In the past 10 years, the organization has grown into a partnership with nine local elementary and K-8 schools. Vibe also operated a community studio for classes, workshops and camps at TaborSpace in Mt. Tabor Presbyterian Church on Southeast Belmont Street.
In its new location, Streib says Vibe will be able to offer more programming and other creative community events like family nights and adult art classes.
"We believe that our new space will lend itself to being a visible, creative anchor in the community," Streib says.
Anne Dufay, who stepped down as executive director of SE Uplift at the end of June, agrees.
"It's hard to think of a way that this doesn't benefit the community," says Dufay.
Catherine de Rivera is grateful for the creative outlet that Vibe provides her son Benjamin, 10. He had been taking classes and camps through the nonprofit at its previous location for several years after initially getting a taste for it at Atkinson Elementary School on Southeast Division Street. Convenient for the de Rivera family, Vibe's new location at Tabor Commons is right across the street from Atkinson. Now he can walk to classes himself after school.
"It's fabulous," de Rivera says. "I'm amazed that more people don't go, but I'm hoping more people will go in the new location."
She recently hung up one of Benjamin's still-life paintings in her living room, and her friends thought she had painted it.
"My son is a much better artist than I am," de Rivera says, laughing.
Art teacher Tucker, who has been working with Streib since she first opened the studio at TaborSpace in 2011, says that at Vibe the focus is really on teaching children the techniques of fine art. Rather than entertain kids with messy, single-session craft projects, they are teaching children skills they can apply to their own developing artwork. At Vibe, it's not unusual for a single project to span multiple sessions. They give the kids creative freedom, and encourage the artistic process.
On a recent visit in June, more than 30 kids buzzed around Vibe's new campus. An elementary school photography camp ran alongside the preschool art camp. But all five staff members seemed calm and happy. While the preschoolers were inside creating papier-mache dragons, the older kids were on the patio building camera obscuras that were masquerading as robots.
Camper Sam Ng, 10, has been involved with Vibe for the past five years in various classes and camps. He says he is most proud of a masterpiece he completed in an eight-session spring art class— an intricate image of a dragonfly done on a large canvas. It's a painted paper collage, which he says is his favorite.
He loves Vibe and says he always makes new friends in camps and classes. When he's not making art, the rising 5th grader does gymnastics and plays futsal. When he grows up, he says he wants to be a street artist or maybe an architect.
Vibe of Portland may not have a permanent home at Tabor Commons. That's because SE Uplift, which is experiencing its own transition, has given the group just a two-year lease. This summer a new executive director, Molly Mayo, will take over the neighborhood group and its board wanted to give her flexibility with the space.
Vibe has a strong track record and a good chance to thrive. This fall will mark its 10 anniversary as a nonprofit.
Although classes have already begun at Vibe's new studio, it will host a grand opening ceremony in September. The group will host a fundraiser on Friday, Sept. 22 and a community event on Saturday, Sept. 23.
"Even from being moved in for the last few weeks, the phone calls and emails and people walking by wanting more information has been a little overwhelming— it has been exciting!" Streib says. "We are planning to increase the number of classes we can offer students."