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WAPATO stars in artful video, book

Every few weeks, someone in the community ponders aloud whether the mothballed Wapato Correctional Facility might be repurposed for a new, novel use: a homeless shelter, a mental health facility, a halfway house for prisoners returning to society.

But Multnomah County, which owns the North Portland site, has not yet found a long-term use or buyer for Wapato, despite various

efforts over the years.

“We would like to see that building sold,” county spokesman Dave Austin says. “This board is interested in disposing of this building, unequivocally.”

Until then, Wapato’s future remains in limbo.

In the meantime, Wapato is enjoying its 15 minutes of fame.

In addition to being a setting for shows, including “Portlandia” and “Grimm,” it’s been a blank canvas for local artists and architects looking to spark innovation and consider design and public use-of-space ideas.

Local academics have used it as a springboard to discuss issues like incarceration and social justice.

Here’s the latest public use: Wapato is now the star of its very own art installation — a limited-edition print publication, a 16-minute video, and a series of prints on exhibit now through Nov. 22 at a St. Johns studio space.

Called “Demos: Wapato Correctional Facility,” the project uses a variety of mediums — drama, music, public engagement, videography, visual art and more — to explore the role of art in social justice and storytelling.

Wapato is “the perfect vehicle with which to ... make work that challenges dominant ideas about site, body and power,” writes Shir Ly Camin Grisanti, founding director of the c3: initiative, a Portland nonprofit dedicated to process-based exploration.

Four c3: initiative artists that hail from the Bay Area took on the Wapato project, calling themselves “Ernest” to focus attention on the work rather than themselves.

Two years ago, Grisanti says she connected with the Ernest artists when they came to Portland for a two-year residency. When they decided to focus on Wapato, she connected them with community members and experts who’d become collaborators on the project.

The artists ended up spending a handful of intense days at Wapato, guided by county property manager Mark Gustafson.

The artists surveyed people at farmers’ markets and held a roundtable and panel discussion at the St. Johns Community Center in September to harness the community’s thoughts and creativity.

They incorporated much of that raw input — in the form of essays, sketches and comment forms — in the publication they produced in collaboration with Container Corps, a Portland art press.

It makes for an authentic, eclectic and thought-provoking piece that is as much art as social commentary, designed to provoke conversation.

“Fundamental to their work is engagement with community and a belief that art is a powerful tool to scrutinize contemporary culture,” Grisanti writes. “This examination and critique of the status quo is an opportunity for a society to question, re-evaluate, and evolve.”

Coyote steals the show

The video portion of the installation, meanwhile, employs an unusual central character: a coyote.

Located near the Smith and Bybee Wetlands, Wapato is in a natural area filled with wildlife, namely coyotes.

Apparently, the artists found in their interviews that coyotes are constantly digging holes under the security fence around Wapato, trying to get in.

So the artists set up wild-game cameras around the perimeter for four days and obtained some eerie images and sounds of coyotes moving around in the dark.

It’s combined with security camera footage from inside Wapato, which shows a creepy emptiness with signs of untouched humanity: pillows on the beds, a full dentist’s office with X-ray equipment, little bars of soap on the sinks.

A haunting Woody Guthrie verse fills part of the soundtrack; there’s also footage of a coyote (a coyote “actor” named Cruise) running through the building, as well as 30 volunteers who wore coyote masks as they stampeded through the facility amid sounds of protests.

“They were really capturing the eeriness and emptiness of the facility,” Grisanti says. “It’s a call to action; a transformation.”

One of the artists went even deeper into character, and got tattooed (a coyote, of course) while at Wapato during the production.

The video is part of the final cut, which about 150 people came to see at the exhibit’s opening Sept. 18.

Albatross for county

In the past 11 years, Wapato (built for $58 million in 2004) has remained empty — a haven for the film industry, but a money drain for the county.

Taxpayer-approved bonds used to pay for construction specify that it must be used as a jail until the end of June 2016, when its $11.6 million in state bonds are paid off.

Taxpayers, however, still will be stuck with the bill for $300,000 in basic maintenance fees each year.

Multnomah County officials say there are simply no operating funds to use Wapato as a jail.

They say it was conceived at a time in the 1990s when crime was rising, but now it’s on the decline, and the county simply doesn’t have any use for it as a jail.

Statewide, however, there is a need for more prisoner space.

The Oregon Department of Corrections is actually convening a roundtable on Nov. 10 to discuss the uptick in the inmate population statewide.

Department officials have proposed a solution that would cost $2.5 million: To shift all of the inmates from the Deer Ridge minimum-security facility in Madras to the Deer Ridge medium-security faciity across the street, and operate that as a minimum-security facility.

As far as using Wapato’s 525 beds for some of its inmate overflow, the Oregon Department of Corrections has explored the concept, but rejected it.

In a brief published in 2004 and updated in 2012, the state found that its use of Wapato would not be cost-effective to purchase or rent.

The estimated purchase price in 2012 was $50 million, plus $1 million in modifications the Corrections department would have to make.

Building a facility to meet the Department of Corrections’ needs was estimated at about $37 million.