Powell's photos, videos give rare glimpse of '80s movers, shakers

 COURTESY PHOTO: PAIGE POWELL/PAM - Images of Paige Powells Portland Art Museum exhibit include Powell and Bill Cunningham.Portland photographer and artist Paige Powell lives in the moment, and the future, it’s pretty clear.

For the past 20 years, Powell has known all about the thousands of photos — including Polaroids — and videos and ephemera she had stored in boxes, many of them quite interesting, from her time living in New York City and working in media and with artists such as the late Andy Warhol in personal and professional settings. Only until recently did she consider putting them on display somewhere for the masses to see.

“My head wasn’t available to it earlier,” Powell says, reiterating that “I live in the present and future. I try to make things relevant to now. Everything I do is organic and has movement to it.”

And, partly, “it was too overwhelming to think what I could do with them. I’ve been working jobs. ... I love the process of making something; once it’s out, I’m not interested in it.”

The Portland Art Museum invited Powell, a Portland native and now resident again since the mid-1990s, to bring her photos and videos and other items out of storage for people to enjoy. And, the result after two years of work was “The Ride,” literally hundreds of the photos and some videos put on display, and a remake of her 1984 photo show in the East Village called “Beulah Land,” arranged more creatively with lighting and music.

The exhibit has been extended to April 3, because the response has been very good. (The New York Times did a big story about Powell).

“A friend of mine is trying to get it to New York City,” Powell says. “It’s kind of cool that it started in Portland.”

Powell’s Oregon story is just as interesting as her time spent in New York, working for Interview magazine and Woody Allen’s production team, doing freelance and cable access work, befriending celebrities — “that word frightens me,” she says — and documenting much of the arts scene with her camera and video camera.

She graduated from Beaverton High School and the University of Oregon, and then worked as public affairs director at the Washington Park Zoo (now Oregon Zoo), as a lobbyist for the ACLU for discrimination and women’s issues, and then in marketing and promotion with Blue Ribbon Sports — a precursor to Nike.

Still, having visited the Big Apple before, she yearned to move there and be part of the arts scene. It happened in 1980.

“It was a bungee jump, off a big bridge,” she says.

She eventually landed the jobs with the magazine and movie production company.

 COURTESY PHOTO: PAIGE POWELL/PAM - Images of Paige Powells Portland Art Museum exhibit include Andy Warhol and Kenny Scharf (1986).
Naturally, she was drawn to Andy Warhol. Who wasn’t? “Andy Warhol was like a magnet,” she says. It was a different world then, she says, especailly in New York City. Fewer “handlers” and PR people assisted rather than blocked media, and the celebrities didn’t seem as pretentious or self-promotional. The arts scene teemed with bands, art, music, books.

“The sky was the limit creatively,” Powell says. “It wasn’t about attaining a big bank account. I loved it.”

Bob Dylan would frequent events, as would Blondie’s Debbie Harry. Powell would become associated with them as well as become close with artists Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Francesco and Alba Clemente, writer Tama Janowitz, fashion designer Stephen Sprouse and others.

Through it all, Powell snapped photos, and shot some video. Later, she would become involved in a cable access program about pets, called “It’s a Dog’s Life. Cat’s Too. Sometimes Bird’s,” Powell says.

After she moved back to Portland in 1994, she kept herself busy with art curation and projects with friends Thomas Lauderdale of Pink Martini and filmmaker Gus Van Sant. She stayed involved in animal affairs. So the boxes of memories stayed in the garage and closet.

Friends helped her get the Portland Art Museum exhibit arranged and ready to show. The museum wants to emphasize video and new media, and the exhibit fits in.

There is the photographic element to the exhibit, “The Ride,” which also includes a three-channel video featuring recordings of Warhol and Haring and images of them and Basquiat. And then there is “Beulah Land,” the retro element. In 1984, in an East Village bars, Powell would display photographs with handwriting, and people would steal them. For “Beulah Land” at PAM, people can take photos home.

Powell says visitors have enjoyed the show, especially young people.

“That’s been terrific,” she says.

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