It takes a village (and good design) to address houselessness

Portland State University’s School of Architecture’s Center for Public Interest Design (CPID) is a key partner in the [Plywood] POD Initiative that accompanies Quest for Beauty: The Architecture, Landscapes, and Collections of John Yeon. CPID director Todd Ferry talks about the project and the importance of good design in creating housing solutions.

What has the experience of recreating the POD initiative within an art museum context been like for you and the students and partners involved
Working with the Portland Art Museum on the [Plywood] POD Initiative effort and exhibit has provided the Portland State University’s School of Architecture’s Center for Public Interest Design with a unique opportunity to further explore how designers can address houselessness in our city through the village model—in a way that opens up the discourse to the larger public. Storytelling has been a crucial part of our work in this area, and having the chance to reach thousands of museum visitors has been amazing. I think that all of the designers who submitted proposals for the exhibit believe strongly in the power of design to create social change, and good design can also challenge unfair or unfounded perceptions about houselessness—a necessary step in creating villages. My students and I wanted to use the exhibit to share some of the voices and perspectives of our project partners, including recognizing the essential contributions we have received from the Village Coalition and residents of Hazelnut Grove, who are true experts on village-making. We’re excited that members of the Village Coalition will be sharing their personal stories and reflections on village living at the Museum’s Miller Family Free Day event on August 20th.

John Yeon pioneered the plywood house concept during another era when housing was a concern for the city. What do you think he would appreciate most about the designs that have come from out of this initiative?
John Yeon was a singular designer with an incredible attention to detail and sense of materiality. I hope that he would appreciate these aspects of each of the designs submitted for the [Plywood] POD Initiative and would welcome the inspiration his work has provided for this effort.

How do you feel that good design can positively impact the neighborhoods affected by houselessness?
Good design is good for ALL. Too often, design services are reserved for the very few who can afford them, when it is frequently those with the least means who could benefit most from good design. The POD Initiative recognizes this and engages the architecture community to explore potential solutions to houselessness through the village model, which recognizes the efforts that many houseless Portlanders have already been attempting to do for themselves. While it is an overwhelming issue to tackle in totality, working at the module of a single pod is an ideal entry point for designers, because it is modest in isolation, but becomes extremely powerful in aggregation. Community is like this, and an inclusive and participatory design process can change the way that a community feels about and relates to their houseless neighbors, as was clearly demonstrated when Kenton welcomed the women’s village into their neighborhood. I think that the quality of the pod designs and shared village facilities were also crucial in encouraging community buy-in to the project. We hope that the Kenton Women’s Village will serve as a model that will be replicated within other communities in Portland. Human beings without homes have to sleep somewhere, so why not design safe, comfortable, and dignified accommodations for our most vulnerable neighbors?

What aspects of the POD designs resonate most deeply with their current or future inhabitants?
It has been a true pleasure getting to know some of the residents of the Kenton Women’s Village and to hear their feedback on their new homes. Just having a safe and comfortable place to sleep and recover from living on the streets has been transformative for the residents. Each pod at the Kenton Village is unique, so we are receiving a variety of feedback, which will be instrumental in helping us when we are designing new pods and villages. This is also true of the [Plywood] POD designs created for the museum exhibit. Residents of Hazelnut Grove reviewed all of the designs and offered valuable insight into issues related to each, such as constructability, storage, village layout, aesthetics, water collection, etc. Ultimately, whether housed or unhoused, people appreciate certain pods for their beauty, utility, and/or playfulness. This is an important component of the effort. Not only to create a library of design prototypes for future villages, but also to capture the imagination on what is possible beyond the bare minimum. When a housed person sees a pod design and thinks, “That is the one that I would want to live in,” that is a huge step toward empathizing and, thus, humanizing the houseless experience.

The PlyPAD by SERA Architects was chosen to be built following a review process that included members of the Portland Art Museum, Hazelnut Grove, Maslow CNC, the City of Portland, and the Village Coalition for its constructability, design quality, and livability. Additionally, it offered strong possibilities for exhibition and staged construction, which is important since the museum will be using it as demonstration project. The PlyPAD will be constructed at the museum on August 20th using an innovative CNC plywood cutting technology developed by our partners at Maslow CNC, which should be fascinating for museum-goers to watch.

Landscape and location were important to John Yeon. Do they play a role in the POD village and POD designs?
The pods are designed to be flexible enough to accommodate a variety of site conditions, but the designers certainly had to acknowledge the climatic conditions of the Northwest when making their material choices and formal strategies for shedding water and maximizing natural light. It is in the design of a village itself when a particular site context can be explored for optimizing its unique characteristics. For example, there is a large stone retaining wall at the Kenton Women’s Village that has become overgrown with moss to great effect, and several of the pods frame a view of this wall for the occupant inside, to rather lovely ends. The reality is that most villages will likely be placed on land that is less than ideal, and it will take a combination of utilizing the available assets on the site and implementing place-making efforts to create a welcoming place to live. At the Kenton Women’s Village, our students in the PSU School of Architecture collaborated with volunteers from City Repair and Kenton neighbors to convert an empty gravel lot into a friendly place with planted trees, grassy mounds of earth, planter boxes, a privacy fence from reclaimed wood, benches, and steps built into the hillside for easy connection to Kenton Park and the nearby MAX light rail station. Now, the residents have begun adapting to the site to their own needs and desires, which is fantastic to see.

What do you hope that visitors on August 20th learn?
I hope that visitors to the Portland Art Museum who view the exhibit and participate in the related activities that day leave with a better understanding of the importance of the village model as one of many paths needed to address houselessness in Portland. I hope that they will begin to imagine how they might support a village in their community and begin a conversation with their neighbors about contributing to this effort. And finally, I hope that visitors see the power of design to make meaningful change in our communities.

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Portland Art Museum

Local architecture firm channels John Yeon for tiny house design

In conjunction with Quest for Beauty: The Architecture, Landscapes, and Collections of John Yeon, local architecture firm SERA, in partnership with Portland State University’s Center for Public Interest Design, designed a plywood pod house that will be constructed on site on Sunday, August 20 during Miller Family Free Day: Exploring Architecture, Building Community.  Lead designer Timothy Bestor talks about the design process.

Have you worked on anything like this before?
SERA Architects has a long history of non-profit work partnering with organizations like the Blanchet House, Central City Concern, p:ear, and the Union Gospel Mission to design buildings that offer help and services to houseless and drug-addicted members of our city.  The original POD initiative was the first small scale shelter that we have had the opportunity to design (and physically build). Through the construction process, multiple relocations, and now occupation of our first POD, we have learned many lessons that we were excited to be able to refine and further explore as part of our PlyPAD submission.  We have since had discussions with other interested parties on how we can expand on the concept, and we intend to continue to be involved in this effort to the fullest extent possible.

What were your design inspirations?
One of our driving inspirations was to solve a few of the problems that we encountered during the original POD project.  The major challenge that many of the PODs struggled with was mobility.  In order to create as much livable space as possible, many teams increased the size of their pods to the 8 ft. x 12 ft. suggested maximum footprint.  This lead to an increase in the quantity of materials required and resulted in heavier PODs.  In addition to weight, the 8 ft. width made it so forklift operators had to wrap straps around and over the PODs during each move, which shifted, squeezed, and damaged various finishes.  As a response to these lessons learned, we decided early on that the best way to address mobility was to design a POD that can be broken into a series of smaller modules.  These modules would be narrow enough to fit on the forks of a forklift to reduce the need for strapping and they would be inherently lighter by being a fraction of the total weight of a completed POD.  After delivery to a site, the modules would bolt and snap together over weather-tight gaskets to form the completed POD.  Other advantages to separate modules is that they can be customized to fit a resident’s desired layout and can be shuffled or expanded as needs change.

After learning of the role that plywood and Computer Numerical Control (CNC) technologies would be playing in the second round of design, we looked at how they are both currently used in construction.  We found the open-source Wikihouse project and were impressed with the interlocking joinery and the scale of projects they were able to create with nothing but interlocking plywood.  After seeing the level of cleanliness and precision that John Yeon was able to achieve with plywood, we were inspired to try to distill the best of all three.  We worked to clean and simplify the interlocking joinery, for use at a smaller scale, and leveraged the precision offered by CNC technology to create a series of sculptural supporting ribs that flow into and form the furniture.  Working with Maslow CNC through many tests and iterations we have further refined the concept and are excited to begin building the finished prototype.

How (if any) was your process different on this project and what excites you about the use of plywood and CNC technology?
The original POD we designed used conventional wood construction, which is ideally assembled on a solid footing and not intended to be lifted, shifted, and twisted.  While our pod only suffered minor cosmetic damage to the siding, there were some nail-biting moments watching some of the forklift acrobatics!  One of the exciting challenges with the introduction of plywood and CNC technology was the chance to innovate and think of ways to use a comparatively lightweight material in a new and elegant way.  We decided to bookend our modules with structural plywood ribs that seamlessly integrate with built-in furniture to add both structure and rigidity to the three-dimensional framework.  These ribs stand proud on the interior of the finished POD and serve as both an expression of the structure and as the point of connection between two modules.  The resulting double-rib is a nod to John Yeon, who often expressed the sandwiched joint between two framed plywood panels in his affordable spec houses.  CNC technology also allowed us to introduce clean, precise curves and allows for the potential replication and mass production of the POD to help address homelessness on a much greater scale.

Were you familiar with John Yeon’s work prior to this partnership? Aside from the use of plywood, are there any aspects of the design that you feel he would have especially liked?
Personally, I was familiar with the Watzek House and the Visitors Information Center, but not with his spec houses or the role he played in celebrating plywood as an affordable, clean, and potentially elegant building material.  During design, the team used this approach of affordability and material simplicity to make critical design decisions and guide the final aesthetic. We feel that he would appreciate this simplicity and clarity of intent as well as the more aesthetic expression of the repeating structural grid of squares that we used in both the trellis and to form the supports in the furniture.  Yeon would often use a series of repeating squares at varying scales to define and enrich a space, for example, the subtle red squares of the guardrail below the flowering wisteria at the pond of the Watzek house and the covered framework of the walkway at the Visitors Information Center.

What do you think that visitors will be most surprised by, or interested in when they attend the build day on August 20th?
Hopefully, on August 20th visitors will stop and interact with the structure and volunteers, ask questions, and give us their feedback.  We think they will be surprised with the scale of the structure and how livable and beautiful these small structures can be; and they will be impressed by the inexpensive technology that Maslow CNC has developed to make CNC routing affordable and accessible to everyone.  Finally, we hope they learn a bit about the initiative and leave thinking about how they can help and participate both directly and in their communities.

What does it mean to you professionally and personally to work a project like this?
The key element to the POD initiative is that it provides meaningful impact at an approachable scale.  Designers teaming up with students, houseless individuals, and members of our city to design and build safe places for a struggling member of our community to live and sleep.  As part of a village, residents receive the comfort and support of a localized community and through the support of other organizations have access to counselling and healthcare to help them take the first important step off the streets.  Personally, it has been a fulfilling journey and I hope to be further involved as the program evolves.  Professionally, the entire team is thankful to be members of SERA, a firm with a long history of socially and environmentally forward thinking and a firm that encourages its employees to take on projects like this.  We hope there are many more opportunities like it to follow.

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Portland Art Museum

In Memoriam: Prudence (Prue) Miller

It is with great sadness that the Museum notes the passing of Prudence (Prue) Miller. Prue was a special member of our Museum community. She demonstrated her love of art through active participation in programs and events, as well travel to other cities with fellow Museum supporters to help bring exhibitions to Portland. Prue was a member for nearly 30 years, a Director’s Circle member for eight years, and a member of the Ella Hirsch Legacy Society. She served on the Portland Art Association board, organized exhibition openings, and continued her generous support of the Museum over the ensuing decades.

The most public symbol of Prue’s generosity is Roy Lichtenstein’s iconic Brushstrokes (1996) sculpture, which graces the corner of the Mark Building. The landmark piece is currently undergoing conservation treatment to restore it to its original beauty. She also supported many important exhibitions and their associated education programs, including most recently Venice: The Golden Age of Art and Music and The Art of the Louvre’s Tuileries Garden. This is truly a loss for the Museum and our community. Prue Miller will be greatly missed.

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Portland Art Museum

Student Leaders Program Returns to the Museum

For the third year, the Museum is honored to be participating in the Student Leaders Program (formerly called U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative or MEPI)—a partnership with Portland State University. The highly competitive program selects students from countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa. They spend six weeks in the United States, including three weeks in Portland at PSU, where they develop leadership skills and expand their understanding of civil society. Upon completion of the U.S.-based programs, host institutes work with participants to implement civic engagement programs in their home communities.

Every Student Leader brings a unique and compelling perspective to the program. Jabr Asmew, a medical student from Benghazi, Libya aspires to work for Doctors Without Borders. Joelle Nassif from Beirut, who has a double degree in Law and Political Science, has worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to resettle Syrian refugees in Lebanon and contemplates a career in politics and journalism. Rosa Ouarda Benlakhlef is a 22-year-old student from Algeria who aspires to be a TEFL teacher, a motivational speaker, a social activist, a writer, and much more. Describing herself as restless and driven, she knows she will find a way to make all her dreams come true. The Museum shares this same faith in all of the Student Leaders.

Of the consortium of universities that receive grant funding for the program, Portland is the only site that partners with an art museum—offering students unique opportunities to learn from Museum staff, artists, and educators. The art museum provides a space for critical conversations as well as personal stories, where students explore big ideas such as the role of dissent in democracy and also have intimate conversations around identity and our understanding of home.

This year, students are focusing on artwork related to both Portland and the United States. They met with Ka’ila Farrell-Smith, a Portland-based Klamath/Modoc artist, activist, and educator, to discuss indigenous art, cultural identity, and decolonization. Ka’ila guided students through the Native American art galleries, focusing particularly on the work of contemporary artists, such as Lillian Pitt and Joe Feddersen. Students also had the opportunity to discuss art and social justice through works in the Museum’s permanent collection and learn about collaborative initiatives to address Portland’s housing crisis through affordable, sustainable, tiny houses as part of the Quest for Beauty exhibition Plywood POD Initiative.

During the third and final session, the students will have the opportunity to discuss art, race, and democratic practice via the forthcoming exhibition, Representing: Vernacular Photographs of, by, and for African Americans.

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Portland Art Museum

Museum Responds to the Proposed NEA, NEH, and IMLS cuts

The Portland Art Museum joins museums and cultural institutions across the country in opposition to the proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). The arts are essential to our shared humanity and provide unparalleled opportunities for reflection, creative expression, and most importantly, connection to each other.

Art impacts people of all ages and from all backgrounds, and the Museum provides the space and resources that make that impact felt even more deeply—from focused programs for children and people living with dementia, to tours for visitors who are blind or partially sighted, and lectures for all. Our education and public programs inspire as well as offer tools that turn art into powerful lessons on history and empathy. School field trip tours open up new horizons to students and give them a broader sense of their place in the world. Each new exhibition and program offers a new opportunity to form lasting community partnerships that further extend the impact that the Museum is able to make.

The NEA, NEH, and IMLS have been vital partners in our ability to serve our community—locally and nationally. Funding has supported increased access to the Native American and Northwest art collections, as well as Northwest Film Center education and exhibition programs, among many other projects. The NEA’s crucial indemnity program for exhibitions and loans of artwork has made it possible to present many masterworks in Portland. Additionally, through the Oregon Arts Commission, the NEA provides operating support to the Museum.

The support that the Museum and other local and regional organizations have received from the NEA, NEH, and IMLS has helped to shape the dynamic cultural and civic environment that we hold dear. The Portland Art Museum strongly urges Congress to continue funding these agencies, whose work sustains our quality of life and provides real economic value across the country. Our experiences with art create a shared sense of community, nationality, and ultimately humanity—something more important now than ever.

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Portland Art Museum

The Power of the Flower

Sara Krajewski, The Robert and Mercedes Eichholz Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

Flowers mark the turning of the seasons; cut and arranged in a vase they accompany the occasions of life. Poets ascribe symbolic meaning to the rose, daisy, and lily. What about the orchid? The showy flair of the Phalaenopsis is now found everywhere from decorating corporate offices to the florist’s shelves of big-box retail stores. The once exceptional and exotic plant has become a symbol for the homogenizing effects of global trade, as it is shipped around the world to adorn a variety of domains. In an extraordinary appearance, Two Orchids by renowned artist Isa Genzken rises outside the Portland Art Museum, white blooms balanced on stems measuring three stories tall. Rendered in cast aluminum and stainless steel, the outsized flowers have the scale of a monument; but as a monument it is a complicated one.

Genzken has often employed mass-produced products in recent years: toys, souvenirs, plastic flowers, fast fashion items, and many other things that are available cheaply, large quantities, and circulating widely. Assembled into tableaux or installations, her sculptures speak to the web of detrimental effects bound to our contemporary consumer culture and our throwaway mentality. Genzken’s choice of readymade materials cast light on what the artist calls the language of mass production: “I’m not only interested in what they portray, but rather in the formal aspect of how they are made. And they come from all over the world: one component is from Taiwan, the next comes from Mexico and the third from somewhere completely different.” (Isa Genzken, Alex Farquharson) From this perspective Two Orchids reveals a sinister side to the gross availability of both the actual botanical specimen and plastic replicas of it.

The recurring appearance of flowers in Genzken’s work also invites an appreciation for the sentimental value and pure visual pleasure they induce. The artist utterly transforms the delicate plant by radically enlarging it and casting it in aluminum; she solidifies the fragility of the ephemeral bloom in a scale that exhilarates and astounds in its apparent permanence. On a fundamental level, flowers represent the natural world in contrast to Genzken’s reaction to the built environment. Throughout her career Genzken has explored the verticality and weightiness of architecture, calling attention to its dominating influence over experience of the urban landscape. Several works fight against this phenomenon. In the late 1980s, Genzken proposed public art works of giant flowers that were never realized. In a sculpture series from the late 1990s called Fuck the Bauhaus, Genzken attached a photo of a single long stem flower to a blocky skyscraper form, metaphorically dematerializing the façade. She commented stirringly that that the Bauhaus school of architects, led by Mies van der Rohe whose international-style buildings have shaped modern cities, should be denounced for its formalism that “disdained the beauty of flowers.”

Installed previously in a plaza at the edge of New York City’s Central Park, Two Orchids stood in a state of limbo between the park’s trees in one direction and the skyline of New York in the other. Now in Portland, the work animates a corner of the Museum’s red brick architecture on a site previously occupied by a large chestnut tree felled several years ago. Perhaps true to the ubiquitous plant it was modeled after, the sculpture adapts to its context and conjures up new associations for those who experience it in this location.

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Portland Art Museum

Remixing Rodin’s Sculpture

In support of the exhibition Rodin: The Human Experience, Rodin Remix is a hands-on space that encourages visitors to explore and create figures based on the artists’ own process of reusing old fragments in new works. It also puts a modern spin on Rodin’s method of mass production by showcasing pieces printed on 3D printers.

Fragments and Recycling

Rodin recycled cast offs, fragments of plaster casts that had already been made, by recombining them into new sculptures. For example, Rodin knew that a different pair of legs would change a sculpture’s expression. In Rodin Remix visitors can create their own dramatic sculptures from 3D printed and magnetized Rodin figures, to get a taste of the artist’s use of fragments.

We partnered with the Portland 3D Printing Lab to produce 3D prints, which are made by extruding molten plastic into thin layers. As the layers add up, they build a 3D form. Prints were made from free online STL files under the Creative Commons license, and from scans of the Rodins in the show. Those files can now be found on the exhibition page.

Sizing Up and Down

Rodin would sculpt a model in clay, then pass it to his assistants. They rendered the work again in marble or bronze, sizing it up or down according to Rodin’s and his patron’s wishes. Rodin’s assistants made hundreds of casts of the same model, all official Rodins, in a sort of artistic mass-production. Smaller bronzes, produced in large quantities, were more affordable. These relatively inexpensive bronzes widened the range of people who could purchase a Rodin, earning the sculptor more money and popularity.

Just as Rodin mass-produced bronze casts of the same sculpture in multiple sizes and media, the Portland 3D Printing Lab made many 3D prints of Rodin sculptures, experimenting with size and color. 3D printing can easily mass-produce objects, echoing Rodin’s earlier mass-production. The Portland 3D Printing Lab created numerous prints of Fallen Caryatid with Stone in Rodin Remix, to juxtapose the expressive qualities of the same sculpture when it is 6” high and bright orange instead of 10” high and black.

All of the 3D prints in Rodin Remix provide a tactile experience of Rodin’s forms, one you would not be able to have with the bronzes. Visitors are also encouraged to Instagram a photo of their creation in front of a backdrop of Rodin’s studio, which shows the plaster fragments he used. Each Monday during the run of the show, a visitor’s photograph appears on the @portlandartmuseum Instagram, with the tag #rodinremix. Come to the museum to experience Rodin’s art in a new way, build a sculpture, and Instagram your creation!

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Portland Art Museum

Remixing Rodin’s Sculpture (Part Two)

Our local partner organization, the Portland 3D Printing Lab, contributed this post.

The Portland Art Museum worked with the Portland 3D Printing Lab to create 3D printed plastic Rodin sculptures for Rodin Remix, the hands-on space that supports the exhibition Rodin: The Human Experience. The goal of Rodin Remix was the subject of the last post; this one will describe the work that went into producing just under 30 3D prints of Rodin’s sculptures.

I’m Shashi Jain, Organizer of the Portland 3D Printing Lab, a community of around 1100 “Layer Geeks” who love 3D printing and its many applications. We were asked by the Portland Art Museum to 3D print versions of Rodin’s sculptures for Rodin: The Human Experience, so that patrons could interact with the artist’s forms. The project has three pieces:

  1. 3D models of 3 of Rodin’s male figures, which can be posed or reassembled into your own piece (Instagram gallery here).
  2. 3D scans of 10 pieces from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Collections, available here.
  3. 3D printed replicas of 15 Rodin pieces.

Over thirty volunteers stepped up. Here’s what it was like in their own words.

3D Models by Maz and Attero

Maz and Attero |

We designed the posable Rodin figures. The trickiest part was figuring out the posing mechanism. It had to be fun, while balancing durability, ease of use, and safety. We initially thought of Lego studs or ball joints, but settled on a combination of magnets and washers.

The 18-hour design process went like this:

  1. We took the 3D model files (STLs) of Rodin’s sculptures and converted them with Autodesk ReMake into Object/CAD files that can be easily manipulated.
  2. We scaled all the models to a similar size with Autodesk Fusion 360, so that attaching parts from one sculpture to another would have the right proportions.
  3. We cut the scaled models into interchangeable sections called fragments.
  4. Next, cavities were added for magnets in the limb/head fragments and for metal washers in the torsos. We included enough space to fit the metal/magnets, plus the glue to hold them in.
  5. Last, we output the fragment models to STLs that could be easily printed by volunteers.

Maz and Attero enjoyed the opportunity to participate in the problem solving and 3D design of another amazing community 3D printing project.

3D Scanning by Adam McGee, Portland 3D LLC

Adam McGee |  Portland 3D LLC |

For this job, I used an iPad equipped with the Structure Sensor from Occipital Labs. Together, they form a powerful 3D camera system that can record the shape and look/feel of almost anything. At the museum, I used an app called Structure Scanner to record each piece at all angles. It was tough to get fine details without touching the statues. I had to be careful to minimize “artifacts” – unwanted scans of display cases, tools, and people. I used Autodesk Meshmixer to fill holes in the scans, clean out artifacts, and size the models.

I invite you to have fun with the scanned models; 3D print them for yourself or a friend so you too can be a part of the maker movement.

3D Printing by Portland 3D Printing Lab

Matt Liepold | Designer and Social Media |

RodinRemix is the second “crowdprinting” project done by our group. We had to distribute 29 pieces for printing – 23 replicas of Rodin sculptures, 3 remixable figures, and 3 backups for spare parts. In total, we printed 56 pieces over 620 3D printer hours, and using 25kg of plastic (locally sourced at Proto-Pasta) over three months.

We used a spreadsheet to coordinate printing and to collect statistics. Maz and Attero would load files onto a shared drive, then we’d add links in the spreadsheet. Volunteers would add their name by the file based on their print capabilities (size, color, finish). This way, no one would duplicate prints and we could track the statues easily.

After many hours printing, designing, scanning, and organizing, members of the Portland 3D Printing Lab made the Rodin Remix project a reality, for which the Portland Art Museum is very grateful. Visitors enjoy the hands-on interaction with Rodin’s sculptural forms and the opportunity to make their own sculpture by mixing and matching the magnetic Rodin fragments. For more information about the Portland 3D Printing Lab and their future projects, visit their website

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Portland Art Museum

Just announced: Animating Life: The Art, Science, and Wonder of LAIKA

The announcement of Animating Life: The Art, Science, and Wonder of LAIKA earlier this week drew praise from the press, and excitement from Museum members, LAIKA fans, and animation enthusiasts. The exhibition is a groundbreaking view behind-the-curtain into the visionary artistry and technology of the globally renowned animation studio.

“Computer animation has upended Hollywood, but a group of independent filmmakers in Oregon still make their movies by hand.” –The Oregonian

“Featuring photography, video clips and physical artwork from Laika’s four Oscar-nominated feature films — Coraline, ParaNorman, Boxtrolls and Kubo and the Two Strings — the exhibit promises to immerse visitors in Laika’s creative process by exploring the company’s production design, sets, props, puppets, and costumes.” –Portland Business Journal

“It was probably in 2009 that we did a small installation of figures from the Coraline movie and over the years we’ve been talking about how to pull this together for a longer exhibition,” Ferriso tells WW.” –The Willamette Week

“It’s been another good year for Laika, what with more Academy Awards nominations. Now people can learn more about the Hillsboro animation studio in an upcoming documentary and museum exhibit.” –Portland Tribune

“LAIKA Teams with Portland Art Museum for Major Retrospective.” –Animation World Network

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Portland Art Museum

Pictures at an Exhibition: A Musician’s Search for the Sound of Identity

This post contributed by Darrell Grant.

When I received the invitation from PDX Jazz and the Portland Art Museum to present a concert in honor of International Jazz Day, I knew immediately that I wanted to tie the performance closely to the Constructing Identity exhibit. This expansive exhibition is a powerful lens through which to view over a century of African-American formation, exploration, and reinvention of identity—much of it in the face of dehumanizing racism and oppression. I was particularly interested to explore the ways that the work and narratives of the exhibit artists intersected with those of 20th century jazz artists—to find commonalities between the musical and the visual.

It was daunting trying to choose from among the bounty of historic painting, sculpture, printmaking, tapestry, and collage in the exhibit, not to mention the hundreds of notable jazz composers I might pair them with. However, over the course of several visits to the exhibit, a program began to take shape. I started with pieces that spoke to me personally.  There were several whose subject matter, imagery, symbolism, or stylistic approach “struck a chord.” Then I went through the exhibit and read all the captions accompanying the works. As I began to settle on a subset of artists to explore, I took to the Internet to research their histories and related work.

I am a layman when it comes to art history. Perhaps for that reason I thoroughly enjoyed this process of discovery around both the iconic artists and contemporary practitioners. I found the range of cultural backgrounds and influences fascinating. I was interested in the differences in formal training and the extensive travel that many of them undertook that enriched their educations and their practices. I have read many similar things in the biographies of jazz artists. Not surprisingly, many of the visual artists were products of major urban art scenes in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago, cities that were also centers of jazz musical innovation. I was intrigued to read about the influence of artist collectives and informal groups or “schools” on the development of individual artists’ practices. These too, had parallels in jazz, including the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago and the Black Artists Group (BAG) in St. Louis. It was also interesting to note how many of these artists reacted to, and participated in historic cultural moments such as The Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights Movement in similar ways to their jazz counterparts.

Once I selected my composers, then I got to pursue the most enjoyable part of the process: identifying jazz compositions that might resonate with specific visual art. In this process I was aided by the fact that music and visual art share a wide swath of descriptive language. These range from stylistic categorizations like impressionism and abstraction, to descriptions of mood like “bright” and “dark.” In fact, the very idea of color as a musical characteristic reflects our penchant for describing music in visual terms. Similarly, we talk about the “balance” of a composition or a painting, the “contour” of a drawn or melodic line. In describing visual art we also hear references to elements of jazz like improvisation and rhythm, as well as vernacular terms like “soulful, “bluesy, and “jazzy” as a way of getting closer to the essence of the work.  I tried to use this common language as a way of listening and seeing, in order to discover what the music and the art might have in common.

The musical selections in the “Sound of Identity” range from classics of the jazz repertoire to contemporary works. Likewise, the composers include icons like Ellington, Monk, and Mary Lou Williams, to contemporary jazz artists like Terence Blanchard and Marcus Shelby. Like the exhibit’s visual artists, their works express multi-faceted identities and artistic visions that are shaped by the many “hats” they wear—as performers, composers, teachers, mentors, leaders, activists, learners, and collaborators. They come from a range of ethnic, cultural, and class backgrounds, and create from a myriad of influences, personal narratives, and artistic points of view. Some deal in abstract subject matter and seek to explode established forms. Some take programmatic approaches and create aural “landscapes” of sound. Others highlight the vernacular, or even the overtly political in their work. What is universal is their quest to be seen as individuals, to have their unique stories and perspectives represented, and to make space within the culture for a larger range of experiences, ideas, and expressions. One of the historic challenges of African-American artists is that of straddling the line between high art and vernacular/popular culture. Historically we have striven to expand the perception of our work idiom to embrace both.

At the core of Constructing Identity is the assertion that “African-American art is American art.” The artistic voices of our community are, and always have been, intrinsic to the construction of American identity. The exhibit also encourages viewers to move past simplified racial constructs of “black” and “white” to see these artists for their singular contributions within the framework of American culture. Studying the exhibit and creating this concert gave me a deeper appreciation for the diversity of African-American narratives and the myriad cultural and personal identities that are so often overlooked in discussions around race. This “Sound of Identity” concert program is an attempt to connect to the cultural expressions and experiences that inspired generations of visual artists and musicians, as well as to highlight the quest for individual identity that we all pursue within the larger communities to which we belong.

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