Art exhibit imagines what can replace Oregon’s toppled monuments

The “Prototypes” exhibit allows artists and community to question what is worthy of being memorialized in public spaces

In the dead of night on Feb. 22, an anonymous artist (now known to be 60-year-old Todd McGrain) installed an unauthorized statue of York, a Black enslaved member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, atop Mount Tabor.

There is no historical record of what York looked like, but the artist portrayed him as a bald young man, gazing solemnly down at the viewer. The piece quickly gained national attention and was the target of several racist attacks until it was irreparably destroyed on July 27. But the piece didn’t just elicit strong reactions from the political right. In March, the sculpture was spray-painted with the phrases “Decolonize” and “His Blood Is On Your Hands.” The piece brought up questions about the political messages that monuments communicate and who gets a say in which monuments are made.

The Mount Tabor statue of York is complicated because little is known about the man himself. He was an active participant in the expedition, hunting and negotiating trades between the white settlers and Indigenous people they encountered. After the expedition, William Clark denied York his freedom for years. York disappeared from the historical record for two decades until Clark revealed to Washington Irving that York had eventually gained his freedom before passing away of cholera, according to a 2018 article in Smithsonian Magazine.

Everything known about York comes from the accounts of white men who viewed him as property. The inscrutable gaze of the York statue is a reflection of the fact that, for most of U.S. history, Black people had very little power to narrate or preserve their own lives.

Who has the power to narrate a place’s history or celebrate its people through monuments and memorials? In Portland, the answer has almost always been wealthy, white individuals. For instance, the toppled Harvey Scott memorial, which the York statue replaced, was commissioned and donated to the city by the newspaper mogul’s wife, Margaret Scott.

The imposing bronze statue of Harvey Scott was molded and cast by none other than Gutzon Borglum, the man responsible for one of America’s most famous and controversial monuments, Mount Rushmore.

“Of course, this country is littered with statues of angels and blindfolded women holding balances aloft, but what of the glorious history of this great nation, the greatest nation ever on earth? Our statues should be of the men who made our history,” Borglum said in a 1928 interview with “The Oregonian,” which Scott owned and edited prior to his death in 1910.

Unlike York, there is ample historical evidence of Harvey Scott’s life and beliefs, like his staunch stances against women’s suffrage and labor organization, forever preserved in the archives of his newspaper.

In 2020, demonstrators toppled 11 statues in Portland and Eugene. Out of those 11 statues, only one of them had any community input on its design.

“None of them were commissioned by the cities,” said Mack McFarland, an art curator in Portland. “Those were all donations to the city, mostly by organizations who had some kind of vested interest in these persons’ legacies or their own personal legacies.”

In current-day Portland, the Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC) collaborates with selection committees of artists, designers and community members when choosing monument artists and public art proposals. Selection committees are relatively new, and most traditional monuments didn’t have that kind of oversight.

The only toppled monument that went through a selection committee was “The Promised Land.” Erected in 1993, this Chapman Square statue depicts an idealized scene of a white settler family. Incidentally, the Metropolitan Arts Council (RACC’s predecessor) rejected the statue’s design due to poor design and insensitivity to the issue of colonialism. But the mayor and city council bypassed the committee’s decision and approved the piece anyway.

These days, many Portland artists, curators, and activists are pushing the boundaries of what a monument is and how they’re approved.

McFarland and Jess Perlitz are curators of “Prototypes,” an art exhibition from Converge 45. It’s part of the group’s ongoing Portland Monuments & Memorials Project, which brings together artists, scholars, civil leaders and community members to consider the impact of monuments in the city.

For McFarland, this moment is the perfect time to reconsider what version of history monuments are telling and what values they celebrate.

“I really see these empty pedestals as touchstones for the city’s equity and inclusion and humanity statements that they’re making,” McFarland said. “What they do with these empty pedestals will actually speak volumes to their follow through with these things.”

For Indigenous artist Sara Siestreem (Hanis Coos), equitable representation in Portland’s monuments is long overdue.

“For every white monument, I want an Asian, Black and Indigenous monument,” Siestreem said. “Further, the artist should be a member of the community that the work represents.”

That means carving out spaces and money for artists of color. Right now, things seem to be moving in that direction.

Last year, RACC devoted thousands of dollars in funding for new public art projects like murals by local artists of color. Similarly, the city of Portland partnered with groups like the Historic Black Williams Art Project and the Alberta Street Black Heritage Markers, which use public space to celebrate the rich cultural life of Portland’s historically Black neighborhoods.

Of course, gentrification in Portland displaced many people of color from those neighborhoods in the mid-1900s. Now, East Portland is home to a large chunk of Portland’s immigrant communities and communities of color.

Roshani Thakore, the artist-in-residence for the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, has been working for three years on community-driven public art projects past Southeast 82nd Avenue. She says, when it comes to the city’s actual collaborations with marginalized communities, Portland’s attention can be fleeting or even tokenizing.

Thakore has a simple piece of advice for artists and city planners who want more marginalized voices in public art and monuments.

“Show up,” Thakore said. “People don’t show up. People come by, make a phone call or send an email. But people need to show up for things that already exist there.”

Malik Lovette is the founder of Let Us Have Vision, a company that supports youth development through the arts. He has similar advice.

“Meet people in the community themselves, and really try to build an understanding of what they want, or where they come from,” Lovette said. “A lot of times people that are marginalized obviously don’t feel a part of their community, and they don’t know the resources to get to reach (art selection committees).”

In partnership with Mary Leighton from the City Club of Eugene and Eugene 4J staff, Lovette developed a curriculum encouraging the city’s youth to reimagine monuments. The class, part of Eugene’s BEST for Success Afterschool Program, reached 18 students from Kelly Middle School, Chávez Elementary School and El Camino del Río Elementary School.

“These are the next people, the next set of individuals that are going to be the face of our community, and they should have some form of say,” Lovette said.

The final projects from Lovette’s class, titled Reimagining Monuments, went on display in downtown Eugene window fronts in June. Participants made tributes to various subjects, from astronauts to beloved community members, to family.

Lovette says it’s not enough for cities just to provide funding or ensure they’re meeting diversity, equity, and inclusion quotas.

“They’re just dishing out the money, hoping that we’ve checked the list,” Lovette said. “But that’s not enough. You’ve got to really be empathetic and vulnerable and be really willing to want to meet these people and understand what they’re going through.”

Beyond a hero on a horse

When it comes to public art, Perlitz said the problems go beyond the selection process.

“How they’re chosen and who chooses them is part of the problem, but it’s not the only problem,” Perlitz said. “The problems might just be with monuments and memorials.”

That’s why she and Mack McFarland issued an open call for “Prototypes.” They asked community members and artists to answer two questions: What is an appropriate monument for this time and place? What monument or memorial would you want in your neighborhood?

“Prototypes” is an eclectic and forward-thinking collection of answers to those questions. Pieces range from a striking video of an artist dancing atop the vacated base of a toppled Confederate monument to a newspaper page imagining the futures of Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, and others had their lives not been cut short by police violence.

The proposed monuments are varied — from an ice age flood that shaped Mount Tabor to the common lab rat — but each piece pushes beyond the idea of a monument as a bronze statue of a hero on a horse.

A piece by Thakore and Lisa Bates appears in the exhibit. The collaborators initially bonded over a dislike of traditional monuments.

“Lisa and I both immediately resonated because we both don’t like monuments,” Thakore said. “And the reason we don’t like them is because they’re so static. They represent a certain power dynamic, and we wanted to see what was possible by subverting all of that.”

Their proposal is a series of questions, broadcast throughout the city and into the lives of the powerful by way of high-powered speakers, emergency texts and homing pigeons. Instead of presenting a monumental figure, their piece addresses monumental needs: Is freely available and abundant food a monument? Is shade a monument? Is knowing my own history a monument?

With APANO and the East Portland Art + Justice Lab, Thakore spends time with East Portlanders addressing concrete needs and creating public art, often at the same time. She helped open a gallery in the lobby of Orchards of 82nd, an affordable housing complex at the corner of Southeast 82nd Avenue and Division Street. The artwork shown there is chosen by a panel including community members, former residents, cultural work students, and more.

Thakore also led an artists-in-residency program that partners three local artists with three Orchards of 82nd tenants to collaborate on work that they think is socially relevant. The program launched in September of last year. Participants will be exhibiting their work on November 5th as part of the East Portland Arts and Literary Festival.

New political potential

Some local artists are playing with the idea of a monument as a tool to inspire political organizing. After all, monuments did more than just fall during last year’s protests. They also served as important meeting points for racial justice protesters. The Elk Fountain, in particular, was a hub for protesters and many mutual aid groups meeting outside the Mark O. Hatfield Courthouse.

When the city removed the bronze statue in July 2020, someone created a new, hauntingly skeletal elk and placed it where the old one once stood. This creation, jokingly called “the nightmare elk,” also eventually became the focus of political attention. Far-right demonstrators nabbed the piece of protest art, covered it in pro-Trump slogans, and showed it off at a Salem protest like a prized piece of taxidermy.

According to Siestreem, creating and displaying monuments can be a way to “recenter” or “level” that authority. So, the power struggle over the elk in its many forms can be seen as a battle over whose authority is actually recognized.

“Monuments carry authority over a place that is taken for granted by all that pass through them,” Siestreem said. “That makes them either powerfully good or bad.”

McFarland notes that this kind of battle is definitely not new.

“There’s a longstanding practice of people in power and privilege putting up images of their own likeness — whether that’s their actual likeness or their values — and then the next groups of people who oppose those values or rulers then taking them down,” McFarland said.

Many other artists at the Converge 45 show, especially Indigenous artists, returned to the idea of a monument that is natural or ephemeral. People proposed gardens, rivers, temporary sculptures of birds and pieces that would decay with time. Malik Lovette and his students even considered natural landmarks like Mary’s Peak as monuments.

For Siestreem, a monument can be something that already exists in the land. Her proposed monument came in the form of bundles of native Pacific Northwest plants: sweetgrass, mugwort, red cedar, spruce root and ceremonial tobacco.

“To tend, gather, and possess these plants is an exercise of sovereign rights, a legal provision for Indigenous people on this landmass to continue to practice our cultural and spiritual birthright,” Siestreem wrote in her piece.

For her, connecting with the land is political work as well.

While traditional monuments put the powerful on a pedestal, Siestreem’s pieces elevate the vital forces that are often overlooked in American society. She says she wants to display “the plants, animals (us too), ancestors, land, natural elements as relatives with agency that must have an equal say and consideration.”

These proposals are a far cry from something like the Elk Fountain, a metal tribute to a creature whose habitat became the paved piece of concrete downtown. If a traditional statue presents history as static, a natural monument might recall histories that are changing and much more ancient than human lifetimes.

Walking out of “Prototypes” in the late, golden hours of the afternoon, attendees pass a Pearl District corner scattered with personal belongings and trash. A camp of just a few tents was swept earlier that day. The sweeps are getting more frequent, more swift.

There on that corner, it made sense the monuments people dreamed of were more fleeting. After all, the world seems more fleeting and precarious. A world where a pandemic might swallow people’s savings or separate them from loved ones. A world where the distance between safety and police violence might just be one wrong move away. People live in a world where even things cast in bronze and carved in stone do not last. Walking by that swept camp — the blankets, food wrappers, deodorant and shoes left behind — one may wonder, could this be a monument too?

Land acknowledgement

Portland, Oregon lies within the traditional homelands of the Multnomah, Oregon City Tumwater, Watlala, Clackamas Chinooks and the Tualatin Kalapuya Peoples who were relocated to the Grand Ronde Reservation under the Kalapuya etc., 1855 ratified treaty (also known as the Willamette Treaty, 1855). Today, these tribes are part of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde. The Grand Ronde people continue to maintain a connection to their ancestral homelands and maintain their traditional cultural practices.

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Reggie S. Williams

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