Lead Pencil Studio and Portland's Inversion: Plus Minus Public Art Project with Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo

Inversion: Plus Minus | “Looking Through the Past Into the Present”

This is a story about art.  About public art — a public installation of grand, yet grounded proportions.  It is a story of architecture.  Of science and of history.  Of a way of looking at an environment and a landscape with a poetic understanding.  Of blending inspiration, appreciation, and idea with the realities of weather, structure, and observation and of seeing grace and beauty in the forgotten and the abandoned– in a cityscape of low-profile commercialism, traffic rushing to destinations elsewhere, and the utilitarian harshness of streets dominated by warehousing.  It is also about what is left when something is gone as a place evolves through time.  And it is about connecting to people, their sense of place and their capacity for appreciation.


It is about Inversion: Plus Minus, the filigree-like corten steel structures that now rise up to define the eastern finishing point of Portland’s Hawthorne Bridge.  Conceived of, designed, and built by Seattle-based Lead Pencil Studio’s artist-architects, Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo (both are UO Department of Architecture alumni), the installation is a public art project administered by the Regional Arts and Culture Council and part of the city’s 2% for Art ordinance and Portland Streetcar’s expansion to the central eastside..

Inversion: Plus Minus sits comfortably within the ethos and reputation of oeuvre recognized and accomplished by Seattle’s Lead Pencil Studio—a studio renowned for the blending of art and architecture or as UO architecture professor Howard Davis explains, a “blending of the intellectual experience of art with the physical | visceral experience of a building.”  Which, is, indeed the initial step to observing and understanding these structures:  Davis, continues, “that physical experience (as a work of architecture) is tactile, haptic, temporal, environmental; and because it at the same time defies architectural expectations (as a work of art) it provokes thought about the idea of building itself.  Art becomes architecture, and architecture becomes art….the installation [Inversion: Plus Minus] clearly does this splendidly.”

Selected by a RACC-assembled public art panel in 2011, Lead Pencil Studio’s Han and Mihalyo saw the pre-Inversion: Plus Minus Hawthorne Bridge location as a “ruthless pedestrian environment” immersed in a region of  “old billboard structures, warehouses, and a density of commercial [buildings]” that had defined and shaped the area for over a century.  Han and Mihalyo visualized the environment as predisposed to inspiration they derived from shipyard-scaffolding, and a poignant sense of industry left behind once the production was completed.

The actual physical east Portland location, imagined from an historic perspective and from a vision that acknowledged a past of industrial and commercial ebb and flow, gave the artist-architect team the sense that “it had a life already” and that life required expression and appreciation.  Thus, Inversion: Plus Minus can be said to provide a glimpse of what had existed, and a reference to a past, of buildings that once stood in this place with rooflines discernable in the silhouettes of Inversion: Plus Minus.  By presenting the idea as a void or a shadow of a building, not solid, but permeable, with the wind and the rain having full access, this tumbleweed-like aesthetic gives viewers an opportunity to imagine and to “capture a sky, a volume, a gesture, and to give one an experience,” describes Han.

Both Han and Mihalyo confide that it is futile to try and control the meaning of their work:  “providing a narrative—confines the work too much.”  Their goal, they say, is for the individual to “come to their own conclusions: it is more meaningful that way.”  And while the quizzical form of the installation, its spiny composition of right-angle welded small pieces, from afar appearing digital in form, pixelesque in repetition fascinates the eye, Han and Mihalyo point to the questions it might raise and the discussions it might precipitate as being the most important.  Inversion: Plus Minus succeeds in capturing a void, a series of spaces otherwise lost in the ethereal upper stories atmosphere blanketing a busy streetscape.  The structure frames a memory bringing recognition to a history and a concept of all things existing, somehow connected to our present and bridging that gap between emptiness and purpose.

University of Oregon Department of Architecture | Portland program director, Nancy Cheng comments on the installation:

By recreating the edges of the former industrial buildings, the art piece pays homage to ordinary workers’ lives.  The anonymity of the building forms speaks about the dignity of common person’s mundane existence.


The composition of metal strips recalls the static of a not-quite-in-tune television set, evoking the ephemeral quality of a dream.  The disciplined orthogonal order creates a random weave texture that reveals the contemporary origin of the artpiece.  Because these members catch the light in different ways, the appearance of the piece changes according to the lighting condition and viewing angle.  I first saw the piece in silhouette, which muted its spatial characteristics.  Photos show how that direct sunlight brings out the more literal architectural features, and reveals a rich depth of layering.

Years ago, Portlanders passed by, worked in, and interacted with structures at the Hawthorne Bridge | Grand Avenue location that resembled the roofline and height of Inversion: Plus Minus.  From the 1930s-1950s, businesses bustled and people came and went in a dense urban environment.  Prosperity eventually waned and the area shifted focus transitioning to a much more car-oriented comfort level.  Buildings once here disappeared: torn down, removed, simply altered to fit a new aesthetic, different requirements, and modern commercialism.  The environment morphed, materialistic things came and went, replaced by new buildings, new business, new people.   A sense of curiosity remains, however, with a love of a place, aren’t we compelled to wonder what happened to what was before, after all, did it not influence our present and effect our future?  Does it simply disappear?  Seeking to explain or justify or even just satisfy a sort of questioning of the past in a way reminiscent of Roman poet and philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus’ epic poem, On the Nature of Things, who writes “all things flow –the things thus grow.”  It is an approach that fits rather well with Lead Pencil Studio’s ideology.  The original structures are long gone, disunited, but what remains or has replaced the emptiness is represented with affection and a weathered rust-orange patina of nostalgia that has become evocatively representational.  Han comments that Inversion: Plus Minus sought to “repair the fabric of the city;” and that the desire was “to let Inversion: Plus Minus exist as a reference point similar in size to buildings that were here historically.” Lead Pencil Studio’s installation reaches into the skyline in an attempt “to relate to the city and the scale of the city, to walk between the presence and the absence….” says Han.  It stands as a series of right angle outlines that forge a description of history, and summon a memory.

“Public art is blood after it has been oxygenated, coursing through our bodies providing a necessary component for survival.”  —Ms. Lynette Hanson, member of the public on Inversion: Plus Minus


The idea of this public art installation as a work of memory, a piece meant to acknowledge something that existed in our past is captivating.  But as a piece of public art, how does it function?  What does it bring to our community?  I set out recently to gather concentrated community responses to this work from the public as I felt that would help to anchor Inversion: Plus Minus to the community and foster a dialogue that accepted the piece as permanent piece of our landscape.

I decided to begin at the beginning: with the people who were watching the installation in situ from the get-go, and would be looking at it daily for a very long time.  What I came across were some wonderful surprises and a delightful treasure, Lynette Hanson; her co-worker Steve Wright (both employees with the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office); and the west-facing office window-side employees of the Multnomah County Information Technology offices.


Hanson works on the third floor of the Multnomah Building in the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office.  Across the street, her office window looks directly towards Inversion: Plus Minus. She has no formal art or architecture background, and works as an office administrator.  She does have an enthusiastic love of photography, and an appreciation for all things Portland.


As she says,

“I ….watched and photographed the installation of Inversion from the third floor of the Multnomah Building where I work, it was on the SE Grand sidewalk one January evening after work that it dawned on me that I could see the downtown skyline through the supports.  I could look through the past into the present.”

I asked her how the installation has changed her view of the city:

Hanson replied,

“Since I moved to Portland in June, 2006–thrilled to be in the city my sons had come to call home–I’ve been on a quest to know more about Portland. Up until January, 2011, my work day commute took me through downtown, between home in the Alphabet District and the Central Eastside. Ever curious about downtown’s mix of venerable architecture and public spaces, plus accessible mass transit and the public art that goes with it, I walked the sidewalks, seeking sights to savor and investigate through the Internet and books and the Architectural Heritage Center, a few blocks north of the Multnomah Building. So, I was excited when I realized that the Portland Streetcar would bring not only more access to mass transit for my new workday commute—I now live in Northeast Portland—but also public art to its new route, the Central Loop. Little did I know that Inversion Plus Minus would be installed on the street corners right outside my workplace. For me, public art is blood after it has been oxygenated, coursing through our bodies providing a necessary component for survival. So, I’m excited to see the Central Eastside embrace public art.”

The reflections of Hanson express appreciation and a realization that this piece of public art enhances the community. It was a sentiment I would begin to hear over and over as I pressed on and asked for more input from the Inversion: Plus Minus’ captive audience at the Multnomah Building.  Sheriff’s Office worker, Diane Hutchinson was happy to show me “the best view in the building”—she unlocked the main conference room so I could get a pristine look at Inversion: Plus Minus—the view seen by some of the sheriff’s office most important officials:  third floor, west-facing full fenestration eye-level view of Inversion: Plus Minus.   Across the street—turned out to be an excellent vantage point to a much better impression of the connectedness of the components, and the maze-like quality of the fused steel. Hutchinson’s co-workers were equally enthusiastic.  Steve Wright, the Sheriff’s Office representative to the Multnomah County Green Team, among other things, proudly and graciously took me up on the building’s blustery wildflower-planted ecorooftop to be able to photograph and look at Inversion: Plus Minus from “a different angle.”  He spoke with reverence and a sense of pride for being in such close proximity to the structure and even commented on looking forward to seeing how it might be used by all “neighbors” (birds, included) as it assimilates the regional ecology.

I was consistently and pleasantly surprised by the willingness of all to show me their “view” as my “tour” continued on the upper floors of the Multnomah building–employees eagerly walking me over to share their window views (Stan Mason and Tim Kurilo) and encouraging me to photograph varying angles of the structures framed by office cubbies and window sils.

We have all become rather accustomed to seeing this installation from a street view, and there is really much more to to be discovered, especially with how this installation contributes to the Portland skyline.

“….And indeed, embraced it will be.”—Beth Sellars, Suyama Space

Obviously, these 50’ high structures of 12 tons of steel are growing on their public audience and branching out to connect with the community.  This is not a new progression for how the work of Lead Pencil Studio is perceived.  Beth Sellars, curator of Suyama Space in Seattle (a place where work by Lead Pencil Studio has been exhibited) comments that whenever Lead Pencil completes a major art project, it is certain to be thoughtful, sensitive, and smart and will resonate with the public to the point of prideful ownership.

Sellars continues,

As a curator with a long history of their work, I am constantly intrigued with their inventive approach to large scale projects.  Their Inversion: Plus Minus promises to be their most innovative to date and I’m envious Portland will be the home for it….


Lead Pencil Studio’s thoughtful reminder of the disappearing history of the industrial East Portland neighborhood, the actual 1900’s iron foundry that was destroyed to make way for bridge construction, and the mindless stream of vehicular traffic separating the neighborhood from the rest of the city will coalesce in community-wide pride of place once the work is completed and embraced.  And indeed, embraced it will be.

Quite so, projects like Inversion: Plus Minus contribute to the growing and expansive definition of our city, as Nancy Merryman, FAIA and on the board of directors for the Architecture Foundation of Oregon says,


[Projects like Inversion: Plus Minus] contribute by the fact that their conception grew out of local/regional history and knowledge. I believe that anything that responds to – and contributes to – our unique environment and sense of place helps deepen our identity. That said, I am personally not fond of many of the public art pieces that have been done because I don’t feel that they contribute in a positive way. But this is the age-old conundrum…beauty and meaning is in the eye of the beholder. I do appreciate the use of permanent materials and the sense of quality in “Inversion”; from my perspective, those are two required characteristics for the success of public art.


The importance of public art pieces throughout Portland cannot be denied –their capacity to ignite conversation and debate, without doubt.  In her recent introduction to Han and Mihalyo’s May 6th, 2013 “Peripheral Vision” lecture at the University of Oregon in Portland School of Architecture and Allied Arts, Kate Wagle (UO in Portland AAA administrative director and UO in Portland interim vice-provost) gently reminded the audience:


….intellectual integrity and curiosity [of Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo] has kindled a passionate debate, a volatile context in which to address the interdisciplinary overlap of architecture and site-specific art. However, while politics may be a condition for the work, it’s not the subject tonight…that’s the art and the artists.


Moving forward as a community with the soon-to-be expected completion of Inversion: Plus Minus, the focus needs to remain on the art and the artists.  The project has been bestowed upon us to adopt and embrace as part of our growing public art collection.  With Wagle’s gracious segue into the importance of the Lead Pencil Studio and Regional Arts and Culture Council’s public art project, she set the stage for a mindful discussion with a lens pointed confidently in the direction of process, the bridge and the gap between art and architecture, and the discovery of inspiration.  Wagle also reinforced the musings of the Regional Arts and Culture Council’s executive director, Eloise Damrosch, who later commented, offering insightful explanation and context to the entire project:


Portland and Multnomah County’s Public Art Programs have been in place for 33 years, so the collections represent many different phases of our region’s growth through the eyes of artists working in many media and taking widely diverse points of view. They also represent the critical work of countless selection panels members who are artists, architects, bureau people, neighborhood representatives, citizens who care deeply about building the art component of this remarkable place. It is hard to image Portland without its public art. It’s in the streets and sidewalks, inside and outside public buildings, parks, fire and police stations, libraries, clinics, transit lines and courthouses.


Inversion:Plus Minus is the result of the selection  panel, created specifically for the eastside streetcar line, deciding that the near eastside deserved major, large scale artworks.  The selected artists (Lead Pencil Studio) were inspired to bridge a modern commitment to connect east and west sides of the river with a new streetcar line and the area’s industrial past.


This piece (currently half finished) is both bold in scale and ambition and poetic in its abstracted reference to buildings once in those places. They surprise and in some cases startle passersby. They promote curiosity and dialogue, which is part of why public art is important in our city.


This piece is also intriguing in that while some artworks are integrated into architecture – and become a part of the building, such as Ed Carpenter’s window in the west facade of the downtown Justice Center – these sculptures are architectural in themselves, yet are not buildings. They are contemporary and old, architectural and sculptural, large scaled and lacy.–Eloise Damrosch, executive director, RACC


One thing is certain, Inversion: Plus Minus offers to its viewers an opportunity to envision scale, experience material, and explore light, space and height in a purely public forum.  It seems to suggest a deeper understanding of our universe to those considerate of the philosophical wanderings of ancient thought and scientific inquiry.  If we are to wonder, “things are their quality, things are their form” as Carus’ moving On the Nature of Things encourages us, with Inversion: Plus Minus we are given a beautiful concept, and one that evokes a sense of permanence and foreverness despite a physical disappearance.  Science teaches us that nothing is ever created nor destroyed, that atoms and molecules never disappear but continue on within our universe, becoming our environment, being incorporated into a system of nature and being, the ultimate in sustainability.  It is a scientifically-based concept that enthralled the thinkers of ancient times and is expressed so eloquently in On the Nature of Things.

Taking Annie Han’s and Daniel Mihalyo’s reposeful poetic way of offering that we relate to the city, and to the scale of our city; that we “walk the line between presence and absence,” and notice that which has disappeared, I will leave you with an excerpt from Carus’ On the Nature of Things, realizing that “all things flow….” and, in its purest form, Inversion: Plus Minus might compel us to think about and discuss the transitory nature of our environs, the concept of sustainability, and, simply, the nature of things….


And certainly anything that encourages thought, is a good thing.

Many thanks to….

Annie Han of Lead Pencil Studio

Daniel Mihalyo of Lead Pencil Studio

Lynette Hanson, see her blog here Portland Oregon Daily Photo and Lynette_1_2_3 Flickr Set Art, Inversion Plus Minus

Steve Wright | Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office

Diane Hutchinson | Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office

Tim Kurilo | IT Multnomah County Oregon

Stan Mason | IT Multnomah County Oregon

Beth Sellars | Suyama Space, Seattle

Howard Davis | Professor, UO Department of Architecture

Nancy Cheng | Professor, UO Department of Architecture

Jane Jarrett | Executive Director, Architecture Foundation of Oregon

Nancy Merryman, FAIA | Board of Directors, Architecture Foundation of Oregon

Eloise Damrosch | Executive Director, Regional Arts and Culture Council

Kristin Calhoun | Public Art Manager, Regional Arts and Culture Council


Regional Arts and Culture Council

Portland Architecture’s blog post on Inversion: Plus Minus

Lead Pencil Studio

University of Oregon Department of Architecture


No Single Thing Abides | On the Nature of Things

By Titus Lucretius Carus (99-55BCE)


No single thing abides; but all things flow.

Fragment to fragment clings–the things thus grow

Until we know and name them. By degrees

They melt, and are no more the things we know.


Globed from the atoms falling slow or swift

I see the suns, I see the systems lift

Their forms; and even the systems and the suns

Shall go back slowly to the eternal drift.


Thou soo, oh earth–thine empires, lands, and seas–

Least, with thy stars, of all the galaxies,

Globed from the drift like these, like these thou too

Shalt go. Thou art going, hour by hour, like these.


Nothing abides. The seas in delicate haze

Go off; those moonéd sands forsake their place;

And where they are, shall other seas in turn

Mow with their scythes of whiteness other bays.


Lo, how the terraced towers, and monstrous round

Of league-long ramparts rise from out the ground,

With gardens in the clouds. Then all is gone,

And Babylon is a memory and a mound.


Observe this dew-drenched rose of Tyrian grain–

A rose today. But you will ask in vain

Tomorrow what it is; and yesterday

It was the dust, the sunshine and the rain.


This bowl of milk, the pitch on yonder jar,

Are strange and far-bound travelers come from far

THis is a snow-flake that was once a flame–

The flame was once the fragment of a star.


Round, angular, soft, brittle, dry, cold, warm,

Things are their qualities: things are their form–

And these in combination, even as bees,

Not singly but combined, make up the swarm:


And when the qualities like bees on wing,

Having a moment clustered, cease to cling,

As the thing dies without its qualities,

So die the qualities without the thing.


Where is the coolness when no cool winds blow

Where is the music when the lute lies low

Are not the redness and the red rose one,

And the snow’s whiteness one thing with the snow


Even so, now mark me, here we reach the goal

Of Science, and in little have the whole–

Even as the redness and the rose are one,

So with the body one thing is the soul.


For, as our limbs and organs all unite

to make our sum of suffering and delight,

And without eyes and ears and touch and tongue,

Were no such things as taste and sound and sight.


So without these we all in vain shall try

To find the things that gives them unity–

The thing to which each whispers, “Thou art thou”–

The soul which answers each, “And I am I.”


What! shall the dateless worlds in dust be blown

Back to the unremembered and unknown,

And this frail Thou–this flame of yesterday–

Burn on, forlorn, immortal, and alone


Did Nature, in the nurseries of the night

Tend it for this–Nature whose heedless might,

Casts, like some shipwrecked sailor, the poor babe,

Naked and bleating on the shores of light?


What is it there? A cry is all it is.

It knows not if its limbs be yours or his.

Less than that cry the babe was yesterday.

The man tomorrow shall be less than this.


Tissue by tissue to a soul he grows,

As leaf by leaf the rose becomes the rose.

Tissue from tissue rots; and, as the Sun

Goes from the bubbles when they burst, he goes.


Ah, mark those pearls of Sunrise! Fast and free

Upon the waves they are dancing. Souls shall be

Things that outlast their bodies, when each spark

Outlasts its wave, each wave outlasts the sea.


The seeds that once were we take flight and fly,

Winnowed to earth, or whirled along the sky,

Not lost but disunited. Life lives on.

It is the lives, the lives, the lives, that die.

. . . . .




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