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.

. . . . .




2013 MFA Thesis Exhibition "Speaking Between" at Portland's Disjecta May 4-26

Taking A Place in Front of the Public Eye:
2013 MFA Work at Disjecta in Portland

Work by Sarah Nance.

Disjecta is a space where one almost has come to expect a certain élan to the work exhibited.  It is a place where a stage of discussion and dialogue is consistently and comfortably set; where the democracy of exhibit, the inspiration of collaboration, and the articulation of idea is given a sphere accessible to public exploration and appreciation.  The exhibitions at Disjecta find a realness to their communication delivering works of art to the public with an understanding of the requisite of flow and of quiet observation.

Into this healthy environment of engagement, the 2013 MFA candidates brought the work that would bind them forever to the award of their Master of Fine Arts degree, the exhibition Speaking Between.  Mirroring the global focus of the Art Department faculty who are internationally exhibited artists, and complementing the extensive and consistent outreach of the program, which brings internationally recognized artists to the Eugene campus to work directly with the students, the Portland exhibition engages with Oregon’s most globally-recognized metropolis.

Choosing to collaborate with Disjecta for this exhibition and hosting a public reception, the UO Department of Art faculty delivered the student work to a place well-recognized and highly respected in the Portland art context.  Disjecta offered a gallery where the MFA students would be thrust into the saturated world of experienced gallerists and the well-trained eye of some of Portland’s most highly respected curators and critics, not to mention a public that dearly loves its art exhibits.

Oregon ArtsWatch writer, Patrick Collier, explained the relevance of the MFA exhibit and exposing the student work to a new community:

In many ways, MFA candidates find themselves between two worlds. As students they are engaged in a somewhat closed dialogue with their mentors while at the same time they are trying to develop their own voice.  Having seen very many graduating MFA exhibits over the last twenty years, I can often tell when that conversation favors the teacher’s way of approaching the world more than how the young artist has begun to interpret it.  The diversity of work and level of sophistication presented in “Speaking Between” suggests that UO’s Art Department faculty has sufficiently prepared their students for the next step in their education, which is to make art on their own and thereby continue the conversation with a larger audience.  After all, this is the purpose of such a show, to introduce these students to their new community.

As Collier notes, “[introducing] these students to their new community”  has benefits that far surpass the immediate — effectively catapulting the newly anointed artist into the world at large.  Such opportunities for exchange and recognition are greatly appreciated by the students.  Wendi Michelle Turchan comments,

I was very excited about having the show at Disjecta in Portland.  It was a great opportunity to have larger visibility for my work and I thought the turnout at the opening was amazing.  It was a great chance to meet new people and talk with them about myself and my work.

Wendi Michelle Turchan

Student Ian Clark remarks,

[Showing] our work in a space like Disjecta is wonderful.  It is a beautiful space, and it has garned a reputation for organizing interesting shows.  Portland itself is becoming more and more recognized as a legitimate place for artists to live and work, so it’s nice to be a part of that. . . .

Ian Clark

Responsive to the occasion was also student, Meg Branlund, confirming:

Having the opportunity to exhibit our thesis work in Portland has been amazing.  Being in the small community of Eugene for the last three years, I constantly find myself making the trek up to Portland to be able to see and experience facets of the larger Northwest art scene, things like TBA, lectures at Reed College, and gallery and museum exhibitions.  So, to be able to show work directly within this community at Disjecta is something that is great for the visibility of the MFA program overall, and for us as individual artists.  It feels like I am able to participate in, and contribute to the greater Oregon art scene, and that feels great….to know that my work reaches a larger audience than it would had the exhibition been held in Eugene.

Gallerist Jane Bebee of PDXContemporary tours the exhibition.

The audience that was privy to the unveiling of this MFA work at Disjecta was, itself, quite noteworthy.  Disjecta is warmly embraced, salon-like by the blissfully dernier cri art and cultural partisans of the region and has a sort of vanguardesque following of Portland’s vibrantly artistically active and aware. Along with this is the casual observation that Disjecta is clearly beloved by a youthful urbane population which always helps to solidify an invaluable bohemian-like sophistication let alone reverence.  Not only is the venue sort of an “it” place for art seekers and voyeurs of the creative, it is, of course, frequented by some of the regions most respected gallerists and curators.   The May 3rd opening was no exception as the MFA exhibitors conversed with attendees such as Jane Bebee of PDX Contemporary and Daniel Peabody director of Elizabeth Leach Gallery, among others.

An audience.

Student Meg Branlund describes the opening reception and the audience at Disjecta:

It was an overwhelming experience, in the best way.  Between the preview reception for friends and family, and the public reception . . . I enjoyed every minute.  It was great to see the breadth of visitors at the opening, being able to interact with people from the University, Eugene and Portland art communities that I recognized, and having the opportunity to meet new people and chat about the work and the exhibition overall was great.  It really was a perfect evening to enjoy what felt like the culminating event of my career as a Masters candidate.

As the show nears its May 26th closing date, and the Master of Fine Arts candidates complete their final days in the graduate program, the sense of having successfully introduced this group to a receptive audience and a welcoming community exhales with a quiet breath of accomplishment.  As MFA candidate Clark explains, “The Department of Art offers tremendous support for us, not only during the process of organizing this exhibition, but during our entire time in the program.  It’s really a great place and the people here are incredible.”  It has been a good, a very good, few years.

Taking the work and the experience, or considering “the entire time in the program,” Oregon Artswatch Collier profoundly informs us that

Being an artist first requires that one is paying close attention to the world at large and this includes the recent history of art that we would call “contemporary.”  What one does with that information is what distinguishes one artist from another.

Indeed, if we are to believe Camille Paglia (“How Capitalism Can Save Art”) part of the salvation, or rather the success of up and coming artists lies in a keenly developed understanding and ability to work within the confines and liberties afforded by a capitalistic, market-oriented society.  Paglia confronts us with the query, “Does art have a future” and progresses to “What do contemporary artists have to say and to whom are they saying it?”  Lamenting that “too many artists have lost touch with the general audience and have retreated to an airless echo chamber,” we begin to understand the dynamic and even greater importance of bringing our students out into the world, of delivering them into a place where they can reach an audience, and not “retreat into an airless echo chamber,” but as Collier so aptly pronounced, a place where they can “[pay] close attention.”

With a rather bitter assessment of the young artists emerging today, Paglia might seem to damn the new generations with her comments,

Young people today are avidly immersed in this hyper-technological environment, where their primary aesthetic experiences are derived from beautifully engineered industrial design. Personalized hand-held devices are their letters, diaries, telephones and newspapers, as well as their round-the-clock conduits for music, videos and movies. But there is no spiritual dimension to an iPhone, as there is to great works of art.

Without misplaced hubris, the “Speaking Between” work exhibited at the MFA exhibition confidently seems to translate beyond this condemnation.  From the onyx-y dust and flake-like whispers of Meg Branlund’s photographic ash to the azure brilliance of Turchan’s oil-on-paper to the Buddhist inspiration of Nance’s work, we can find a thread of depth that might allude to Paglia’s plea for spirituality.  These are individuals who are exploring their universe using means other than just the purely technological:  look at Robert Collier Beam’s and Katherine Rondina’s silver gelatin prints; or Emily Crabtree’s swirling surfaces of oil, Aubrey Hillman’s gleaming hardware and mythical constructed elements. Even the videos here are revealing examinations of human experience and psychological conditions, see work by Lenoir, Clark and Kaiser.  And, as one can’t help but wonder about the heights reached by Katherine Spinella and her fascination for the disgarded and the repurposed; or be motivated to scrutinize Morgan Rosskopf’s cultural concoctions, we find a plethora of exploration.  Even Collier lauds the work and singles out that of Meg Branlund and Micheal Stephen, (“I am always on the look out for stand-outs, whether it be a new or seasoned artist, and I do so within the fringes of the territory that is my own aesthetic taste and narrative….”):  and boldly proclaims, “This year it is Meg Branlund for her phenomenological investigation of photography and Michael Stephen for his stunning command of the space allotted him in the gallery;” we are invited into a place where these emerging creatives present to us something meaningful, mindful, observant of their world.

The 2013 MFA artists, carefully taught and guided by the outstanding efforts of the faculty of the UO Department of Art seem to be propelled beyond the dismal prediction of Paglia’s.  May we be honored to say that perhaps the introduction of their work into the capitalist metropolis of the city of Portland and their time in Eugene, both places rife with lucrative and successful galleries, bursting with all aspects of a society complete with those able to purchase and those able to look and, without a doubt, those willing and able to appreciate, to curate, to critique, to write and to report—our region is rich in offering opportunity for integration and recognition.  It is with opportunity and exposure that exhibitions like this at Disjecta will assist in encouraging our graduates into a marketplace where to be a part of an economy and to live in and contribute to that market will play a key role in their assimilation into the art world.  Perhaps in some significant way with the “UO’s Art Department faculty [who have] sufficiently prepared their students for the next step in their education, which is to make art on their own and thereby continue the conversation with a larger audience. . . .” (P Collier) will with the carefully planned introduction of the student work to Northwest audiences spawn many experiences for these MFA candidates in a marketplace, and in an arts-loving region.

And that is, certainly, art and artists with a future.

View images at the finish of this blog post and from the opening reception of Speaking Between, on Facebook.

The 2013 MFA Students are,

Robert Collier Beam

Meg Branlund

Ian Clark

Emily Crabtree

Aubrey Hillman

Nika Kaiser

Ben Lenoir

Sarah Nance

Katherine Rondina

Morgan Rosskopf

Katherine D. Spinella

Michael Stephen

Wendi Michelle Turchan

Katherine Rondina
Meg Branlund
Morgan Rosskopf
Nika Kaiser
Sarah Nance
Emily Crabtree
Ben Lenoir
Robert Collier Beam
Katherine Spinella
Michael Stephen
Aubrey Hillman


Patrick Collier

Oregon Artswatch


UO Department of Art

UO Department of Art Collaborates with PSU Art Department | MFA Students Experience a ‘Best of Both Worlds’ Partnership

UO MFA Students and UO Art Department faculty member, Anya Kivarkis, visit with PSU MFA student, Will Bryant (talking in middle) in his studio at PSU's Art Department.

… [Through] this exchange. . . . we get to deliberately recognize the shared connections, conceptually and regionally -as well as the differences between the departments.  I think the various Graduate Schools in the region have been having a real impact on the nature of the regional art scene – alumni have been actively exhibiting and teaching, and all the departments have been sponsoring exciting events and bringing in interesting guest lecturers  -I think this energy has been helping shape the current state of the environment; something that seems to me to be getting more engaging daily.  By bringing these departments together for dialogue we’re both highlighting the energy that is already there, but also helping foster the future art environment that many of the participants will be a part of.

–PSU Department of Art faculty instructor, Sean Regan on the 2013 PSU UO MFA exchange


“Escape the Mundane….Find the sublime in the mundane,” delivered with a calm, matter-of-fact tone, thus began Portland State University MFA candidate, Steve Brown.  He spoke facing his projector with a group of people clustered and sitting on the floor in front of him filling the small space of the studio.  As he gestured and talked, clicking through projected images of anonymous human forms draped in medievalesque-hooded capes, tights and pointy slippers who cavorted on surfaces such as moss and Asian grass jello, he informed us of his use of color, interest in Queen Anne style architecture and materials such as the grass jello (“It’s firm, holds its shape, and plays beautifully with light,” Brown assured us—he even carves it with a sculpting knife.).  Addressing his self-professed identity and muse as a “white man record collector,” Brown advised his congregation to carefully consider the “fine line between proselytizing and being more into aesthetics.”

Will and I were up first for visits, at 9:00 and 9:30am.  I met him on the way to the closet where our dying projectors live.  “I think there are only about 5 of them (students and professors)” he said. It turned out there were a whole lot more than five people packed into my studio an hour later.  What I thought was going to be meeting to organize the Ditch show turned out to be a full-on studio visit-slash-crique[sic].  I really appreciated all the thoughtful feedback.  It’s what I came to grad school for.  I’m looking forward to seeing what my new-found peers are up to in Eugene.

–Portland State University MFA student, Steve Brown later describes the morning of February 22, when he and his PSU MFA cohort, Will Bryant would be the first PSU students to be involved in the exchange.

On this day, February 22, Brown’s audience consisted of, as he depicts “a whole lot more…than five” MFA graduate students from UO Department of Art, on-site here in his PSU art studio to engage in a critique-exchange between a core group of students enrolled in the two universities’ MFA programs. There were, in fact, 12 MFA UO students participating.  As Brown continued, his admittedly magenta-obsessed canvases hanging from white, sheet-rocked walls of his cozy studio space, students experienced a ‘best of both worlds’ collaboration.  It was a chance to learn of each other’s method and progression, to offer suggestions, thoughts and reactions, and to, potentially, forge partnerships between the students and future work.

At first, the stationary audience remained relatively quiet, politely tentative, the soothing warm hum of the projector’s fan the loudest sound in the room.  They were, after all, in someone else’s sacred and personal space–the studio of an artist where process and practice, experimentation and the personal determination to create, respond and react flows and weaves in a confluence of the unpredictable, exploratory and innovative mind of the emerging artist. Revealing work not yet completed can be a daunting task possibly leaving one open to on-the-spot criticism, questioning and explanation.  Talking about that work with an unfamiliar audience requires a certain learned boldness, and a willingness to be receptive to query and suggestion.  One might say, this is the role of the student-artist—remaining open and hospitable to comment and receptive to recommendation while retaining a willingness to adopt and adapt.  The critique process is still just that—a critique and anything to make the procedure more friendly, more helpful and more constructive eases the tension and smooths the experience towards a fully-realized, finished work.

PSU MFA Student Steve Brown talks to UO MFA students about his work during the winter 2013 MFA studio visit exchange.

These visits presented an opportunity:  a chance to be heard and appreciated by one’s own cohorts, by those so close to the ethic and the ethos they could respond with uniquely honest, unveiled commentary.  UO MFA student, Ben Lenoir commented that the studio exchange was “an interesting opportunity to see what another program is like and what is to be discovered in a different place.”  Lenoir explained that, for him, these “conversations with peers outside of ‘the situation’ give a confirmation from another person, and provide connections that are similar but removed.”

When Brown finished his presentation, and waited patiently for feedback, UO MFA student, Morgan Rosskopf, interrupted the projector’s pacifying whir and began the discussion asking in a delightfully unconstrained way, what we all wanted to know:  “Why are you dancing in the grass jello in tights?”  A few self-conscious giggles, from both audience and artist, ended what might have become an awkward silence. It was a simple,  practical question, intrepid in its scope but the conversation was started that Rosskopf would later define with a bluntly honest, “It was great, just great!”

In the words of Lenoir, these visits connected the students to an ability to realize they are “not doing this alone or by [themselves].”  The experience was “invigorating and gave [Lenoir] a chance to be in another place where [he] could experience the work of other students,” he elaborated.

With Rosskopf’s “why” the floodgates of enthusiastic inquiry were essentially thrown open:  the intention and possibility of the studio visit suddenly becoming apparent.  UO instructor, Jack Ryan would later describe it as having a “freshness” and as imparting an opportunity to “nurture the closeness of looking at each other’s work and a time to savor the experience.”  This was a time to ask questions, become familiar with each other’s work and philosophy; this was a chance to reach out and understand, to unleash a creative mind and deepen and enhance learning.  The comments and questions kept flowing after the initial ice was broken…so much so that after each presentation, students had to be reminded it was time to move on to the next visit.  It soon became apparent connections were being made, productive friendships based in shared artistic theory were being forged, and the engagement provided by the studio visits | student interaction could possibly translate into work being effected.

At the end of the studio visit with PSU MFA candidate Will Bryant, the enthusiasm to collaborate on a shared art project prompted Bryant to reveal, “the thought behind [these works] is more about the collaborative process.” Evidently thoroughly enjoying the experience, he continued, asking “how much fun is too much fun?” exposing the drive to frame a practice in mutually beneficial and inspiring partnerships.  By the end of his presentation, Bryant was offering to “make a small piece of someone else’s work…” as an expression both performative, and transformative, warmly blanketed in cooperation.  Several students seemed eager to explore this provocative opportunity.

As the day continued, what could have been a sort of jury-of-your-peers subjugation, was, without a doubt, a meeting of like minds, receptive communication and shared conversation:  providing the impetus of something more to come.

PSU MFA student Mami Takahashi talks to UO MFA students, see next photo below, as they watch her explain her work.
PHoto shows the view opposite Mami Takahashi (see previous photo above) as she addresses the UO MFA students during their visit to her studio.

The UO | PSU MFA student studio visits and collaboration are at the suggestion of University of Oregon School of Architecture and Allied Arts Department of Art associate professor, Jack Ryan and Portland State University College of the Arts: School of Art + Design faculty member, Sean Regan.  Over a year in the planning, the studio visit collaboration came to fruition on February 22 when Jack Ryan brought 12 UO MFA students to PSU to initiate the partnership.  Also participating is Anya Kivarkis’ UO graduate colloquium.  Ryan and Regan hope that what took place on on Friday at PSU’s Art Building will become a yearly event for the UO graduate populations.

UO MFA students listen to PSU MFA student, Isaac Weiss explain his work and process during a studio visit.

According to Ryan, “these studio visits will help inform student’s decisions on their prospective exhibitions.”  And, as a result of this collaboration UO Department of Art is “hosting PSU at Ditch Projects in [Springfield]” for a Friday, March 8th opening from 6:00p.m. to 9:00 p.m.  On Saturday, March 9th the PSU students will be visiting UO MFA candidates’ studios on the Eugene campus.  PSU will follow by curating and hosting an exhibition of UO MFA candidates’ work on Saturday, May 4th (opening 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.) at the White Box in the White Stag Block at the UO in Portland. The White Box exhibition will run from April 29 to May 4.

Ryan and Regan are longtime friends and colleagues who have collaborated together previously (“Jack has visited our department before and taken part in group critiques, as I have down at the University of Oregon,” says Regan).  Regan, the PSU art instructor explains, “I think in both our trips [to each other’s respective universities]….our perceptions about the level of the work coming from the graduate students in the region were pleasantly confirmed.”  Regan went on to comment, “That’s one of the best aspects of this exchange; through it we get to deliberately recognize the shared connections, conceptually and regionally—as well as the differences between the departments. “

The natural consequence of this commitment to the work and the students’ experience in the program, led to a determination to establish the studio visits on a more permanent basis.

After the Friday visits, Regan commented,

“If I was to try to put to words something about the experience I might say that it sure is great when you can have your experiences refracted through so many other perspectives; having the UofO’s students visit provided new facets for reflection.  Its always an opening experience to see through so many other eyes.  This is the intended process of visual critique environment and having the UofO students along for an intensive tour really gave us the opportunity to amplify and reach that level of critique and self-reflection. Their perspectives were insightful, clear and articulate, and, I think, will help the PSU students expand the scope of their intended audience: what more could you ask for?”


Calling the PSU | UO exchange, “a success, an enormous success,” in a recent interview Ryan spoke of the importance and the uniqueness of the graduate school experience and how opportunities such as these studio visits contribute to the sense that “graduate school is a time that will never be repeated, in the middle of this educational experience to be able to craft a special exchange like these visits is to give the MFA students a once-in-a-lifetime adventure that heightens the awareness of the MFA.”  Ryan continued, “it is a privilege of the time to help focus the MFA candidates in the present and to be able to look with care on the work of others to create a community.”

The collaboration brought about a direct dialogue between the PSU and the UO students who are getting to work together and perhaps influence and enrich each other’s work, process and practice.  Giving the MFA students opportunity to explore and question each other’s work in a productive and shared environment can contribute to a source of communication, meaning and perspective shedding new light on their practice and strengthening their educational experience.

With the cooperation of a forward-thinking and insightful administration committed to and willing to believe in its instructors and their proposals, Ryan and Regan have successfully led a collaboration that broadens their students’ educational experience and immerses them in a vibrant community of regionally-based art and creativity offering to their students the chance to dream more, learn more, do more and become more(1)….  Having the foresight and the sense of collaboration and cooperation to frame an art exhibit that contributes to the well-rounded education of an institutions’ students stands to benefit all involved….

University of Oregon MFA Students involved in this collaboration are. . .Sarah Nance, Alexander S Keyes, Benjamin A Lenoir, Farhad Bahram, John P Whitten, Katherine D Spinella, Morgan L Rosskopf, Nika Kaiser, Samantha E Cohen, Bryan M. Putnam, Emily D. Crabtree, Robert C. Beam

The Portland State University MFA students involved in this collaboration are, Mami Takahashi, Steve Brown, Will Bryant, Rene Allen, Leif Jacob Anderson, Mark Martinez, Wesley Petersen, Perry Doane, Kaila Farrell-Smith, Ernest Wedoff, Kathryn Yancey, and Isaac Weiss.

(1)If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader. —John Quincy Adams

On left, UO's Morgan Rosskopf and, on right, Nika Kaiser.