New Portland murals bring beauty moments and important stories to city haunted by pandemic


First, the world has stopped. Then came the painting.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began in early 2020, the number of visible painted murals has exploded across Portland. Many of these murals weren’t meant to last, painted on plywood by volunteer muralists whose larger commercial projects had been canceled along with everything else.

Initially, the signs were there to protect the windows and doors of businesses shut down by the pandemic. Then, even more rose during the downtown protests of last year.

Now, as the pandemic rolls into a second year, some permanent murals are returning. And these murals bring important art and stories to the outdoors in a city that remains limited by a global pandemic.

“When the pandemic hit, we saw a significant drop in work,” said Tiffany Conklin, executive director of Portland Street Art Alliance. “We had over $ 70,000 in canceled projects in about seven days. It was a big blow for us. “

Portland Street Art Alliance is a non-profit organization whose mission is to fill the streets with works of art while supporting local artists.

The group also helps businesses and properties get murals on their buildings, oversee logistics, match businesses with artists, and generally making sure projects come to fruition and artists. are paid.

After the pandemic shut down most commercial work, Conklin said, she feared the association might have to shut down.

But then, she said, the Portlanders got it right.

“Fortunately,” said Conklin, “individuals stepped in and we started getting a few small orders for things like murals on people’s homes and garages as they spent more time in their homes and backyards. -courses and they wanted to beautify these spaces. “

And then came the barricaded businesses. First the muralists gave of their time, then the alliance obtained grants and was able to pay a small sum to the artists.

Although it may have appeared mural work increased in the city during the pandemic, Conklin said much of the big work – the work that pays artists – has been put on hold.

This summer, however, saw the return of some big projects.

One of these new murals is “Never Look Away,” a work that occupies almost an entire city block in the Old Town.

“Never Look Away” in the North Park, Northwest Broadway and Couch Street blocks. September 13, 2001. Beth Nakamura / staff

The project, supported by Pride Northwest and Portland Street Art Alliance, had been in the works since before the pandemic began.

According to Debra Porta, executive director of Pride Northwest, the coronavirus pandemic initially slowed work on the project. This summer, with the help of a large crew, the mural was completed.

The project was led by Zoe Piliafas and the art itself was primarily designed by Cassandra Swan. The mural celebrates queer icons from Oregon and beyond.

“When people in our community, whether they are outside or not or recognize it or not, when they look at this mural, we want them to see themselves,” said Porta. “We want them to see real people who have made real change.”

These people include nationally known figures such as Marsha P. Johnson, as well as Oregon-based activists such as Kathleen Saadat and Asa Wright.

Porta said planners wanted to steer clear of the idea of ​​”heroes” and instead focus on the idea that these people were not put on a pedestal but rather were celebrated for the actual work they were doing. had accomplished.

Pride Northwest hopes to use the mural as a tool to help teach LGBTQ + history. Porta said placing the mural where it is, next to the North Park blocks at Northwest Broadway and Couch, is important to the project’s mission.

“It’s very visible,” she said. “And it’s right in the heart of a lot of queer Portland. There is a lot of history in this area.

Another new mural telling the story of someone who has done a real job of making change is a little harder to find, but no less dramatic: the Beatrice Morrow Cannady mural overlooking the Willamette River in St. Johns on the Schrunk Riverview Tower.

Murals in Portland during the pandemic

Beatrice Morrow Cannady: Renewing a Landscape to Break Barriers of Race, Color, and Class Bias, at Schrunk Riverview Tower in North Portland. September 13, 2001. Beth Nakamura / staff

Mauricio Ramirez created this work over the summer. In an Instagram video, Ramirez explained why he feels connected at work.

“She was the first African American woman to practice law in the state of Oregon,” said Ramirez. “And not only that, she used her entire platform to break down barriers of race, color and class prejudice as a columnist for The Advocate.”

Cannady moved to Oregon in 1912, where she became associate editor of The Advocate, a newspaper founded by her husband Edward Daniel Cannady. When she graduated from Northwestern College of Law in 1922 at the age of 33, she became the first black woman in Oregon to earn a law degree. She later became the first black woman in Oregon to practice law.

She is also remembered for her powerful editorial work and as a founding member of the Portland NAACP. She died in 1974 in Los Angeles, and an elementary school in Damascus bears her name.

The mural depicts Cannady’s face in a geometric design, with blues and greens, trees, mountains and water, reflecting the landscape of which it is a part.

It rises five stories to the top of an 11-story subsidized housing building on North Syracuse Street. The building is operated by Home Forward and houses the elderly and the disabled.

While “Never Look Away” takes up a block in the center of town and can’t be missed, Cannady’s imposing mural is located at the top of a building on a residential street near Cathedral Park. You might not even know what you’re missing if you walk past and don’t look up.

It’s part of the nature of Portland murals – they are surprising and each has a story that goes way beyond what you can see.

And they are constantly changing – go up, go down.

People still want to map them, Conklin said, and she says go. But don’t expect Portland Street Art to help you. It should be someone’s full time job.

Instead, the Portland Street Art Alliance wants to work wherever they can and support as many artists as possible.

Take for example a project on the inner east side of the river called “The Whitney Blocks”.

Two walls present 16 artists here, including Qatari calligrapher Fatima Al-Sharshani, who came to Portland as part of a Qatari art program. For about a week and a half in August, Al-Sharshani worked alongside local artists as part of the Portland Street Art Alliance’s community art project.

His section of the project is called “Never Ending / Endless”. It is a white wall with black Arabic letters in a circle. Beside the vivid colors of the local work, the section of Al-Sharshani is particularly striking.

Murals in Portland during the pandemic

Qatari artist Fatima Al-Sharshani’s “The Never Ending You” is one of a series of enveloping murals in Southeast. 10th and 11th avenues. September 13, 2021 Beth Nakamura / Staff

By e-mail, Al-Sharshani said she was focusing on the beauty and curves of Arabic letters, “something the Western eye is not as accustomed to seeing in an artistic format.”

“The Arabic language has to be seen for its complicated beauty, and I hope this is what my mural has achieved,” she said. “The mural is essentially an expression of continuity and infinity, represented in an abstract way by the circle.”

She said she hoped people saw the work up close to see the details, and then from afar, where, she said, “I hope the viewer can get lost in the beauty of the curves and the arcs. “

The mural, located at the corner of 11th Avenue South East and Alder Street, is sure to be seen by many speeding drivers, as well as pedestrians and people living in nearby buildings and in the street.

People who live outside are also involved in Portland mural projects in other ways. Portland Street Art Alliance works with Ground Score, a group that hires homeless people to prepare mural projects, including the Whitney Blocks.

The art in all of these projects is meant to be enjoyed on many levels and by anyone.

“We mainly choose to do public art because it’s a very open, accessible and democratic art form,” Conklin said. “It’s for everyone to benefit. It’s for the public. It’s for the city. It’s very different from museums and galleries where not everyone has access to art.

As the pandemic continues, creating beautiful works that tell important stories is not just an aesthetic diversion for viewers, it can be a life-saving reminder that being sequestered in our homes, behind masks and six feet away. on the other, we are not alone.

“When the pandemic hit and we had to cancel the pride in 2020, our biggest concern was, ‘What is our community like to not be visible? “” said Porta.

“It is our power in numbers,” she said, “that helps keep us safe”.

“With the pandemic it’s very easy to hide or be hidden,” she said, “and the mural allows us to have that visibility and that presence despite that.”


“Never look away” produced by Zoe Piliafas and designed by Cassandra Swan, Northwest Couch Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue.

“Beatrice Morrow Cannady”, by Mauricio Ramirez, 8832 N. Syracuse St.

“Endless / endless” by Fatima Al-Sharshani, at the corner of 11th Avenue South East and Alder Street

– Lizzy Acker

503-221-8052, [email protected], @lizzzyacker

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