Howard Hall Art Focuses on ‘Community’
Artist Mark R. Smith works in a garage-turned-studio adjacent to his North Portland home. Stacked against one wall are several plastic storage bins full of books, dolls, lapel pins, currency, clothing, and other odds and ends. The items range from 10-cent trinkets, such as a red-white-and-blue-striped Styrofoam top hat, to more homespun pieces, like a clay finger puppet. Many of these cultural artifacts, donated by Lewis & Clark faculty and staff, are destined to become part of the artwork of Howard Hall.
Lewis & Clark, with the assistance of the Regional Arts and Culture Council, selected Smith from a field of nearly 100 artists to create Howard Hall’s public art.
With a faculty appointment at Portland Community College and representation at Elizabeth Leach Gallery in downtown Portland, Smith receives a steady stream of e-mails about local public art opportunities. But seldom does one catch his attention as much as the Howard Hall Public Art Project did. The building’s sustainable-design ethos and social science focus fit perfectly with Smith’s populist approach and collectivist bent. "Sometimes you see a project or an opportunity that says: This is me, this relates to what my concerns are," he says.
Smith decided that the thread running through all social sciences is the idea of community, and envisioned a three-piece ensemble that "reflects the idea of community in the broadest possible sense: as a collective, cooperative entity composed of unique and disparate voices." Smith’s ideas were "conceptually fascinating" to Linda Tesner, director of Lewis & Clark’s Hoffman Gallery of Contemporary Art and a member of the selection committee. She says the panel was taken by his enthusiasm, his collaborative approach—and most of all, his beautiful artwork.
Divided in two parts and located in the north and south lobbies, Mediating Boxes will frequently be the first artwork viewers encounter when they enter the building. One part focuses on the public role of the individual, the other on the private.
These 5-by-8-foot installations consist of shadow boxes filled with small objects and backed with recycled fabric contributed by the faculty and students of the social sciences division. Similarly sized objects reside in the same box, but within each box the items are juxtaposed to create "a cacophonous dialogue."
The building’s sustainable design ethos and social science focus fit perfectly with Smith’s populist approach and collectivist bent. "Sometimes you see a project or an opportunity that says: This is me, this relates to what my concerns are."
"I wanted to represent this overall chaos that you find in any society," says Smith, taking a break from sanding pieces of wheat board that will frame each box. But the wide range of values represented by the objects is controlled by a natural order, he adds, which he conveys by building perfectly square boxes and arranging them in scale increments equal to the proportions of the Euclidian "Golden Mean." These are the proportions that mirror the spiraling growth patterns found in seashells, pinecones, rams’ horns, and other objects in nature.
Honeycombed News: Forty Local Blooms
This series of 40 stencil paintings draws on newspapers from around the world and silhouettes of honeycombs and flowers to symbolize communication and cultural exchange. They will be framed individually and hung in groups of 10 along the inner corridors connecting the north and south lobbies.
Each 17-by-25-inch frame is nearly filled with a full-size newspaper page transferred onto a sheet of transparent tissue paper, blurring the words and images. Superimposed on the image is a yellow-painted honeycomb pattern, each made from a unique hand-cut stencil, and shadows of flowering plants harvested from campus.
Smith ticks off several intended metaphors of the piece: newspapers as a form of cultural communication; highly social bees nurturing plants just as dialogue nurtures culture; the hum of bees reminiscent of the hum we associate with simultaneous conversations. "It’s all about discourse," he explains.
An Intimate City
The final piece of the ensemble is what Smith describes as a "crazy quilt," whose 8-by-18-foot size will fill the building’s second-floor landing. This acrylic painting portrays culture as "a very complex and unwieldy organism" through its size and plethora of images, Smith says. It is designed to signify collective survival.
The painting’s central image is a cross-section of a termite mound, a random web of tunnels, and spherical nodes, which suggests a continually evolving culture that has no preset direction. Surrounding the termite map are rows of painted silhouettes of people, cut from newspaper photographs and placed against a recycled-fabric background. The varied poses, fabric patterns, and paint colors form an intriguing assortment of images that invite the eye to wander.
What is a Howard Hall visitor to take away from this nuanced collection of artwork? "A sense of inquiry, questioning, and discovery," Smith answers, as well as the idea that intellectual development moves between the ephemeral (as represented by the abstract painting) and the concrete (as evidenced by the items in the shadow boxes).
"And I want it to be fun," he adds. "I want it to include enough information so people keep looking at it and discover new things."
—by Dan Sadowsky
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