The Art of Community: Portland

The last few days, I’ve been in Portland doing events to promote my debut novel. I loved the city: I loved the rain and the green and the mountains…

I know people praise (or knock) Portland for being “weird” — or for it’s laid-back, Portlandia lifestyle — but what I love about the city is the feeling of community. People sit on their porches and chat with their neighbors. Local coffee and donut shops still reign. Writers write poetry on the streets.

Powell’s City of Books is a community institution. The flagship store on Burnside feels larger than a city; more like a whole universe with more than 1 million books and book lovers commingling in the stacks. There was Bill Press doing a reading in the Pearl Room (right next to the art books which had the best Leonardo selection I have ever seen). An Espresso Book Machine upstairs, where you can print your self-published book while you browse. And a giant quote on the wall when you enter, defining the word lithosphere: “1: the vast domain of the world’s readers and writers 2. a lively literary mood permeating the air.” That’s a community I could love.

There was the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry which I thought would just be another science museum for kids, but instead I found an active community for adults, too. Right now (through May 8th) the “Game Masters” exhibit is on, where there are rooms and rooms of video games on display — and open for free play. Kids and adults hung out in that space for hours, playing games together, laughing with strangers over interactive dance games, and sharing memories of Pac Man. In Portland, this exhibit didn’t lead to a bunch of people playing video games ALONE, but sharing the experience with everyone around them.

image1-2Then, there was the “First Thursday” art walk. On the 1st Thursday of every month, art galleries all over Portland open their doors and offer a place to commune over art. We stopped at Blue Sky Gallery (seen to the left) to hear Paccarik Orue discuss his moving Peruvian photographs; the Museum of Contemporary Craft for a perspective-shifting exhibit about a car bomb in Baghdad that blew up “booksellers’ street;” Gallery 903 for art paired with wine AND music… and countless other galleries. I loved hanging around all of those artists and art lovers– mingling, talking about art, walking from gallery to gallery. The whole evening left me inspired — not only to create art, but to commune with it.

Even the food in Portland is community-based. Portland is known for its food trucks because in Portland why would you lock yourself inside your house to eat when you can wander out into the streets and eat with everyone else? And at the Bollywood Theater, we ate authentic Indian street food and hung out with locals watching Indian musicals. At Porque No on Hawthorne, the line was out the door, but no one cared because they all seemed to be there as much to hang out in that line as to eat.

image4And while doing an interview with Ken Jones for the community radio station, KBOO, I found a local radio station eager to give the various, eccentric, artistic communities of Portland a voice. That station seemed to be the epitome of Portlandians who want to keep their craftsmen houses and abandoned warehouses instead of selling out to corporate takeovers and new, modern apartment buildings. They seemed to want to help keep Portland weird — or at least keep Portland, Portland.

IMG_3770And the capper — for me — was Friday Night on the Boulevard at the Attic Institute. Up on the top floor of this great old building on Hawthorne is a real community of writers, and on the first Friday of every month, a group of them gather to read from their fiction, memoirs and poetry. It was an amazing group of writers — supportive and smart. I was impressed by the passion, intelligence, and vulnerability in that room. I felt like I was home.

Because that’s what writing is about — that’s what ART is about — isn’t it? It’s not about publishing or awards or having your painting hanging in the halls of a museum. The real importance of writing is sharing your voice, your point-of-view, your human struggle, your pain and joy with other humans. The point of art is to understand each other better.

In a world where I often find people with their noses in their phones more often than they look up and out, Portland was an oasis of community. These were people interacting with other people — through their art, their writing, and their lives.

I was planning to write about the art in Portland — but instead, I decided to write about the art that IS Portland because a community this engaged is truly a thing of beauty.

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