Thursday, February 27, 2014

Drawing on the River

In Cathedral Park, next to one of the St. Johns bridge supports, a mysterious steel wall stands in the middle of a grassy lawn. This is Drawing on the River, a relatively recent (2008) addition to the park. Its RACC page has this to say:

This sculpture was conceived as a tribute to industrial ingenuity in the St. Johns area. Like the Saint Johns bridge above, it is a suspension structure anchored at each end. The hull-like end pieces allude to the shipbuilding that went on nearby and were constructed using standard steel shipbuilding techniques by Peninsula Iron Works, a third generation firm adjacent to the park. “Drawing on the River” reflects back on a century of industry in St. Johns and is an homage to both the mills and the workers who ran them. The piece also invokes the river itself, which powered the mills and is the reason the workers settled here.

What the description doesn't tell you, and what I didn't realize while I was visiting, is that the wall has a variety of interactive features too. (If you can get close to it; it seems like the lawn sprinklers around it are always going full blast whenever I visit Cathedral Park.) The artist's website explains:

Also within the sculpture’s end forms are a looking and a music box listening device, designed with longtime [Donald] Fels collaborators Rob Millis and Ed Mannery. To listen, a button is pushed winding a spring that turns a music box. One of the music boxes plays Hoagy Carmichael’s “Up a Lazy River”, which topped the hit-parade in 1931, the year the bridge was dedicated.

The other music box plays “Amazing Grace”, a tune played by fiddlers who accompanied Lewis and Clark, who camped there in 1805. The explorers used music to communicate with the natives they encountered on their journey. The viewers in the sculpture feature historic photos, one of a hot air balloon that was featured in the Lewis and Clark Expo in 1905, the other of the world’s first plywood mill, also once on the site.

One of the music box collaborators has a few close up photos on his website. The music boxes were mentioned in a November 2013 OPB article about RACC art maintenance & conservation, as they were experiencing a bit of rust. There could be other reasons behind the rust, but I'm inclined to blame the sprinklers. The wall's also needed pressure washing for graffiti at least once so far. The pressure washing company's Facebook page is actually kind of interesting. More than I would have expected anyway.

Another fun detail is how Drawing on the River was funded. Since the 1970s, the city's "1% For Art" program has mandated that publicly funded construction projects should devote one percent of the total cost toward public art. The wall here is no exception, but looking around you won't see any circa-2008 public buildings nearby. In fact, it was created with surplus 1% For Art funds from the still-unopened Wapato Jail, in the far corner of industrial North Portland. It turns out that the rules only say how much project money goes for art, and they don't specify exactly where the art has to be. The jail cost $58 million, and 1% of that is still a big chunk of money, and the then-sheriff felt it was a waste to spend it all at the jail where law abiding citizens would never see it. So some of the money went here, and (as a snarky Portland Public Art post points out), some also went to nature-themed stuff around Smith & Bybee Lakes, and a sort of river piling-themed piece at the jail itself. Naturally the whole thing got the talk radio crowd all riled up about the gol-durned commie gummint spending money on highfalutin' art. Even though the rest of the money went to an enormous jail, which you'd think they'd be pretty stoked about. Haters gonna hate, I guess.

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