Sunday, August 03, 2014

Noble Architect

At the trendy corner of NE 18th and Alberta, a giant statue of a beaver stands at a bus stop, facing the wrong way, gazing off at the eastern horizon. This is Noble Architect, a 2012 addition to the artsy (or wannabe-artsy) neighborhood. The RACC page describes it briefly:

Facilitator of rich ecosystems - Benefactor of the past - Builder of the future.

This sculpture honors the majestic beaver that once abundantly inhabited and thrived in this area. The beaver—called Ina (eena) by the Chinook—faces the rising sun looking for a day when humans and nature harmonize.

A press release for the unveiling elaborates:

Artists Ruth Frances Greenberg and David Laubenthal conceived of the sculpture to “mirror the ebullient, raw and wonderful vigor of nature as well as our relationship to it.” Many different species of animals inhabited and thrived in this area before it was settled as the Portland we know. One of the abundant animals was the beaver. One could scarcely take a short walk without seeing one.

In a written statement, the artists explained their inspiration: “With so much regional history and lore we chose this remarkable animal to represent our reverence and respect for the resilient, beautiful, and abundantly generous natural world that remains intertwined with our human development. Our rendition of the beaver is intended to show the beaver in its innate majesty, grace, wildness, and dignity. It is an homage…a reverent depiction of a magnificent animal.” Its pose is dignified and vaguely humanized, standing on its stump, at just over six feet tall. The “fur” is a richly, hand-crafted, textured mosaic, inviting “petting” from passersby.

Calling them noble and majestic is great and all, but I've always thought the beaver is an innately silly creature, with one unusual (and instinctual) talent. It's a nice change from salmon, but a beaver is still a derpy-looking bucktoothed rodent, and anthropomorphizing it isn't helping. That said, the ceramic tile work simulating fur is really great. Maybe it would help to re-spin it as a friendly kids' storybook creature instead of an environmental message piece. I dunno.

For what it's worth, Alberta St. needs public art because it's sorta-officially the "Alberta Arts District". The name comes from a brief period of time in the late 1990s and early 2000s when art galleries moved here after being priced out of the Pearl District, creating an alternative "Last Thursday" event to rival the Pearl's First Thursday. For several decades up until that point, Alberta St. had been a lower-income, predominantly African American neighborhood, but when gentrification arrived it happened in record time. Within a few short years the galleries had been priced out again (along with many minority longtime residents), by the usual array of posh restaurants, yoga studios, and doggie day spas. People still act surprised when this pattern plays out all over again in a new neighborhood. Anyway, "artsy" is still part of the street's value proposition, as it were, according to both City Hall and every realtor in town. So, in lieu of actual present-day galleries, it gets some public art.

Going by the art and the other twee touches the city's added in recent years (bioswales, fancy bus platforms, etc.), you'd know there was wildlife here once upon a time, but you wouldn't have any idea this was ever a black neighborhood. I mean, acknowledging people while aiding the real estate market that's pushing them away isn't a good look either. But as it stands now, everyone who lived here in 1994 has been written out of history, essentially. That can't be a good thing.

Updated: I only realized this after posting this, but it turns out that today's beaver sculpture replaced a previous sculpture of a baobab tree, by the same artists, at the same location. The baobab arrived around 2004, and was still there circa 2010, but apparently it had a variety of maintenance issues and the city decided to just junk it and go with a different design. A different and non-African design, to be exact. Now, it's possible that was a total coincidence and I'm just being cynical, but it really makes you wonder.

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