Hi, my name is Megan. I'm an abstract artist based here in Portland. I moved here a decade ago from Arizona. So I was a little bit of a desert rat, and then I came up to Portland. I'm working on a couple of shows. I'm working on some new bodies of work. I'm trying to develop my practice around art as healing. I'm trying to communicate that to other people through some of the different approaches and methodologies. I'm developing that right now. I'm also a writer; I write poetry and essays.
I started making art because I was trying to figure out who I was. I'd always studied art. My undergrad is in art history, my grad degree is in arts administration in museum studies. I have helped a lot of artists build their businesses, but never thought that I was an artist. I started making art probably six years ago because I was in the middle of—I basically up and quit my life for six months, what my life had looked like because I was not living. I had panic attacks every day and anxiety, and I had never had those issues before.
But it was basically indicating to me that I was not in the place where I needed to be in my life, I kept hitting a wall, I was not living authentic and true to myself. I needed to do something drastic in my life that basically changed everything to get back on the path that I need to be on. I wanted my own life according to my personal narrative, versus what other people were telling me was the thing to do: "Have a high-powered corporate job, make sure you get benefits, make sure you have this." Well, that job I was going through every day was making me feel dead inside. I was surrounded by people that I saw going through the motions of life every day, not living life. It was my worst nightmare. I had panic attacks going to work every single day in my car. I had gotten married, and I had always had this in my mind that I wanted to get married before I was 30. I found this person, and we got married. It wasn't going well at all. I was in this place of my life where I was like, "Okay, I'm going to this job I hate, and then I'm leaving that job I hate to go home to a house with someone that is falling out of love with me." that we weren't connecting. This is not the marriage that I wanted.
My grandma calls me one day out of the blue. My grandma's in her 70s; she's a firecracker. She owns hardware stores, and she's a stubborn, no-nonsense, powerful woman. She called me, she goes, "I'm going to buy out my business partner, I'm going to run the hardware store myself." I was like, "I'm going to quit my job this week, and I'm going to come out and help you."
I worked in the hardware store and the greenhouse all summer, and I would sit on the floor watching Criminal Minds with her every evening and start making art. I was in a no-fear place in my life. I was like, "I don't know who I am right now, I don't know what I'm doing. I'm going to be okay with that right now because I'm going to figure it out." But within this space of not having control, I felt the most secure. I left my entire life in Portland, all my friends, everything, to move to the middle of the cornfields in Indiana. I was completely isolated from a lot of the stimulus that I was used to, the opinions.
It may not have been the method that other people would have used, but it worked for me. I needed something drastic to get out of my rut, and to get out of my stuckness in life and to find out who I was supposed to be.
I became more honest with myself about having grown up as a Christian fundamentalist. In that community, I didn't have a chance to explore my sexuality. I didn't have an opportunity to explore who I was devoid of these expectations that had been put on me. I grew up with the idea that women's' principal value was as a wife and as a mother and as an obedient Christian woman.
I came back to Portland after about six to seven months and felt in tune with myself and fearless. That's been a massive part of how I always want to be, is completely fearless, and any fear that I do see, to be in the right relationship with it, to see it, and to see what it's there for and what its use is there for. I become a lot more open and communicative with my mother, who is a pastor. She's a Christian pastor. She's a Methodist pastor, and she's badass in her own right. She has pushed and pushed and pushed against a misogynist Christian environment that has continuously told her that she couldn't be a leader and that always said to her that she couldn't be a pastor. Now she's a lead pastor of a church. She tries to do everything that she can to invite women into the conversation and to be more inclusive. Even though I don't align with those beliefs, and I felt they were damaging, growing up, she's a safe person to talk to. We may have different ideas or approaches to certain things, but we've been able to still come together.
I talked to her about my sexuality and how it was hard growing up in a sort of fundamentalist environment, figuring out who I was. I had to do a lot of things that were damaging to figure it all out because no one taught me. There's no clear, easy path. That conversation has been interesting, and she's been accepting and lovely. The past six years have been a considerable period of growth for me. Gathering a lot of people around me who are also growing and tapping into and doing the thing that they are supposed to be doing despite what other voices might be out there.
Part of that, too, is being a millennial. We 're entrepreneurial. We think outside the box, and we give ourselves permission to do that. I'm not identifying as a lot of things all the time. It's really, more my intentions that guide all my actions and my relationships in my life. Like, my values, it's more about less—I guess it is the values I identify with. It's less about these specific words about how we describe myself and how I want to live my life and the way I want other people to feel when they interact with me. If you feel loved in my presence, and there's that generosity and showing up for somebody.
I'm known as someone that wears head to toe black all the time, but my actions are colorful, and I use a lot of texture. If you were looking at one of my pieces, there's an exciting interplay of having dark and light. I use a ton of white colors to create this bright space and this interesting interplay of negative space with the chaos of all of the colors and the textures that I use. It is gestural as well. When I start doing my work, I purposely don't do a lot of planning because I want it to carry the emotions that I'm feeling at the time. Through that process, it helps me exercise my feelings a little bit through the process of painting and creating these works. I use a lot of greens and blues and teals and turquoise. Then it juxtaposes with this more pastel yellows and pinks and big splashes of red. I do a lot of these big gestural splashes of red, or even neons. I'm using a lot of neons right now. I used a lot early on in my work, but I'm bringing back into the picture because I love how they stand out from painting and are bright and electric.
I love the tactile components of my work, because even if you put a blindfold on and reach your hand out, you can feel the landscape and the topography of the paint on the canvas itself, because it's thick. I have valleys and slopes and hills. They're carved into the shade of my works, which I enjoy the fact that you can appreciate the works on both a visual and a physical level.
I view abstract art and the art that I make as a conversation. So until there's another person there to interact with it and to make their own meaning from it, then the work to me is not complete. The work is continually reinventing itself starting and finishing, even if it's technically a finished piece because of your own physical interaction with it. Like, even people that come into my studio, people will reach out. After all, they want to feel it because some of the pieces also look like you've put a thick layer of icing on the cake. Different people, I see them reach out for it, and then they stop about half an inch from the canvas. They step back. They're like, "Oh, I love this." I'll encourage people, "No, keep going, and put your hand on it."
Because of the health things that I've gone through, people think that my work is a direct reflection of this, grappling with my own mortality, which it's not. It's a form of healing myself. This is a way for me to process and exorcise the emotions and the feelings that are inside. It may feel that six months that I started painting in the middle of nowhere, it was a meditative practice and allowed me to have something to do with my hand and have an outlet that was a ritual that became a way for me to sit with myself and to sit with my emotions and to sit with all of the changes that were going into my life, and create a more concrete way of thinking about them and feeling them. I have forgiveness for myself and for the circumstances around me.
I'm constantly curious about life and continuously striving for the most, I want the most out of life, right? Within going after the most, you have to be willing to accept where you're at in the present.
When you're trying to get from point A to point B at lightning speed without doing the work to get from point A to point B, then you're doing yourself a great disservice. You're not doing the hard work that you need to be doing to level up to get to that next spot because you have to pass. You have to go through each of those challenges, and you have to meet them and develop the skills to meet those challenges that helped in all of your future stuff because if you're floating through and somebody else is doing the work for you, you're handicapping yourself. Even though it may look the easiest thing to do at the time.
Because I've had to spend years in the hospital, that almost has become a meditation for me, I've developed ways of being calm and patient and present, even within something I can't control and something that's scary.
When I was going through my bone marrow transplant, I would sit in my bed. You don't know what's going to happen. I would sit there, and I would go internal, and I would thank my body for doing the best that it can do. I was in my mind, appreciating my body and having gratitude for it. This current situation that I'm in is not ideal. This is not what I've strived my whole life to get to. But because of all of the work that I did to face all of the hard things in my life and to question everything — to try to put things into a place where I wanted them to be — I developed fearlessness. That all served to help get me to a place where I could sit in the middle of a hospital room and use that fear as a tool to heal.
Fear is not always a negative thing. It can actually be our bodies trying to help us and look out for us. Running away from it doesn't help. Why is it coming up, and why is it present? What is it trying to teach us? I do honestly think that the reason I've been able to stay alive for so long in the face of an aggressive illness is 1) this healing practice I have with art and 2) facing hard things with grace and gratitude. That, paired with this strong community of support I have around me, has done probably about as much as the chemotherapy that I've received.
Art is a daily practice. Focus on the ritual rather than the output in the beginning. It's not about what you're making, but how you're making it. It was in that ritual that I was creating, sitting down every night, when I first started making art, getting some supplies, and exploring and giving myself permission to make bad art. Whatever that looked like, to me, there's no objective definition of what it looks like. But obviously, what I started with is not where I'm at now.
So the ritual to me is the most essential part. When I do teach my workshops, what I do tend to see is that when people, even the ones that keep painting, keep drawing, keep making things, they're doing it daily. They're actively creating. They may not be making that specific thing that they want, but by creating every single day, they're going to get to that point where they're finally figuring out their style and their rhythm and the aesthetic and their vision and approach.
There's never going to be a right time or a perfect time to be an artist or to create. It's never going to be suddenly you reach a particular day, and you're like, "Today, I'm an artist. It finally struck me, it finally occurred to me, my entire vision has come true. This hand of God has come down from the sky and now has anointed me as an artist. I am off to the races." You do not be yourself. You are the hand in the sky. You are the one that can basically speak into existence, when you're going to start and how you're going to do it. When you start to let go of any expectations, any preconceived notions of what you should be doing or making, comparing yourself to other people, letting go of the creative shame that has been in your life, you can go from there. It may be that to get over that, you're not even making anything in the beginning. Maybe it's you're reading art magazines, and you're getting inspired that way, and you're going to shows, you're going to galleries, you're observing. You're becoming more of the observer, but you're doing it in more of an intentional way. You're creating tension around seeing how other people are doing work. Developing that piece. Don't use it as a way to avoid doing, but as a way to help feed into the doing.
When I start my workshops, I usually give people a small canvas and a couple pieces of paper. The paper is meant to be more practice. The canvas is a permanent piece of real estate for the thing that you've conceived. Even that can be intimidating for people. They're already intimidated: "Okay, the paper is fine, but the canvas here means serious business. I have to commit to something, but I don't even know what to do. I've never used any of this before." So we ease our way in.
Think about who you are at your core. What do you like? What are you passionate about? What are your values? What are your experiences in your life that have moved you the most?
Your art reflects who you are and your experiences and things you want to put out in the world. Start there. You're not going to know what you're supposed to be making or what your concept is supposed to be or what your progress is supposed to be until you figure out where to begin. Begin the process of figuring out who you are. Being able to articulate some of those core foundational things that make you.
I've never liked the technical pieces of painting. I want to make it. That's how I knew that my practice is always from the hip. It's just, how am I feeling right now, I'm going to go with that. Then pick out the colors that I want. Make the gestures, pick out the landing place for it. Yeah, I knew that that's how I was able to make the best because if I started to think that I needed to prep more, or do more of this setup work that's too restrictive to me a little bit too overwhelming, a bit too prescriptive. That's not how I view the work that I want to be doing. That's a more accurate reflection of who I am or the work that I'm even drawn to. I don't believe in art for art's sake. That's never been my philosophy. Art should accomplish something or should help us be doing something or tapping into something.
I want my art to be a lens for people to figure out their own lives if that makes sense. I want people to see that through me doing my practice in many different settings and developing it. I was an artist, but I hadn't realized that until recently, I started making, that you too can do that, that that is something totally graspable, that you can go and start making art as well. That is essential to who we are as humans, is an art practice, and being creative saves us in many ways, and everyone should have some outlet in that respect. There are many times in our lives that we've been shut down in doing that, whether it's because we were told that our sister was the artistic one, or we were not the artistic one. You know, those kinds of voices stick in our heads. Those are traumas that we carry with us. Creative traumas stop us from making the art we're supposed to.
That's why I teach workshops. That's why I invite a lot of people to come into my studio and make art with me, because I want it to be approachable, and I don't want it to be this thing that is fear,, a fear thing for people that they don't feel they can make art.
How do I invite people into my practice with me, so they can go off and do the creative things that they're supposed to be doing?
Life is precious to me, and time is valuable to me. I want people to be living their most authentic selves in this life, and not thinking it's later and later, or living according to other people's expectations, or thinking they don't have options in their life. I also want to be able to communicate that, which is a lot to teach. Some of the events that I do are almost an art installation. They help to elevate other people and elevate the creative community. Demonstrate to other people the value of going after what you are passionate about.
All the time I hear, "I've never done this before. Where do I start?" or "I had a horrible art teacher that told me that I wasn't doing art the right way. I didn't do it anymore." Or, "My mom told me that I would never make money off of it. I decided to do something else."
You get people in a room together, and you give them the tools to make a piece of art. Everybody leaves that room having made multiple pieces of beautiful art that they are super proud of, and they go off, and they start making more.
It's important to me for people to escape the small traps that people get into in their lives. relationships are interesting to me too, those subjects, talking about, our relationships with each other and…Yeah, that's definitely a theme that I want to explore more in my work. Another development is having more interactive pieces to my work, whether it's actual pieces of neon versus using on paint, using lights in my work, or sort of audio. It's been a vision of mine to try to incorporate some of the health things or the medical tests that I have to go through regularly into my work somehow.
In the noise of everyday living, those moments bring us back to the thing that is keeping us alive, which when you're in these tests, and you're faced with like, nothing else matters, it matters that your heart is beating at that moment. That's the only thing that matters. It matters if it's the right way. Because if it's not, that completely changes everything. Distill thoughts down to the rudimentary level of no one else is living this for me. I'm the one that is having to do this. This matters more than all the other petty things that we can distract ourselves with, or that we've been convinced should be vital to us. Because at that moment, the only thing that is important is what your blood work looks like, what your bone marrow looks like, what your heart looks like, which are the core things of who you are physically. It's a strange thing to be on such a fundamental foundational level with yourself.
I would love to reset what it means to show art and to share art. I'm somewhat wary of the white box experience of art. How are you building off of that? What else is it accomplishing, other than asking for someone to come to your art to experience it? We need more avenues around art, inspiring people to create their own experience.
In galleries, people see things in a passive way. We're all standing around art. It's often the same people showing up in the same place talking about the same things. I wonder how then the painting itself is moving the needle toward being a little more significant than maybe a pretty picture on the wall.
Not that art can't be its own appreciation and it is decorative, I don't think that there's anything wrong with that. We're in such a time in our world, and in history, that art does need to be doing a little bit more heavy lifting.
Art needs to have a perspective, and it needs to have a voice, and it needs to have a purpose. Whether that's raising awareness about certain things, whether that's bringing people together into more meaningful dialogue, I don't know what that exactly looks like. Still, we need to be challenging it, and we need to be asking ourselves, is this the best way to share art, to show art? Can we make this better? Can we make it more powerful? Can we make this stand for something more?
That's at the forefront of my mind as I'm developing shows this year and creating new bodies of work and creating opportunities for people to come together. This is something I'm challenging myself on, and something that I want to continue to write about and research and explore to challenge other people.
Hi, I'm Sam Gehrke. I'm a photographer working out of Portland, Oregon. I've been here working independently for almost five years now. Before that, I was down in Eugene, working as a video editor. I went to school for video and cinema. Three and a half or four years into working as a video editor and on productions, I like, lost my love for it, and started moving towards still photography.
I'm originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Since moving up here and going off on my own working independently, I have a pretty big clientele base locally and nationally. And I've had my work appear in Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, Spin, The FADER, locally in Willamette Week, in the Mercury. And then I've had a few things pop up. The New Yorker and the New York Times and LA Times, and a few other things, but I do a lot of photography related to music, a lot of portraiture, commercial stuff for agencies, lifestyle stuff, food photography, anything I can do to survive and make a living. But I really like music, portraiture the most.
I'm working on a personal project of quarantine portraits, which is just a way to pass the time and do something creatively for myself, which I haven't really been able to do for the past five years. One of the reasons that I started getting into photography was doing self-portraiture to get out of that rut of being extraordinarily self-conscious and, you know, a problematic use on myself and my body.
There were a lot of things that I did wrong with addressing my social anxiety. The time that it lasted could have been cut much shorter if I did. I will say that photography was perfect for combating that anxiety and just making me feel I was useful, or I had something to contribute. That it applies to a lot of like, creative things. You know, I was just lucky enough to—like, a camera is something you can take with you. Having that sense of identity that you're contributing something rather than letting yourself get in your own head or sink into your thoughts, you know, negative thoughts or whatever, it is a good distraction. It's translated pretty well into my regular life, I feel because I'm a lot more social even without my camera.
I started doing this personal project of quarantine portraiture, probably towards the end of March. And honestly, it was born out of an individual need to want to get out and see people and talk to people and see friends in any way that I could. And also just to scratch my itch to photograph people because that's probably my favorite thing to photograph. I had the idea to do it a lot more naturally than what of it now. That started out with just messaging a few people that I knew that I thought would be good for it. And I did the first few over like, two days and they came out really well. And actually, the first one that I did got around 800 likes or something which is, you know, I averaged approximately 70 to like, 100 or 110 typically, so that was really big. It was only at that point that I was like, "Oh, well, maybe this is something that could become something more," or, you know, obviously, people are connecting with it in some way. I continued on, and it was a combination of reaching out to people directly that I wanted to photograph, but also a lot of social media, crowdsourcing, in a sense. After that, the first two that I put out on Instagram and Facebook combined, it was just 30 or 40 people right off the bat. I would try to average four to five every day. Sometimes it would be a little less, but it allowed me to see people that I knew, and I would typically see every day. It allowed me to see people that I hadn't seen for like, five or six years, and sometimes even 10 years, but I'd remain friends with on social media.
I realized, about 10 shots in, that this wasn't something that was only fulfilling a need to see other people and be social in some way, it was a two-way street for a lot of people because I started getting a lot of the subjects that I photograph telling me either like, while photographing them or after the fact that, you know, I was the first person that they had seen in a really long time, or they just being able to talk to me a little bit, made their day a lot better.
So, it started out as just something that was like, self-serving in a sense, just me wanting to see people, but as it grew, it became something that was like, this is—it's suitable for other people. The particular way that it fulfilled my desire for socialization and seeing other people started to translate through the photos. And that's why so many people really connected with the series and continue to do so. Because even if it's not face to face, other people get to see images of other people stuck at home. And it's right in a sense to know or see some like, visual of others being in relatively the same boat and you know, stuck at home, staying at home with pets or family. It grew into that; I did not expect it to, but that's where it's at now. I'm trying to reach 100 people for the initial goal, but it's going to probably be spread out more depending on how long this lasts.
I go to wherever they're residing. I am using a 70 to 200-millimeter lens, which is a pretty sizable zoom lens. And I will photograph people either in their yards, porches, windows in their apartments, front steps, anywhere that creates a sense of distance and a sense of home or personal space, from a technical standpoint and making me think more about how I'm shooting. I can usually shoot from like, only a certain point, give or take, and I'm stuck in that plane. And then I have to think a little bit more about how I want to present it, making sure that the geometry in their house or apartment is all lined up. And then how I want to convey that feeling of distance along with like, personal space.
It's nice to do that for once and not have the freedom to just go wherever I want and get as close to a person or at any angle that I wish to when I'm photographing. It's strange to say, but it is almost—it's so like, humanizing, being able to see other people that I would typically only see in a setting of them working, or a set of them DJing or people that I usually would see at concerts or even performing at concerts. Now we are all stuck at home. It's almost the great equalizer. It's humanizing and very interesting to see people all kind of, at their homes in their own spaces. From a photographer's standpoint, I want them to be incredibly at ease and comfortable. That it makes a big difference in how subjects act in front of the camera when they're photographed in their own spaces. It's less like an in your face, this is a photo shoot, and they can relax and be themselves. A lot of that comes through in the photos that I've taken so far.
I've done all of these for free. I didn't want to have that underlying like, I'm going to make money because of this. And it's charming to work outside of that constraint because I feel even subconsciously, it affects my mood and my attitude towards my time. Also, I didn't want to feel I was profiting off of others' anxiety or misfortune. People have insisted on paying me for these, and they've donated, but it's totally like, whatever they can afford. And I do think that from the standpoint of this being a personal project and more of an art project or examination of humanity during this time, that if you were to charge, you limit your subjects. And specifically, for what I wanted to do, it's more just seeing people, and that's better than any monetary exchange to me. It reminded me that when I was just starting out doing this, I was doing a lot of work for free. And a lot of work because I wanted to do the job and I wanted people to feel good about themselves when they saw a photo of themselves and be able to just like, get stuff to people and get my work out there. And it reminded me that that type of thing is never—just because you're not making money doesn't mean it's pointless, you know? It always comes back in some form. Ultimately, with this project, I don't even want to think about money right now because it's just that, you know, it's an added thing to think about that that I have thought about incessantly for the past five years.
I will do free work and do my personal projects as long as I can scrape by, and that a lot of people, especially in photography, are going to have to just settle for that and buckle down and maybe think more about what they want to do creatively because, I mean, honestly, freelancing as a photographer, unless you're in that, upper echelon, it's a hustle, and you don't get the chance to think about your creative things that are bouncing inside your minds all the time.
There may be a shift towards a little bit more artistry, but I mean, in a commercial sense, probably a lot more product photography, a lot smaller shoots, a lot more one on one shoots and just possibly a decline in it overall. My bread and butter financially were event photography. Yeah, there's going to be a real downshift in that, but that's all from a commercial sense. That hopefully, this will meet the time that photographers aren't spending on working in the business realm. Maybe this will be a catalyst for a lot more creative stuff that comes purely from people's minds to go to the forefront.
In the past 20 or 30 years, photography has receded into the background as fine art, because images are principally what we see in a commercial sense. Hopefully, this may change that a little bit, we will feel a little bit more, what you would think of as fine art or human base photography coming to the forefront.
My end goal is just making people feel as comfortable as possible in front of the camera. And also working within their comfort zone for how long they want to talk to me. It's like, if somebody wants to speak to me for a half-hour after the shoot, I'm not going to be like, "Hey, listen, I got to go 10 minutes in." I'll basically stay for as long as you want to talk to me. And you know, I'll leave in five minutes if you're like, you don't want to communicate that long. My first approach to it is to make it as fun as a photoshoot as possible. Because the more you put those words "photoshoot" on that forefront or pedestal in people's minds, the more performative they become, and the less themselves they are.
The main thing is to just throw the rules out the window, in terms of a photoshoot, and also work within the confines of shooting from a fixed point and according to the geometry of the architecture of people's homes or apartment buildings. Once things are whatever, like, the new normal is going to be, in many forms of art, people are going to value interaction and socialization in a way that they didn't before.
What I want to do now is totally driven by my—it's something I want to do, and I didn't want to do it because of money or putting money in my account. I wanted to do it because I wanted to do it, and I wanted to see all those people.
See his work on his Instagram @samgehrkephotography