I’m Alex Schmidt, aka Body Confidence. My pronouns are she, they, or thine. I also like thine. I am an artist and an athlete. I run Dyke Soccer, I also do a lot of community organizing, Dyke Soccer, but also Queer Speed Cruising. I co-organized Dyke TV screenings with Ainara Tiefenthäler. I am pursuing my MFA at Hunter for art. I say combined media, which for me, is mostly social practice, but also quilting and videos, and I make a lot of merch. I make these Gay Gap shirts that have been really fun to see spreading around on new friends and strangers all over the world. And especially during quarantine, I’ve been doing a lot more figure modeling than ever before. So, before quarantine, I was figuring modeling for a consistent group every month, which is how I met Joni, and then I’ve been hosting weekly figure modeling sessions on Zoom, bringing out like a lot more of my characters, so finding ways to blend it with my performance work and my social and community organizing work. I’m busy. It’s how I manage my anxiety.
I am half Barbara Corcoran, half like, this dyke community organizer, service-oriented person, definitely an entrepreneur and financially savvy, and like to run businesses. And I also feel like extremely committed in terms of what I’m going to leave the world with like, to changing things. And most of all, helping people find connection, not just dating though, that’s great, but finding community, finding support, finding mental health care, finding a doctor, finding places to live.
Dyke Soccer is a network right now of about 1000 people that spans between New York, LA, and DC. So we have three chapters, and it’s a financially accessible, queer-inclusive soccer team that’s more of a pickup league than a pay to play situation, where you sign up for an entire season. We are free for anyone who needs it and are non-competitive, and definitely are about like owning sort of dyke power in soccer, and taking over the fields with that. For most of us in our lives, that was something that was really missing, like, this queer inclusive sports culture. I had stopped, like, I played soccer my whole life and had stopped playing because there just wasn’t a place for me, or for most of my now teammates. And now through quarantine, we’ve been doing mental health check-ins every week and like, growing a lot closer emotionally, but I think that’s built on creating this community space, kind of out of thin air a little bit.
And that kind of blends with Queer Speed Cruising as a pretty similar community, or like a big community overlap. Queer Speed Cruising is an event I run with my friend, Lily Marotta. And it’s a speed cruising dating event. We call it cruising, because dating feels like going on an interview or like, yeah, looking at someone’s LinkedIn profile and deciding if you’re going to get married. And we find that queer modes of flirting and finding each other could be like, sitting down with someone for three minutes, talking to them, learning you have a lot in common with their roommate, who then connects you to like an open studio, which is where you end up meeting your partner. So cruising as like a form of loose flirting and meeting and connection building, and it’s built on a lot of comedy. We have referees, which is like the role for our Dyke Soccer players and a goofy like, slideshow that plays. We haven’t done it in the past few months because of quarantine.
I’ve been figure modeling basically since I moved to New York about eight years ago. It would be like you’re paid $50 and it’s like, five people watching you and I definitely, you know, was trying something new, but also definitely found that it was like a really perfect balance for me between performance and body movement. But I don’t really know what to call it because it is just like posing, holding a pose. It feels so meditative for me, and I love seeing everybody’s way of seeing me, or perception of me in all their drawings.
So I’ve always been saying like, “God, I wish I could do this more.” And I ended up meeting a group that’s run by my friend Colleen called Sunday Salons.” And that is how I started doing it like, somewhat more consistently, so like once a month, and it felt like a much safer group, because it’s a vast majority of womxn in this group. But also, it’s mostly Colleen’s friends, or like Colleen’s community that I was posing for. And so I didn’t necessarily know a lot of the people before I started posing for that group.
And then with this pandemic, Colleen and I were talking about it as like, a possibility, like to try it virtually. We posted about it, shared it with this group. And that’s sort of the group that was like the foundation for now over the last couple of months, figuring out an even broader community that I think - because I’m organizing it - is like very queer, very explicitly financially inclusive, which is super central to all the projects I do, especially Dyke Soccer and Queer Speed Cruising. There’s always the option of coming, even if you can’t afford to pay. And that’s kind of, to me, like one way that a community can function as just like on an honor code system.
It’s been really interesting navigating my boundaries and sense of safety and security of doing this thing that’s always felt like super freeing. I love being naked. I love naked beaches. I love walking around the house naked. I don’t have any shame getting naked in front of people, as long as they’re respectful and for the most part, womxn and/or queer. But doing it on the internet has been - you know - like a total new experience, so many possibilities like, I can show so much more. I have so much more control over what the set looks like, what I’m dressed as, what the angle is that people are seeing me from. And also, there are ways that I have so much less control, because there’s a big difference between being in a room of 10 people IRL, where you can see everyone and what they’re doing, and having like 100 people and kind of wanting to find a balance between being able to spread my legs and be shameless, but also just protect myself, and be able to continue that kind of vulnerability and presence without getting hurt.
And I don’t totally know what that means. I can imagine a couple scenarios, but mainly it’s about just not having to worry, like, wanting to not worry about it, because I truly feel like this is something I’ve realized I can do that makes me feel really, really, really in my body, which is something that feels impossible to do with people right now. So to be able to do that while being with the energy of like, 100 plus people, just feels like an insane gift to have during this time when I feel super isolated, and I know a lot of other people are, too.
Because they’re growing every week too, or changing, or I’m figuring out new things that are working. I’m always kind of nervous and trying to make sure it all goes right. So I never know sometimes whether it was an profesh session or was really messy, because I’m really working, so there’s so many things going on. But this person said that going to the session woke up a part of them that had been sleeping, and that really, really resonated with me. I mean, it just feels insane to be doing something that would have that effect on somebody. And I also feel the same, like, I feel that this has completely reset or shifted my way of seeing myself. I’d just like gotten truly hundreds of messages from—in part, because when people register, they can leave a little note. But like, hundreds of messages of people saying like, this is, like, it’s a consistent thing that a lot of people are returning to, which I think is helpful for me also. Some people have started bringing their moms into it, and I often pin my video on a mom, it’s soothing to know that that’s more the demographic I’m excited about than like, someone I don’t trust. I’m like, “I’ll just focus on the moms and not worry about the one or two people I don’t know.”
Like, yeah, I feel a lot of people are running into friends in these rooms, or drawing from all over the world, from places I’ve never been. So that’s also just like a wild feeling to be connecting across the world like that. I have like a gut feeling that I know what body confidence means, but I also don’t. I think a lot of times people think body confidence just means like, what it kind of means culturally now, which is sort of just like, yes, your body, like, woohoo, or something. And I do feel that, but I’m also kind of like, part of it… Like, my story is that I have lived with a lot of eating disorders and body dysmorphia, and depression. And it’s not like I was born confident in my body, or that I feel comforted every day or that the risks that I take don’t keep me up at night for like, a week straight.
It’s just kind of, I think for me, trying to always remind myself that I want to feel in my body, and I want to make decisions that come from a kind of presence inside of in my body. And it sounds really vague, but I guess it’s just when I moved, or right when I moved to New York, I had a really bad job, I had a whole mental break and became yoga certified, and just got really into that simple idea of being in your body. And that doesn’t really mean much more than it sounds like. But in terms of figure modeling, I think a lot of times the assumption of figure modeling is like, the model is an object and it’s usually, especially, the female body is going to be passive and in repose, and not particularly powerful.
I am very blessed with like a super jacked muscular body. And in my figure modeling, I try to heighten that or heighten creases, make angles come from below so that I’m not just serving angles and poses that are about flattering myself to fulfill some kind of gaze, but also anything like, consistent. I like shape shifting my gender and my character. And I believe that I’m an artist as the model - versus a model in this context is usually referred to as “the model.” And I mean, maybe I’m saying I’m a muse or something, but I really like, I’m an artist. These are choices I’m making. These are angles I’m taking like, this isn’t just a passive body that you’re looking at, and then it’s like a given. It’s like these are, I’m trying to, like heighten the lens and choose the lens.
And I think, I don’t know always what that means in relationship, the name body confidence. It’s sort of like a nickname that’s stuck because of my handle. But it also does mean being a really buff dyke. That’s like, getting naked and trying to like move from laughter, and humor and failure and empathy, and shamelessness. And all those things like are pretty rare to see, I think. Even if sometimes it feels completely natural to me. It’s been really interesting. I don’t know - there have been so many different things I have dealt with in my personal life and figuring out what feels good and trying to understand why I’m doing this, and not other things that I was doing before. I’ve gone through all kinds of like waves of guilt and fear with it. But when I’m actually doing the thing, I don’t feel that way. It’s more of like, anticipation or post social anxiety, or those kinds of feelings that are a lot about criticizing myself or trying to distract myself from peace by finding things to pick at or something.
But I think the big thing has been really figuring out what my boundaries are and making them super clear and not apologizing for it. And some of that really just took like, for example, I asked the people don’t take photos or video or people are not allowed to take photos or videos unless they’ve asked for consent ahead of time. And that is just because I realized a few times a couple people posted a video or told me that they’d made a drawing from the photo they’d taken. And I realized I wasn’t comfortable with that. And it wasn’t anyone’s fault for taking photos. I’d even kind of encouraged that before. I just realized like as the thing grew, I didn’t really want this free-wheeling house mouth policy around my body. I want there to be limitations like - you are attending this live performance, and that’s what it is. That’s what you’re paying for. That’s what you signed up for. And that’s what I’m giving you, and I’m not giving consent to more than that. Because that’s where it starts to snowball out of control.
Of course, people might still take photos. They might still go outside of that, but they are at this point, so many things in the way that everybody before I send them a link, meaning that I just confirm that they are who they say they are, cismen need to be vetted by someone in the group or at least, write me a really good sob story or something, a really good application.
And that’s kind of like enough, because at the end of the day, I am someone that like loves to be naked at the beach and someone could take a photo of me there too, and I don’t have any shame around what I’m doing. I’m literally a preschool teacher, like the families there could find out about what I’m doing. So it’s like, the stakes could be considered kind of high for me, but I just don’t think I’m doing anything wrong. I think it’s my body and I don’t consent to being related to as a thing that’s bad to be seen naked on the internet. I don’t think a photo of me from this ends up in someone’s email box and my life is over. I just don’t even know who that would be.
So I mean, maybe I’m having... I like to think that I just don’t have enough forethought or something like what if I want to be a politician or something? But I’m like, well, that’s the kind of politician I would be. I would be a politician that has naked photos of her all over, out of her control. Because that’s a piece of me that I’m comfortable with, and I’m proud of.
I definitely am like a future thinker all the time, thinking about, like, scheming about next steps and plans. I have so many fantasies for the future of Dyke Soccer, the future of my figure modeling, the future of different work I want to make, or events I want to host. I think that’s where we’re at right now, as much as I don’t want COVID to be happening, I think what the mutual aid organizing that’s going on looks like is a lot of what our future could start to look like and hopefully, start to show people the importance of living proactively and doing things, even though they’re not going to be perfect the first several times, you do it and it definitely will never be perfect ever.
But I do think there’s a lot of passivity and it comes from totally a lot of understandable fear, like, fear of cancel culture, fear of like just doing, like, getting in trouble, or doing the wrong thing. And it is at the expense of our power. And so I’m just like really about building our own systems and maybe through those systems and building power, like soccer, for example. It means that I now have like 1000 voices together. And that’s a group that can come together to demand change in a lot of other ways, but it does start with finding your community, and investing in it and like putting yourself out there. You know, like, going on a limb and inviting somebody you’ve never talked to before to do something with you because you really believe in like what you want to see in the world. And that could be different for everybody, for sure. It’s definitely a lot of work. But the payoff ultimately would be all of our power and our rights not being in the hands of people that don’t understand like, don’t buy into our philosophy, which I guess I’m assuming for listeners, but my philosophy is definitely don’t hurt people, support your community, take what you need, leave the world more beautiful than you found it, laugh and check in on your elders. These kinds of like, just almost small town Midwestern values, but applied to a clear world.
Cancel culture is to me a super big bummer. And it definitely like, I’ve had comments, trolly comments on like things I’ve done, or people like trying to come for me or telling me to stop or whatever. Like, all the time, it happens all the time when you’re especially trying to create things for the queer community, because the queer community is really sensitive, really aware, really wants to make sure everything’s being done ethically and correctly. Unfortunately, a lot of times that stuff does happen in a public sphere, versus happening directly, where they would sort of call in, which is what I would advocate for. And I think one thing you can do to like, absolve yourself of at least like a small percentage of cancel culture fear is to practice calling in yourself and start building that culture yourself, and within your own community. And just like really, that means that initiating tough conversations from a place of like, genuinely wanting to resolve them and understand each other and not just judging people and coming for people without considering their point of view or perspective. And then obviously, they won’t always agree [and that is when you might choose to “call out”].
You can’t always control how people are going to see you, and you do have to sometimes just stand your ground. And I think my advice for people that are sitting on ideas, I definitely sit on ideas, because I’m worried because I want it to be done perfectly when I do it or I don’t want someone to steal my idea. So I don’t even want to put it out there, because I don’t want it to be taken. I do think most of our ideas are probably bad, and so we should probably just try all of them and get them out of our system so that we can move on to the next one.
And the ones that are good, people will always get inspired from good things, but it’s so worth trying. And the first time you try anything, you learned a billion things you would do differently the next time and that’s why you have to start because you actually don’t know until you do it and it’s not perfect and you get to do it again. So I think that that’s part of it. It’s like, stop tricking yourself into thinking that you have this perfect little crystallized idea. You just need to drop it, because it’s, you’re going to do it and then be like, “Oh, this actually... I never thought of that until I did it and a few people mentioned this thing.” Or, “it was harder to make than I expected,” or whatever. People will have things to say. And have a good friend who loves laughing at that stuff with you, because it will happen.
[Special capitalization at the request of the artist]
My name is Emery Barnes. I'm 25, originally from Chicago. I am now living in Portland, Oregon, working as a Brand Executive at Wieden+Kennedy, and on the side, I am a Photographer.
I'm a Black African-American Male. Both of my parents were born in West Africa, specifically Liberia. That's been a fundamental trait they've instilled in me at an early age. Having that heritage to your roots. What's nice about me is having family ties and knowing where I come from, and having such a large family, both within the US and outside of it, to be First-Gen, it's been a fantastic experience for me.
My mom lives in Liberia, she has been doing that for about nine years. I live in Portland, my sister is in the city of Chicago on the South Side, and my dad lives in the suburbs of Chicago. What's been amazing about that is that I get to go often to Liberia. She’ll come. It's nice to have that tie.
My dad was a photographer, and I always followed him where he was going. He showed me pictures of him living in New York in the 1970s and 1980s. I was always drawn to it. I remember the camera he shot with. He shot with a Nikon, and it was so heavy. I remember as a kid, I would just try different things. I would stage his camera next to his bed, do the self-timer, jump up in the air, and then have it take a picture of myself. It was really cool to play around with different angles and dive into that creative aspect.
I never had a camera. I would always play around with his. Then I ended up buying a Sony a6000, which is the current camera that I use today. I moved downtown to Chicago, and what better way to explore the city than to start shooting? Every Saturday or Sunday, I would simply hop on the CTA, get off at a random stop, and shoot all day in a neighborhood. It was by the end of the summer, so that was around April, May. Around September, I started posting my work on my Instagram. A lot of my friends would be like, "Oh, like, what are you doing with this? Like, are you keeping all this? Are you saving it?" by the end of it, I had roughly 1200 pictures. Within that, I probably had like, 100-200 that I liked and wanted to edit, and wanted to post a little more publicly, so I developed a website. From there, honestly, whenever I travel, whether through work or exploring a new city, I'm always bringing my camera. That's the best way to explore and get to know a new place is by capturing it. I've been doing it for about two years, I want to say.
The most important thing is to get out and do it. I have a lot of friends that have got into Photography. They may not have that fantastic picture the first time they go out, but the most important thing is to just take photos of things that you like, that you're drawn to. The more and more you do something, the more you'll get better at it. I say that with anything in life, it's spending more time with on your craft.
There is this book. I want to pull it up. I believe it's a Malcolm Gladwell book, but he talks about investing 10,000 hours into your craft. I think the book is called Outliers. That's something that I've always practiced within my art.
You're not going to get it the first time; you're not going to get the second time, you're not going to get it the hundredth time. Just keep doing it and doing it. I guess in regards to practice. I can talk a little bit about how I get my inspiration. The most significant thing is doing different things, getting out of your routine, getting out of your comfort zone. I get a lot of inspiration from other photographers, from Instagram, from different websites, from only going on a walk, listening to a podcast, music, etc.
The more I'm changing my routine and putting myself in these different environments, the more I'm getting new inspiration. I try to do that with the protests because what's been great about them is that every protest is different. It has a different route, and it has a different emotion. Some may be a little tense; some may be a bit more peaceful. As a Photographer, my job, and I've told several people with the photos, is that for the people who weren't able to attend, I want to capture the emotion and have them live it as if they were there. If you were there, I want them to be able to relive that same emotion that they had. I said the most important thing is getting out there and immersing yourself in it full-time.
I have two styles. I'm drawn to bright colors, as you can say like, pop art. I love Street Photography. I love Murals. What I'm also drawn to is Black and White Photography, specifically architecture. My mom is an architect. With that family history, I've always been drawn to buildings, whether they be old, new, high-rises. Living in large cities, I've always been drawn to these buildings. What's been cool about Portland is that you have a little combination of both. I live in the Northwest in Chinatown, but getting to walk around and seeing some different Murals in different places within my neighborhood that I can take pictures of, but then walking about 10 minutes downtown, and like, getting that architecture, that's been a cool thing.
I have started going to the BLM Protests in Portland. I have an exciting story about how I got there, but as the people may be seeing on Instagram is that I've been taking pictures, and I've been marching with the Rose City Justice Organization, so shout out to them. It's been a fantastic experience to capture the people, the emotion, Black, White from all different walks of life, and be able to document that on social, as well.
I grew up in a predominantly White Suburb, and so mostly White High School,Ccollege. The first agency I worked at was my first taste of what it's like to be in Non-White Bubbles. I was fortunate for the team, and agency that had worked at, at the time because it had so much diversity. I don't even want to say diversity by Race, but diversity of thought. You had representatives of the LGBTQ community, you had people from different Religious Backgrounds, Races, Ethnicities, but at the same time, everyone was coming from different places. It opened my eyes a bit more to this world than I previously wasn't living in. When I moved to Portland at 23, it made me realize more of who I am as a Black Male, specifically a Black African-American male as First-Gen. It made me look at myself in the mirror. When you're surrounded by people that don't look you, it makes you think of like, what are the values? How can I stay true to myself? I will say that as a Black Male, I've had a fantastic experience in Portland. I've met a great community of people here, so many people from so many different walks of life. I will say compared to Chicago, that does lack that culture as a big city would, but at the same time, there is something unique to that. Because with this small community here, I feel it's a family in a way. I think you're always meeting people and connecting with people. You're fostering these great relationships versus a larger city. It's been a good experience for me so far.
Keep building on that is the creative community out there. You have a lot of organizations, agencies, small shops that are here. What's been amazing for me in Portland is that I've been able to tap into that creative soul and explore my photography a little bit more, and feel I'm now in this circle with people that are pushing me creatively versus a larger city that I didn't have that. That's another thing that I'm super fortunate for, being out here.
June 2nd, somebody invited me to go to one of the protests in Pioneer Square. At that time, I'd never protested before. I was skeptical about it. Just having been a Black Male, and especially in the middle COVID. I had a lot of hesitation about going out there, but I felt it was my duty to go there and at least learn more about it and be involved. I went there, and I'm not going to lie, within the first 30-40 minutes, I felt overwhelmed. I didn't get to enjoy the message, and I ended up walking back.
There's a Photographer that I want to shout out. His name is Andrew Wallner. If you're not familiar with his work, he shot the notable bridge picture. I remember seeing it that day. I remember seeing a few other photos of people that were at this protest. I liked that photo because he was able to show a new perspective on the protests that I'd never seen before, and that I didn't even see in person. What was interesting is that the media amplified this and focused on the looting and the tear gas. I know a lot of that's happening, but they were focusing on the negative. When I saw that picture, I was able to see the emotion in peoples' faces, and seeing that combination of people walking together. I went back out that next day, and I felt a lot more confident.
I went with the Rose City Justice team, and they did a protest on the waterfront. As a Photographer who was shooting now and then, I brought my camera out that day. There's one particular shot, it was in the midst of this crowd, and there was a fist that went up, it hit me, I immediately had to get that shot. I felt drawn to it, because out of the sea of people, you see a hand go up, and it goes to show that this movement is bigger than me. I mean, 50 different states are doing this. It's even hit that global reach. That night, I posted it to my page. I was at like, 1200 followers, so nothing super crazy. It blew up from there. From that point on, I knew that I had a unique gift, and from that gift, it was to continue to amplify this message and put my work out there. Something I'm super passionate about. But at the same time be able to show in a perspective that the media wasn't highlighting.
For my Photography, in particular, I always make sure to Black out the individuals' eyes, because I know protesting is different for a lot of people, and I don't want to be the one that exposes them or post something without their consent. If you're doing it for the right reasons, it is a beautiful way to amplify this message and reach people who aren't too focused on what's going on, but two, it's such a lovely way to document this. I mean, I would love 50, 60 years in the future, these photos can still be cherished. What's history if you can't look back on something?
Many people have reached out to me and said, "Your photos, they've made me cry. They made me reevaluate and have these tough conversations with my family." People that aren't even in the US have reached out to me for these photos. I said it's bigger than the following. If I can change someone's mindset about what's going on and get them to get out and protest or do something, whether that donateing or have that tough conversation, even if that's one person, then I'm doing something important.
I want to do my job as a Photographer to keep going to these protests, amplifying the message, and trying to make this more significant than it is. We're in an exciting time in the world right now, especially within Portland, we're in phase one. You have seen a lot of drops off at these protests. One is people want to go out and do things and get that sense of normality, but at the same time, you have people that are burnt out. I mean, I have personal friends and people that I know well that have been out there every single day, and I know it's a lot, especially if you haven't done this before.
Long-term, I'm working with a few other photographers out here to figure out ways if we don't continue protesting for the next six months, how can we continue to amplify this message? How can we keep people engaged? How can we get new people that didn't necessarily protest now, but are more interested in issue two, three months from now? I have a vast network of people out here that all have that same mindset and eagerness to do something. So, I don't want to go into much detail now, but we're working on a few initiatives. Hopefully, that will launch a little bit later in the summer, that takes the Photography a step further and brings it into I'd say, like, the real world versus digital.
I want us to feel more united, putting aside differences. What's been interesting is to see, especially in Portland, that everyone's coming at this from a different place in their lives. One of the most beautiful moments was that I was protesting one day, and I was walking down the street, and I forgot what neighborhood it was. Still, predominantly white, there were younger white couples, older white couples, white couples with young children, throwing their fist up, throwing their thumbs up. It's like, I'm not emotional, to be completely honest, that was the closest I was to crying.
Having a world where people don't see color, and not necessarily in a color blindness, but more of like, no matter what you look like, race isn't the thing that's top of mind. it's the one thing that people celebrate, the fact that someone is different from me, looks different from me, I don't… I would love to live in a world where we're celebrating our differences and learning from it versus looking at someone already feeling divided. I honestly think that being at these protests and seeing how charged up this next generation is that… we're getting to that place. There's a lot more work to be done, but we're making the necessary strides to get to that place.
As an Artist and a Photographer, I want to continue to connect with people, tell their stories, and amplify other Black artists coming up. What's been a fantastic experience out of all this is that I'm meeting with people that I necessarily wouldn't have connected with. Portland is small, but sometimes it feels divided, especially someone from a new city—being able to communicate with these Black Artists and meet them for the first time at a protest or a get-together and talk about our stories and how we got to it. I want to keep doing that. I want to continue to expand this reach, so one day, I'm telling a story of someone that, I said, it can reach in another city, or I have big ambitions where if I'm in a new town, I want to be able to highlight people there. A lot's going through my mind right now. I'm full force in what I want to do with this.
You have to look at yourself as I'm more than a Photographer. I'm a Photojournalist who is documenting things, and with this platform and with this attention, what can I do to change things and change policies, and change the way that the world operates? Something that has been top of mind in the upcoming election in November. There's a lot of people that aren't aware or not engaged. Is there a way that we can use the medium of photography to amplify and get people immersed in what's going on and more informed, rather than posting a picture and having it be linear within the Instagram cycle? It's like how we can make our content, our art a little more expansive, beyond the simple posts on Instagram.
As an Artist, the biggest thing is, don't be afraid to put your work out there. If you're doing it for the right reason, now is a fantastic time, too, especially as a Black artist, use your brain platform to educate and spread awareness about this critical issue. Thinking a little bit long term as an artist, continue to work on your craft, and I'm still working on it to this day. I mean, there are so many things that I aspire to do, and people that I want to be, but you can't get to that point unless you make that first step as an artist and work on your craft, get those reps in, and keep being as excited as I am. Many people out in the world are eager to put their work out in the world.
My name is Heather Flint Chatto. I'm an urban planner and environmental designer. I'm also a community educator, activist, dancer, artist, maker, and photographer. I'm also a working mother. I use she/her pronouns. I'm deeply passionate about design and communities having a voice in shaping their neighborhoods, places, and homes. I have been leading several different initiatives fighting for community rights against gentrification and sustainable planning. We do that at PDX Main Streets, which I'm the co-founder and director of, also known as Portland Main Streets Design Initiative. I'm also a small business owner and founder of Forage Design and Planning, which is a sustainable design firm. We do a lot of community engagement and support projects to integrate more environmental design.
At Forage, we kicked off a project with the Gresham Redevelopment Corporation partly for Rockwood market food hall, in partnership with the Black Food Sovereignty Coalition, where we're looking at food systems. We want to support more BIPOC community members and secure food networks and local farmers. That's one type of project. I also have an innovative developer that's a client, and we're working on a tiny house artist eco-village, trying to support more affordable housing for local artists. Another project is with Levee Ready Colombia, helping develop long-range strategic communications and culturally appropriate engagement plans for some of the work that they do. I also work a lot under a PDX Main Streets in partnership with neighborhood associations, business associations, and other community partners.
As I walk around, as I drive around, I look at, "Oh, how could that have been done better? Oh, that's a good building," or, "Oh, wow, missed opportunity, you know, it's right next to this great old building, and it doesn't speak the same language at all. That building sticks out like a sore thumb, but it could have done so well if they had picked up on some of the character cues." It's about who we want to be as a city. It feels like we are in a moment in time like we have a little bit of an identity crisis. I fell in love with Portland for its architecture. Thus our email address is "ilovepdxmainstreets," and I have a whole series of articles I'm writing about my love affair with Portland main streets because they are so beautiful and formative to our identity as a city.
As we grow as a city, I want to see bigger buildings on the broader streets instead of smaller ones. I'd love to see us be able to have more of a form-based code - a really great approach to thinking about solar access, and about what is the foundational form of a place that allows for a variety of different traditional or modern designs to happen, while also having human-scale elements, regardless of small or large buildings. For me, when we think about making great cities that endure, I think about how we respect the identity of a place. How do we grow with needed housing and urban infill without losing our soul as a city?
What people love about Portland is that it still has that kind of vintage flavor. That's one of the things that drew me to Portland, that there were so many old buildings. We are underserved for art on the east side, and these buildings represent a great deal of our art. You don't notice it when you're driving, but when you walk or bike, you see the detail in the brickwork, you see the divided panes and the raised sills, and the tiny intricate details. Architects didn't build these most of these buildings; they were created by immigrants who were demonstrating their cultures through their craft. It's the craft that we're sort of missing in some of the new buildings. I think as we grow, we want our city to reflect who we are as makers, craftspeople, and artists.
When I look around, I feel sad that I don't see that reflected. It feels like we are kind of losing our soul in the process. It doesn't have to be that way. One of the ways we get at that is through proactively teaching people the language of good design and how to make human-scale buildings, and I can talk more about that. Then, we try to really support the positive through art by giving main street design awards, for example, honoring the buildings and people who are doing real leadership work and making that notable. That's another strategy.
We are taking the thread back to the housing policy. I'd like to see our city creating more tools that would incentivize the things we want, instead of de facto incentivizing demolition and displacement. When we build high-end housing, as we have been, in the areas that already have higher-end housing, it further widens the equity gap. Suppose we were to have better programs that would give tax abatements, low-interest loans, and technical assistance for adaptive reuse, supporting more sustainability and climate responsive design for our future. It maintains the identity of our city in a really kind of dense way, without the same kind of impacts, and is a more climate-responsive approach. Whether it's an art show about density and design or city making, that can be powerful to integrate art in the process to help understand policy and design.
We do a lot with photography. We will be having a photography exhibit for Alberta, looking at those patterns of place, and examples of density with excellent compatibility, as well as poor contrast, and explaining those important design patterns that are key to good density. So, we're looking for more photographers. Another opportunity: We have a series of art installations that we did up and down the Division corridor that we made to be reusable for any neighborhood, so we're kind of calling them Listening Posts, but initially, we called them the "Your Voice Matters Project." They are custom-made art suggestion boxes with these really great vision cards. There's an opportunity for artists to make their own. We used old radios and printing presses, and all kinds of found objects that made them really interactive and engaging. We'll be doing kind of a design-build workshop in Alberta. That would be an enjoyable way to connect locally through art because it's the arts district.
One of my ideas for the future was from a woman named Ursula Barton. She does these beautiful paintings of the architecture of Portland and other cities, and I kind of had this flash about "murals for Main Street." We are creating these big blank walls. We could make that a beautiful art wall and really fill it with color, you know, bringing back that vibrancy that feels like Portland.
One of the things that we are doing is putting together this whole toolkit to support communities. Part of it is education and public engagement, identifying your essential qualities and desires for the future. Being involved in those kinds of conversations and events will be great to have more of the arts community really get involved, but also, becoming a volunteer with us is super fun, and it's a great way to engage. Those are a few ideas.
One of the things that we've been doing with PDX Main Streets is that we support communities with greater design literacy and proactive tools for managing growth and change. As we are growing as a city, we see a big divide in the way people are looking at how we are evolving as a city. What is the future we want to have? In addition to kind of a fast-paced development boom, we're also having a long list of significant new city policies. Mostly I've been working on things related to the design issues for commercial areas, and have kind of stayed away from this particular residential infill project (RIP), mainly tracking it as a land-use activist and member of my neighborhood association, and the land use chair. But also, I know it's a contentious issue. I kind of had been watching it, but I started to get a little bit concerned. we've been advocating on things like the DOZA Project, which is new citywide design standards and guidelines, also the comprehensive plan, mixed-use zoning, and more. I know, it ends up being a lot of alphabet soup but realizing that that's really where a lot of the change can happen. A lot of community members don't understand the nuances of policymaking.
The Residential Infill Project is an exciting idea about changing how we allow a greater diversity of housing types to be supported through our zoning code, and by right. We have a lot of diverse housing that we may not realize because the actual zoning designation when you look at it on a map is all yellow, zoned for single-family, and you think that's all there is. But actually, there is a broad diversity of townhouses, courtyards, apartments, stacked flats, plexes, things like that, and good multifamily buildings, but it's a kind of hidden density because we don't notice it when it is well designed and blends in. As we look at making a new city broad-brush policy, to upzone all of our single-family areas to allow for duplexes and diverse multifamily housing. We have a missing middle, things that people aren't building. They're building single-family or large multifamily. Still, they're not building that sort of in-between. It's exciting, and it's excellent on the one hand, but it's also challenging because policy can have unintended consequences.
When I started to see what was going on in terms of the potential for displacement and layering in, you know, kind of who's building and what they're building and at what affordability rate, I started to get concerned. So, I'm kind of two minds about this policy. As I began to dig in more, I began to see a divide in the planning commission about displacement concerns and a broad-brush approach outside of the comprehensive plan effort, so that's our long-range plan 2035. typically, this kind of significant policy rezoning would occur as part of that.
I started to get a little concerned because people are under-engaged right now, not that many people understand the policy's nuances. It's so broad-brushed that I am concerned, it's going to further lead to more significant demolition and climate impacts, without the necessary tools to refine it. In listening to some of the testimonies, I hear a lot of people advocating for the policy for affordable housing. But this policy is not directed at affordable housing. Four out of nine of the planning commissioners, all four commissioners of color, voted against this policy from the Planning and Sustainability Commission. I don't think that many people realize that.
Let’s look at the background on why we have this affordable housing crisis right now. That's an essential piece of it when we have enough zoned capacity right now to meet all of our goals, according to the city, for housing. This is happening outside of the comprehensive plan, and it's not going to go to the people. What we're seeing on the ground being built is expensive housing. If you want more affordable housing, we need to advocate for a diversity of financial tools in place right now, which is missing from this package. That's one piece that is missing, is we're not seeing that there's a greater diversity of housing that's affordable right now. The most affordable type of accommodation is what's already built. That's for a fact right there. These older houses might look like they are a specific type of exclusivity, or for a single-family, but very frequently there are 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 sometimes students living in these big old houses, and that's what makes it affordable for them to pay a few hundred dollars of rent.
I love duplexes and adapted structures. One of the most affordable and climate-responsive things we could do is convert these older houses to multifamily. When you build new construction, it is inherently more expensive. If you're building in the most expensive areas, it's going to be even higher. That's one piece of the puzzle to understand. But the reason developers would be more likely to tear it down than to convert it is that it's complicated, it's not as easy for them to do it, and can't get in and out in the same way. You can't build your standard model. it's easier to tear it down. The carbon and climate impacts of that are devastating. We do in the next ten years to be the most significant because every one of those buildings represents a substantial amount of carbon of the materials extracted, refined, transported, and built. if you tear that down, even if you build something more energy-efficient, it still takes between 10 and 80 years to offset that environmental impact.you're doing it with even more materials. The most sustainable thing we could be doing is infilling, adapting, building up, and looking at other kinds of creative solutions.
This is the other—this is the planner's side, not necessarily the sort of artist part of me, but it's imperative because what we miss is that the fundamental difference is design when we want to make good density. I'd like people to know that we often don't see density when it's well designed. The design is what makes the difference in perfect density. that it's an equity issue too because everyone deserves good design. We shouldn't be cheaping out on housing. Because what happens is, if we build with poor quality, that we end up having to spend more money on maintenance, we end up providing a lesser product for people where the doors are hollow. The sound impacts are worse, and there's less flexibility in using the space and less access to light and air. You know, how energy efficient the building is, impacts your monthly utility bills, affecting affordability.
There are so many pieces to this design conversation that get missed. People think you're talking about style, which we're not talking about. that's where I kind of get into that more with the design literacy work that we do with PDX Main Streets, and where we bring a lot of art to the process of education. We do a lot of photography exhibits, and we talk about the pattern language of Main Streets, and how you do that. I get a lot of joy from that. When I see someone get excited about design like they suddenly start to — it's like putting on a pair of glasses is how others have explained it to me after taking them on a design walk. They can suddenly see their city in an entirely different way. That's a thrill for them and a thrill for us.
Hi, I’m Nastasia Minto. I use pronouns she, her, they, them, and sometimes he, him; it all depends on how I’m feeling. I’m originally from South Georgia. I’ve been in Portland now for almost three years. I’m an artist. I’m a painter. I paint sometimes. I do a lot of poetry, writing, and spoken word stuff and essays. I would say for me, that my identity is fluid, that’s why when I said the pronouns, I said she, her, they, them, he, him., it is fluid. Sometimes I don’t—for me, personally, I don’t really hold firm to them because I can feel many different ways in any split of the moment. My identity is really shaped by that, and it shapes my perspective of the world. That’s how I see people: they are fluid and that we are changing and we’re ever moving, and it’s not linear, you know?
Who I am can genuinely not be defined by how people see me on the outside. I think we’ve discussed that a lot about people calling me butch, or saying that I look a certain way because of how I dress. Then getting to know me is, I’m probably the most feminist person you’ve ever met. I know I switch back and forth. I identify as queer. I was thinking about that this morning, with identity and labels and stuff, and how most people would be, “No, you’re a lesbian.” I’m, “No, I’m pretty...” I feel I’m queer. I think that gives me a lot of room and space to be who I truly am, but also my poetry, if you’ve already read some of it, or if you purchase my book, you will see how it really influences a lot of the things that are right because of my perspective and how I moved throughout the world.
My book, Naked: The Rhythm and Groove of It. The Depth and Length to It was published last year. It is a collection of poetry and little short prose. Pretty much with my book, the title, I want it to be, naked and meant to disclose a lot about myself that I could have that freedom I was searching for. I didn’t necessarily think I was going to name it, title it naked, but on a long trip, I was coming back, and I told my friend that I wanted to be free and free meant to not feel I was holding back anything or hiding anything from anyone. I really wanted to be naked.
Yeah, since Naked, I have really had the opportunity to sit in love and figure out what that means and what it means to allow someone else to love me. So this next collection that I have, and it’s more talking about the heart and talking about ways of love and expressing love and showing love in many different forms, you know?
The new stuff that I’m working on is more about allowing the heart to indeed be open, allowing the heart to feel, and not being afraid of it. Now looking back, I know that I had to become naked, I had to write naked and get all of that stuff out of me, that I can show this different side of me, I don’t know, I would say softer. Still, it’s really not even all that soft, it’s allowing love to come in and not being afraid of it, not pushing it back and not scaring it away at the same time. That’s new stuff that I’m working on; a lot of poetry and a lot of essays. Who knows, I might have a memoir coming up soon, a few different things that I got into work. I’m really excited about where it’s all going at, where it’s heading.
For a lot of Black people, which, you know, I can’t speak for the entire souls of all Black people, but I believe that most of us because we’ve been through this many times, many years. I think about my grandfather, who’s 84, and how much he’s seen in his lifetime.
“Oh, okay, you know, this is happening again.” But the momentum behind it, the protests and how big it is, I know my work has always been influenced by because regardless of my life of sexual preference and me dating women, people notice I’m Black first. Even if they don’t assume that I’m anything else, they know, and they see the color of my skin, regardless of whether they want to admit that. My work is heavily influenced by that because I’ve experienced many different things, whether it was racism or the great people you who come into my life. I’m, “Yeah, let’s help you. Let’s push these voices.” I mean, you were doing this before this was even a hashtag thing. I really appreciate that: amplifying voices—marginalized voices. Please pat yourself on the back for that one.
I stand with the protesters 100%. Although I’m not marching myself, due to some physical stuff, I stand 100%, andI’ve been questioning myself about my work and what I am doing? What is my protest? That’s what I think my protest is: my writing. Me being true to myself and being raw and being honest and not being afraid to step on somebody’s toes or hurt somebody’s feelings or being called out because that’s what people are going to do regardless of if it’s really good or terrible, someone’s feelings is going to be hurt. People are joining in and standing with Black people because I can only imagine how exhausted I feel. The people were out there physically marching, how exhausted they feel, and giving all of that energy. So for all the allies who are standing, “No, we are tired.” There’s no other way that I can put it. But to see people standing with us, I genuinely think that it is giving us the strength to be, “Okay, we got this we can keep going, we can keep going.”
My hope and desire are that for this momentum that it continuously moves forward, and we find some sustainability with it. We find some organizations, we find plans, put in place policies, everything that’s going to continue to move this forward and not in the next month or two, we see another shooting, or we hear about something else...Maybe we will, because I know it’s going to take time. Also, I know that things are changing. I know it with everything inside of me, things are changing, and things are shifting. I feel it deeply. That’s what I’m doing here in my house is sending out prayers and energy and oils and everything for people to be, “Keep going, keep going. Things are shifting, things are changing.” change does take time. That time is right now, that time is happening. A writing prompt: love in the time of Corona. What does that mean to you? What does that mean for you? That’s the main one that I pick up every single day. The next one I usually start with—and I get these from my workshops, and I use them every day when I’m not in studios. The next one is ‘Today I am.’ I know it sounds simple, but today I am feeling blah, today I am hurting a bit, today I woke up and was having spasms. So, you know, really being honest and truthful, and then writing from that. If today I’m feeling a certain way or if at this moment, I’m feeling a certain way, I may not be feeling that way in 30 minutes or the next day or the next hour. What does it look like to live in a time in Corona when everyone's super guarded and super unsure? We don’t know what to say. We don’t know how to treat people. All these uncertainties, what does that love look at this time? That’s one of my favorite prompts for this time. Another prompt I have is, what does it feel stepping on broken glass from the past?
I didn’t choose to be born in this skin. Mocked, criticized, and tormented for this vibrant brown color that I’m laced in. Faced with the most challenging trials passed down from my ancestors to me. But I hear my grandma and my great-grandma call out, they speak. Remember? Remember the wooden sheds, ripped flesh, cotton fields, and bloodshed. Leftovers from their tables, collard greens, and cornbread? Remember the many nights, no lights? Bring out the candles and the flashlights, kerosene heaters for all those cold nights. Remember?
Remember the day you shared one room, three bodies in one bed? A two-bedroom house that 12 people shared. The white walls and concrete floors of the project housing, but we were glad because we were able to take showers and baths without boiling our water. Remember?
Remember the Goodwill and Salvation Army, wash clothes and iron clothes, and make them look brand new with your Payless shoes? Remember?
Remember the days you lashed out and got suspended? Next day, cuss the teacher out, ISS and detention? The teachers who didn’t give a shit, you couldn’t be fixed, and all they saw was another badass Black kid in prison without the fence. Do you remember?
Remember the straight A’s, the right teachers you praised, the ones who saw your demons but they stayed. The one college English teacher who was not afraid to promote your strength and helped you along the way?
Remember all the days you were hungry in college and didn’t want to continue on? The days you wanted to give up but know it wasn’t a choice because you couldn’t go home. Remember?
Do you remember moving from couch to couch all the homeless days from your car to house, from the floor to the couch to the bed? Remember when you got your own place because you didn’t feel safe. That was something new. But child, remember that someone is profoundly trying to love you. Grandma, I remember. I promise, I remember.
Every time you want to give up, child, and all the nights, you may cry, look back at the reason you started this journey, and never forget your why.
My message to all Black people, to all people of color, because, you know, this is affecting all of us. Honestly, all of us. Let’s never forget our why, never forget why we started this journey, never forget why we began our creative journey. Even if we’ve had months and days where we haven’t been able to do anything, look at something, and remember why you started. For me, my writing, as I was writing yesterday in the workshop, I was thinking about the fact that my grandmother, I’m not going to cry, but she couldn’t read or write. I have the opportunity to do this for her, something that she always wanted to do — write. I’m telling you that if you listen to this, remember why you started your journey. Remember that thing that wakes you up in the morning, even if you have a hard time waking up, remember your why, why you create, why you paint, why you read, and why you write, and why you cook. Remember the whys of the things that you do. Why you started protesting. Why has your writing turned into protesting? What is your mission? What is your statement? That’s what I want to leave for people, is to remember their why.
My name is Jené Etheridge, also known as DJ Black Daria. I was born in the Kaiser Hospital that's now Adidas headquarters. I grew up in Vancouver, Washington, across the river from Portland. My mom immigrated from Mexico City when she was 13, and my dad grew up in northeast Portland. They met at a club in Portland. That kind of informs my career choices.
People have told me I have a monotone voice like the TV character Daria. She’s from an animated show about a girl named Daria in high school. It’s about her life being in the alternative crowd. It was created in a very politically mature way for its time. Some of the topics that the show covered were pretty serious for an animated TV show. She was very deadpan. Her voice was very monotone. She didn't have any inflection and her voice or anything like that. As a Black woman, I've been told I need to smile more, and I need to be more presentable. Naming myself after Daria is an "FU" to everyone who said I needed to perform a certain way to meet their standards. Daria was a show on MTV in early 2000, I believe. I'm taking something that people try to tweak about me and saying, this is the way I am. Take it or leave it.
With DJing, you have freedom to play. I play what I want, mess with genres and tempos, and all that. It feels nice to embody play.
I had a religious, sheltered upbringing. As I get older, it's been nice to explore my identity and different cultures, and things about Black and Latinx and brown artists that I didn't know about until college or after college. Right now, it is celebrating the Black diaspora. People focus on Black American identity. I'm interested in how Black culture informs different types of art, cuisine, and everything. That's been informing my art more and more as I get older and learn more.
Though it's rare to find Black artists from Portland, Oregon, I look up to them. I like Khaleel Joseph, one of the founders of the underground Museum in LA. He does more mixed media experimental, visual collaging, which I love. He has a project called Black News. The first time I saw that I was, "I need to watch this whole thing through, I can't do anything else."
I admire Emory Douglas, who was the designer for the Black Panthers. Tons of DJs. I mean, DJ Ben Bona, she's from New York. She's a Black Latina DJ.
I'm using visuals and audio to heal. Lately, we've seen visuals and sound used to talk about or create or spread trauma, especially for Black folks. That's my main intention, is healing and normalizing Black and brown folks doing fun, normal stuff. Not for any clout or to make some new meme. I want to see people dancing or having a good time.
Another thing that informs my work is being in club culture. Portland, it's a little different, because we're a pretty mellow city. Being able to have Black and brown bodies in a safe space can change the mood. When you don't have to worry about if your drink's going to get roofied or if the security guard is going to kick out your friend (which has happened to me before), it changes the energy.
I'm in Noche Libre, an all Latinx DJ collective based in Portland. We were doing monthly dance parties where we played all kinds of music from our childhoods: new Reggaeton, Old Cumbia, 90s Reggaeton, Dancehall, all sorts of genres. That's been an excellent way to channel all those different diasporic types of art through music. We're all queer women of color or people of color. People who go dance want to see the DJ reflected in them. They want to go dancing and see, "Oh, that person looks like me. I'm more comfortable". At least that's how I am. I barely ever see Black woman DJ in Portland. I want to see more producers diversifying the DJ lineup. Think about where you're promoting your events. Have a good relationship with the venue owner or manager. Have trust in them. I've had jobs where I know the security guard has our back, and if we say a person is misbehaving, they'll kick that person out with no questions asked.
I want to shout out some other club cultures in particular that are making safe spaces in Portland. There's the UWU DJ collective, it's U-W-U, but it's all queer, trans or non-binary people of color, who DJ. They seem to have the best time. Those are the spaces that people should be paying them to go DJ at those events because those are hard to come by.
We also have DJ Anjali, a DJ Auntie to people I know in Portland., She's been around for longer than us. She has been holding it down for the Indian and South Asian communities, and their parties are always enjoyable.
I was reading an interview with Arthur Java, who I became familiar with. In the conversation, they said, "If you take Black folk's race and history and oppression away, what is left in our art?" about that. I'm, "Okay, well, what art am I showing if all of that doesn't exist?" In my lifetime, that's never going to be a reality, that's not going to happen.
I think about how art can inspire quieter people. Maybe they don't have the capacity or the ability to do things like go to a protest. Perhaps they are taking care of an elder, or they have past trauma from big crowds or don't have the physical ability to go. For those people, art is a great way to send a message or share your voice, especially street art.
There's an artist in New York, her name is Tatiana; she's Black and Iranian. She does these giant pieces in New York that are kind of—it's usually an illustrated portrait of a Black woman. It'll have a text that says, "Stop telling Black women to smile," or, you know, "I'm not here for your consumption," something that, and their displays are huge. They're massive. So if you can't be at the protest, you can be creative in other ways and have a voice.
I hope that in the future, art is more accessible. When I grew up, there was not much art education at all. It wasn't anything I'd ever considered; same for my family. Organizations the Regional Arts and Culture Council, Open Signal, S1, they're all bridging that gap for people, which is amazing. I've been thinking more about the power of media and accessibility.
I use YouTube to find ancient, deep cuts, you can't find the song anywhere else besides on YouTube. I find joy in YouTube, and public media, seeing what's out there and compiling things. I realize that my deep Black holes where I'm looking through, all of these older house 45s from the 80s are different than some other folks. I haven't thought about that more. I was in my own bubble of music and 90s R & B music videos — not thinking about all the other stuff out there.
Seek out artists who don't look you. I need to work on this more, because I get stuck in my world, but thinking about the other types of diasporas out there.
I took a social media break; I was off of it for a month. I recommend it! I was calmer in general, less stressed out, and less frustrated. I was focused more on projects finding music or making mixes or learning music production. It was helpful. I didn't realize it until I got back on social media. I was way more distracted, continually rechecking channels. I thought my addiction was gone, but it's not at all. I'm already looking forward to taking another social media break. I know it's hard, but it was a game-changer for me. Social media can be a place for people to let go and be distracted, but also to experience new trauma all the time. We think it's normal.
I recommend constantly sharing whatever your art is, or whatever craft you're interested in with someone who appreciates it and can return it. Find and follow artists who inspire you, especially artists who are alive today because people are dropping knowledge all the time, but we romanticize people who aren't here anymore. Find artists who are active that you could communicate with.
I didn't consider myself an artist until recently. "I'm a curator. I'm a playlist maker." I didn't call myself an artist and it wasn't in my upbringing. I didn't grow up around a super musical family. It's not that I started playing piano when I was six years old or something that. I would say, keep creating for yourself. If you don't think you're an artist, but you love whatever your art is, create it for yourself, and then eventually it'll kind of transform and grow and evolve without you even knowing. Sometimes you have to take a break to get there.
My advice for Black and brown artists is to double your rate. That's it. They have money. We focus on one Black person dying at a time. A lot of stuff doesn't make the news, even. If you don't know who Breonna Taylor is, you should look her up. It's okay to be uncomfortable and have hard conversations. I've been having them lately. As a Black woman, I'm still learning. If you're White, know that it's okay to be uncomfortable. As long as you're open to learning and taking criticism and being open to changing your mind about things or changing your opinion about something, then yeah, I mean, do the work, do the hard work.
See more of her work here: https://www.instagram.com/djblackdaria
My name is Kayla Brock, and I'm 25 years old. I grew up in the western suburbs of Chicago before I moved to Portland, Oregon, and I studied overseas in London and then from London, spent a lot of time traveling to different countries. I've been to over 24 countries now. That's what I enjoy the most: traveling.
In terms of photography, what I enjoy doing is called "lifestyle". I do portraits, and then I started dabbling a little more in events. I take a wide variety of different photographs. I love working in magazines. Most of my jobs have been in magazines or some type of publishing, so I've always kind of had the dream of either doing photography for a magazine, I would love to see my photos on covers one day or to maybe even create my own scene. Those are my long term goals.
Right now, I’m doing brand photography. Working with different brands around Portland, especially local brands, if they're Black-owned or POC brands, I would love to work closely with those organizations and provide for them. I can provide photography for their online services or for their own personal websites and pages. that's also a great way to just get to know the community more and be more in the city, helping them to grow their businesses. Those are my dreams and goals, as of now.
I have a background in journalism. That's where I spend most of my full-time work, actually. Moving here, I never expected to live in Portland. I always had this idea that I want to live on the west coast, but I wasn't quite sure where. I didn't know much about Portland. When I started living here, I learned that it was considered one of the whitest states in the US, and it had a big KKK group. But personally, I have never experienced any outright outbursts of racism. But I worked in a TV station, I did hear about it a lot. It was sad. A lot of parents, especially, would email us into the TV station, and they would tell us that my kid got called the N-word on the playground, or that someone put something in someone's locker that was kind of racist. It was definitely sad to hear. I know those experiences do exist. But that's also a good reminder. Racism is taught. Many kids will learn racist things from adults and start doing similar things at a young age.
Oregon needs to talk about its history and recognize its history. I know they're working on housing for the generations of kids whose ancestors got pushed out of the east side of Portland. They're trying to reconcile that. But there are still many discussions that need to be had.
I attended one of the protests, and they were doing a march from Southeast to Pioneer Square. I ended up actually meeting them at Pioneer Square. That was such an experience. When we got there, I went with a couple of friends, there was already a little group gathering, they have a truck, and they had mics, and people were just sharing their stories: being mixed, being a Black man or a Black woman, etc. That was powerful. Then what ended up happening was people who walked across from Southeast, who did the Burnside bridge. They laid down on the Burnside bridge for eight minutes for George Floyd, they came into the Pioneer Square, and everyone just met together at once and filled up this entire space.
It was a peaceful protest. People were making sure of that. A couple people were trying to entice the crowd, but they were all so focused. We were all so focused on being peaceful. To see all those people sitting down in the square —they could all fully fit in the square, which was just amazing. We're all dealing with a pandemic right now. People are so scared about the Coronavirus, and still, all those people showed up in one spot, just to show that Black Lives Matter and to create change. That's history in itself.
In photographing protests, I wanted it to look authentic. I didn't want to try to put too much thought behind it. I'm free-spirited; I capture what I feel. For me, it was all about kind of getting the crowd and having this look of solidarity; more focus on the overall aspect.
This time right now is for us, Black people. This is a year, this is a month that will go down in history books, it will be spoken about. If people have the strength to do it, because this time is mentally taxing, people might not have the power to go out into these protests and capture what's going on. But this is a time for us to show our work, show our perspective, think about our own experiences. You know, I went to that one protest, and I hope to go to more, but just being at one alone is a breath of fresh air. It lifted a weight off of my shoulder to see all these people supporting me primarily, supporting this movement. It helps to get through all the pain that we're feeling and all the hurt we've been dealing with for years.
Exercise your right and don't put pressure on yourself. If you want to go to the protests only to be at the rally, do it. If you're going to be there to photograph, do it. You know, just don't feel you have to capture what this is. You can also just be in the moment.
To White artists: it's your role to support Black artists. You know, be conscious about what you're doing, and don't try to profit off of what's going on. I've seen a lot of White artists who are actually donating their money to Black organizations. Still, it's also, you know, that we want to be able to trust you and hold accountability and know that you're actually doing what you're saying. If you're going to write on Instagram saying that you're selling these prints and that they're going to be donating to this organization, it would be nice to have that kind of proof for that transparency that you actually did what you said. You know, I feel people are just hurt if white artists are trying to use this for their own personal gain. I think the only way to reconcile that is to show that there's a screenshot, here's the proof that you can trust what I've said. Transparency is probably the most significant thing you can do right now as being a white artist.
My background is in journalism, so one of the tangible things that I do is, you know when I'm feeling overwhelmed, or I have too strong emotions, I tend to write them down, just write down my thoughts, quick bullets, or even turn it into a little poem. I find that I tend to use a lot of those thoughts and turn them into a creative photography idea to fully release what I need to let go of.
In terms of the protests and what's happening now, your mindset should just be looking at something, looking at it differently. it's good to just kind of be outside, walk around and just kind of make a mental list of "Oh, what can I do with this that's unique, fun and that I would enjoy?" that's also important, is thinking about what you would enjoy to first before thinking about, can I sell this? Or what will someone else think about this, it's it should always be about what you enjoy.
The advice I would give that I have thought about and just I would tell other artists that the best thing you can do for your work is to one, explore your mind. it's essential to not let other people tell you how you have to hone into one form of multimedia. You know, it's good to be kind of, I don't think you so what other people say "Oh, you're just a photographer," you can also paint, you can also be a poet at the same time. I suppose you should use your art as a way for you to escape and to capture reality, and how you're portraying different situations. If you're doing events or if you're doing social justice work or activism work, it's just important to stay close to the reality of what's happening and just be authentic.
Art is a way to showcase what can't be said or what can't be written. It's such a great tool and documenting what future generations will see and how they will feel about what's going on in this world right now. it's an excellent way for people to come together.
In downtown Portland, there's a mural where people are doing artwork against the boards that have boarded up the Apple Store. It has George Floyd's face on it, and that's such a collaborative way to express what people are feeling. Different people can come up and write on it, draw on it, leave things by the doors. That right there in itself is an image of the future and of the role that art plays. I don't think it's ever something that will die down. In times of crisis and turmoil, art has been the biggest thing that has brought people through it and brought people together.
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
I work as a creative director, stylist, model, and concept developer. I am passionate about working with all kinds of different people from all walks of life, regardless of any categories that they fit into or any identities that they hold. My goal with the art that I create is to create an inclusive space to uplift all identities, explicitly queer femme folks, and all bodies. Body inclusivity is essential to me, as well. I work a lot on passion projects and building a community of artists who genuinely enjoy creating the stuff that we create. I don't have any specific goals beyond that, and I let things fall into place that ends up falling into that place. Through that, I've built this community of friends that I get to call my best friends and also get to work on amazing projects with. It's one of the most fulfilling things for me to be able to have a social, creative outlet, because a lot of other art mediums that I've enjoyed, and still enjoy to this day, but they're isolated, and I do them in isolation.
As an introvert, that getting out of my comfort zone and working with other people on art projects is something that kind of fulfills a social need and a creative need in one. That the purpose of art to me is to build community and work with other people and listen to their ideas and have that art be shared among people in general and celebrated. So that is why I do art. I incorporate my understanding and studies of sociology and intersectionality into the art that I make and being aware of marginalized identities and how my privilege can be used to uplift those identities in photos and give voices to those people that may not be heard if they didn't have a community to uplift their voices.
I grew up as a pretty confident person. I attribute that a lot to my personality type and also just, I had a stable family life, and I'm grateful for that. I grew up having a good head on my shoulders. That does play a significant role, I think, in being able to feel comfortable in your skin allows you to do things, to put yourself out there in ways that society tells femmes they shouldn't.
People should focus on trying to enjoy parts of themselves. Take a step back and realize how messed up the social structures are in our society. The goal is to keep people oppressed and especially femme people. You're taught to be ashamed of yourself, that if you don't fit into a specific look, you're not worthy of being represented. That's a systemic issue. That's not worth your time being ashamed about. It's not a personality trait within yourself that needs to stay hidden. No. It's empowering to know that it's not you, it's all of us.
When you engage in tearing yourself down and other people down, you are participating in the systems that are trying to tear everyone down. Understanding that gives you a perspective where you can step away from that narrative and say, "Hey, you know what, that's the problem; I'm not the problem."
That gives you a better headspace to feel more confident in putting yourself out there and being exactly who you want to be exactly who you think that you are because it's liberating to give your middle finger to those messed up—the systems in general. You have the power to go against that if you want to and call out the system instead of beating yourself up for not fitting into the system.
That stuff is what builds community you know, that's what solidarity is, is understanding, "Wow, we're all being hurt by the systems that are at play here, and I'm not going to compete with you," because that's what the system wants, they want you to remain silent. it's not a fun thing to do is to hate on yourself, you know?
Community building and art happen simultaneously. When I first moved to Portland, I met some people in one photo community here, and I worked with several different people, and it was fun, but I didn't feel a sense of community. There was a group chat, and a lot of people in the group chat didn't know each other, and some did. But there wasn't this community of people that existed, at least to my knowledge.
I had fun, and I was able to create individual pieces, but I wasn't modeling with anyone else, I was doing solo projects. They didn't have that much conceptual development necessarily. It was kind of on the fly, which was cool, and it was an excellent experience to do that stuff. But I've always enjoyed high school, I would sometimes plan out shoots not extensively, but my friends and I would go out and put on cool outfits that look cute together. We would take pictures together. I liked being in photos with other people that I cared for. I thought it was fun.
When I moved to Portland without having any close friends, I didn't have other people to do those projects with at all, I was doing the kind of one on one with photographers, and that was fun. then, in the springtime of my first year living here, I kind of decided to start reaching out to people on Instagram and kind of start trying to meet my people, you know, because I had met people…I always say that trying to make friends is dating, you meet a lot of people, and I feel you have this feeling when you meet someone, and you know they're your people. that hadn't happened to me that many times by the time it was late winter. I had a couple of people that I was "Hey, consistently seeing these people, but there's still not this community that I have." I kept messaging different people, and people that I had never met before.
Some of them had already, I'd seen on their page that they're into photography, so if that were the case, I'd be "Hey, do you want to shoot?" or something that, but throughout the winter and spring of 2019, I met a lot of people, hung out with a lot of people. The people that I liked and felt they were my people, I kept in contact with them. I would plan gatherings at my apartment where I would invite all these people that I liked, and none of them knew each other. My friends that I had made that had had no experience or no connections in the realm of photography, they were "Oh, that's cool that you're doing that," and then they would come onto projects and they liked doing it, and we kind of built this big friend group community of people that enjoyed working on photo projects, and also hanging out with each other.
Ever since then it's been an excellent way to continue to meet people because I'll meet someone and if I kind of their vibe, I'll be "Hey, we have this group shoot coming up, if you're interested in joining, you should come." then so many people, I've met a lot of people at my school that probably have never done much photo work stuff, and they come, and they do it, and then they keep coming, and it's super fun.
My exposure to social media and stuff compared to a lot of other Gen Z people who are younger than me is different. I would say that I'm maybe one of the last years of people who didn't have the social media explosion. I mean, I learned cursive, and we didn't have iPads when I was in school. It was still people who started getting cell phones that were my age, usually in middle school, seventh or eighth grade. Whereas now, you know, you're in elementary school, and you have an iPhone. If I could put my mind into someone who is a freshman in high school now, I would say that their experience is probably way different.
The images that I work on, regardless of the photographer who takes them, is being kind of a color explosion on people's bodies. My favorite styling era in the late 60s to the 70s, end of the 70s, probably, and that's a lot of my wardrobe. I style with my closet, you know because I don't have some budget to have my styling clothes and then my average person. My styling clothes are my everyday clothes. Most of those clothes are colorful. I love color in general. Color has always been something that I'm drawn to, and I enjoy messing around with primary rainbow colors and pastels. Instead of reds, I do pinks, and instead of primary greens, I do lime greens.
I love 70, vintage fashion in general, and I love it. It also much aligns with my ethics of using all sustainable second hand clothing to style. I don't want to contribute to the fast fashion industry. It all aligns well with what I enjoy in terms of how things look and my ethics, it's a win-win, in my opinion.
My shoots have a pretty diverse range of different looking people. I include short people, tall, whoever wants to be involved, you know? People who show up every time it's different, but our community is quite diverse. Some of them are professional models who are signed to agencies, and they do fit into traditional beauty standards. But then there are plenty of people who are they have never done modeling before in their entire lives.
I try to be as inclusive as possible, honestly. Everyone looking at content deserves to see images with people in them that they can relate to and that they can look at and be "Wow, that could be me," you know, because that when you're growing up, you feel so detached from mainstream media. I remember as a kid…and, you know, I'm a white, thin-bodied, middle-class cis-read woman. You know, someone who sees me and be "Oh, that's a cis White woman," you know? But even with the identities, I hold who are represented in the media; I still grew up thinking, "Oh, those are the models," you know, you just, you don't feel they're a separate category of people "Oh, they're a model," you know, it's just…If I walked into an agency, a regular mainstream agency, they would probably say, "No, bye." That's not something to harp on yourself for. That's society's issue. That's not our bodies' issue.
What is represented in the media should be relatable. Some people want to do modeling, and they may never get the chance to because they only have access to trying to get into an agency. The agencies are in alignment with the status quo of only allowing for a particular body type with specific features and whatever that fit into that category of who's represented, and that shouldn't be the reality.
As far as process, I don't have a structure for figuring out how I want to go about each project. My inspiration is usually the clothing I have. I also think about ways that people can look attractive together with outfits and in a specific location. I don't come up with one particular shortlist or anything. I come up with outfits to a certain extent but honestly, a lot of times I just, I know the color scheme in my head or I have some sort of idea, but I pack a bunch of clothes with me and then kind of figure it out as we go when we actually all meet up together to get clothing and makeup on, and then we choose a location, and then we kind of let, whatever happens, happen, and I don't have a specific goal with trying to get this published at this particular place, or you know, I don't have any expectations of "making it" or anything that. My goal is to make art and have fun doing it.
Start with the skill that draws you to a medium in the beginning. It can be intimidating to look at a skilled person who has taken a lot of time to curate their style and produce these images with high production value. If you're starting and you go on Instagram, you see these images, saying, "Oh my God, the production value of that is unbelievable. I want to do that." It can be discouraging because you started taking photos, looking at the photographers who have fantastic equipment, being shooting in studios, and having an excellent team behind them. All of that stuff isn't salient when you look at an image, and you don't understand all the things that have gone into that and all of the years of practice that person has had.
if you have a specific skill, if you are "I'd to start with taking part in these, and I'm interested in the fashion aspect of it," or, "'m interested in the shooting aspect of it," or, "I'm interested in the concept development aspect because I have so many cool ideas and I don't know how to bring them to life." You might be interested in being in them as a model. You have to start working with people who have the skills that you need, but even if those people don't necessarily have the highest quality skills or the most perfected skills, and you have to be okay with that. Many photographers who I've worked with earlier on in my journey into this world where I didn't take on any creative director role really, and in general, was more relaxed, the whole vibe around it, and the skills weren't as refined. Each time you make something where it's more thoughtful, it's you gone to kind of the next level, and you keep getting more mesmerized by what you're creating.
When I was kind of still new to this world as a model and stylist, one of my best friends, Hannah in Bellingham, had some work on her page with the gel lights. I remember seeing that picture on her page before I had ever even worked in a studio, I explained to her how cool that was and then fast forward to now, it's I've worked with gels so many times. If someone said to me that hadn't gotten into this world yet "Oh my god, that picture is so cool." If they were moved by it, I probably would brush it off too. You need not be comparing your stuff to theirs, and its just…No art is comparable in general. Still, especially if you're a new artist in a specific medium, you can't compare your stuff to anyone else's art but primarily, a professional and super refined technique, because you'll get discouraged.
Start working with a lot of different people, it's okay if you have images that come out that are produced from people you work with early on that you don't love. There have been plenty of shots I've gotten back, especially earlier on where I'm I look back at now—maybe I was excited about it then or somewhat excited about it, but I look back now, and I'm, "Ugh…Oh," I just…that's fine. You know, I'm so grateful for all that experience I had because it helped me…With that experience, that wasn't necessarily "my style." It helped me develop my style, you know, you have to be super flexible with what you create. If it feels good. It's your style that feels good. What I created back then was my style at the time, and it helps me have a more clear path or a clearer understanding of what I wanted to continue to create and what I wanted to kind of leave, you know, and move on from you.
The more you work with people, the more you'll be exposed to different types of artists, and you find the artists that you work well with, and then you keep working with them. That's kind of the case for me, I've found that I produce the best work with people who I have good chemistry with and continuously work with because we have that solid foundation and understanding and trust with each other. I never have to worry about leaving a shoot with someone who I enjoy and have previous experience with, I don't have to worry about the final product, it's I know that I'll get them back, and I'll love them.
When you're starting and working with different artists and trying to develop your ideas, you're going to be working with people who likely have a similar skillset as you, and you're not going to necessarily love all of the images or whatever art medium it is. Still, specifically in photography, you're not going to enjoy all of the outcomes of what you work on with those people, because every artist works differently, every artist has a different style, editing style, communication style, and all that stuff, and you're not going to mesh well with everyone.
Same way when you're trying to make friends or dating people or trying to find a place to live. You're not going to like everything. Through that, you will find the people that you do mesh well with and continue to work with them, and the art that you produce is likely going to continue to get better and better. Or if you see that work and you're "Ah, that's …it's not really... It doesn't have potential, in my opinion," then you can be grateful for that experience and move on and then you have a more precise understanding of what you don't want to be creating, you know,
For a long time to do a rainbow-themed shoot where each person was in a monochrome outfit, it ended up falling through. Fast forward to three or four months later, I was explaining this idea to our friend Mandy. We shot that project, and everything ended up working out so correctly, though, and the images were terrific. I fully creatively directed that and styled it and brought on all the people I felt that was a big game-changer for me and, kind of, figuring out what I want to do with the art I make. My potential with creating projects that, and I don't know, I feel that was a big moment for me to understand that what we can create when we all bring our skills together is impressive.
All of these projects, for the most part, are passion projects, and no one is getting paid. It's literally for the love of art, and I am terrified that I'll be in a position where I don't have the time to do that and feed myself and live under a roof. That is super terrifying to me because I am I plan a lot of the things you know, I carry a lot of weight in the projects that I work on. I love doing that, you know, it's so fulfilling to me, and there's nothing I want in return from people you know, and that goes entirely against…I don't want to charge people to be part of it. That's goes against the idea of the art that I'm making, you know?
Figuring out ways to make it work is still something I struggle with when about the future — how can I do this and even work on all these passion projects? And also be able to do this so that I can live and not have to work a nine to five job that doesn't feel fulfilling to me where I’m thinking about doing shoot stuff? I don't want to be able to be there mentally in a position that I'm getting financially supported from, where my head is in the space of, "Okay, what's next?"
I imagine continuing to do this type of photo work. I'm still trying to figure out how I can make it work, and it turns into this whirlpool of 'what if, what if, what if." I try to take one step at a time and be, "Okay. I got to keep working on what feels right and what feels good." I have noticed that the more I do all this work and work on shoots and stuff, I get more job opportunities as a freelance artist, here and there. Different brands have reached out to me seeing my page on Instagram and saying, "Hey, love your style. Can we work together?"
Those opportunities are fantastic, and I'm grateful for them, but there is no way at this point I could survive off of it. It intrigues me, but relying on being a freelancer, it gives me a lot of anxiety because of the instability. I'd be more interested in either starting my brand — a business but with other people, not by myself. There I could manage, lead, use my skills to the brand's advantage. Other people could bring their expertise. I'd like it to be collaborative and stable.
George Thorn is a co-founder of Arts Action Research, a national arts-consulting group. As a consultant, he works in all aspects of organizational development as well as making presentations to conferences and workshops. In parallel with his consulting activities, for eighteen years he directed the graduate program in Arts Administration at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. He was the Associate Director of FEDAPT. Prior to these activities, he was the Executive Vice-President of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. George spent sixteen years in New York where he had a general management firm that managed Broadway, Off-Broadway, and touring companies. He began his career as a stage manager of Broadway productions. In 1996, he relocated to Portland, Oregon, to open the West Coast office of Arts Action Research. In Portland, he has consulted with over three hundred and fifty arts and cultural organizations and artists. The focus of his consulting is the Regional Arts and Cultural Council’s Cultural Leadership Program. He co-leads RACC’s Art of Leadership, a six-part board training program.
He spoke to us about navigating the uncertainty of this pandemic and creating a strategy for engaging with artists and audiences.
Here are our favorite insights from George:
Arts and culture will never be needed more than they are today. Considering artists and arts organizations, we know that everyone's going to be hurt in some way, except for the very wealthy. There are a lot of people and a lot of sector’s going to hurt really, really badly. That's the world that we are inhabiting. Our message to audiences is: “Please stay with us. We're in this together.”
What’s the next step for arts orgs in putting together a strategic plan for after the pandemic? Some people are in relatively good shape, some of them really have cash flow problems, whatever it is. We know that we're not going to go back to the way it was. It's going to be a very different reality. It’s time to ask t the leadership of each organization to begin to envision what they think this new reality will be for them, how they begin to think about, envision this new reality, what needs to be in it, who needs to be in it, what are the needs within that, what do we need to learn? Knowing as they develop this vision of the next reality, they'll have to be very adaptive and keep learning.
How are we going to evolve? We need a very simple sort of plan of evolution and financial framework and a programmatic framework. With that plan, which will keep changing, leaders can say to everyone who’s close to them, “This is what we know now. These are things we're envisioning. We have a timeline that we want to begin. We have intended to do this project here and there. At a certain point, we have made a decision whether or not we can do that project.” Then it’s a matter of helping keep that information going. So, as an arts leader, you're really saying, “Knowing what we don't know, so and so, what we're doing, please stay with us, we’re this together. We can't wait to get back into a room with you, with artists making art.”
There is a point of no return. If we want to do a show in October, what's the point of no return when we have to do that, when we have to make that decision? What artists are doing now, in terms of streaming and video, that's all testing. Is this a good experience for the artists? Is this a good experience for the audience? It’s different from someone teaching yoga. I think it's pretty straight ahead. We could consider hosting one-person shows, but we also know that people at some point will want to get into a room again with artists making their work, or get into a gallery.
I had some contact with some arts leaders, and they said, “We don't know anything, so we can't plan.” Well, now's the time to plan, because if we wait till we know everything, we'll be too far behind. A good example of someone who's doing good work is Samantha from Shaking the Tree Theatre. When the pandemic began, I said, “Samantha, so what are you doing?”
She said, “I spent half the day in the office. The other half of the day, I'm in the theater. I'm painting eight, six by eight panels. I'm working with a sound engineer and a lighting engineer. I'm going to create an immersive experience called Refuge.” That production may have a life in the fall. But this is the artist’s way of thinking: “I want to be back in the studio. I want to be making work.”
Art’s now going to be redefined in different ways by different people. What is that connection with audiences, with readers, with gallery goers?
Artists give us perspective. They give us a way of thinking. It’s in their responses to what they're seeing and hearing and thinking about. We saw that so much after 9/11: people went out eventually, but they wanted a wide range of things. Some people wanted Beethoven. Some people wanted to laugh, so they went to a comedy club. Some people needed to write. We will come back together, but people will want to experience art in a very personal way, and in all forms: theater, dance, music, literary, AR/XR, visuals. We may get some new audiences through that. Some people may not think of going into a performance venue, but they somehow got into streaming one artist or another online during COVID-19. Oregon Shakespeare Festival is streaming video of shows they've done, but it's a different experience.
Many arts organizations want “the younger audience”. In Gen Z, everyone is a storyteller, a videographer. They're making work. They're showing their work. They're influencers. They participate; their communication is totally participatory. Most traditional art is observational; you sit and observe — a totally different experience. Smart arts leaders need to think about how to market, then, to these people. Normally, when you go into a theater, the house lights go to half, then you turn off your phones and devices. We may be ready to change that model. We need to be thinking about meeting everyone’s needs and making art more participatory. We do have examples of, “After the show, please go on the web and leave a comment”, but that’s not a real talk balk; that is still observing.
Now, if we have phones out at a concert, the older audience may resist it. They want to have a singular focus. We have tension there. It’s time to address it. This is an interesting space. Let’s see if there is some other way to address this, creatively. This is what artists do every day. Artists come up with an idea for a project, whatever it is, and they invest in that, whether it's a single artist or a group project, it’s about problem solving. What they do is they solve problems, they have vision! There's never enough time, people or money, but they still make it happen. How do we collaborate, who do we need to collaborate with? Where is our audience and our buyers? What artists do every day is solve problems, move forward, have a vision, and keep the project going. In that way, the pandemic is not as new — this is the type of thinking artists do every day.
For any artist starting any project, there’s a risk. You have no idea how it’s going to turn out, whether anyone's going to be interested in it, what's the audience that we want for this work, etc. But we do have a process. Scientists and artists share a process: trial, discovery, vision. With a scientific process, the idea is someone puts forth an assumption, and everybody does everything they can do to disprove it. If you can't disprove it, it becomes a new reality. With making art, someone puts forth an assumption and through collaboration and work and so forth, something new and larger is created. The making of art, the creative process, is the best planning, problem solving and decision-making process available to human beings. I'm amazed every day by what artists make with so little.