The Foster-Powell Neighborhood Association’s effort to create 4 temporary art installations in vacant or under-utilized windows along SE Foster Rd isn’t really about creating art at all, it’s about building community – art is just the vehicle.
A Road With History
Cutting diagonally through Southeast Portland, Foster Road with it’s four automobile lanes currently serves as more of an urban highway than the main street destination local neighbors yearn for. But this was not always the case. SE Foster Rd was once the commercial and social hub of the area. It included a streetcar, allowing residents to easily travel to and from downtown Portland. West of 82nd Ave, the sidewalks were built 17 feet wide adhering to traditional Parisian standards and designed to encourage foot traffic en masse. Sadly with the demise of the City’s streetcar and trolleybus network in the years after WWII, the corridor’s function refocused to facilitate the efficient flow of motor vehicles.
In the past few years, revitalization along Foster Road has started to take root. The Foster Rd of today is an odd mix of strip clubs, vacant buildings, long time local businesses (Buck’s Stove Palace, Mt. Scott Fuel Co, etc.) and new retail establishments (Foster Row, Green Noise Records, etc.). Despite the increasing retail and commercial establishments, you still won’t find many people strolling along Foster Rd. This is likely due to a combination of safety issues, both real and perceived, and the high vacancy rates.
The Foster Transportation and Streetscape Plan, unanimously approved this past June by the Portland City Council, should improve the situation by transforming the autocentric thoroughfare into a more pedestrian-oriented corridor with rapid flash crossing beacons, improved street lighting, and street trees.
Drawing from this momentum, the Foster Window Project hopes to complement these infrastructural improvements with a different type of community improvement project – one focused on the people who occupy the space.
Reactivating Neighborhood Storefronts with Art
The brainchild of the husband and wife duo Vicki Wilson and John Larsen, the Foster Window Project will install four temporary art installation in vacant or underutilized windows along Foster Rd.
Funded by a Creative Engagement Grant from SE Uplift, the project aims to encourage public participation and social interaction, improve walkability by creating visual interest, and help prospective businesses visualize the untapped potential of the area.
However, don’t expect to see overly polished or precious installations using top of the line materials, like what you’d expect to see in the Pearl District. Wilson and Larsen are clear, they have no interest in Foster becoming the next Hawthorne Blvd or Division St.
“We love this neighborhood and want it to flourish, but we don’t want to see it flourish into something too different, Larsen explained.
Their installations will be low budget, a bit rough around the edges and real – just like Foster Road. The first installation on the Phoenix Pharmacy Building is using plywood. Other installations may use cardboard, scrap metal, paper mache, etc.
The Same But Different
Installing art in vacant windows is nothing new, in fact RACC did their own version in 2010 called Portland Storefronts. What is unique about this project is that instead of commissioning artists to put their work in vacant windows, the Foster Window Project aims to co-create the artwork with the community.
The Foster Window Project engages community members in every step of the project development, from idea to finished product. It begins by asking the community to imagine the possibilities for the empty spaces along Foster Rd. From these ideas, Wilson and Larsen create multiple design options incorporating as many of the suggestions as can be cohesively tied in. The community then votes for their favorite and the winning design is created with the community at an open event where everyone is invited to participate (artists and non-artists alike). In this sense, Wilson and Larsen are the facilitators, organizers, designers of the project; but the whole community is the artist.
This type of co-creation process not only requires the artist to cede some creative control, but also requires flexibility and intense preparation. Despite all these potential obstacles, Wilson and Larsen feel it’s worth the effort. “We are doing this to create something with people,” Larsen says. They want to give residents the opportunity to experience the empowerment that can come from creating art.
But, for Vicki and John, the project isn’t really about creating art – it’s about building community. Art is just the vehicle being utilized. As Wilson puts it, “The 400 votes is the project” – referring to the number of people who voted on their favorite mural design for the Phoenix Pharmacy building either online, at the Foster-Powell Neighborhood Association meeting, or on the poster displayed on the building. The process of creating these installations provides a space for engagement, empowerment, and dialogue with the community.
The Phoenix Pharmacy Building
The first building selected to receive an art installation on Foster Road is the Phoenix Pharmacy Building located at 6615 SE Foster. A large mural will be painted to cover the boarded up windows on the lower level of the building. The winning image is named “Twinkle” and was inspired by the numerous requests for an image that celebrated the historic character of the building, and dance. The design also includes nods to John and Lilla Leach, the original owners of the building, and Jackson Powell and Phillip Foster, for whom the neighborhood’s main streets were named.
The first community painting party will take place on Thursday, January 15th from 6:30 to 10:30 PM at Performance Works NW (4625 SE 67th Ave).
For more information, check out the Foster Window Project website.