"It's been a long journey," says Sharon Lavier O'Keefe, founder of the i witness gallery in southeast Portland.
O'Keefe is a longtime photographer who opened the gallery as a part of the Northwest Center for Photography in 2010. The gallery's first show featured the work of photographer George Olson and attracted more than 350 people. The crowd came to appreciate Olson's work, as well as to support the idea of a gallery whose intent was not just to provide a space to show art, but to cultivate a sense of connection among those interested in expressing themselves through photography.
O'Keefe is realizing a dream she's held since she was a student at Portland State University. She studied with local photography icon John Barna and credits the work she did with him as the beginning of a new direction in her life.
"I had just come back from living overseas and was trying to figure out what to do with my life. I can remember being in the [PSU] darkroom developing negatives and printing photos, and the feeling I had when I saw the images appear. It just gave me goosebumps."
That feeling was the root of O'Keefe's inspiration for starting the gallery. In addition to serving as a space where people show their art, she wanted i witness to be a place where individuals can find their passion and grow.
GO SEE IT
The gallery is a multi-purpose space where 20 individuals serve as instructors and provide resources and support for photographers of all levels. When the space is not being used as a gallery, you can find students working and learning the craft.
Started chiefly from O'Keefe's own savings account, the success of the gallery is somewhat unique. Although she does not have much of a budget for promotional materials like course catalogs, fliers and general advertising, the gallery has come to be known publicly through social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin.
O'Keefe has a vision for the gallery that includes a larger space and more structured programs and resources.
"I'd eventually like the space to grow into a school where we could offer students an official degree program. That would be my goal — something that would represent a legacy that I could leave behind."
This video was produced and edited by Tom Shrider.