Tonight marks the unveiling of a mural dedicated to “Working Kirk” Reeves.
Reeves was a trumpet player. He could be found most days perched at the west end of Portland’s Hawthorne Bridge. Reeves died by suicide in November of 2012. He was known for his white suits and the arsenal of eye-catching toys he’d use to get people’s attention as he played for tips in all kinds of weather: plastic flowers, a rubber chicken and a huge smile.
Visual artist Gwenn Seemel did a portrait of Reeves in 2007. At the time she was painting a series about what keeps Portland weird. This year the Regional Arts and Culture Council got in touch with Seemel about the need for a mural on an inner Northeast Portland building. Seemel suggested something in memory of Reeves, the man who’d entertained so many drivers and pedestrians over the years. “The mural is about Kirk as a person, not as performer,” Seemel said. “I wanted people to see it and recognize him and remember what it was like to have that moment with Kirk, that injection of cheerfulness. But I also wanted people to see him as a person and a person who struggled.”
Reeves endured health problems — including diabetes and vision trouble — for years before he died, and lived on and off the streets. Seemel was one of several friends and acquaintances who noticed Reeves’ email bulletins taking a frustrated and sorrowful turn in the months before his death. When Seemel was working with Reeves on the 2007 portrait, she took notes on what he’d said to her.
“He told me a lot about being lonely and also about how important his art was to him, how important it was to him to be something for people — a moment of happiness. He also was really proud of the fact he’d saved people from suicide, being on the bridge and being a cheerful presence. That was really important to him.”
Seemel’s mural — a broad, vibrantly-colored expressionist portrait with references to Reeves’ life and music — is the first permanent tribute to Reeves on Portland’s streets. But it’s not the only one.
Eugene resident Andee Freytag met Reeves when her daughter was in elementary school and Reeves was seeking young actors for a public access cable show he produced called Low Comedy.
“His show was like a little comedy thing. It was so abstract and funny.”
Freytag has been fundraising for a separate project at Reeves’ customary spot on the Hawthorne Bridge head. “The whole idea of the statue came up, but if you’ve ever looked up the cost to put up a statue that can endure the elements in Portland, it’s really expensive.” So Freytag has been talking to other supporters about the idea of a marker that could be placed in the cement, a bridge mural or some benches near the spot.
Freytag was disappointed when the campaign she and others mounted to name the new transit bridge over the Willamette for Reeves failed. While Reeves received thousands of votes, his name didn’t even make the short list.
Chet Orloff is a historian who chaired the naming committee. He says the committee didn’t feel the bridge was the right place to commemorate Reeves. Orloff says the bar for naming something as big and lasting as a bridge is pretty high. Reeves’ name was up against people like the suffragist Abigail Scott Duniway and names from the region’s Native American tradition. “When we completed the process,” Orloff said, “I personally went back to several of the people who submitted names that weren’t selected … and made suggestions for other possible ways of commemorating. And in Kirk Reeves case, I did actually suggest a mural.”
Artist Gwenn Seemel says a lot of people have responded to her mural as she worked on it. She says it makes her happy.
“I’m not certain Kirk ever felt validated as an artist,” Seemel said. “He’d write long emails, just let people know what he was working on. I felt he was striving for recognition. I think this is a misconception about recognition for artists, people are like ‘Oh you just want to be famous.’ It’s really not that as an artist. You want to be acknowledged for the contribution you’re making to society.”
Seemel says that recognition is what keeps artists going. She says she worries Reeves was giving a lot of energy out, and maybe not getting enough back.
The mural can be seen at Northeast Lloyd Street and Grand Avenue.