Portland City Commissioner Carmen Rubio is asking her city council colleagues to set aside $50,000 for a community engagement process to decide what to do with five statues that were toppled or removed during racial justice protests last year. The arts organization Converge 45 has created Portland’s Monuments and Memorials Project and is poised to play a role in the ongoing conversation about the role of art in public spaces and what monuments should look like in 2021. PMMP recently concluded an exhibition called “Prototypes” where artists and community members came together to imagine answers to those big questions. We talk through some of the ideas and concepts with David Harrelson, cultural resources department manager for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, visual artist Paula Wilson, and artist Jess Perlitz, who is the co-leader of PMMP and associate professor of sculpture at Lewis & Clark College.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. What should public memorials and monuments look like? Who or what should they celebrate and who should decide these questions? This is a live issue right now, all around the country. In Portland, statues of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and George Washington were all toppled last year.
Recently, the Regional Arts and Culture Council, or RACC, which manages Portland’s public art collection, decided the statues should not be immediately reinstalled in their original sites. RACC made that decision after putting in place a new policy. They say that public artwork can be removed if it’s ‘significantly at odds with values of anti-racism, equity and inclusion’. Portland Commissioner Carmen Rubio wants to create a public engagement process now to give Portlanders a chance to weigh in on these issues.
Meanwhile, artists and historians and curators have been grappling with them at the same time through something called Portland’s Monuments and Memorials Project. I’m joined now by three people who have been taking part in it. Jess Perlitz, an artist and an associate professor of sculpture at Lewis and Clark. She’s also a co-leader of Portland’s Monuments and Memorials Project. David Harrelson is the cultural resources department manager for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and a member of the Grand Ronde Tribe. He took part in the project’s recent exhibition prototypes. So did Paula Wilson. She’s a visual artist based in Carrizozo, New Mexico. Welcome to all three of you.
Paula Wilson: Thanks for having us.
Jess Perlitz: Thank you so much.
David Harrelson: Thank you, Dave.
Dave Miller: Jess Perlitz, first. What was the big idea behind the prototypes exhibition?
Jess Perlitz: The project exhibition really was a project spearheaded by Mack McFarland, who was the director of Converge 45. It was an exhibition that came out of the year long project that Converge 45 was running called Portland’s Monuments Memorials Project and the idea of the exhibition. I would say it really was to center artists and contemporary art in these conversations we’re having about monuments and memorials right now and and sort of thinking about how they have functioned and wondering how they might function or how we move forward and trying to center the art and the artist and the art exhibition as a catalyst for having the conversations that we’re all trying to have right now.
Dave Miller: I want to run a really basic thesis by all of you as one way to view, in the biggest picture, what’s happening right now, to get your takes on it. So one way to see it is this tumultuous societal reckoning with public art and monuments is a backlash to history long written by the winners. In this case, the writing happens to be with bronze or stone or, or steel, but the heroes of the story are predictable old white men. And now many people who have long been marginalized are asserting their rightful places in these stories, which is then in turn leading to its own backlash. Paula Wilson, does that sort of stripped down analysis for the big picture ring true to you?
Paula Wilson: In some ways, yes. And in other ways, not. I think that oftentimes the losers are sometimes the people who are most invested in rewriting history to place themselves as winners. In the case of the Confederate Monument Base, in which I enacted my performance on, it was a monument erected by the losers, by the Confederates later, in 19, in 18, I’m sorry, I don’t have the date when the sculpture was erected, but I think that there’s more invested in people who feel threatened in some ways to assert their power through monuments.
Dave Miller: Let me go to David Harrelson to get his take on this and then I want to hear more about the work that was of yours that was featured in the exhibition. But David Harrelson, how do you respond to this basic idea of a backlash against history or monuments being created by the people in power and then a backlash to this new backlash.
David Harrelson: Yeah, I think that it’s how people are framing it. And I think that it’s not particularly helpful because I think that it’s missing the point that where we’re at is these actions are happening because of a need for dialogue and that having conversations about places and representing those in a way that can unify or connect and heal is really important. And I think a big driver to that is thinking of art and monuments and memorials from a scarcity standpoint. That’s just a start. But I think that this idea of antagonism, both one, we’ll see that from different perceived sides. People aren’t finding a way. It’s just symptomatic of us not being able to, as a society, have places for dialogue with each other and work within that. People are trying to have that dialogue and then people are trying to stop others. We’ve started to open up as a society to be a place where more voices are heard and people want there to be more voices, but yet that’s happening in sort of antagonistic ways.
Dave Miller: Paula Wilson, can you describe your piece called Living Monument which was featured in the prototypes exhibit?
Paula Wilson: Yes. Living Monument is comprised of two-channel video and on one screen is found footage from the 2017 removal of the Beauregard Equestrian Confederate statue in the city of New Orleans. And then on the other video screen is a performance that I did six months later from that sculpture being removed in which I danced upon the remaining sculptures base in a heavily patterned and painted and collaged tunic. So you have this kind of diametrically opposed situation where you have, on the one hand, something being removed and on the other hand, my exuberant performance on the base confirming my life force in that moment.
Dave Miller: And am I right that that dance that you did was a kind of guerilla theater act. This wasn’t a sanctioned performance. You basically went there and filmed yourself without asking the city of New Orleans, can I do this?
Paula Wilson: That’s correct. It was a covert performance at dawn. I luckily had two other artists who were assisting me and it felt extremely powerful to be up there. It felt as if I was enacting a sort of ancestral restoration in the moment. And I was there for about 20 minutes before a cop came and interceded.
Dave Miller: I just was struck, it’s almost like you made yourself a living statue for a little bit on this empty podium in the same way that a Portland sculptor recently put up a statue of York at Mount Tabor Park after the earlier statues had been toppled. But the base was there. Do you see any resonances there?
Paula Wilson: Absolutely. I think that the story of that work is so relevant to us. And I think that a lot of artists are really drawn to these empty bases and in New Orleans, that that base no longer stands. Now there’s hedges and plants there and it feels like a missed opportunity. I think what David is saying is so right about dialogue and what this prototype exhibition posited, which is that the point is to have this conversation… to stay with the trouble of the difficulty of reckoning this moment,
Dave Miller: That’s a very hopeful way to think about this. And not that you, Paula Wilson or David Harrelson, are putting forward that this is going to be easy, but I think it is easy to look at the conflicts in society right now and to fear that, in some ways, we’re past the point of even finding common ground. Past the point of dialogue. David Harrelson, maybe we can hear about the two designs that you submitted for the exhibition and see how they fit into what you’re talking about here. Can you describe First Fish Herons, which is one of them?
David Harrelson: Yeah, absolutely, Dave. I’m left with this, being in solidarity with all these conversations and dialogue. and conversation is one of the basis of the tribe putting proposals to Monuments Memorial Project. And within that we took this framework of, we’re indigenous people of this place, right? Our ancestors signed the treaty for this place and were removed to reservations and when it comes to the identity of this place, we know we have an understanding of what this place is, what it was, what we want it to become and our futures. There’s certain tribal teachings about reciprocity, about abundance, being in relationship. So when we brought those tribal teachings to the idea of what is the type of monument for the future? And we have to grapple with that, that we’ve been dispossessed from our homelands. We’ve had genocide enacted upon us. We’ve had all these other things that have been very destructive, but at the same time, it’s a reality that people are here. We have new inputs. We have new desired outcomes. But we can bring those ancestral teachings to influence projects.
And so two of those projects, one is the First Fish Herons, that I’ll talk a little bit about. This concept is we have a ceremony called the First Fish ceremony and we know that ceremony is for us. It’s not for the general public. People might be very interested and curious about that, but there’s just certain things that are important that they’re for us, for our community. We do have a community event portion of that where we invite the community out. But we asked ourselves, how can we borrow those ideas and teachings and translate them into an event that creates community, that invites people in in a healthy and constructive and authentic way to engage and have knowledge about traditional Clackamas traditions? The Clackamas people traditionally put carved herons out on the banks of the river to watch for the fish run, and when the first fish was caught, there was a big ceremony held. And so we said, well how can we turn this into a public art installation and how can we help it draw attention to the river? And we thought, well it should be seasonal. The herons should only be put up during the spring fish run and that will help draw attention, that if you’re seeing the herons, it means that there’s fish in the river.
And then we also talked about how each year we, the tribe wants to be able to invite different artists to design those herons, so that through that process, those artists and the communities that those artists are connected with can actually learn about cultural practices of place, engage with tribal community and create the type of an event that brings the whole community out to learn about tribal traditions, practices in place and then when it’s the time when the fish aren’t in the river, then the herons go away. So you have this process of renewal and community creation through a monument that in effect doesn’t just become about the tribe, but it becomes about the whole collective community and the place itself as a unifier and healing element.
Dave Miller: One of the things I love about this idea is that, if I understand this correctly, the bases for the herons would be permanent, even if the annual, newly created versions of the herons themselves would be seasonal. What do you imagine it would be like for people to live with or be around those bases for the nine months of the year when they were birdless?
David Harrelson: I’m really excited about that because I think it’s the emptiness of space that almost helps you appreciate something being there and understanding, for us, as native people, watching the salmon populations decline. It’s also this reality that fish aren’t always in the river, but we also have a concern that there may not be fish into the future. And so what can we do to make sure that the fish are in the river and inherently, those bases would be in a place where the river can be viewed. So my hope would be that they would be able to be seats or other points of reflection with prominent views of the Willamette River.
Dave Miller: Jess Perlitz, one of the things that stands out about this and about the other, the traveling with our ancestors design that David Harrelson and others came up with, and to some extent what Polly Wilson was talking about as well, is we’re not here talking about new statues of great people. Do you see a broad shift in a lot of the submissions that you’ve seen or in the conversations you’ve had away from statues of heroes?
Jess Perlitz: Yes, absolutely. We can think about what David’s just said and also thinking about Paula dancing on the empty pedestal, that in a way both, even though they’re very different kind of gestures or proposals, both are honoring the pedestal or the podium as the platform for a conversation or for a relational examination. I’s not calling for a calcified or simple object that then can become a placeholder forever. I think it’s a call for conversation, which I think is lovely. That’s the one thing I came away from from that exhibition was really seeing that it was an exhibition about the need to have a conversation. So ,in a way, it was asking for us also to think about monuments [and] memorials not necessarily as a noun, but also as a verb. To think about what is it to monumentalize and what is it to memorialize, and a hope that we can actually come together and a really exciting place where art can hold a really important place and helping to catalyze some of those conversations.
Dave Miller: Paula Wilson, this ties back to what Jess Perlitz was just saying. I watched a part of a talk that you gave back in February and I was struck by how expansive your definition of the word monumental seems to be. It encompasses an 800 year old or so giant Live Oak and also much smaller things like an intricate hand-beaded and feathered Mardi Gras outfit. Can you give us a sense for what monumental even means to you?
Paula Wilson: I love that question because I think that within these words are really keys to how to think about them. As a black woman, I really think that taking up space and feeling like you can fill a room and find your body or your artwork, have an expansive existence, is something that is very important to me as something for others to be able to see. When we talk about monuments and the idea of something being monumental, you can’t interchange those terms. I think that if we focus on what we desire in terms of something being monumental, then the human spirit comes forward. And your question about, are we turning away from these heroes, the question of what is a hero can shift.
Dave Miller: Can you explain more about that? Because when I guess I was implying turning away from heroes or maybe what I was suggesting is that the uncomplicated idea that some people are just great and everything about them is great and we should celebrate them as opposed to saying people are complicated and many people who can do great things can also do terrible things and putting them up in this unchanged bronze version of an idealized human being, it’s increasingly hard to look at that with uncritical eyes. I guess that’s the longer version of what I was thinking. But when you say that our idea of a hero or heroism, can change. What do you have in mind?
Paula Wilson: I just really appreciate the clarity of your point because I think that it is absolutely true, that we aren’t interested in memorializing individuals in the same way because we realize how complicated and imperfect we all are. But to allow room for that, I think is really important. And in a lot of my art, if there’s a figurative representation, they will have entire worlds within their bodies or within the garb that they’re wearing. And so to point to the fact that we are the climate, we are the history, we have all of this inside of us and to move away from minimalizing and simplifying what is important in life, I think, is important and we’re at a moment where we can envision that.
Dave Miller: David Harrelson, the presidential statues that were torn down last year had been up for something like a century, close to 100 years. Did you have a time frame in mind as you were thinking about the First Fish Herons or the Traveling with Our Ancestors design, which celebrates tribal members on boats and has sort of beautiful visions of them floating along the Willamette. Were you thinking about 100 years or 500 years or more today?
David Harrelson: I think that physical representations should reflect what the community is keeping alive and giving energy and time and focus to. It’s a part of the reason why the Traveling with Our Ancestors installation, which is the idea of putting numerous large silhouette cutouts of metal on floating dock structures that are in the shape of canoes with people in them along any floating dock structure on the lower Willamette River. The idea is that it is not only the way that our ancestors understood that place as a traveling place, but it’s also how we’re living today by traveling in our traditional canoes and reviving those traditions. So it’s a story of place, but it’s a story of ongoing cultural continuity. And yet it’s something simple enough that it can be replicated or it can change form based on what the understanding of, like it’s living in dynamic, and if those things suddenly weren’t able to continue to be living in dynamic, I don’t know if they should exist.
Dave Miller: Jess Perlitz, we asked folks on Facebook how we collectively should decide what’s depicted in public monuments and where they go. Kat Enyeart wrote this, ‘We are theoretically a democracy. So we could try, I don’t know, voting about it. Arts and culture councils decide, that decide public arts placements inherently skew towards the history and mythology of the wealthy people who are by their class interests, institutionalists and therefore more likely to strategically overlook the evil done by public figures. I’m not sure what kind of counterbalancing apparatus could avoid this outcome, well, besides the people simply tearing the statue down. That’s pretty messy,’ she wrote, ‘but to be honest, so are we.’ How do you think about the decision making process here and the best role for the public when it comes to what is essentially public art?
Jess Perlitz: It is something I think a lot about, and I don’t have a very clear answer for it beyond that I think what’s exciting about this moment, or hopeful, is that we haven’t been having these complicated conversations like this, and that the dialogue that I’m hearing now around reckoning with art both being able to play a really important role and also recognizing that these sculptures that get placed in the public spheres also function like allegories, they are placeholders. and then also have these secondary meanings. What I’m seeing now is that we are able to hold, or we’re trying to hold, an intersectional conversation about this stuff. I mean that both in terms of just thinking about class and race and gender and other layers and conflicting characteristics, but also as a framework with which we can really examine this stuff. And I think it calls for more robust arts education and public arts programming, and because I think that that’s the stuff that also allows for these kinds of conversations. So rather than just placing these objects in the public spheres, like starting to realize that the average citizen having an active role in it and continuing programming and conversation around it is the kind of dialogue that needs to happen, that once the placeholder is put there, it’s not said and done. In fact, we should think about it as an activator or a catalyst.
Dave Miller: Finally, Paula Wilson, I’m curious. You mentioned that the Beauregard Equestrian Confederate statue that was the focus of your living monument work, that the base for it was removed after the statue was removed. What do you wish had happened there? If you had been the curator of that space, what’s your dream for what it could have become?
Paula Wilson: I do think again that these pedestals are beautiful opportunities for the kind of dialogue we’re talking about. So if it were me, I would want to see changing exhibitions or performances enacted upon those bases. Because then when you drive by or you see that site, it’s not just an erasure of all that happened. You’re saying look, this is messy and we’re gonna stick with that.
Dave Miller: Paula Wilson, David Harrelson and Jess Perlitz, thanks so much for joining us today. I really appreciate it.
Paula Wilson: Thank you so much.
Jess Perlitz: Thank you.
David Harrelson: Thank you.
Dave Miller: Paula Wilson is a visual artist based in Carrizozo, New Mexico. David Harrelson is a cultural resources department manager for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and Jess Perlitz is an associate professor of sculpture at Lewis and Clark, co-leader of the Converge 45 Portland’s Monuments and Memorials project.
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