Last spring, more than 100 Oregonians posed for portraits on empty pedestals in downtown Portland that used to house sculptures of former presidents. The portraits are the brainchild of indigenous artist Jeffrey Gibson, who was invited by Portland Art Museum to create a multimedia installation both inside and outside the museum. Gibson, a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and of Cherokee descent, created the portraits, glass panels, and a timeline of notable dates in Oregon’s Indigenous history. We talk to Gibson, and to Kathleen Ash-Milby, curator of Native American Art at the Portland Art Museum, about the exhibit.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Last spring, more than 100 Oregonians posed for portraits on empty pedestals in downtown Portland. The slabs used to hold sculptures of former presidents, but they were toppled in the protests in the summer of 2020. The new portraits, at turns joyous or contemplative or defiant, were the brainchild of Jeffrey Gibson, who was invited by the Portland Art Museum to create a multimedia installation both inside and outside the museum. He created the portraits, glass panels, and a timeline of notable dates in Oregon’s Indigenous history. Gibson is a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and is of Cherokee descent. He joins us now along with Kathleen Ash-Milby, the curator of Native American art at the Portland Art Museum and a member of the Navajo Nation. Welcome to you both.
Kathleen Ash-Milby first: If I understand the timeline correctly, you were putting on an exhibition of Oscar Howe’s work – a mid-century artist – and it was your idea to reach out to Jeffrey Gibson. Why?
Kathleen Ash-Milby: Well, Oscar Howe is a really important mid-century Dakota modernist. He was primarily a painter and he drew on centuries of abstraction among People of the Plains and the Lakota and Dakota. He had a really strong influence on succeeding generations of Native artists. He passed away in 1983, but a lot of people looked to him and his words, really being outspoken about the right of Native artists to be able to express themselves in ways that they felt like captured their traditions and not let outside entities define that. And I really felt like it was important to have a contemporary artist as part of the presentation here in Portland because in some ways that’s what his work was all about.
Miller: But there are a lot of contemporary Native artists in this country who are very celebrated, and justly so. Why did you gravitate to Jeffrey Gibson?
Ash-Milby: Well, Jeffrey came to mind immediately, in part because I’ve worked with Jeffrey for a long time. We’ve known each other for about 20 years now. I felt like his work, and his work in particular with color abstraction, and then also these messages in his work, and his interest in reaching out to community was a perfect example of what Oscar Howe represented in his time as well.
Miller: Jeffrey Gibson, if I understand this correctly, you came out here on Kathleen’s invitation to check out the museum. At that point, was it a sure thing? Had you decided that you would do an installation here?
Jeffrey Gibson: I don’t – I knew that I was going to do an installation. It was difficult, it was Zoom calls, and site visits, due to COVID, were kind of minimized, and so I couldn’t really get a sense of the scale of the space. Eventually when I went out there, I knew that I wanted to work in glass. I had done a couple of projects in glass over the past few years and really wanted to focus on something that could fill a room without having so many physical components in the space. So glass seemed like a way to think about light and color as a way to fill a space environmentally. But a lot of it really unfolded when I did go for a site visit. I was actually unaware that the plinths were so close to the museum. When we were looking at spaces to photograph people, we walked outside, Kathleen showed them to me and it was just a very immediate impulse to say, well obviously this is where we would photograph people.
Miller: It just – it was immediate. It just hit you like that when you saw the empty pedestals?
Gibson: For sure. And I had also done a project in the past. In 2020 I did a project here in New York that was about decentralizing the ideas of monuments and trying to hand that kind of spotlight over to everyday people for the work that they’re doing everyday in their lives and not sort of isolated events from singular perspectives.
Miller: Whether it’s a very problematic president or anybody, it seems like you’re skeptical of the whole idea of putting anybody on a pedestal permanently or pseudo-permanently?
Gibson: Well, I think, I understand the wish to do that to mark events, but I think historically, monuments have really excluded many people, many histories, many personal narratives. But they also – they celebrate a very narrow perspective on historical events. Oftentimes from also a very – I don’t mean ignorant, but I mean a narrow perspective on who’s represented and who’s making those choices. So that’s the problem that I’ve had historically with monuments.
Miller: Can you describe the photo shoots that you set up on these Park Blocks on these empty pedestals?
Gibson: I have someone who works in my studio, Brian Barlow, who is trained as a photographer in their education. And so Brian came with me and we worked with Erin Grant and with Kathleen and other members of the museum and we scheduled community members to come in for photo sessions. Those sessions were scheduled at 15 minutes each. So we knew that – actually to be honest, I really thought we were going to have lots of open slots. I didn’t realize that we would be photographing all day long for three days in a row.
Miller: Was it more than you bargained for?
Gibson: It was great. It was great. It was actually more successful than I imagined. You know, for me, knowing that when you – because when you ask people who are not performers, who are not used to being photographed, were not used to even necessarily being acknowledged for what they do and celebrated for what they do – you know, that’s – I think a lot of those people prefer to be behind the scenes, to be quite honest. And so I really didn’t expect such a sort of enthusiastic response to people coming, and people really showed up. It was actually the largest percentage of Indigenous people who showed up for any open call I’ve done with projects in other institutions.
Miller: Kathleen, how did you spread the word to actually get those slots filled up?
Ash-Milby: Well, Jeffrey mentioned Erin Grant, and she is here as an 18-month fellow for curatorial and community partnerships. So she was brought on specifically to help support the community outreach aspects of these two exhibitions. Together, with staff such as myself, we reached out to community organizations that work with Native people. I also have a Native advisory group who I spoke to. So really it was a bit of a form of extended networking to recruit people and identify people who would like to take part in it. Some of our staff members took part. It wasn’t restricted just to the Indigenous community. It was actually quite a diverse community of people who were photographed there. It wasn’t a call that we put in a newspaper or put out on Facebook. We didn’t have a large amount of time to organize it, so we wanted to be focused.
Miller: Jeffrey Gibson, one of the things that stands out to me and a lot of the portraits is just how much of a sense of self is so immediately apparent in people’s body language and their faces. I think as I mentioned in the intro, some of them joyous, some of them defiant. I mean, a whole mixture of human emotions. Did you and the photographer that you work with, who’s in your studio – did you give people direction or was it really up to them to show the world who they were on a pedestal?
Gibson: I think people came with a lot of intention. A lot of people who showed up really kind of knew what they wanted to do. And I think being on those pedestals in particular meant a lot to them personally. My kind of ethos of working with people is to more sort of bring out what they’re already doing, to try to make people feel comfortable, to take away any sort of intimidation, to let them relax in front of the camera. And we take a lot of photos. So let’s say in any 15-minute session, I think Brian would probably take about 20-30 photos, maybe more in some cases. And so you’re really trying to capture somebody in the moment that they are not conscious that they’re in front of a camera. There are just like a few seconds where they put down their guard and they let whoever they want to be come through. That’s when me looking at a video monitor – I remember how many times I always say like “we got it.” It’s a very quick thing, but you can tell when somebody just suddenly gets to a place where they’re like, “Okay, I’m gonna push myself to be defiant.” And they do it and you see it and we would – when we’ve got it, we’ve got it and I would just have to trust that gut impulse.
Miller: The title of this overall installation is “They Come From Fire.” What does that phrase mean to you personally?
Gibson: Well, it started off as a – fire is a word that I’ve used numerous times. I use a lot of text in my work. And fire for me comes – it has a lot of different context. It comes from the church, it comes from the queer community, it comes from nightclubs, it comes from just sort of general kind of sayings that happen culturally. And then in the Native communities, fire is just such an important thing. It’s such an important way of marking, of praying, of honoring. And then, Oscar Howe, there was – Kathleen, correct me if I’m wrong with this – but an article written about him and a painting where he – the title of the painting is, “He Comes From Fire”?
Ash-Milby: “He Came From Fire”.
Gibson: “He Came From Fire.” And I wanted to take that phrase and make it present, right? So, “they come.” I also wanted to change the pronoun usage, which is something that I also do in my work, is just playing around with different pronouns. So shifting from “he” to “they” so that it was its most inclusive pronoun. And that’s really where it came from. It’s something that I’ve worked with before. What Kathleen didn’t mention was that in the 20 years we’ve known each other, I have expressed to her the impact that Oscar Howe has had on me as a painter for numerous reasons. It was – his work and the way that he made work wasn’t a totally new thing to me.
Miller: I’m so glad you mentioned pronouns because I was struck by it. It’s not just “They Come From Fire”, but in other panels, “They Rewrite Their Story,” “They Choose Love”, “They Choose Their Family”, “Their Children Stand Tall.” Why go for “they” as opposed to “we”?
Gibson: Oh, partially because we’re in an age of pronoun usage that I think is really important. I actually think it’s one of the biggest cultural shifts, positively, that’s happening in my lifetime – not the, but one of the. It’s really addressing people the way they want to be addressed, which is at the root of so many issues of divisiveness right now – is just the inability to just respect and honor people and call them as they wish to be called. And I think “they” as a pronoun to identify as non-binary, or sexually fluid, or non-gendered, any of those things, I think “they” is the kind of marker of that inclusivity when it comes to pronouns. It also plays into other parts of my own practice working with LGBTQIA+ communities. So yeah, it’s something that’s also embedded in my larger practice.
Miller: Kathleen Ash-Milby, as a curator, are you interested in watching people take in exhibits that you have helped put together?
Ash-Milby: Oh, of course. I think that, as a curator, you always want to make sure that you’re reaching your audience. And it’s always thrilling. Especially, I think, working with contemporary artists who are creating something new for a space – to see that vision realized. We go through a long process of planning and talking and it’s a long development process. You see drawings and schematics and plans, but it’s never the same as actually seen realized in person. And I think that the way that these glass panels are hung and project the light onto these black – or the color I should say – onto these black and white photographs is really incredibly magical and it’s wonderful to see audiences enjoy it. People who are in the photographs, finding themselves and seeing the pride and their participation in this project. I also really appreciate that Jeffrey has really foregrounded our local community here in this project.
Miller: Kathleen Ash-Milby and Jeffrey Gibson, thanks very much for joining us.
Gibson: Of course, thank you.
Miller: Kathleen Ash-Milby is the curator of Native American art at the Portland Art Museum. Jeffrey Gibson is a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and of Cherokee descent and he is the artist behind this major inside and outside installation on display right now through the end of February at the Portland Art Museum.
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