It was a warm Sunday morning on a nearly deserted Pearl District street in Portland. Local artist Jesus Torralba was sketching the outlines of what would become a huge mural on a boarded up storefront. Clouds of light blue spray paint drifted down the sidewalk as he worked.
“If I wasn’t able to paint or create in this moment, the pandemic would be the only thing I’m thinking about,” Torralba said. “When I’m doing art, I’m able to escape a little bit and make something beautiful out of a bad situation.”
Torralba (who goes by the artist name Heysus) is one of dozens of artists working around the city bringing art to boarded up Portland storefronts. Since businesses began closing in mid-March, many have been damaged and defaced.
“Someone came and shot out our glass window entrance into our shop,” said Maria Harvey. “Just to replace that glass window is a thousand dollars.” Harvey and her husband Patrick operate Really Big Video, an event production company on NW 10th Avenue, the building where Torralba and two other artists were busy creating their elaborate, colorful murals.
“We decided that just having plain boards that make it look like a construction site is not acceptable. … We want to put up something that our neighborhood, the Pearl District, would be proud of seeing on a daily basis,” Harvey said. She said she believes the murals help send a message that, “we are here and we plan to come back just as soon as we’re allowed to open up and start doing our services again.”
Harvey met Torralba through the Portland Street Art Alliance, a nonprofit that helps bring public art to the city. Tomàs Valladares, the alliance’s board chair, said street artists view public space differently than the average person.
“It’s similar to the way that skateboarders view public space — like you’re looking at ways to grind on something or you could jump over that thing,” he said. So when street artists suddenly witnessed huge slabs of plywood appearing around town, they saw each one as “a big blank canvas.”
The alliance helped set up a handful of collaborations between Portland businesses and artists eager to help. Meanwhile, dozens of other artists were connecting directly with businesses, and storefront murals began to appear across town.
Valladares said that when the alliance put out the initial call for street artists, dozens of people responded. Many were muralists the alliance has worked with before, but they also heard from architects, graphic artists and studio painters who were eager to try their hand at their first mural.
At Communion clothing store on SE Hawthorne, business owner Marcy Landolfo boarded up her store after her next door neighbor had her window smashed.
“Immediately when I boarded it up, I couldn’t stand the sight of it. I mean, it looks like Hell’s Kitchen in the ‘70s,” Landolfo said.
This month, three artists descended on her store to create new murals. “I’m excited to get some art up on these walls so that the community can enjoy it while the business is closed,” said artist Alicia Schultz. “Maybe it brings a little bit of brightness to the kind of sadness of everything being boarded up.”
Schultz’s design depicts a colorful chrysalis morphing into a butterfly. “I was kind of thinking about our time in quarantine … that’s like us being in a cocoon. And hopefully when we come out, something more beautiful will come.”
Back at the Pearl District building, Torralba was close to finishing his design — a 15-foot tall spray-painted cartoon character based on the Mayan moon goddess Ik’shell.
“But I’m interpreting her as a kind of like a rocker girl, like a punk rocker,” he said.
Torralba grew up loving cartoons and dreamed one day of being a cartoon artist. “I like to create these little characters that make you feel some type of life connection. Like it might look like one of my sisters or my cousins or someone I’ve met. I want someone to walk by and relate to it.”
Harvey, the business owner, believes the murals on her Pearl District building are part of a bigger mission.
“Artwork in a pandemic helps to relieve pressure and make people happy,” she said. “We all want what is best for our society and our community. And there’s nothing that is as uplifting as art to do that.”
Business owner Landolfo said her new murals have “transformed not only the outside of my store, but you know, my emotional state. I’m happy to come to work every day and see my store like this,” she said. “I see tons of people in the community taking pictures in front of the murals. It’s just been a real positive experience on so many levels for the community, myself, my employees, the business, everything.”
When their businesses finally are able to open again, in the coming weeks or months, Harvey said, she looks forward to taking the painted murals off her windows. But she wants to do more than that. “We want to have a public art show, where we display these murals, and murals from other businesses around the city. It’s our way of acknowledging these artists and saying thank you for helping us get through this time.”
Click below to see a collection of new storefront murals around Portland.