Shows at UNA Gallery have always been as much about the people in the space as the art on the walls.
“The first official show,” founder Mercedes Orozco remembered, “was a group show at UNA, shortly after the  election.”
In step with the resistance atmosphere permeating Portland at the time, the show — featuring works by Maya Vivas (who’s since gone on to found Ori Gallery on Mississippi), maximiliano of the Nat Turner Project, sculptural assembly artist Dan Pillers, and others — talked about identity as a form of resistance.
Since then, the gallery has offered itself to a wide range of artists with self-described “outsider” status. UNA Gallery is one of the city’s few dedicated to showcasing artwork by people of color, queer artists and younger artists. Orozco maintained UNA as a collective, showing work in a professionally managed space.
“There’s a part of me that does reject the notion of the white cube, prioritizing the sale of arts,” Orozco said, but she also wanted to bring the artists into sharp focus. “It really is a way to say, ‘Your work deserves it.’”
Orozco said it’s been a great 17-month run, but in spite of a below-market lease provided by the Everett Station Lofts, and a swarm of volunteers who hung shows and staffed the gallery, the toll on her personal finances has been heavy. “Even if it wasn’t financially sustainable,” she said, “I wouldn’t put that on the community. That sounds like a capitalist problem.”
She’s ready to take a break and see what other forms the collective might take. Watch for an UNA presence at Portland Art Museum in May, as part of We.Construct.Marvels.Between.Monuments.
But for UNA’s last show, Orozco intentionally chose an artist who could bring all the warmth and affection she herself felt for the gallery’s community.
Celeste Noche moved to Portland from the Bay Area four years ago under the pretense of joining a diverse, “tight-knit community of artists.” Two years later, Noche, who is Filipino-American, still found herself struggling to develop close relationships — and furthermore, she was troubled by the lack of diversity represented in the media and the city’s formal arts ecosystem.
When UNA Gallery sent out a call for its final round of submissions, Noche agreed to showcase her photograph series, “Portland in Color” — a tender set of portraits affirming the lives, work and concerns of fellow artists. Noche spoke with us about her art style, her transition to Portland and the kinds of space she hopes to create for other artists.
Celeste Noche on Photography
I try to take a documentary approach. I look to celebrate the imperfect and natural. My goal is telling the stories behind [a subject].
I was in Hong Kong recently. It was early morning, and a vendor was cooking rice. A cloud of steam enveloped her, and the way the light hit her … . We weren’t focused on food, but they way it suggested movement and atmosphere, those moments can exist in any stage of cooking. It shows you how much beauty there is.
On Her Move to Portland
It was much more challenging than I anticipated. I worked for a tech company and helped build up its offices in the Bay Area. Then, I heard Portland was a tight-knit community full of artists. I was hoping to get inspiration from other people. Even though I had friends, I felt like I was dating for friends for two years. I found a lot of media was produced by or for white people. The town didn’t have a lot of diversity.
On Her Photoseries, Diversity, and Community
[Staging this series] was a reaction to the fact that people of color weren’t represented by the media or weren’t hired by the media to do work. It leads to a homogenous view of the world, particularly in a homogenous place like Portland. The series was my personal reaction to celebrating the community I’d found — and my hope that the media would see there’s a lot of talent around them if they would only take a risk on someone new.
[For the photos], I’d ask subjects where was most comfortable for them or if there was a space with a particular meaning for them. I asked where there is a space that reflects their work as an artist. Sometimes their workspaces don’t have natural light, which I like shooting in. But for some it’s been walking around their neighborhood.
The photos illustrate who people are. But I wanted to give artists the ability to tell their stories. I sent a set of questions to everyone, some light, like: what are your favorite karaoke jams? And more in-depth questions like: what’s been a difficult experience in Portland? When I think of the portraits, I want the photos to take up space, even if being an artist can leave you so vulnerable.