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View From The Kitchen: Project Reveals Dishwasher Stories

Thursday in Portland, two artists are showing a collection of portraits they’re calling “Dishwasher Stories.” Their subjects are people who don’t usually appear in art galleries. The exhibit is all about the people who wash dishes in some of Portland’s most popular restaurants.

Alberto Orosco has been working in the back of the house for seven years. He’s a dishwasher at Portland’s upscale restaurant, Veritable Quandary. But nobody there calls him Alberto.

Speaking through a translator, Orosco says, “Most people call me ‘Maestro’.”

Maestro and a coworker at Veritable Quandry

Maestro and a coworker at Veritable Quandry

Israel Bayer

That’s Spanish for “teacher.” Orosco’s from a small town in the Mexican state of Jalisco. He decided to come north for economic reasons. He says it’s a multicultural area.

“I was a teacher in Mexico,” Orosco says. “I taught children and older people how to read. I taught people of all different ages.”

His portrait and story will be on view tonight  for the Dishwasher Project. Orosco is one of seven people profiled with oil paintings, photographs and oral histories that will be presented together. The project was hatched by two Portland artists with very different backgrounds.

Natalie Sept has painted all of her adult life. But her day jobs have all been in politics. Right now she’s doing constituent work for Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici. When Sept was with Eileen Brady’s mayoral campaign last year, she had no time for art.

Painter Natalie Sept works on a portrait for The Dishwasher Project.

Painter Natalie Sept works on a portrait for The Dishwasher Project.

Israel Bayer

“During the campaign,” Sept recalls, “my only creative outlet was Instagram.” That’s right: a photo sharing app for the iPhone. She says she really missed painting during this period. But she also picked up on other people’s work.

“I kept seeing Israel Bayer,” she says, “this man I’d only known through professional situations.”

Bayer is the executive director of Street Roots, a local street newspaper in Portland. Sept had met Bayer a few times when she was working on housing issues at City Hall and he was doing homeless advocacy. “I noticed that Israel had these beautiful photographs and I was intrigued  and I was following him. I really admired what he was doing and that he had this whole creative life that I didn’t know about.”

When she told Bayer what she was working on, he was interested right away. Bayer had worked as a dishwasher for a couple years, “So the idea really sparked my curiosity and I was immediately drawn to it.”

Sept knew about Bayer’s history as a homeless advocate, and thought his experience would be helpful getting people to talk.

Together, they started going around to restaurants, taking pictures, and talking to people like Alberto Orosco about washing dishes for a living.

“I am a dishwasher,” Orosco says. “Very few people know the job or what a dishwasher does. It’s a little hard. And well, it’s not very recognized. Unlike a cook or something better. The majority of the people don’t know. We are in the same place working.”

Initially, the project was just going to be Sept’s paintings. But the interviews became oral histories, and Bayer was taking stills all along the way. Sept and Bayer reveal details about each dishwasher: how they came to their jobs, places they’re from, what they do when the crush of restaurant work is over.

“Each restaurant is different,” Bayer explains. “Some are tight, some are much more open. Some they’re the only person in their space, some, there are other people working. Ultimately I want to show the face of the person and to be able to capture the human aspect of what they’re doing, but I also want to be able to capture the mixers and the machinery that they are using. Ultimately you understand that people are people and that we are all kind of the same in the way that we go about our daily lives and the work that we do.”

Natalie Sept

Alberto Orosco says he hadn’t expected to have his portrait done, but he embraced the project. He says he misses teaching, and is always finding ways to connect with other people.

“I liked it, it caught my attention. I am type of person who’s anxious. I like always trying to do something for my own well-being. It’s part of my personality to be looking for something different always.”

Orosco and both artists will be on scene tonight for the Dishwasher Project’s final show at Portland’s Ace Hotel.

Special thanks for Sergio Cisneros for help with translations.

Natalie Sept Israel Bayer Dishwashers low wage workers Portland visual arts Portland

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The Dishwasher Project

Painter Natalie Sept and photographer Israel Bayer's collaborative multi-media art project is a tribute to the men and women who work in the "back of the house" of Portland's celebrated restaurant scene. See how they combine larger-than-life paintings, photographs and interviews to highlight the lives and experiences of the people who do the grueling work that keep restaurants on the move.

Selections from The Dishwasher Project

Painter Natalie Sept and photographer Israel Bayer visited restaurants around Portland to capture what it's like to wash dishes for a living. See the results of their multimedia collaboration.