The cement block structure on Southeast 122nd Avenue is so nondescript, you could drive by it without knowing it’s there. But inside, Kris Bella is building assets for her community.
Arte Soleil is a tiny arts space in one of the farthest corners of Portland. Bella, who also co-founded the FreeArts NW mobile maker unit, wanted to plant something in response to a dearth of arts opportunities in the neighborhood. Powellhurst-Gilbert is definitely in East Portland, with Interstate 205 to the west and Powell Butte, a 600-acre city park, to the east. Some of its older homes are on big old lots, parceled out like the farmland that used to occupy this part of town. But new construction has also attracted a relatively high concentration of renters, drawn to one of Portland's remaining affordable neighborhoods.
What Powellhurst-Gilbert doesn’t have is much access to art. Richard Dickinson, a longtime resident active in the local neighborhood association, noted that Portland’s vaunted cultural life is centered miles away.
“We have very little art infrastructure at present,” he said. “Just a couple murals and a few shops.” Although, he added, what’s lacking in terms of cultural institutions is to some extent made up for by the neighborhood’s actual culture. He noted the local Gilbert Heights Elementary school is made up of students who speak more than 47 languages at home.
Kris Bella, a counselor with a background in addiction recovery, has been keenly aware of the disparities in outer southeast Portland for some time. She connected with the Lents Gilbert Church of God for a youth-driven mural project. Free Arts NW took on the task of helping young people at the Church’s family shelter do the mural, with help from the neighborhood association and East Portlanders Inspiring Change.
During that time, Bella noticed the modest annex building on the other side of the church parking lot. The church’s Tom Faulkner says the congregation had hoped the space might get more community use — and maybe some revenue.
“Like in most churches our size, membership is an issue. Kris came knocking on our door, interested in leasing that building,” and the two sides ultimately agreed on a below-market rate. Bella also has helped the church connect with artists to lease space in its main building.
The accommodations are not fancy, but given the state of Portland’s real estate crunch, they’re needed. Arte Soleil hosts classes in drawing and painting, jewelry work and ceramics. Bella turned half the space into a retail shop with coffee and snacks. Work by 70 community members can be found there. And Bella’s been booking open mic sessions and community meetings in the space.
Bella said she could wait for a big nonprofit or the city to fund arts facilities on the outer east side — or just wait until gentrification gets around to the job, with trendy coffeehouses and galleries. But Powellhurst-Gilbert needs the arts now, she said.
“We’re not a gallery, we’re a creative arts market, for anyone who sees themselves inspired to create.”
Arte Soleil opens Saturday, June 15, from noon to 4 p.m. PT for the The Midway Thriving Block Party, with music, crafts and more.