At this point in March, you may find yourself gravitating toward something — anything — that takes the edge off the gray days.
If you hurry, you can find what you’re looking for at Portland’s Director Park, an open, one-block plaza featuring a fountain, tables and chairs, and a giant chess board. It’s a refuge from the surrounding skyscrapers, where people of all types gather — school children, people living on the streets, richly dressed shoppers with Nordstrom bags.
And in one corner, there’s a small, glass-walled building. For years, it was a branch of Elephants Delicatessen. Now, it’s packed with plants, trees, lamps and sweet, sweet steam plumes spouting out of humidifiers.
Artist Ralph Pugay hatched this idea for the Portland Tropical Gardens as one part public art project and one part remedy for seasonal affective disorder.
“Thinking about bringing tropical plants in here,” Pugay said, “it was really interesting to create a space with a bunch of plants that remind me of home in the Philippines, and it’s really interesting to conceive of creating a space like home in public.”
Pugay, who's best known for his witty, affecting paintings centering on emotional and cultural propriety, is a visiting professor of art practices at Portland State University.
Portland Parks Bureau came to the college to find out if artists would be interested in using some of the bureau’s temporarily vacant spaces.
So Pugay and four collaborators from PSU filled the building with plants, but also with activities designed to soothe depression, loneliness and other modern conditions.
The night we visited, an assembled crowd of about 40 could be seen through the glass walls stretching into yoga poses and watching a video feed from Singapore detailing the edible plants you could find in humid forests there.
Collaborator Michael Bernard Stevenson said the woman who did the video is the fifth member of the group, Xi Jie Ng, who goes by 'Salty.' She may be far away, but her location has made some fun things possible for the project.
“One of the things Shawn [Creeden, the group’s horticulturalist] and I are working on is working title plant self-care module,” Stevenson said, “essentially a desk that buries you in plants.”
You sit down at the plant-covered desk and write a letter.
“The plaque on the desk,” Stevenson said, “is Salty’s address. People will be able to write a letter and she’ll be able to respond with a letter from the tropics.”
PTG events attract plenty of art students, but also people passing by, just curious about what’s happening inside the sultry little green glass box.
Ralph Pugay says he loves the space both for the range of foot traffic it gets and its setting. It’s a project he’s dreamed of doing for a while.
“The way I was thinking about it that it could potentially sit in one of the new condo high-rises being built in Portland, because so many of those buildings are taking public spaces … . It seemed like a good idea to imagine what would it be like to put a public civic space into a building that is private.”
Through the end of April, Portland Tropical Gardens will host horticulture lectures, therapy groups and sessions on creativity and mindfulness — all for free. The best way to stay on top of their schedule is to follow the Garden on Facebook or Instagram.
Editor's Note: This story originally misidentified Ralph Pugay’s collaborators in the project. OPB regrets the error.