It’s a bright spring afternoon and muralist Alex Chiu is working out of his garage. The garage is adorned with different paintings, some of his family, others of quirky doodles that he himself would describe as “wonky.” The table at the center is covered with muffin tins caked in every color of the spectrum. Brushes are arranged in buckets and bottles of unused paint are stacked neatly underneath.
Meanwhile, Alex stands in front of an unfinished mural, carefully painting faces of children and people of color, the subjects of his latest project.
“This is my 92-year-old grandma and she lives in Toronto,” he said before pointing to another painting, a little girl covered in blue face paint, her hands gripping an orange candy bucket. “And this is my daughter last Halloween.”
In a few days, he’ll head to Davis Elementary School in Northeast Portland to finish up another mural project that’s been on his plate for a month. After that, he’ll prep a mural for the American Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon in Southeast Portland.
This has been Alex’s life recently since moving to the Northwest.
Commissioned mural work keeps him busy and with good reason. His murals often depict Portland’s people of color eating together, reading together and generally living together as a community. That’s the message he wants to send out to the world: Portland is a place where all are welcome regardless of race, gender or identity.
Painting faces of real people is a new challenge for him, but art has been a part of Alex’s life since the beginning.
“I’ve been drawing my whole life,” he said. “It was always just a way of me getting away from stressful things in life. It created a space for me to just be alone and meditate.”
He credits the democratic nature of public art for influencing his love of murals and community involvement.
“It’s not excluded to the people who chose to go to a museum or to an art boutique or into an art gallery. It really is art for the public to enjoy and experience.”
A Change in Life and Style
Alex’s early work leaned toward the surreal and psychedelic, with giant, colorfully intricate doodles that brought the viewer into a wacky cartoony world. There were no normal proportions or lighting or perspective, no boundaries. For a while though, Alex was afraid that his art was too niche.
“Nobody understood what I was doing,” he said. “A lot of times I don’t think that it was easily accessible; maybe it was a little too weird or something that they were not used to seeing.”
It wasn’t until he and his wife moved to Portland that Alex began seeing a change in his art and his life.
He noticed that the more time he spent in Portland’s communities of color, the more he wanted to engage with them. And the more he wanted to engage with them, the more he wanted to reflect them in his art.
“I just knew enough people here that had kids and had a family and it was really inspiring,” he said. “Those people I feel influenced who I wanted to be or inspired the direction I wanted to go with art and life.”
It soon became clear why it was so important for him to paint Portland’s people of color. He felt those communities were under represented while most spaces are easily found for white artists than for artists of color.
“I’ve been deliberately trying to get better at community engagement and really know who it is that I’m painting for and to be able to create something that they really do want to see,” he said. “I really want the stories for the people I’m painting to come out through the artwork itself.”
Controversy and Color
The resolve to accurately represent real people was what got him selected to paint the TriMet 82nd Ave. station in 2017.
Walk around the area and you’ll find a series of brightly painted panels depicting a diverse group of people and at the center, a young Asian American girl, Alex’s daughter.
“The idea was that I wanted to depict different interactions she has with the community. So it depicts the way in which the community helped raise my daughter,” he said.
Walk down the steps of the TriMet MAX station and you’ll see more of Alex’s work; children of all different races playing together in harmony, the bright blues and pinks contrasting with the dull gray of the concrete walls.
V. Maldonado, Chief Diversity Officer at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, was on the TriMet committee that selected Alex for the job.
“I was excited to give Alex an opportunity to show the committee something that maybe they had never seen before, which is Portland through the lens of an artist of color, who is in the community, who is part of the community, and who’s interested in investing in the community,” they said.
“Alex’s proposal was about not just depicting people that we usually don’t see in murals but actually about using the mural as a platform to connect with living people in the 82nd Avenue neighborhood,” they said. “It was the first time that I saw a living artist want to celebrate and center on living people.”
For the most part, Alex had a pleasant experience painting his mural, with people coming up to him every day and complimenting him on his work.
But it wasn’t all positive.
The mural attracted a certain amount of controversy too, not because of who he added, but who he apparently left out.
“It was never my intention to exclude white people in the mural,” he said. “But the controversy that I got was how people have approached me while I was painting and said, ‘There’s no white people.’”
At first, Alex ignored them and continued to work. But as he kept painting, the same people would come back and heckle Alex and every time, asked the same question: “Why aren’t there any white people in your mural?”
“And I said, ‘If you look over there, I painted some white people,’” he said. “And the follow up comment to that was ‘Don’t you know that 80% of Portland is white?’”
What Alex couldn’t wrap his head around was why the people who heckled him were focusing so much on race.
“There’s a man playing the piano. There’s a family eating together. Why can’t you look at those faces and see yourself in them in those ways?” he said.
Alex’s story is symptomatic of what many artists of color go through when attempting to find space for their work, V. said.
“It’s not just seeing the disappearance of creative spaces in the Northwest, but the ones that do, seeing harassment or vandalism take the focus away from the content of the art,” they said.
Eventually, Alex felt unsafe being there, to the point where he wondered if he would be able to finish his work. He reached out to a group of artists of color initially to express his concerns. One of those artists was V.
In response, V. and other artists rallied together to keep Alex safe and make sure he felt like he wasn’t alone. Schedules were drawn up where people could sit with him. V. even took his students to visit Alex and it reassured him that his art was having a positive impact on his community.
“It just showed that people were supportive of what I was doing and were willing to take the time to show that,” he said.
A Big Responsibility
Despite the negative experience, Alex’s work was met with positive response from the community and he was eventually commissioned to paint the north tunnel entrance of the Portland International Airport. The mural was his biggest, spanning about 150 feet.
Alex, along with collaborator Jeremy Nichols, worked together to create a mural that showed how different communities felt a sense of home in Portland.
Walk along the mural and you’ll find iconic Portland landmarks like Mt. Hood and Cannon Beach and people like 2019 Rose Festival Queen Mya Brazile, jazz guitarist Norman Sylvester and Native American storyteller Ed Edmo. Alex also added the portraits of some of the airport’s staff. The result is a colorful tapestry of people and places that capture what it means to live in Portland.
“I definitely feel with mural work, there’s a need and desire to have artwork the represents the community,” he said.
To date, the mural is his largest, and one of his proudest works. For Alex, painting what Portland means to people is a big responsibility, one that he is honored to have.
“It’s not just about painting something nice … I really want to be conscious about what the community that I’m painting is all about and really take the time to listen and learn,” he said. “I want to be able to help people more than just paint.”
Correction: Alex Chiu’s mural at Portland International Airport spans about 150 feet, not 270.