This summer, two Portland museums are offering equally moving, if different, ways of thinking about beauty.
The Portland Art Museum's retrospective devoted to the architecture, ecological activism and art collection of favorite son John Yeon, "Quest For Beauty," is a reminder that the best Oregon architecture has always been born of and in tune with our landscape.
Yeon became internationally famous at 26 by designing the Aubrey Watzek House in Portland's West Hills, which helped kick off the Northwest Modern style of homes still beloved today: simple yet elegant wood structures full of natural light designed to frame views of Mt. Hood. The Watzek House was even celebrated by New York's Museum of Modern Art alongside the work of masters like Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier.
Yet aside from a handful of houses and the Portland Oregon Visitor's Center beside the Hawthorne Bridge, John Yeon's built portfolio ultimately turned out to be relatively small, if for good reason.
Independently wealthy and freed from earning a living, the designer spent much of his life trying to preserve Oregon's most scenic places. He cashed in a life-insurance policy to buy and thus save Chapman Point near Cannon Beach from development; today it's Ecola State Park. He helped advocate for making the Columbia Gorge a National Scenic Area, and designed a magnificent multi-acre vista from which it could be enjoyed, known as The Shire, across from Multnomah Falls. He became a serious art collector, owning many major works of Asian ceramics and painting that decoratively evoked landscapes.
Whether architecturally, botanically or as a curator, for Yeon the challenge was to frame and populate the picturesque scenes that give us a sense of wonder. Yeon's reverence for beauty was a pure, almost spiritual sense. But he also fought for that beauty when it was threatened.
Sometimes beauty can also be mined from tragedy and discord. Grisha Bruskin's epic tapestry, called "ALEFBET" and on view at the newly relocated (and expanded) Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education in the Pearl District, it is a creative chronicle of history told in colored threads that draws from age-old religious tradition and symbolism to tell what is also a very modern story about dislocation, conflict and perseverance.
The title refers to how Bruskin's tapestry creates its own visual language drawn from the Jewish ToRah, Kabbalistic symbolism and Hebrew cursive script ("alef" being the first letter of both the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets).
Stunning in scale and intricate in its needlework, it's a portrait of community, figuratively and literally stitched together. "ALEFBET" is also, by extension, a personal Jewish story for Bruskin. Born in the Soviet Union, the 72-year-old once saw his work censored by the Communist government before immigrating to the U.S. for religious and artistic freedom.
Ultimately, the tapestry's beauty comes from our knowledge of history's dark forces — just upstairs at the museum are exhibits chronicling the Jewish experience in Oregon as well as the story of one of humanity's most tragic moments, the Holocaust — and how they were overcome.
In light of recent events such as the horrific hate-based MAX train murders, these institutions are valuable places where we can recharge and become inspired. From creative minds like Yeon and Bruskin, we can come to see beauty not just in aesthetics, but also in resistance and perseverance.
Brian Libby is a Portland freelance journalist, critic and photographer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic and Dwell among others. His column, Portland Architecture, can be read monthly in the Business Tribune or Online at: portlandarchitecture.com