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Sales of Natalie Septs paintings benefited Forest Grove nonprofit

by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Natalie Sept, district representative for U.S. Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) in Washington County, spents her off-hours at Falcon Art Community in Northeast Portland, where she creates vivid portraits of workers she has encountered at home and abroad. Her website is Natalie Sept was able to buy a house at the corner of Left Brain Boulevard and Right Brain Lane, it would be the perfect place for her to live — and perhaps to blend her practical and creative sides.

As it turns out, the 29-year-old aide to U.S. Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) has made quite a down payment on that dream already.

In the last decade, Sept, a Sellwood resident, graduated from Guilford College in North Carolina with a bachelor of fine arts degree in painting, spent six months in India studying anthropology and Hindi and created a music video with middle school students aimed at collecting bikes for kids in Africa who had no way to get around except on foot.

“We were focusing on the impact of bicycles on an African village,” Sept said simply. “It felt like we were able to change lives through art.”

Restless and energetic, Sept went to Sweden and Spain with Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms — a nonprofit aimed at encouraging ecologically-conscious farming practices across the globe — and stayed until the end of 2008. While in Sweden, she discovered she was related, a couple generations back, to the painter Carl Larsson, who died in 1919.

“He’s kind of a national treasure,” noted Sept. “I stayed with his family.”

The Clackamas High School alumnus returned to Oregon in 2009 and got a job as a server at Papa Haydn restaurant in downtown Portland, where she started painting scintillating portraits of dishwashers who toiled in the backrooms of Portland-area restaurants. She was doing half of what she loved — making art — but the other half, a keen interest in politics, was languishing.

Start in politics

Fate intervened in the form of a fortuitous series of events.

In 2010, a chance meeting of Sept and former state treasurer Randall Edwards began a series of political connections and jobs that eventually led, in 2012, to a district representative position on Bonamici’s Washington County staff.

“It was magic, because I always have admired her," Sept said. "What I do in urban Washington County is meet people, listen to them and try to dispel the myth that nothing gets done in Washington, COURTESY PHOTO - Natalie Sept likes to focus her paintings on behind-the-scenes people, including these two dishwashers who toil in a Portland-area restaurant.

“I try to be Suzanne’s eyes and ears here at home.”

Sept is particularly astute at staying connected to constituents’ thoughts on issues Bonamici is passionate about, including business, trade, healthcare, transportation, women’s issues — and arts and culture. Last month, she hobnobbed with folks at a Cultural Coalition of Washington County celebration in Beaverton, promoting the work of the Oregon Cultural Trust, a nonprofit championed by her boss.

For her part, Bonamici practically bursts with accolades for Sept.

“I’m a proponent of more arts education because it helps to engage both halves of the brain and leads to creative, innovative thinkers,” Bonamici said Monday from her office on Capitol Hill. “Natalie exemplifies this — she is the perfect person to help communicate the message and promote the arts.”

Sept also got high marks from her Guilford College painting instructor, Adele Wayman, who pointed out that Sept's thesis project — painting the people behind the scenes on campus — “lit the match to her creative fuse.” School officials purchased several of those paintings.

Their brilliance comes from the time and energy Sept devoted to becoming friends with her subjects — the cleaning women, maintenance and grounds people and cafeteria workers, Wayman said. “The people she created, caught as they wash dishes, drive tractors or clean dorms, have a strong sense of immediacy, brought to life by her expressionist use of light, color and dynamic brushwork.”

Artistic efforts

Sept is a living example of Bonamici’s theory that the arts promote thinking and creative thinking begets art. Dozens of canvases fill her tidy studio inside the Falcon Art Community in Northeast Portland, including oil and acrylic paintings from what she refers to as “the dishwasher project” — pictures of kitchen workers named Katrine, Armando and Rudy.

In 2013 Sept was invited to exhibit her colorful, pensive portraits on the walls of the Radio Room on Northeast Alberta Street. That led to a one-night-only showing last June at The Cleaners at the Ace Hotel on Southwest Tenth Avenue. Some of the shows’ proceeds benefited the Forest Grove nonprofit Adelante Mujeres, which focuses on empowering Latinas with job and parenting skills.

The fact that her efforts as an artist buoy her work for the Congresswoman isn’t lost on Sept.

“I bring the perspective of an artist to my job as district representative,” said Sept. “I can elevate the arts and culture conversation toward innovation and decision-making.”

Sept believes that as even though Portland gets a lot of attention from those connected to Oregon’s arts scene, Washington County is “ripe with potential for a flourishing cultural community.”

When she comes to the end of a long day meeting people and making sure they understand Bonamici’s positions on various issues, it’s the studio that revives and nourishes Sept’s soul. Dipping her brush in ultramarine blue or cadmium orange, she sweeps living color onto her canvases.

“You really can’t make things with your hands when you’re in politics,” said Sept. “I have a really active mind, but when I paint, it goes quiet.

“Politics activates the left side of my brain. Painting allows me to turn that off.”

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