Gresham's community art
One afternoon in 2015 while driving through downtown Gresham, Judy Han caught a glint of light from the corner of her eye.
Upon investigation, she discovered a metal skateboarder hidden away by overgrown grass at the Gresham Skate Park, at the corner of East Powell Boulevard and Southeast Roberts Avenue. Han, a longtime Gresham resident and co-owner of Sunny Han's Wok & Grill in downtown Gresham, called the city with a mission to restore and properly display the piece.
She learned the shaped metal cut-out was called "Crash," and had been crafted back in 2008 by a mystery student in the Gresham-Barlow School District. The piece was installed at the skate park with little fanfare, and had been largely ignored ever since.
After calling around to various metal shop teachers, Han learned it had been crafted by Michael DeSimone, a young man who loved to skate and was serving his third tour in Afghanistan.
"I spoke with him and he told me about his struggles growing up and how skating was an outlet for him," Han said. "He made 'Crash' to reflect who he was."
As Han was working to restore the piece, she learned about the issues between the teenagers who used the skate park and veterans at the Heroes Memorial next door —the kind of disagreements that flare up when two different groups feel their space is being encroached upon.
But both sides rallied behind "Crash." Youngsters at the skate park volunteered to help Han spread bark and clean up the area around the artwork. And during the re-dedication, a large contingent of veterans stood to celebrate the piece.
"Art can be a bridge that brings people together," Han said.
That mindset has been central to the work being done by the nonprofit organization Gresham Outdoor Public Art and citizens across the community — art can bring joy and unite people.
"When I first came to Gresham there was nothing," Han said. "It was a gravel pit across the street (at the corner of Main Avenue and Third Street)."
Now that intersection in the heart of downtown is filled with art. There is "Blue" the heron; "Bless this Nest" featuring wood ducks, a spotted frog and painted turtle; "Driscoll" to honor Guide Dogs for the Blind; "Mr. Gresham" for Todd Kirnan; and "Teddy" who sits on a bench to commemorate the annual Soroptomist Teddy Bear Parade.
Elsewhere in downtown are murals celebrating the history and culture of Gresham, ornate bike racks, the modern art filling the Gresham Arts Plaza, and, of course, "Crash."
Gresham is becoming a community known for its public art — a grassroots effort that began in downtown but is quickly spreading throughout the rest of the city.
"Art is for everybody," Han said. "It is a direct reflection of who we are."
The piece that speaks most to Gresham City Councilor David Widmark is "Driscoll," the bronzed guide dog, because it reminds him of his family.
Widmark's daughter and son-in-law have both raised puppies for Guide Dogs for the Blind, and the Boring-based nonprofit organization often uses his neighborhood for training exercises.
"Every other piece of art is nice and beautiful, but that one seems to resonate the most," he said.
All of the artwork that is brought into Gresham is thanks to fundraising from volunteers and community members. When Gresham Outdoor Public Art commissions a new piece, it is done without grants or financial support from governmental entities.
"Every person who donates or buys something at the Funky Junque Sale becomes a part of the artwork," Han said.
And it helps that the artists are so willing to work with the organization. Most of the pieces in downtown Gresham were significantly discounted by the artists. An example is the statue of Todd Kirnan, which was unveiled last year. That life-size bronze sculpture normally would cost $50,000.
But artist Heather Soderberg-Greene, who has done many of the statues in downtown, was willing to complete the bronze of "Mr. Gresham" for the $14,000 raised by the community.
Another example is muralist Don Gray, who painted an image of the original Rexall Drug Store on the side of the current Jazzy Bagels. In addition to painting at a fraction of the cost, Gray also dove into the history behind the piece to ensure he captured the spirit of the community.
"He went above and beyond to celebrate our community's history," Han said. "All of the artists see the need in Gresham."
Celebrating across communities
When Gresham was rocked by the racially-motivated killing of a Black teenager, a group of youths returned to the place of his death to paint a mural in his honor.
Larnell Bruce was 19 years old when he was run over in 2016 by a man with ties to White Supremacy groups. The murder occurred outside of a 7-Eleven on Northeast 188th Avenue and Burnside Street.
After neighbors and family members scrawled messages of love and support for Bruce on the convenience store exterior wall, the Gresham Youth Advisory Council decided to create a permanent piece.
Three artists came up with the final design — Rudy Rolon-Rivas, Brook Stein, and Marcos Restrepo. The mural is of a massive tree connecting Rockwood, Gresham and Mount Hood.
"We want this mural to show the unity and growth in this community," said Restrepo at the time.
The future of public art in Gresham is to spread it throughout the community, rather than have everything remain central to downtown. GOPA initially began there because of the annual Art Walk and how central it is to the rest of the community.
But future pieces will be brought to new neighborhoods.
"Gresham has really lacked art for so many decades," Widmark said. "Having public art starts focusing a new culture within our community. To me, it brings in a different dimension."
As an elected leader, Widmark has worked to promote art in the community he serves. One idea he would like to see implemented came from a trip to Missoula, Montana. There, they decorate the traffic control boxes using different themes.
"Its low cost, but it changes them from ugly grey boxes into something beautiful," Widmark said.
The main area where GOPA sees their commissioned art expanding is into neighborhood parks, as they are central places where families congregate. Three years ago, GOPA unveiled a bronze raven and otter at Nadaka Nature Park, fitting the nature vibe of the Rockwood park. The pieces were completed by Troutdale artist Rip Caswell and his son Chad.
"We have some exciting things on the horizon that will continue to celebrate this community," Han said.
Honoring Black leaders
Next time you visit downtown Gresham, be sure to check out the latest mural honoring Black leaders.
"Hairitage" was commissioned by Tanesha Harris, owner and stylist at Hair Haven, 90 N.W. Second Avenue, to be completed on the side of her business. The mural was painted by Munta Eric Mpwo.
Mpwo painted 16 faces into his mural, including George Floyd, rapper Tupac Shakur, President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama, Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gigi, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr. and Trail Blazer star Damian Lillard. He also included Chadwick Boseman, the actor known for his starring role in the Avenger's movie Black Panther, who died while Mpwo was working on the piece.
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