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Matt Wagner's new book in 'Tall Tree' series takes on Paris

COURTESY PHOTO - A man walks by a mural by French street artist Christian Guemy from 'The Tall Trees of Paris,' Matt Wagner's newest book. Matt Wagner is owner and curator of Hellion Gallery in Portland’s Old Town, which specializes in seeking out undiscovered artists from around the world. This month his gallery hosts a show by Levalet, a French street artist, and one of the 42 artists featured in Wagner’s new book, “The Tall Trees of Paris.”

The Paris book is one in a series of intriguing coffee-table books, all of which are titled “Tall Trees” ($49, Overcup Press). He previously featured Portland and Tokyo. The books can be found at the gallery, Powell’s, Annie Bloom’s, Antler, and Cargo.

The books reveal individual artists working in a particular city at a specific time, introducing them in a relaxed way and offering off-the-beaten path tips about their cities.

“I love to travel, and I love artists,” says Wagner, who curated for Portland galleries for 10 years before opening his own gallery in 2010. He also co-curates a nonprofit public mural project, “Forest for the Trees.”

“There are only so many months in a year to show all the artists that I find through my gallery. So many slip through the cracks. I felt like a book was the best way to introduce these folks to the world,” he says.

COURTESY PHOTO - WAGNERNine basic questions are posed to each artist, asking them, for example, “What’s your favorite bar or restaurant?” The answers appear on a handwritten questionnaire. Exploring the distinctive handwriting and, in some cases, cartoons and leaps of imagination, is great fun. On the page opposite the questionnaire is a photograph of the artist’s studio, followed by four pages of color photos of their art. Like looking through old photo albums or people-watching on busy streets, one’s curiosity is piqued.

The books are published in Portland by independent publisher Overcup Press.

“We have a plan to build up a collection and create a series,” Wagner says. “It’s a long game. Now we have three, and we’re selling many as a set.” Berlin, Montreal, Barcelona or Amsterdam could be next.

Themes emerge among featured artists in “The Tall Trees of Portland.” In general, they favor backyards, firepits and houses on quiet streets where they can work late into the night. To the question, “Umbrella or no umbrella, and why?” Martin Ontiveros is succinct: “No umbrella, because that’s why God made hoodies.”

Questions don’t touch on art directly. “That was sort of the point,” Wagner explains. “I don’t like questions that ask them to bare their souls, so I avoided that.”

COURTESY PHOTO - From Matt Wagner's 'The Tall Trees of Portland' book, it's the work of Portland artist Souther Salazar.Asked to share his favorite places, Wagner names St. Pizza Lounge for drinks. For coffee, it’s Kenilworth Coffeehouse. Top favorite Portland bridge? “I love the Steel Bridge. I ride my bike across it on my way to the gallery. It’s very utilitarian and simple. ... I know it’s not cool, but (I use an) umbrella, of course. After all, I am a hellion.”

“The Tall Trees of Paris” went to press just after the Nov. 13, 2015, terrorist attacks. “It’s truly a snapshot in time,” Wagner says. “It was a tumultuous time in France. The majority of the content was gathered between the two attacks.”

Portland arts consultant Kate Merrill translated the French artists’ questionnaires into English for the Paris book.

“Many of these artists are well-known street artists whose work I had seen walking around Paris,” says Merrill, who lived in the French city for seven years before returning to Portland. “It was great to know more about them. We went back recently, and I consulted some of the notes for restaurant suggestions.”

Portland and Parisian artists have something in common, she says. “Many are outside of what’s considered the traditional art market in France. They start their own collectives and are very supportive of one another. The art market in France has really been suffering as the economy tanks, so it’s this entrepreneurial spirit that has kept these artists going.”

A big difference, Merrill thinks, could be the support French artists receive.

“It’s rare to find artists who have two or three jobs like they do here,” she says. “While they are far from being in a comfortable situation, there is always the promise of health care, some government aid, renter’s rights, and access to cheap workspace.”

Wagner agrees, adding, “I don’t think Portland is special in this lack of support, but for such a well-known arts city, the people of Portland could do a better job of supporting artists.”

The “Tall Trees” books aren’t really art books, he adds.

“Art is important, but the artist is the most important to me,” Wagner says. “My books are people books. Through the people, the reader discovers the city.”

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