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Deck of Professions features local personas to spark conversations

Artist Hampton Rodriguez has made a deck of cards that can help adults learn the English language.Patrik McDade had a problem. His students would rather play cards at the Portland Day Laborer Hire Site on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard than come to his English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes.

But, McDade thought, it was only really a problem because he didn’t have a good deck of cards.

“If we could just play cards and learn English at the same time, that would be amazing,” he says. “And the truth is, we can.”

McDade’s team at People-Places-Things , an intercultural communications business, now has 25 newly printed decks of cards featuring Portland celebrities and ordinary people. Called the Deck of Professions, the 52 images were created by expressionist artist Hampton Rodriguez.

An Aug. 3 “We Are the Subject of the Sentence” gallery showing at the Portland Mercado in Southeast Portland celebrated the project’s completion, with help from a $3,700 grant from the Regional Arts & Culture Council (RACC).

Rodriguez’s portraits feature Portland touches — a female security guard covered in tattoos or a thrifty person out buying a used car or Darcelle, Portland’s most famous drag queen. TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - English teacher Patrik McDade teamed up with artist artist Hampton Rodriguez to create a set of playing cards for English learners.

“The idea here is: How do we show the culture of Portland? How do you explain the culture of Portland to people who are outside of it?” McDade says. “It has to be visual.”

McDade says he plans to use the cards to spark conversations that might not happen in textbook English — about tattoos, or thrift shopping or drag queens.

“Fluency is only developed through meaningful interactions with people over time,” says the Arizona transplant. “How do we get people together when they don’t understand where others are coming from? It really is wider than just teaching English.”

True representations

Originally from the Dominican Republic, artist Rodriguez can speak only limited English himself. But, through his art, he is keenly aware of the local English-speaking culture.

A fine artist for 25 years, and owner of Alberta neighborhood’s Bohio Studio from 2002 to 2007, Rodriguez is fascinated by people. His art frequently starts with sketches of people he sees on the street.

“Every day I’m documenting and passing along what’s happening in my city,” Rodriguez says through McDade’s translation. The 15-year Portland resident adds that it is important to him to create an accurate chronicle of what life in Portland is really like and what type of people live here. He worries that with fast-paced journalism and slick advertising so prevalent, future generations will get the wrong idea. “They’re going to encounter a society of lies, a false representation of what actually went on.”

Rodriguez also uses portraiture to help people feel more familiar with strangers.

“This allows us to help a lady, to ask for advice, really just to talk to other people,” Rodriguez says through McDade’s translation. “When we see this (portraiture type of art), it helps us make that connection.”TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - A new deck of cards created by Hampton Rodriquez depicts Portlanders. The hearts are reserved for artists and social service workers.

Rodriguez says he likes that in the Deck of Professions his art will be useful as a learning tool. He likes that people will form relationships to his art as the first time they conceptualized a certain type of person or profession.

The artist worked on the project intermittently for the past two years, using digital software to create collages much more quickly that he does with physical materials — two days per portrait, as opposed to two weeks, he says.

The court cards — jacks through aces — are all famous people important to Portland’s history and present.

McDade says getting legal permission for using a famous person’s likeness was difficult, so most of them are historical characters. But he hopes that once people hear about the educational intent of the project, they will be pleased to have their portrait on a card.

“We want (Portland Mayor) Charlie Hales to know he can be more visible to the immigrant and refugee community, just as an example,” he says.

The rest of the deck’s cards are composite images of ordinary people in their jobs. The deck is also divided by suits for the category of profession — hearts are for artists and social service workers, spades are for skilled trades, and so on.

Language is local

According to a U.S. Census Bureau analysis of 2011 data, Oregon has 540,000 people who do not speak English at home — about 15 percent of the population.

McDade complains that the process of teaching English to non-native adult speakers is disorganized.

“For the most part, the systems that exist to help folks develop their language skills are academic institutions, which are already difficult to navigate,” he says. “So what we see is a big shadow system of people doing community-based ESL.” The task is then left up to the ad hoc network of libraries, churches and volunteer programs, McDade says.

He adds that the duo’s grand plan is to create a Deck of Professions unique to a whole host of locations so that people in other cities can use them to learn English, too.

“Language is local ... (and) language and culture are intertwined,” says the teacher.

The central question then becomes: “How do we allow people to be fully their own cultures and still connect with each other?”

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