After a year that saw many of Portland's plinths tumbling like bowling pins, the Rose City has finally placed something new on a pedestal.
The bust of York — an enslaved laborer owned by explorer William Clark during his expedition to Oregon with Meriwether Lewis — arrived mysteriously sometime before dawn on Saturday, Feb. 20, at Mount Tabor Park.
"This piece of art was a complete surprise to Portland Parks & Recreation," said Adena Long, the bureau's director.
"I really appreciate the tribute to York," she said. "It has brought this important story to light for many Portlanders and people across the country. To me, that seems like what public art is all about, education and inspiration."
Apparently made of hardened plastic, the statue surveys the Rose City from a perch at Mount Tabor's peak that was once occupied by Harvey W. Scott, a pioneer who became editor of The Oregonian. An unknown group toppled Scott's sculpture, the fifth to fall during protests, and absconded with one of his bronze arms in October.
Activists had noted that Scott, a Republican, used his platform to oppose women's suffrage and publicly funded education, and also unearthed old newspaper reports of his militia service against local Native American tribes.
"A grand old fighting man is Scott. In his early life he killed Indians out in the Puget Sound country, and in his later life he has been killing politicians," The Editor and Publisher wrote in November 1909.
The other downed statues depicted four American presidents: Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, who were yanked to earth in October, as well as separate installations of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington in East Portland.
In a twist of fate, another statue of York, this one showing him supporting Clark's outstretched arm, was voluntarily removed from the University of Portland campus by administrators in June. Historians have noted that while York was largely treated as an equal as the adventurers traveled to Oregon by 1805, Clark did not free him until a decade after their return. York's final fate is unknown.
Portland City Commissioner Carmen Rubio, who oversees the Parks Bureau, praised the bust as an opportunity to reflect on the "invisibility and contributions of Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other Oregonians of color — especially artists."
"These individuals have made immeasurable contributions to the city of Portland, and we must change how we, as a city, recognize our histories moving forward," Rubio said. "We should regard this installation for both the important piece that it is, as well as a much-needed reminder to city leaders to hasten our work of rooting out white supremacy in our institutions — particularly our city government."
Mark Ross, a spokesman for the bureau, said the public response has been "overwhelming positive," adding that the agency has no plans at this time to remove the bust, citing a policy allowing protest memorials as long as they do not impact public safety, public property, access or permitted events.
The Regional Arts & Culture Council, which oversees public artwork across the city, confirmed it was not involved in the guerrilla installation. RACC continues to plan a public feedback process for its collection, but no final decision has been made regarding the toppled statues, which remain in storage.
"The public response to York's image demonstrates the power of art to uplift new narratives and for healing," said Kristin Calhoun, RACC's director of public art. "We admire this artistic response and celebrate the way that artists continue to push boundaries, expand our imagination and open doors to new conversations about the role of public monuments in national and local conversations about systemic racism, representation and injustice."
Follow me on Twitter
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.