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'This Is Us' St. Helens includes painted pieces from hundreds of county residents

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Jayden DeGroot points to a decorated house on display as part of a This Is Us St. Helens public art installation in the Columbia Courthouse Plaza. Behind him, Kayla and mom, Gina DeGroot, check out the painted houses. More than 3,000 house-shaped wood blocks affixed to tree-shaped sculptures in the Columbia County Courthouse plaza represent a new community art installation titled, "This is Us St. Helens."

The art project has been nearly a year in the making.

It was the brainchild of Joan Youngberg, a member of the Columbia Arts Guild.

She said she wanted to embark on a community-driven art project that would be unifying and represent St. Helens residents.

"There's been a lot of discourse, and a lot of people arguing about crazy stuff, and I thought, 'Couldn't we all come together?'" Youngberg said by phone Tuesday.

She pitched the idea to the arts guild of using mostly scrap wood pieces her husband had discarded from woodworking projects to create the installation, which displays hundreds of tiny wooden homes, each painted by a different person throughout the year. They embraced it.

Youngberg says she began collecting wood pieces to assemble the palm-sized houses, and visited hundreds of people from January this year up until shortly before the project's installation earlier this month. The wooden homes are affixed with pins and industrial grade glue, and finished with several layers of varnish.SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Joan Youngberg thanks visitors and talks about the idea behind the This Is Us St. Helens public art installation now on display in St. Helens during a public unveiling of the project Friday, Nov. 16.

"I went to senior living centers, schools, churches, businesses, book groups," Youngberg recalls, "any place that I could think that we could gather some people together and they'd want to participate."

Last Friday, Nov. 16, Youngberg saw the fruits of her labor come to fruition, when county residents circled the new art pieces, scanning each house-shaped wood block, while pointing, smiling

and taking photos during a public unveiling of the new project.

Getting people she'd never met before to sit down and paint wasn't an easy task. Youngberg said many folks were shy or didn't feel they had the creative inclination to contribute.

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Tiny wooden houses affixed to tree-shaped wooden posts will be on display in the Columbia County Courthouse Plaza now through early January. "Some people are really timid about that," she says. "It was hard to explain to people what you wanted to do. If you say to somebody, 'Would you help us paint a house?' they look at you like you're crazy."

Loretta Sampson circled a tree during Friday's unveiling. When she spotted a house she'd painted, she used her phone to photograph it.

"I also have a house over here with nuns, because I grew up in St. Helens and went to St. Frederic's," she said, pointing to a lower corner of a tree.

Others took notice, smiling, sharing memories of growing up in St. Helens.

"There's a good number on there that have a story with them," Youngberg notes.

Youngberg got help with constructing "This Is Us" from Byron Ohler, who works for Michael Curry Design in Scappoose. She also got financial assistance for supplies from the Columbia County Cultural Coalition and the St. Helens Arts and Cultural Commission.

The St. Helens woman admits some of the motivation for a community-driven art installment came in the wake of division over other recently installed public art pieces in St. Helens.

"I know that sounds corny, but I just wanted something that we could agree on," she says.

"This Is Us" will remain in the Courthouse Plaza

until the first week of January.

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