You must forgive me if my language about SE McLoughlin Boulevard is a bit crude. I refer to the Boulevard, actually a long strip of sleazy or derelict buildings, warehouses, and defunct businesses, as “the armpit of Portland.” It is fairly unsightly and often smelly.
McLoughlin Boulevard was originally US Route 99E, part of the major north-south Pacific Highway through Oregon’s Willamette Valley to California. US Route 99E had its heyday just after WWII until it was eclipsed by Interstate 5, finished in 1966. Thereafter, the Boulevard, demoted into Oregon Route 99E, declined as Portland grew. The decomposition of the Boulevard, helped along by the curbing of the highway which restricted access to businesses, was accompanied by its enclosure by warehouses and industrial compounds, all gone slightly to seed. The farmland and residences that had been behind its initial length of business ventures got pretty much decimated over the years by other kinds of cheaply built warehouses and small factories.
I first learned about McLoughlin Boulevard because, when we moved to Portland 18 years ago, the Pendleton Mill End fabric store was located along it. I would take the bus to the Mill End store; to return home, I had to cross 8 lanes of heartless traffic and wait for the return bus in front of The Odysseus, a saloon and strip joint. I avoided looking at the patrons — and they avoided looking at me!
It was that kind of street — an American urban highway that makes used car lots look good.
Still, however sleezy the street has become, it still speaks to my love of urban archeology and history. Jer and I have been investigating the Springwater Corridor bicycle/pedestrian trail that has a new bridge over SE McLoughlin. The Trail runs along Johnson Creek, a major urban creek wont to flood in the wet season and stink in the dry. But between the creek and the biking trail, there is a pretty wondrous set of scenes through the Portland cityscape, including McLoughlin Boulevard.
Springwater Trail over McLouglin, Oil on board, 18 x 24″
The advantage to the painter of this particular spot along McLoughlin Boulevard is that the Springwater Trail bridge goes over it at one of its less savory (and most fully itself) spots. The view from above is of the street, the traffic, the desolate buildings, working warehouses and small industrial buildings, an occasional private residence, lots of highway debris and macadam, Johnson Creek, bogs and wetlands surrounded by fencing, and the Oregon Liquor Control Board’s campus (which is a model of contemporary urban office architecture, including lawns, fountains, and winding drives.) All viewable from a quarter mile stretch of walking path.
So painting McLouglin, in many of its versions, became, over the last month or so, a passion with me.
McLouglin at Mid-day, Oil on canvas, 30 x 40″
I posted one of my McLoughlin photos earlier to A&P:
Ochoco Street from the Springwater Trail, Oil on board, 12 x 16″
Ochoco is a side street, running perpendicular to McLouglin. It is where you gain street access to the Springwater Trail near the bridge.
McLouglin, Early Morning, Oil on board, 18 x 24
McLouglin, 7AM at the Bog, oil on board, 12 x 16
McLouglin, Early Evening, Oil on canvas. 30 x 40″
Obviously I got caught up in that yellow paint that the two derelict buildings had in common. I made up stories about a traveling salesman with an excess of yellow paint on his hands; or, alternatively, an owner of both buildings who in 1952 was enthralled with the receipts from the tavern and the circular “entertainment” center, and upgraded them, using the peculiar ribbed roof (on the circular building) and the excessively yellow paint to signify his pride. Or perhaps it was more like 1964, when the street was already on its way down and business owners were desperate to bring in customers and the salesman sold the owner on the efficacy of yellow, how it would bring in hordes of excited customers.
But other tales can be told also. In 7 AM at the Bog, I was trying to recapture the moment (truthfully, not at 7 AM) when we parked alongside the derelict rectangular building, with its debris of a burned car in the parking lot. When I opened the car door, the sound of birds in the little triangular bog in the middle left of the painting overwhelmed the sounds of Boulevard traffic. Cattails grew behind the sagging fence and water fowl paddled through the reeds. I could only imagine how magical it must be on an early May morning and how astonishing life was, able to reconstitute itself in the most unlikely spots.
Amidst the warehouses and industrial buildings that can be seen from the trail are a couple of perfectly kempt and charming cottages, painted and spruced, with gardens in the rear. I saw a guy in a yellow ball cap wheeling a heap of grass to his compost heap behind his garden. I couldn’t fit him into the painting but he fit into the real scene perfectly. And up on the Trail itself a lone flutist wandered along the trail, making sweet sounds, like the birds, momentarily refuting the traffic noise. Almost a John Cage moment.
I think I could go back to McLoughlin and paint another 5 paintings without beginning to be bored. There’s something about the melange of history and lived existences that that view from the Trail gives to me. I can see a painting of the riparian zone being rehabilitated, just on the other side of the trail from the derelict rectangular building. I could paint the mysterious low brick building with no windows and a large parking lot, set into a grove of forbidding trees, across Johnson Creek from the riparian zone. I could even include the transient with his dog and rusty bike, peddling desultorily along the trail — maybe an erstwhile denizen of one of the yellow buildings when they were warm and alive.
In other words, these paintings are as much about my imaginative meanderings as they are about the place. And they are least about the paint and canvas, which are mere conveyances of the stories I hear in my mind.
So I’m wondering — Steve, in your abstracts, do you tell yourself stories? And Jay, that view through the window, all your slighly unfocused foam excavations and the chains within chains — what stories do they tell? Melanie, are the stories in the medieval scenes you love what attract you to them? I make up stories about Birgit’s paths, of course, and even her mud scenes are anecdotal. What place do stories, a medium based on time, have to do with canvas and paint, a medium based on a single sweeping moment, anyway?