Photo by Aaron Johanson

By Midge Pierce

“Serendipity!” That’s how SE artist, entrepreneur and community volunteer John Laursen, a winner of this year’s Governor’s Arts Award, describes his career that began with a broken printing press. His work now spans five decades of typography, design, writing, editing for historical interpretive displays.

Laursen says he bought the press 50 years ago from a church at SE 9th and Pine St., to repair it so he could print anti-war leaflets in his basement. En route home, he picked up a hitchhiker who had permission to publish a calligraphed version of a book by Beat poet (and Pulitzer Prize winner) Gary Snyder.

The chance encounter kickstarted his design and production of books of poetry, art, history and photography and commissions for text-based public art.

His projects have ranged from typographic design for the Oregon Holocaust Memorial and the Walk of the Heroines at Portland State to the zoo transit station and the entryway to Mt. Tabor neighborhood

Of particular interest to local history buffs is his porcelain enamel depiction at 2014 SE 11th St. of Stephen’s Addition, the Eastside’s first non-native settlement by a seminal figure who launched ferry service connecting the East and West banks of the Willamette River.

At his Press-22 studio, Laursen has produced some 200 books including the award-winning Wild Beauty: Photographs of the Columbia River Gorge, 1867-1957. He is a recipient of  the Stewart H. Holbrook Literary Legacy Award for “defining the public face” of literature in Oregon for decades.

Laursen says his career arc expanded from putting words on paper to putting words into stone, bronze, steel, granite and porcelain enamel.

His ongoing project is compiling a photographic history of Northwest Native Americans, a process Laursen says delved deeply into the havoc wrought by white settlers on the region’s First People, and more than once has brought him to tears.

A Reed College Political Science graduate who stayed to establish a home and business in Portland, he has been active in Mt. Tabor reservoir preservation, civic boards and founding of the Northwest Photography Archive.

To celebrate his 50-year career, Laursen had planned an Anniversary party. Then, COVID-19 hit.

“The Governor’s Arts Award is far more rewarding than any celebration I could have imagined,” he said. “I never expected this.”

Laursen is one of two Portlanders to receive the state’s highest arts honor this year.