By Daniel Perez-Crouse
For many, the television show Portlandia primarily conjures images of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein impersonating Pacific NW stereotypes in skits, even for citizens who walk by the actual Portlandia statue atop The Portland Building located downtown. Like other public works, the statue can blur in the background of daily commutes.
However, upon learning more about the history, creation and implementation of the iconic trident-wielding woman (second-largest copper repoussé statue in America after the Statue of Liberty), its visage now represents something far greater.
This realization came after reading Portland Public Sculptors: Monuments, Memorials and Statuary, 1900-2003 (America Through Time), the newest book from Fred Poyner IV, historian and author.
Broadly speaking, it chronicles 10 different sculptors and their key public sculptures, all contributing to the landscape and identity of Portland.
“That exploration of public art, how it came to be, how it has served the public in terms of identity and how it has changed over time – that drives a lot of my passion, interest and research,” Poyner said. “A sculptor and their studio are half the picture.”
The other half is how their commissions came to be. For example, Alice Cooper’s trailblazing journey created what is now Washington Park’s Sacajawea – and is a reflection of The Suffragist movement’s progress, while representing NW women history.
“It’s helpful to have visuals convey that history,” said Poyner.
He clarifies that this is more a book about Portland sculptors, rather than about the city itself; an important distinction considering many of the artists are not from the Pacific NW.
Looking through the eyes of these artists and their works, one gets a good historical account of the city’s lifespan in this particular era.
Whether it be seeing how a powerful, 19th-century patron in the form of David P. Thompson-commissioned works like Elk (created by Roland Hinton Perry) to advocate Portland’s greatness with a practical and grandiose creation, or the more recent ascendancy of municipal art commissions as told through Raymond Kaskey’s Portlandia – there’s plenty of interesting information imparted about the area’s history.
Poyner has an extensive 26 years of experience in the museum industry, including curatorial roles with the Museum of Northwest Art, Texas Maritime Museum, Washington State Historical Society and The National Nordic Museum.
In particular, The Washington State Historical Society is where his passion for public sculpture and statuary bloomed.
“I had access to their James A. Wehn sculpture collection. That is when it really began for me in terms of Northwest sculptures and how their works have lasted over time,” he said.
Wehn’s most iconic piece, located in Seattle, Washington, is Chief Seattle at Tilikum Place, one of Poyner’s favorite statues of all time.
Its approach to realistically capturing the visage of a Native American figure in a symbolically progressive way inspired him.
“It was a great thing and moved us forward as a society in promoting Native American identity and culture,” he said.
Poyner’s first book, The First Sculptor of Seattle: The Life and Art of James A. Wehn, was entirely dedicated to the life and works of Wehn. This led to another book, with a more expanded scope, Seattle Public Sculptors: Twelve Makers of Monuments, Memorials and Statuary, 1909-1962; which the new Portland book is a companion piece to.
One reason Poyner was “very satisfied” with this book is he spoke with sculptors James Lee Hansen and Raymond Kaskey.
“Being able to access a primary source for that kind of historical detail is invaluable and I want to thank James, Ray and Elizabeth Hansen (James’ wife) for their time.”
Poyner gets a thrill out of finding connections amongst the sculptors and their works. One example, he notes, “is the Leonard Wells Volk ‘Life Mask of Lincoln’, and how George Fite Waters used this years later to help model another sculpture of Abraham Lincoln. That “ah-ha” moment of discovery is great.”
Ultimately, he hopes the book can be a resource for people to edify themselves on the relevance and history of statuary and the discourse around it. This is unintentionally prescient considering the renewed fervor around public statues amidst social justice movements.
In fact, he says several of the pieces mentioned in this book have been impacted after its publishing.
In regard to whether a statue that’s been up for a long time should come down, be removed, or relocated, he says “it’s a dialogue that involves sculptors, creators, stakeholders and the community,” and these groups should be engaged in such a process.
Poyner himself tries to take an objectivist view as historian.
“In my books, I don’t pass judgement, but I do try to prove as much factual detail as I can.”
He stressed that it’s important to learn the facts about each respective piece and the context it was created in, versus the context we have of it now; which contributes to a better understanding of our current society, how we got here and making our dialogue laced with a more nuanced understanding.
He reminds us that we have a stake in the pieces surrounding us too. “Those are your sculptures. That doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want to them. There’s a slight distinction there. But that is your sculpture and you have a say in its present and future.”
Speaking of the future, where is Poyner’s non-fiction journey headed? Another Pacific NW city? Somewhere east?
Try the whole country.
“I want to do a survey on how American sculptors of the past 150 years or so portray Native Americans,” Poyner said.
Building off similar topics alluded to in his prior works, this will be a nationwide study/evaluation of how Native American statuary has evolved and differed over time and what influenced that.
“It’s not going to be an easy topic to research or write about,” he said. In this pursuit, he has a team of peer reviewers to help him.
In the meantime, you can find Portland Public Sculptors at various retailers and if it gives you the historical, statuary bug, Poyner says people can satiate that by consulting libraries, repositories and other facilities full of dedicated people who work hard to preserve the history around this topic and make that information publicly available.
“All you have to do is ask,” he said.
Image courtesy of Arcadia Publishing