By Jack Rubinger
Discovering a mural in progress has been one of the best things to happen in the neighborhood between SE Gladstone St. and SE Cora Dr. Usually, we see murals already completed up on the sides of buildings, in open public spaces or roads, but this one is tucked away on a shady, tree-filled unimproved alley, so it feels like a continuation of the all the plants we normally see in Portland during the summer.
On an unseasonably sunny and warm October afternoon, Anna Miller had her cans of paint spread out on a tarp and was painting her plant-filled mural on an old rickety fence behind a home owned by Marcos and Beth Wright-Kuhns. The alley gets a fair amount of traffic, including dog walkers, kids walking to and from Grout Elementary school and cars and trucks taking the scenic route.
“This is a nice neighborhood. I’ve been seeing the same people every day, so one of the most fun parts of this project is getting live feedback,” said Miller. “At 2:15 pm, school lets out and kids come by. I get to talk to people every day and build relationships.”
Wright-Kuhns’ twin boys who go to Grout have also gotten involved in the painting design. They wanted to see a jungle included in the mural or something from Pokemon, but the boys are happy. “I think it’s lovely,” said one the boys. A hole in the fence leads to a flower center, which the boys use now as a spy hole.
“I used to work with Marcos. It was their idea to do a mural which they had been talking about for a while,” said Miller. “I’ve been here about four weeks, working every day for three to eight hours. I live in the neighborhood, too.”
The mural, which is still unnamed but signed by the artist, consists of repeated patterns of blackberries, wild strawberries, lupine and echinacea. Miller explained that she first digitally drew the design on an iPad, then got the design approved by the homeowners. She used regular exterior house paint. What is surprising is that this is her first outdoor mural project. She typically only does interiors.
There were some challenges associated with painting a 55-foot fence, with uneven texture that goes downhill. Before Miller started the project, she washed and primed the fence, then did background colors, then started painting the design. She also came up with the color scheme digitally. She bought 10 colors of paint and mixed some to create new colors because paint is expensive.
“A lot of my work centers on patterns,” said Miller. “The point of a mural is to view it from a distance, so scale is important and the elements need to flow together. Also, you’re working in sun and shade, so the light is constantly changing while you’re working.”
Miller, who is originally from rural Pennsylvania, is heavily influenced by the land, history and traditional folk arts of her regional community. She’s been lucky to pocket many fresh perspectives all over the world since then and holds all of it close to her here in the Pacific Northwest.
She’s also a printmaker and illustrator and much of her work centers around pattern-making, folk traditions, repetition and color. She said she’s been inspired by her grandmother Roma who taught her traditional Pennsylvania Dutch folk art as a child. “Flowers, leaves, birds and patterns are often gestures to the classic folk art motifs of my ancestors,” she said. “I tend to work in loose collections that revolve around one shape, motif or concept, often moving between mediums while following a single thread.”
Miller loves that murals make art accessible to so many people and she would love to do more of these types of projects. Murals encourage people to slow down, admire their surroundings and expand thought and create conversations. What more could one ask from public art? For more information about Anna Miller, visit annatrellaruthmiller.com and on Instagram @annatrellaruthmiller.
Following the completion of the project, she was taking some time off to travel.
Heading toward Halloween and November, it will be interesting to see how the mural looks in the shorter days of fall and winter.
Mural section photo by Jack Rubinger.