Sunday, August 14, 2011

Portland's First Thursday Art & People Promenade

Portland’s First Thursday gallery walk is a time view art and watch people. From its humble beginnings, it has become an institution that crescendos every year in August, when the weather is best. This year we experienced the event with the McSordyl family and Rob and thousands of others.

What is First Thursday?

On the first Thursday of every month, art galleries in Portland extend their hours into the evening. For the serious galleries, this is the opening night for artists. A few galleries still offer nibbles, but that has diminished dramatically since the early days, when many galleries offered free wine and cheese and crackers.

In addition to established galleries, artists have one-night stands along NW 13th Avenue (pictured above), which becomes a busy promenade in summer. Nearby, guerrilla artists find a parking spot, plug the meter, and offer their works on random sidewalks. The variety is wide: paintings, glass, gliclee, photography, jewelry. . . . Some of the art is achingly beautiful or miraculously creative. Other works drive people to whisper, “That’s art? I could do that.” Prices range from a few bucks to tens of thousands of dollars. All who pay attention to the art react and think.

Other businesses get in on the summer action. Some mobile food carts roll in to help feed the masses. For example, we grabbed food from Koi Fusion along with Kim & John and their two young boys. Smart shop owners in the busy areas stay open or plan special events for the night. This August night, a clothing store carded young people lined up lined up for beer and music inside. A normally quiet coffee shop drew my attention with tropical music and dancing. Kitchencru, on Broadway & Flanders, had a mini food & wine fair.

The stated reason is art. The other attraction has always been people.

The People.

Who you see depends on the month, the micro-area, and the time of night.

Early on a summer evening, it’s everybody: young, older, singles, couples and families. Some look very hip and others less so. The older folks and families depart earlier, leaving the rest to fill the restaurants and bars. As we were heading out of the Pearl District, we noticed many younger women dressed to kill and men hoping to be slaughtered.

The winter months provide less of a circus. A higher percentage of people circulating among the galleries appear more interested in art, which is easier to appreciate without the throng.

Certain areas and galleries draw their particular clientele. For example, winter or summer, you can always find a younger, more alt crowd around the Everett Street Lofts.

Where in Portland is First Thursday?

The short answer: West side including the Pearl and Downtown. (Galleries on Northeast Alberta Avenue extend hours on the Last Thursday, which is a very different scene.)

The epicenter is the Pearl District, where upscale galleries mix with art schools and street fair vendors. Fine dining, martini bars, and pizza joints round out the area. (One of my current faves is Irving Street Kitchen.) In fact, it was the art galleries that helped name the district. Back when the neighborhood was more industrial, there were a few “pearls” such as an art gallery here or there. Now, an industrial shop is the oddity. Here’s a map of some of the galleries.

Just across Broadway from the Pearl District is the Everett Street Lofts. A lease condition upon some of these live-work spaces requires the creative tenant to open for First Thursday at least nine times per year. One never knows what he or she find there. One month, I desired a gorgeous hanging fabric. Another month, an artist entertained me with “spin art,” which involved using a regular room fan to apply paint. Yet another month, a proprietor offered all the wine I wanted for $10 plus a raffle: I put my $5 ticket(s) in the cup by the art I wanted. I actually won a piece, but I think they gave me the wrong one. (Creative? Yes; Organized? No.) A walk around this block can be the most provocative of the art experiences on First Thursday. In August, Everett Street Lofts opened its roof top for art, music and a cash bar (pictured above).

Another few galleries open in what was the epicenter in the 1980s, around SW First and Second Aves. Here’s their map.

History: Who started First Thursday?

Seven galleries collaborated to create the event and advertise it with notices through the U.S. Mail. Their goal was to increase visibility and draw more of the public to galleries. The seven founding galleries were: Jamison Thomas Gallery, Laura Russo, Elizabeth Leach, Blackfish Gallery, Hoffman Gallery at the Oregon School of Arts and Crafts, Lawrence Gallery, and the Augen Gallery. The founders worked with other galleries, who agreed to stay open, even though they did not pay for the mailers. (History from an interview with William Jamison in 1989.)

William Jamison believed that art nourishes the soul. Jamison’s spirit still brings people together at Jamison Square. Had he lived until 2011, I’m sure he’d be pleased to see how many different souls experience the diverse array of art forms during First Thursday.