Local artists Sadé Beasley, Mat Randol and Bobby Fouther spent last summer creating art and music in Northeast Portland through an art residency program called Art Saved My Life. The month-long paid residencies offered each of these artists time and space to use art to heal from trauma and oppression.
What is a safe space?
“A ‘safe space’ is one that gives us the autonomy to be exactly who we please - as individuals, and as a large community of BIPOC [Black and Indigenous People/Person(s) of Color],” said Janessa Narciso, “one that doesn't give us anxiety by overexerting their power; a space that gives us creative freedom to express ourselves with our bodies and art; and the liberty to take care of and celebrate our people. Doing so without the underlying aggressive (or microaggressive) tone of: ‘We know how to do this better than you.’”
“I prefer the term safer spaces because it's nearly impossible to create a completely safe space,” said André Middleton. “In general safer spaces are spaces where all that attend our events, enter with an understanding that we all deserve to be free from harm and that we are all on the lookout for people who are causing harm to others.”
The collaborative behind Art Saved My Life – Young, Gifted, Black/Brown (Y.G.B.) Portland, Deep Under Ground, Gentrification is WEIRD! and Friends of Noise – came together to address what they saw as a big need in Portland: safe spaces for people and artists of color who are dealing with displacement due to a gentrifying Portland.
It might surprise people to hear that Portland lacks safe spaces for art and music. After all, greater Portland ranks near the top across the nation when it comes to quality of life.
A growing job market, a renowned public transportation system, a vibrant arts and culture scene, and more than 17,000 acres of parks, trails and natural areas all contribute to making the region livable - a vision regional leaders have been working toward since the early 1990s.
But these resources haven’t been shared equally by everyone.
“It’s almost a paradox: The region has become more unlivable for people of color,” said André Middleton, executive director of Friends of Noise.
“I think it's fair to say that organizations like [Prosper Portland, formerly the Portland Development Commission] the PDC and Metro have historically made a lot of decisions that have had a negative impact on communities of color,” he said.
Middleton points to the displacement of Black families from their historic neighborhoods in North and Northeast Portland due to rising rents, which adds to the state’s long history of redlining and other racist policies and practices that led to disparities in home ownership.
“It’s hard to track stress and anxiety and fear,” he said. “It’s much easier to track rent, property values, population changes. While all those things are real, dealing with stress is just as real even if it is a little bit ill-defined and invisible.”
The source of stress isn’t limited to housing displacement. A growing body of research shows that stress among people of color builds over time from experiencing racism and discrimination - overt, covert and even perceived. These stressors cause real harm to health, including higher rates of depression and mortality.
Sadé Beasley’s large emotional portraits delve deep, telling stories of depression and redemption.
The first thing one sees in Sadé Beasley’s home studio is a portrait of a woman on the wall. The colors are bold and vibrant as the woman’s face, masked in a black balaclava, contrasts against a red desert backdrop. Tajana is her name. Read more.
Mat Randol’s soundscapes encourage self-acceptance particularly among those living with anxiety and depression.
Musician Mat Randol describes himself as a shy and reserved person. But he speaks boldly through the elaborate and atmospheric soundscapes he creates in his music. Read more.
Old family photos showing Black settlers in Canada inspire Bobby Fouther, who will feature them in a new art project about family history.
Bobby Fouther has a favorite family photo, a keepsake he has held onto for a long time. It is a photo of his grandmother who died of sickle cell anemia before he was born. Not a posed portrait, but a candid shot of her visiting relatives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Read more.
The Hill Block Project, Pathway 1000, Albina Vision and the N/NE Preference Policy are examples of efforts underway in Portland to root Black people back into their historic neighborhoods and restore their connections to these places.
Healing through art
As a community organizer and activist, Natalie Figueroa, co-founder of Y.G.B. Portland, understands that the country’s medical system often fails people of color.
“Those systems are set up under white supremacy,” Figueroa said. “Historically... Black and Brown people have been treated really poorly by our medical system, by our mental health system.”
Figueroa and Middleton, along with other partners, advocate for tapping into art and music as way to help overcome trauma, discontent and oppression. It’s why they conceived of Art Saved My Life to create a stress-free zone to heal.
“Creating that space for them while also being able to provide them with an income is super monumental to our community,” said Janessa Narciso, organizer with Deep Under Ground. “It’s unheard of, really.”
"I appreciate the fact that they gave a stipend," Fouther said, "because artists - we're struggling so much for every little thing we get... It was nice to just have somebody say, ‘You've been selected for this. Here's a stipend. Go do what you want to do.’"
Money for the stipends came from a grant from Metro’s Community Placemaking program. Organizers say Art Saved My Life’s mission aligns with the livability goals that Metro aims to achieve in its work.
“We are here so that Black and Brown people can reclaim their art and their words and their music,” Figueroa said. She recalls how unwelcome she and her friends felt at venues that played hip hop but catered to a primarily white crowd.
The organizers of the residency program built a network that hosted Randol’s music performances and the art space where Beasley created her paintings.
“If we create spaces for the people who are the most ignored and they feel loved and they feel good, then everybody in the room is going to feel loved and good,” Figueroa said.
“It is a bit of pushing back,” Middleton said. “You know it's been very hard for a lot of people to see the amount of change that has happened in the metro area over the course of the last three to five years,” he said.
People of color have long felt targeted by biased enforcement of rules, especially in venues that support Black artists, even though city officials deny such biased enforcement. In 2014, the closing of the Blue Monk nightclub during a hip hop show sparked community outrage, deepening the feeling that government officials were waging a war on hip hop and Black community spaces.
Figueroa said earning a grant from the regionally-elected government helps communities of color rebuild “trust and find out who in those [government] systems we can work with and we can trust, so that we can then encourage our community to dig deeper and to be more present, but in spaces that aren’t going to take advantage of them.”
Middleton doesn’t think one agency or a single grant opportunity will correct historic wrongs, but he’s pleased with the opportunity - one that he knows wouldn’t have existed 20 years ago.
“I'm happy to be a participant in what could be a turning of the corner and hopefully part of the engine that maintains the momentum and the turning of the corner,” Middleton said.
“The best kind of placemaking, which is what Metro is embarking on, is the kind that really considers the history of inequity of power and resources, financial and otherwise,” said Roya Amirsoleymani, who served on the grant program’s advisory group during the 2017 and 2018 cycles. She’s the artistic director and curator of public engagement at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art.
“So how do we start to tip the scales and rectify that and strive for a more equitable distribution of wealth, power, and resources? Placemaking is one of the ways in which that can happen,” she said.
“Art Saved My Life didn't save the world,” said Donovan Smith, journalist and creator of the Gentrification is WEIRD! project. “What it did do was offer a break, a pause for reflection, opportunities for information and to build community. It was four powerful forces coming together, synergizing to sift through the good, bad and ugly of how we're living in the complicated place we call home.”
Stay up-to-date on upcoming events hosted by Y.G.B. Portland, Deep Underground, Gentrification is WEIRD! and Friends of Noise.
Visit the Community Placemaking grant program page for more details.
Visit our Community Placemaking 2017 grantees and 2018 grantees pages.
Metro’s investments, such as these placemaking grants, are strategically focused to help local communities create or sustain the vibrant places envisioned in the Region’s 2040 Growth Concept.
The work of the Community Placemaking grant recipients aligns with Metro's strategic plan to advance racial equity, diversity and inclusion.
Read the strategic plan: