The three Portland-based artists – Reed, Johnson-Bey, and King – came together to present their art on the evening of Feb. 1, hoping to expose Portland residents to their visions and voices.
The exhibit, titled “American Me: The Reclamation of Three Artists,” features photography, mixed media sculpture, furniture design, and woodwork from the three artists. The art works will be on display in Hatfield Hall for the full month of February, and many of the pieces are for sale.
Through their art, Reed, Johnson-Bey, and King give their own perspectives of American society and history. Each artist's individual body of work is impressive on its own – but when viewed in conversation with the other artists, each collection takes on an entirely new and powerful meaning.
"This artwork for us is a process in how we become ourselves – and by extension become American. The idea is that we don't name the show for us, but that we name it for everyone," said King on the naming of the exhibit.
Cole Reed has a pragmatist’s approach to equity: “If you don’t fit at the table, you build a bigger table,” she says. Of course, she’s not talking about literal tables, but rather the much larger table that is American history and society.
Reed is a mixed media artist and industrial designer from Chicago, specializing in furniture design from salvaged materials and wood burning.
She has been an artist since an early age, but really started to hit her stride in university when she began experimenting with wood and metal work. Her aunt taught her how to use a wood burner, and she fell in love with the process.
A number of Reed’s wood burning pieces depict skeletal silhouettes of naked trees and their root systems, etched into salvaged wood and dyed or stained. But like the trees themselves, the pieces go much deeper than meets the eye – they tell a very personal story.
"With trees, the root system is more important than what's on top,” said Reed. “The rooted, planted trees represent my personal journey and the history we are working with right now as Americans.”
She recalls distinctly the first time a stranger used a racial slur to address her on the streets of Portland, and used that incident to propel her artistic drive. “I knew that I had a choice: to stay angry and upset, or to start using my artwork to promote change," she said.
A few of these pieces, which Reed calls “The Social Trees of Justice” are on display at Hatfield Hall, alongside a mixed media piece called “Unhung” – another highly symbolic and powerful sculpture made from agricultural materials worked by African American slaves – and a chair made from salvaged metals.
“The weight of it is the number of years black Americans were enslaved in the United States,” said Reed of the “Unhung” piece. “It's very long and lean, and it says 'American' across the top. It's a mixed media piece – a mixture of resins, coffee, cotton, corn, wheat. All of the things that slaves worked, as far as I knew. It’s a personal biopic of my version of the story.”
Reed, her wife Dayna, and their son moved to Portland from Arizona in 2015, seeking a place that was legally accommodating to same-sex parents. Together they own and manage the Greenhaus Boutique and Gallery in North Portland, where they feature a rotating selection of local artists’ work as well as a boutique selling Reed’s hand-crafted furniture creations and other artisan crafts.
Marquis Johnson-Bey started his journey as a photographer in 2009, capturing basketball games with legendary Harlem Globetrotters Les “Pee Wee” Harrison and Meadow “Meadowlark” Lemon. Since then, he has gone on to create a number of photography projects centered around his experience as an American and a Moorish man.
From his auspicious beginnings, Johnson-Bey went on to develop a 7-year, ongoing photo series depicting a wide variety of outdoor basketball hoops. From well-maintained hoops in public parks, to milk crates with the bottoms cut out and nailed to telephone poles, to little plastic kiddie hoops standing solitary in back alleys -- Johnson-Bey’s images are striking on their own, and awe-inspiring when viewed as a whole.
But none of the pictures have people in them. Johnson-Bey wants the images to be universal enough to evoke memories and nostalgia in his viewers, so he decided not to focus on the players. The emphasis of the images is in the settings, environments, and textures of the hoops themselves – an idea reinforced by the title of the project, “Where Did You Learn.”
"I didn't want this to be about players,” he said. “I wanted it to be a photo series where the fan can relish in his or her own experience with the images. I would be talking to people about the images, and they would immediately have these flashbacks to good memories with friends, family, neighbors. The imagination just takes off as soon as you see them."
Another of Johnson-Bey’s photo projects, however, puts people front and center. Simply titled “Moors,” the series documents the lives and culture of Moorish Americans – some staged, others candid. The pictures give a glimpse into a community of Americans that have reclaimed a cultural and ethnic historical identity, in the wake of the systematic historical erasure of African American history that was a result of slavery.
Ten photos from the “Where Did You Learn” series, three from the “Moors” series, and six urban landscape photos are on display at the American Me exhibit.
Johnson-Bey was born and raised in Portland, and is a Deputy Sheik of the Moorish Science Temple. He says that he works part-time as a chef at the Abyssinian Kitchen in southeast Portland in addition to his art.
Brenna King appreciates stillness and silence.
"I don't want a conversation about my art, necessarily,” she said. “I don't want people to try to make comparisons. It's kind of like the Hokku poetry that I write – you don't make metaphors, you simply describe what is. It's all internal. I might be asking people to just keep it inside, to reflect."
This philosophy of meditative self-reflection and quiet mindfulness informs much of Brenna King’s art. Her photography portraits are muted and intimate. Her ink and watercolor work is largely in monochrome, featuring simple organic shapes on stark white canvas. Her writing is descriptive and precise, but still evocative. King’s work is influenced by a minimalist aesthetic, but avoids the emotionlessness and sterility that often characterizes minimalist art.
Fifteen pieces from her most recent work – macro floral photography – are on display at Hatfield Hall. Each image features a different plant or flower in super-close-up, emphasizing subtle colors and textures that often go unnoticed by the naked eye.
King, who is primarily a portrait photographer, said that she only recently began experimenting with floral photography after stumbling across old macro lenses that belonged to her late father. “It's so fundamental. You have to slow down,” she said of her newfound subject. “You have to create space to enjoy something that is so quiet, so small, and so new. We move so fast that you don't get to see the veins in the plants.”
Whereas Cole Reed and Marquis Johnson-Bey want to spark discussions with their art, King says that her ideal form of audience engagement is mindful stillness. “[The image] doesn't need to look like anything, you don't need to be able to describe your emotions. Just slow down and maybe try to learn something. Or maybe not – maybe don't learn anything at all,” she said.
King – born on the Virgin Islands and raised in Missoula, Montana – began taking her art and photography seriously after finishing a career in the military in 2007. In addition to her art, King hosts a storytelling podcast called All Together Human. She is a practicing Buddhist of 14 years.