“I love reading some of the artist’s statements. There’s an art form there. Are you gonna be in the art show, as far as your artwork? Your portrait?”CHRIS EMERY
I was first introduced to Chris Emery from afar. When driving into the Jantzen Beach RV Park, where I live, I would see him walking through the neighborhood and notice his dapper fashion: a black wool button up coat, iconic fedora, and long white beard. He resembled a close friend and grandfather figure to me, Vincent Mariani, which made me affectionately want to connect. I made mental notes to seek him out on my walks to try to strike up a conversation with him, to collaborate with him on an art project, or even just to know his name. Throughout the pandemic, I put the desire on the back burner, because I wanted to be sensitive to the possibility of exposure and protect as many people as possible.
A year later, though, I started to attend community events at the RV Park, like Bingo and the Wednesday Luncheons. I was surprised to get my secret wish to meet this mysterious man when he attended the luncheon and was sitting just one table away from me! When he walked into the room, I suddenly felt nervous. Not only had I built up my meeting with him in my head, but when I talked to others about the “gentleman in the fedora,” many people at the Wednesday luncheon talked about him as if he were a local celebrity. Summoning my courage, I sat down at his table to introduce myself and approach the “ask” of him being a part of The Art We Value: an art project where I draw residents with artwork that they select and value in the Jantzen Beach RV Park and the Hayden Island Mobile home Community. I’ve been using this project to claim what I’ve already been doing, getting to know my neighbors, while using the subject of art to do so. His reaction to my ask was one of humble gentleness that made me like him even more. “There have to be others that are prettier than me that you would want to draw!”, he would tell me over and over again. I tried to convey to him that I would not only be honored, but ecstatic to have the opportunity to draw his style and caring smile.
Through text message, we planned to be at the RV clubhouse where he brought a found artwork that he bought at a garage sale in Alberta, Portland. Our conversation made me think about how gentrification has pushed many people to the edges of Portland into the next town, Vancouver, Washington (just over the state border) because it was cheaper. Living on Hayden Island in an RV perhaps was one step before being relocated from your home town completely. By talking through the lense of art, his stories, along with others, I’ve learned how the art that my neighbors select echoes lived experiences of ups and downs and ultimately what makes each person feel at home.
The following conversation is before I drew Chris’s portraits and the first time we sat down and talked about art and the Art We Value art project:
Shelbie Loomis: You were saying that you collect art and you have some in storage, but the size of the RV is kind of a limitation. Can you talk about that and what you like to collect?
Chris Emery: It is tough. Yeah. I started out collecting posters back in the 60s and had a gigantic collection of them.
Shelbie: What kind of posters were they?
Chris: Rock and roll posters. And I started doing light shows back then— liquid lights and stuff. The majority Experience Music Project- Jimmy Hendricks 1,000 posters. Another collection went to pay rent for 500 posters, private collectors. McMenamins Crystal Ballroom 30 or 40 rare and expensive. Another collection varies bands, X-ray, underground. Paying Rent and Storage. Bands and clubs, arts card.
The 1,000 poster collection went to the “Experience Music Project” now called the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle Washington. Another collection went to pay rent when I sold a 1960s collection of 500 posters to a private collector. Then I sold 30 or 40 rare posters to the McMenamins Crystal Ballroom. I used to attend these events, and give out posters. Then I started collecting gallery cards that describe artwork or exhibitions. So at one time, I probably had maybe the largest collection of Portland gallery cards in Portland. I lost about half of them due to a water incident.
Shelbie: So it sounds like you already go to galleries and art shows?
Chris: Oh yeah, for decades and decades.
Shelbie: Tell me a little bit about your history of how that’s been valuable to you?
Chris: I got into it because my sister was a beatnik, kind of. When I was 14 or 15, she got me involved in the music scene and introduced me to everybody. I was AFRU Gallery, Portland. going to be a beatnik. Then I started reading poetry. And then there was a showing at the Fountain Gallery with poetry readings that I went to and was like “Wow, this is cool and like a lot of fun.” And I’ve been going to galleries ever since. You know, tonight I’m going to AFRU Gallery, Portland. Have you ever heard of that? It’s really a cool one. It’s a gallery space that showcases eclectic work from emerging artists with monthly First Friday events. They have bands playing tonight. They’re gonna have Santa Claus wrestling. Wacky people, these artists… way fun people.
Shelbie: It seems like you’re an artist or poet yourself. Do you write poetry?
Chris: No, no, I write just for myself. I don’t have a publisher or anything like that. When I die, they will look at all my stuff and laugh. They’ll say, “Why didn’t they kill him earlier?” [laughs] Yeah, I did video special effects and titling for a video that I was working on. And then I got into silk screening, vinyl cutting, and ancillary services. Everything except actually doing anything.
Shelbie: I mean, I feel like it’s all the same vein, the same tree, the same family, you know. And especially the appreciation of the work that you have done in your life. What I’m really interested in is trying to understand my neighbors and I’m realizing that all of my neighbors have these wonderful, really rich lives they live. And they have such amazing histories.
Chris: Yeah, you get to put out a book with the text?
Shelbie: Yeah, I’ve been doing small projects in our RV park for the last three years. But I’m now concentrating on my thesis, called The Art We Value. The idea is that these portraits I draw of each of you with a piece of art you value will be put together in a show that I am going to show at the Northshore Club House, at the RV park. And then the drawings will be at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University. So then you can come to your art opening. See yourself up on the wall!
Chris: As long as it’s not a wanted poster! Sounds like a good thing. How do you like Portland so far?
Shelbie: I mean, I’ve only been here in Portland for three years. So I’m learning so much about the culture and the history
Chris: And the bucks! Where are the bucks at? How are you going to put out a product, book, DVD, or sell the pieces themselves?
Shelbie: Well, I don’t know about selling the pieces quite yet. I think I just want to just do a local show here for the residents. And then there will be a publication. I don’t know about selling. I have a weird thing about selling artwork. I’m kind of one of those people that would just rather give them away, believe it or not. I will make sure to give you your own smaller versions to keep, along with a copy of the publication.
So, in your opinion, what is the value in art? Why should we have art?
Chris: What an interesting question. To me, one of the things that interests me is that art is being crammed and crammed into smaller spaces all the time. Dimensional art gives depth to a room; lighting techniques can expand space visually. With my stuff I like to assemble these pieces and then photograph them and then pack them away in boxes, never to see them again.
Shelbie: Can talk about your history of living in the park and how you came to be here?
Chris: I had a spot down on Alberta Street, where I was going to open an art gallery. I wanted to show photographs of people with their tattoos and 3D sculptures of their tattoos. But the rent went up, which kicked me out of Portland, and now, Oregon. I hate and loathe moving, so I have it all packed in the van. And now if I ever move, it’ll probably all fall in the dust. The van was the only viable option.
Shelbie: How long have you been here in the park?
Chris: About 10 years. I’m ingrown. [laughs]
Shelbie: As I’m getting to know everyone here, the park seems to create a type of relationship with neighbors. For example, if someone doesn’t have something, you go and ask your neighbor and there seems to be an exchange. Do you feel like there’s an exchange on your side of the park with your neighbors?
Chris: You know, I dumpster dive continuously. I hate to see good stuff get munched. So I drag it out and put it on my patio and if anybody comes up and they need something on the patio, they can have it. It also distracts the thieves that come through the park, so you know, it’s like, “Here, I have a bunch of useless stuff—fill your buckets! Just don’t grab anything that I might need for the van!”
Shelbie: I talked to a person in the park named Alan two years ago, who has been taking different things from the dumpster and likes making them into wonderful art pieces in his yard. The squirrels have been burying stuff in there and things are growing. He showed me a rose bush he keeps from a squirrel who buried a rose seed in his salvaged planters. The seed grew to be a rose bush and it’s his prized plant. It’s interesting how things take on a new life.
Chris: You know, I’ll pick up something and find later on that I needed it or somebody else needs it, or a missing part turns up and it’s pretty magical. I’ve got a piece that a friend of mine did for Burning Man. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it’s a guy with a hard hat, kind of hunched over. The squirrels have turned it into their home and its plants have grown over it and I can’t just bring myself to throw it away.
Shelbie: Is this out in your front yard? Do you have a picture of it? I’d love to see a picture of it.
Chris: Yeah, I could bring a picture to next Wednesday’s Luncheon at the clubhouse. He did this really great thing that I hadn’t anticipated. He even helped me move it into the car. He gave me this DVD on how it was made and what it looked like at Burning Man. You know, that’s one thing I like about art is when people give you something they like– they are conversation starters. You have this little hidden bit of knowledge. It’s like “Ooh, well, let me tell you about this!” I love reading some of the artist’s statements. There’s an art form there. Are you gonna be in the art show, as far as your artwork? Your portrait?
Shelbie: Oh, that’s a good question. No one has asked me that. I’ve thought about drawing my partner, to put him in the project. But I haven’t selected myself. That’s a good question. What do you think?
Chris: I think you definitely should.
Shelbie: It’s not vain? To include myself in this project with a portrait?
Chris: Oh no! Hey, one of those things about starving artists, you gotta get out of the basement and get out there. “Hey, I’m here! Give me money!”
Shelbie: You know, I’m in this program called Art and Social Practice. It’s graduate students who work out in the community in different capacities. And one of the things social practitioners like to constantly debate is how much we put ourselves in the project. Because what we really center is the community that we’re working with.
Chris: You’re a part of this community.
Shelbie: You’re right. It’s a great ongoing conversation about how much do we insert ourselves (artists), and how much do we not insert ourselves within projects about the community? I didn’t think about that until you just brought that up. And now I’m gonna go home and I’m gonna contemplate my whole life. Um, wow, Chris, you have me stumped. Thank you for that. That’s a gift to me. I think at this point, because you brought it up, I probably will. It’s gonna be weird drawing myself.
Shelbie Loomis (she/her) is a socially engaged artist and illustrator. She makes projects and drawings with communities and participants about complex grieving, alternative housing, and exchange culture through times of crisis. Originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico she now lives in Portland, Oregon.
Chris Emery (he/him) is a collector, thinker and appreciator of poetry, art, music and utopian literature. He has worked in tech and hospitality. His collections include music posters and ephemera from bands and clubs in the 60s, 70s and 80s from when he worked helping with light shows for bands like the Grateful Dead and the Byrds. He is affectionately referred to as a renaissance man of many philosophies. Chris Emery describes himself in the following way: I am a semi structure in time spaces. And neither am I. Take that Shorder.
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.
Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.
Sponsored by the Portland State University Art and Social Practice MFA Program