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Regional Interests

Portland names new creative laureates

Portland has named two new creative laureates. The role was created in 2012 to serve as an ambassador and advocate for Portland’s arts community. Now, Leila Haile and Joaquin Lopez will share the title and follow in the footsteps of outgoing Creative Laureate Subashini Ganesan. All three artists join us for a conversation about the state of the arts in the city right now.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Geoff Norcross: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Geoff Norcross in for Dave Miller. For almost a decade now, the city of Portland has had a creative laureate. This is an artist who acts as the city’s official ambassador to the broader creative community. Two people have served in this role so far, and now, for the first time, two artists will share the role at the same time. Joaquin Lopez is a performing musician and counselor. Leila Haile is a dancer and co-founder of the Ori Gallery. They both have been named Creative Laureates for the city of Portland and they join us now. Joaquin, Leila, congratulations and welcome to the show.

Guests: Thank you so much.

Norcross: Subashini Ganesan is the outgoing Creative Laureate and she also joins us. Suba it’s good to have you as well.

Subashini Ganesan: Thank you so much.

Norcross: Let’s start with you Suba, since you’ve been in this role for a little while. Can you explain to us what is the role of the creative laureate?

Subashini Ganesan: Well, as you said, we are the official ambassadors and advocates for the creative community of our city, which is a short line for a really big job. So, I did it the way that I knew best, and the beauty about this designation is that each artist really gets to define what their work looks like. So, I worked on relationships. I worked on bringing resources to our independent performing community. So, I worked with what I knew, and I know well: creating relationships, working with community and celebrating artistry as much as possible.

Norcross: Why is that important? Why is it important for the city to have that link?

Subashini Ganesan: Often artists and creatives do not get a seat at the table. And with something like a designation, something like a creative laureate who is here in the city and being present, we can keep reminding everybody that we need to be at the table. Whether it’s about housing, whether it’s about houselessness, whether it’s about environmentalism, whether it’s about neighborhood safety, artists need to be at the table.

Norcross: You listed some big problems the city is facing right now. Can you give an example of what the artistic communities’ perspective can bring to an important issue? Like, homelessness? We’ll just pick one out of the list.

Subashini Ganesan: Sure. We actually have several artists who are working with our houseless communities, and the term mutual aid has become something really important in the last year. And we’re bringing our artistry into the work. So creating murals, making clay pots that then get sold and therefore bringing actual economic recovery to houseless folks. The creativeness that artists bring into these communities reminds us of the humanity of our houseless communities and that not only brings them healing, it could bring economic relationships as well.

Norcross: Joaquin and Leila, similar question to you: how do you see the role of an artist in making change in the city, and making change in the world for that matter?

Joaquin Lopez: Yeah. This is Joaquin. I think the artist plays this role where they really get to express the authenticity and the identity of a community. We when doing that, we create representation. And the community can see themselves and see what’s possible, right? And that’s what I think is real important about artists being 100% supported, 100% given the tools that they need just to do what they do best. We just create art and self-express.

Norcross: Leila, what do you think?

Leila Haile: Gosh, there’s just so much I feel like art is so intrinsically tied into how we operate as human beings, and I feel like something that the city is really missing is how creativity plays into politics and plays into policy and plays into the decisions we make for the betterment of ourselves as a whole, as a city. I’m really excited to see the synergy between artistry and decision making and public policy.

Norcross: Suba back to you. I want to focus on a couple of things you did in your time in this role. For starters, you created a questionnaire to understand what affordable meant to artists in terms of art space. Can you talk about that effort and tell me why it was important to you?

Subashini Ganesan: It was the first effort really that I brought into the role in 2018. And it was around the time when artists were losing studio space, and arts organizations were losing their venues. And I felt that real estate folks and our policy folks were talking about affordability for artists, but the artists themselves were again, as I say, were not at the table. So this was a very informal survey, a google form that went out, and over 240 artists responded across disciplines, to say what affordability means to them. How much can they spend on a studio? What should the studio look like? What is a safe space? So that was super important because it laid the groundwork, at least for me, to advocate on behalf of our larger community. I’m a choreographer, so I come with a knowledge for dancers, but this also gave me an opportunity to understand the larger community and disciplines needs.

Norcross: Last march, you created the Portland Artist Emergency Fund Relief Relief Fund, which distributed over $170,000 to 250 artists. How were you able to get that off the ground so quickly?

Subashini Ganesan: Oh, the scrappy tenacity that artists and creatives have. I called Kim Stafford, who was the Oregon Poet Laureate at that time, and I said ‘Kim, let’s do this’, and Kim said ‘yes’. So I called folks and you know, we were told on Friday the 13th, March 13th that we were going to lock down and on 18th we started the fund, announced it. And really, I thank the community. Again, it’s about relationships and it’s about the trust that our community put into us so that we can actually get money out fast to independent performing artists while they were trying to figure out what unemployment could look like.

Norcross: Leila, Suba just mentioned the lockdown. She led this office during the lockdown, but just this morning we heard from the governor that Oregon is poised to open back up by June 30th at the latest. So what do you think the creative culture of Portland will look like as we start getting back to normal?

Leila Haile: Whew, that phrase ‘getting back to normal’ really strikes a chord because for so many of us in the community: ‘normal’ was not great. And it’s something that we are really, really heavily resisting going back to. This is a really deep conversation I’ve had with the new folks who are coming on at Ori Gallery. To take over and look at what do exhibitions look like? What do arts venues look like in the future? How do we resist going back to what led us to the pandemic in the first place? So I feel like there’s a really deep vein of resistance against returning to quote unquote ‘normal’.

Norcross: Well, Joaquin, what about you? Do you think something has changed in the art scene in Portland in some fundamental way over this past year and a half? Because of what we’ve experienced together?

Joaquin Lopez: Oh yeah, many of us have become like master videographers and zoom technicians. It’s changed the idea of what is art. It’s changed the idea of how we connect and what is connection, if we’re all quote unquote connecting in the privacy of our own rooms, in having a larger experience. And I think it’s gonna be interesting to see how this informs our projects forward. Are we going to have more electronical aspects to our performances? Are we going to have two ways to present a play, so to say? I think it’s gonna open up a lot of those kinds of possibilities, but also I think it’s gonna really deepen the relationship to ourselves because we’re so deeply in need of connecting with one another, and holding each other, and like looking each other in the eyes, and being in each other’s ether. I think it’s going to create really intimate, profound, reflective work with this new kind of energy about what we’re doing as people and as creative artists.

Norcross: If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking about the Office of Creative Laureate for the city of Portland. Leila Haile and Joaquin Lopez are the two artists who will replace our third guest Subashini Gunnison, the outgoing creative laureate for the city of Portland. Joaquin and Leila, I’d like to get to know you a little bit more and learn a little bit more about your background. Leila, let’s start with you. When did you first understand that your calling in life was to be an artist?

Leila Haile: Well, I don’t know about calling, so much as maybe just an uncontrollable impulse to create a coping mechanism maybe, but I don’t really reject the idea of a calling, or like the framework of a career artist. I feel like I really move with the needs with myself and my greater community. And that’s always been a really huge drive for me, whether I’m bar backing in one of Portland’s bars, or running Ori, or working for another nonprofit. I feel like my main motivator is, what does liberation for my community look like? What does, the needs of my fellow artists look like right now?

Norcross: Okay, well, I won’t use the word calling then, but Juaquin, when did you feel compelled to go into this line of work?

Juaquin Lopez: When I was a boy, I wanted to be a dancer and I wanted to be famous, right? And I wanted the whole world to love me, and it was my way of dealing with the making fun of, and bullying that I experienced, when I came out in 1990. Because this was a time when you just didn’t really come out, especially in Beaverton, Oregon where I grew up. So when I realized that the calling to perform was beyond just selfish needs to be accepted, or to be loved, it was when I did a show with Rebecca Martinez at Milagro, and we had to share our stories as a Mexican-American folks. At the time I really struggled with even saying out loud, that I was Mexican-American. I was 27 years old. This is like in 2008, and I had a lot of insecurities about it because I’m really white-presenting, and I grew up here. I feel very quote unquote, ‘Americanized’. And so when I had to work on this play, and tell that story that I just told you and then say out loud that I was Mexican-American and not be ashamed of it. That’s when I knew that I had to do this work, because I wasn’t alone. And that is when I knew that others felt the same way, because it would come up to me and say, ‘I felt the same way’. And so that’s when I understood the power, the transformative power of the arts, and why it’s so necessary as we continue to develop our identity as a community. And that for me was ‘I got to keep doing this’, and I haven’t stopped.

Norcross: And I wonder Joaquin how you think you might be able to help other BIPOC and LGBTQ artists in the city in your new role?

Juaquin Lopez: By uplifting and putting focus on their stories, on their very personal stories, on how it is that they came to liberate themselves, how they came to use the resources that they could do that they had to tell their own stories. And to express what they feel, so that they can be seen. That is how I would love to support my community and the BIPOC community in my role.

Norcross: And Leila, what ambitions do you have for your new role?

Leila Haile: I’m really excited to see, you know, what happens when resources just flow. You know, there’s this sentiment of gate-breaking rather than gatekeeping. I’m just really excited to honestly open the back door for all of my cousins and shine a light on the folks who I’ve been working with for years, who have struggled along beside me to make Portland the amazing arts ecosystem that it is. I want to see, you know, the black and brown artists, the African and indigenous artists, and queer and trans folks who are really like the living breathing pulse of creativity. Not only in Portland, but like, you know, let’s be honest in the history of the Americas like full stop. Like I want to see those folks with packed houses, I want to see those folks with sold out shows. I think that’s my aspiration

Norcross: Suba, it sounds like there’s a lot of revolutionary spirit coming from your successors here. Do you have any advice for them?

Subashini Ganesan: Do it! Do it! That’s the advice. Well, you know it is the time, right? Let’s just return to that question of the new normal allows us artists and creatives to really come in with even more power and speak our stories, connect with our communities, and uplift everything: all the joy, all the cultures, all the abilities that maybe have not been seen before. And I always say ‘education, education, education’. So I think Joaquin and Layla have relationships with our youth, and how do we bring arts education really embedded back into our young people’s lives as a way, not just to heal but to grow and to learn and continue being creative.

Norcross: Joaquin and Laila. How do you plan to work together in a role that was previously held by one person? How about you go first Juaquin, this time?

Juaquin Lopez: I plan to support Layla, I plan to listen to them, and I plan to ask for advice and insight about my work. Layla and I have discussed what it would look like and they have this really wonderful way of explaining it. It was as if it were a Venn diagram, there’s gonna be places where we collide, and align, and going to places where we just do our own thing. So that’s how I kind of see our relationship working. And quite frankly it’s just gonna be really nice that we’re not alone, that we have each other, and we also have a strong relationship to our cultural communities. I think it’s gonna be really awesome to support them and each other. However we can . . . how cool that we’re queer and how cool that we come from cultural communities. It really warms my heart.

Norcross: Layla?

Laila Haile: Oh gosh, I’m excited about the unknown. Honestly, I feel like folks keep asking us these questions, like ‘what are your plans? What are your plans?’ And I have no plan. The plan is to look for that synergy. Look for where things naturally align. And for me that’s the exciting part, right? I, as both a dancer and a tattoo artist, I love deep, deep, deep collaboration and I love the whole gestalt of creating something that’s more than the sum of its parts. And I think that’s what’s most exciting to me.

Norcross: Well, congratulations to you both and thanks so much for speaking with me.

Guests: Thank you. Thank you

Norcross: Joaquin Lopez and Leila Haile are the new Creative Laureates for the city of Portland. And Subashini Ganesan, great to talk to you as well. Thanks for taking the time.

Subashini Ganesan: Absolutely, thank you!

Norcross: Subashini Ganesan is the outgoing Creative Laureate for the city of Portland.

If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook or Twitter, send an email to thinkoutloud@opb.org, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.

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