The International Reach of Local Artists at Portland Mercado Mural

Rachel Oleson and Pablo Solares Join Up in First Time Collaboration.

A rainbow-colored fleet of brand-new food trucks has been parked in a row at a new parking lot on 72nd and Foster for the past several months. The new building on the same lot continues the bright color scheme, its exterior walls painted orange, teal, yellow, red and pink. It stands out like an upcoming carnival amidst the gray fencing and faded signs of the sheet metal contractor and floor-covering shops across the street. Next Saturday, April 11th, the Portland Mercado will celebrate its grand-opening there, the first Latino marketplace of its kind in Oregon. I can imagine it now, people meeting and talking, the smell and heat of semi-outdoor cooking filling the previously quiet lot, the sound of Latin rhythms keeping things lively; against the traffic of Southeast Foster, the tempo of festivities and commerce.

Not long after this week’s opening day, there will be a more permanent scene on display. Two artists are currently designing a mural for the Mercado’s west-facing wall. It is both an emblem for the Mercado and a public art demonstration of its mission to link “diverse cultures through entertainment, art and food.” It only seems apt then, that this art project is a collaboration between two artists with diverse backgrounds, one from the Boston area and one from Mexico, Rachel Oleson and Pablo Solares. I got together with the both of them in January, and with Rachel a few more times, learning about their creative process, personal and professional background.

Portland Mercado
Portland Mercado

Pablo and Rachel hadn’t met each other before applying and being picked to create the mural by Hacienda CDC, the Latino Community Development Corporation opening the Mercado. They were both attracted to the project for different reasons, they explained to me when I met with them the first time. Rachel is drawn to public art, developing murals around the city for the past few years. She enjoys researching the places and people her art is portraying. Pablo is originally from Mexico and the opportunity to participate in a project seeking to create a hub for Latino culture in Portland is something he feels deeply connected to. Somewhat new to the area, having moved to Beaverton in late 2013, he is looking to establish himself as an artist here and saw his goal running parallel with the Mercado’s mission to provide Latinos with opportunities to sustain their livelihoods.

In addition to being artists, both are serious athletes. Rachel is a soccer player, playing in leagues in Portland and has gone abroad to compete in the World Master’s Games. Pablo is a professional runner, and holds several Mexican national records. When we met, I sensed immediately that Pablo and Rachel were still just getting to know each other. So we began talking about sports, going for runs and being on teams, things the three of us have in common. I saw how they bonded immediately on this, recognizing in each other the drive and relationship to goals that a lifetime as a devoted athlete develops. “I had just gone for a run actually when I got the call that Pablo and I would work together,” Rachel said as our conversation shifted easily from sports to art and the mural, “and when I found out he was a runner, I was even more excited, just because you don’t find too many artists that are athletes and I thought even for just that reason, we’d collaborate well.”

Art and competitive sports are often separate conversations. The artist and the athlete, starting from a very young age, are popularly perceived as being two distinct personalities and inhabiting opposing ends of a spectrum. This can be attributed to a number of things and maybe most practically, to an overload of extracurricular activities in schools, for those that are lucky. At a young age, to fully commit to something, we go with athletics or drama or music, but rarely both. I relate because I have three older siblings, all athletic, and naturally went the way of sports as a kid. However much a love for singing and drama pulled at me back then, it dissolved in the face of outdoor competition involving any sort of ball. I grew up half-heartedly identifying as a jock, leaving the rest to the “theater kids.”

When I met Pablo and Rachel, this notion felt archaic. Not only are they both athletes and artists but they say that the two pursuits feed into each other. “One fuels the other,” Rachel says. “It’s hard to explain. Art helps my game, I feel like I draw better when I am playing soccer and vice-versa. If my art is at a certain level, my soccer has to be too, and I have to one up myself in one. That’s when I work best.”

She mentions that while drawing, soccer will sometimes be on her mind. “There’s something about the angles, of going in for a goal…” and we all kind of laugh reflecting on this, unsure exactly of what it is or how to articulate it, but understanding it’s presence nonetheless.

Pablo echoes this feeling, that excelling in one area motivates him to improve in another, adding that sports and art have taught him a lot about self-discipline. “They are very different” he says, “but they are very goal-oriented. You make the commitment. You’re going to run every morning. One is very physical, the other is very creative. They work different systems but compliment each other.”

“You can see different perspectives,” Pablo says as he recalls years of competing with and against other runners, and athletics in general. “The more activities you are involved in, you can see the different points of view of people. And from the different roles that are involved in the same situation. This person, because he plays this role in this problem, that’s why he thinks this way. Running and school and the arts, can help you achieve it.”

I recalled the pick-up soccer games I’ve gone to over the years. You show up and you don’t know anyone. You just start playing and a chemistry forms with people you’ve never met. Sometimes it’s not the best but it’s usually adequate to enjoy a good game, and you become instant teammates with strangers working toward the same goal. There is a bond built on a mutual understanding of the sport, and even without knowing the other players’ names, you’re swiftly passing give and go’s like you’ve played together for years.

I have thought of Rachel and Pablo in this context over the past several months as I’ve learned more about the mural. They have their own styles and artistic ideas, but share a common initiative and ambition on which they’ve built an artistic partnership. I couldn’t help but see how this aligns with the goal of the Mercado and kept thinking of Pablo’s ideas about point of view; gaining insight about people of different backgrounds by participating and building relationships. Their joint effort to create the mural set off like a team training for its season, the championship game here being the completion of the artwork, except with fans not compelled to choose a team.

Pambiche Mural
Pambiche Mural

If you’ve been to Pambiche, the Cuban restaurant on 28th and Northeast Glisan, you’ve seen Rachel’s work. The mural that paints the building’s east-facing wall, another collaboration with artist Emily Beeks, is an intricate visual ode to Cuban heritage and history. On a sunny day, the images and colors pop out and gleam, absorbing the light and turning it outwards as if it’s coming from behind. The Marian figure of The Patroness of Charity is striking in this effect, as she is the most prominent of the many figures. The blue of her robe sparkles in the sun as it flows like a long wave from her head to where it spills and opens to a scene of a sea where anonymous-faced boatmen gaze up at her in reverence. On a more typical overcast Portland day, the colors are muted and if you’re stopped looking up at it and not quickly passing by in a car, there is something about the insular quality of the clouds that draws you into the image like a picture book, coaxing you into tracing the minute details.

Autentica Mural
Autentica Mural

Every corner, every square foot tells a story, recounting aspects of history and Cuban culture like a puzzle, but one where all the pieces are the same size and can be placed anywhere to still reveal a coherent picture. Your eyes dart from green fields of sugar cane crops being harvested by cutters on one side to depictions of the Baroque and neo-classical architecture of Havanna on the other side. Famous Cuban musicians, revolutionaries and dancers populate the scene. The Cuban Coat of Arms anchors the mural, taking up the center where the building concaves. The building’s exterior vents are disguised and transformed into palm trees, the nation’s plant, establishing the significance of the country’s crops and greenery in the mural. Spanning the picture like an aerial banner on the back of an airplane is a ribbon of sheet music with the notes from a popular Cuban song painted across.

Rachel’s murals hang at other restaurants in town, Autentica and Uno Mas Taqueria, and she designed one for the now closed Mextiza. At each one she attends diligently to the menus and traditions of the restaurant. Her focus varies, emphasizing singular objects as the central point, like an agave plant to creating entire scenes. Her mother is an artist, and her father is a chef, both artistic professions she says. I envision her sitting with a paintbrush on scaffolding in the middle of the day, painting the backdrops of where people will gather to eat, inspired by her parents and stretching the legacies of their crafts.

"Las Vegas Panoramic" Southwest Series
“Las Vegas Panoramic” Southwest Series

She grew up in the Boston area and received her BFA at Boston University’s College of Fine Arts. She has lived in Portland for nearly ten years but in between leaving New England and settling in the Northwest, she has lived or worked in nearly every corner of the country: Florida, Alaska, Hawaii, New Mexico, and the Puget Sound. On her website, her drawings and paintings recall these years spent traveling and explores a sense of place in the subjects of her cityscapes and landscapes. The Southwest series is a personal favorite of mine. The dusty red and brown tones, the imperfect shapes and gentle curves of the three paintings give that uninhabited wide-open space of dessert terrain an intimate and transparent quality, that makes the beauty of a place I’ve never been to recognizable and somehow, familiar.

Paisajes de Mexico
Paisajes de Mexico

Pablo has traveled too. His running career has called for him to be on the road for at least six months out of the year and has taken him from races in Mexico to Thailand and New York. He has been through Europe, visiting Spain, Germany and Serbia to compete. The “Paisajes de Mexico” oil paintings, landscapes of Mexico, have an impressionist quality about them, vivid colors lacking precise lines, the inexact representations of a place. They make me think about how we often look at home when we no longer spend much time there. If I think about the town where I grew up, instantly sharp images come to mind, often the scenes of specific memories. But if I spend time conjuring it as just a place, outside of my own experiences there, the images become blurry and hard to recall.

This past year, taking a new job and living between San Francisco and Portland, Pablo has eased his running schedule and has been able to focus more on his art. Growing up next to Mexico City in Cuautitlan Izcalli and moving here to the United States when he was thirteen, he never thought art was something he would pursue, as his family was more inclined towards business and economics. But he always took art classes in college and added one more towards the end to earn a visual arts degree alongside his economics and business degrees from Rice University in Houston, Texas.

La Vieja
La Vieja

For Pablo, traveling has also given him reasons to make art. He was exposed to the stereotypes people adhere to of Mexicans, Latinos, and Hispanics while traveling and found these to be vague, misinformed and futile attempts to identify millions of people by clumping generic images from popular culture or history together. When he was in Serbia for a race, he tells Rachel and I with a smile, that he met a few women who, upon learning he was Mexican, brought up Mexican soap operas, “telenovelas” he says in Spanish. He laughs recalling this and I think he sensed the girls were both charmed and aware of their misconceptions, but nonetheless encounters like this reinforce his impressions that around the world, Mexicans, Latinas, and Hispanics are often perceived as caricatures, misunderstood and ignorantly or lazily batched together as being one and the same.

His portraits of Mexican people are disharmoniously presented in a way, like super-imposed images on flat, screens of bright colors. It’s as if to force the viewer to consider only the person depicted, and nothing else against the simplistic backgrounds. La Vieja is an elderly woman’s profile, the wrinkles and dark sun spots of her face appear so close and tactile, like you’re sitting next to her on a crowded bus. Her silver hair frays in places and this kind of detail paid to the flesh, the clothing, and the hair, without placing the figures anywhere in particular puts you face to face with an individual untied to any context. They are not engaged in specific actions or holding props. They are represented simply in a state of being. And the portraits are nuanced and surprisingly intimate, like people you see everyday.

Retratos Mexicanos
Retratos Mexicanos

Pablo has not painted a mural before and now he is working on three, one for the Mercado and two for Oregon State University. Emmy Callero is the Business Advisor for Micro Mercantes, a business incubator within Hacienda that provides many services to start-up food businesses. She was one of the people appointed to pick the muralist. She tells me that Pablo impressed her with his work but also fulfilled an aim of the Mercado. “We wanted to work with a Latino muralist and engage a young artist that is looking for a career as a muralist,” says Emmy. Recalling the Pambiche mural and the contributions made by Rachel, Emmy says they “decided to use both their brains and talent on the project.”

Rachel’s experience designing murals and public art shows when she talks about incorporating aspects of the building into the image, discussions of scale, and working to get funds from RACC, Regional Arts & Culture Council. When her and I visited the building a few weeks ago, she was visually working out how best to work around the windows, the building’s paneling, and the limitations of weather. She tells me about an anti-graffiti spray she applied at Pambiche, and how she did it at a time when the weather didn’t allow for the proper drying period. She hopes to never find out if the spray is effective, she says smiling, and I get the sense that she doesn’t think she will.

Pablo says this is a good opportunity for him to work with her, getting to know her and the system, having never worked with RACC before. Jamie Melton, Community Economic Development Marketing Coordinator from Hacienda CDC, recognized the value in having two artists collaborate but this wasn’t instant and came about when the list of applicants was narrowed down to Pablo and Rachel. “We couldn’t decide between the two top candidates,” says Jamie. “Based on their different experiences and backgrounds, we figured that asking them to collaborate would result in not only a great final product, but aligned with our mission to bring together diverse cultures.”

The mural is still in the development stages but nearing completion, awaiting a response from RACC to find out exactly what kind of funds will be granted and if changes will need to be made. As of right now, the plan is to paint the mural onto parachute cloth in an art studio and adhere that onto the building. Rachel hasn’t done this before and she tells me that they will need a week to put the cloth up. “The one downside of painting on the cloth in our studio is that we won’t be up on the building for people to see the process until we install the piece,” she says. The process of sketching, planning, and getting together documents for RACC has been in the works for months, taking place off site while the building was under construction. The details of the sketches are still subject to change, as new ideas come up or new measures of the building reveal more or less space.

But the overall vision Pablo and Rachel have for the mural now is solid. Pablo applied equipped with a clear vision, providing a specific sketch in the interview, working off what he knew of the Mercado’s aims. Rachel approaches her work a bit differently, in a more abstract way. Looking first at the building with nothing particular in mind, she sees what textures, forms and colors come to her organically by being at the site. She did have some specifics in mind, knew she wanted it to be “bold, simple, colorful” but says, “I like to do a lot of research, listen to [the vendor’s] stories, how they got involved, their dreams for opening their own business. I wanted to learn as much as possible.”

Both Rachel and Pablo did research and asked the vendors what it is they want represented on the mural. The responses merged with Pablo and Rachel’s ideas to hone the mural’s design. Pablo and Rachel see the Mercado as a place for not only providing economic opportunities for the Latin community, but also see it as a model for people of any ethnicity to participate and learn about the various cultures in the city. “Although the Mercado is focused on the Latin community, Portland is somewhat of a diverse city,” Pablo says. He wants to include people from all over, “Asia, the United States, Mexico,” to show the significance of people using a marketplace “as a form of trading the different goods that each ethnic community provides.”

Pablo and Rachel are envisioning Pablo’s original sketch of depicting a marketplace as Portlander’s know it. Suppose a Pioneer Square backdrop. They want to recount history, and show people of different cultures over time interacting. Enter the influence of the Aztecs, the Portland Hipster clad in plaid, the Mexican guitar player, men wearing sombreros and Indian headdresses, people young and old, dancing, eating, and playing soccer. They want to pay tribute to specific countries. Flags may flap in the background. And they want to show the products the marketplace will sell, the baked goods and fruits, livestock, tamales, and if it has a place, perhaps a piñata!

And lastly, without giving away too much, especially since details may change, a few vendors have requested that a bridge appear. Perhaps as another nod to Portland but also a bit symbolically, a man-made structure surmounting division to join places and people, creating more opportunities for knowledge and growth. Either way, before it opened, the Mercado connected two ambitious, dedicated people, with a devotion to both art and athletics, and a commitment to their communities. And soon, at the Mercado on 72nd and SE Foster, we’ll all get to take part in their creative teamwork.

By Kathleen Dolan

I studied writing and English at Purchase College in NY State and graduated from PSU with an English degree. I contribute content, edit, and brainstorm at THRU.

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