After 40 years, Blackfish still puts artists first
Forty is a long time in art gallery years.
Especially a gallery where everyone adds their two cents. Including the artists.
The Blackfish Gallery has been at 420 N.W. Ninth Ave. for 32 years, but originally it was at Northwest Sixth Avenue and Flanders Street, below a single-room occupancy hotel and a convenience store. Then there was a spell at Fifth and Davis, sharing space with Portland Center for the Visual Arts (the precursor of the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art) and with Blue Sky Gallery, before it moved into its current space, which had been a sheet metal shop run by a Benson High School teacher.
The landlords, Jimmy and Becky Wong, had an indoor bean sprout farm next door in what is now the window gallery and storage. They gave the co-op a deal on rent because they supported the arts, especially in the early days, before the Pearl District was even called the Pearl and was mostly warehouses.
"We've tried to be good caretakers of the building and are very grateful for their generosity," says Paul Missal, a painter.
Robert Dozono, a painter and longtime member who has a hand in hanging every show, adds: "They didn't raise the rent for 10 years until this year. We never had a lease or a contract. It was all an old-school handshake, 'Our word is good and your word is good, too.'"
Once you get through the stiff, narrow doors, there's always a pair of friendly faces behind the counter. Every member of the co-op must join two committees to keep it running. On a recent first Thursday, sculptor Kanetaka Ikaeda was manning the clicker, logging visitors.
"We feel really privileged to be a part of it," he says, referring to the rise of the Pearl District and the Blackfish Gallery's place in it, now dwarfed by hotels but still welcoming to all.
To celebrate 40 years, poet Merridawn Duckler has co-written "Picture This: A Blackfish Oratorio" in collaboration with composer Christopher Shotola-Hardt and the band Bugtoast. (An oratorio is a large-scale musical work for orchestra and voices, performed without the use of costumes, scenery or action.)
Duckler went through 40 years of the sitter's log pulling out comments made by the gallery members, and made them into a celebration of visual art, using words and music.
The current group show called "Blackfish at 40" includes the Blackfish range of styles:
"Juho," a circle of plastic pen tops by Yoonhee Choi; "Medusa" a classical peep show by Theresa Redinger; and a painting called "Artist" of a vibrant yokel by Arvie Smith. Smith's work is all over the city now, from the Portland Art Museum to a mural at Northeast Alberta Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. He joined Blackfish in 1986 before he even had his master's degree.
Blackfish is not like a standard commercial gallery. It's a not-for-profit organization and artists get 60 percent of sales instead of the usual 50 percent.
"We're a family of artists, we talk to each other," Missal says. "Every month there's a new show but also a chance to talk about it, at our gallery meeting. A lot of times these get to be really fun exchanges, where an artist can really bring forward the stuff they're working with. Usually it's celebratory, because we're always excited to see what each other is doing."
The co-op started in 1979 with students from Pacific Northwest College of Art and Portland State University, with Jim Hibbard of Portland Community College.
Missal says: "We met in Jim's living room for a year, and we came up with the bylaws, which have held us together over the years. We've shared it with other galleries to help them form their own co-ops. Having a group of like-minded individuals is one thing, but then we get together and decide policy and live by the policy."
Blackfish always hosts a recent grads student show every summer, to keep bringing in young blood from the area's degree colleges. It's not an ossified institution dominated by old-timers.
"As we give them their show, we introduce them to the community, and we form bonds within them," Missal says.
The "Blackfish at 40" group exhibit shows through April 27. "Picture This: A Blackfish Oratorio" takes place at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 13, and 3 p.m. Sunday, April 14, at the gallery, 420 N.W. Ninth Ave. For more: www.blackfish.com.