PORTLAND – At first glance, artist Eugene Liza Mana Burns’ latest mural is a bright and colorful panorama depicting Oregon’s diverse landscape.
However, the work, titled “Celebrate Oregon!” Actually contains images of 127 seemingly random objects: a bottle of wine, a chinook, a comic book, the Siuslaw Bridge – all on display in Lobby B at Portland International Airport, near the gates of Alaska Airlines. .
Individually, the objects depicted in the mural may seem unimportant. But take a step back and you’ll realize that each one represents a part of Oregon’s history.
In the lower left corner is a beer glass, a nod to Oregon’s reputation for being at the forefront of the craft beer industry.
Move your eyes to the right and you might find the books “The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula Le Guin and “Only What We Could Carry” by Lawson Fusao Inada, two of Oregon’s most prominent writers.
Suddenly, the fresco’s message becomes clear: Oregon is not a homogeneous place.
Much like its diverse geography, the state is a collection of different people and customs that come together to form a giant cultural mosaic.
“You think culture is opera and ballet, but that’s it. It’s history, it’s the language, it’s the dance, it’s the food, it’s the indigenous culture, ”said Burns, the creator of the mural.
While working on the project, Burns said, she learned a lot about aspects of Oregon’s history that she didn’t know she had grown up on.
“I didn’t know who York was, which is embarrassing to say,” Burns said, referring to the African-American man who was an integral part of Lewis and Clark’s expedition. “So we have to include it. I did not know the town of Vanport. So I learned a lot about the history of Oregon.
Vanport was the state’s second largest city in the 1940s, before disappearing altogether after a catastrophic flood in 1948.
Burns said the hardest part of the project was making sure to include all aspects of Oregon’s history and culture.
She admitted that being a 32-year-old white woman meant her worldview was inherently limited. So she reached out to various community leaders to find out what she might be missing or wrong. “I said, ‘I would like to work with people in the community to tell them: OK, what symbols are we missing? “”
Burns has worked with volunteer cultural content experts such as Chuck Sams III, board member of the Oregon Cultural Trust and deputy executive director of the Confederate Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Sams was recently appointed to head the National Park Service.
“He was helping with the selection of native symbols and he spoke about the Native American movement. So we researched that symbol and included that symbol, ”Burns said.
She also worked with Linda Castillo, Head of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the Community Immigrant and Refugee Organization.
“She envisioned the hummingbird and a sunflower, two symbols that I didn’t know had cultural significance to Hispanics in Oregon,” Burns said.
The hummingbird, she discovered, is valued for its almost magical qualities and is an important symbol for Mexican and native communities.
The sunflower has been used in Hispanic culture as an ornament, a source of food, and as a medicine.
Through these conversations, and many others, Burns selected the 127 elements that represented a part of Oregon culture that, when considered as a whole, makes up the state as a whole.
Viewers can scan a special QR code with their phone that will lead to an interactive key to help decipher the meaning of the symbols.
The mural is the result of an 18-month project by Burns and the Oregon Cultural Trust to commemorate the trust’s 20th anniversary.
The Oregon Cultural Trust was established in 2001 by the Oregon State Legislature and funds multiple arts and culture projects across the state. According to the trust’s communications manager, Carrie Kikel, the fund has raised more than $ 74 million for arts and culture programs.
The trust is partially funded by a cultural tax credit, where a private donor will receive a tax credit for donating to the trust and one of the state’s 1,500 cultural organizations.
“In establishing the trust, the legislature was telling Oregonians, ‘We will fund culture with state dollars, but only if Oregonians tell us it matters to them,” Kikel said.
In 2020, the Oregon Cultural Trust looked to revamp their personalized license plate artwork, which was created to promote the Culture Tax Credit.
“We wanted to create a design that truly reflects all of Oregon’s culture and all of the diversity of Oregon culture… and that was a truly lofty goal. How do you reflect all of Oregon’s diverse cultures in this small space? Kikel said.
After an extensive research process, the trust unanimously chose Liza Burns, in part because of her artist statement.
“She decided that you had to start with this place, because without this place there would be no culture, there would be no people, there would be no spirit of Oregon”, Kikel said. “So how do you represent so many different cultures? You give them each a little piece of real estate.
After seeing Burn’s design, trust officials felt his vision deserved a much bigger, more public platform.
So Burns transformed his small license plate image into four large 16-foot murals that were installed at airports in Eugene, Medford, Redmond and Portland.
“Having murals at airports was really about how the artwork could serve as an introduction and really communicate who we are as a people and what we value,” Kikel said.
The conception of this public art project opened Burns’ eyes to the rich culture of his home country. Ultimately, she hopes people will take the time to pay attention to the little details in her fresco.
“I really encourage people to use the QR code and find out about some of these symbols. I guarantee you’ll find something you didn’t know about Oregon, or a room you thought you knew, but you can learn more.