In this day and age when advertising is just about everywhere we look, when every blank space is considered prime real estate for hawking whatever product can afford it, it's a rare thing for businesses to give up their storefronts to share art with their customers. That's just what the stores and cafes in the St. Johns shopping district have done, however, setting aside their saleable product to give room to local artists. It's a win-win situation all around. Craftsmen get their work seen, pedestrians get an added dose of beauty in their lives, and the participating businesses get the opportunity to encourage new customers to stop by and browse.

The program has been dubbed St. Johns + Art, and these art installations were unveiled on September 19 and will remain visible until October 24. Spanning the length of North Lombard from Chicago all the way down to Richmond, the displays range from pottery to paintings, needlepoint to photography, and everything in between. The idea is actually an old one, with the neighborhood having previously run a similar campaign in 2003 to 2005. That original endeavor was called the St. Johns Window Project, and though this revival has some things in common with its predecessor, the St. Johns + Art organizer, Babs Adamski, stresses that this new program is something altogether different. "I wanted to get something in the windows of vacant storefronts so [the street] wouldn't look so empty," Adamski explains. "Some merchants with ongoing businesses wanted to be included and it expanded into a larger effort... This is different than the Windows Project in that it is not juried and not connected with any arts organization."

Plew's Market
Plew's Market
Plew's Market

Adamski's main goal in spearheading this happening was to create "a sense that art can happen anywhere, in many forms. And an understanding that we have a good community that supports local businesses and art." It was just a matter of finding the material to display. "I put out the call with articles in the Sentinel and St. Johns Review. I also contacted North Portland Artists I knew as well as artists that were referred to me by business owners and others who have worked with the Windows Project. I had many referrals from Kelly Pergande who is a participating artist." Pergande was also an old Windows Project participant, and this time around she has contributed to an installation at Blue Moon Camera.

Blue Moon Camera
Kelly Pergande at Blue Moon Camera

ll of this recruitment has brought a total of 45 businesses together to showcase 51 different artists. The variety makes the current exhibitions interesting, as does the integration. Some businesses have worked with artists to create material that fits in with their stores. Plews Market, for instance, features a decorative arrangement of products, including mustard bottles and cans of tomato sauce. The doggie daycare center It's A Dog's Life has hung multiple portraits of pooches by J.D. Woolworth, while the toy store Grammy and Nonna's has joined with the Serendipity School House by hanging paintings created by their young students. Some artists work with the space in a way that juxtaposes their vision with the product for sale. At the Man's Shop, Warren Harrison Cross' abstract paintings put metallic textures next to the softer patterns of vintage menswear. Right next door, Sayuri Sasaki Hemann's "Urban Aquarium," a recreation of an undersea environment built primarily with organza, was a perfect fit for the Fencing Sports Club. Hemann uses little metal swordsmen as if they were decorations at the bottom of a fishbowl.

It's A Dog's Life
J.D. Woolworth at It's A Dog's Life

"I chose the fencing salle for many reasons," Hemann said in e-mail, "but the fact that it had such contrast to my delicate and soft textile work was definitely a big factor. Also, the windows of the Fencing Salle look directly toward the bridge."

Fencing Sports Club
Sayuri Sasaki Hemann at Fencing Sports Club

The work is part of an ongoing program for the artist, and inspiration was drawn from local sites as well as material extending beyond the area. "It was a challenge to figure out how to incorporate my ‘Urban Aquarium' project into St. Johns + Art without being disconnected from the St. Johns community. ‘Urban Aquarium' is a project to put jellyfish aquariums where people least expect them in and around Portland. It started in July at Alma Chocolate in Northeast Portland, migrated to the hallway of Madison High School, and then St. Johns Fencing. In addition to just putting my jellyfish and sea creatures in the window space, I wanted it to be more connected with St. Johns itself. That's when I found out about Claude Debussy's Piano Sonata ‘Sunken Cathedral,' based on an ancient Breton myth. I thought, ‘Hey! That is perfect! I will make a sunken cathedral in the fencing salle.' Then I started making the St. Johns Bridge out of organza."

The Recyclery
The Recyclery
Angel O'Brien at Weir's Cyclery

Elsewhere, Katy Thomson's hanging of her fun paintings of insects, bridges, and heavenly creatures is playfully inventive, matching the shape of the Thai Cottage's windowpanes with her tiny canvases. Further up the street, between Leavitt and John, empty shops are revitalized, their windows no longer bare. There you can see Amy Maule's pottery and Suzy Roots' constructions made from wood and fabric. It's not just the storefronts that are recycled, either. Tim Combs' art at the pet food store Tre Bone uses repurposed wood for Asian-themed wood carvings, part of Combs' Reclamation Project. This work is at one of the far ends of the art walk, and it makes for fitting punctuation on the meaning of the event. Right across the street at Weir's Cyclery, black-and-white photos of aging tulips by Angel O'Brien also drive the point home. The flowery images she captures appear organic and abstracted at the same time—just as art in a store window could strike many as something being in a place where it should not. These are things being revitalized and repurposed. As Combs described in relation his approach, "It really bothers me that we live in such a disposable culture because so much that is usable goes to waste. I figure that I'm keeping the world from turning into a giant landfill one piece of art at a time. And in a world of limited natural resources, it makes sense to reuse as much as possible." Old flowers, old wood, an old plan, but with new visions.

Thai Cottage
Katy Thomson at Thai Cottage
Amy Maule's Pottery
Pottery by Amy Maule

Hemann would like to see the project continue. "St. Johns is a great neighborhood, with a lot of interesting things going on. I would love to see more [endeavors] like St. Johns + Art." She added, optimistically and emphatically, "There are so many talented folks who live and work here, we shall keep it going."

St. Johns + Art on Facebook

View the slideshow for more images of St. Johns + Art, or visit our Flickr gallery:

Photos © 2009 Kenneth Aaron Neighborhood Notes