Mid-March 2017, on the corner of Failing and Michigan in Northeast Portland, I met Spencer Keeton Cunningham as he painted a mural on the side of an empty building. Leaning on a tall ladder, he spray-painted a colorful woven fabric on the flat, gray wall. He was busy painting so I pulled up a ladder next to his and recorded our conversation as he worked.
“I’ve been there on and off since November,” says Cunningham. He was referring to the embattled Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Cunningham, himself of Native descent, was commissioned by XRAY to paint this mural off of N Mississippi Ave. XRAY participated in Willamette Week’s 2016 Give!Guide, an annual fundraiser for over 140 Portland nonprofits that seeks to get younger people in the habit of charitable giving. XRAY had the most donors under the age of 36 in their Give!Guide category, which earned them a $1,500 prize courtesy of the Schlesinger Family Foundation. The XRAY staff and DJs under age 36 voted to use this prize money to commission a mural that evokes the station’s values and brings vibrant artwork to a Portland neighborhood.
Curiously, most passersby asked what the empty structure would become and not what the mural was about. The building will become a studio art space and the mural (hopefully) a talking point for all who walk by. “Some people just walk by and don’t pay much attention,” Cunningham says, but hopes the imagery will spark conversation in those young and old. “The wall is a platform to talk about something,” he says.
This mural is part of a series of seven murals scattered around the country exploring the relationships between native history, culture, and the petroleum industry. He called the current project “a mixture of traditional native pattern work and contemporary pattern work representing the oil industry.” Since 2014 Cunningham has traveled around North America painting as he went. Since October, he’s painted about Standing Rock. In each city he visited, he blended current events into his murals. In San Francisco’s Mission district, he incorporated Wi-Fi symbols to represent the “tech gentrification” of the city. In Worchester, Massachusetts the mural reflected the abuse at the Standing Rock reservation. While police dogs were attacking protesters, Cunningham painted their wild and culturally important ancestors–wolves– on the wall. A New York mural saw arrows pointing away from the Standing Rock Sioux flag towards a dollar sign. In Portland, Shell signs, Chevrons, and oil drops lay alongside Sioux tipi patterns on the wall.
Around six in the evening the sky began to spit. A small ledge protected the wall as Cunningham painted through the rain. The other half of the wall was barren, waiting for Gage Hamilton. XRAY.FM reached out to Hamilton to paint the wall, but he was attending a Blazer’s game at the time so I didn’t have a chance to meet with him. Hamilton is the organizer of Forest for the Trees, a Portland-based nonprofit dedicated to the creation of contemporary public art. Cunningham has worked with FFTT in the past and Hamilton asked for his help to paint the mural.
I asked Cunningham if he had anything to say about the protests at Standing Rock. He says, “The picture that was painted by the media was just false.” Instead of eco-terrorists and agitators, he saw, “children and families working together” to fight against the destruction of the land. Although President Trump’s executive order advanced the construction of the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines, Cunningham noted that there is still work to be done. Paraphrasing activist Chase Iron Eyes, he says, “You’re going to be a victim of Trump tyranny whether you want to or not.” With the proposed Diamond Pipeline in Oklahoma, as well as many other watershed-threatening developments, perhaps the mural will remind Portlanders of the injustices of the past and prevent the same in the future.
Interview by Jordan Yu