IF THESE WALLS COULD TALK
Layers beneath the paint
ABOUT THE PROJECT
“Everything is Everything.” What does it mean, I wonder?
Twice a day I see these words through the window of TriMet bus 9. They are painted in bold, cursive letters almost 10 meters (3.2 feet) high on the side of what has become my favorite building in Southeast Portland — a building that is otherwise nondescript. The phrase greets me when I leave for school in the morning and when I return home at night, and its open interpretation always makes me pause. It is unusual, out of place on the warehouse it adorns, facing preoccupied drivers on Southeast Division Street. It is a layer of paint, a layer of my day, and one of Portland’s many fascinating murals.
Where I’m from the visual landscape is different. We hardly have any murals in my hometown Rivne, Ukraine. Public art there, as I remember it, is reduced to old monuments, Soviet era mosaics, and forged steel sculptures. I’ve lived in Portland for a little more than a year and I love to explore the city by walking or by riding public transportation because I get to see more of the city and art on its streets.
Portland has over 200 murals — something I discovered when I decided to look deeper into the subculture of public art in Portland. “Everything is Everything,” in particular, was painted by artist Zach Yarrington, who works locally as a graphic designer and hand letterer. I reached out for meaning.
“It was just something I had been writing,” Zach told me when I met him at his studio for the first time. “It’s just a phrase people say and I wanted to put it on a wall.”
“Everything is Everything” was not a special phrase for him, but it was to me.
When I think about it, I reflect on how sometimes even the smallest things can mean a lot to someone. We find meaning in these little things for ourselves. It is the meaning we put into them that matters.
This phrase can mean “it is what it is,” nothing more or nothing less than exactly what you see, or, it can be similar to saying, "it's all good" or "everything is going according to plan."
That all got me thinking about how murals are for both the artists and the community. The process of creation was more important to Zach than the meaning behind it, and I processed it on my own, appreciating it in my own way.
Our conversation, however, made me curious about other murals and muralists in Portland. There is so much more to that community than I imagined.
Zach painted the mural (and a couple more) for the nonprofit organization Forest for the Trees (FFTT), that hosts a week-long event in August each year for local and international artists to paint murals in Portland. The organization was founded in 2013 by Zach’s good friend and also an artist, Gage Hamilton, whom I later met as well.
There are two more similar organizations that contribute to the creation of public art in Portland: Regional Art & Culture Council (RACC) and Portland Street Art Alliance (PSAA). RACC enriches communities through art by offering grants and directly funding artists, while PSAA uses research, education, and networking to advocate for a more democratic culture of self-expression in the city.
It is not just artists that work hard to make the transformation of Portland possible. Many dedicated people are working to ensure that artists have space to bring a little unusual to the mundane. Often, artists and organizations engage the community before painting so that the people can choose their history. Because that is what murals are — part of a community’s history. They can reflect the spirit of the neighborhood.
They can also make you uncomfortable, as contemporary art often does. Murals exist for more than just the sake of beauty. They can start a conversation. In this way, they function as a sort of publicly accessible art gallery for those who stop to notice.
Evolving a public space into a place that invokes an emotional attachment is called placemaking. Everyone is involved, and it makes Portland such an amazing visual experience for people who live there or are just passing through, from the artists to the community they impact.
I set out to find the meaning behind a mural that is part of my daily life, but found so much more — a community that I didn’t know existed, striving to create experiences just like mine. How many more people must be out there, just like me, emotionally investing in the little things around them? Portland is rich with accessible artwork. You never know when something, anything, can be someone’s everything.