I believe in the power of cafe walls.
Growing up in Tacoma, Washington, my first exposure to visual art and coffee went hand in hand, at long-departed coffee bars like The Usual and Temple of the Bean, whose interior doubled as a rotating gallery space for local artists. There's something so obvious and intuitive about it, the non-discursive linearity of sipping a mug of something warm and looking at a canvas of something cool. It felt so natural to teenage me: “I'm at a cafe, the coolest place I can possibly imagine, and there is art, of course, because that is also cool.”
20 years (give or take) and a great many cafe hours later, I feel exactly the same way. Coffee bars can remain as glorious repositories of art and culture; I would argue that, in fact, that coffee bars should exhibit art, if they are so able, as a kind of public expression of the greater good, supporting emerging artists along the way. You might not be a professional art critic, or an art collector, but you can go to a cafe that features rotating artists, and that means something.
Here in Portland, where Sprudge is published, we've long cherished the ever-changing collections exhibited at places like The Red E Cafe (1006 N Killingsworth St) and The Red Fox (5128 N Albina Ave), and at May Barruel's extraordinary Nationale (3360 SE Division St), an art gallery, book and magazine shop in the heart of busy SE Division Street. Nationale carries my favorite magazine, and is kaleidoscopic in the range of artists and voices it exhibits, from sculpture to oil painting to photography. Openings and talks are always free to attend, and those looking to purchase work can do so on a payment plan. Nationale's manifesto on the meaning of art collection is a must-read, and in it, Barruel writes:
…[it is] important to consider the broader positive effects of collecting art. When you purchase a painting, sculpture, photograph, and so forth, you are supporting ideas and creativity, not just of the individual maker but of a larger circle. Every purchase ricochets, especially in a small community such as Portland, and affects more than just the one artist—it creates a culture of collecting in which art and ideas are valued in a very tangible way.
In late 2017, Stumptown Coffee Roasters hired on May Barruel to curate its newly launched Stumptown Artist Fellowship program, continuing her long-running work with the company (she started there as a barista in 2005). Artists selected for the program receive a $2,000 grant from Stumptown, and have their works exhibited at the newly remodeled Stumptown coffee bar in downtown Portland (128 SW 3rd Ave). The first exhibition launched in December, featuring the works of Wendy Red Star, a Portland-based multimedia artist whose work confronts and subverts popular conceptions of Native American cultural representation. It's a stunning exhibit, and sets a new standard for the cafe as public art space—photos of the exhibit appear throughout this feature.
Wendy Red Star's show closes this week, making way for the work of artist Jennifer Brommer, a Portland and Brooklyn based portrait and fashion photographer whose photo installation Memphis explores race and class in the American south. In advance of this launch, and with commentary on the last days of the exhibition from Wendy Red Star, I spoke with May Barruel about her role curating the Artist Fellowship at Stumptown, art's place in the cafe, and why Wendy Red Star's work feels so vital right now.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Hello May Barruel, and thank you for speaking with me. Give our readers a little bit of background on how you came to have your current role with Stumptown.
I started working for Stumptown in the spring of 2005, first as a barista and then as the manager for the Annex.
In 2007, when the art curator position became available I applied for it and was offered the Downtown cafe. I've been curating that space ever since.
What do you see as art's role in the cafe?
It's interesting to be asked this question right after the recent remodel. When we re-opened in early December, we were waiting for everything to be dried and painted before installing Wendy Red Star's show, and so the walls were bare for almost a week. Walking in the cafe felt very cold, almost as if there were no life to the space. The baristas were all telling me, “I can't wait for the art to go up!” And once it did, it was a complete transformation. So with that in mind, I'd say a huge role of art in the cafe is for the space to come alive, to have a soul in a way.
Another important role is that the monthly exhibitions in three of our Portland cafes have, in a way, been supporting artists ever since our beginnings in 1999 by providing them a space to show their work in a professional manner, reach new audiences, and hopefully make some sales to pay for that ever more expensive art studio.
Finally, I'm always thinking about our customers and staff, and hope the art I choose can add something special or unexpected to their day, whether it's visual or something more existential.
Growing up I can think of a few specific cafes in the Seattle and Tacoma area (where I'm from) that featured rotated art shows. These spaces left an impression on me, and I'm curious if you have similar cafes from yesteryear whose approach to art inspired you?
I grew up in France where, as far as I can remember, cafes don't really show art being made at that moment. After moving to Portland in 2000, I first started noticing art outside of traditional galleries at places like the Albina Press (curated at the time by Gretchen Vaudt), Valentine's (curated at the time by Jen Olesen), and Stumptown (curated at the time by Daniel Gonzalez). I also remember big art parties like the Alphabet Dress and the Modern Zoo, which were thrown by artist-run DIY collectives. These very much informed my wanting to be involved in the visual arts scene.
How did you come to work with the artist Wendy Red Star?
When I first met our CEO, Sean Sullivan, we talked about his vision for the Downtown cafe, how art was going to have a greater place in it with the remodeling, and he told me to “aim high.” He asked specifically, “If you could show anyone in Portland, who would it be?” Wendy was one of the first artists who came to mind. I had seen her work last year at the Portland Art Museum and it had a strong impact on me. I reached out to her and she accepted to be the first artist to show at the cafe after the remodel. We did not tell her about the Stumptown Artist Fellowship until we announced the program in early December and her as the first recipient. I love the fact that after showing in numerous museums and larger institutions, she was excited to show in a coffee shop. When I talked to her about that, she mentioned having always wanted to show in a coffee shop and being somewhat disappointed when she was in college that her friends would get shows and she didn't. So she said she saw the exhibition as her homecoming and loved the idea of being able to show to a large audience here in Portland where she lives.
Why do you think work like Wendy Red Star's is so vital to exhibit in a public space?
First of all, I love that people who either can't afford to visit museums or don't have the habit, will get to see her work. There is something very democratic about that.
I think it's important as well to show work which is not just purely visual or “pretty,” but which also asks the audience to take a moment out of their busy lives to reflect on the past and on the world we live in. The series Wendy is presenting is very subtle but also extremely powerful. We have to look at ourselves while looking at these life size portraits of Crow women. Our environment/world is reflected in the work, you might catch someone in the “background” taking a selfie with their latte art, it is such a shocking and somewhat absurd contrast from the world these women inhabited. I'm also thinking about Wendy's statement. How she wrote, “Since leaving my reservation at age 18 to attend college I have often felt alone,” and so the idea of these Crow children and women being there is important in that they would make her, and others like her, feel less alone when they visit the space.
Wendy Red Star's exhibition at Stumptown's Downtown Portland closes Wednesday, January 31st. A reception for incoming artist Jennifer Brommer will be held on Wednesday, February 7th from 5-7pm. Attendance is free and open to the public.
Jordan Michelman is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Jordan Michelman on Sprudge.
Disclosure: Stumptown Coffee Roasters is an advertising partner on Sprudge Media Network.