Not Horsing Around: There’s No Corralling the Portland Horse Project

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I can’t imagine Portland when horses were used for transportation. The city has never had an old west feel and it’s hard to see beyond the automobile. The Portland Horse Project Facebook Group opened my eyes to things I hadn’t known about. I learned that in the early 1900’s curbs were required to have horse rings. A newspaper article from the 70’s posted on the site reported that people insisted the city keep the horse ring tradition alive by preserving them. Without horse rings there would be no Horse Project.

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Photo by Graham Marks

The Portland Horse Project is the meeting of horse rings and small horses. It was a fascination with those brass rings that led artist Scott Wayne Indiana to start the project in 2005. I asked him by email about the project’s origins and was rewarded with background details about the project. Growing up in Salem, he became familiar with the rings on trips to see his grandparents in Portland.

“I guess I was a pretty observant kid from an early age,” Scott explained. “I have vivid memories of being fascinated with the rings even from those days. There just aren’t many relics like that in cities that have lived on.”

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The first three! Note strings. Photos courtesy of Scott Wayne Indiana

The horse rings offered an aura of wonder and mysticism. While studying art and drawing inspiration from artist’s like Francis Alÿs, Brad Adkins, and Harrell Fletcher and Miranda July’s Learning to Love you More project he came to the realization that “art could be anything.” He experimented with public art including keeping an inventory of planted flags that eventually led to the idea for a public art piece relating to the rings. My initial question for Scott had a chicken or the egg angle. I imagined the project being inspired by his coming across a toy horse. It was the other way around. “The love for the rings came long before the idea to tie anything to them,” Scott wrote. He purchased five or six cheap horses from Goodwill and tied them with string in the park blocks area. They were all gone in a matter of hours. Undeterred he found a more secure method of tethering using clasps and cables. “Over a hundred horses and a few months later, the project took off in a nearly self-sustaining way and hasn’t really looked back,” he wrote.

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Scott moved to Brooklyn in 2008 but he maintains the Facebook group. His father has gotten in on the act “putting out a couple dozen horses around town every year,” Scott noted. He voiced an appreciation for the project’s ability to extend “an implicit invitation for everyone to participate.” That process includes photos shared on Instagram and Facebook.

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Photo by Jackie Omen

Jackie Omen tethers horses too. I noticed her posts on the Portland Horse Project group and Scott mentioned being impressed with her contributions. Jackie wrote that she usually cringes at “whimsical stuff” but that the Horse Project captured her heart. She asked a question that most of us would answer in the affirmative: “Who doesn’t love spotting one of those damn horses?”

Jackie’s 7 x 7 display.

She expressed her attraction to this “mix of city history and hidden Easter egg.” Drawn to them when she was advised to exercise, her walks around her neighborhood allowed her to seek out rings in need of tethering. It’s become a hobby that includes hunting for horses in thrift stores.

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These horses entice people to stop and admire them. Not all of them are the cutesy My Little Pony types. Some are stately, regal even, dwarfed by the rings and surrounding cars. I’ve noticed creative variations on this theme that don’t include horses. That’s a whole other post. The horses exist as a living diorama that’s broken out of the shoebox. It leaves me wondering why, after searching my photo archive, I could only find three horse project type pictures I’d taken. It’s the kind of thing I’d photograph anytime I saw it. They might not be prevalent in North Portland. In the ten years I lived in the Kenton neighborhood, I kept meaning to tie a horse to our ring. At least I now know the horse shopping hot spot and how to secure them. The ring was something I always looked for when I cut the grass. It was either to see it again or make sure it was still around. There’s something magical in that link to both the past and the present.

References:

https://www.facebook.com/PortlandHorseProject/

https://www.instagram.com/explore/tags/portlandhorseproject/

https://alamedahistory.org/2018/06/12/portlands-horse-tethering-rings/

https://www.kptv.com/history-into-art-the-story-of-portland-s-sidewalk-horse/video_8899ab70-f79c-5b5f-9f16-d876a1b606b6.html

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Evelyn Collins: Portland’s Mrs. Doubtfire?

Years ago, while riding my bike up North Williams Avenue, I noticed a portrait of Evelyn Collins on the Urban League building. I didn’t know who she was but her name was under her image. To me, she was the spitting image of Mrs. Doubtfire, a character played by the late actor Robin Williams in a movie of the same name. I took a picture and I rode on. Since then I’ve waited for my schedule to clear so I could explore the Evelyn Collins/Mrs.Doubtfire connection.

Evelyn and Mrs. Doubtfire

Robin Williams made some good movies like The Fisher King. He did an authentic Oliver Sacks impression in the movie Awakenings. He was endearing in Good Will Hunting and creepy in One Hour Photo. There are others, but I’m forgetting. He had a personality to be reckoned with. He had a heck of a movie career for a stand up comic. I didn’t consult IMDB which will prove to be my downfall, but I’ve been under the impression that his 90’s movie output included some bad role choices or movies that weren’t good. I’m remembering a trio of consecutive films that may have started with Patch Adams followed by Mrs. Doubtfire, where he played a female nanny and Bicentennial Man where he was cast as a robot. I had even considered that a 24 hour Robin Williams film festival would have had me running from the theater if I had been forced to watch these movies in consecutive order. I don’t mean any disrespect. The loss of Robin Williams was tragic. With all the insanity going on in the world today it sure would be nice to see him cutting up on a lame talk show.

I don’t remember if I saw Mrs. Doubtfire. I remember it being a kid’s movie, a comedy of errors with Williams stumbling around in pancake make up and wig that I’ve since learned took four and a half hours to apply. It seems unlikely that Williams would have known anything about Evelyn Collins, certainly not enough to base a character on her. I’m sure he visited Portland but it’s doubtful that he would have run across her filing away her essence in his subconscious for the time his movie career would require him to play a middle-aged woman. It occurred to me that I could do some research in hopes of finding a Doubtfire/Collins link. Robin Williams was sure to have made promotional appearances for the movie. I stumbled upon an interview on The Actor’s Studio where William’s made a comparison between Mrs. Doubtfire’s breasts and his own then began riffing on the idea of God thinking out loud while designing the female body. A post about Mrs. Doubtfire on Mental Floss described the movie’s production team looking at photos of women from the 1940’s before finding the image of an English woman who resembled what they were looking for in Mrs. Doubtfire. Of course it couldn’t have been something like Gus Van Sant, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Robin Williams going out to dinner at a restaurant to discuss the Good Will Hunting project while Evelyn Collins sat quietly in the background eating a bowl of soup only to find Robin Williams creating a mental character study for future reference of this interesting and vibrant woman on his way to the men’s room. This would have been impossible anyway because Mrs. Doubtfire was made well before Good Will Hunting.

I wanted to write about Evelyn Collins to learn about her connection to the Urban League and how she got her portrait hung on their building. While searching for information I learned from a blog post on the Eliot neighborhood website that Collins owned the building that has become Wonder Ballroom. There she ran a daycare facility and community center for minority children. It originally felt like I was onto something when I discovered that Collins worked in a profession similar to that of the fictional character that reminded me of her. This is only a coincidence. The Collins/Doubtfire connection has gone from a private in-joke between me and myself to a now, slightly public in-joke. I’ll still think of Mrs. Doubtfire every time I ride or drive up North Williams Avenue and look at the Urban League building but this feels unfair to the legacy of Evelyn Collins. She is known for far more than her slight resemblance to Mrs. Doubtfire. In the Eliot neighborhood piece, she was described as “an angel in our midst,” someone who provided “affordable Christian daycare to help working mothers.” From the Urban League website, I’ve determined that the portrait of Evelyn Collins is there to honor her life as a pioneer “who made a difference for Portland’s black community.” At least most people could agree that Mrs. Doubtfire dressed like Evelyn Collins.

 

An Onion Dome of a Different Kind

The Pittsburgh Orbit has a legendary love for all things Onion Dome. It also happens to be located in a place with the right kind of orthodox religions that support this interest. Out here in Portland I’ve kept my eyes peeled for domes that might make a comparable piece to what Pittsburgh’s Orbit has come up with but I haven’t found any examples. I have yet to extend my search to outlying areas. Then it occurred to me that there is a dome. Whether this is onion enough to satisfy the Pittsburgh Orbit has yet to be determined but with such sparse pickings this is all the Portland Orbit can offer at this time.

The first time I saw this photo must have been soon after I moved to Portland ten years ago. I marveled at how cool this section of town looked. The dome was only part of what made it distinct. I wondered how I hadn’t seen it. All I could think was that I had to go there. Somehow I found out I had been looking at a place that was no longer there. I have a vague memory that my brother-in-law Paul may have broken the news. In his voice I can hear him saying with some resignation something like, “Yeah, they tore that part of town down” or maybe it was more like, “that’s no longer there, dude.”  This memory, as hazy as it is now, is tinged with a feeling of loss.

Seeing the building from a different angle in another photograph from that era brought back thoughts and imagings of what Portland, especially the North Williams corridor, was like a long time ago. It took me a while to make the connection that the old dome from the photos had been placed on top of the gazebo in Dawson’s Park.

My best attempts at research informed me that the tear down happened as part of the Emmanuel Hospital expansion that never went through as planned, a sad chapter in Portland history to say the least. I’ve read two accounts that both yielded the same result. There was one story explaining that surrounding houses and the Hill Block building were torn down due to expansion for the hospital but the planned funding did not become available while something else I read along the same lines mentioned that money for the project ran out after the land was cleared. In the end it doesn’t matter, a cool part of town was razed. It can only be experienced now by looking at old photographs. It’s a thoughtful memorial that’s bittersweet. As the plaque pointed out it was the citzen’s of the Eliot neighborhood and the City Of Portland who had the forethought to repurpose the dome that  allowing this area to hold on to a shred of history.

There was an amazing view when I drove past one recent February afternoon. I spotted the dome against the backdrop of a giant pink church. The dying light of that late afternoon sun lit up the background making the cupola look majestic. It highlighted how the dome keeps the spirit of the old neighborhood alive. There were guys playing dominoes and someone barbecuing. A community of people had gathered on a random Tuesday afternoon. The park has a long history from pasture land to a place circuses would perform. It was the place RFK gave his last speech before being shot a week later. The most recent celebrity stopover to the park was from Janelle Monae.

It wasn’t until I went for a visit did I realize how ornate the top of the dome was. There’s also a plaque in the middle of the gazebo that’s informative but hard to read. While I was in the area, I realized I needed to get a sense of where the actual dome had been. I’d read it was on the NW corner of N Williams and NE Russell. Being directionally challenged, I broke out the compass on my phone. As I walked down N. Williams toward the Urban League building where the streets cross I noticed I was walking past a big open field and then I arrived at the corner where the Hill Block building and its dome had been. There was something sad in that gray sky that hung over that emptiness where cool old buildings had once been.

 

Eliot Neighborhood News:

https://www.eliotneighborhood.org/2016/06/28/eliot-history-spotlight-dawson-park/amp/

Dawson Park Info:

http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2016/09/dawson_park_gentrification_por.html

https://www.portlandoregon.gov/parks/finder/index.cfm?action=ViewPark&PropertyID=33