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Timeless Indigenous portraits greet visitors at new Eugene park site

Brian Bull
The Culture Raising installation shortly after it was erected, August 2021.

If you’re walking around the new Downtown Riverfront Park development in Eugene, you might just gaze upon some art…that in turn, is gazing right back at you. KLCC’s Brian Bull reports on the “Culture Raising” installation, and how it recognizes the region’s Indigenous people.

Flashback to a sunny August afternoon last year - I’m on a stretch of walk between the old EWEB headquarters and the old steam plant. Charly Swing, director of Art City, pointed out what at first looks like an ordinary fence, 100-ft. long, 8-ft. high, and…with individual faces.

“Actually two faces,” explained Swing. “Each is a youth and an elder, of Native American and Indigenous people, who live in our community.”

“Culture Raising” art installation at Eugene’s new Riverfront development

Photos of local Native people were done via Zoom teleconference call and under COVID protocols. The images were then transferred to sheets of coroplast. Those images were then cut into slats which form the fences.

“We elected to install it here on the downtown Riverfront park and it forms this beautiful imagery between the park and future private development,” said Emily Proudfoot, principal landscape architect for the City of Eugene’s Parks Planning section of the Public Works Department.

“But what I love about it, is that it’s looking out toward the river.”

A growing awareness of the land’s original inhabitants, the Kalapuya, has helped Oregonians relate the past with the present. Tennepah Brainard, who goes by “T.J.” is the conceptual artist behind the Culture Raising project. She’s of Coos/Apache heritage, and a student at the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe. Due to the pandemic, she’s remained in Eugene where she coordinated photography of the subjects.

“And so I thought okay, let’s do like half a face and eyes, but after a while I realized that for me, it’s kinda of like doing Native American people just as people,” laughed T.J. “Not like full-on headgear and regalia, just…see that we’re here, and this is us, and how we look very different and how we look like everyone else.’”

T.J. used the faces of her relatives and tutors, pairing the half face of a youth with that of an elder. The result is a series of intimate portraits that illuminates Native people’s presence, historically and today.

“It just seemed absolutely right that they are the first people who are being raised up on this fence, as the culture that we are coming together to give recognition,” said Swing.

Brian Bull
ArtCity director Charly Swing (left) and photographer and musician Gregory Stanley Black (right) discuss their work in developing and documenting the "Culture Raising" project to a crowd of local Native Americans on June 4, 2022.

Meanwhile, Gregory Stanley Black has been involved with documenting the installation process. The project was made possible with funding from Urban Renewal Agency of the City of Eugene, with additional support from Cultural Services and Parks and Open Spaces.

Back at the Riverfront development, Emily Proudfoot told me that there’s an immediate connection felt upon looking at the faces of local Indigenous people.

“I feel like they’re here, watching and caring for us or something. It’s really…it’s an important and very moving piece, I love it.”

The Culture Raising installation was the result of an open artist call to Lane County artists in 2020. While the fence art exhibit is temporary, the slats will be removed and woven into a new form, which will be auctioned to help support new public art pieces created by Native Americans across Eugene.

The new Riverfront development project opens to the public Friday, at 10am.

Copyright @2022, KLCC.

Brian Bull joined the KLCC News Team in June 2016. In his 25+ years as a public media journalist, he's worked at NPR, Twin Cities Public Television, South Dakota Public Broadcasting, Wisconsin Public Radio, and ideastream in Cleveland. His reporting has netted dozens of accolades, including four national Edward R. Murrow Awards (19 regional), the Ohio Associated Press' Best Reporter Award, Best Radio Reporter from the Native American Journalists Association, and the PRNDI/NEFE Award for Excellence in Consumer Finance Reporting.
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