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Cottage Grove people highlighted at Portland Airport art exhibit

Travelers at Portland International Airport are getting a glimpse of small town life in Cottage Grove through an exhibition of oil paintings by Uyen-Thi Ngyuen. She also created a book, Garden of People: A Portrait of Cottage Grove.

She told KLCC’s Rachael McDonald she started the project during the pandemic. She was eventually able to get a grant from the Lane Arts Council for the project.

I’ve lived in Cottage Grove for 17 years. It’s a great community and I just wanted to paint the people and the town. Also we were having, the world was having a hard time with the pandemic and I saw a lot of people, even family members, were not talking to each other because of politics, because of differences of opinion.

Because I had lived in the town for so long, the town’s really interesting because you have the wood products people, and then the people who’ve lived in Cottage Grove for a long time, and then there’s all these hippies, and then there’s the business people. And what’s interesting about the town is that they all interact. And that was unusual, when I first moved there, I was like, this is interesting. So, I, seeing that kind of relationship happen, even between families, I was concerned for the town as well because I was seeing a lot of discord between people. So, part of the project had to do with looking at people for what they are and kind of seeing what those misconceptions are. In the book, I have a lot of statistics. I took census bureau statistics from Cottage Grove and it’s like 98% Caucasian, right?

But I was looking at diversity in a different way, and when I started interviewing people I realized that people come from different family backgrounds and there’s lots of second generation families. So you’ll see like there’s Polish and then there’s Scottish, and there’s Hungarian, and there’s all these different ethnicities. The book became an exploration of society.

So, it became something that was a healing process for me. When I had it put up in the town, because of Covid, we went up and down Main Street and I just hung the paintings in the windows. So, for Bohemian Mining Days, the whole town comes out every year, and it uplifted the town.

So, in terms of the exhibit now being at the airport. How is it for you to know it’s in the airport and people traveling through are seeing it? And how is it for the people in the exhibit?

And so actually so awesome that it's at the Airport because so many more people can see it. And when I had first submitted the proposal I was like it would be really neat for international travelers to be able to see pictures of people from a small town in Oregon. I thought that would be really neat. And so I’ve gotten really great feedback. People have sent emails. Someone said, “I’m at the airport, I’m rushing by, and I saw your portraits and I just stopped and looked at them, and it just brought a connection.” So it’s been really great. Really neat things. Someone was like, “I fly every week out of Portland, and I hardly ever look at the art but yours I see every week, and there’s something new every week. And there's something new every week.” So I was like, wow.

Uyen-Thi Ngyuen’s exhibit Garden of People: A Portrait of Cottage Grove is on display in Concourse B of the Portland International Airport through August.

Copyright 2023 KLCC

Rachael McDonald is KLCC’s host for All Things Considered on weekday afternoons. She also is the editor of the KLCC Extra, the daily digital newspaper. Rachael has a BA in English from the University of Oregon. She started out in public radio as a newsroom volunteer at KLCC in 2000.