“The Whit; a Mecca of Art”
People around the nation flock to the Whiteaker for its sense of community and thriving art scene
BY McKENNA JOHNSON
On 4th and Monroe there is a mural of a naked woman lying on her side looking at a deck of cards. On the corner of 5th and Blair The Eugene Glass Menagerie is full of workers making ornaments, pipes, and instruments out of glass. On the streets of Van Buren and Blair, there is a mosaic statue with the engraved words, “You are Here.”
“Here” is the Whiteaker neighborhood. It’s called “The Whit” for short if you’ve eaten the catfish and ribs from Papa’s Soul Food, taken a sip of organic Guatemalan coffee from the Wandering Goat Coffee Co., or bought a beer across the street at Sam Bond’s Garage. From an outsider the Whiteaker might seem like one of the poorest neighborhoods in Eugene, but this neighborhood is home to one of the biggest art scenes across the nation. Artists like glass blowers, painters, sculptors, and metalsmiths come from places like New York City, Boston, and even Kansas to come to this artistic mecca. With so many artists from locations across the nation, finding an artist originally from Eugene in this neighborhood is surprising if not a rare occurrence.
“I hated Eugene and said I would never live here,” Tracey Bell says as she sits her studio with painted green and turquoise walls. Bell, originally from Kansas, is a metalsmith who rents out a room from Studio C on 245 Blair Blvd. Among the other nine other artists that rent out rooms that are transformed into art studios, she sits at her work desk that is scattered with hammers, chisels, measuring tools and pliers. From materials like sheet metal, wire, opal and garnet, she creates botanical looking jewelry inspired by the Oregon landscape.
Bell participates in the First Friday Art Walk by being a feature artist from Blue Moon, a jewelry store that is also Bell’s second job, but she is also an artist who presents on the Last Friday Art Walk in the Whiteaker neighborhood. Bell says that the two art walks are two totally different groups of people, but the Whiteaker has a more festive atmosphere where “people come and experience what is going on.” One of Bell’s main reasons for joining the art walk is to make connections, and she did when she met a photographer who took photos of her artwork that would later be shown on her website.
Eugene’s roads were the main reason that Bell didn’t want to live in Eugene. They are notorious for one-ways and taking drivers in circles, but Bell says that after being in the neighborhood for almost a year, she got over the fact that the “roads were dumb.” After working in the Whiteaker she started to like the atmosphere and the sense of community it gave her. “It’s the mindset that keeps people here. People aren’t so oppressive…they just let you be. It’s like a little village. I don’t know my neighbors in midtown, but I do here,” Bell says.
Geoff Stengel, owner and glass blower of the Eugene Glass Menagerie, says that there is a sense of community in the Whiteaker that doesn’t happen anywhere else. “There’s a vortex here, bigger than Sedona, Arizona. Any dream you ever dreamt of, or wish you wanted to make I think it really happens,” Stengel says as he works on perfecting his process of making the glass-blown harmonica.
Inside of the light blue building on the corner next to a street light, it truly is a menagerie of art as there are about seven people who bring in their work ranging from pipes, ornaments, pendants, and glass statues. Stengel also says that he didn’t like the Whiteaker when he first came to it, but after hitchhiking around the country, he found himself back within the familiar roads that belong to the Whiteaker. It was here in this neighborhood that Stengel created the first fully playable glass-blown harmonica that is now on display at the Eugene Glass School.
Stengel has made two harmonicas, but the first has a price tag of $150,000 because, he says, “It’s the first and the first will never happen again. It’s also the original, the idea and the investment in the idea.” Stengel created the glass-blown harmonica because like his grandfather, “Papa Sam”, it was always in his pocket. Stengel tried working through industry, but he says replicating one item on a massive scale wasn’t what he wanted to do with glass blowing.
Other artists agree to that. Bell says, “I could just make all the stuff that everybody makes. I don’t make jewelry just because I want to sell it. I make it because I enjoy it. If I start doing production for production sake it takes the joy out of it.”
Meisha Linwood, an artist who showcases her paintings at Olive Juice for the Last Friday Art Walk, says that the Whiteaker allows artists to pursue their dreams, but without a large income to do it. “Whiteaker is an idea mecca where alternative thinking is the norm,” says Linwood, and it’s one of the reasons why artists come to the Whiteaker. However, the neighborhood dynamic could change as the cost of living in the Whiteaker can rise if developers, who have been looking to the Whiteaker for its prime location next to the river front, decide to build new apartments. This would raise the cost of living to the neighborhood, and some of the low-income artists would need to leave to make ends meet somewhere else. Anand Keathley, vice chair of the Whiteaker neighborhood board, says, “We’ve talked about trashing the neighborhood to keep developers out, and to keep the costs of living in the Whiteaker down.”
Keathley says that the board has not engaged in any sort of “trashing,” but tries to make the point clear that it is an important problem. He says there are more positive ways to keep developers out such as creating a bike boulevard, which would connect the Greenway bike path to the Amazon bike path. He says, “This would increase bike, pedestrian and other forms of active transportation while reducing car traffic. This could be positive to the neighborhood while discouraging developers.”
Kari Johnson, the chair of the Whiteaker neighborhood board, says that art lifts people’s spirits up when the economy is down. This may be one of the reasons why the neighborhood is overflowing with creative thought and Johnson says, “The more depressed we get the more art we’re gonna need for sure.”
According to Bell, showcasing art is important for any artist, and when businesses help out the local art community by displaying their artwork during the Art Walks it is beneficial for the artists because it can put that on their resume. During the Whiteaker Last Friday Art Walk that took place on February 26th, businesses like Olive Juice, Pizza Research Institute, Delphina, Ninkasi Brewery, and the Wandering Goat Coffee Co. showcased various artists. Michael Nixon, the owner of Wandering Goat Coffee Co, says that artists provide decor and a changing atmosphere for the cafe, and in return the artists can display their artwork in the cafe up to one month.
The Whiteaker neighborhood provides the perfect atmosphere for old and aspiring artists by welcoming them to explore the limits of their creativity like Geoff Stengel’s glass-blown harmonica, Tracey Bell’s Oregon inspired jewelry or Meisha Linwood’s collage paintings. Although the neighborhood is not the richest when it comes to dollar signs and riches, the Whit is home to a thriving art community that is incomparable to any other.
McKenna Johnson writes for Suzi Steffen’s Reporting I class and can be reached through email at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Biggest Political Stand: The Pursuit of Joy
Meisha Linwood’s goal to create artwork that portrays joy and health.
BY McKENNA JOHNSON
Inside the No. four apartment on the outskirts of the Whiteaker neighborhood, children’s art work and colorful tapestries line the walls. Linwood, a mother and a painter, would not be expected to attend Fetish Night at Diablo’s where black clothing or fetish attire is required to enter. On the contrary, she does. And when she’s not helping Matthew Kale form leather into skulls, bats or goblin masks, she is painting the opposite. Her brush strokes leave a trail of light greens, yellows, blues and reds that represent joy and happiness, which is her pursuit to give as an artist.
The smell of Firefly Chai fills the room as she pours the creamy cafe colored liquid into a black ceramic cup as she sits in the dining room. She leans back and talks about Xavia, her eight-year-old daughter, whose artwork adorns most of the apartment. Linwood’s artwork on the other hand, is barely noticeable as it is pressed up against the wall in the corner behind her.
While Linwood’s work goes unnoticed in her home, she makes up for it by displaying it at Olive Juice, a store that sells lingerie, accessories, games and books, The Vintage, a local restaurant and Sister Scissors. Olive Juice is part of the Last Friday Art Walk in the Whiteaker neighborhood and she describes it as, “Eugene’s “So-ho” that is all about art, community…it’s what makes Eugene interesting. Whiteaker is an idea mecca: alternative thinking is the norm.” She says that the sense of community and the idea of helping one another out are dominant values in the Whiteaker neighborhood, and the reasons why she believes that the Last Friday Art Walk has more “real” feeling to it compared to the First Friday Art Walk that takes place downtown.
Linwood moved to Eugene in 1999 after living in Missouri, Coos Bay and Ashland. She went to welding school at Lane Community College where she learned the basic fundamentals that would lead her down the career path as an artist. Being creative has always been a part of her life as she used to explore the backroom of her high school class working with recycled materials. She likes to push her boundaries by making something that takes a lot of thought; once she used a garbage can filled with water to create a wax sculpture that resembled flames by adding melted candle wax into the water.
“I always wanted to be that political artist. But that’s just not me,” Linwood says as she pours herself another cup of chai. Almost as if to reiterate the point, she is wearing a salmon colored halter top and has a short hair cut with strands that sweep around her smiling face. She says, “Happiness and joy are the political stand in the long run,” and as she reaches behind her chair and pulls out some of the canvases she’s been working on, it’s obvious this is her goal. Linwood describes them as “collage art” because each one is made with materials like cloth, string and paint.
One year ago she started apprenticing as a leather worker for Matthew Kale. Now she works six hours a day, four days a week helping Kale make leather masks. Delphina, a welcoming clothing store in the Whiteaker neighborhood has anything from studded cuffs, leather pants to fish nets, and is the place where Matthew Kale’s leather masks are sold on the shelves. Linwood only helps Kale with making the masks and she says that they are all his. “I needed a job that wasn’t tedious like dishwashing,” Linwood says in reference to her apprenticeship.
The Whiteaker neighborhood is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Eugene, although it is full of aspiring artists. Linwood says that as long as she’s doing art she’s happy, and selling it isn’t a priority. “The rent is low in the Whiteaker… You can pursue your dreams more without a large income to do it,” Linwood says. She gives most of her artwork to her mother and sister, but she wouldn’t mind showing more during the Art Walks or at local businesses.
She hopes that one day she can show her artwork without signing her name because she thinks that artwork is meant for the community to take pleasure in. Although she has been living on the outskirts of the Whiteaker for over ten years, she says that she’s open to change.
“It’s just the adventure isn’t it?”
A podcast with Tracey Bell, a metalsmith worker who works in Studio C on 245 Blair Blvd.
A photostory with Geoff Stengel, the owner and worker of the Eugene Glass Menagerie who created the first glass-blown harmonica