Local Businesses Hope to use Whiteaker’s Art Scene to Revitalize their Neighborhood

When it comes to art in the Eugene area, the Whiteaker neighborhood clearly stands out as a budding art community. With numerous cafes and bars featuring art and live entertainment on a regular basis, Whiteaker has always been a destination for art enthusiasts. However, certain areas in the Whiteaker have become run down, and some residents fear the focus of the neighborhood has shifted from art to drugs and crime. Recently, local businesses and restaurant owners on Blair Blvd have been planning events around their art community in hopes to revitalize their neighborhood and bring some positive attention to Whiteaker.

The Voyeur Gallery on Blair Blvd. Mike Munoz

In the past year, one of the driving forces behind the expanding art scene in the area has been Mo Bowen, owner and curator of The Voyeur art gallery on Blair Blvd. Since moving to Oregon from Chicago six years ago, Bowen has been tirelessly planning events and showing her photography at various galleries in Eugene, such as the Jacobs Gallery at the Hult Center.

Last year, Bowen decided to open the Voyeur gallery to give artists a medium sized space to show their art. While Whiteaker businesses are already known for showing various local artists, Bowen says she felt as though there was a big gap between galleries like the Hult Center and local cafes, describing her gallery as a “happy medium.” “Don’t get me wrong, I love the coffee shops and everything around here,” says Bowen. “But they’re not focused on just solo shows.” Since opening the gallery, she has been bringing in different artists every month, and always encourages them to come in and lead a discussion and/or class on their art. In addition to finding new artists, Bowen has also been one of the key figures involved in the monthly Last Friday Art Walk in Whiteaker.

The Last Friday Art walk was started by Ruth Beller and Sterling Wallah, who moved to Eugene over two decades ago and have been involved in Whiteaker’s art scene ever since. In October of 2004, they organized the first ever Last Friday Art Walk in hopes to bring the community together and get people talking about local art. At the time, the art walk only consisted of 5 stops. Since then, the art walk has continued to grow and sometimes features as many as 20 or more different stops. In recent years, Beller and Wallah have handed reigns over to Bowen and others; however the two still remain active in the art community through their organization, Art Trek.

A spectator examines Rood's "Bathroom Art" at the Last Friday Art Walk. Mike Munoz

For the past couple of months, Bowen’s gallery has been one of the main staples of the art walk. Last month, the Voyeur featured an exhibit called “Bathroom Art” which consisted of abstract paintings by Portland based artist Ben Rood. The paintings varied in size and used images of animals and shapes along with bright shades of green and blue to create visually stunning pieces.

Rood was at the gallery to answer questions and receive praise from the steady flow of people coming through the Voyeur. In a written statement hanging on the wall, Rood explained the name of the exhibit comes from the fact that most of his art has ended up in the bathrooms of family and friends. “I’m not sure why people feel the urge to hang my work in their bathrooms, but over the years it has become a private joke and a badge of honor,” he explains in his statement. Rood will be back at the Voyeur on the 15th for a class titled “Experimental Compositions” and again on the 16th for an artist discussion.

Another company involved in the Last Friday Art Walk was the Pizza Research Institute, a vegan pizza parlor that sits directly across the street from the Voyeur on the corner of 5th and Blair. Owners and husband and wife Usha and Will Boise started the business about 20 years ago as a traveling booth and worked numerous music and art festivals in the Pacific Northwest. Eleven years ago they opened a location on the corner 13th and Lawrence and began to perfect their craft. According to the owners, one of their manin goals is to incorporate art into their food and create pizzas that are not only delicious, but that are visually appealing as well.

Customers enjoyed live jazz at the Pizza Research Institute on the Last Friday Art Walk. Mike Munoz

By the time they moved to their bigger location on Blair Blvd in 2009, the Pizza Research Institute was starting to become more and more popular. Of course having a vegan menu in the Pacific Northwest doesn’t hurt. “A lot of times we’ll get people traveling between Seattle and San Francisco, and they’ll call us saying ‘We’re on I-5, can you tell us how to get there?’” says Usha. Two years ago, the owners met Bowen when they were displaying her art at their restaurant; and since then, the PRI has been one of the stops on the art walk. At the Last Art Walk, the Pizza Research Institute enjoyed a large crowd and featured photography by John Sconce as well as live jazz.

Blackflowers Blacksun make due with a simple set up at the Ninkasi Brewing Company. Mike Munoz

Most of the bars and restaurants like Sam’s Bond Garage feature art on their walls and continue business as they normally would any other Friday night. The Ninkasi Brewing Company is also a stop on the art walk and has live music by Blackflowers Blacksun from Bend, Oregon. The blues duo make due with a fairly simple setup that includes amps perched on boxes of Ninkasi Beer and a slide guitar made from an old cigar box. “She don’t know you! She don’t love you!” growls singer Greg Bryce as he stomps on a plank of wood to provide a beat. The band got audience members tapping their toes to their heavy blues riffs and scruffy vocals.

While some of the bars and restaurants had no problems drawing a crowd on a Friday night, other businesses failed to bring in people due to the cold weather. Sitting all alone on Madison St, the Wandering Coffee Co. is pretty much empty Friday night with the exception a few customers playing chess and shooting the shit with the scheduled guitarist. The Voyeur gallery, which was essentially the home base of the Last Friday Art Walk, enjoyed a steady stream of art enthusiasts throughout the night; however, Bowen says she was slightly disappointed in the turnout. “I definitely was expecting much, much more,” says Bowen. “I’m chalking that up to the cold, because a lot of people weren’t out and about.”

Despite already being heavily involved in the art scene in Whiteaker, Bowen says she still has big plans in mind for the Voyeur gallery. Bowen says she hopes to clean up the empty lot adjacent to the gallery and use it for shows. “I have a lot of plans for that,” she says with wide eyes. Bowen says the space would be perfect for large sculpture pieces and projections, as well as “yart sales”— outdoor exhibits where the featured art is for sale.

Mo Bowen and Ben Rood chat with spectators at the Voyeur Gallery on the Last Friday Art Walk. Mike Munoz

 

In addition to the Last Friday Art Walk, Bowen has also been working with the Blair Blvd Community Project. The organization was created 3 months ago and is comprised of local businesses and restaurants hoping to tackle issues in their neighborhood. Since its birth, local business owner Shane Tracey has been one of the key figures involved in the community project. Tracey is the owner and chef of the neighborhood bistro, Nib on the corner of 8th and Blair; and although his restaurant isn’t technically in the Whiteaker, Tracey hopes to use the growing art scene as a spring board to promote more community involvement in the area. “I’d say the soul of the neighborhood is the art community,” he said. “What I’m looking for is utilizing the art community as kind of the gateway to bringing everyone together.”

Most of the ideas stemming from the community project are events designed to rally the community together using the art scene. One of their main ideas involves a street fair that would span all the way from 8th to 2nd and Blair and feature street performers and musicians. Tracey’s personal goal for the first street fair would be this April, however he explained there is still a lot of planning to do between now and then. In addition to the street fair, the community project hopes to clean up Blair and revitalize the area. “As small as it sounds, installing trash cans up and down the street helps so people have a place to throw their trash instead of the ground,” says Tracey. Other plans involve installing more public restrooms and planting trees to make the Whiteaker a more desirable place to visit.

While there is still plenty of work to be done, residents and local business owners seems enthusiastic about the future of the Whiteaker. “I think it’s really happening,” says Usha with a smile. “Were sort of reviving Blair Blvd and trying to bring it back to some of its past glory.” By planning local events and utilizing the popular art scene, Boise and company hope to bring the community together and get residents more involved in their neighborhood.

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