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Endless Canvas

The undercover artists behind the Greenwood Street Gallery



Write a friend's phone numbers on your arm and give them a blank check for bail, just in case. That's what multi media artist J.F., a thirty-something ex-Miami resident, tells me and a group of a half dozen eager Bend artists outside Thump Coffee.

J.F. is a street artist who has lived in Bend for two years. Concerned about the lack of street art—an expression that makes for vibrant cultural surroundings—she, along with other local artists, organized an illicit street art hang in the Greenwood underpass.

Sure, there are a few train cars here and there tagged with graffiti, but what J.F. wanted to bring to Bend's landscape isn't tagging. She is a DIY wheat paster. Enter the birth of the Greenwood Street Gallery, a collection of local and national art, wheat paste and stencils on the walls of the bridge.

"Everything in galleries here is landscapes," complained J.F. "They're beautiful, but there's not much young art."

The pre-painted and printed images were hung in the wee hours of the morning last Thursday, and by Monday midday had already been painted over by a crew assigned by the city. The images, while they lasted, were glorious; everything from 8x11 photocopied sheets to a 6-foot-tall owl with antlers were part of the showing, all under a scrawling sprayed tag that read, "Greenwood Street Gallery." The stunning colors and texture transformed the drab gray walls of the underpass into an urban art exhibit, albeit temporary.

Artists like the London-based stencilist Banksy have made international careers of socially motivated street art in major cities. Los Angeles is home to many talented street artists, including Shephard Fairey, who created Barack Obama's 2008 "Hope" campaign posters, quickly making his work one of the most recognized political illustrations—second only to "Uncle Sam Wants You" posters—of the last century. In 2010, Banksy's film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, became the first documentary to explore the obsession with street art, achieving a nomination for best documentary at the 2011 Academy Awards. The art itself, while fairly simple and cheap to make and hang (just flour, water, a can or two of spray paint, thick paper for stencils and an X Acto knife), fetches a high price and draws cultural tourism to unlikely locations. Banksy once privately auctioned one of his detached murals for $1 million and London now offers walking or biking alternative street art tours for 20 euros a pop.

Bend doesn't quite fit the bill for urban centers bustling with alternative artists. Even so, J.F. hopes projects like the Greenwood Street Gallery will encourage local artists to continue their grassroots campaigns.

Last Thursday, about 11 p.m., a half dozen soon-to-be street artists—from schoolteachers to cooks—gathered at J.F.'s apartment and started cooking up the gloopy, sticky wheat paste for the mass hang. Boiling equal parts flour and water until it thickened, they added a dash of wood glue and a pinch of sugar to ensurestickiness; the beige slime smells like matzo balls, and will stick paper to concrete without fail. Definitely don't get it in your hair, warned J.F.

By 3 a.m., the rogue artists left the apartment and headed toward the underpass armed with their "professional street art equipment"—a step ladder, two extendable paint rollers and five, five-gallon buckets of home-cooked wheat paste. It was the night before downtown's First Friday Art Walk, so the artists hoped the Gallery would be highly trafficked over the weekend before the city could remove their work.

In Oregon, punishment for illegal art hanging (i.e. vandalism) can range from $750 fines to six months of community service. When an on-duty police car cruises past during the hanging, the six artists, all in black with non-reflective tape over the sneakers and purple rubber gloves, slouch low with their backs against the concrete wall, now half covered in rolled-on wheat paste.

The squad car rolls by without its taillights even flickering.

At the end of an hour of hanging, the crew had slapped up more than 40 pieces of art. The underpass suddenly looked like a colorful newspaper collage rather than a lackluster concrete slab.

Except for the adrenaline of a possible arrest, following the underground crew was one of the least Bend-like experiences I have ever had in my hometown.

Perhaps you saw the art over the past week—if not, it's too late now. The only evidence of the Greenwood Street Gallery exists on the Facebook page "Bend OR Street Art. "

The walls that became the canvas for the Greenwood Street Gallery are maintained and owned by the city. Bend's communications manager, Justin Finestone, explained that the city will typically send a work crew to remove or paint over tags within a week. If the material is offensive, it will send a crew that day.

Portland spends over $3 million on graffiti cleanup each year. Costs are lower in Bend, but the city still budgets for graffiti removal, said Finestone. The Greenwood Gallery is a colorful urban addition to the underpass, but to the city, the artistic merit has little bearing; it will remove the art as soon as it can get a work crew from the county.

"We don't make judgment calls," said Bend's street maintenance manager, Hardy Hanson. "It may be somebody's art, but to us it's graffiti."

This time, the underpass was back to its standard flat-gray paint in less than 72 hours.

"What I love about street art is it's so ephemeral," said LaLa, one of the artists who was instrumental in organizing the Greenwood Gallery. "It comes and it goes, but it's for the people." SW

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