The Highs & Lows with Jim Gion
The first time I saw the gallery, it wasn’t named the High & Low, or the Hi Lo, or the Hi Low, or even the Hi & Lo. It was something else: a punk-black exterior, with large windows and blood-red walls inside. Biking by from my apartment off of 34th and SE Belmont, my third apartment in six months, my gaze was drawn like a moth to the large canvasses of graffiti hanging inside.
This period of my life was colored by post break-up malaise. Time’s linearity disappeared. I was oblique and devastatingly sad, reduced to putting one foot after the other, moving rubbermaid tubs of clothes from here to there, over and over. I stacked junk mail mindlessly. But I’m incredibly high-functioning, so I went to work, I hit my deadlines, detoxed, ran, I wasn’t sleeping. I got rid of my bed. I packed 85% of my things into a shippable container. I got tattooed. I had a feeling, a dull abstraction to disappear, to run away with all my books. I slipped into my thirties more or less alone.
Days passed, then weeks, and I still hadn’t stepped foot into the gallery. The rain came, and the temperature dropped. The gallery was always closed. I had forgotten the urge to go in, because it became an everyday landmark that I passed on my way into work, and back again. Then the season started to change, and on one of those straddling winter and spring kind of days, the gallery was open.
By then the walls had been repainted a soothing off-white–I don’t remember when that happened, and it made me think that the red walls were a manifestation of my mental state at the time. Matty was with me, and we were greeted by Jim Gion. A true Oregonian, raised in Klamath, he wore a flannel work shirt tucked into his jeans, with his eyes smiling underneath an Australian bush hat. He told us about the space, how his friend owned it and let him curate and work out of it for free. We found out that he repainted the walls from red to white, because they wanted the gallery to be a community space. ”The red walls were too much,” he told us. He walked us through the back, down into the basement with the low-low ceiling, and the dim lights that cast long-long shadows on sculpted heads, the sawdust and the dust, with tarps strewn about. The Hi Low gallery was about the buttoned-up, fine art in the “High” gallery, and the debase and subversive in the “Low” gallery. Jim invited us back for coffee the following weekend.
I came back, without Matty. Jim greeted me on a little table outside the Hi Lo, and I met Julie Noyes, a painter, who was helping Jim curate the space at that time. We talked over diner-like coffee. I learned about Jim’s project, Stories of Empire. Being a sculptor for 40 years, in 2008 he started asking folks living on the streets if he could sculpt their portraits. During the few hours Jim had with these people, he would talk to them. “These people are actively ignored everyday, and it’s a kind of extinction. But when I show up, and I don’t want anything from them, all I want to do is their portraits, it must seem like a warm bath to them...they just blossom,” Jim shared. Those heads, named after real people, were on display both in the “High” and the “Low” gallery. Stories of Empire reminded me of the people-first work that Write Around Portland does with writing in community–but, with clay. “I realized, that some of these guys, they look just like the Apostles, and they start talking and you learn: we’re not all that different,” Jim said. Julie mentioned wanting to apply for a grant. I wanted to help. We talked about what could be done with the space, how to promote it, how to partner with other groups, how to get people to know about the High & Low. Hours passed, and then I walked the three minutes back home.
I ended up losing touch with Julie, but the gallery and Jim remained. The space was infused with the kind of immediate acceptance that Jim brought to his Stories of Empire project, the same way he invited Matty and I in that day, and how at ease I felt passing the hours with him and Julie, just drinking coffee and talking ideas. I started going to their drop-in, pay-what-it’s-worth-to-you, life drawing sessions on Thursday nights. I went, because I use to draw a lot, before I wrote, and looking at a body as a collection of shapes and shadows, brought relief to my busy mind. Seeing is so different from knowing. Often thinking that I know something actually muddles things even more, because how many ways are there to know? Infinite ways.
During those Thursday nights when I still lived a block away, when the curvature of some girl’s naked spine became a curve on my page, I met two other Nathans, a Hazel and her husband, a few more Jims, and a Jae Carlsson who wrote during one of the sessions. I snuck glances at a Yula and a Genevieve sketching, and many others, and I watched how others go about seeing the world. I met artist Nathan Seay, fresh from Florida. He stayed. He runs drawing classes out of the gallery, and curates the “High” space now. But not everyone stays, as you can imagine. Think of the Apostles, their heads in the “Lo Gallery,” their walking likenesses wandering about outside, placing one foot after the other, moving their belongings from one concrete block to another block–we’re not all that different.
When I was first drawn to the space, before it was the Hi Lo, the walls were bleeding and the art was gritty. When I finally entered the gallery, it was daylight, and the walls had changed. I think all of us reside in those undelineated spaces where shade meets light, except we forget that’s how most of us exist. The world requires and expects so much knowing: this or that, right or wrong, that when we’re sitting in a drawing session and we’re trying to sketch features on a body, and we draw the lines that we think make up the nose, or the eyes, or the jawline–you don’t get the picture you want. You end up getting a stick outline of what you want–flat, and ultimately hollow. To draw requires actually seeing what’s in front of you. It’s in this spirit that everyone gets greeted when they walk through those doors. The gallery and its name, however it’s spelled, recognizes the un-lined parts of us. I imagine, in some unnoticeable way, everyone who comes to the gallery feels this recognition.
The High & Low, as a community space, is becoming rarer and rarer in Portland. Just earlier this year, the Towne Storage building who had offered affordable studio space to artists for years, was sold for $3.9 million to developers who evicted all the tenants. And most recently the Troy Laundry Building, Portland’s oldest cooperative artist studio also, SOLD. The disappearance of artist spaces makes me wonder about what else gets lost or displaced, like the tenderness and empathy that comes from seeing, which artists often live and practice everyday.
I look at Silicon Valley and its ridiculous flow of capital as something to be incredibly wary of. Justin Keller, deemed “tech-bro” wrote this open letter to San Francisco’s mayor Ed Lee, stating, “...we live in a free market society. The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city. They went out, got an education, work hard, and earned it. I shouldn’t have to worry about being accosted. I shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day.“ Tech companies themselves are not evil. Though I worry about a city who dispels their artists. I look at San Francisco, as its artists are replaced by baby-faced tech millionaires. I worry about what happens when the Jim Gions that see the humanity in all people, are replaced with the Justin Kellers who just find humanity an intolerable nuisance in their lives.
There’s a reason why, even after a year or so, I talk about the High & Low without knowing exactly how the name is spelled. This may seem like an unrelated correlation, but it’s like the izakaya I’ve been going to on Russell Street that my friend Phillip introduced me to. That izakaya also has a name, but in my mind, it’s become just THE Izakaya that I go to to eat by myself when I need some space. I’m often bouncing from place to place, people to people, and even though I really dig my roommates, sometimes I just need to eat ramen all by my lonesome. Some things are so universally essential that they become ubiquitous.
I stopped going regularly to drawing on Thursday nights, because I moved to North Portland. I unpacked my shippable container, and the rubbermaid tubs sit empty and stacked in my basement. I’ve been here for a little while now. But I still go back to the Hi Low when I can, just to make certain that it’s still there.
Jenny M. Chu
The High Low Gallery is located on 936 SE 34th Avenue, Portland, OR 97214. Their drop-in Drawing Sessions are every Thursday from 6:30-9 pm.
Click here to learn more about Stories of Empire and Jim Gion.
To see Jim Gion’s sculptures in real life, go to the western gateway of the Japanese American Historical Plaza in Portland, Oregon.
To take a class from Nathan Seay at the High Low, email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org