Feature: The Tall Trees Of Portland


On April 3rd the Hellion Gallery in Portland will be opening a show centered the art book The Tall Trees of Portland.  Matt Wagner, the gallery owner, has curated the Tall Trees of Portland as an art book featuring a number of awesome Portland artists and is one of several such books he has executed and has planned.  Check out some of the art in the book and the interview with Matt regarding the book and if you’re in the area head to Hellion Gallery on Thursday!

What’s the Tall Trees of Portland About?

“The tall tree catches much wind” is a Japanese proverb that I have based the entire “Tall Trees” series of books on. It’s meant as a warning to not stand out in society but I interpret differently. I am interested in the Tall Trees. The book features a selection of Portland artists as well as crafts people and craft oriented businesses. The book is about letting everyone know about these folks and inviting them to be a part of their world through hand written questionnaires.


How did you decide which artists to incorporate?

It’s really simple, I admire these people and their artwork or what they have accomplished.

Did they make pieces based around an idea or theme?

No, the book is filled with their artwork. Some submitted work that was made over a long period of time and some submitted current pieces that fit together in a theme. Each artist is different.


Is there an overarching subject to the book?

Leveling the playing field. This book is about quality and inventiveness. The well-known artists along not so well known artists but with the leveler being the quality of what they make and the common thread in their questionnaire answers. In addition to all of the creativity, style, and quality provided by the individual artists, Portland as a city comes out pretty well in the book. It’s clear that the artists really love living here and the life that the city allows them to live.

As a gallerist, what do you see as the utility of a book?

It’s a snapshot in time of an art movement. The book is part coffee table art book, part guide book and part anthropological. It can also be used as a paper weight………….

Were the pieces within it all made new for the specific purpose of the book or are some of them pieces that were printed for the book?

The artwork in the book comes from the artists portfolios. Some pieces are for commercial work, illustration and gallery exhibition. I don’t think any of them were made for the book but specifically chosen for the book.


What kind of impact do you think the book will have? Do you hope it to have?

I hope it shines a light on the artists and educates the reader about the level of commitment it takes to be a working artist. Hopefully that will lead to respect which will lead to the artists getting treated fairly in the art and commercial world. There is sort of this national fascination with Portland at the moment; the food and music scene in particular. This book puts the visual arts scene in that context as well.

How would you describe the book? An art book?

Coffee table art book, travel guide and anthropology book.

Would you be offended by it being called a coffee table book?

Nope. This can be cataloged in multiple locations throughout the book store.


Besides the art, what is happening substantially with the book?

It’s an ice breaker between the artist and the viewer. The first page of the artist section features a snapshot of the artist’s work space. Then you have the questionnaire which is the introduction to the artist, not the artwork. There is a level of intimacy with each section. The viewer is allowed the chance to get comfortable with the artist through their handwritten answers to simple questions about the artists life and environment. After getting to know them a bit, the viewer moves to the artists visuals.

Do you you think it could spark debate? Do you think people could sit around discussing it?

Oh yes. The umbrella question seems to be quite controversial. You are either pro umbrellas or anti. Living in a rainy environment like Portland, a question like that can spark bar fights as well as intellectual discussions.


Why don’t we, as a culture, do that during our leisure time? Or do you think we do? Do you think our culture spends its leisure time growing? Learning? Developing?

Damn, that’s some serious shit you are bringing up. Leisure time says it all, it’s for leisure. If your idea of leisure is reading then that’s your leisure time and you could argue that you are growing. If your leisure time is spent jumping out of a plane with a can of energy drink and a snowboard strapped to your feet than that’s your idea of leisure time. I am not sure everything in life has to be a learning experience. Can we get back to discussing the use of umbrellas in Portland?


How would you characterize the leisure activities of American culture on average? Do you feel like you do the same?

I have no idea what most Americans do in their leisure time. If television is to be believed, we jump out of airplanes with a can of energy drink and a snowboard strapped to our feet or we go on Disney vacations. That’s not what I do but who am I to judge?

Do you like how we spend our leisure time?

Truly I could not care less.

What are some pieces that struck you from the book? If there were two or three pieces that just made you pause and say ‘Dayum’, which were they? What struck you about the pieces?

Not really because I have seen this work so much over the year of putting the book together, I am too familiar with everything at this point. That being said, I love sculpture so those pieces stand out to me. Some of my favorites are “The Shepherd Inevitably Consumes the Flock” from AJ Fosik and “In the now” by JShea. Those pieces are really inventive and they have a great narrative feel. I love work that instantly spins a tall tale in my head.


Is the written material to accompany the art in the book? How do you think the perception of art would change if every piece were accompanied by a written blurb? Or the artist themselves to explain the piece?

There are no written descriptions of the art. I think some artists love telling the story of the artwork, some don’t have a story and other artists leave it up to the viewer. I am in the leave it up to the viewer camp. The viewer’s narrative about the piece makes them own it. If they are told the intent, it transforms the work into an association or interesting decoration. It’s like falling in love. You just know when you are in it and you can’t explain that feeling in an accurate way. Descriptions can never do the art justice unless you like having smoke blown up your ass.


Curating a book with so many artist seems like one hell of an undertaking, can you tell us a little about the logistics of it? What did you have to deal with? What is it like to curate an art book?

The book is logistically a nightmare. It’s very difficult to coral over 30 artists, have them fill out questionnaires, provide images, provide reference data and a photo of themselves under the gun of a deadline. Just like in the first book, The Tall Trees of Tokyo, I ran into issues with image files not being the correct resolution, people missing deadlines and so. That being said, I love this stuff. Difficult usually results in a better outcome. None of this would be possible without my publisher, Overcup. They have come along for the ride with me and I can be difficult to ensnare due to way too much shit on my plate. I appreciate them, making books in a time where people just want to fuck their computer monitors. Curating this book is really no different than curating a show in my gallery. I have said it before, I am selfish. My gallery and this book are filled with art and people I love. I don’t choose any art based on popularity or if I think other people will like it. I am inviting the viewer into my house; I am not trying to build them a house.

Is there anything you want to say about the book that we missed?

I think there are so many monographs out right now. It seems like every day there is another one being released. I like monographs but I feel that art communities around the world have a little bit more to offer than solo artist portfolio books. I feel the Tall Trees series of books stand out. They contain artwork like a monograph but take it to the next level with the hand written questionnaire. Instead of a bio or anecdote about the artist, the viewer gets to know the artist in his own words. There answers allow the viewer to walk in their shoes for a bit through the answers about their daily life on the questionnaire. The viewer gets to know the hive, not just one bee. This book is way more intimate than the average coffee table art book.