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An illustration by Ralph Pugay, one of the creators of S.A.D. Park

Image: Ralph Pugay

Maybe it’s the political apocalypse. Maybe it’s the dreary drizzle. Maybe it’s the dread of Thanksgiving weekend with in-laws and distant cousins. Regardless, this much is clear: you’re feeling lots of feelings right now. You’re in luck, because this weekend, Pioneer Courthouse Square becomes a place to air, embrace, or just sit with all those big emotions. (And/or play with puppies.)

Between Friday and Sunday, November 18–20, Portland’s living room will become S.A.D. Park: a space designed to ease seasonal affective disorder—or whatever tough moods people might be experiencing right now.

“We’re not focusing on a specific diagnosis, but more on creating an atmosphere that is supportive to challenging moods of all sorts,” says Ariana Jacob, who’s developed the project with fellow artist Ralph Pugay. “We want to destigmatize hard feelings and celebrate that we all have moods.”

So, what does a celebration of moods look like? In this case, a large event tent illuminated by very bright lamps, plus a stacked lineup of events, including tai chi, meditation, discussions about feelings, life coaching sessions from a performance artist, an unconventional aerobics class, and—oh-so-crucially—a litter of puppies. (They are month-old lab mixes, and yes, they are up for adoption.) When a yoga class or nutrition talk isn’t underway, visitors can find a seat on a bench, sip tea (a special blend called “Portland Feel Good,” made by a local herbalist), and listen to a short guided meditation on headphones.

The spark for S.A.D. Park—the third project funded by Houseguest, a new public-art residency program—was lit when Pugay visited a friend’s marijuana grow basement. “That was the first inspiration,” says Pugay, who’d recently moved back to cloudy Portland from Virginia. “It was so bright and therapeutic, and I just wanted to sit in that space all the time.” 

Pugay, a painter, started to think about parks as places not to experience nature but to experience feelings. Jacob, whose work involves public conversation—she's invited people to engage in discussion about work, death, and the US Constitution, and she's spent the past year exploring the relationship between politics and emotions—was a natural partner. What if, Jacob asks, rather than silently suffering alone, feelings could be a force for solidarity and political change?

The project grew as the duo began to think about their own methods of coping and self-care: physical activity, social engagement, comedy. And then, of course, the presidential election rocked the country. But even though that event has given S.A.D. Park an extra hit of timeliness, Jacob and Pugay see it as a bigger statement about using public space to express feelings and seek (and give) emotional support.

“What if there were a way for civic culture to support mental health and feeling-based stuff in a constructive way, rather than in a ‘you’ve got a problem’ way?” Jacob asks. Adds Pugay: “What if there were a park you could go to in the middle of the fall or winter that was blaring with lights? How would that affect the culture where it exists?”

S.A.D. Park is at Pioneer Courthouse Square Nov 18–20. Find the full schedule here.

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For three days, Portland’s living room will become S.A.D. Park: a space designed to ease seasonal affective disorder—or whatever tough moods people might be ...