Last week, US Representative Earl Blumenauer unveiled the winner of a high school art competition he ran in his district. The painting by Patipon Ketmanee, a senior at David Douglas High School, will hang in Blumenauer's DC offices for a year, the first of its kind to do so. Here's why.
Since 1982, the Congressional Art Contest has sought out art from students in each congressional district, the winners then exhibited in the connecting tunnels of the US Capitol. Last year, a winning painting from a Missouri student depicted conflict between the African American community and police in Ferguson after the death of Michael Brown. The painting was removed from the wall on several occasions by displeased Republicans, before being permanently taken down after it was deemed the piece violated a rule—one that Blumenauer says has never before invoked—that artwork in the Capitol cannot “depict contemporary political controversy, or of a sensationalistic or gruesome nature.”
“I just found it offensive that some individual Republican Congresspeople would take it upon themselves to censor artistic expression from high school kids,” Blumenauer told Portland Monthly in an interview at his Portland offices, where Ketmanee's painting was being readied for its trip to DC. “The work dealing with the horrific incident in Ferguson was an expression of what a teenager thought and felt, and it was legitimate and honest.”
Blumenauer was not impressed with what he calls the “censorship” of the art, and pulled out from the national competition for the first time this year, instead running one of his own. Ketmanee’s painting was chosen from over 150 submissions from high schools in the district.
“We will hang it in my office,” Blumenauer said. “I’d rather be able to see it than have it hidden away in one of those tunnels. Every visitor to our office will have a chance to be exposed [to it] and that just seemed like an appropriate resolution. “
The win was announced at a forum for the arts convened in Portland by Blumenauer on May 31, which brought together hundreds of members of the local arts community, among them Portland Art Museum director Brian Ferriso, Andrew Proctor of Literary Arts, PICA executive director Vitoria Frey, and Chris Coleman, artistic director of Portland Center Stage. For Blumenauer, what was happening in the halls of Congress to one high school student’s painting was symptomatic of bigger issues concerning the arts and federal support.
“These are not isolated incidents,” he said. “There are controversies regarding the arts. There were rumors that we were going to be defunding things like the National Endowment for the Humanities, for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. We decided it was appropriate to bring the community together, to share their concerns.”
The packed forum heard concerns from people across the arts community about funding threats to the arts, and the impact that would have on other areas, including educational outcome and cultural expression. “What came through, I think, rather forcefully is that the arts agenda is woven into broad community concerns,” said Blumenauer. “It is a matter of feeding the soul. It’s a matter of improving educational opportunities ... it is a part of community health.” He also pointed to the economic benefits investment in the arts could bring, and the role art plays in the cultural and ethnic identity of people within the community. “What I took away from that is that there are opportunities in supporting a cultural agenda for this community. To touch on peace, understanding, education, the economy, and the overall quality of life.”
As an example of the impact of the arts on individuals, Proctor talked about how MAX stabbing survivor Micah Fletcher had found self-expression in poetry, and paid tribute to the school librarian who introduced him to the work that inspired him. It’s stories like this one, said Blumenauer, that can have real impact, and reach people across the aisles. “When you’re advocating for your community, to be able to put an Oregon face on it, to be able to use, say, the example of Micah Fletcher. Whose heartstrings wouldn’t be pulled by that? It’s motivating,” he said.
With the steady jangle of phones as a soundtrack to the interview, Blumenauer was clear that it's a long road ahead, with many obstacles to push against. But seeing Portland's arts community come together and express their commitment makes his job easier. “It’s going to take the better part of 44 months to turn this around,” he said. “But sessions like that help make it more likely that we will do so, and it will be less painful while we’re doing it.”