CULT started with a simple pitch: pack up 1,100 boxes of toys, sneakers, art books, and rare collectible items from across the globe, drag them all the way up the West Coast, and abandon the industry where Dan Harris and Toby Wilkins started their careers.
Harris and Wilkins met in Los Angeles while working on a short film called The Unbearable Likeness of Lincoln, which you’d be hard-pressed to find online. They circled each other for years—even when they’d go their own ways for a bit, Harris and Wilkins would come back together, always interested in the same things at the same time.
“We’ve constantly found these weird sort of bidirectional ways into the same creative process,” Wilkins says. “It seems like everyone in the [entertainment] industry is very, very focused on the industry, whereas it seems like Dan and myself are focused on the act of creating. I’m as happy gardening or building furniture or inventing some new camera system as I am making movies. My focus was never on one particular type of creation, just the act of creation itself.”
About two years ago, the pair was at peak frustration with an industry they felt had forgone art for business. Harris pitched Wilkins on an idea: a place to showcase his collection of materials, which he had amassed during college and throughout his 20s, and expose rare art to a new audience. LA felt like the wrong venue, though. It was too saturated, they felt, too prone to telling onlookers what art they should appreciate. Wilkins was already one foot out the door to Portland, so—why not?
“It was the craziest thing, but it worked,” Harris says of the move from LA to Portland. “What city on the planet has the world’s largest bookstore at its center and is also the home of Nike? Sneakers, art, toys, books, all in one place already.”
CULT opened in the Pearl District around Halloween 2019. It's tough to categorize, exactly, and every day Harris and Wilkins find themselves explaining to customers and curious shoppers the philosophy behind the store. In their eyes, CULT is almost a museum or historical archive. Whereas some might see trinkets and toys—or stuff—Harris and Wilkins hope to share the value of these non-traditional art forms.
“There’s a story, there’s a reason for all of these things, so being able to get that out and explain it to people is great. It’s the point of doing all this,” Harris says. “[Collecting] is teaching the value of applying art to objects. This store is a place to take it one step deeper and to explain why.”
As well as a place to purchase, sell, and trade rare art, Harris and Wilkins hope to make CULT a gallery of sorts. For their first exhibition, placed the center of the store, the two are showcasing vinyl figurines inspired by the graphic novel World War Robot.
Published in 2014, WWR, designed by Ashley Wood and written by T.P. Louise, tells the story of an Earth-Mars war in which robots have become the designated method of combat. It is an intensely imagined narrative, exploring arms manufacturers, casualties of war, trauma, and more. Later, the robots and characters in the narrative were reimagined as vinyl figurines by 3A, a toy, publishing, and entertainment company founded in 2008 by Kim Fung Wong and Wood. Just last year, Wood announced the company would shut down. What’s on display is from Harris’s personal collection.
You’re almost delighted upon first glance of the battlefield. Gleeful at the sight of robotic units equipped with med packs and swords and pistols and machine guns and rocket launchers, strategically strewn across a Styrofoam dirt-red landscape. The figurines sport painstaking detail: fading paint, weathered metal, bullet scratches. The bots, after all, have been engaged in planetary warfare.
How World War Robot moved from oil on canvas paintings by Wood, to an expanded universe by Louise, to vinyl figures by 3A is part and parcel to CULT’s stance on artistic processes and influences—how art begets art.
“The endeavor of bringing those paintings to life in the form of these accessible objects as another layer on top of that makes perfect sense [as our first exhibit],” Wilkins says. “It connects the dots between all the different types of creation, and it gives you the ability to see toys from a different perspective—as a form of art.”
World War Robot is on display throughout February. 1204 NW Glisan St., 503-887-2858.