In Oregon, large-scale galleries were imperiled before the pandemic. Over the last five years, several expansive, long-running spaces closed without replacement, including Marylhurst University’s Art Gym, University of Oregon’s White Box, and the Oregon College of Art & Craft.
Ken Unkeles is no stranger to the crisis. As a longtime proprietor of Portland-area maker spaces like the Albina neighborhood’s North Coast Seed Studios and former industrial site Northwest Marine Artworks, Unkeles is well-versed in carving out affordable creative spaces from prime real estate. In the summer of 2019, Unkeles’s longtime tenant, the artist and Gather:Make:Shelter founder Dana Lynn Louis, convinced him to convert one of the 16 buildings into a site-specific residency center.
“I walked into Building Five and just said ‘Holy shit, this thing is religious. This is so beautiful,’” Louis tells Portland Monthly of her first visit to the space, which is also home to FLOCK Dance Center and North Pole Studio.
The coronavirus shifted Louis and Unkeles’s original vision for Building Five as an invitational space for visiting regional and international artists. This past spring, Building Five began hosting open-ended residencies for artists closer to home, including Unkeles’s renters who lost income and exhibition opportunities. Their inaugural year invites artists to complete open-ended stays that range from two weeks to two months. The program’s first resident, Philip Krohn, wove a massive wooden dome and invited five soundscape artists to record original compositions within the dome. But there’s no obligation for residents to exhibit publicly, or to even know fully what they’ll do with their time.
“Relative to COVID and pressure, I didn’t want to put a lot on people to say, ‘Make a proposal, and you have to be successful,’” Louis says. “Right now we’re being loose around the parameters of what is possible.”
With nearly 5,000 square feet and a stories-tall ceiling, Building Five grants artists the chance to stretch creatively. Demetri Pavlavtos, who has worked with Unkeles on different construction projects, lends his practical know-how to Building Five resident artists for everything from operating heavy machinery to rigging lights. Meanwhile, program manager Ella Marra-Ketelaar facilitates external communications and artist onboarding.
Building Five’s operational costs and artist stipends are supported by substantial donations from Unkeles and his wife Mary, as well as Art Gym alumni Terri and Robert Hopkins. Building Five’s nonprofit status allows the organization to accept philanthropic donations, and frees artists to cite the space for grant-writing opportunities. There’s also potential for rental income when private events come back. Even as industrial zones regain popularity for commercial projects like order fulfillment centers, Louis is confident that Building Five is here to stay, no matter how uncertain the future is.
“My biggest mission, I think, is to be connective tissue, and to help draw people and collaborations together,” Louis says.
Studio Abioto—a prestigious family of artists that consists of Midnight Seed and her five daughters, Kalimah, Ni, Medina, Yawa (f.k.a. Amenta), and Intisar Abioto—began a Building Five residency in late July, and are still deciding what shape it will take. The family’s work encompasses everything from photography and music to cinema and live performance. They are still in the process of moving in, but Intisar believes there will be a socially distant public program offered that will includes things like reading rooms and streaming events. The Abiotos have through September 5 to use Building Five however they see fit.
Intisar tells Portland Monthly her family completed a residency together earlier this year at Sitka Art & Ecology Center, where they witnessed the most recent lunar eclipse together, and she believes the Building Five residency will build on concepts they discovered there. But even more crucial than creating for the present moment, she says, is laying groundwork for future growth, and remaining healthy.
“I love my sisters and my mom, and I appreciate the specific things we bring to imaginations and possibilities, as individuals and together,” Intisar says. “But if I can be honest, it’s still such a difficult time in the world right now. I feel connected, but [also] a disconnect. We’re all experiencing reality similarly but differently, and for me I have some fatigue from everything. I think what I’m trying to do is be wrapped in honesty, around what I’m feeling and all of my articulation.”