A few doors down from its original location, Stephanie Chefas’s eponymous Southeast Portland gallery will reopen in its new (much bigger) space on SE Taylor Street in the Central Eastside Industrial District on Friday, December 16. She’s also dropping her first name from the gallery’s.
In its new space, Chefas Projects' inaugural show, Family Affair, brings together dozens of artists who have shown at the gallery over the years, and a few newcomers. Local names to look out for include Lisa Congdon and Alex Proba; talent from afar includes the London-based painter David Bray and Laura Berger out of Chicago, among many others.
Since day one Chefas has, somewhat by accident, crafted a space for artists outside the confines of the traditional fine art system. Her roots in Los Angeles’s “lowbrow” or “pop surrealism” art scene draw her eye toward bright colors and inventive and curious works that often feature explicit pop-culture callouts and nontraditional mediums. All of which, she admits, can run a bit counter to Portland’s subdued color palette and rainy disposition. “This is what I surround myself with,” she says. “I want to give artists a platform whose work I would want to see at an art gallery.”
Congdon said of Chefas recently: “It’s curating based on different principles than ‘Is this thing going to sell.’”
We caught up with Chefas earlier this week to hear about her plans for the new space. Dodging ladders and exposed wires, and to the music of power tools, she explained a bit about how she first landed in town, chatted Wookiees, how she carried her off-the-beaten path gallery through the pandemic, and what the future holds for Chefas Projects.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Portland Monthly: Is there something specific you look for in the artists you show?
Stephanie Chefas: Ultimately, the artist’s work has to resonate with me in some way. And then, of course, they need the talent to back it up. Or if I see, like, budding potential, you know? Is this amazing work? Does this artist have something unique to say? Even if I love something, and maybe it doesn't really—maybe I couldn't find a place for it in my home, that doesn't mean somebody else couldn’t.
A good example would be Mako Miyamoto. He’s a photographer that’s based here in Portland. he started off doing these Wookiee photographs. Obviously, he’s a lover of Star Wars and all things Wookiee. And so am I. I’m kind of a nerd in that way. But he just has such a fantastic eye. The composition of his photos and the color quality are just absolutely mind-blowing.
What were your ideas when you first opened the gallery?
I moved to Portland from LA [in 2014]. I was working with a few small art galleries and was entrenched in the pop surrealism scene there. That kind of formed or influenced my aesthetic. And while I was there, I also started to do independent curating work.
It felt like the right time to open up my own space; that was always in the back of my head. Commercial space in LA is pretty expensive, and, comparatively speaking, coming to Portland just seemed much more doable.
I wanted to find a small space that was also large enough for artists to really grow and explore with their work. Something manageable—for everybody. The initial thought was just to continue what I was doing up here in Portland ... not really realizing how different that might be—to the art scene.
What felt normal in LA was a very new concept to bring here?
Yeah, and I didn’t understand that initially. Bright colors, pop culture references, things of that nature were not something that you really saw here in Portland. People would comment how different the gallery was. So, once I started to receive that feedback, and I was going out and looking at art galleries here in town, it kind of clicked that what I was doing was pretty unique. But also [it was] nice to kind of have this—to introduce a different point of view.
What have the past few years been like for you and the gallery?
The week of the whole shutdown, Dan Lam’s show was supposed to open. She had shipped all her artwork to the space. You know, I'm unpacking the work, painting the walls, installing the show. It was lot of sculptures—polyurethane, foam resin, and acrylic paint. (She's really incredible—based in Dallas, Texas.)
So, I'm installing this show and the shutdown’s happening. And I'm just like, “Is anybody gonna see this?” So I scheduled to do a video walk-through. I even did a Matterport layout of the gallery…. It’s like a 3-D rendering. Then once I heard that I was allowed by state law to be open by appointment. I was like “OK, we’re gonna set up appointments.” People were scheduling almost every day to come by and get a private viewing of the show. So I did that for every single show for about a year and a half, if not two years.
At the beginning of this year, we just did away with the whole appointment thing and went back to regular hours. But still, the opening reception thing was kind of iffy. I opted to do opening days. So, it was just regular hours on a Saturday, or something like that. No party; food and drinks didn’t really seem appropriate.
What motivated you to find a new space?
The last space was like 500 square feet. And it was great. At the beginning, it was perfect: a good, manageable size. But as the years went on, you know, the gallery was growing, the artists were growing—I was really outgrowing the space. So, prior to the pandemic, I was looking for a bigger space that was affordable, but also could really work as an art gallery. But nothing was really coming my way. And then the pandemic hit. I was just like, “Well, everything's just kind of at a standstill, right? There’s no use moving. It doesn't make sense. I’ll just continue what I'm doing.”
But then my lease was coming to an end. So at the end of last year, I was looking for spaces and stumbled upon this. It has a lot of the character that the old space had: the wood floors, the wood beams, high ceilings, you know? As soon as the landlord showed me the space, I was like, “Yeah, this is it.”
What motivated the rebrand and the new name?
This was the moment. The big move. The big change. Yeah, everything new.
I've been working with the designer Drew Garza on the branding. I wanted to shorten the name to Chefas Projects—kind of remove myself and just let the gallery be its own entity, so to speak. I've always loved the idea of having something really bold, with no apologies. And, shortening [the name] makes that statement for me.
I also wanted to keep the word “projects” because I still feel kind of small. Even though I'm growing, and the artists are growing—we’re growing together—it’s still just a one-person operation, really. The word gallery doesn't really vibe with me.
What’s the plan for the opening of Family Affair?
We have a DJ lined up. We’re gonna have some tasty treats for everybody to enjoy. And we’re going to have a bartender here. It's going to be a celebration: the next incarnation of the gallery. And a lot of Portland artists will be here and be involved.
There're approximately 27 artists in this show. I lost count. But, I mean, there's just so many great artists I've been working with over the past seven years. And some newcomers that I wanted to bring on. It just felt right to have my art family, our family, here in this space.
Family Affair opens Friday, December 16, with a reception from 5–8 p.m. and will run through January 7. 134 SE Taylor St #203