This Wild Mural Will Wrap around an Entire Portland Office Building

Los Angeles artist James Jean talks about his plans for the Fair-Haired Dumbbell, rising at the Burnside Bridge's east end.

By Lauren Kershner April 17, 2017 Published in the May 2017 issue of Portland Monthly

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A rendering of the Fair-Haired Dumbbell with Jean’s design

James Jean made a name for himself illustrating covers for DC Comics, painting murals for Hawaii’s Pow Wow Worldwide Festival, and designing prints for Prada clothing. Developers of the Fair-Haired Dumbbell, a wild office building rising at the Burnside Bridge’s east end, chose the LA-based Jean from a competitive pool of international and local artists to give it his provocative touch. Painters begin work on the façade this month.

What’s this project all about?

It’s an incredibly special opportunity to have a permanent mural installed in a highly visible and active location, and to have it wrap around all sides. It’s rare that a mural is intended to be such an integral part of a building’s design.

Did you spend much time here researching?

Sadly, only about four days on two separate occasions. But I did get to explore the city and the surrounding area in the limited time I had there: ingested some good food, hiked a few trails, and took many pictures. The swirling traffic and new activity in the area were immediately evident. I had a meeting with the Regional Arts and Culture Council, and they explained the history of the area and gave the project a fair bit of context. I spent maybe four or five months on the design. Even with all this preparation, it’s difficult to envision how exactly this will all feel in person. 

This is going be quite the statement. What was your inspiration?

I imagined that the oblique walls were formed by slicing down the sides to reveal cross sections of thunder eggs and geodes, which are in abundance in Oregon. Ideas of transparency and discovery—of excavating slices of internal anatomy like MRI scans—are meant to echo the creativity of the tenants in the building. Their slow-forming inertia is a counterpoint to the speed of the swirling kinetic activity on the streets. Then, in contrast to the hard, crystalline lines of the thunder egg motif, a lyrical network of flowers links the elements together. That’s meant to evoke growth, adaptability, and interconnectedness. They erupt from the ground and wrap around the thunder eggs at points, symbolic of the city’s relationship with nature and mindfulness of the environment.

What reaction do you expect?

That’s not something I can really predict, but it’s definitely a building that demands attention. Maybe it will become notorious on social media and become a meme. Maybe someone will discover hidden imagery in the design and augment or satirize it. Maybe it will become a selfie mecca. Maybe kids will be inspired and make drawings based on the mural. My hope is that the mural will help the building become an iconic beacon.

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