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My Turn

by Dmae Lo Roberts


Artist Alex Chiu has created many murals in the Portland area, including this one at My Brotherís Crawfish seafood restaurant on 82nd Avenue. (Photo courtesy of Alex Chiu)

From The Asian Reporter, V32, #12 (December 5, 2022), pages 6 & 7.

Artist Alex Chiu

For the last 10 years since moving to Portland, Chinese-American painter Alex Chiu has created murals that are personal portraits of real people and communities. Readers may have passed by one of his murals on walls both inside and outside of buildings. Some of his works are found at the 82nd Avenue TriMet MAX Light Rail Station or the Vanport Building on the campus of Portland State University, a piece that celebrates "The Spirit of Vanport" before the 1948 flood wiped out the city.

Chiu is sometimes seen "live painting" around his East Portland neighborhood capturing portraits of subjects such as a Hmong family selling flowers at the farmersí market, or creating murals at My Brotherís Crawfish seafood restaurant on 82nd Avenue or works celebrating Asian-American communities and businesses. Pretty much any wall anywhere is the artistís potential canvas.

Currently, Chiu is part of an art show called "Illuminating Time" with two other artists, Shu-Ju Wang and Sam Roxas-Chua, at the Portland Chinatown Museum. The exhibit continues through the first part of January 2023. The three artists were chosen for an eight-week residency to create art inspired by Portlandís Chinatown history. The project was created and curated by veteran public art and installation artist Horatio Law, who is the Creative Heights award-winning resident artist at the museum.

"Illuminating Time" looks at the history of Portlandís Chinatown through a more contemporary lens. Chiu, a second-generation Chinese American, has been meeting and talking with former Chinatown residents or their descendants and then painting portraits of them. Each time he gives them his original sketch or smaller painting as a way to say thank you. Chiu says he became especially fond of studying the Chinatown Gate.

"Itís really an amazing piece of artwork," Chiu said. While befriending Nick Lee, the son of former resident Melvin Lee, Chiu found his inspiration. At a meeting with Nick in Chinatown, they talked about the meaning of a phrase on the gate. Four Oceans, One Family. "I really like that," Chiu said.

Chiu said the "Illuminating Time" art project has helped him find more acceptance in Oregon. Since his move a decade ago, he said he always felt a "negative connotation" whenever he revealed he moved from Southern California.

"I feel like I need to prove myself," he said. "Or thereís always been this need to feel like I belong here. Even after being here for 10 years," Chiu says conversations are often like, "Oh, where are you coming from, or from where are you originally?"

Chiu said that as Chinese Americans opened up to him to be part of the museum project, it also "allowed" him to be an artist in Portland and give him that recognition.

Chiu received his degree in visual arts from the University of California, San Diego, and started working professionally by creating graphic novels and publishing ízines. He told me a romantic story of how he met his wife ó while taking art classes, she walked up to him and said she recognized his art.

"I would doodle on bus benches and after a while Ö it just became the iconography of the town," Chiu explained. "And she was like, ĎIíve seen your work before.í" His soon-to-be wife opened up her sketchbook and showed him some artwork she copied from one of his bus benches. "I mean, it ended up leading to a relationship and good friendship."

That "friendship" led to marriage and raising kids who have also been a subject of his murals and paintings. One of his first mural projects, funded by the Regional Arts & Culture Council, was at the MAX Light Rail Station at 82nd Avenue. That experience shaped his artistic career as a muralist. He talked with community leaders in the area and was moved by them.

"I went up through a lot of different emotions and a lot of different interactions with people grateful to be represented ó to Ö be given the opportunity to be in the mural," said Chiu. "So they would take pictures next to the mural that theyíre at."

Chiu said the project "switched" him into wanting to represent communities of color and to highlight folks in the community who "affected his family and were just a part of our lives."

"If I spent my whole life just trying to paint everyone Iíve met as a thank you for being a part of my life, that would be a great goal of mine," Chiu said. "So thatís how Iíve approached public art since."

Readers can catch Alexís newest works in "Illuminating Time" at the Portland Chinatown Museum, located at 127 N.W. Third Avenue in Portland, through early January. To learn more, call (503) 224-0008 or visit <www.portlandchinatownmuseum.org>.

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