Historical art trove is Jefferson High legacy

November 7, 2008

From the Oregonian, October 30 2008

Every old school probably has a storage room like Jefferson High’s, a dusty old space where vintage film projectors, dog-eared class photos and obsolete textbooks linger indefinitely in the darkness.

But at this proud but crumbling inner-city school, there is something more surprising once you get past the cluster of yellow plastic garbage cans and swarms of fruit flies: scores of artworks with tremendous historic value.

In anticipation of Jefferson’s centennial anniversary next year, alumnus Jason Renaud (class of 1979) and other volunteers have been working to archive and restore the collection. But proper protective glass, framing and other costs are estimated at about $27,000. More than that, Renaud also hopes to draw parallels between saving the art and saving his alma mater. 

“When they built Jefferson in 1909, it was the largest school in the nation,” Renaud says. “People from all over came to school here because it had the best art programs in the state. But when that stopped, it seems like they just dumped everything in this storage room.”

With capacity for about 4,000 students, Jefferson now houses fewer than 600. An open-enrollment policy in Portland Public Schools means that even neighborhood kids are shunning Jefferson, which lacks adequate college-prep courses. Not a cent of school money is available for restoring the artworks.

The collection’s most valuable pieces are 39 lithographs made during the Depression as commissions for the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. Names largely lost to history — including Otis Oldfield, Ralph Austin and Elinor Stone — rendered images of the massive dam and bridge projects that would lift the U.S. out of its economic black hole.

Also included are 19 political cartoons by Lute Pease, The Oregonian’s first cartoonist, who created most of these works for the Newark Evening News during the 1930s. In one especially telling cartoon, Adolf Hitler is portrayed trying to get his hands on Iraq’s British-controlled oil supply.

“These would be great to put into the curriculum,” Renaud says. “What better lesson on politics could you have?”

Modern artworks in Jefferson’s collection include a painting by Louis Bunce, who helped establish Oregon’s modern art scene in the mid-20th century and exhibited at some of New York’s top galleries in addition to being an influential professor at Museum Art School (now Pacific Northwest College of Art). Jefferson also has several early-1970s pieces originally exhibited at Portland’s Fountain Gallery, owned by longtime local arts patron and philanthropist Arlene Schnitzer.

Most of the two-dimensional artworks are still in good shape from sitting in protective darkness. But public art at Jefferson — such as a haunting bas-relief World War I memorial on the school’s front facade, or an exquisitely rendered wood mural with the opening words to the Declaration of Independence above the main entrance — is as decayed as the architecture.

As Jefferson’s centennial approaches, Renaud hopes the luster can return.

“This school loves its sports,” he says, standing beside plaques honoring NFL Hall of Famer Mel Renfro and Heisman Trophy winner Terry Baker, both Jefferson alums. “But it’s also a school of poets and playwrights and painters.”


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