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Portland Airport cityscape Art Installation by Beth Kerschen
Why Cityscapes?

Have you ever visited a place and immediately felt at home? Found yourself wandering the streets, imaging yourself fitting in among all the people and buildings? Felt the yearn to be a part of that place, even if for a short while? When you visit a new city, would you prefer to roam and explore on your own instead of going to all of the museums and ‘touristy’ spots? In your hometown, you know where to find the best coffee at 6AM; you know the secret neighborhood dive whose mac and cheese will drop you to your knees. You know the best shortcut to defeat rush hour traffic, which buildings are new, which are abandoned and why.

Maybe you’d like to share these things so you take a hundred photographs with perfect composition, and yet they don’t quite capture the sense of place you feel standing in your city. They aren’t a full, cohesive representation of your memories and the city you love. How do you capture that feeling?

I asked the same question. For me, individual photographs helped me preserve memories of the places and experiences I loved, but I always wanted more. I wanted to find a way to capture all of the things I saw and felt and imagined into one cohesive image. I wanted to capture the spirit of a place.

People that love my work are likeminded spirited travelers. They want to preserve and relive their inspirational travels again and again. They want to celebrate every unique corner of their hometown.

My creative drive is to explore and witness the world around me, then capture it in its totality! My work is an ongoing love-letter to the spirit of the cities I have lived and travelled.

My Long Walk

My deep fascination with cities began when I was ten years old. Each summer, I visited my grandmother in Jefferson City, Missouri. She owned a small clothing store downtown – The Jack & Jill Shop – and she let me help her around the store: sweeping, counting change, arranging clothes on display tables, and I was in charge of the “Jewelry Department” (2 shelves). It all made me feel so grown up!

One day, out of the blue, she asked me to take her weekly earnings to the bank. I ran this errand with her many times in the past, and she explained the process to me, but I hadn’t realized that she was preparing me to now complete this task on my own. The bank was three long blocks from The Jack and Jill Shop, but it felt dizzyingly far to me at 10 years old. Jefferson City is much smaller and quieter than my hometown of Colorado Springs, Colorado but, in my young eyes, it was a vast and bustling metropolis.

To complete this quest, I would walk the long road alone, clutching the blue satchel of cash tightly against me, then ask the teller to deposit the satchel of money, then return back to her shop. It was a straightforward task, but I had never been trusted with such an important, solo task before. Being an only child meant constant adult supervision: errands were completed in twos; I was handed off from school to piano lessons then back home, always accompanied, and here my grandmother was, entrusting me with this huge responsibility. I was so nervous and scared on that first trip, but I remember very clearly how proud I felt after I had successfully completed it. I felt like a professional woman who owned the streets of the world.

After my bank excursion, I became an empowered explorer of Jefferson City. This sense of freedom compelled me to walk around by myself more often. During these walks, I really began to take notice of my surroundings: the high dome of the Capitol, the weathering of the old brick buildings, 1950 era marquees still in use — these markers stood out most to me as the personality of the town.

My hometown in suburban Colorado Springs was dramatically different than small downtown Jefferson City where I now freely (and safely) roamed. Because of this experience, I felt myself really noticing the differences between the two areas and it fascinated me.

Icons

After visiting my grandmother for many summers, I wanted to find a way of expressing how much I loved staying with her. I wanted to show my love of her town (and my second home) by making something that represented the iconic memories of my grandmother’s city. Using my very first camera (a Kodak Elektralite) I took photographs of some of the key landmarks of Jefferson City: the State Capital building, The Jack & Jill Shop, the Courthouse, and my grandmother’s home. I used these photographs to carve woodblocks into their silhouettes then used crayons to color and fill the detail. On the back of the blocks I wrote H-O-M-E. My own little city.

Then I forgot.

Rediscovery

It would take over two decades to find this creative voice again. I remained a passionately creative child, but my interests strode away from landmarks and historical likeness towards a devout concentration on drawing unicorns and collecting stickers. Music lessons, clumsy sports, and various extracurriculars began filling up my time more and more as I grew older. Soon I was enlisted in Advanced Placement classes and thinking about college with a concentration in math or science. It wasn’t until the end of my sophomore year of college that I had an epiphany: despite all the continuous pulls in different directions I was constantly creating something. My free time was spent drawing, taking art classes, completing various creative projects: I realized that this is what made me happy.

It dawned on me that I should pursue a career in a creative field and I decided to get a Bachelors of Fine Arts. Attracted to photography, digital art, and printmaking, I completed my senior thesis show using digitally enhanced photography printed on various substrates.

Detour

The show received good marks but I knew it was lacking a strong, purposeful artistic voice. Without much professional art career guidance and needing to further develop my artistic vision, pursing a Fine Art career didn’t seem possible. Ever pragmatic, I was happy to find a career with a commercial application: I moved to Boston, MA and first worked for Polaroid in their digital imaging division and then switched to doing graphic design for various companies and design firms.

After ten years of pursuing graphic design, I began searching for a new creative outlet. I enjoyed graphic design, but I needed something different. It was in Boston that I slowly began to regain and develop my artistic vision. The unique historic architecture and landmarks of Boston were always arresting to me and one day I picked up my camera and started to document the different areas I found inspiring: the North End, Beacon Hill, the stonework of Trinity Church, and the side streets of Cambridge. I was remembering that the greatest joy for me was the rush of freedom that came with exploration.

For me, every city has a unique story to be investigated, every marquee, building, and person represents some moment in history that is remarkable.

Moving West

When I decided to move to Portland, OR, this idea expanded even more. Being in a new city and having a new place to explore meant that I walked absolutely everywhere. I photographed everything I saw on my walks, even taking an architectural photography class to enhance my knowledge. I knew that photographing urban landscapes and soaking in the city culture was the return to the thing that I loved most. The excitement of discovery took me back to my 10-year-old self when I was an invincible explorer, capturing and documenting the world.

I took individual photos of my favorite buildings, iconic landmarks, old historic homes, factory buildings, anything that caught my eye. But there was something about these individual photos that was still missing. I realized that all of these individual pictures weren’t the inspiration I was trying to depict, rather, it was the experience of the city as a cohesive unit. The urban perspective of Portland was only tangible to me by showing Portland as a whole unit. I wanted to put down on paper the city I experienced on my walks; every passing moment was essential and I had to find a way to capture all of them at once. I had an epiphany that going back to my digitally enhanced photography work in college and utilizing photomontage would be the key. An intense rush of possibility came flooding back to me… I knew I needed to start combining multiple elements of these photographs together to achieve the same dynamic feeling I experienced in person. I wanted to share the inherent sense of place that sparked as a child on my first solo urban excursion. I wanted my art to elicit the detailed, multifaceted components that all cities exhibit. Most of all, I wanted to preserve the joy of freedom and discovery for myself and for others.

Gelling

For the first time in years, I allowed myself the space to risk what I knew about traditional design and to return to the ideas I had formed as a child. My added experience with photography, graphic design, and printmaking allowed me to push the limits of my photography creating images and landscapes that were imagined. I was reinventing the Portland skyline by piling buildings on top of one another; sign posts grew bigger and bigger until all direction seemed lost. I created images that made me nostalgic, that represented Portland as more than a city but rather as an idea. I knew that now, I had found the creative vision I had been searching for.

Sharing the Vision

The cities that we build are part of who we are as a community. The joy to go outside and discover the hidden secrets of any place has inspired me to notice everything, to be completely and acutely aware of my surroundings. When I explore, it’s not just one thing, one building; it’s the culmination of all the city’s elements cascading into one cohesive memory that exists in my mind and heart. It fuels me. I use my photography to show others the connections and subtleties I feel are essential to understanding our cities as diverse, urban communities.

My art cannot exist without exploration. Little did I know that a simple bank errand would leave such an impression! But that’s the power of place. It’s the backbone to my creative spirit. As the world continues to change, twisting and turning in development and age, it’s important now more than ever to wander and notice subtlety. Every place—city, town, or village—is an adventure. Every walk or ride or drive stays with you, even if it seems insignificant at the time.

Art is an exploration. I hope you’ll join me.