For most of the past three decades, Portland has commissioned its public art a bit like a poor, single parent parsing soup servings to a brood too large: a ladle for this artist, a ladle for that one, a ladle plus the bone for another because he or she has done more chores. 

Occasionally the pots have been larger courtesy of, say, a big-budget light-rail project. But even then, the broth usually got thinner as artists joined “design teams” decorating stations with tile patterns, glass etchings, and that staple of public art, words. 

Then came the exhilarating shock of the sculpture called Inversion: Plus Minus suddenly rising this winter at the eastern end of the Hawthorne Bridge. 

More than 60 feet high, drawn against the sky in hash marks of rusty Cor-Ten steel, two building shapes are modeled on a pair of now-gone buildings that once stood on the site: a cast-iron foundry and an art modern factory. A Seattle-based (but University of Oregon–educated) duo—Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo, longtime partners who work under the moniker Lead Pencil Studio—created them. Portland’s “percent for art” program for the east-side extension of the Portland Streetcar is paying for them. In an unprecedented act of courage, the Regional Arts & Culture Council opted to concentrate the streetcar’s $1.4 million art budget on a handful of projects. Inversion will be the most prominent, and it’s only two-thirds done. The final phase will rise this spring by the Morrison Bridge.

Han and Mihalyo are thoughtful, serious artists whose work I’ve followed since Mihalyo published Wood Burners, a beautiful study of the once ubiquitous, now almost extinct conical incinerators that were icons of the Northwest timber industry. Since then, these winners of the prestigious Rome Prize have conjured many projects that blur the divide between art and architecture, from Maryhill Double, a temporary scaffold-and-mesh replica of the Maryhill Museum built directly across the Columbia River from the real one, to Non-Sign II, a swarm of blackened steel rods outlining the shape of an empty billboard now standing permanently at the US-Canada border crossing at Blaine, Washington. The Oregon Arts Commission recently tapped the duo to memorialize the controversial unclaimed cremains of one-time patients, long kept at the Oregon State Hospital.  

With Inversion, Han and Mihalyo wanted to monumentalize the Central Eastside’s character. As inspirations, Mihalyo cites the billboard frames rising from the area’s buildings, and Han, the taller buildings that lined SE Grand Avenue before the bridge ramps arrived. Both want the sculptures to reach past nostalgia to evoke the area’s robustness as a place where people make things. Says Han: “We wanted to sketch in three dimensions a form that was neither from the past nor the future but a glimpse of the possibility—of the past and the future.” 

This is Lead Pencil’s largest project—both financially and physically—to date. In sheer prominence, it is Portland’s, too, greeting the tens of thousands of commuters traveling daily up SE Grand Avenue or over the Hawthorne Bridge. Whether you like the piece or not, it represents a coming-of-age for both the Central Eastside and the city as a whole: public art you can’t ignore. 

Join us March 11 at Bright Lights for a discussion on 30 years of Portland public art.