Elbow Room takes on the contemporary art scene

Install image of A Berry, A Boot, A Building, A Blue Door: New Works by Mike Young at Elbow Room. Framed images with an array of objects including a chair and an apple - rendered in ink and colored pencil
Install image of A Berry, A Boot, A Building, A Blue Door: New Works by Mike Young at Elbow Room. Full image of Untitled (2023), colored pencil and ink on paper. Image by Emma Ganger-Spivak.

When I look at the works of artist Mike Young, I think about drawing class where I learned to render perspective and proportion. The practicalities of math and metrics aside, there is no perfect way to go about this. Accurate perspective and proportion lie in the eye of the beholder. I find myself mesmerized by the artist’s approach to these aspects of drawing – illustrated through shoes, hats, creatures, bottles, doors, and chairs. In reading Young’s bio, I learn that Young is deaf, blind in one eye and quite nearsighted in the other and that “He draws inspiration from books and magazines,” which he observes in intimate proximity, “bringing his face close enough to nearly touch the pigment and paper.” In viewing Young’s work, I experience a viewpoint much different from my own, but with tangible logic that pulls me in.

CULTURAL HUBS: An Occasional Series

Young works out of Elbow Room, a studio and gallery space in industrial southeast Portland where folks experiencing intellectual and developmental disabilities create and share their art with the world. Young’s work is currently on view in A Berry, A Boot, A Building, A Blue Door: New Works by Mike Young at Elbow Room’s gallery, one of two simultaneous “sister shows” of works by Elbow Room artists curated by Kristan Kennedy. The other exhibition, The circus and the beach, is across town in the commercial gallery ILY2. 


Portland Opera Puccini
Person with head bend over composition with words in the title
Mike Young working at Elbow Room

I wanted to find out more about the impetus for and unexpected outcomes of these offerings, so I spoke with both Malcolm Hecht, Elbow Room’s Co-Founder and Co-Director, and Kennedy, a tour de force in the local art world.  

Our conversations traced the winding threads of relational history in Portland’s art scene, knitting together a story of rich collaboration platforming neurodivergent and Disabled artists: I learned that, in late 2023, Kennedy accepted Elbow Room’s invitation to curate one of its annual shows. Prior to this arrangement, Kennedy was no stranger to Elbow Room, having worked with the organization as a community partner in her capacity as the Curator of Visual Art at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. But this time, Kennedy would join up as an independent curator. 

Jumping into the energy of this fresh collaboration, Kennedy’s longtime friend, Jeanine Jablonski, suggested adding a concurrent exhibition of Elbow Room artists at ILY2, where she works as Senior Director. The result: Two Elbow Room shows opened the same weekend in April of this year, offering portals into the world of making that unfold in the studio on a daily basis. 

Young’s A Berry, A Boot, A Building, A Blue Door was conceived first. Young is relatively new to the Elbow Room but a prolific artist. His work stokes my curiosity about what fits together and how. Every shape on each page can be viewed as part of a set, forged through palpable associations and similarities that do not erase their divergences. 

In her curatorial writing on Young’s body of work in this exhibition, Kennedy notes that “we are invited to consider relationships and the proximities, the slivers of space and the smart shapes start to fit together in a kind of perfect puzzle.” “Close looking begets close looking,” she adds. In my encounter with Young’s works, this rings true. 

I find an array of boots and hats, and many of these seem to be tipping or wafting over to the right. In contrast, a blue flower (maybe a morning glory) holds its ground on the left of this composition. Here, I begin to sense the motion in Young’s creations, a motivating force across the page that offers a hint of disorientation. 

Gallery install image of Install image of A Berry, A Boot, A Building, A Blue Door: New Works by Mike Young at Elbow Room. Includes a painted blue door, the words of the title written in ink directly on the wall and a framed drawing
Install image of A Berry, A Boot, A Building, A Blue Door: New Works by Mike Young at Elbow Room. Image by Emma Ganger-Spivak. All works colored pencil and ink on paper

I notice one drawing that looks illusory: It features numerous chairs of all sorts – mostly brown, but some are red, yellow, orange, and blue – all portrayed from different angles. I directly face one chair, look up at another, and down at another. The limbs of some chairs overlap, confusing my eye further. All of the chairs are empty, with nothing to hold in sight, complete as they are in togetherness and arrangement. 


Portland Opera Puccini

My perspective becomes more warped in a pleasurable way by a large drawing of many different kinds of bottles and boxes, which seem to bulge and waver. One bottle holds a human form, illuminating the themes of collection and containment that thread through Young’s drawings. I see a bike, a red drawer, an animal, a house, a chair, a bed, a tree, and the list goes on. Each element nestles snugly among the rest, with a palette of perfectly paired colors and wobbly, intuitive balance. I trust Young’s scenes because they are places where my eyes can dance. 

During my conversation with Kennedy, we discussed the notion of “simultaneity,” the coinciding of many ways of being, sensations and perceptions, which coalesce experientially without obfuscating one another. Mike Young renders simultaneity through titular sets of entities and objects held together by both difference and affinity. The works of Elbow Room artists exhibited at ILY2 offer up an experience of simultaneity through their distinct visual languages that converse in the gallery.

The work of the three artists – Tess Bidelspach, Elmeater Morton, and Mohamed Omar – finds shared framing in the “sense of memory as a source,” as per the exhibition text. Here, I enter sensorial universes, both familiar and unfamiliar, transmuted through rich color, evocative texture, and self-assured personality. 

composition with large lavender swirl and letters forming the word TESS at lower right
Tess Bidelspach, Untitled, 2024, Marker on canvas

Bidelspach was born in Romania and raised in Portland. Her hypnotic spirals and mark-making bring an uncanny sensibility to her work. In an untitled work made this year (2024), I follow lavender marker lines spinning on the canvas, cloaking the hues of light blue and red that peek through the spiraling chaos. Balanced perfectly to the right of center, I find the name “Tess” written in beautiful red ink, curling slightly as if it were being sucked down the lavender vortex. Is this work a self-portrait, I wonder? 

Mohamed Omar’s works, on the other hand, operate in bold swaths of color that jive where they meet. Leopard Hop (2022) depicts the title painted in what reads as an optical illusion in letters of red, black, yellow, and pink layered in a delightfully confusing fashion. The chromatics pop with bands of dark red and bright green running through the center of the piece. 

Painted composition with a lime green band at lower level, word HOP at lowest register, above an orange register with rectangular elements
Mohamed Omar, Leopard Hop, 2022. Acrylic on canvas

I learn from his bio that Omar was born in Somalia and moved to Portland at age five. He is a part of the audiovisual collective Videotones and records music under the name M. Omar. His penchant for popular culture and media in its many forms manifest across all his works at ILY2. His use of words in these works begets a certain lyricism that might also be fitting for a song or a movie. 

When it comes to words, Elmeater Morton also has a lot to say. Her artworks are striking and their titles add a whole other dimension. The work of one of her fabric sculptures – made from patterned material and sutured with chaotic interstitial thread – bears the curious title, What he does. This work emanates sound, a mashup of Morton’s voice speaking. 


Portland Opera Puccini

The names of Morton’s collaged works further intrigue me: They move in their white house with their bags; These people on here they go to the hospital; She told me black. Her titles are profound and provocative as poetry, requiring me to stretch my interpretation of the collages, which are full of intuitively chosen photographs and illustrations surrounded by Morton’s own mark-making. 

collage with four primary images divided into quadrants, collage elements pulled mid-20th-century magazines
Elmeater Morton, She Told Me Black, 2023. Mixed media on Canvas

Morton’s work in The circus and the beach stands apart, the only one in the style of its kind from her contributions. Within it, various patches of color bend and tilt together toward the upper right side of the frame. The wildness of the circus overtakes the beach, becoming both a mood and a scene. The theme of the entire show – works by Bidelspach, Omar, and Morton – emerges here: The circus and the beach, both the drawing and the show, illuminate visual languages that converge and transmute. 

In speaking to Kennedy about the Elbow Room shows, I found out a bit more about her history as an artist as well: She told me about her time as an art counselor at a camp for developmentally Disabled teens and adults during her time in High School, which exposed her to the praxis of these so-called outsider artists and awakened feelings of peer relationship to them. Her own practice as a professional painter included mark-making in the vein of Morton’s work. 

I also learned that Jablonski is Kennedy’s former gallerist and has a distinct understanding of Kennedy’s aesthetic. The aesthetic affinity they share paved the way for their collaboration on The circus and the beach at ILY2: Jablonski helped Kennedy select works of the Elbow Room artists, and the two hung the show together. “We’re jumping up and down at how excited we are about  the energetic conversation happening in the room between the work,” Kennedy said of this experience. 

multicolor composition with large tasche strokes of different 2d media
Elmeater Morton, The Circus and the Beach, 2022. Mixed media on paper

Though the artists at Elbow Room are deeply committed to their crafts, a dearth of opportunities exists to show in formal gallery contexts like this. And so these Elbow Room shows mark a special occasion, made possible through a fairy dusting of community connections.

During my conversation with Hecht, he explained that, oftentimes when Elbow Room artists are offered the chance to show work, it’s via “an Elbow Room-specific show” or an “artist with disabilities-specific show.” This is riddled with a history of segregation dating back to previous iterations of programs for neurodivergent and Disabled artists in Oregon and nationally

However, A Berry, A Boot, A Building, A Blue Door: New Works by Mike Young at Elbow Room and The circus and the beach at ILY2 manage to shirk the pall of segregation by connecting the dots between Elbow Room to ILY’s downtown gallery in a concurrent fashion, projecting outward and drawing audiences in at once. “Work sold from the show,” emphasized Kennedy of the ILY2 show, adding that people are “interested in the artists and their work.” 


Seattle Opera Barber of Seville

To interact with the work of these Elbow Room artists is to grapple with self-assured aesthetic sensibility and reckon with the simultaneity of experience offered up by the work. “I do think that it is critical that people start looking at these artists and putting them in their programs,” said Kennedy, as we neared the end of our discussion. “They are a part of contemporary practice.” 

The circus and the beach is on view April 6 – May 11, 2024 at ILY2. Gallery hours are Wednesday to Saturday, 11 AM – 6 PM and by appointment. 

A Berry, A Boot, A Building, A Blue Door: New Works by Mike Young is on view April 7 – June 9, 2024 at Elbow Room. Information regarding upcoming open gallery hours may be found on instagram @elbow.room.pdx.

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