Old Mack Truck Warehouse Transformed into Vibrant Mural Honoring Labor Rights History and Activism
Work has begun on a new community art space organized by the Portland Street Art Alliance (PSAA) at the Steel Bridge-head in the Rose Quarter of Portland. The warehouse, owned by the Kalberer Company, has been used as a storage facility for many decades. The property is also used by TriMet and the City of Portland for parking. The mural entitled “Bread & Roses,” honors the working-class history of this site, as being the headquarters of Mack Trucks International and being situated at the Steel Bridge head and Union Pacific railroad tracks.
The Mack International Motor Truck Corporation constructed this 35,000 square-foot building in 1924, moving their headquarters from downtown Portland to across the Willamette River. It was the largest structure in Oregon devoted exclusively to the sale and services of a single make of motor truck. At the street-level corner, was the showroom and unique movable partitions which separated new and used trucks. In the basement, there was a boiler, lockers, showers and storage for the workers. The streetcar passed right in front of the building, turning north onto what was then Adams Street. Later in the 1950s, the building was bought and used by Roberts Motors.
The new community mural includes a variety of styles, painted by about a dozen local and visiting artists. The artwork honors the working-class history of the site as being the headquarters of Mack Trucks International and its location at the Steel Bridge head and Union Pacific railroad tracks. The mural pays homage to the struggle for workers’ rights.
The painted doorway mural by Portland-based artist N.O. Bonzo is a homage to Rose Schneiderman the Polish-American feminist and one of the labor union leaders who led the 1912 labour worker strike. With her activism, Rose drew attention to unsafe workplace conditions following the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and was one of the founding members of the American Civil Liberties Union. Rose is credited with coining the phrase "Bread & Roses," to indicate workers’ rights to something higher than subsistence living. For nearly half a century, Rose worked to improve basic human rights including living wages, decent hours, and safe working conditions for women – the symbolic “bread.” She also tirelessly worked for “roses” such as schools, recreational facilities, and professional networks for trade union women, believing working women deserved more than meager subsistence. The legendary graffiti artist, GATS painted their signature masked figure across the top of the building along with a slogan that reads “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses too”- a popular slogan used during this uprising. Supporting the theme of worker and women’s rights, visiting Miami artist Claudio Picasso painted a portrait of Marie Equi (1872-1952), a doctor in Portland, devoted to providing care to poor patients.
Commenting on the mural work’s message, N.O. Bonzo stated, “We know that many of the conditions that workers struggled against in 1912 are still experienced today by peoples worldwide. Exploitation, sexual and physical violence, wages which do not meet our needs, and conditions designed to alienate and isolate us. This piece celebrates both our victories and our current and future struggles till the day we all are free.”
The artist team painting the backside of the building include rail-hopping graffiti artists, Maddo, Clamo, and Boycott Yourself. This trio’s murals depict railroad and industrial-inspired imagery, including a horse and chicken - symbolic of early urban ties to rural life. The roses represent Portland’s strong working-class women throughout its history, and the chain represents the capitalistic and male-dominated political and social system that often prevents them from blossoming into their fullest potential.
This rotating art project is a win-win for local and visiting artists and property owners alike. Artists have space to build their portfolios and show new work, and property owners are giving back to the local community. This collaboration gives the thousands of commuters that pass this building every day a rotating splash of color that invigorates this once grey intersection.
This project is also the result of new exciting partnerships for Portland Street Art Alliance, including ongoing sponsorship from Metro Paint and Miller Paint. “Supporting Portland Street Art Alliance is a way for Miller Paint and our partner MetroPaint to stay connected to the artist community in Portland. Our founder, Ernest Miller, was a muralist himself back in the 1890s when he founded our company on the promise to make paint specifically formulated for our Pacific Northwest climate” says Puji Sherer, Color Marketing Manager for Miller Paint.
Buildings such as this can be an important part of Portland’s public art landscape. They provide easily accessible spaces for artists to explore new techniques, build their portfolios, and interact with each other in a safe, comfortable, and open urban setting. Unlike commissioned murals, these community projects are much more organic and don’t have any planned sketches or timetables. Each team of artists choose their color scheme, designs, and make their own schedules. Artists are provided creative freedom and the opportunity to foster unique spaces for innovation and experimentation. PSAA manages the logistics, including securing the city’s original art mural permit and sponsorship, arranging for site access, managing painting logistics, media inquiries, and documenting the physical and social history of the site.
Participating Artists (More to Come Soon!):
NO BONZO (@nobonzo)
BOYCOTT YOURSELF (@boycott.yourself)
CHET MALINOW (@chetmalinow)
JEREMY NICHOLS (@plasticbirdie)
CLAUDIO PICASSO (@cpwon)
JEFF SHERIDAN (@jeffsheridan)