Gwenn Seemel

Dirty Hands – Mayor Charles Hales Legacy

The door is located at Wooley Mammouth Theater

Artist Statement

Dirty Hands (Mayor Charlie Hales’ Legacy) is the narrative of a neighborhood overrun by construction and corruption. Specifically, it’s the story of the north Pearl of Portland, Oregon. During a big development push after the recession, toxic dirt was dug up and left out in two enormous piles for months in the north Pearl. These huge heaps generated hazardous dust that coated the area, including my building’s playground. In other words, the piles endangered the kids who lived in the apartments or attended the preschool on the first floor of the building. Interestingly, the developers who didn’t want to spend the money to dispose of the cancer-causing dirt were putting up luxury condos, and the community impacted by their decision to pollute were people like me, people who qualify for income-adjusted housing. We didn’t have a lot of money, so our local government had little trouble ignoring our plight. After years of begging City Hall and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to enforce laws and protect us from various kinds of pollution, my partner and I moved away from Portland in 2015. Many of our neighbors, especially those with children, stayed. Without the income-adjusted status of the building, they would never be able to afford to live in such a good school district, so close to public transportation and multiple grocery stores. My partner and I now live in Surf City, New Jersey, a block from the ocean and a 20-minute drive from family. The rent is much steeper here, and this community presents us with challenges as well, but we’re happy we were able to escape the toxicity of the City of Roses. Portland is widely celebrated as a green city where urban planning brings about true quality of life, but the truth is more complicated. Renters are not prioritized there. They aren’t even listened to. This painting is one way to ensure that the unlawful behavior of Portland’s former Mayor and his associates won’t be forgotten. Hopefully, it will encourage the city’s power players to view community not as something to be commodified but instead as something with a far greater value.


Gwenn Liberty Seemel is named after the Liberty Bell, a cracked ding-dong with a venerable history. Since graduating from Willamette University summa cum laude in 2003, Gwenn has made her living as an independent artist. Her work focuses on questions of identity and belonging, often expressed through portraits.

Gwenn’s work has appeared on Bust, BoingBoing, Scientific American, and Hyperallergic. She has been interviewed multiple times on Your Creative Push, and she’s maintained her award-winning blog for ten years while also writing occasionally for publications like Professional Artist magazine. Over the course of two weeks in 2014, Gwenn created her first piece of public art in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, and she has exhibited her art throughout the United States and in Europe. Born in Saudi Arabia in 1981, Gwenn is French-American. She has lived most of her life in France and on the west coast of the US. She currently makes her home in New Jersey.


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Thank you to our partners for hosting the artists during the painting of The Doors of Make Room