Tuesday, August 14, 2012
Schomburg's Painted Fish on the Clackamas
Back in the day private and public utilities made a point of providing innovative amenities as part of their projects, allowing the populations they served to appreciate the scale and creativity that went into providing them with water and electricity on a reliable basis. Some companies took that role to heart. Few have done a better job over the years than Portland General Electric, PGE, the pioneer power provider that serves most of Portland’s northern Willamette Valley including Portland and Salem.
PGE’s Trojan Nuclear Power Project included this really phenomenal “Visitor Information Center,” a futuristic building complete with cool staff uniforms that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the Starship Enterprise. There was a high-tech video-tour inside the atom and even an electric powered shuttle that took visitors and school groups right into the massive powerhouse. Ah, the days before 911, when we didn’t have to treat infrastructure as a security risk.
PGE's hydro side wasn't slacking off either. On the Clackamas River, PGE developed a “Fish Viewing Station” adjacent to the North Fork Fish Ladder, at 1.9 miles long once the longest such feature in the world. The Viewing Station, a little boxy building that looks all the world like a truck-mounted storage container, has three large windows cut into the side of the ladder, so you can see the fish swimming by. And for the back wall, PGE hired Alex Schomburg to paint a mural, identifying the various fish species that used the ladder in incredibly realistic detail. Installed in 1963 (as near as I can tell at this point), the viewing station and the mural were focal points for any number of school tours, as Clackamas and Multnomah county children toured the project and learned a little about how power is made, and how fish runs were protected in the process.
Now, what is interesting about this is that Alex Schomburg wasn’t just some guy off the street. Born in Puerto Rico in 1905, Schomburg was a hugely influential artist, mostly remembered for the artwork for hundreds and hundreds of 1930-1950s comic books and science fiction magazines. His work included everything from Captain America to concept drawings for Stanley Kubrick’s famed 2001: A Space Odyssey. “A portfolio of Alex Schomburg’s work is a visual diary of 20th century illustration art and popular culture,” wrote Amy Wagner, in The Fantastic Art of Alex Schomburg, an article published in Illustration magazine. You can read more about Schomburg, and see more of his fantastic art, at http://www.alexschomburg.com/ a site that is maintained by Mr. Schomburg's estate. There has even a been a book, shown above, about his artwork.
Schomburg moved to Hillsboro, Oregon in 1962, after having come west, to Spokane, to live near his son. A year later, though nobody seems to know how, he connected with PGE and lent his considerable skill to the fish of Clackamas, a far cry from his normal comic and science fiction subjects. Today, half a century later, that mural is still there, even if it’s no longer accessible to the public. I think we’ll try to do something about that.