She is the civic symbol of Portland, Oreg., but until last week, the magnificent, sensuous woman had never cast eyes upon her city or its subjects. At last, on October 6, as thousands of spectators roared their approval, “Portlandia” made her entrance. Accompanied by a flotilla of yachts, fire-boats, kayaks, tugs and canoes, a 175-foot barge hauled the six-ton, 40-foot kneeling figure 4½ miles up the Willamette River and deposited her on a dock. From there, a flatbed truck rolled her through cheering throngs, and a crane lifted her to her final resting place above the entrance to the Portland Building, a controversial municipal edifice designed by postmodernist architect Michael Graves.
Portlandia’s arrival was a moment of simultaneous triumph, exhaustion and amazement for her creator, sculptor Ray Kaskey, 42. A Washington, D.C. artist, Kaskey in 1981 beat out more than 100 contestants with his design for the sculpture, envisioned by Graves as the female figure on the city seal. The design turned out to be the easy part. The mop-haired artist conceived of the piece in bronze, but the $500,000 cost was well over the $198,000 allotted by Portland. On the advice of his former professor at Yale, Kaskey decided on a hammered copper process called “repoussé,” a relatively inexpensive technique that Kaskey believes has not been attempted on a large scale since it was used on the Statue of Liberty. “It’s an unforgiving process,” says Kaskey, who hammered each square inch of Portlandia dozens of times. “There’s no going back. It’s very painstaking and very noisy.” Then there was the problem of housing for a 40-foot woman. Kaskey rented a warehouse after being crowded out of his studio by the first of Portlandia’s nine separate pieces—a foot. He also ran out of money, and the city had to turn to businesses and schoolchildren for help.
Kaskey was nervous the night before Portlandia went up. “People have never really looked at this as a work of art by itself,” he fretted. The next day his worry vanished. When a woman approached him with a rose and a thank-you, he exclaimed, “I feel like I’m running for office!” Hearing that, an observer muttered, “People have been elected for less.”