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Salem Art Association facilities and Bush Show

Ned Martin

Staff writer


Portrait of Oregon pioneer Ben Johnson by Jeremy O. Davis. Photo by Ned Martin

The Salem Art Association (SAA) is not a well known organization within Willamette student circles. Willamette students are missing out on a whole world because SAA has a lot of really amazing art and community to offer.


The head of the Association, Mathew Boulay, detailed what this organization is about and what we can learn from their approach to bringing art and humans together. They run an art exhibit in Bush Park and maintain the Bush House. This strategy is really seen in the Association's galleries. They own and operate four separate galleries that rotate artists and art work every one to two months. Currently, these displays include impressive work by young students who are beneficiaries of the SAA’s school program.

This is one of the most impactful efforts the Association has put forward to the community. Boulay described how last year they provided 3000 backpacks to local schools filled with art supplies like sculpting kits, soapstone and more traditional items like markers, notebooks and pencils. Access to school supplies is a recurring problem in America and the responsibility of supplying students in need often falls on teachers. When budgets start to tighten, art is often the first subject to be cut because administrations do not value it the same as more traditional studies. While SAA finds it disappointing that teachers and students are put into the position of reliance on SAA, they work with the circumstances to support important and valuable art.

Aside from the work being done in the classroom, the SAA works hard at providing spaces for artists to display and advance their work. The SAA houses an artist for a decided period of time to use the SAA workshop, with access to the building 24/7. Working as an artist can be difficult to make ends meet, and it can be hard to find inspiration within your own room or apartment.


SAA facilities include the Bush House, former home of Asashel Bush and his children, whose legacy the organization is working to move forward and away from. Bush was a coercive and ruthless force in early Oregon politics as well as an advocate for Oregon statehood, who founded the paper that later became the Statesman Journal. Additionally, Bush was a supporter of the exclusionary laws within the state that were in place to keep Black people from moving to Oregon. Later in his life, Bush served on numerous boards, including Willamette University’s. The SAA has helped in the effort to undo Bush's legacy by transforming the Bush House into a Black and Indigenous art gallery. Additionally, they are working on a series of shows to highlight local BIPOC artists who perform in one of Bush’s music parlors. These efforts highlight local artists not given enough publicity in the past, also reshaping the image of the Bush mansion.


Boulay said he wants the house to become a place of diversity not only in terms of people, but also of thought and of art. Last week SAA began this mission by staging Che Finch, a Salem based producer and poet, in front of a small crowd packed into the music parlor. Che is a Citizen of the Willowa Band and Clearwater Band Nimiipuu or Nez Perce Tribe and descendant of the Ft. McDermott Northern Paiute and has Chicano roots from Nueva Mexico. He is also the co-founder of Burial Ground Society, an intertribal multidisciplinary Native collective. Despite what felt like ample seating, there was an overflow that forced multiple members of the audience to stand and watch as Che spent about an hour talking about his life and performing songs.


During the show, Che explained that his first experience with performing was purely by chance. A friend of his had an opportunity for Che to go up and perform a rap and it just so happened that he had written something earlier that day and found it in his pocket. Since then Che has been working on music and performing intermittently. In the 30 years since, he had a lot of time to craft new sounds and insightful lyrics on politics, society, culture and more. Last week’s performance was a culmination of that work, but also a great example of what the SAA intends to do with the Bush house: start a new legacy built on diversity and local sounds. This legacy can be changed faster and for the better with direct engagement from Willamette students.


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