Doing Art: a Needle for Northeast Portland

I have a story about art, acupuncture, classism, and communication.

A couple of years ago, I heard about a public art project in the works that involved placing giant acupuncture needle sculptures all over Portland. Curious, I went to the project’s website, which at that point was in the process of planning where the needles would go. There were photos of artists, acupuncturists, city planners, environmentalists, students, all poring over maps, sketching out the meridians of Portland, pondering the city’s energetic health. I do what people always do in situations like this, I wondered can-I-see-my-house-from-here? I looked over the whole display, and then I went back to see what meridians went through my neighborhood. Couldn’t find it. I looked for a while, and finally I saw the map that included Cully. There weren’t any meridians. There were a couple of big red circles around Cully, though, with arrows. The arrows said “gangs and poverty”, “drug addiction”, and “trailer parks”.


Not only are we not part of the energetic network of Portland, we are the manifestation of its ill health. Good to know that when acupuncturists look at the city, they see my neighborhood merely as a collection of symptoms.  And, excuse me, trailer parks as symptoms? Many of those are otherwise known as “affordable housing”, ” a means to home ownership for people with not much money”.  OK, I get it, energetic medicine is all about being pretty, and we’re not pretty enough; trailer parks are not what acupuncturists want to look at. I slammed my laptop shut (that’s always productive) and forgot about public art.

And then, six weeks or so ago, I started getting messages on Facebook about giant needles.  The messages weren’t snarky, they were excited, the “hey did you see this, isn’t this cool” kind of message. I’m so bad at Facebook anyway that people probably didn’t read anything into the fact that I didn’t write back.

I was firmly into ignoring mode and almost certainly would have stayed there if it weren’t for one of my favorite patients. She is an artist, an amazing artist, and I hadn’t seen her for a long time. She came into the clinic for treatment about a month ago, and we were having a nice chat, catching up with each other, when she said, “How about that public art project with acupuncture needles! That’s a great idea, don’t you think?” I made noncommital noises and tried to change the subject. But she really wanted to talk about it. It turns out she knows the artist — of course. And, as a WCA patient who has gotten a LOT of acupuncture over the years, she loves the confluence of acupuncture and art. So I took a deep breath and said, “I’d like to be excited about it, but here’s why I’m not.” And told her.

She got very serious. She said, “You should write to him. Really. This is important, you should communicate with him about this.”

She and I have had lots of other conversations about being working class, and I trust her. There are lots of times when there is absolutely nothing you can do about being marginalized, but it occurred to me that just possibly, this wasn’t one of those times. Also, I could kind of see the whole thing from her perspective, not just as an artist but as a patient, and I realized — a lot of WCA patients would LOVE the idea of 35-foot acupuncture needles around the city. They would love the idea of Portland getting an acupuncture treatment. Because they love acupuncture.

So I went to the artist’s website, and looked at a bunch of really cool installations he’s done. He described his process as exploring how the power of art can shift environmental and cultural perspectives, and help people “unperceive” established ideas. I got why my patient likes him.

I wrote him an email.

He wrote back. He said he understood, and he wanted to be inclusive with respect to class and income. The meridian maps were no longer on the project’s website. The arts funding that they’d gotten so far required most of the needles to be placed in the central city (meaning, not in neighborhoods like Cully), but he wished he could put more needles in more neighborhoods, and he wanted this project to be something everyone could enjoy and participate in.

(Side note: in my many clashes with acupuncturists over issues of this kind, no one has ever said something so simple. “I want to be inclusive with respect to class and income” — with no “but” attached.  It was like a miracle: I brought up the issue of class with someone, and I felt better instead of worse.)

I talked to Lupine about it. She had an idea. I wrote another email. We found out that it costs about $2500 to make and install a 35 foot acupuncture needle in a public park. That’s all it would take for Northeast Portland to get a needle — funding. We talked about it some more. We said, symbols are powerful, let’s work with them. Public art by its nature is participatory; it can connect people, involve people, draw people into an experience. We decided, let’s do it, let’s do some art.

And so, this year, in honor of May Day, we are launching our “I Poked Portland” Initiative. We are looking for 170 people who want to pay $15 to give Portland a treatment (a WCA treatment at the low end of our scale), and get Northeast Portland gets its very own 35-foot needle. Matt and Lupine made buttons: special, limited edition buttons that say, “I Poked Portland!” with WCA’s logo on them. There are only 200 of these buttons, because 200 will be more than enough to get our neighborhood its needle. Ilse got the first button, and I got the second one. Two hours after we got the buttons from the button maker, we raised $165. We have over 100 people scheduled for free acupuncture on May Day tomorrow already, and we know there will be walk-ins. We’re hoping that many of those people will help Poke Portland. But we are also hoping that many of you, our comrades, will also help Poke Portland.  We would love to mail some buttons all over the country — what a way to expand the public art experience.

Check out the button!

WCA wants to write the Portland Acupuncture Project a big check, the sooner the better. And when we get our needle, we are going to have an I Poked Portland Party, or maybe an I Poked Portland Picnic, right next to our needle, in our neighborhood that has gangs and trailer parks and also lots and lots of people who love and appreciate acupuncture.  And that will also be doing art.

Happy May Day to everyone!

Author: lisafer

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  1. update

    It isn’t even noon on May Day and we’ve raised $345! A militant THANK YOU to all the comrades who have poked Portland — particularly the VERY militant comrade who poked Portland 4 times in a row! Also, the artist in charge of the project, Adam Kuby, came and got a treatment at WCA this morning, and we went to look at the site where the NE Portland needle will go. I am having a happy May Day. xoxoxo

  2. payback

    Lisa, 23 years ago I lived in north portland, crack house across the street, rotating prostitutes next door, the sea of I-5 my back yard, me a poor nursing student, portland was where i got my first acupuncture treatment and knew someday I would be one, so yeah payback feels good, thanks for the opportunity

  3. A Fitting Tribute

    Lisa, thank you so much for this story!  Of all the neighborhoods in Portland, the one that has made the greatest contribution to acupuncture in America is Cully — thanks to WCA!!  Talk about reclaiming public art for the public — this is great news!

  4. it’s like a community barn-raising, only it’s a needle-raising

    Thank you so much to everyone who has poked Portland! We have sold almost 50 buttons and raised over $700! As I said above, 170 buttons and $2500 gets us the needle — but I also learned this weekend that, so far, *the artist has not been paid*. He’s been putting in 80 hour weeks to get the sculptures up. So let’s try to move all 200 buttons and make this a little more sustainable for the person doing all the work, shall we?  If you can send this link on to anyone you think might want to support the meeting of acupuncture and public art, please do!

     “You know how people always say there’s a reasonable explanation for things like this? Well, there isn’t.” Daniel Pinkwater, The Neddiad

  5. this

    This is my favorite part:

    “…in my many clashes with acupuncturists over issues of this kind, no one
    has ever said something so simple. “I want to be inclusive with respect
    to class and income” — with no “but” attached.  It was like a miracle:
    I brought up the issue of class with someone, and I felt better instead
    of worse.)”


    It makes me so happy to hear that this entire interaction made you happy, Lisa.  What a fabulous gift for you, Dear One!


    I can’t wait to wear my button!

    Julia in Berkeley



  6. Gonna poke Portland

    Lisa, I just loved this story.  I am so happy to hear this artist is so supportive of your neighborhood and that you’ve got people supporting his endeavors.  The fact that he’s working so hard without being paid yet also needs change… looking forward to seeing those lovely needles around town when I visit in the future!