Ralph Gilliam - Biography

    Ralph Gilliam
    8070 SW Valley View Court
    Portland, Oregon 97225

    I was born in 1945 in Portland, Oregon. I grew up in the working class neighborhood of Ardenwald, just south of Portland in Milwaukie. Growing up I loved making and fixing things. My element in high school was metal shop. I graduated from Milwaukie High School in 1963.

    Fresh out of high school I worked for Zidell Explorations making barges out of rusty WWII ships on the waterfront near the Ross Island Bridge. I also worked for Gunderson Brothers on Front Avenue making railroad gondola cars and Hanna Enterprises making car washes. I loved these experiences and also learned that it might be a good idea to get a college degree so I could earn more money and have a better life.

    In the mid 1960’s I began taking classes at Portland State College. I supported myself while doing this with welding jobs. I was drawn to art classes especially jewelry, architecture and sculpture. I settled in on sculpture and identified with Jim Hanson. I was also very interested in furniture design. I graduated from PSU in 1970 with a BS in sculpture.

    After graduation I worked for ten years for Design Group Incorporated. Design Group’s owner, Harry Weitzer, was a friend of the late George Schwarz, a PSC architecture instructor. George designed a line of oak library furniture that was initially sold to PSC for the new library. George’s design propelled DG into a national market in a library furniture niche. A few years later office furniture also became a staple. I did lots of design drawing, adapting our products to meet design specifications.  From 1980 -1984 I was a sole proprietor for a small custom furniture/cabinet shop In Portland. After struggling financially I went back to DG for a time and a few other furniture producers as well.

    Making a decision to change careers I went back to PSU and earned an MS in education in 1990. I worked in Special Education with older students in transition to adulthood until my recent retirement in June of 2007. I continue working part time for Portland Public Schools. I have developed a non profit social club for young adults with disabilities in partnership with Impact Northwest, a local social agency.

    Concurrent with my move to retirement I have been working in metal, both sculpture and furniture. I am energized with this work. I am building a body of work in both areas and I am now promoting myself as a sculptor and furniture designer and maker.  


General Artist's Statement

    I like to work in an experiential fashion. Keep the back door open. I enjoy interacting with the material. While I always have an idea before I start a piece I consciously allow myself to be influenced by what I see taking shape with the material. There's a tension between what the material naturally wants to do and what I want it to do. It's a respect thing. I want to push the material to it's limit and the limits of my ability. At the same time I also want to use the material in a way that is respectful of what it will do.

    I appreciate precision and fine craftsmanship. I like to teeter on the boundary between organic and architectural elements in my work. I also like to play on the edge of symmetry. A piece can be symmetrical and still be deliciously off a little, inviting introspective curiosity. I love abstract work and also am drawn to the power and beauty of simple elements.

Shovel Series Artist's Statement

    Several years ago I found four old scoop shovels in a rural junk yard. I loved the forms of these shovels and created two sculptures, each from two shovel heads, each related to the original shovel forms and each totally different from each other. These two pieces inspired me to make a series of shovel related sculptures, each one unique, all made from shovel heads. The shovel pieces have taught me to appreciate the beautiful form of a common garden tool.

    I have tried to honor and value the shovel form while reordering the sculptural compositions so the viewer can see the forms with fresh eyes. With respect I now cut into a shovel hoping to come up with a sculpture at least as pleasing as the original shovel beginning. I like that several of the sculpture pieces have emerged as forms now reminiscent of growing forms belonging to the garden: a shovel's second life close to home.

Wavy Furniture Series Artist's Statement

    A while back, I picked through the scrap bin at a muffler shop down the street. I pulled out some old exhaust tubing and took it back to the studio. I liked the pieces and used them in the Garden Flowers, a Nod To Seuss. In the piece, the tubing is powder coated.

    Some of the tubing I learned was aluminized steel. It's a steel alloy with aluminum added to resist rusting. I cleaned up a scrap piece of the aluminized tubing hat was particularly wavy. I played with a patina and liked what I came up with. Soon thereafter I talked the muffler shop owner into working with me to make enough wavy tubing to make a few pieces of furniture. He allowed me to use his fancy machine to make waves on the tubing. The wavy metal parts have a mysterious quality that prompts people to ask, "What is it?" I like the wavy metal parts with a dark patina next to a warm solid wood.

List of exhibitions


    Arts Council of Lake Oswego, Lake Oswego, Oregon, August 2011
    Gallery Without Walls: Guardian of the Journey Sculpture

    Lakewood Center for the Arts, Lake Oswego, Oregon, June 2011
    Festival of the Arts Exhibit: Shovel Flower Sculpture

    Portland State University, Autzen Gallery, November 2010
    PSC Art Alumni Exhibition; Shovel Seed Pod Sculpture

    Artisan Renovations Inc., Beaverton, Oregon, June 2010
    PCC Rock Creek Art Student Exhibit; Three Sculptures

    Portland Community College, Rock Creek Campus, May 2010
    PCC Student Art Exhibit; Three Sculptures

    West Hills Friends Church, Portland, OR, July 2009
    Art Exhibit; Sculpture and Furniture

    Portland Community College, Rock Creek Learning Garden, September 2012
    Two Permanent Installations; Garden Flowers, A Nod to Seuss and Shovel Gallery

    Lakewood Center for the Arts, Lake Oswego, June 2013
    Spoon: Culinary Inspired Art; Wavy Baker's Rack