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Remembering Valerie Otani, Hillsboro's Delight

Post Date:02/19/2020

Valerie Otani and public art projects in HillsboroHillsboro lost beloved Public Art Program Supervisor Valerie Otani to cancer in February 2020, shortly after her retirement this past December.

Valerie is well known for her work in developing and establishing Hillsboro’s Public Art Program. Her legacy includes shepherding the creation of many works of public art that have become part of everyday life in Hillsboro:

Valerie’s work led the Regional Arts & Culture Council to honor her with a 2018 JUICE Award for “using the power of space and place” in creating a more vibrant Hillsboro community. She had a master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Arts, and many public art projects of her own in Oregon, Washington, California, and Arizona.

In November 2008, the City of Hillsboro adopted its first Public Art Plan and the framework for developing the Public Art Program. Valerie Otani and Bill Flood were hired as consultants to develop and write that plan. They saw public art as a powerful tool for meeting the goals of Hillsboro’s community plans and for creating memorable public places to strengthen our community.

Valerie joined the Hillsboro Parks & Recreation Department in January 2011 as Hillsboro’s first Public Art Supervisor. Her focus was to bring the Public Art Plan to life. She arrived as an artist who deeply understood the support and environment conducive to creation. She was intimately familiar with the vision and direction Hillsboro desired to take, and she was ready to begin the curation and shepherding of Hillsboro’s Public Art Program.

Valerie’s family will plan a service in the coming months and welcomes donations to organizations close to Valerie’s heart: Portland Taiko, The Fair Housing Council, and the Japanese American Museum of Oregon.


In April 2018, Valerie gave this interview to City of Hillsboro staff:

What do you hope Hillsboro residents experience when they see a work of public art?

I hope they find delight in discovering something beautiful in their neighborhood, curiosity about the intent of the artist and their own response, and pride that they live in a creative city.

Which piece of public art are you most proud to see in Hillsboro?

Head Over Heels by Patrick Dougherty shows the best of Hillsboro – the open-heartedness of hundreds of volunteers who contributed to a unique project, and the collective effort of our Parks & Recreation Department staff to do our best for the city. I love seeing families and friends discovering the magical spaces inside and between the heads – and taking lots of pictures, meaning the experience will live on in their memory.

How do you consider equity in your curation of Hillsboro’s public art?

Equity is at the heart of public art. The art is in public spaces, available to everyone for free. We are concerned with going to the next level, making sure that public art is found in neighborhoods throughout the city, and that diverse people see themselves included in the art. That is why the Hello Neighbor project – with photos taken by middle school students of the people they admire – was one of our first art projects.

You received a JUICE Award for “using the power of place and space.” Can you highlight an example of that?

Shute Seeds at Shute Library is an artwork that took its inspiration from stories from the neighborhood. Latino settlers talked about coming to Hillsboro to work in agriculture and staying, inspiring the artist to make an image of many seeds coming together to grow roots and flower in Hillsboro. People at Celebrate Hillsboro, the library, and schools contributed ideas about what they love here. We want the art to strengthen the connection between people and this place.

How do Hillsboro neighbors have a voice in the curation of public art?

When an artist is selected, there are neighbors serving on the selection committee. This spring, we are gathering community input on what people would like to see in Shute Park. We are meeting with groups and starting conversations at events. Keep an eye on our website for the next opportunity to shape the artwork for our oldest park at Hillsboro-Oregon.gov/PublicArt.

What was the inspiration behind the Stickworks at Orenco Woods Nature Park object?

Artist Patrick Dougherty is a world-renowned artist whose work expresses the partnership of the human hand and nature. He takes simple, local material – sticks – and weaves them into an imaginative structure. His work was the perfect fit for our new nature park. It was artwork “from the land,” that fills us with the wonder of nature and the human imagination. Patrick Dougherty was inspired by masks and totems of Northwest indigenous peoples, but the giant heads morphed during the building process into caricatures of human surprise. He tucked the heads among the tall fir trees to invite people to walk between the tree trunks, smell their fragrance and feel their texture. He said, “Perhaps this invitation to rub shoulders with the craggy bark of such oldsters is the best part of the work.”

How does public art improve the experience of living in Hillsboro?

Art reminds us that we live in a place that values creativity, and is dedicated to building public spaces that welcome and inspire us. Public art often refers to local history, and stimulates us to learn more. Or it creates a landmark that emphasizes our feeling of arriving somewhere special. Our experience is shaped by the artist’s vision, challenging us to see and appreciate our world from a different viewpoint.


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