An Illuminated PDXmas


This December, Newspace Center for Photography will host a public display of my personal collection of vintage holiday characters. My fascination with them started many years ago with a large plastic Santa I used to covet from my Grandma’s house. Now decades later…thrift stores, garage sales, antique shops, and eBay auctions have allowed me to indulge my obsession and continue to grow the collection. All the figures were manufactured in the late 60s and 70s by Empire Plastics Corp., a now defunct Tarboro, NC based company. I’m drawn to the consistency in style the Empire characters had back then, an innocence and comfort in their expressions that current lawn and porch decorations just don’t possess. On display will be an assortment of Santas, snowmen, reindeer, and elves, all ranging in size from 13 to 46 inches tall. They’ll be dusted off and plugged in all month, delighting Portland gallery goers with their warm, nostalgic glow.

Chris Willis is a local creative from Portland, Oregon. His Empire Plastics collection was previously displayed in an empty retail space in West Moreland in 2009, and in 2010 his army of Santa clones were installed at bside6 in the lower Burnside neighborhood. The art community first learned of his obsession of all things old and unique when his photographic installment, “Estate Sale” was showcased at Newspace in 2007. He continues to rummage in his free time.


The photography of Jessie Rieser will be in the main gallery at Newspace, showcasing his survey of uniquely American Christmas traditions.

Beyond the glowing green and red lights, past the shimmering silvery tinsel, around the fragrant pine boughs, another Christmas lingers, a Christmas of contradictions.

This Christmas is complex and at times, uncomfortable. It’s awkward and sometimes bleak. But it is also sincere and celebratory, colorful and creative.

This is the Christmas I capture in this first chapter of a photographic exploration of the biggest event on the American calendar. I grew up in a secular home and at times felt like a Christmas outsider, never connected to the holiday’s religious importance, or its more extreme cultural trappings. But in these photos, I become a Christmas insider, working to discover and reveal what holiday magic, or mania, compels so many to devote thousands of hours to hanging lights, to carving and painting figurines, to building miniature villages, to converting their homes, yards, garages and cars into monuments to merriness.

Initially inspired by the absurdity of a five story inflatable Santa who appeared to be guarding a tree lot, I have launched this survey of uniquely American Christmas traditions. “Christmas in America” is an unvarnished examination of the ways people mark the holiday’s meaning.

Jesse received his BFA in Photography from Arizona State University and art history from the Herberger Institute of Art and Design. His work has been honored by the Art Director’s Club of New York, The PDN Photo Annual, The American Photography Annual, Critical Mass Top 50, Art of Photography Juried Exhibition, CCNY Annual Juried Exhibition and Center’s Review Santa Fe 100.

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