by Victoria Ritter
Portland’s oldest locally-owned art store, I’ve Been Framed, has evolved with the times, changing its name, locations and, most recently, ownership. Today, the business continues to serve the arts community, providing inspiration and insight with just a touch of nostalgia.
Bob Brisack founded I’ve Been Framed – originally known as Art Supply Center – in 1955 in downtown Portland. It moved to a few different locations before settling at its current, 5,000-square-foot location, 4950 SE Foster Road in 1992. Four years later, Brisack decided to retire, hand over the shop to someone else and open a frame shop. Current owner Prairie Clark, who joined the company in 1995, was part of the group who came up with the “I’ve Been Framed” moniker. “We spent two months on it,” she recalled. “It was pretty fun picking out a goofy name for a frame shop.”
Brisack’s retirement turned out to be very brief. In 1999, he repossessed the art store and combined it with the frame shop under one business. Eventually, the frame shop moved to 2819 SE Ash Street in Portland.
A watershed event
Brisack’s son Mark took over the business in 2003 and signed a contract with Clark for her to take over the business in July 2020. Clark spent most of 2019 preparing for the transition. When the pandemic came, Clark hit the ground running.
“I quarantined myself within the shop and spent two weeks there alone trying to figure out what the heck I was going to do,” Clark said. “In that time, I entirely reinvented how we were going to operate.”
One of Clark’s first considerations was her 16 employees, five of whom were high-risk for COVID-19. She sacrificed her three-week vacation, which she had planned on taking before fully assuming the role of owner, to pay the staff; no one was laid off. She also altered the layout of the art store to best benefit them, making the area behind the counter a staff area.
“We have the classic wraparound counter where you order auto supplies,” Clark said, adding the building had formerly been an auto supply store. “That had gotten buried. During the pandemic, I remodeled the space to have more staff working safely, no matter what kinds of interactions we had with people.”
Additionally, Clark created an online catalog, consolidated items and made the frame shop separate from the art supply store; before 2020, framing was present in both locations. Visits to the frame shop were only available by appointment.
“I can’t count the number of times I thought of the original owner during the pandemic,” Clark said. Brisack passed away in 2018. “I wished I could show him the sustainable, amazing legacy he left that fueled an entire staff of people through a global pandemic.”
The one constant is change
I’ve Been Framed continues to change and evolve post-pandemic. Clark plans on moving furniture from the frame shop to the art supply store. The store is arranged by medium, wrapping around the space. Taller shelves, which were once located near the front windows, were moved so shorter shelves could let the natural light in. Clark and her team even positioned plants which provide a natural aesthetic.
“Plants plus paint equals love,” she said with a laugh. “Sometimes customers give me cuttings of their plants or I’ll give away cuttings of plants in the store. That’s been fun and unique.”
Every so often, Clark will rearrange the shop’s layout. As a result, the store has an innovative, open atmosphere. “I feel like it’s something that Bob used to let us do,” she explained. “It’s easy to get stuck in the same rut or do things the same way you have for 30 years. I love to keep things fresh.”
Although Clark is facing challenges such as the lack of market predictability, business is good overall at I’ve Been Framed. She understands that the business is continuously evolving and she’s facing a different world than its previous owners. In a way, a benefit of the pandemic was that it offered the perfect opportunity to provide a new look to the nearly 60-year-old business. “Our stores and our businesses have changed just as people have changed,” Clark stated. “I wasn’t the person I was a few years ago. My shop can’t be the shop it was a few years ago. To constantly compare that isn’t healthy.”
Despite the changes, there are few features of I’ve Been Framed that have remained constant. The shop, which Clark describes as a combination of “brand-new fine arts store and funky, weird Goodwill store,” continues to sell a mix of new fine arts products, used supplies (including a few craft materials) and rare items. Inventory is conducted by hand.
New items encompass multiple mediums such as watercolor, acrylic, oil, pastel and color pencil and feature framing supplies, canvases and brushes. Popular brands sold there include Golden Artist Colors, Daniel Smith and M. Graham.
I’ve Been Framed is a store “run by artists for artists.” Clark is appreciative of all the people who support the store and its mission to serve the art community – from the artistic staff to the wide range of customers. “I have serious artists who are 7 years old and other artists who are 97 years old,” she observed. “I have a very broad, diverse range of people who come in.”
About 20 to 40 percent of sales come from used items. The tradition of providing used art supplies began with Brisack, who purchased items from liquidations, buyouts, even estate sales. Clients can participate in the buy/sell/trade program, exchanging used art supplies for cash or store credit. “As artists, we love to try everything,” Clark said. “You may want to try a new art form or buy supplies for a class. I think of it as a win-win – our buy/sell/trade offering helps you clean out your space and it helps us keep prices more affordable.”
Inventory acquired from estate sales has increased in recent years, according to Clark. While visiting these sales is sometimes hard as they are estates of former customers, Clark sees repurposing their materials as a way to honor the artists’ legacies.
“I also feel there’s a beauty in it because there are so many ways to honor that artist’s lifetime collection,” she said. “They would be tickled pink to see a college student get a deal with a thing they loved so much. It comes full circle.”
During her time as owner, Clark has expanded the I’ve Been Framed museum’s collection of vintage supplies, located in the counter display. The museum, which was founded in 2016, receives the occasional donation from customers. In turn, it motivates clients looking to start a new project as well as Clark in terms of new inventory. “It’s really fun because people will take inspiration from the museum,” Clark said.