Pat Zahn

An Open Door To Portland Art
WORDS David Zahn | Photography Danelle Painter

When a person walks up to Steel Door Gallery in NW Portland, he or she might be surprised by its unique presence in a residential area of NW Portland, on Raleigh, with an openness, enhanced by a garage-door entry. Or maybe it’s because it’s the only gallery in the United States…maybe in all the world… that offers a 6′ by 6′ 175-pound portrait of Babe Ruth made, laboriously, from twenty-five thousand tiny Lego pieces.

After five years in the NW Industrial area, happily, and semi-secretly, tucked away on Upshur and 19th, Steel Door Gallery has come out of the shadows, and moved to the trendy Slabtown area of Nob Hill adjoining KIVA cafe/tea bar/spa.

Why it’s called Steel Door…that’s an answer to the unasked question on everyone’s mind, since there is no Steel Door: “Why Steel Door”? Different from most galleries in the area, Steel Door Gallery seeks out local, emerging, cutting edge talent, representing them and their work with integrity and strength while developing them with great success. Simply put the artists make the art, Steel Door Gallery makes the artist.

I sat down with the owner and curator, Patrick Zahn, in his new gallery on North West Raleigh, to ask some questions about just how this remarkable place came to be and what we can expect from Steel Door Gallery in the future:

Are you from the Northwest? How did you come to own and operate an art gallery? I grew up in a large Catholic family in Orchards, Washington. I was the fifth of six children. After leaving home, I started work in the corporate world, landed a dream job and moved to the East Coast. I loved the people that I worked with, but over time I realized that what I was being asked to do in my job didn’t match my ethics. When I challenged my employer on the issues I was having, I was told “well that’s just business.” I hate that phrase; apparently being in business absolves you of any wrongdoing. I had a choice: fall in line and compromise or get the hell out of there! So I left.

When life bites you in the rear sometimes you just have to turn the other cheek and laugh because it was at this time that I got sick. I started to swell up constantly and was diagnosed with a very rare autoimmune disorder. I almost died several times. You might say I am on the third of my nine lives. There is nothing like being on the edge of death that will make you really want to live! I began to paint as a path toward healing. After dabbling in painting for a while I threw my first art show and over 100 people showed up. Apparently, I found that my talent for marketing translated well toward getting the word out to sell art. I also found that, for many artists, that specific skill and business acumen was lacking. It was for this reason that I started Steel Door Gallery. I wanted to open paths to success for artists.

How do you choose which artists to work with? Choosing who to work with is tricky. It’s been a long journey to figure out who is willing to put in the time and effort to make themselves marketable. I usually work with artists for over a year or more before they start gaining traction. For a lot of artists, that’s difficult. I’ve found that large egos, while sometimes adjacent to talent, can get in the way of selling art and making art that customers want to buy. It’s a shift towards helping the artist understand that they can express their truth while also thinking of their audience.

Many artists are enthralled by their work and are passionate about how they want to portray their labor of love. I take all of this into consideration, but at the end of the day I have a job to do and it requires work and compromise. In order to hang at Steel Door Gallery, artists must be willing to take criticism, work at least 30 hours per week on their art, and be ready to adapt. This last part can get in the way of success. You have to believe in yourself and be humble at the same time in order to be successful in the art world. It’s extremely difficult to do, and I try to help artists with this issue as much as I can.

How do you make an artist marketable? Well, it involves getting the artist to understand their story and their artworks’ story. What is their technique and how is that different from what other people are doing? What is the message of their art and is it part of a series? What is the medium of their art and is it archival? If the art isn’t selling, what might we adjust in the future about our story or our approach that makes it connect to customers? I’ve found telling the artists’ stories to be an integral part of the presentation of the artist. Customers who purchase art often do so because of a connection to the work, but also buy art because they want to help that artist and see them grow as much as they want something fun or impactful to look at. Most of the artists that work with me are either emerging or are advanced in their ability to sell and have hung in a gallery before. I’ve found that a client’s ability to connect to a specific work is the key ingredient to selling artwork. In some form it must move them. That is where a sale normally takes place.

Your gallery is extremely diverse in comparison to others I have seen. How do you choose what to hang? Choosing what goes up on these walls is difficult. I think we cycle artwork out every six to eight weeks to keep things fresh. As you can see, the artwork is varied throughout the gallery and I like to hang pieces that complement each other, while also highlighting the differences in the art. It is easier to gauge the types of art a customer is going for by seeing which paintings they react to initially, and then I steer them towards what I think they might be interested in from there. When I choose what to hang I look at marketability, diversity of color and scheme, whether or not it is in a series, and a host of other things that makes my menagerie of art into a bit of a wonderland. In this way, artists have to be okay with being shown next to others and the artists I work with very much are. They are gracious in allowing me creative direction and leeway in how I present them and this allows for better results, sales-wise.

What can we expect from Steel Door in the future? I would love to get my artists onto the national level. If I had my dream of dreams come true, it would be to bring my artists to Art Basel, which is basically the Super Bowl of the art world. I want to take my artists to the Super Bowl.