Oregon Culture Takes a Road Trip

Eugene’s Liza Burns wins design competition to create new Oregon Cultural Trust license plate

You may not think of your Oregon license plate as a work of art. The Oregon Cultural Trust does, though, and on Sept. 15 the trust — to celebrate its 20th anniversary coming up in October — unveiled its design for one of the most intricate license plates ever imagined.

Created by Eugene artist, illustrator and graphic designer Liza Burns, the new plate, which will be available from DMV on Oct. 1, features iconic references to — count them — 126 aspects of Oregon culture, from ballet slippers to a Cayuse pony.

“This is the biggest, coolest thing that’s ever happened to me!” enthuses Burns, who grew up in Eugene, got her BFA at Boston University, worked as an artist in Los Angeles for a few years and came back to Eugene in 2013.

The design competition drew qualifications from 36 artists around the state; 20 were invited to submit preliminary concepts. The final design was vetted through numerous committees and individual cultural experts to make certain it would be fully inclusive of Oregon’s diverse populations and cultures, OCT spokeswoman Carrie Kikel says.

Burns herself was surprised at the trust’s cultural reach. “It’s much more than the fine arts,” she says. “It’s a much broader definition than what I expected it to be.”

That need for diversity led her to envision scores of small icons instead of a single image to represent all of Oregon culture. “The idea of taking one single image to represent all of Oregon was a mistake,” she says.

The result of her work is a graceful, intensely colorful landscape, showing the state’s mountains, forests, rivers, farms and cities, into which are woven ghostly drawings of Oregon cultural icons: the Conde McCullough-designed highway bridge near Florence; the hat worn by Black rodeo rider George Fletcher; a howling coyote; the late Ken Kesey’s famous bus Furthur; a salmon; a graphic novel; a sticky rice basket; a folklorico skirt. The full list, along with explanations, will be on a Cultural Trust website that will be accessible through a browser or through a QR code, which motorists with the plates can display on their vehicles with a window sticker.

Burns, whose past illustration work has appeared in Eugene Weekly, gets $5,000 for her design; separately she’s being paid — through an arrangement with GreenCars.com — to paint four 8×16-foot murals of the plate to be installed at airports in Portland, Medford, Redmond and Eugene. The murals will include a 127th icon about sustainability. A 38-foot banner of the new plate will also be hung outside the Portland Art Museum.

“It’s the most amazing thing,” the artist says. “I learned things about Oregon I didn’t know. And I’ve lived here for years!”

The new Oregon Cultural Trust license plates, which cost $50 more than ordinary plates, will be available through Oregon.gov/odot/DMV starting Oct. 1. The extra fee goes to support the work of the trust.

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