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Traversing New Grounds: Partnership with University of Oregon’s Portland Internship Experience

Chloe Lee, an intern and volunteer for Portland Japanese Garden, standing in the Tea Garden.
Chloe Lee when she returned to the Garden to volunteer during the winter of 2023. Photo by Portland Japanese Garden.

During the summer of 2023, University of Oregon student Chloe Lee joined Portland Japanese Garden’s Marketing Department as an intern as part of her school’s Portland Internship Experience program (PIE). PIE students receive a philanthropically-funded stipend, and career preparedness, and all while contributing to organizations that aim to make a difference in their community. Here is an article in which Lee reflects on her time with the Garden.

To enter Portland Japanese Garden is to be transformed. From the moment one steps through the magnificent Antique Gate, outside worries fade away, disappearing with the gentle breeze dancing through branches and leaves. Dapples of sunlight paint the native greenery with delicate patterns, denying stagnancy, while tall Douglas firs reach endlessly into the sky and embrace visitors in quiet serenity. A swath of verdant green foliage parts to reveal the Cultural Village, becoming a passageway into Portland’s very own urban oasis.

Among the elegance of meticulously pruned trees and delicate moss come guests from all walks of life. Whether visiting out of mourning or in joy, newly graduated student or soon-to-be retiree, the Garden promises a sanctuary to each person seeking solace or delight in its meditative spaces. 

A photo taken by Chloe Lee during her summer internship of the Flat Garden. Photo by Chloe Lee.

Last summer, I was welcomed as Portland Japanese Garden’s Marketing and Communications intern. Through the University of Oregon’s Portland Internship Experience (PIE), a summer program that partners with local Portland businesses and nonprofits to give back to the community, I was able to join the Marketing Department during the Garden’s momentous 60th year.

My studies, which will conclude in spring 2024, are focused on illustration and communication design. At first glance, this field seems as though it lies in a vastly different world than Portland Japanese Garden’s Marketing Department, but I find they overlap in the ways that matter most. Visual and written narratives are two sides of the same coin, relying on each other more often than not. I have always been of the mindset that a good illustration first requires a great narrative. The heart of my career-related pursuits lays in vulnerable and authentic communication through storytelling, and Portland Japanese Garden is a rich, living story—the transformation of an abandoned asphalt zoo into a lush garden sanctuary, a site of healing through cultural connections. From the tallest trees to the most delicate patches of moss comes quiet remembrance of hope, perseverance, and community.

A photo taken by Chloe Lee when she returned to volunteer during winter 2023 of the Nezu Gate. Photo by Chloe Lee.

Over the course of my internship, I was primarily responsible for archiving historic materials documenting the organization’s lifespan, including over 8,000 photographs and more than 60 years of press clippings. Archiving and cataloguing these materials not only made them available for use across the organization, but also acquainted me with the landscape through an intimately human perspective: vignettes from those who helped transform the Garden from an abandoned zoo into one of Portland’s most serene destinations. In becoming familiar with the Garden’s history, core values, and mission, I too was given the privilege of becoming one of its storytellers, helping to build new online platforms on Google Arts & Culture and Bloomberg Connects to increase accessibility for all guests to the Garden. It is my hope that these guides will inspire visitors to cultivate their own relationship with the organization through moments of empathy and repose.

Portland Japanese Garden is a living piece of history, a site that both preserves and evokes contemplative memory. There is a soft beauty in walking past trees that have lived through the earliest days of the Garden, only to be greeted moments later by purple-and-white Japanese irises which appear as a harbinger of summer. Each year, a new set of blooms color the iris beds with their watercolor-painted elegance, experiencing the Garden for the first and only time. Portland Japanese Garden is alive, composed of ancient roots and new branches, a reminder of the chance to grow in every present moment. Nature asks for an inherent acceptance of impermanence, yet the fluidity of organic life prompts endless opportunities that don’t only teach but also nourish the soul.

A photo taken by Chloe Lee during her summer internship of the Sand and Stone Garden. Photo by Chloe Lee.

I believe a good story is memorable, but a great story is compelling. Day after day, I have seen the Garden gently plant roots in visitors’ hearts, fostering timeless connections to its serene landscapes and foundations of cultural connections. These same roots blossomed in my soul and encouraged me to pursue further work with the Marketing Department beyond the initial 10-week internship period. With an appreciation for the Garden and admiration for my colleagues, who are world-class mentors, 10 weeks became 13 weeks, as well as continued volunteer work once I return to school. Here, I have found an everlasting well of fulfillment, a desire to maintain a close relationship with the Garden’s harmony.

Portland Japanese Garden is captivating. Each element of the Garden elicits contemplation, vivid curiosity, and implores a lifelong willingness to learn. A garden requires the utmost compassion and mindfulness from all involved, and those responsible for the organization embody these qualities with a humane determination that I am endlessly grateful to have learned from firsthand. Portland Japanese Garden is not just a garden, but one of the greatest stories of compassion, diligence, and mutual understanding.

Portland Japanese Garden intern Chloe Lee when she returned to volunteer for the organization in the winter of 2023-2024. Photo by Portland Japanese Garden.

Chloe Lee is a senior at the University of Oregon, set to graduate in June of 2024 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Art & Technology. Her interests lie in vulnerable storytelling through a breadth of media disciplines, as well as writing, with a particular emphasis on relationships between people and nature. Lee also contributes regular hours as a volunteer with Portland Japanese Garden’s Marketing Department.

Portland Japanese Garden has often been described as a “living classroom,” where education is fostered through a variety of means, including internships, workshops, and seminars, and even guest gardener exchanges with professionals in the Japanese gardening field across the world. We’re proud to be an organization that helps people learn more about Japanese gardening and culture, and embraces the opportunity to learn from others so we can continue to pursue our mission of Inspiring Harmony and Peace.