Commentary: How dead is OCAC?

It's Craft Spring as various groups mobilize to keep Oregon College of Art and Craft alive

What happens when you try to close the debate before the debate ever gets started? At this point the Oregon College of Art and Craft board is starting to find that out.

During the week since my last commentary on the OCAC board’s decision to close the college and sell the campus, a lot has happened, much of it in the form of good, old-fashioned community organizing and behind-the-scenes negotiating. Of course, you don’t have to look far on social media to detect some anger and vitriol, too.

The primary center of popular opposition to OCAC’s plan to close happens to be… Friends of OCAC, which was started in December “to share the importance of this historic and celebrated institution with a new generation of Portlanders through events and projects designed to connect, support, and grow the widespread OCAC community,” according to its website.

Friends of OCAC has asked its supporters to sign a letter that invites the OCAC board to come to a town hall to discuss OCAC’s financial situation and do some “constructive brainstorming” to support the school and its programs. The group suggests Monday, February 25. OCAC agreed to a much smaller meeting this weekend (or maybe even today) with a few representatives from the Friends, the faculty and the board.

The February 20 protest against the OCAC’s decision to sell the campus and shut the college without significant debate within the OCAC community.

I was drawn to a couple of sentences that support the idea that transparency (or democracy or whatever you choose to call it) has been a problem at OCAC and suggests a way to remedy that problem.

“Over the past few years, and especially during the merger and closure decision-making processes, the extended members of the community have felt left out of the information loop. Friends of OCAC wishes to address these concerns by connecting OCAC’s extended network back to the school, inviting them home and making them feel welcome.”

The first five signatories on the letter are Dakotah Fitzhugh (community member), Mardy Widman (a much beloved former OCAC staffer), Judilee Fitzhugh (OCAC alum and an adjunct faculty member in the fibers department), Marilyn Zornado (Extension program instructor), and Georgiana Nehl (drawing/painting and foundations professor emerita). And then more than 1,000 names follow, many of them well-known former students, faculty members, staffers and active arts supporters. When I look over the list, I think, “These people are enough to prove the viability of OCAC in some form or another going forward, just by themselves.” They are still taking names, so you can join this august group yourself. All your asking for is an open discussion about the future of the college.

Generally, the signatories give their name and their relationship to OCAC. I quite enjoyed the connection that Shay Gallegos offered: “I have a friend that has gone here and it has been incredible in her life. It’s so sad knowing that a great institution like this might close. Please take the time to think of how great it has been for past students as well as hopefully future ones!!” Exactly.

Meanwhile, I’ve been exchanging emails and phone calls with architect and former Portland City Council candidate Stuart Emmons, who has been trying to drum up some interest for OCAC in the city’s philanthropic community. “I really think it can be saved,” he said. “It can be saved and it should be saved.” He’s put together an in-depth strategic plan that leads to solvency over the next three years, and he’s trying to advocate for a some sort of property sale-leaseback plan that will keep the college going while it sorts things out. He thinks that better recruitment of new students, debt delay (the college owes a local bank more than $1 million, he said) and a better approach to fundraising will lead OCAC out of its current situation.

He also thinks that the board should favor proposals that would keep the OCAC campus in the craft education business, an entirely reasonable suggestion. His frustration with OCAC seems to be similar to that of the Friends group—the board doesn’t seem to be open to any other approach than its own. And the board’s approach to it all seems to be tag it, bag it and bury it as swiftly as possible, and then maybe we can forget it. Emmons, though, is like the kid who looks into the coffin and hollers, “Hey, grandpa’s not dead.” And then watches gramps shudder, wheeze and sit bolt-upright to the amazement of all. Or maybe I’ve seen too many movies (“The Shipping News” is a good example of the genre.)

Because how do we know that OCAC is actually dead if the board won’t explain the situation to us? Classes are being taught there even as I type.

Anyway, Emmons has many lines in the stream (just to move my metaphor away from grandpa and his premature burial)—potential buyers of the property or major donors to a re-dedicated college or craft center.

Finally, a large and growing alumni group has emerged and has also petitioned the OCAC board. Here’s the first paragraph of the group’s letter:

“As members of the alumni of the degree programs at the Oregon College of Art and Craft, together with the greater OCAC community, we have been devastated by the news of the Board of Trustee’s decision to terminate the degree programs at the college. We are further alarmed by rumors of the rapid pace with which steps are being taken to entertain offers to sell the campus or otherwise dismantle this incredible institution. As critical stakeholders in the make-up of the college, we urge you to delay any decisions that would bring about a permanent end to OCAC. Instead, we appeal to you to partner with us and other important stakeholders of the college to explore alternative solutions to the current crisis.”

And the group has an additional request. “Before it is too late, please give us the necessary time to bring new calls for support to potential donors, to civic and cultural leaders and to the greater Portland community. We also request that an alumni representative not serving on the Board be in attendance during the presentation of any offers to purchase the college or the property.”

The names on the petition, like the Friends list, is full of artists, many of them recent OCAC graduates.

Will the resisters triumph? In a way, they already have, because they are reminding us of important lessons we learned and perhaps forgot, or lessons we never learned and should have—lessons that have to do with working together for the common good.

Sver: epic Nordic folk music

Swedish rhythm machine rocks Scandinavian traditional music in Oregon tour

by DANIEL HEILA

In the front row of Corvallis’s Majestic Theater a flock of fidgety youths — a posse of sjörå on shore leave — hoot and whistle as the string-driven, Swedish rhythm machine Sver cranks out a rousing set of relentless syncopated hooks, exhilarating drops, and odd-metered rollicks. Anders Hall, the band’s fiddle/viola player, prowls the stage (a naughty can of chaw in his front pocket, latent horns pushing against the taut skin of his shaven head), his compact form slightly curved forward, almost as if he is embracing the spirit of this epic music. An old-world strömkarl, he’s here with his partners-in-pulse to enthrall the audience with hypnotic fiddling. And if revelers ask real nice, he’ll teach them how to play…

And that has a lot to do with why he and his bandmates — Olav Luksengård Mjelva on fiddle and Hardanger fiddle, Leif Ingvar Ranøien on two-row accordion, Adam Johansson on guitar, and Jens Linell on drums — are here in exotic Corvallis, Oregon, spreading the happy infection of their rockin’ take on Nordic folk music.

Swedish folk rockers Sver performed at Corvallis’s Majestic Theater. Photo: Daniel Heila.

Back in 2015, the band was in residence at the Alasdair Fraser Sierra Fiddle Camp in Nevada City, California, and so was Cayley Schmid, fiddler with Americana band Polecat, who attended the bands’ workshops and concerts. “I think Sver embodies a perfect combination of reverence for creativity, and musical playfulness,” she says.

A year earlier, Schmid had started the Bellingham Folk Festival winter weekend of folk music workshops and performances for festies of all ages and abilities. Schmid, the festival’s de facto director/booker/volunteer coordinator, realized it would be her dream booking if the Swedes performed in Bellingham. With a decade of touring experience with Polecat, she wound up booking half the shows of SVER’s first US tour in 2018. A successful run of gigs culminated in an appearance at the Bellingham festival and a promise from the Swedes to return.

That promise became reality when Schmid booked a fourteen-show Pacific Northwest tour (from Northern California to Vancouver, BC) in January 2019, with the Majestic Theater show in Corvallis smack dab in the middle of a run from Ashland to Astoria and on to Portland’s Alberta Rose Theater.

A fiddler in the Irish and Scottish traditions for most of her life, Schmid fell for the irresistible buzz and hum of Sver’s music. “They create a sound that is bigger than the sum of its parts,” she explains.

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MusicWatch Weekly: jazz tributes

PDX Jazz Festival leads this week's Oregon music highlights

Today’s jazz is often about tributes to yesterday’s jazz, especially the post-bop through fusion music of the late 1950s through the ‘70s. It’s easy to understand why — that music is a pinnacle of human artistic achievement that still delights millions of us daily and nightly. But many of us worry that the worship of the old can crowd out development of the new, as happened for a century in classical music, which is still in recovery. Granted, unlike classical music, jazz by its nature is always new, encouraging musicians to update whatever they’re playing every time they take the stage. But as rock climbers know, it can be harder to really take the leap into the next phase of your art form when you’re still clutching the old approaches with one hand.

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah

Thanks in part to the 80th anniversary of the revered Blue Note record label, plenty of worthy tributes ennoble the 2019 BIAMP PDX Jazz Festival. Fortunately its curators, chiefly artistic director Don Lucoff, have included some of today’s forward looking jazz artists too…

• … beginning with tonight’s opening concert featuring Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah at Portland’s Star Theater. The young composer/ trumpeter/ improviser/ producer/ instrument designer is one of the century’s most musically ambitious artists in any field. Scion of one of New Orleans’s most renowned musical families, he builds on jazz traditions and wins awards for his virtuosity, but looks forward artistically. His “Stretch Music” embraces a wide variety of artistic influences while remaining musically accessible to broad audiences. Scott’s landmark 2017 Centennial Trilogy addressed many of our most pressing social issues (anti-immigrant xenophobia, racism, demagoguery, gender bias) while still swinging, and he’s also contributed enormous amounts of work and creativity to youth education and other worthy causes, scored films, worked with musicians as varied as Thom Yorke, Prince, and McCoy Tyner, founded a music festival, and more. He’s a major part of jazz’s future.

The rest of the first week offers an impressively wide range of the varied music we foolishly try to lump into a single four-letter word: fine singers like Kendra Shank (who also plays a Broadway House concert in Eugene Sunday) and Veronica Swift (with fab pianist Benny Green), venerated masters like Pharoah Sanders, Harold Mabern and Patrice Rushen, rising stars including Aaron Diehl Trio, top current acts the Bad Plus, Steve Turre and Ralph Peterson, the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (named after a holy shrine of the music) and so much more.

For all the starry national names though, maybe the most valuable part of the festival is the showcase it offers local jazz musicians who offer comparable, sometimes superior performances year round. Many of those shows are free, and the first week’s constellation of local stars shines particularly bright. Check it all out.

Chamber Music

Long before jazz emerged, a mythical Greek dude strummed a mean lyre. The ancient Greek myth of Orpheus, the musician who pursued his lost love to hell and almost all the way back, has been told and retold in songs, operas, musicals and more through the centuries. But it’s never been told like this. In Orpheus Unsung, a multimedia concert presented by Third Angle New Music couple of contemporary classical music stars team up to evoke the Orpheus story as a “wordless opera” with only electric guitar and drums.

One time California rocker turned Princeton prof and composer Steven Mackey has done as much as anyone to organically integrate electric guitar into contemporary classical music, while composer/drummer Jason Treuting’s band So Percussion is the country’s leading percussion ensemble, collaborating with everyone from Steve Reich to Matmos. Using multi-media visuals, looping and effects pedals, gongs, and other percussion, along with guitar and drum kit, they incorporate influences from classical to post-rock to various experimental genres to tell a story almost as old as music itself.
Wednesday and Thursday. Holocene, 1001 SE Morrison St.

Other notable chamber music events:

Portland Baroque Orchestra (really an ensemble this time, with lutenist John Lenti and violinist Monica Huggett, string ensemble and soprano Arwen Myers) play and sing wonderful English music by Locke, Purcell and Blow Friday at First Baptist Church.

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Recital runs from Copland to ‘Monet paintings in sonic form’

Flutist Abigail Sperling, recent winner of an Oregon Arts Commission fellowship, will perform Feb. 28 at Linfield College

Abigail Sperling is everywhere.

That’s the impression one gets from her official biography. At Linfield College in McMinnville, she’s a flute professor. She is also coordinator for winds and percussion and flute instructor at Chemeketa Community College in Salem. In Corvallis, she’s a guest lecturer at Oregon State University. She also plays, including for OSU’s Music a la Carte, for the Corvallis-based Chintimini Chamber Music Festival, and as a substitute in the Oregon Symphony.

“I have been lucky to travel for my studies and performances and be part of the amazing regional, national, and international flute community,” Sperling said. “It’s typical for someone at my career stage to be doing this sort of hustle, I think.”

Abigail Sperling, flute instructor at Linfield College in McMinnville, has been named a 2019 Fellow by the Oregon Arts Commission. Photo courtesy: Linfield College

However, the occasion for this feature isn’t to marvel at Sperling’s resume but to note two significant events in her professional life. She has a recital coming up next week, and it will feature some intriguing works that we’ll explore shortly.

First, let’s talk Oregon Arts Commission. Last week, the statewide nonprofit announced a batch of fellowships, and Sperling was among those who scored. She’ll receive $3,000 to commission a new piece of music for flute and piano. Taking on the task will be a Linfield colleague and composer, Andrea Reinkemeyer, an assistant professor of music composition and theory.

“When I started working at the college, she sent me a recording of her work Wrought Iron for flute and percussion,” Sperling said of Reinkemeyer. “I sat down and listened to it and was really impressed. I remember thinking, ‘Now here’s someone who really knows what she’s doing.’ I wouldn’t say I was surprised, but it was super cool to hear something she had written for flute.”

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Audrey Luna: on a high note

Portland State alumna returns home for a recital after soaring to the heights of the opera world

by BRUCE and DARYL BROWNE

A shock –a frisson of emotion, of sheer joy amidst a fountain of favorite songs –was the prevailing feeling among audience members Sunday afternoon at the vocal recital of Audrey Luna at Portland State University Recital Hall.

Luna’s name has popped into opera junkie conversation since singing her record-breaking A above high C (A6, do not try this at home) in the premiere of contemporary British-American composer Thomas Adès’s opera The Exterminating Angel (with Ms. Luna in the role of Leticia) at the Metropolitan Opera. We scoot forward on our seats in anticipation of more magical record-breaking notes. But there is so much more in the total package on stage, including acting, vocal endurance and, at times, gymnastics, as in another Adès opera, The Tempest.

Luna as Leticia in ‘The Exterminating Angel’

At her PSU recital, Ms. Luna, partnered with PSU faculty pianist Chuck Dillard, offered us the vocal works of three composers: Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy in the first half, and just one song, one glorious rhapsody, by Samuel Barber in the second. These three composers happen to be her favorites.

The five Strauss songs, plucked from three different song cycles, demonstrated his proclivity for athletic vocal lines, with leaps and coloratura for the singer, and a wide palette of harmonic colors. Strauss’ romantic-era vocal works are, according to English soprano Susan Gritton, “a sumptuous wave for the voice to surf, with wonderful opportunities for timbre and line.” Ms. Luna loosened as she rode those waves.

She and Dr. Dillard adhered like velcro on each song. Dillard’s tinkling scales and arpeggios in “Herr Lenz” were a delight. Professor Dillard heads the Collaborative Piano program at PSU, and his work in this recital defines “collaborative” and acknowledges the level plane upon which recital partners exist.

Dillard and Luna performed at Portland State.

The first of several selections from Six Songs (Sechs leider), “Ich wollt ein Strausslein binden,” set to the poetry of German/Austrian Clemens Brentano, was most compelling in tone and expression. “Amor,” from the same cycle, was Ms. Luna’s final offering on the recital, a fireworks display of vocal maneuvering.

With the Debussy, we were lifted even further by Ms. Luna’s rapturous voice and elegant delivery. “Quatre chanson de jeunesse” sets the work of three different poets, each evoking dreamy impressionistic landscapes populated with typical French characters of the time: Harlequin, Pierrot, Cassandre and Columbine. Luna’s command of the language, the images of each word of poetry, was a magic carpet of vocal line, peppered with particularized articulation of each word.

For me, Samuel Barber‘s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 was the perfect capstone of the afternoon. A song may be elevated three times over: first by the poet of the original text, second by the music of the composer and last, but not least, by the singer. It was a perfect illustration of a happy wedding of words and music, further heightened by the artistry of Ms. Luna.

There’s not a wrong word by the author, James Agee, a wrong note by Barber, nor was there a misstep by Ms. Luna. The work is new in her repertoire, but it sounded like an old friend. She captured perfectly the essence of the young boy questioning his identity, and wove a magic spell around the stunningly evocative text of Agee. With suave inflections and an afterburner of vocal range, Ms. Luna made us believe and we left transformed. That’s all one can ask.

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Racism through the eyes of the oppressors

Artist Anne Mavor's installation in Newport uses self-portraits and stories of her ancestors to explore identity, privilege, and white supremacy

When Portland artist Anne Mavor attended a meeting a few years ago to learn about Native Liberation, the movement to free native peoples from capitalism and colonialism, she was already thinking about collaborating with a Native American on a project. But after hearing the speaker’s thoughts, she changed her mind.

Anne Mavor’s portrait depicts the artist in her studio.

“The speaker said, ‘White people need to go and find your people, you need to discover who they are.’ As soon as she said that, I realized I was off track,” Mavor said. “I was just another white person hanging on the coattails of Native America. I asked myself, what would it look like if I claimed my white heritage?”

Her answer, I Am My White Ancestors: Claiming the Legacy of Oppression, is on exhibit through Sunday, Feb. 24, at the Newport Visual Arts Center. Mavor’s installation includes 13 life-size photographic self-portraits printed on fabric panels, each accompanied by audio and written narratives from the perspective of each character. The exhibit invites people to approach and understand racism and related oppressions from a historical and personal perspective.

Mavor, a Portland artist whose work ranges from painting to photography to book arts, hoped that in studying and portraying her ancestors, many of whom she already knew about through family genealogy research, she might learn more about herself.

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Catching up with art critic Chris Kraus in Portland

The local connections of the Los Angeles-based critic were on the surface during her January visit to PNCA

By SHAWNA LIPTON

Chris Kraus is a prolific Los Angeles-based writer, art critic, and editor, but her latest collection of writing published by Semiotext(e) in 2018, Social Practices, has an origin story linking it to Portland, Oregon.

The seed of the book was a piece called “Kelly Lake Store and Other Stories” composed when Stephanie Snyder, the curator of Reed College’s Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery, asked Kraus to contribute a monograph to the gallery’s Companion Editions series. “Kelly Lake Store” includes a rejected application for a Guggenheim Fellowship requesting funds to operate a general store staffed by art students in a remote small town. Kraus was earnest in her desire to provide the town with such a store, but the application was also satirical, in that she does not really view such an undertaking as “social practice art.”

The title of Social Practices is similarly tongue in cheek. Kraus is skeptical of what is called social practice art, wondering why students would go to art school to pursue what might otherwise be considered hobbies or trades such as gardening or cooking. She is critical of the industry that has grown up around MFA programs and their centrality in the LA-art scene. She contends that not every occupation needs an art degree to grant it legitimacy.

Chris Kraus, Social Practices, Semiotext(e), 2018
ISBN: 9781635900392

However, I am not sure if this thesis truly comes through in the book, or if it has been imposed retroactively as a talking point in order to provide a through line for this eclectic mix of writings, mostly composed of catalogue essays and other short works of Kraus’s art criticism commissioned over the past 13 years. Some of the artworks and events she responds to took place even earlier, and she did not make editorial revisions to the pieces since their original publication, except in cases where they had been altered from her original intent.

Art critic Chris Kraus gave a public talk at PNCA earlier this month/Photograph by Matthew Bowers

Although “Kelly Lake Store and Other Stories” contains her personal joke about opening a rural general store on Guggenheim’s dime in the name of parodying social practice art, the book also contains many examples of socially-engaged and community-based art she finds profoundly meaningful. One example is the artist and “debt resistor” Thomas Gokey’s “Rolling Jubilee” established in the wake of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, which purchased defaulted debt on the secondary market and forgave it as a liberatory political act.

This is where Kraus’s art writing shines, in her intellectual excitement and enjoyment of subversive, politically engaged art and creative work. Kraus excels, not just at satirizing works she finds pretentious and self-important, but at writing about things she takes pleasure in, including work by her own friends, produced in communities she is a part of, proving a critic does not only need to “critique” but can also channel and communicate the spirit of the work using her own formidable literary talent.

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