ArtsWatch Good Reads 2018

2018 in Review, Part 9: A Fab 15 of ArtsWatch well-told tales worth a second look

Marc Mohan wonders if it matters that the Oscars are a flop. Martha Ullman West revisits the Big Apple of her youth. John Foyston considers sleek cars and fast motorcycles at the art museum. John Longenbaugh starts a podcast “for some very stupid reasons.” Maria Choban and Brett Campbell relate the fascinating tale of a Sri Lankan engineer determined to build the first Pandol new year’s shrine in America. David Bates dives deep into the strangest epic poem you’ve never heard of. Laura Grimes recalls a day of traffic jams, lost glasses, Ursula K. Le Guin, and … pickles. TJ Acena talks gentrification with performance artist Penny Arcade.

The world’s overflowing with stories, and in 2018 ArtsWatch writers grabbed hold of a bunch worth a second look. Here, for your enjoyment, is a Fab 15 of tales well told.

 


 

The Oscars are dying. So what?

March 9: “This year’s telecast drew record low ratings, down a whopping 20 percent from last year’s already dismal numbers,” Marc Mohan wrote in the wake of this year’s television debacle. “… As someone who religiously watches, and even generally enjoys, Tinseltown’s annual festival of self-love, I find myself, perhaps surprisingly, not the least bit perturbed.

“… They need to allow their audience to narrow to those folks who actually care about movies, and stop trying to appease the viewers who only tune in when massive hits they’ve already bought and paid for are nominated. They also need not to worry about impressing the cinephiles and auteurs and other people who use French words to sound smart, because those people will always find something to scoff at and they won’t buy tickets to The Post anyway. Essentially, Oscar needs to just do Oscar and things will probably end up just fine.”

 


 

Dispatches from the podcast revolution

Christopher Hart’s “Exoplanetary” ups the ante.

April 2: “People get into podcasting for some very stupid reasons,” John Longenbaugh begins. “On reflection, mine might have been one of the stupidest. Four years ago I was meeting with my friend Ron, a co-producer on the film BRASS: Lair of the Red Widow that we were hoping to shoot. Developed as a potential TV pitch, it featured a family of Victorian science geniuses involved in a war with a criminal mastermind in an alternative history London.” And then Longenbaugh dives into the strange and sometimes wonderful stuff that people do in the name of Pod.

 


 

Lean on Pete: horses and heartbreak

Charlie Plummer in “Lean on Pete.”

April 3: “When I moved to Portland in the mid-’90s, it wasn’t the ‘Portlandia’ Portland,” novelist and Richmond Fontaine singer/songwriter Willy Vlautin tells Marc Mohan in a joint interview with Andrew Haigh, director of the movie version of Vlautin’s “spare, heartbreaking, and utterly human” tale Lean on Me. “My first job up here was at a trucking company, so I always wanted to know what it was like to live in a condo, but I just didn’t. I was attracted to the track—I spent fifteen years gambling there. There was a big pink house next to Portland Meadows. They’ve torn it down since, but that was my dream. If I could live in a castle, that was going to be my castle. I used to always park near it—not right across the street because I didn’t want to get arrested—but I used to stare at it all the time. Portland has changed. St. Johns is my Portland now.”

 


 

To Ursula, with love

April 18: “As I sat there in front of the unfinished KenKen, my one anecdote that I’d ignored all week spooled out hard and fast, a long-ago lightning rod of a day for me, forever burn-marked as one of the best and one of the worst of my life. Sure, everyone else has warm living room and poetry anecdotes of Ursula, she-giant, brain-big, badass tales of her, but, typically for me, mine involves being stuck in traffic, lost reading glasses, and … pickles.” Laura Grimes remembers her day with the late, great Portland novelist, poet and essayist Ursula K. Le Guin, and the note that arrived in the mail afterwards.

 



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Listen: talking Native arts & culture

Artist Shirod Younker at The Old Church Concert Hall. Photo: Molly MacAlpine

May 12: “’I make art to perpetuate culture,’ Portland artist Shirod Younker told a crowd at The Old Church Concert Hall a few nights ago. Of late, he added, he’s been working on building traditional canoes. ‘Making canoes helps me understand my community. By doing this we learn what’s important to our ancestors and I can apply these lessons to my own life.’” TJ Acena looks, listens, and reports as Coquille tribal member Younker and other Oregon indigenous artists talk in Native Perspectives on Arts, Culture and Justice, part of the We Can Listen series highlighting the lives of marginalized people.

 


 

Backstage at the Big Stage

Megan Fairchild in New York City Ballet’s “Coppélia.” Photo © Paul Kolnik

June 17: “All New York’s a stage, and there is nothing ‘merely’ about its citizens as players,” dance writer, biographer, and veteran ArtsWatch writer Martha Ullman West writes of a return to the town of her youth. “I arrived in the city close to midnight on Friday, May 18, and at 8:30 the following morning, bleary-eyed and not exactly bushy-tailed, scampered into a building I will always think of as Altman’s department store on Fifth Avenue and 35th Street (it is now the Graduate Center of the City University of New York). I had paid big bucks to attend the second day of the Biographers International Organization’s ninth annual conference on the writing of, and – it almost goes without saying in these Mammonite times — the marketing of biography.” Predictably, there is so much more to see and do. And so she does.

 


 

Fast wheels, modernist dreams

Beauty meets beauty: Monet water lilies and 1934 BMW. Photo: John Foyston

June 18: “The striking black-and-silver 1934 BMW motorbike in the Portland Art Museum lobby sits in front of a digital reader board that intermittently displays an image of one of Monet’s Water Lilies – an apt reminder of the The Shape of Speed’s leitmotif: vehicles can be art,” motorhead deluxe John Foyston elegantly writes. “Certain vehicles. Not Toyota Camrys or Dodge minivans or even split-window ‘Vettes; but these 17 cars and two motorcycles most definitely. The Shape of Speed: Streamlined Automobiles and Motorcycles, 1930-1942 is the latest exhibition in the Portland Art Museum’s design series, guest curated by Ken Gross, former director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.” Foyston amplifies: “(T)he show doesn’t address – nor should it, perhaps – the dark side of the classic car world, where almost every vehicle has been scrubbed clean of history by successive restorations. The magpie instinct to make everything shiny and bright and new is in direct contravention to entropy and the second law of thermodynamics. Yes, modern restorers take the utmost care in replicating the finishes and techniques of the original constructors, but at the root of it, nothing can be “restored to original” without a time machine.”

 


 

The art of the Pandol

Jeevan Kasthuriarachchi and his Flasher.

June 26: “One hour to sunset,” Maria Choban and Brett Campbell write. “Beaverton’s Sri Lankan New Year festivities known as Vesak pick up momentum. Cashew curry, dal curry, fish balls crowd the counter while coconut sambal and a pot of spiced rice march up the driveway and through the garage into the kitchen, carried by women from Washington County’s small Sri Lankan community, which numbers about 500.

“In the garage, a growing squadron of fellow Sri Lankan-Americans offers advice to the two engineers working on a seafoam blue drum criss-crossed with inch-wide strips of shiny metal, coiled like a geometric Minoan bracelet around Cleopatra’s arm. About four feet across and ten inches in diameter, the drum is part of a mechanism that resembles a player piano roll.

“’Screwdriver! No! Flathead!’

“… This is the story of Jeevan Kasthuriarachchi’s quest to create what he believes to be the first Sri Lankan Pandol in America.”

 


 

Accessible arts: Restrictions may apply

Sept. 18: “The system finally caught up with us, right when we were getting comfortable. ‘Sorry, no seats in that section,’ the helpful fellow at Portland’s Newmark Theatre box office told me. The moment we had finally gotten over our anxiety over the uncertainties built into securing affordable tickets in the disabled seating area, we had just wasted a trip.” In the first of three parts, David Maclaine talks about the possibilities and difficulties of maneuvering Portland’s performance scene if you’re physically or financially challenged.

 


 

Marissa Wolf, Portland Center Stage’s new artistic director, has something to say to her people. Photo: Tess Mayer/The Interval-NY

Building a bigger, broader audience

With the hiring of Marissa Wolf as Portland Center Stage at The Armory’s new artistic director, and Cynthia Fuhrman’s ascension to the top administrative post of managing director, Portland’s biggest theater company has new leadership and fresh priorities. “One of the major impacts (of greater female leadership) will be what’s onstage and what voices we are celebrating and amplifying,” Wolf tells Marty Hughley. “Projects with lead artists who are women are going to rise in visibility, and I think that goes also for projects with lead artists who are people of color. These two demographics have been woefully under-represented in the American theater — even with the growing amount of visibility, they’re still under-represented compared to the population. I feel like there’s space for everyone at this table.”

 


 

A new museum in Chinatown

Roberta May Wong, “All-American.”

Oct. 22: “It was a congenial evening,” Bob Hicks writes about the “soft opening” of the new Portland Chinatown Museum. “The crowd was steady but not overwhelming, the artists were engaging, and the art was good – often generous, sometimes blunt. Roberta Wong is a conceptual artist and cultural activist with deep roots in the city’s Chinese and other Asian communities and its cultural scene. … Perhaps the most potent of her pieces in the show is 2003’s All-American, in which a long braid of hair dangles on a chopping block, a Chinese cleaver hacked through it in an act of implied amputation – an emphatic denial or sacrifice of an essential part of self. It makes a compelling image of the difficult choices between identity and assimilation. Wong smiled and fingered her own long hair, which reaches beyond her shoulders and down her back. ‘I have enough hair now to do another one,’ she said.”

 


 

Demanding to be seen in a faceless bureaucracy

Mohamed Asem for Perfect Day Publishing, June 2018. Photo: Jason Quigley

Nov. 20: “Mohamed Asem is a man between countries and cultures,” Laura Grimes writes about the temporary Portlander, who tells the tale in his new book Stranger in the Pen of being caught in a bureaucratic quagmire by the nature of his global identity. “Born in California and raised in Paris and Kuwait, he’s not truly at home anywhere. His accent doesn’t fit no matter what language he speaks. He’s comfortable with family and friends in Kuwait, but his introverted ways (so “Western”) make him a tough fit in a culture that is so social, and his perpetual single status inhibits his ability to buy property so he can have privacy and write. On top of that, he’s light-skinned because his ancestors moved to Kuwait from other countries, so even in a Kuwaiti airport he’s often asked to get in a line for non-citizens. Where does the meta stop?”

 


 

The strangest epic poem you’ve never heard of

Eunice Odio (1919-1974) is considered the leading Costa Rican poet of the 20th century, according to Tavern Books, which is publishing “The Fire’s Journey” in four volumes.

Nov. 26: “With offices tucked away in Union Station, Portland-based Tavern Books is in the home stretch of an ambitious project that began more than five years ago: the translation and publication of more than 400 pages of the strangest epic poem you’ve never heard of. Written in the mid-20th century by Costa Rican poet Eunice Odio (a poet you’ve also probably never heard of), it’s called The Fire’s Journey. Tavern Books claims that it is the first book-length translation into English of the work of any Costa Rican woman poet.” David Bates tells the tale of an epic obsession, an equally epic translation effort, Linfield College Spanish teacher Sonia Ticas’s crucial role in the translation, and the poet’s long slow rise from obscurity: “Odio died, destitute, in 1974, virtually unknown outside of Central America. Her rehabilitation has, obviously, taken decades, with various Spanish writers taking the lead in introducing her work.”

 


 

Penny Arcade, back in town

Penny Arcade, in a Boom Arts performance in February. Photo: Friderike Heuer

Nov. 27: “In 2000, when New York and San Francisco were beset by hyper-gentrification, I described Portland as ‘The City That Could Not Be Gentrified.’ I was wrong. It just took 18 years longer,” the legendary performance artist Penny Arcade tells TJ Acena while in town for her second Boom Arts engagement of the year. Acena, in his continuing behind-the-scenes series on Boom Arts’ season, adds: “Her advice for young artists and people resisting displacement is to start simple: ‘Make your views known; get together with other like-minded people to lobby for affordable housing and for commercial rent reform for mom and pop shops. Demand that huge corporations like Amazon and Google pay taxes and do not get subsidies. Once you get with like-minded people you will know what must be done in your area.’”

 


 

River and Elliott: two troubled princes

Keanu Reeves cradles River Phoenix in Portland director Gus Van Sant’s breakthrough 1991 film “My Own Private Idaho.”

Nov. 27: “From James Dean to Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain to Heath Ledger, we have immortalized a constellation of famous artists—especially musicians and actors—who died young and, then, through a combination of their talent and the public’s grief, lived on. Robbed of the futures we imagined for them, yet frozen in time and thus never to suffer the indignities of aging or late-career artistic mediocrity, their luminosity—and our love for them—intensifies as if in proportion to the tragedy,” Brian Libby writes, and then delves into the tale of two such troubled princes of 1990s Portland: “October 21 was the 15th anniversary of musician Elliott Smith’s death, at the age of 34 in 2003, while Halloween brought the 25th anniversary of actor River Phoenix’s death, at the age of 23 in 1993. They died a decade apart … Phoenix outside West Hollywood’s Viper Room club after an accidental overdose, and Smith by stabbing at his home in Silver Lake (a presumed suicide but never officially determined).”

 

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