Bob Hicks

 

OOPS. HERE IT IS A WEEK into December, and you’ve still got that shopping stuff to do. You sort of thought this would be the year you bought local – you know, support the place you live in sort of thing – but it’s all a bit confusing, and you’re really not sure where to start.

Hannah Wells 8 x 8-inch artwork in “The Big 500.”

So let us introduce you to The Big 500, an all-local, all-art, low-cost and accessible event produced by “people’s artists” Chris Haberman and Jason Brown and sprawling across the Ford Gallery in the Ford Building, 2505 Southeast 11th Avenue. Now in its ninth year, The Big 500 is actually more than that – 500+ Portland area artists, each creating 8 x 8 inch pieces on wood panels, each piece for sale for $40. More than 5,000 works will be on hand, and besides putting some cash in local artists’ pockets, the event raises money for the Oregon Food Bank, which can put it to extremely good use.

The sale kicks off at 2 p.m. Saturday and continues through December 23. It’s a pretty wild scene, with all sorts of stuff at all sorts of levels of accomplishment, and it’s more than a bit of a crap shoot: you might walk in and find ten pieces you absolutely must have for the people on your list, or you might strike out. Either way, the sheer volume of objects is pretty amazing. And what you spend here stays here. You’re welcome.

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Black Nativity: dignity and joy

PassinArt's production of the Langston Hughes gospel cantata is a bright and shining star of the holiday firmament

On Sunday afternoon inside The Greater St. Stephen Missionary Baptist Church in Northeast Portland, a man led an older woman named Glenda Pullem slowly up the aisle and helped her onto the stage. She stood there firmly, facing the audience, and, in a gliding, roaming, authoritative voice somewhere along the river where gospel, jazz, and blues meet, started to sing: “There’s a leak in this old building.” That’s when the good chill began to build, starting somewhere around my lower back and radiating upward and outward, elevating everything around me. The feeling punched into overdrive when a chorus a dozen-odd voices strong, gathering behind me where I couldn’t see them in the rows between the pews, broke into vibrant, beautifully calibrated, full-volume response. Ah, my nerve ends told me happily. So this is what it’s going to be like.

Langston Hughes's "Black Nativity": a bright and shining star. PassinArt photo

Langston Hughes’s “Black Nativity”: a bright and shining star. PassinArt photo

I’d gone to St. Stephen, a small frame church just north of Fremont and a couple of blocks west of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, to see and hear Black Nativity, a show I’d long been curious about but never seen before. It’s a gospel-music retelling of the nativity story, assembled by the great American poet and writer Langston Hughes, who brought together a lot of traditional songs and a few new ones, took some lines from the King James narrative, and added some of his own sharp, deep poetry to create a version of the story with deep roots in African American culture and a broad, resounding appeal beyond. The miracle, if you will, of his version is that it makes the story feel less like a ritual or a dogma and more like a current event, something happening right now in real time. The hour-plus play, which subtly connects the hardships and determination of the biblical characters with the experiences and spirit of black Americans, is much like a cantata, telling an extended story through music. It debuted Off-Broadway with a cast of 160 singers in 1961, fairly late in the life of Hughes, one of the giants of the Harlem Renaissance.

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Berlin stories: the making of an American legend

Portland Center Stage's "Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin" sings and tells the story of the outsider who became the deeply driven voice of the nation

For all of the great American songwriter Irving Berlin’s genuine patriotism and genius for tapping the vitality of the nation’s popular spirit, he comes across in Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin as something of a dyspeptic old coot.

Then again, when we meet him (in a clever bit of stagecraft, as the invisible inhabitant of a wheelchair that sits stage right on the Mainstage at Portland Center Stage) he’s a disgruntled centenarian, crushed by the recent loss of his wife of more than sixty years, haunted by the feeling that the popular culture he did so much to help create has passed him by, and, mostly, just tired of life.

Fortunately his younger self, in the person of singer, pianist, playwright, and solo performer Felder, is on hand to speak for him, act as an intermediary between the very private Berlin and his adoring audience, and explain the personal and cultural context of the extraordinary book of roughly 1,500 songs for which the man born Israel Isidore Beilin (or Baline) wrote both music and lyrics, altering forever the landscape of American popular music.

Felder at the keyboard as Berlin. Photo: Eighty Eight Entertainment

Felder at the keyboard as Berlin. Photo: Eighty Eight Entertainment

In Friday night’s opening performance at Center Stage, Felder was a brash and pounding presence, attacking Berlin’s songs with dominating passion and the piano keyboard with emphatic fury, as if he were afraid some fugitive modern reinterpretation might escape and misrepresent Berlin’s original intentions. It seemed apt. Felder’s delivery of this bounty of songs was distinguished by a fidelity to the periods in which the music was composed, reaching back in spirit to the straightforwardness of Berlin’s hero Stephen Foster and for the most part (although he began his career writing tunes for the dance crazes that swept the nation in the early years of the 20th century) avoiding the syncopations of the swing and jazz revolutions that came to represent and in many ways reinvigorate the Great American Songbook. If Berlin’s songs were simple compared to Porter’s or Gershwin’s, they also had the power of directness. They were essentially American statements of optimistic populism, with a potent blend of honest sentimentality and the hard nut of basic truths. They were songs you could hum. Songs you did hum.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: all that glitters, all that glows

A holiday compendium: in dark times, a triumph of artistic light

I read the news today, oh boy. It’s a compulsion begun in childhood with the sports and comics pages of broadsheet newspapers (Duke Snider! Alley Oop!) and expanded, as I grew older, into the full range of world events and a long career inside the sausage factory of the newsgathering game. Rarely has the news looked more bleak or fragile than it does today: who knows where that latest piece of Internet-amplified information came from, or whether it was invented by fierce partisans out of outsourced whole cloth, without a whiff of objectivity or credibility? Truth becomes the loudest voice; the loudest voice becomes the truth. Oh boy, indeed.

Miya Zolkoske and Andrea Whittle (foreground) with ensemble in "A Civil War Christmas." Photo: Owen Carey

Miya Zolkoske and Andrea Whittle (foreground) with ensemble in “A Civil War Christmas.” Photo: Owen Carey

Hardly a time, it would seem, for visions of sugarplums. And yet, as the holidays roar into their inescapable month of triumph (if there’s a “war on Christmas,” its battlefields seem to be in places like Walmart and Macy’s and Amazon) I find myself, once again, comforted by the beauty and ritual of the season’s quiet core. At our house we have our own holiday rituals, including a strict paternal ban on pulling out the Christmas CDs before Thanksgiving, a ruling that is regularly and gleefully broken by the better natures of the household, who know a sucker when they see one. Lately, having once again acquiesced to the inevitable, I’ve been listening to an old favorite, “Christmas in Eastern Europe,” from the Bucharest Madrigal Choir.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: tweet charity

"Hamilton" and Trump's tweets, artists in crisis, new holiday shows, shakeups at Disjecta and Post5, Moses(es) and more

And then he tweeted. The president-elect of these United States is, of course, a thumbmeister of prodigious proclivity, hurling 140-character putdowns and opinions into the Twittersphere with disruptive glee and strategical savvy. It’s a brave new political world out there, and Donald Trump has shown a mastery of its evolving mechanics.

This particular tweet, as most any arts follower knows by now, was a finger-wagging at the cast and creators of the Broadway musical hit Hamilton, a show that Vice President-elect Mike Pence had attended, and where he became the recipient of a post-show plea from the stage to recognize and support the American diversity that the people on the stage represented. It was a highly unusual shout-out, but these are highly unusual times, and Pence, who has a history of hardline opposition to LGBTQ rights (he is even widely believed to have supported shock therapy to “cure” people of their homosexuality, though Snopes.com says that’s not entirely true) seemed a highly unusual attendee at a Broadway musical, an art form suffused with gay culture.

Teddy Roosevelt advocated the "bully pulpit." Donald Trump prefers Twitter.

Teddy Roosevelt advocated the “bully pulpit.” Donald Trump prefers Twitter.

Was the Hamilton cast rude or presumptuous? Maybe, although its spokesman spoke softly and carried only a verbal stick, lecturing in the politest of tones. He implored the audience not to boo Pence, and yet boo it did, which in its own way is intriguing, because a theater full of people who can afford tickets to the highest-priced show on Broadway is hardly a cross-sampling of the downtrodden.

Pence, asked later about the incident, said he wasn’t bothered by it, and the pushback was “what freedom sounds like.”

Trump was not so mild. “The theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!” tweeted the man who tosses out insults with abandon and does not apologize.

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Suereth and Disjecta part ways

The founder and executive director of the North Portland contemporary arts center will leave at the end of this year

More than 15 years after Bryan Suereth founded Disjecta, he and the North Portland contemporary arts center are parting ways. Suereth, who is executive director of the sprawling former bowling alley near the Kenton neighborhood’s iconic Paul Bunyan giant statue, will leave on Dec. 31.

“Sixteen years ago I never imagined this organization would be as vital to the cultural landscape of the Pacific Northwest as it is today,” Suereth said in a prepared statement released Wednesday. “I’m extremely proud of the unique opportunities Disjecta provides to artists and patrons and of the incredible support we’ve received from this community.”

Suereth

Suereth

Neither Suereth nor the board gave a reason for his impending departure, and Suereth did not say what his plans might be.

“Bryan’s vision and energy as founder guided Disjecta successfully for over 15 years, and we are grateful for his service,” board chair Christine D’Arcy said in the same prepared release. “We are also confident and enthusiastic about Disjecta’s future.”

To many people in the contemporary arts scene, Suereth has been Disjecta’s face from its beginnings in an old Masonic Lodge on Northeast Russell Street. The move to Kenton in 2008 provided a much larger space in an out-of-the-way part of town that was beginning to revitalize. Disjecta became a key part of that rebirth. Known best for its contemporary art programming, the center has also hosted dance, theater, music, and other events. It’s also provided subsidized artist studios.

Inside the contemporary art center Disjecta.

Inside the contemporary art center Disjecta.

Disjecta and Suereth became known beyond Portland in 2003 when they assembled The Modern Zoo, at the time the largest-ever visual art exhibition in the Northwest. The center’s impact grew when it began to produce the Portland Biennial after the Portland Art Museum scrapped its long-running Oregon Biennial.

Disjecta took the idea and ran with it, giving it both more focus and a broader geographical reach. The center also instituted a curator-in-residence program, bringing in rising or well-known national curators to make the biennial choices with an outside eye. That usually has meant, among other things, visiting an extraordinary number of studios around the state. This year’s biennial was curated by Michelle Grabner, who teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and also was a co-curator of the 2014 Whitney Biennial. Grabner and Disjecta spread the 2016 biennial to sites in Portland and around the state, a decision that upset some art followers who discovered they couldn’t see the whole show in a single setting, but pleased and energized others who saw it as a smart way to create a genuinely regional event.

The executive director position will be filled on an interim basis while Disjecta conducts a national search for a new director. “We look forward to building upon a strong support base and the past successes attained under Bryan’s leadership, and look to accelerate our growth and further expand the reach and impact of Disjecta,” D’Arcy said in her statement.

ArtsWatch Weekly: on fiddling and Rome

After a sea change in American politics and culture, what transformations will art undergo?

Well, that was the week that was, wasn’t it? The post-mortem examinations of the 2016 presidential election will be going on for weeks, months, probably years. Pretty much everyone, at least in the mainstream political and media worlds, was fooled, and the rancor runs deep. Portland has been the site of nightly mass protests against the election of Donald Trump, with crowds taking to the streets and parks and freeways; break-off gangs (of anarchists unaffiliated with the protestors, if reports are accurate) have trashed property, causing more than $1 million in damage. In the meantime, the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups are exultant, and scrawled threats against Jews, blacks, Muslims, and others have spiked – even on the campus of Portland’s traditionally liberal Reed College. Something feels Third World and very, very fragile about the whole thing.

 

"Nero and the Burning of Rome," by Henry Altemus (1897)

“Nero, and the Burning of Rome,” by Henry Altemus (1897)

At a time like this, the world of arts and culture can seem irrelevant, or at least subsidiary, like worrying about the quality of the fiddling while Rome burns. Suddenly everything’s on the table, and amid likely fierce battles over issues as vital as environmental safeguards and climate change, race and discrimination, abortion rights, immigration and deportation, and privacy and surveillance, arts issues are likely to get shunted into the corner. The arts have been a target of the ideological right at least since the 1980s and the fund-raising heyday of the “culture wars,” and the possibility of a revival of that cynical and highly effective campaign seems very real: federal funding for the arts could be slashed, and what survives could well be funneled mainly to “safe” traditional art forms, the decorative-wallpaper approach. (Or Leni Riefenstahled, with the promotion of pet artists in support of the new regime.) The ascendancy of such ideological adversaries of freedom of expression as Rudy Giuliani doesn’t seem to bode well for outsider, activist, or challenging art and artists. But like so much about this potentially revolutionary administration-in-the-making, we just don’t know yet.

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