Bob Hicks


ArtsWatch Weekly: Breaking cultural ground in Beaverton

Work begins on the new, $51 million Patricia Reser Center for the Arts, a long-held dream for the city's center-in-the-making

ON A DRY AND CHILLY MORNING, BEAVERTON BROKE GROUND Wednesday on a significant slice of its future. The official groundbreaking of the long-awaited Patricia Reser Center for the Arts drew a big crowd to the site of what’s hoped to be a new city center, at The Round in the Creekside Urban Development District, near a MAX light rail station, City Hall, and Beaverton Creek. The 45,000 square foot arts center, which is expected to open in 2021, puts a huge stamp on the western suburb’s push to re-establish its own identity separate from downtown Portland: As the metropolitan area grows, its cultural and economic scenes expand with it and assert their own identities.

Patricia Reser speaks at Wednesday’s groundbreaking for her namesake public arts center in Beaverton. Photo: Joe Cantrell


ArtsWatch Weekly: One for the books

Portland Book Fest turns the page, downtown gets a new museum, music and theater light up the stage, it's beginning to feel a lot like ...

WORDSTOCK IS DEAD. LONG LIVE THE PORTLAND BOOK FESTIVAL. And the city’s big blowout of a book festival, by any other name, is just around the corner: Saturday’s the day. Portland’s South Park Blocks is the site, centering on the Portland Art Museum but sprawling like free verse across the territory. “A circus is a good analogy for Portland’s big annual book event, with its 100+ authors appearing on nine stages all in one dense, delirious, daylong literary orgy,” Katie Taylor writes in her aptly titled ArtsWatch preview, Portland Book Festival: Sometimes too much is a good thing. “It’s intentional FOMO,” or Fear of Missing Out, festival director Amanda Bullock told Taylor. “There’s always something happening, a new event starting every 15 minutes. Even if one thing is full, there’s always something else to check out.”

Checking the goods at 2018’s Portland Book Festival. Photo courtesy Literary Arts

Among this year’s headliners will be the big-idea journalist Malcolm Gladwell and former Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice. As always, the party will be overflowing with authors, readers, speeches, workshops, browsers and impromptu discoveries – a blossoming of language for a book-besotted town. As for that name change, the beloved Wordstock rebranded itself last year, trading in its smart, snappy, cheeky, and memorable monicker for something that sounds a little more boardroom drab. On its web site, the festival explains the change. I’m not convinced. Then again, open book, open mind: Maybe I’m just reading too much into it. 


At PSU’s new museum, art for all

The new Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the urban university gives Portland a new center for contemporary art. And it's free to everyone.

As you walk around the new Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University, the eyes have it. Staring out from the prints on the walls in the museum’s inaugural exhibition, Art for All, they leap across the space between art and visitor, intimate and visceral and commanding. When the new museum’s interim director, Linda Tesner, was shaping its first show she wanted to appeal to as broad a potential audience as possible, and decided to stress portraits: person to person, universal and immediate. What could be more democratic?

“Art for All” might well also be the new museum’s motto. When the newest Schnitzer-named university art museum – the third in the Pacific Northwest – opens its doors on Thursday at PSU, Portland will gain something that’s common across Europe but almost as rare as hen’s teeth in the United States: a free art museum. That’s free, no strings attached: free admission for any PSU student or staff member; free for anyone and everyone, from anywhere and everywhere, who wants to visit.

Left: Robert Colescott’s Haircut, 1989, oil on canvas, 84 x 72 inches. Right: David Shrobe’s Keeper of Secrets, 2018, oil, acrylic, graphite, paper, canvas, wood, fabric, metal, and vinyl. Photo: Spencer Rutledge, courtesy PSU

That fact alone distinguishes the new JSMA from most American museums. It tears down the stubborn economic wall that traditionally keeps lower-income people on the outside and turns museums into havens for the middle and upper classes. The costs of building, maintaining and exhibiting museum collections are high, and in the U.S., where government underwriting of cultural institutions is scant, that usually means high admission prices, too: standard admission to the much larger Portland Art Museum, for instance, is $20, an amount that doesn’t even begin to cover the costs of keeping its doors open.  


ArtsWatch Weekly: dark & stormy nights

Frankenstein, Día de Muertos, tribute bands, dinosaurs, warps & wefts, and a Dope Elf: Welcome to the art week.

TODAY IS BOTH HALLOWEEN AND THE BEGINNING OF DÍA DE MUERTOS, two holidays that have distinct backgrounds and meanings but are often linked in the public mind, because they occur each year at about the same time and because they deal, in their own ways, with the souls of the dead. Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which begins today and continues through Saturday, is a celebration that began in central and southern Mexico and has spread broadly from there. It’s a time for remembering friends and family who have died, and helping them along their spiritual journey.

Carlos Manzano as Bombón in the Día de Muertos-inspired play Amor Añejo, at Milagro Theatre through November 10. Photo © Russell J Young 

Milagro Theatre’s current show, Amor Añejo, gives you a good sense of the spirit of Día de Muertos. Bennett Campbell Ferguson, in his review for ArtsWatch, Into the Beyond, with Pain and Laughter, calls it a “tale of bereavement and rebirth.” “It’s an elegy—and more,” he continues. “The story flows from a single death that leaves everything from pain to joy to absurdity in its wake. Amor Añejo’s fullness of spirit makes it an unmissable play. At once profoundly soulful and gloriously silly, it invites us to touch the life of Hector, a painter who refuses to accept the death of his wife, Rosalita.” Naturally, that’s only the beginning.


James B. Thompson, 1951-2019

Remembering the wide-ranging Oregon artist and Willamette University professor, who has died at 68. A memorial service will be held Nov. 5.

When James B. Thompson was growing up in Chicago in the 1960s he often hopped on the Illinois Central train and headed down to the Loop to spend the day hanging out at the Art Institute of Chicago, one of America’s great museums. What he saw there added to an eclectic list of influences on his own emergence as an artist. “I had the movies and I had TV, and both were important to me,” he said. “And I had books. And radio. Baseball cards. And then, the world of music. It’s a weird world. Forms of entertainment become dominant in our lives.”

As he grew and traveled and established his own distinguished career as an artist and teacher, other experiences and influences added to his broad vision of the world of art: medieval books of hours and their free-floating sense of space, the mysteries of Neolithic stone art, the techniques and possibilities of fused glassmaking, the game of golf, the act of mapping, geological shifts, the ways in which science and nature and human beings interact, the human impact on the changing landscape, the fading of traditional cultures in a modern world, the cultural and artistic implications of the fragmentation of the universe, the liberating breakup of Renaissance perspective in contemporary art.

Thompson died on October 27, 2019,at his home in Salem, Oregon, from effects of the cancer mesothelioma. He was surrounded by his loving and supportive family. He was 68.


Women of Will, and vice versa

At Portland Playhouse, Tina Packer and actor Nigel Gore dive deeply into the dramatic world of women in Shakespeare's plays

A couple of minutes into Women of Will, Tina Packer’s smart and curiously seductive play/presentation at Portland Playhouse, a virile-looking fellow named Nigel Gore strides manfully onto the stage. “I come bearing testosterone,” he announces in a slightly puckish tone, and so he does.

Packer and Gore are the sole performers in Women of Will, a quickly shifting show that alternates between intimate scenework and speculative commentary on the nature of Shakespeare’s approach to his women characters – an approach that evolves from submissiveness and victimization in his early plays, such as The Taming of the Shrew and the Henry VI trilogy, to the fully engaged women of his late romances, such as Pericles and The Tempest, in which daughters help redeem their fathers. It is, Packer proposes early on, the story of the playwright’s own “enlightenment journey.”

Nigel Gore and Tina Packer at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Brud Giles

But first, that testosterone. It’s on raw display in scenes from Shrew, in which Gore as Petruchio whips off his belt and roughly attaches it around the neck of Packer, who is playing Kate, dragging her about the stage like a dog or a mare: Kate, that fine ferocious spirit, broken to the bit. Yet another form of this unfettered manliness pops up in the second act as Gore, playing Othello, bellows in pain and self-obsessive passion at Desdemona, who despite her obvious intelligence and courage and even love has no protection against his rage. “Othello is a play about race, but it’s also a play about gender,” Packer comments, and in this sad and ghastly and strangely moving bed-and-murder scene that rings searingly true.


How to be a critic? Just do it

A critic’s voice is not the voice of God. It is human, and fallible, and individual. It will sometimes please you, sometimes amuse you, sometimes infuriate you.

I told a friend the other day that I was working on a talk to be titled “How To Be a Critic,” and when she asked me how it was going I said, “Well, I hope I figure out the answer before Tuesday night.”

Truth is, there are about as many ways to be a critic as there are critics. If you’re looking for a decoder ring, that’s kind of annoying. Nevertheless, it’s true. Critics are writers, and writing is more art than science. It has rules, but they’re bendable. And all critics will bend them in their own peculiar ways.

A critic’s voice is not the voice of God. It is human, and fallible, and individual. It will sometimes please you, sometimes amuse you, sometimes infuriate you. Always, it should engage you. You should find critics who speak to you, one way or another, and stick with them as long as the conversation stays interesting. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t disagree or argue with them. Most critics argue with themselves quite a bit, and are plagued by second thoughts.

A critic ought to stimulate you, and get you to thinking in fresh ways, and open new windows for you to look into or out of. A good critic helps frame a conversation. She opens sometimes unexpected views to the subject at hand. She helps you see things in different ways. Good criticism is informed, but it’s also open and curious. It’s an exploration. It’s quite possible that the critic’s got to where she’s leading you just a couple of steps before you. I once ran across a description of the beast that I haven’t been able to track down since: “A critic is someone whose education takes place in public.”    

This essay was delivered on Sept. 17, 2019, as a speech for the Artalk! series at the University Club of Portland. Sections of it are adapted from “Three Hands of Art,” a December 2014 speech delivered to the art-book publisher Pomegranate Communications.

Working artists, as you can imagine, often have different definitions. Picasso framed the difference between critic and artist as the difference between theory and practice. “When art critics get together they talk about Form and Structure and Meaning,” he said. “When artists get together they talk about where you can buy cheap turpentine.”

The actor Eli Wallach was a little more pointed: “Having the critics praise you is like having the hangman say you’ve got a pretty neck.”

Or the poet Robert Burns, in rhyme: “Critics! Appalled I ventured on the name. Those cutthroat bandits in the paths of fame.”

Oscar Wilde, on the other hand, saw something of a collaboration, if not quite an equal one: “The critic has to educate the public,” he wrote; “the artist has to educate the critic.” I like this, and find it true. I’ve learned about art through the grace and good will of many artists who have introduced me to their work, shown me how they do it and talked about why, trusted me enough to take the chance that if they open up to me I’ll get it right, or mostly right, and pass along what I’ve learned. Sometimes, I imagine, they find it vexing that I skew the view toward my own.

I have informal guidelines to how a critic should or shouldn’t go about the task. I’ll get to those later. And as an aside, I’d like to say that I don’t really much care for the word “critic.” I’m not overly fond of the word “art,” either. Both are reductive and limiting, and prone to serious misinterpretation, but we use them because they’re quick and handy. I think of myself as a writer first, but the phrase “writer who is writing today about the theater” doesn’t fit very well in a byline. The pieces I write, as a cultural journalist, I like to think of as engagements in a continuing conversation. I once mentioned to Libby Appel, when she was artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, that I didn’t think of myself as a critic. She rolled her eyes. “Oh YOU’RE a critic, all right,” she said. We liked each other, but on that point she was firm: I was an inevitability.


Honoré Daumier, Walk-through of an influential critic, from ‘Sketches from the Salon,’ published in ‘Le Charivari,’ June 24, 1865. Lithograph on newsprint, second state; image: 9 7/16 x 8 9/16 inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Rogers Fund, 1922.

CRITICISM, OF COURSE, CAN’T EXIST WITHOUT ART. A good critic should never forget this. However creative your process may be, what you practice as a critic is a secondary art form. And you can’t – or at least, I can’t – talk about art without also talking about its social context. So let me observe that our culture is schizophrenic on the subject.