Bob Hicks


Into the woods, fangs flashing

Defunkt's "In the Forest She Grew Fangs" prowls the city's mythological October bramble with intense style

Must be the season of the witch. And the zombie, the wicked stepmother, the grim reaper, the wolf.

October’s oozing with mystery and horror in Portland. Zombie apocalypse in The Last Days at Post5. Dark musical fairy tales in Into the Woods at Beaverton Civic. Young Frankenstein zapping for laughs at Lakewood. The Turn by The Reformers mashing up The Turn of the Screw and The Shining in a Buckman district living room. The Day of the Dead coming up soon in !O Romeo! at Milagro, a plague at Shaking the Tree in The Masque of the Red Death, all sorts of scary stuff at BodyVox in its annual BloodyVox. In her exhibition Grimms’ Hooks at Froelick Gallery, veteran Portland painter Katherine Ace dives deep into the murky psychological waters of the Grimm tales, in their savage, pre-sanitized versions.

Ceballos (left) and Modica, deep in the mythological woods. Photo: Defunkt Theatre

Ceballos (left) and Modica, deep in the mythological woods. Photo: Defunkt Theatre

Into this creepy autumn bramble steals Defunkt Theatre’s In the Forest She Grew Fangs, an intense and hypnotic little show that lives up to the promise of its terrific title. Defunkt’s new production, in the steamy little boiler room of the Back Door Theatre, is the West Coast premiere of Stephen Spotswood’s updated riff on the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, and it’s got all the archetypes in American-backwoods small town form: the grandmother, a chain-smoking auctioneer who lives in a double-wide and laments the loss of the boy who claimed her virginity; the wolf, who’s been bumped around a lot and is really misunderstood; the hunter, who’s on the high school football team and has a mad crush on the new girl in town; and Red herself, who couldn’t keep on the path if it had a chain-link fence on either side.

In the Forest is notable partly because director Andrew Klaus-Vineyard and his cast and designers use the compact Back Door space so well. Actors sit around on the risers, pop in and out from entrances running through the seating areas, sometimes lock onto a spectator, gazing deeply and intently, almost nose to nose. Video design by Klaus-Vineyard and some imaginative animation by Amy Kuttab help Max Ward’s set play much bigger than it is. The whole thing has an intimate hothouse effect, as if the story just grabbed you by the throat and pulled you in for a good theatrical mauling. In short, the show turns technical disadvantages on their head and makes them part of the appeal.

In the forest, everything changes: Katherine Ace, "Brother & Sister," 2013, oil & charcoal on canvas, 48 x 60 inches, Froelick Gallery, Portland. Photo: Jim Lommasson

In the forest, everything changes: Katherine Ace, “Brother & Sister,” 2013, oil & charcoal on canvas, 48 x 60 inches, Froelick Gallery, Portland. Photo: Jim Lommasson

Spotswood’s story is an even bigger attraction. It’s the Little Red Riding Hood of old, but never slavishly so: it lurks in the background, a suggestion mostly, until it leaps out and claws its way into the action. Spotswood adeptly balances familiar scenework with a storyteller approach (storytellers, plural, actually: much of the tale’s told by the wolf, but sometimes it passes to granny, or the hunter, or Red). And for a story with such a gothic sense of good and evil and retribution, Spotswood’s version is surprisingly subtle and complex. If (almost) nobody gets out of here alive, nobody gets out unstained or totally stained, either. On one level the play’s “about” bullying, but it approaches the subject by the side door, never preaching, never giving “lessons,” working by suggestion and insinuation. We see layers and levels of abuse, some of it malicious, some of it thoughtless, and the silent scars that run as deep as claw-slashes across a face. I don’t mean to belittle this play by saying it’s a good one for high school audiences – I mean to compliment it, and to emphasize that it’s appealing for adult audiences, too. I also recognize that few high-school drama departments are likely to produce it: after all, it has swear words, and talks about sex, and Parents Might Be Upset.

But mostly I want to talk about this sparkling cast of young actors, anchored by veteran Lauren Modica’s bruising, caustic, tough, vulnerable, and almost inordinately funny performance as Ruth, the grandmother, who’s something of an outcast in her hardscrabble little town, lost in the bitterness of her own past, and helpless to reel her granddaughter in from the deep end of an increasingly fraught teenage life. Modica’s spot-on performance pulls the story deep into mythic territory, and lends weight to the sharp work by the younger actors, who are led by Marisol Ceballos’s prowling, meek-but-feral performance as Lucy, the girl who gets picked on and picked on until the worm turns. Gabriel Isaac Lakey is appealingly open and clunky as Hunter, a guy balanced clumsily somewhere between jock and nerd; Tabitha Trosen is brash and funny and ultimately vulnerable as Jenny, the fish-out-of-water California kid who finds herself stuck in a hillbilly backwater; and Kitty Fuller, R. David Wylie, and Annie Ganousis make up an adaptable and exemplary chorus. This cast is one more evidence of the recent flowering of good young performers in town, arriving at Defunkt from such training grounds as Staged!, Portland Actors Conservatory, Northwest Academy, the University of Portland, and Portland State University. The talent’s good, and it’s being taught well.

In the meantime, it’s a Grimm world out there – or a Charles Perrault world; the 17th century French fantasist seems to be the first to have written the Little Red Riding Hood story down. Spotswood has done a neat job of recalibrating it for the 21st. And some things don’t change. In the Forest She Grew Fangs taps into the violence and wildness of the soul, rising and falling like the heartbeat of humanity.

Carl Larsson, "Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf in the Forest," 1881, oil on canvas, 14.6 x 17.7 inches/Wikimedia Commons

Carl Larsson, “Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf in the Forest,” 1881, oil on canvas, 14.6 x 17.7 inches/Wikimedia Commons


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Piano, playing a discordant tune

Portland Playhouse's volatile and rhythmic 'Piano Lesson' continues the city's potent string of August Wilson revivals

Boy Willie is a motormouth. Words flow out in torrents from actor Bryant Bentley in The Piano Lesson, a high-octane flood of language and braggadocio that fills the little Portland Playhouse stage and rebounds around the room.

His sister Bernice bites her tongue. There’s a torrent inside her, all right, but in Chantal DeGroat’s fine performance, she’s all dammed up and about to explode. When Bernice does talk it’s in a clipped sharp staccato, an exasperated seething, a denial that is also, in August Wilson’s brilliant theatrical universe, an affirmation of something that’s left mostly unspoken but is the most important thing in the room: the vital role of tradition – personal, cultural, and political – to a sense of self-identity and self-worth.

In the cards: from left, Seth Rue, Mujahid Abdul-Rashid, Bryant Bentley, "ranney"

From left: Seth Rue, Mujahid Abdul-Rashid, Bryant Bentley, “ranney.” Photo: Brud Giles

Directed with a pulsating sense of the play’s rhythmic structure by the talented Kevin Jones, the Playhouse’s new Piano Lesson continues a deep and satisfying run of Wilson revivals in Portland in recent seasons. It won’t be long before Wilson’s entire ten-play cycle of African-American life in the 20th century will have been performed in town (the Playhouse itself has produced six), and that amounts to a gift to the city. Wilson was the last of the century’s great traditional American playwrights – Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill – and the only one to approach the subject of America from the perspective of its black history and culture. That makes him fundamentally, radically different from the others.

Like so many of Wilson’s plays, The Piano Lesson – which debuted in 1990 and is set in the Pittsburgh of 1936 – is steeped in music, in this case the blues and stomps and hollers of the agricultural South. Like almost all of Wilson’s plays it revels in a meandering, storytelling narrative style, getting at things allusively and stating themes and variations like a musical composition. And like Gem of the Ocean and others, it has a vivid supernatural streak, the past gathering itself like a reanimated character given the breath of life: In The Piano Lesson, a ghost shakes the house.

One of the deep pleasures of Wilson’s plays is the sense of community, of intensely close family whether squabbling or not, that he sets up. Characters have long and winding interconnections; mutual histories; habits and rituals and transgressions that make up the atmosphere of the tales. Watching a Wilson play is like dropping in on a microculture and slowly figuring out how the whole thing works. The fissures in the plays’ structures may drive the characters, but the characters drive the action, and that makes casting crucial.

Jones has done the job well. Bentley is a barely containable effusion of energy as Boy Willie, who’s come north to Pittsburgh determined to sell the family piano so he can buy a plot of land on the old plantation where the family once were slaves. He’s as stubborn as a mule with twice the kick, but maybe not as much as DeGroat’s Bernice, who’s determined to keep the piano, even though she refuses to play it anymore, because it represents the family’s history and soul. Around these two swirl a vibrant supporting cast that includes Mujahid Abdul-Rashid as Doaker, the even-tempered uncle who has a solid job with the railroad and owns the house where Bernice lives; Mila Faer as Bernice’s young daughter; Seth Rue as easygoing Lymon, Boy Willie’s sidekick who arrives with him in a broken-down truck loaded with watermelons to sell in the city; Ronald Scott as Avery, a minister who is patiently courting the reluctant Bernice; a big-spirited actor called “ranney” as Wining Boy, Doaker’s older brother and a onetime pianist who bounces around the country in faded finery, entertaining friends and family and softly sponging as he spins yarns of yesterday; and Carmen Brantley-Payne as Grace, an outsider who catches the eye of Boy Willie and Lyman alike. Plus, of course, the invisible but very present ghost of Sutter, heir to the old family slave owner, who has recently taken a mysterious and fatal tumble down a well. All in all, it’s a fascinating group to spend an evening with, volatile and balanced in texture and timbre, like a good blues band.

Family spat: Bryant Bentley and Chantal DeGroat. Photo: Brud Giles

Family spat: Bryant Bentley and Chantal DeGroat. Photo: Brud Giles

The piano is the play’s bone of contention, and yes, it’s a Metaphor, with a capital “M”: materialism versus spirituality. Carved with the faces of ancestors, imbued with the history of the family and its slavery past, it’s an emblem of the bloodline and the culture. Doaker and Bernice, like so many others, have abandoned the South and moved north in search of better lives, but she’s kept the piano with her as a reminder of what was, a repository of cultural memory. Boy Willie has stayed country and is determined to farm the land as a free man that his family once farmed as slaves. The way to do that, he’s decided, is to sell the piano and use the money to buy the land: in essence, trade in tradition to build a new, better, tradition. He makes his utilitarian case well, with a persuasive pragmatism, and yet the air’s heavy with the nagging suspicion that somehow he’s wrong.

The disagreement is about much more than a piano, of course, although Wilson’s choice of a musical instrument as a stand-in for African-American collective memory seems apt. The tale has similarities to the Biblical story of Esau, the hairy hunter who sold his birthright to his brother Jacob for a mess of pottage: It seems foolish in hindsight, but Esau was a practical man, and he was famished, and on a purely physical level, buying a meal was the practical thing to do. These are the questions, it seems, that The Piano Lesson poses. How do African Americans (or anyone, for that matter) move forward without also holding onto their past? Without their shared culture, how can they know who they are? Of what use is the past? If we don’t use it, what have we lost? What tradeoffs are necessary or inevitable to move ahead?

In The Piano Lesson, the answers blow through the house like a stalking ghost. And the wonder is, it provides a rollicking good time.


It’s a good season for black theater in Portland. Portland Center Stage is basking in the glow of a fine production of the musical Dreamgirls, which has some intriguing parallels to The Piano Lesson: did the Supremes and their Motown sound sacrifice too much of traditional black music in their reach for crossover success? Staged! musical theater’s Parade, set in Atlanta during the early 1900s, addresses the cultural and political corruptions of the slowly emerging South and, although it has Jewish protagonists, it includes four good African American roles. Roberta Hunte and Bonnie Ratner’s My Walk Has Never Been Average, about black women working in the construction trades, keeps popping up. And Artists Rep has rolled into the new season with Lynne Nottage’s fine and probing Intimate Apparel. If this is Portland’s new normal, three cheers.


The Piano Lesson plays through Nov. 2 at Portland Playhouse, 602 N.E. Prescott Street. Schedule and ticket information is here.

Note: This review was made possible in part thanks to support from our partners at Artslandia!


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At Center Stage, a Dream Supreme

"Dreamgirls" isn't the story of the Supremes, exactly. It IS a high-gloss musical-theater knockout.

Now, that was a standing ovation that really meant it. When Friday’s opening-night crowd at Portland Center Stage leapt to its feet at the end of Dreamgirls, there was none of that reluctant “oh, I suppose so” or “it’d be churlish to stay sitting” or “if I don’t stand up I won’t see the curtain call” business. This standing O was heartfelt and spontaneous.

Little wonder. Director Chris Coleman and his cast, drawn mostly from around the country and including several performers with deep Broadway tour experience in Dreamgirls or other shows, had just pulled out the stops and pumped fresh life into this 1981 multiple Tony-winner, which had previously stormed back to popularity in 2006 when its movie adaptation catapulted Jennifer Hudson to stardom.

L-R: Rodney Hicks (Curtis Taylor, Jr.), Tyrone Roberson (Marty), Mary Patton (Deena Jones), Nattalyee Randall (Effie Melody White) and Lexi Rhoades (Lorrell Robinson). Photo: Patrick Weishampel.

L-R: Rodney Hicks (Curtis Taylor, Jr.), Tyrone Roberson (Marty), Mary Patton (Deena Jones), Nattalyee Randall (Effie Melody White) and Lexi Rhoades (Lorrell Robinson). Photo: Patrick Weishampel.

Center Stage has been making a habit in recent seasons of producing big paeans to musical-theater history (in addition to several new musicals), from Cabaret to Guys and Dolls, West Side Story, Sunset Boulevard, a sterling black-cast Oklahoma! and last season’s fine Fiddler on the Roof. From a strictly performance viewpoint, Dreamgirls might just take the cake. It’s a pleasure to see a show with true Broadway sheen performed on the smallish but ample Main Stage at The Armory rather than in the cavernous Civic Auditorium, home to the Broadway Across America touring series. Center Stage’s home space is big enough to capture the energy that a Broadway musical demands, and small enough to make the experience intimate and personal.

Dreamgirls is a backstage musical, and although it’s a pop-music stage, not a theater or burlesque hall or movie one, that old familiar bitch goddess success plays a major uncredited role. The play follows in a tradition that ranges from Show Boat (which Lakewood Theatre produced in an intimate version last season, and Portland Opera will give the full-out treatment later this season) to 42nd Street, A Star Is Born, Gypsy, and A Chorus Line – with one big difference. Unlike Show Boat, which approaches American race issues from the side door, Dreamgirls meets them head-on – or rather, keeps them at a constant simmer, just below the surface of the show-biz melodrama, and occasionally boiling over, so they can’t be ignored.

Dreamgirls is not not not the story of the Supremes – certainly not – and has the minor differences in detail to prove it, but you’ll be forgiven if you plug in names like Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard, Cindy Birdsong, and Motown boss Berry Gordy. Besides and maybe more important than being a show-biz fictional bio, it’s an investigation into the bumpy integration of American popular culture – and not just what was gained in the process, but also what was lost.

In the hands of Gordy stand-in and calculating impresario Curtis Taylor Jr. (a coolly impassioned Rodney Hicks), molding the Dreams is a way to throw open the windows of pop music to black performers and bring them the riches and fame they’ve been denied. He has a plan, and it’s his way or the highway, which is where much of the trouble ensues. The price, in Curtis’s calculation, is smoothing out the wrinkles in black music, making it more appealing and less threatening to crossover audiences. The path is replacing the Ballard stand-in Effie White (a terrific Nattalyee Randall) – a diva in the gutsy gospel/blues/R&B tradition that also spawned Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner – with the luxuriantly smooth pop sounds of Ross stand-in and former backup singer Deena Jones (Mary Patton). The marketplace gains are obvious. In Tom Eyen’s book and Henry Krieger’s score, which necessarily simplify what was a complex process but get the broad strokes right, the artistic losses are clear, too. Something innately cultural, a sense of this being black music created by black artists for black audiences, is lost in the economic and social exhilaration of the crossover: Dreamgirls carries a sense of regret something like that in the 1976 movie comedy The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings, about the impending breakup of the old negro baseball leagues as the color barrier falls. (Fascinatingly, one of the movie’s main producers was … crossover king Berry Gordon, for Motown Productions.)

Dreamgirls’ first act, which is essentially the Dreams’ creation myth and concentrates on Effie’s voice and story, is stronger than Act II, which traces the rise of the Motown sound and the group’s eventual breakup. It’s a built-in problem that the predominantly R&B sound of the first act is more interesting than the predominantly pop sound of the second act. That’s counterbalanced by Effie’s return in some key scenes and the continued presence of Jimmy Early (in a puckish and utterly entertaining performance by David Jennings), an untamable and seductively roguish singer with a bit of James Brown in his DNA. Patton’s strong and dignified performance as Deena is key here, too: it’s important to remember that the Supremes were a genuine phenomenon, and Ross was a captivating diva, even if, like me, you find their music more formulaic and less interesting than the more freewheeling and creative music they supplanted.

Mary Patton as Deena Jones (NOT Diana Ross). Photo: Patrick Weishampel.

Mary Patton as Deena Jones (NOT Diana Ross). Photo: Patrick Weishampel.

And this show is solid. It’s tough to find a weak link in the cast. Make that impossible. Lexi Rhodes and Antoinette Comer as the other Dreams, Calvin Scott Roberts as Effie’s brother and Dreams songwriter C.C. (think Smokey Robinson, sort of), and Tyrone Roberson as Jimmy’s more cautious original manager also stand out, as does the singing in general: you could attend this thing strictly as a concert and have a great night out.

The show looks and sounds terrific. The ever-reliable Rick Lewis leads a vibrant and perfectly balanced nine-piece pit band, Kent Zimmerman’s choreography is witty and suggestive of the story’s times, G.W. Mercier’s turntable set lends the action a rhythmic pulse, and Sydney Roberts’ costumes look like a million bucks. I don’t want to know how much they actually cost: it might shatter the illusion.

The real story of the Supremes is sometimes tougher and more tragic than Dreamgirls’ fictionalized – dare I say, smoothed out? – version. In real life, the ousted founding member doesn’t return, as Effie does in Dreamgirls, for a feel-good final concert with the old gang. Florence Ballard, broke and sick after a failed comeback attempt, died of coronary thrombosis in 1976. She was 32. That part of the story doesn’t have crossover appeal.

Still, there’s fact. There’s fiction. And there’s something, like Dreamgirls, in between. Standing O for that.


Right now, Portland’s in the midst of a musical-theater renaissance. La Cage aux Folles is bringing out the laughs and tears in the Newmark. Triangle’s wrapping up a lauded production of Jonathan Larson’s Tick, tick … BOOM! Broadway Rose is coming off a pair of summer hits with The Music Man and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and Clackamas Rep with a solid Carousel. Lakewood’s in the midst of Young Frankenstein, and gearing up for a November production of the lovely and all too rarely produced She Loves Me. And in the intimate Brunish Theatre above the Newmark and Winngstad theaters, Staged! is delivering an impassioned, don’t-miss-it chamber production of the startlingly fine Jason Robert Brown musical Parade, based on the infamous Leo Frank murder case a century ago. Keep on your toe-tapping shoes, Portland. Looks like you’ll need ’em for a while.

NOTE: This review is possible in part thanks to our partners at Artslandia!


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Little Art in the Parking Lot

On a balmy Saturday, art carts sprawl across the streetside on Hawthorne. It's a regular carnival.

This was Portland on a balmy late-summer Saturday afternoon.

  •  PICA’s edgy TBA festival of contemporary art and performance was getting into full swing.
  •  Badass Theatre’s Sans Merci was preparing to rock the house again.
  •  Artists Rep was getting ready to kick off its season with Lynn Nottage’s beauty of a play Intimate Apparel.
  •  Milagro’s La Luna Nueva festival was setting up the house for Andean Dreams.
  •  Dance Naked’s festival Come Inside: A Theatrical Orgy of Intimate Acts was inspiring dreams of a different sort.
  • Portland Story Theater was about to open its first show in its new home at the Alberta Abbey, where the line of people waiting to get in would snake out the door and the crowd would be double the capacity in the theater’s old stomping grounds at Hipbone Studio.
  •  And out on the far stretches of Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, where hipster culture meets old-style working class Portland, a sprawl of little houses on little wheels was smeared across the parking lot of East Portland Eagle Lodge 3256, little works of art crowding their interiors and spilling out of their little doors.

This last roadside attraction was a one-day pop-up festival, Art Carts on Hawthorne, and on a day when the sun shone hot – the thermometer hit 87 at mid-afternoon ­– the jeans and shorts and T-shirts and halter tops were out in force, along with a scattering of blue balloons. The Eagle Lodge is on the corner of Hawthorne and 50th, where Hawthorne begins to glide uphill toward Mt. Tabor and 50th veers traffic toward the boulevard and eventually downtown.

Jiggles the Clown, taking in the sun and shade.

Juggles the Clown, taking in the sun and shade.

The sound of revving engines mingled with the chatter of moms and dads and kids and artists and curious pedestrians who happened to stumble across the scene. Around about 3 o’clock on the makeshift bandstand – not a stand, really; just a clearing on the concrete near the food and beer, with some speakers set up ­– the Mulligan Brothers, up from Mobile, Alabama, picked up their guitars and bass and fiddle and laid down a backbeat.

Out in front of a short and pristine teardrop trailer, silversmith Stephanie Wiarda was chatting with passersby, selling some art and a few of designer Gary Houston’s boldly graphic posters for the event. A former partner in the late Beppu Wiarda Gallery in the Pearl District, which went under during the Great Recession of the late 2000s, Wiarda now operates Little Art in the Trailer with her partner Stan Peterson, an artist who was represented by Beppu Wiarda in its glory days. They keep things small and mobile these days, and they’re the guiding spirits behind Art Carts on Hawthorne. (The event’s main sponsor was PDX Magazine, which had its own tent set up in a far corner, without wheels.)

Encamped on Hawthorne: the caravan hits the neighborhood.

Encamped on Hawthorne: the caravan hits the neighborhood.

Wiarda looked around the busy parking lot, a big smile on her face. It had been a busy and, so far, successful day: across the parking lot, more than a few virtual ka-chings had been recorded on credit-card swipers. “I finally figured out what this reminds me of,” she said. “It’s like those ’70s art fairs, back when things just sort of came together.”

Peterson, who among other things makes cunning small wooden sculptures, grinned and nodded. They’d been thinking of circling the wagons, he said, and it sort of happened, but sort of not. “That area over there is pretty free-flow,” he said, pointing to the lot’s south quadrants. “You know artists. Can’t herd ’em. They’re not sheep. They’re goats.”

It was, in truth, a motley crew of carts. There was a blue Volkswagen van that looked as old and traveled as a Jefferson Airplane, and a couple of genuine small Airstreams, and a brightly painted cart that was a rough cross between a cardboard Animal Crackers circus box and a Gypsy caravan, and even a U-Haul truck with its back flung open and a ramp for walking inside. Cape Falcon Kayak splashed in with a cart full of beautiful hulls, their ribbed skeletons standing out like a Japanese maple’s in November. Near the caravan was a big faux-primitive wooden sign that said TRAILER PARK LOVE. In front of it, a couple of people were scanning the scene as they whittled down the frozen orange on their Popsicle sticks.

Inside the cart: bones and a bowl of candy.

Inside the cart: bones and a bowl of candy.

The art took on all sorts of personalities, but tended toward the bright and whimsical. A lot of it seemed spawned from the sprawling genealogical line of Robert Arneson and California funk. You might recognize a lot of the names of artists whose work showed up: Jennifer Feeney, Karl Kaiser, Jason Brown, Ali Schlicting, Poboy Art, Leah Kohlenberg, more. Plenty of stuff by the ubiquitous Chris Haberman was on hand, which made sense, because he also did the mural that galumphs across the streetside wall of the hosting Eagle Lodge.

Acrylics, encaustics, prints, oil paintings, artisan jewelry, the inevitable T-shirts, and lots of carvings were on display. One of the most popular carts was a vividly painted job overloaded with insouciant pieces by Alea Bone and Stephanie Brockway, who does carved wood and mixed media sculptures, and who oversaw the merchandise with a cowgirl swagger. Brockway had just finished a show at Riversea Gallery in Astoria called Villains, Harpies & Sailors that featured, among other things, a carved Popeye-strong sailor’s arm bulging with brawny tattoos and hoisting a big hook in its fist. Her star attraction at Art Carts on Hawthorne was Juggles the Clown, a slim wooden fellow clicking his heels against a stone perch right outside the cart’s narrow door. Juggles was taking the sun, although he was half in shade, and he was staring straight ahead, but Brockway demonstrated that his head is articulated, which is a fancy way of saying you can swivel it from side to side. “Same with the horse,” she noted, gesturing toward a little rocking horse on the other side of the door. Juggles was sitting next to a carved wooded sign that said in rough-hewn letters, LOVE.

All in all, that pretty much summed things up.

Cart life: Yes, things get a little tight.

Cart life: Yes, things get a little tight.


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Remember this: the price of drones

Pakistani-American artist Sabina Haque reflects on beauty, ritual, drone warfare and "collateral damage"

The planes in Sabina Haque’s drawings are rendered crudely, as if in a kid’s scrawl, and they look like bombers but also a little like crosses, or even swastikas: looking at them, I’m riveted, but my mind also wanders, making little connections with wayward yet pertinent thoughts. The drawings stand in for drones – pilotless robot planes, modern soldiers in the technology of war, outlines filled in with blood-red. Now and again the video I’m watching marks, in red-splattered letters, some of the people at the wrong end of the drone strikes:




In news stories and official government releases, such events are referred to as “collateral damage.” Here on the ground of Haque’s experience and art – she is Pakistani-American, grew up in Karachi, and returns for lengthy visits to Pakistan every year – nothing’s collateral about it. It’s life. And life cut short.

Drones and marks: still shot from "Remembrance."

Drones and marks: still shot from “Remembrance.”

The video, called Remembrance, slowly fills in with the tagging of numbers, like a prisoner’s tally-marks on a cell wall to count the days, except these marks aren’t for days, they’re for bodies: one-two-three-four-slash, one-two-three-four-slash, one-two-three-four-slash, on and on and on. Haque did the original installation and performance that the video depicts last fall during Portland Open Studios, at her east side space in Troy Studios. Visitors came into the space, watched the performance, picked up chalk, and became part of it. “People made those marks,” she commented when we last talked in June.

I first met Haque about a year ago, during an organizational meeting for last year’s Open Studios, when artist and board president Robyn Williams asked me to give a talk. I met a lot of artists that day, many without gallery representation, and many with interesting stories. Haque struck me in conversation for her obvious intelligence and humor, and when I looked at her paintings online, I was taken by her luscious use of color and shape: dead-serious in intention, her paintings are also aesthetically pleasing, abstract but reminiscent of ritual, suffused with beauty. “They’re layered,” she told me. “If you spend time with them, they open up.”

In late May I caught an early-cut screening of Remembrance at the 5th Avenue Cinema’s Short Film Festival, and the layers began to open wide. We met again at the Starbucks on Southwest Jackson and Sixth, near Portland State University, where Haque teaches in the art department, part of her job being to teach art to kids in underserved public schools such as Cully and King – 10 schools in six years, helping kids create murals and digital stories. What she does is reclamation work, rethreading broken continuities, rescuing memories: “It’s about lost stories in our community.”

Sabina Haque

Sabina Haque

And sometimes, as in Remembrance, it’s about not forgetting stories that have been violently interrupted. Our Starbucks meeting was on Wednesday, June 11, the morning after the gun attack at Reynolds High School in suburban Portland that left two students dead: 14-year-old Emilio Hoffman, who happened to be in the school gym when the gunner walked in, and the gunner himself, a 15-year-old freshman who shot himself while barricaded in a school restroom. Haque’s art in Remembrance is specifically about U.S. drone attacks over the skies of Pakistan and other war-ravaged countries, but it’s hard not to draw parallels. From our schools to our war zones, we seem to have reverted to medieval rules of engagement, but with 21st century weapons. Since that time much additional high-profile violence has occurred, from the quick triggers of Ferguson, Mo., to the latest Palestinian/Israeli conflict, to the carnage of ISIS and its slaughtering of both journalists and civilians. How does art keep up with the world?

“It is a trauma that keeps repeating itself,” Haque commented. “This story is not about drones. It’s about the history of trauma. And of healing.”

Haque’s art is unusual in the Northwest not just because it straddles cultures but also because it so squarely confronts issues more often discussed, when they’re talked about at all, in op-ed analyses and serious political and current-events publications. She’s not alone in this. Artists like Matthew Dennison, Melody Owen, and Michael Brophy, for instance, immerse their work in environmental issues. Victor Maldonado’s campy Mexican wrestling masks take sly aim at ethnic and cultural attitudes. Bonnie Meltzer crochets and wires an art of outspoken opposition to coal trains and fracking, a soft subversion of the ordinary rules of conflict. And many photographers fuse fine art with cultural or political documentation: Carol Yarrow, Jim Lommasson, Joni Kabana, others.

But by accident and inclination, Haque’s art finds itself at a fulcrum point of world events. She was born in the United States, moved back to her father’s homeland of Pakistan when she was 1 year old, then moved back to the U.S. to attend college when she was 18. She’s lived in this country since then (she moved to Portland in 2006), but her father insisted she return to Pakistan for an extended visit every year, so she wouldn’t be cut off from her roots. Her father is Pakistani; her mother is American with Lutheran and Catholic background. Sabina married an Indian man from Mumbai, and their daughter is studying Japanese, so trips to Japan have been added to the family’s international itinerary. These multiple identities put her at odds with the devout fundamentalism of the world’s hot spots, but she likes to think the future looks more like the shifting reality of her own life. “The world is moving in this direction,” she said. “It just isn’t there yet.”

"Remembrance": spreading the red.

“Remembrance”: spreading the red.

Haque, 40, regularly shows her work in Pakistan, and though she feels relatively safe, she stays mostly within a three-mile radius in Karachi. As an American and a woman leading a modern life, she puts herself at some risk. “I’m the ultimate insider/outsider,” she said. “I push boundaries. People have to look at both sides. That’s my role as an artist.”

The post-9/11 war that led directly to drone flights over Pakistan is, in fact, only a continuation of a cycle of violence that runs long and is rooted deep. You can trace it in modern history at least to the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. In a massive population swap, roughly 14.5 million people crossed borders before or after the partition to get to the country where their own religion held the majority. “My grandmother left with nothing in the middle of the night,” Haque said, traveling by boat cart to Bombay.

And there was plenty of violence.’s military analysis sums it up: “The death toll of this terrible episode remains very much contested. Hundreds of thousands of people died, as Hindus and Sikhs fled to India, Muslims to Pakistan, and many others were caught in a chaotic transition. A consensus figure of 500,000 is often used, but the sources closer to the truth give figures that range from 200,000 to 360,000 dead. By other estimates, Partition resulted in as many as 1.5 million deaths. The word genocide did not come to the minds of observers at the time, though there were genocidal aspects to what finally developed. … Though some guns and bombs were available, the predominant methods used were cutting and axing of people to bits or burning them alive.” Also, many, many rapes are said to have occurred.

Reclaiming symbols of hope.

Reclaiming symbols of hope.

Today, more sophisticated weaponry and a sharp rise in population makes the situation possibly even more volatile. Two million people live in the slums outside Karachi, Haque told me. The number may be much higher. With a population approaching 24 million, Karachi is now the third-largest city in the world, and seventh-largest metropolitan area. Growth in the city has been explosive: from 9.8 million in 1998 to 21.2 million in 2011. Five million people lived in the slums in 2000, and that number has grown.

And violence has been on the upswing. A report from 2013 says 2012 was Karachi’s deadliest year in at least two decades, with roughly 2,000 people killed for ethnic or political reasons. In a precarious political environment, precise numbers are hard to come by. The Citizens-Police Liaison Commission put the number of violent deaths at 2,124. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reported that 1,800 people died in targeted killings in the first nine months of 2012 – 700 more than in all of 2011, which had been the most violent year since the statistic began to be kept almost 20 years ago. gave this perspective:

“Karachi has all the ingredients of an explosive cocktail – gang warfare, land grabbings, drugs, Islamist extremism, political rivalries, ethnic tensions, extreme poverty and a mushrooming population owing to migration.”

Haque preparing the space for ritual.

Haque preparing the space for ritual.

In spite of the extreme volatility in her homeland, Haque’s art is engaged but not rhetorical. It insists on dealing with urgent issues, but with a reportorial eye toward the fragile normality that is being threatened and warped by an atmosphere of civil disruption. Her art has sorrow, but also beauty. It explores trauma, but not with Sue Coe’s anger, or the anguish of Käthe Kollwitz or Egon Schiele. Haque exposes jangling nerves, and insists on witnessing and remembrance, but she also suffuses her art with tradition, ceremony, beauty. Her statements are less about war and violence than about the effects of war and violence, the trauma they rain on individual lives. And her art suggests a belief in the importance of beauty and ceremony, in flexibility and suggestion. “I’m deconstructing political art, actually,” she told me. “I can’t see anything in black and white, because that’s not who I am.”

Her approach to art, she stressed, is “not polemic. It’s inserting. Reinserting the personal.” That’s true not just with her finished pieces on drones, but often with her process as well: doing community work, you have to collaborate. Her work has moved over the years from product toward process, toward inclusion and storytelling. And she has stories to tell; stories about the powerless, stories about seeing with a multiplicity of views – something, she says, that her abstract-expressionist art school instructors at Boston University, where she earned her MFA in 1998, didn’t much understand or appreciate.

The stories ripple out, not just her own specific stories, but stories that viewers of her work are reminded of from their own personal stores. Looking at Remembrance, I thought about the stories of mothers in Iowa who helped tip the balance of public opinion away from the war in Vietnam by asserting its personal cost. And I thought of the “Not One More” mantra about shootings in American schools, which so far has had no obvious effect, but as time goes on, who knows? Does violence stop only when those in its path assert their right to peace? Art seems helpless in the face of extreme human aggression and misunderstanding. And yet, it can change hearts and minds, and for that reason zealots fear it: witness the desecration of museums and millennia-old statues and cultural sites in the war zones of the Middle East and Asia.

From Haque's 2013 series "Nishana: War Games," which transforms appropriated maps of Karachi from the best-selling video game "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare" into a more complex mapping of the city's social and cultural landscape.

From Haque’s 2013 series “Nishana: War Games,” which transforms appropriated maps of Karachi from the best-selling video game “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” into a more complex mapping of the city’s social and cultural landscape.

Haque talks about other artists whose work she appreciates. William Kentridge, with his South African roots, another culture haunted by conflict. David Hockney, with his theatrical sense. “There is a sense of ritual and spirituality in my work. I can’t get it out,” she says. “I’m a symbolist. All of my work, when you look at it, I manipulate symbols.” The figures in her installation include rangoli, or infinity hoops, that suggest renewal and meditation, and come out of ancient, probably pre-Islamic, culture. Remembrance calls on the tradition of holi festivals, spring festivals of color, festivals of love. Of Hindu origin, they’ve become popular with non-Hindus across much of Asia, marking a time of mending past mistakes, of ending conflicts, of forgetting and forgiving. And her work has a conceptual and stylistic rigor that fit well with the impulses of contemporary western art.

Moving into performance and learning about video have taken her further into the personal. To prepare for making the video version of Remembrance she took an animation class from one of the country’s best animators, Rose Bond. “I’m so glad I went down the rabbit hole” of video, she said.

In the larger picture of ethnic and religious conflict in the Middle East and Asia, American drones and the “collateral damage” that inevitably accompanies them plays a small but significant role. “Any technology, humans can use for good or bad,” Haque remarked. “It’s about, who are we? What are our moral choices? I’m more interested in what we’re doing with drones. And more importantly, what allows us to use these things in that way in that part of the world.” The stability of personal life is undone from many directions, and the markers keep going up on the walls. One-two-three-slash. One-two-three-slash. At one point in Remembrance a chalkboard message appears, quoting the testimony a year ago of a 13-year-old Pakistani to a U.S. Congressional hearing; his sister had been injured in a drone attack: “I no longer love blue skies. I prefer grey skies. The drones don’t fly when the skies are grey.”

Pakistan: the witness.

Pakistan: the witness.

“This is a story that’s been going on for centuries,” Haque said. “It’s something that’s human, and we should understand it.” She paused a moment, then added: “You can heal. But the scar remains.”

Each time she returns to Karachi, Haque said, “There is a sense of, life is fragile. I could die here. So I’d better make use of it. I think the reality is, you can die anywhere, anytime. And, yes, there is risk in going to Pakistan.”

And risk in staying away. “This is our sky, too,” she said. “It belongs to everyone.”




All images courtesy Sabina Haque.







‘Fauna & Flora': an inside look

ArtsWatch's Bob Hicks tells the stories behind his new book about the artist Beth Van Hoesen

Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna & Flora, a new art book with images by the California artist Beth Van Hoesen (1926-2010) and essays by Bob Hicks, has just been published by Pomegranate, the Portland-based international publishing house that also has European headquarters in England. The Portland Art Museum holds the largest collection anywhere of Van Hoesen’s prints, and she was represented in Portland for many years by the legendary Fountain Gallery. The book, available this month, includes dozens of full-color reproductions of Van Hoesen’s prints of plants and animals. Hicks, a writer and editor for Oregon ArtsWatch, talks for ArtsWatch readers about the book project and Van Hoesen’s life and art.


No artist is an island, entire of herself. Timothy Berry, the San Francisco painter and fine printer who was a friend and collaborator with the printmaker Beth Van Hoesen, once told me he thought of Van Hoesen and her artist husband, Mark Adams, as being “out of time” – eccentrics who, while living and working in the midst of the revolutionary ferment of the mid-20th century Bay Area art world, considered themselves inheritors and practitioners of a much deeper art history uncluttered by the revisions and excesses of contemporary life.

beth-van-hoesen-fauna-flora-42Looking at Van Hoesen’s art, as I’ve been doing for the past five years through a series of projects, it’s easy to understand what Berry means. My involvement with Van Hoesen and her circle began in 2009 when I reviewed a large exhibition of her prints at the Portland Art Museum, which two years earlier had been given the largest collection of her printed works anywhere: a print each from about 650 of her editions. In my new book, Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna & Flora (Pomegranate, 2014, 144 pages, $40), you can look at print after print that seem tied more closely to the long traditions of pre-modernist European art than to the work of the groundbreaking contemporary California artists she knew well and socialized with often: people like Richard Diebenkorn, Robert Arneson, Imogen Cunningham, Roy DeForest, Elmer Bischoff, and her longtime drawing-group companions Wayne Thiebaud and Theophilus Brown.*

Dürer and Audubon and the masterful Hudson River School painter Martin Johnson Heade come to mind as artists she might have considered her true contemporaries, not so much for their specific styles or achievements as for their subject matter and devotion to meticulous realistic technique. While the big ideas of abstract expressionism and the California counterrevolution of funk and raw, freewheeling representation exploded around her, Van Hoesen was enraptured by the microcosm of everyday life: flowers, fruits and vegetables, animals both wild and domestic, bodies and faces, dolls and babies, domestic scenes. In her devotion to the everyday she might have been working under the influence of Vermeer and De Hooch – great painters, but hardly the stuff of mainstream American art in the mid and late 20th century.


America, America: ‘Carousel’ and ‘Best Little Whorehouse’

A pair of summer musical entertainments at Clackamas Rep and Broadway Rose reflect today's headlines

“Legislating is only a hobby for members of this Congress,” Charles M. Blow wrote in a Monday op-ed piece in the New York Times bemoaning the simultaneous shenanigans and torpor of the current do-nothing Congress. “Their full-time job is raising hell, raising money and lowering the bar of acceptable behavior.”

As it happens, I read Blow’s depressingly rational screed the morning after catching that grand old flimflam of a musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas at Broadway Rose, and I couldn’t help thinking, What else is new?

The women's chorus in "Best Little Whorehouse." Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

The women’s chorus in “Best Little Whorehouse.” Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

Whorehouse first opened on Broadway in 1978, and is based loosely on real events a few years earlier when a crusading television reporter started a campaign that finally shut the doors of the Chicken Ranch, a century-old institution of widely if reluctantly tolerated repute outside the rural town of LaGrange, Texas. The resulting political fallout, at least in the fictionalized version onstage, is less a matter of actuality than of appearances, which in the topsy-turvy world of politics have a way of becoming reality. Life has been rolling along pretty much as humanly usual, with most of the human appetites being accommodated in some sort of agreed-upon manner closely associated to a wink and a nod and a turning of official heads in the opposite direction. But times are changing. Raise enough of a stink and eventually someone’ll be forced to do something about it, not so much to stop the stink as to stop the noise and keep the incumbents safely in office.

Whorehouse isn’t the best musical to come roaring down the two-lane blacktop of rural Americana, but it knows what it wants to do and it does it well, and as I hadn’t seen it in a number of years I was happy to make its acquaintance again, especially in this agreeable production directed (as was Broadway Rose’s pert and winning revival of The Music Man earlier in the summer) by the stage-smart Peggy Taphorn. Like most musical comedies it’s really mostly about its surfaces, but it does make a difference what’s underneath, and Whorehouse survives partly because its book latches onto some enduring American themes: a strong libertarian bent, an equally strong moralistic fervor, a thirst for fame and power and the various pleasures of the flesh, and the destruction derby that occurs when the soft tissue of human desire meets the driving metal of religious extremism and unshackled careerism. The resulting ruckus brings to mind such political and religious fast-shuffle hall of famers as Wilbur Mills and Lyndon Johnson and Aimee Semple McPherson, and the shenanigans of such latter-day politician/entertainer/perpetrator/scolds as Michele Bachmann, Elliott Spitzer, Sarah Palin, Anthony Weiner, Glenn Beck, and that comeback champ Newt Gingrich. Ooh, they love to do the little sidestep: It’s like watching Molière performed on a pedal steel guitar.


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