CULTURE

‘From Maxville to Vanport’: redressing erasure through music

Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble project revives the stories of Oregon towns where African Americans created community in an otherwise unfriendly state

The story of African Americans in Oregon has too often been a tale of erasure. From the frequently unacknowledged racist origins of the state’s long legal exclusion of black immigration, to obliteration of neighborhoods and displacement of communities of color, to stifling of voices of protest, stories of African American Oregonians that don’t fit the dominant culture’s whitewashed utopian image have been suppressed, ignored, or forgotten.

As more Oregonians — and Americans in general — belatedly recognize the stubborn persistence of our legacy of racial injustice, calls for change grow louder. Yet it’s hard to move forward without knowing where you’ve been. And Oregon’s African American history contains stories of inspiration as well as intolerance. “Things have changed, but history is not erased by change,” wrote Zadie Smith, “and the examples of the past still hold out new possibilities for all of us.”

PJCE performing with Kalimah Abioto’s short film ‘Water’ in ‘From Maxville to Vanport.’ Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

From Maxville to Vanport resists Oregon’s racist erasure through music, stories and film. Premiered last spring and returning Thursday to Corvallis and Sunday to Portland, Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble’s production tells the story of two now-vanished Oregon communities with significant African American populations whose legacy still resounds today.

It’s the culmination of an extended collaborative process involving a team of Oregon artists and historical organizations that began with producer Douglas Detrick, executive director of PJCE, and Portland singer Marilyn Keller, a Jazz Society of Oregon Hall of Fame member who became what Detrick called “the face and voice of this project.”

“Having performed old time blues and jazz from the ancestors,” as lead singer in Black Swan Classic Jazz Band, Keller insisted that “it had to be a project that spoke directly to my African American heritage.”

Vanished Towns

Built in 1923, Maxville, a railroad logging town near Wallowa that operated until the early 1930s, included 50 or so African Americans and their families. Vanport, hastily created in 1942 to house workers who came to Portland to build warships, numbered at its peak 40,000 inhabitants, making it Oregon’s second largest city, according to the Vanport Mosaic project. (Read Bobby Bermea’s ArtsWatch feature about the flood and the project.) The city was wiped out in the notorious 1948 Memorial Day flood, drowning or displacing thousands of African American residents.

PJCE performing with video of the Vanport flood.  Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

“Both were places of refuge and opportunity to Oregonians of color, immigrants, African Americans especially, all coming to a state where they were not very welcome otherwise,” Detrick said. “We wanted to explore creatively why these places played outsize roles in the state’s African American history.”

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Commentary: How dead is OCAC?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abigail Sperling is everywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Racism through the eyes of the oppressors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Beijing Dance Theater thinks big

Choreographer Wang Yuanyuan, a creative force behind the Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies, now runs her own show

On February 20, the globally recognized Beijing Dance Theater will make its Portland debut at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall with a hefty program of contemporary work. Choreographer Wang Yuanyuan directs the 13-member company and creates big, bold pieces that design director Tan Shaoyuan and lighting designer Han Jiang help shape. Although this is the company’s first local appearance, there’s a good chance you’ve already seen Wang’s work.

Beijing Dance Theater makes its Portland debut with striking work including “The Crossing.” Photo courtesy of KMP Artists.

A dancer who trained in China, earned an MFA from Cal Arts and served as the National Ballet of China’s resident choreographer, Wang founded Beijing Dance Theater at the end of 2008. As she recounted in a recent interview with Oregon ArtsWatch, she’d already had plenty of experience by then directing large-scale performances, after playing a prominent role in the famous opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, the opening ceremony of the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing, and the 1997 celebration marking Hong Kong’s return to China. The Olympics opening ceremonies alone featured an estimated 15,000 performers; the other two events featured more than 5,000.

While she is rightly proud of her role in those events (the Olympics opener, especially, required “a lot of artists and people to work together to present the same result,” she said), starting Beijing Dance Theater felt even more significant than choreographing a performance that millions of people watched. “I prefer works that present my personal artistic ideas,” she said. “It is important to express myself. Starting Beijing Dance Theater gave me a more personal and professional sense of achievement.” Since it was founded, her company has toured far and wide, and she has earned best choreographer awards in Bulgaria, the U.S., Russia, and China. 

A section of “Wild Grass,” slated for the Portland show, demonstrates the company’s creative vision. Photo courtesy of KMP Artists.

The company’s Portland show will feature selections from three of her original pieces. The first of these, “Farewell, Shadows” is from Wild Grass, a piece the company tours frequently; it was inspired by the writings of 19th-century Chinese author Lu Xun. Though Wang called Lu Xun “one of the most important writers in the history of Chinese literature,” she doesn’t think audiences necessarily need to know his work to engage with the show: as she pointed out, “This is the international language of dance.” Themes of duality and its exploration within Eastern philosophy run through the work; some reviews have characterized “Farewell, Shadows” as the more playful movement portion of the whole.

The company will also stage The Crossing, the first piece Wang ever created for the company. It has, she said, the “action elements of traditional Chinese dance.” It opens as a single dancer, to the hum of white noise, enters a darkened empty stage divided by a single long paper streamer. Crossing “traces the struggles of the individual dancers to mark the emptiness,” according to the company description of the piece, as a progression of solos, duets, and trios pit the dancers’ lyricism against the spareness of the space and the weight of the sound that fills it.

The show ends with BDT’s interpretation of Hamlet, the most theatrical of the three pieces. It dates back to 2006, when director Feng Xiaogang invited Wang to choreograph dances for Daniel Wu and Zhou Xun, the leads in his film The Banquet, which was based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. After The Banquet was released, the choreography received a great deal of attention, and Wang and Feng began talks of a stage adaptation. While inspired by the film, the adaptation departs on many points to become a new Chinese Hamlet. Extracting characters the Ghost, the New King, the Queen, the Prince, and the Floral Spirit from the original, this production focuses on Hamlet’s psychological struggles, his compassion, and his doubt. This take on the classic tale, which has both historical and contemporary elements, is surely unlike any other version of Hamlet out there.

This show looks to be ambitious and spectacular, as performances that can fill the Schnitzer often are. Behind the blazing marquee lights, however, the company tries to root itself in something more personal and earnest. Of her approach, Wang said, “The most important point is that I think artists should be honest with their works. Only true emotions can lead to sincere works. Works represent the quality of your heart, and more or less represent the living environment you are affected by.” It’s high time that Portland gets to see the company’s vibrant mix of innovation and tradition.

Beijing Dance Theater performs 7:30 p.m. February 20 at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Find tickets here

Commentary: Democracy and the arts

The closure of Oregon College of Art and Craft and why we couldn't help

Let’s say someone said, “Tell me, Mr Bones, what should happen next, now that Oregon College of Art and Craft has decided to close the college and sell the campus?”

I’d probably sputter, make a few false starts, and then I’d say something like this:

  1. The campus, designed by architect John Storrs and pioneering landscape architect Barbara Fealy, is a sweet example of late Northwest modern design— where the shed merges with modernism and is informed by the wise touch of the Arts and Crafts movement. It should be preserved.
  2. The site should continue the celebration of craftwork in this place, which begins some 10,000 years ago, when the first tribes started making tools to fit their hands and please their eyes using the plants and stones of the local forests, lowlands, mountains and rivers. It should be a place where anyone can learn this history—native, pioneer, arts and crafts movement, and contemporary—and learn to make their own objects, whether in a folk craft style or an art craft design. Its studios should be buzzing, its library packed, its meeting rooms full of people talking it all over. It should be vitally interested in the crucial meeting of craft and environment, art and ecology, technology and nature. A visitor should be able to take a class, see great examples of craft work, buy work at the gift shop, research in the library, hear a lecture, and eat a great lunch.

“But Mr. Bones, what are the chances of all that happening?”

Just about nil.

“So what WILL happen?”

I don’t know for sure, but it looks like all elbows and bulldozers to me.

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An academic conference for Schemers, Scammers, and Subverters

Artists Ralph Pugay and Roz Crews have designed a conference for our times

“I think a lot has changed for the project since we talked last,” says Ralph Pugay (he/him) as I caught up with him and Roz Crews (she/her) over coffee two weeks ago. I have been following these two artists as they have collaborated on the Schemers, Scammers, and Subverters Symposium , aka SSSS, since early last year.

“We’re not going to have Tonya Harding,” continued Pugay.

“Sadly,” added Crews.

Originally slated to take place in December 2018, SSSS was envisioned as an academic conference that would feature presentations by schemers, scammers, and subverters from a wide array of backgrounds. The aforementioned Olympian was high on the list of desirable presenters. However, Crews and Pugay have since shifted their timeline and programmatic vision, instead reaching out to locally-based artists, creatives, and cultural workers through their networks. The event will now take place February 23, from 10am-6pm at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Portland.

Living School of Art poster for the SSSS’s TOTALLY HONEST BARTER BAZAAR

The conceptual framework of the symposium carries layers of nuance underneath that sensationalist title. “The title of the project is a big part of the project…It’s totally critical, as is true with lots of conceptual art projects,” said Crews of its multiple meanings. “I think those words [scheme, scam, subvert] have negative connotations,” reflected Pugay, “but then I can also imagine, coming from my background, my experience of being a Filipino immigrant, those are also tools for survival for people.”

On the one hand, SSSS has been shaped by a dialogue between Crews and Pugay about this fraught historical moment. They began asking themselves what it would be like, in Crews words, “to make a project that’s about scheming and scamming and subverting systems, when we have a President who is just straight up scamming us all.”

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