Northwest Arts Exchange: Collaboration and community building

New artist-run online resource helps artists help each other.


When the mom and pop corner grocery served as a neighborhood center, it was common to have a bulletin board where needs, offers, and concerns were posted by people who simply signed their posts as Bob, Sandra K., or Jake at the garage. These exchanges helped in forming a sense of community where people could browse postings and make needed connections.

Easy to access and use, the NW Arts Exchange builds community. Photo: Andrew Stiefel.

Easy to access and use, the NW Arts Exchange builds community. Photo: Andrew Stiefel.

That corkboard with scribbled notes has been replaced by social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. These are important community building tools, but their strengths are also their weaknesses. For groups such as artists in need of that neighborly bulletin board connection, these social media are too time-sensitive and not purpose-specific, which means if you aren’t online at the time of a post, it is likely that you’ll miss it, given the subsequent flood of competing feeds of vacation pictures, videos and news stories.

Creating a sense of community between artists in a region separated by distance, as in the Pacific Northwest, became the challenge that Oregon composer/musician Andrew Stiefel, in collaboration with the Sound of Late ensemble, has attempted to address with the development of the Northwest Arts Exchange Switchboard. Based on the belief that “members of a community should ask for what they need and offer what they have,” Stiefel says, the NWAEX is a “place to connect, lend others a hand, and cheer on the successes that result from working together,” according to a pre-launch announcement. Think of it as a place where creative professionals throughout the region can go to exchange ideas, post a call for performers in Eugene, or look for a venue in Seattle, a photographer in Boise, an ensemble in Portland, a graphic designer in Spokane. “It’s a place to start conversations about the issues and questions facing our community and a way to spark new collaborations and connections that might not otherwise happen,” Stiefel explains.


‘Up the Fall’: Spotlighting artists with disabilities

PHAME Academy's multidisciplinary musical showcases Oregon artists denied mainstream performance opportunities.

After celebrating its 30th anniversary last year with its most extensive performance schedule yet, Portland’s PHAME academy was ready to take on a new challenge. In the last few years, PHAME, which creates opportunities for artists with developmental disabilities, has expanded its public performances and programming and gained widespread visibility for its artists. Now, energetic Executive Director Stephen Marc Beaudoin sensed the academy was ready for more, “an artistic stretch project … out of our broader vision to position the organization and the artists we serve in the artistic mainstream.”

 The cast of PHAME's "Up the Fall." Photo: Sarah Law Photography.

The cast of PHAME’s “Up the Fall.” Photo: Sarah Law Photography.

Departing from the traditional American musicals they’d performed previously, PHAME embraced the most ambitious project its leaders could imagine: an original musical that would involve music, theatre and dance. They had the ideal playwright in Debbie Lamedman, a Portland-based former teaching staff member at PHAME who’s been commissioned by theatre companies across the country. “She knows what it’s like to work with artists and actors with developmental disabilities,” Beaudoin says. She’s even written integrated stage works (that is, involving performers with and without disabilities) before.

PHAME gave Lamedman only one instruction: be inclusive by creating characters with a range of ability and disability. “We haven’t taken a tokenistic approach,” Beaudoin explains. “We didn’t give her a checklist and say ‘include these disabilities.’ Her interest as a playwright is writing great theater.”

In Lamedman’s musical Up the Fall, which opens August 22 at Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre, a young Portland woman, Diana, lives with an overbearing mother, finding refuge by spending much of her time feeding the birds and making friends with a squirrel, who turns out to be a messenger from a night world threatened by a trio of angry, jealous sisters. He summons her to try to save that alternate world, whose natural workings have been paralyzed by the sisters’ efforts to control it.

For Up the Fall’s music, PHAME turned to another frequent collaborator, Portland songwriter Laura Gibson, who’s earned national attention for her delicate story songs. But this was her first time writing music for the theatre, and her process was interrupted by a disastrous fire at the apartment she was living in while attending graduate school in New York. The creative team also includes PHAME Music Director Matthew Gailey, who’s composing incidental music, along with well-known Portland playwright and drama teacher Matthew B. Zrebski as stage director, and PHAME Artistic Director Jessica Dart as assistant director and dramaturge.


No, seriously.

Heidi Schwegler’s “Botched Execution” at Marylhurst’s The Art Gym

All of us have heard the stories of scheduled executions in which the condemned did not die in an expeditious manner so additional measures had to be taken to complete the job. In art we talk about the act of creating a work of art as an “execution,” which might lead one to wonder what to expect from Heidi Schwegler in her “Botched Execution” at The Art Gym. What we do find is a well-represented set of mixed media and found object constructions Heidi Schwegler has made during the past 10 years. The title suggests a gallows humor, which comes through in a few of her works, while many other pieces in this show leave a mark —perhaps even a scar— on the viewer.

One of the first pieces one sees upon entering the gallery is Schwegler’s seven-piece photographic series, “My Struggle.” From left to right, we see a headshot of the artist as she is transformed from a slightly distressed state to someone soiled, bloodied, missing a tooth, and in extreme anguish. This portrait of progressive (self)destruction reminds me of people I see on a daily basis at the rural convenience store near my home. There’s the tweakers, their wild gestures an exhibition of self-assurance from inside raging, scabbed heads. Less frequently, and considerably more subdued and cleaned up, are the victims of chronic domestic abuse. If Schwegler intends to portray the state of mind for either, or merely suggest that her individual struggle with some other issue is equally dark, this is a humorless piece indeed. It is only by imagining that she did not actually knock her left lateral incisor out we are allowed some distance.

Further relief for the viewer might be found in the nearby sculpture, “Passing Resemblance II.” Apart from the hands and head, which are silicon replicas of Schwegler’s own in a 1:1 scale, the overall size of this piece is that of large doll. I usually would be disinclined to speak to Schwegler’s real-world small frame, for physical characteristics are often incidental at best to an artist’s output; however, she seems to be using her physique to emphasize the hands and head as a priority for an artist.

Heidi Schwegler, "Passing Resemblance II"/Art Gym

Heidi Schwegler, “Passing Resemblance II”/The Art Gym

It’s a smart piece, and judging from the number of phone photos taken at the opening reception, “Passing Resemblance II” was the popular centerpiece of the exhibit. Quite often I caught three or four people standing around the doll, eyes fixed on it as they conversed. It was not dissimilar to family gatherings in the living room in which the newest child is placed in the middle of the floor for assessment, and as distraction during lulls, even though there isn’t much about this piece that would make one engage in some coochy-coochy-coo.


Classical Up Close: Connecting with audiences beyond the concert hall

Oregon Symphony musicians perform free chamber music concerts in and around Portland April 26-May 3.

In fall of 2012, the Oregon Symphony was eagerly anticipating its impending return to Carnegie Hall, where its critically acclaimed performance in the previous year’s Spring for Music festival had vaulted the orchestra to national attention and affirmed what Oregonians had known for years: at its best, OSO performances could rival those delivered by top ranked American orchestras.

But at the peak of its national renown, the orchestra suffered a setback: a financial crunch meant it couldn’t afford the return visit to New York for the 2013 Spring for Music festival. With the performance canceled long after the rest of the season had been planned, OSO musicians faced a rarity: a week with no musical obligations.

The cancellation revealed another, less welcome truth: for all its demonstrated musical skill, the orchestra lacked the community support to pay for the New York trip, and in fact the players were facing cuts in pay, possible downsizing, and other challenges — part of a much broader, longer term (and mostly self-inflicted) decline in the classical music establishment’s contemporary cultural relevance.

That was the backdrop when OSO concertmaster Sarah Kwak and a few of her colleagues sat down to brainstorm what to do with their unexpectedly available week. The players could have taken a well deserved break or maybe filled the calendar with teaching, rehearsing, or chamber music gigs, though the late notice might have made that difficult.

Instead, they chose to make a virtue of necessity and turn a setback into an opportunity. A need for community connection, a suddenly available week for symphony musicians… maybe both problems could be addressed simultaneously. During a brainstorming session that fall, OSO musicians tried to figure out how best to use their unanticipated break. They arrived at a goal: “How can we help the symphony to gain more visibility for the orchestra and do something for the community?” Kwak recalls. It would cost way too much for the whole orchestra to perform, the group realized. “So we decided: ‘why don’t we go out and play chamber music instead?’” Kwak remembers. “The ideas evolved into a community engagement project.”


ArtsWatch looks ahead to the 38th Portland International Film Festival

The Vancouver International Film Festival gave us a great jump on the best films coming to PIFF and beyond

Film festivals are complex, multifaceted, logistical nightmares… (almost) as much for the audience as for staff. However, if one distills them down to their essence, an inherent bifurcation is revealed. They are the final bastion for a not insignificant crop of smaller, foreign, arthouse, documentary and independent films to be seen in a cinema with a crowd. They’re also an odd microcosm of all that’s wrong with the industry today.

I’m willing to bet almost every reader here already agrees with the former, but the latter? Not so sure. Perhaps it’s our dirty little secret. Gasp! There are just as many bad movies produced every year in world cinema as Hollywood, probably even more.

Which is why you, dear movie lover, need some guidance. Some good, old-fashioned curation. After all, Portland is rife with endless festivals. It has a deep bench of specialty, indie and arthouse theaters. We’ve got choices. Too many, perhaps. In a way, though, it’s a good problem to have, but it’s all too easy (and understandable) to take for granted such privileged access to films far and wide, strange and square, big and small, and nearly everything in between.


Eyes bigger than your gallery

"Of Boldness and Subtlety" at Hap Gallery

I have seen some wonderful art at Hap Gallery, and have come close to writing a review of any number of exhibits, but have always resisted. Even now, as I am move forward with this essay, it is with some reservation, for while more often than not there is work worth serious consideration in any given Hap exhibit, there can be an overall unevenness to the shows that pulls me up short. So it is with the current exhibit, “Of Boldness and Subtlety,” but I’ve stayed quiet long enough.

Hap is a small space in the Pearl (916 NW Flanders), and as such, must take care to edit installations so that the individual pieces can either breathe, or, if in close proximity to each other, create a seamless dialogue. Granted, some curatorial decisions, whether salon-like or out of contrariness, will disregard such a strategy, which is all well and good in this multifarious world in which we find ourselves. Even so, one should expect some curatorial consideration and resolve to be evident.

This is the second exhibit at Hap curated by gallery artist Gabrielle Garland. Her first effort brought Scott Wolniak and Jeremy Coleman Smith to town this last September. The strength of that show rested not only with the work on display but also with the artists’ ability to collaborate in the space. However, even then the work came close to overwhelming the narrow gallery. With “Of Boldness and Subtlety,” the space is not the issue, for there was no crowding. Still, there was definitely a problem with too much work—or maybe just too many artists (there are six)—in the show.


The Babadook is real

The emotional resonance of Jennifer Kent's new horror film gives it the power to do more than just scare.

(Note: this article contains spoilers for the plot of The Babadook)

In a house stunted by an old tragedy, a boogeyman comes a-knocking. He’ll make you afraid to go to sleep. And you can’t get rid of him…

After the untimely death of her husband several years ago, Amelia has had to raise their son Samuel alone. The boy is unhappy, acting out at school and anxiously preoccupied with monsters. One night, there appears in the house a mysterious picture book about a sinister visitor called “Mister Babadook,” who dresses all in black, with a top hat and a masklike face. Reading the book kickstarts a nightly campaign of terror that leaves them both tormented by fear and sleep deprivation, teetering on the edge of sanity.


A debut feature from writer/director Jennifer Kent, The Babadook is a horror triumph: story-driven, emotionally mature, vulnerable without sentimentality, unconventional but still firmly rooted in its genre. It’s rich in genre tropes but doles them out carefully, like Tarot cards that can unlock hidden meanings. William Friedkin, the director of the The Exorcist, has championed Kent’s film as a new classic to shelve beside the likes of Psycho and Alien. It’s playing now at the Hollywood and Living Room theaters and on VOD.

All the greatest horror films exist on two planes simultaneously. The monster is at once dangerously present and unmistakably symbolic. Kent understands this, and tilts her story on the ambiguity – what, exactly, are we watching? A troubled child acting out? The unraveling of a mentally unstable woman? Or is the creature real? The danger certainly is. Kent seems deeply indebted to the superlative horror trilogy of Roman Polanski, including Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant and Repulsion. In his films, mental illness is always a possible explanation for the ordeal of his heroines, but a misguided and insufficient one.


I find Polanski’s horror films deeply feminist. His notorious crime is all the more painful to consider when you appreciate the depth and sensitivity with which he portrays his female characters. Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby and Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion are women who shoulder abuse and exploitation, whose sanity is called into question by their peers but whose struggle is championed by the filmmaker. Even The Tenant, which stars Polanski himself, takes up the theme of a woman without allies, who is twisted and warped by her poisonous surroundings. The Babadook’s weary Amelia (Essie Davis) is a perfect Polanski-style heroine: pleasant and deferent on the surface, while cracking under the pressure of bearing much more than she should have to. Davis’ wide-ranging, fully embodied performance swings back and forth from fragile to vicious.

Pacing will make or break any film, but none moreso than horror. The Babadook simmers long on a very low flame. Like The Tenant, the first quarter or so of the film is staunchly non-supernatural, concerned only with the mundane misery of the protagonist. Amelia lives her life without extra money or romantic companionship or a creative outlet. Poverty and isolation are their own horror stories. Madness is drizzled in gradually, tinting the narrative until the whole screen is saturated.

The complete universe of mother and child is contained within their home, and most of the film’s action unfurls between three floors of a cold, gray-toned house. As things become more desperate, the house begins to crumble under the stress, the wallpaper peeling back to reveal a fissure in the drywall. Polanski fans will remember the chilling scene in the The Tenant when Trelkovsky finds a horrible souvenir from the previous renter: a human tooth tucked in a wall crevice. Like Trelkovsky, Amelia and Samuel are held captive not in their home, but by their home, and by the hypnotic draw of the history contained there. What is that history? When the monster begins to haunt Amelia with mirages of her late husband, the pieces fall into place: the Babadook is made of grief. Grief on its own is not deadly, but grief that goes unprocessed for too long (her husband’s death was seven years ago) ferments into something else, savage and frightening and unrecognizable.

When you think of a family held prisoner by the past, The Shining comes to mind. The Babadook has something else in common with Kubrick’s film: the haunting spectre of child abuse. Both films dive deep into the harrowing fear that plagues those who are dependent, that your caretaker could someday be your terrorizer. But in The Babadook, it’s the mother, not the father, who becomes dangerous.

The Babadook taps into the primal dread of a beast: the mother who harms her own children. Or who simply fears that she might. Like Rosemary’s Baby, it distorts dreams of maternal bliss into nightmares: as Rosemary’s Baby makes pregnancy into a hellish, energy-sapping disease, The Babadook presents motherhood as a yoke instead of a gift. Samuel’s volatility and aggressive behavior are too much for Amelia, who yearns for respite from the exhausting duty of being his mother.

Kent gives voice to some raw taboos about the ways that motherhood can fail women – the promised joy of parenting can’t distract Amelia from the void left by the loss of her husband, and at her most monstrous, possessed by the Babadook, she growls at her son, “Do you know how many times I wish you had died instead of him?” What’s truly horrifying about this statement is its honesty.

In one particularly gruesome sequence, Babadook-Amelia reaches into her own mouth and twists out a bloody tooth, the tooth that has ached all through the film (it has to be a hidden homage to The Tenant). Once he inhabits her, the Babadook insists that she do something to ease her own pain. Perhaps he is good for something, after all. The psychological lesson of the film is about the futility and danger of denying your painful emotions. It hurts terribly to confront grief, but the alternative, ignoring it, is much more perilous. And when it comes to mourning, temporarily becoming a monster may be part of the process.

Finally, you can’t get rid of the Babadook, you can only find a way to get along with him.

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