NEWS & NOTES

Ashland picks new artistic leader

Nataki Garrett, who directs this season's "How To Catch Creation," will become the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's sixth artistic director

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced a new artistic director in a Tuesday morning release. Nataki Garett will be the Ashland festival’s sixth artistic leader, replacing Bill Rauch, who is completing his final season before taking over as the first artistic director of the new Ronald O. Perelman Center for the Performing Arts at the rebuilt World Trade Center in New York.

It’s a plum job, one of the top posts in the American nonprofit theater, and one of several nationally that have been open in the past year. And it marks a sweeping change in leadership, with top positions across the country going to women and people of color, as The New York Times details in today’s editions.

Garrett most recently was acting artistic director for the Denver Center for the Performing Arts during its 18-month leadership transition. Chris Coleman, who was artistic director of Portland Center Stage for 17 years, was appointed to the permanent post in Denver. Coleman was replaced by Marissa Wolf, who moved from Kansas City Rep to take the reigns last September.

Garrett, who holds as MFA in directing from California Institute of the Arts, has worked for more than 20 years as “a theatre administrator, director, producer, playwright, educator, activist and mentor.”

Nataki Garrett, new boss at OSF. Photo: Bill Geenen

“I am absolutely thrilled to be named incoming artistic director of Oregon Shakespeare Festival and it is an honor and privilege to inherit such a wonderfully rich and dynamic legacy of artistic excellence in partnership with a dedicated board, staff, company and local community,” Garrett said in a prepared statement. “I am equally excited and inspired by OSF’s dedication to expanding our worldview and look forward to maintaining our commitment to the revolutionary spirit of Shakespeare and classical text, while continuing to explore and expand opportunities for new voices and narratives through new play development.”

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Chehalem center hosts rare exhibit of Yunnan School art

Chinese painters isolated during the Cultural Revolution combined European influences, New Age perspectives, and knowledge of traditional Chinese art

The Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg rarely devotes more than one of its half-dozen galleries to a single artist or exhibition, so when curators decide to allocate three galleries to one show, one is obliged to pay attention.

Last week, the center unveiled a sprawling collection of Asian art that highlights the so-called Yunnan School of painting that emerged from the wreckage of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. Remarkably, it is possibly the first public showing in Oregon featuring the work of the artist widely regarded as a key founder, Jiang Tiefeng. The show intrigues on several levels.

Jiang Tiefeng's "Blue Lady" (deluxe edition serigraph print on rice paper)

Jiang Tiefeng’s “Blue Lady” (deluxe edition serigraph print on rice paper)

One, it was produced by artists who, either by choice or dictate, were sequestered in the southwestern province of Yunnan (which shares a stretch of its own southern border with Vietnam) during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Two, the work is the quintessence of “melting pot” art. The paintings were produced by urban, university-trained Chinese artists who left familiar surroundings to live in an isolated rural area, bringing with them European influences, New Age perspectives and, of course, a  knowledge of traditional Chinese art, which dates back thousands of years.

Far from the scrutiny of Beijing, the artists found themselves working in a rural region with its own traditions of folk and indigenous art. More significantly, they used the freedom afforded by isolation to experiment with styles and content.

Finally, all the pieces in this show are “generously on loan from the Royal Arts Gallery.” Except that there isn’t a Royal Arts Gallery. Upon inquiry, I learned that this is shorthand for: They’re from a private Oregon collector who wants to remain anonymous and whose identity the curators aren’t releasing.

All of which is to say the exhibition, which runs through April 26, is unique, unorthodox, and must-see.

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In an attention economy, the critic’s most powerful tool is silence

Attention isn't just a human need anymore—it is a valuable commodity. Art critics need to be a lot more careful with it.

Humans are wired to crave attention. We want validation and recognition that our lives matter to other people. But our desire for attention has become bottomless, stretched, and grotesque. I keep reading reports of social media darlings meeting their ends—falling off cliffs to their deaths, drowning in picturesque waterfalls, and dying of hypothermia on treacherous climbs—in their quests to obtain the most over-the-top, swoon-worthy images to deliver to their followers. This is not a drill, folks: we are literally dying for attention.

We’re in this situation as a result of the fact that attention, which was an amorphous concept before the digital age, is now a quantifiable commodity. People are putting themselves in harm’s way because likes, subscribers, and followers can be valuated and monetized such that attention is now currency. It translates to money, fame, clout, and influence, so it makes sense that some people will do anything for it.

As such, it’s time for arts writers, critics, journalists, gatekeepers, and arbiters of culture—anyone whose job it is to bestow attention onto others—to reconsider how to allocate that currency. More specifically, the most responsible thing we can do, as people who professionally dole out attention, is to withhold it more often than not.

But hear me out—there’s more to it than that.

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Movies Without Borders: The 42nd Portland International Film Festival

Sometimes the best place to tap into our empathy is in the dark at the movies

The tagline for this year’s Portland International Film Festival is “Empathy has no ethnicity.” While clearly intended as a response to the xenophobia and intolerance currently plaguing our nation, it’s also a timeless reminder of the value of global cinema. It harks back to Roger Ebert’s famous description of cinema as a “machine for empathy.”

Movies, after all, arguably do a better job than any other art form at creating an intimate, visceral sense of identification with people totally unlike ourselves. They help us to recognize universal human tendencies as familiar emotions play across the faces of those separated from us by space and, increasingly, by time. Suffice it to say that if more Americans watched more non-American movies, the world would be a better place.

This year’s PIFF (March 8-21) is the 42nd overall, but the first to occur following the retirement of longtime Northwest Film Center director Bill Foster last year. While this year’s fest (and any in the foreseeable future) will surely evidence Foster’s ongoing influence, it will be interesting to see in what ways the event evolves in an increasingly competitive media landscape. As the theatrical distribution of foreign-language films continues to wither and their availability on home video or streaming platforms remains unreliable, PIFF offers, perhaps more than ever, the best and sometimes only way to experience a dizzyingly diverse array of experiences hailing from every continent save Antarctica. What follows is a necessarily scattershot look at this year’s program.

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Barbara LaMorticella: a woman of her words

From her Mime Troupe days to "Talking Earth," the Portland poet has been a potent force for writers. Now Soapstone gives her Bread & Roses.

On a recent Monday night a familiar voice returned to the airwaves of Talking Earth, KBOO community radio’s long-running interview show about poets and other writers and reading aloud. The voice was soft and conversational, confiding, helpful, gently guiding the talk into topics not usually considered on modern American radio: the structure of a poem, the ways that words and lives braid together, the themes that define a poet’s career. Five years after her last turn in the interviewing booth, Barbara LaMorticella was talking with her friend and fellow poet Judith Barrington about life and loss and language and Barrington’s newest book of poetry, Long Love.

LaMorticella, who has interviewed hundreds of writers on KBOO beginning in the 1980s, had taken a break from the studio for personal reasons. She was caring for her husband of 56 years, Robert (Roberto), who died last year, and the Talking Earth interview was something of a reemergence into public life. That fact was delivered with an exclamation point a few mornings later when I met in a Southeast Portland bakery with Ruth Gundle of Soapstone, the women’s literary organization, which has named LaMorticella the first recipient of its biannual Soapstone Bread and Roses Award. Meant to honor a woman writer who has created opportunities for other writers and helped sustain the writing culture in Northwest Oregon and Southwest Washington, the award, which includes a $500 check, will be presented at a private luncheon on March 8, which not coincidentally is International Women’s Day. “We wanted to honor women who’d been here over the long haul, who’d been mainstays of the literary community,” Gundle said. “Barbara was the obvious choice.”

Two days after talking with Gundle I met with LaMorticella in a Northeast Portland coffee shop near her daughter’s house, and there was that voice again: warm, earnest, smart, almost always with a touch of humor near the surface. It reminded me that although we usually read poetry and therefore think of it as a literary art, it is also oral and musical, and so ideally attuned to live performance or the radio dial. “Poetry is an audible art. Or should be,” LaMorticella commented. “When I finish a poem I always read it out loud. And if it doesn’t work out loud, I change it.”

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Barbara LaMoricella, up close.

In the KBOO studio LaMorticella took the long view of a life in words, going back to Barrington’s childhood in Brighton-on-the-Sea, England, and surprising her audience with stark revelations delivered in the most congenial of tones, underlining without having to say so directly that personal history shapes a writer’s art. Barrington was born in wartime, she informed her listeners, “… into a bombing raid, and … you were born into a world which in one poem you said, ‘This is the world I came in, and I have to learn to love it.’”

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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.

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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