Blake Shell arrived in Portland about nine years ago. Her background included an M.F.A. in Photography from Savannah College of Art and Design and work as gallery curator/director at the University of Arizona. She soon became director of the Archer Gallery at Clark College (2009-2012) and then succeeded founding director Terri Hopkins at The Art Gym in 2013. She is now the new Executive Director at Disjecta (, one of the most adventurous art spaces in Portland.

This conversation occurred in April 12, on her second day at Disjecta.

You are the Executive Director. What do you see as your job, and what do you have other people doing?

I’ll be overseeing the team and all aspects of the organization. I’m really in a place of thinking about strategic moves forward, the growth of the organization and working with the board to increase fundraising that can increase programming support for artists and all the things I’ve been interested in—as well as just making sure that things are happening in a strong way. There’s a great staff here already.

“Oh Time Your Gilded Pages,” Disjecta, curated by curator-in-residence Michele Fiedler, artists Adriana Minoliti and Bobbi Woods/Photos by Mario Gallucci

The organization already has awesome programming. It already has things like the Curator-in-Residence program, which is really interesting—bringing a curator in to create an entire season of programs every year. We are currently in the sixth season of bringing in different curatorial voices from outside of the region to interact with artists and the arts community. The seventh season will start in the fall.

To bring programming here and to share information out to other areas about what’s happening here is a really important thing for any arts community, but particularly at this point in Portland’s history. Portland and Oregon artists are engaged in a national and international way.


The Oregon Visual Arts Ecology Project: Examining the culture

The Ford Family Foundation and the Oregon Arts Commission have founded a new website that focuses on art in the state

At this moment, any effort to preserve our shared culture is a noteworthy event. This is especially true of the arts parts of the culture. As Oregon Arts Commission’s Meagan Atiyeh noted at a symposium that introduced one such effort, the Oregon Visual Arts Ecology Project, the state’s media has abandoned its commitment to full-time critics writing about the arts. And that means that both contemporary conversations about the arts and future investigation of our culture are/will be limited. What happens to a culture that doesn’t understand its past or its present? We are perilously close to finding out.

Backed by the considerable resources of The Ford Family Foundation and the Oregon Arts Commission—more than $50,000 since early 2014, according to Atiyeh, not including lots of staff time—the project intends to be an informal archive and an online magazine that takes the measure of the visual arts in the state. “The partners’ shared wish is to create an accessible, permanent, virtual collection documenting Oregon’s visual arts landscape,” the mission statement says, “and, to continue the metaphor, the interconnected realms of artist, institution, patron, curator, arts writer… which become that ecology.”

Ryan Pierce, From the Pockets of the Wanderer, 2014. Flashe on canvas over panel. Courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Leach Gallery, Portland

According to Atiyeh (in an email interview), the website hopes to reach a broad public. “We designed a site that I hope can be rewarding for a highly invested artist or a curator who is looking for research materials and also a casual arts viewer in Oregon (or any spot on the globe, honestly).”


Miss Anthology teaches the power of comics

Fueled by a Precipice Fund grant, Miss Anthology puts storytelling in the hands of diverse teens


Sequential art has a magical quality that is difficult to describe. The most beloved American comics seem to pique the imagination in particular way, with a perfect mix of narrative and imagery that keeps the comic book reader coming back and the graphic novella lover hungry for more. But for Melanie Stevens, one of the founders of the Miss Anthology project, there is far more potency to sequential art-making than meets the eye.

Stevens is originally from Atlanta, and she’s currently finishing her MFA in Visual Studies at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. This winter, she and her collaborators Emily Lewis and Mack Carlisle were awarded a grant via Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Precipice Fund to kick off Miss Anthology, a project that will enable racially and economically diverse female and genderqueer youth, ages 13-18, to create their own stories through sequential art (aka comics). Miss Anthology will offer a series of comic-making workshops, followed by the publication of an anthology of graphic work this fall.

I sat down with Stevens in early March to discuss Miss Anthology. She has a background in graphic novels and comics, a field she turned to when she could not afford art supplies and did not have access to an art studio space. The DIY nature of comics offered her a way to make narrative work and share it online, avoiding a slew of gatekeepers.


In the galleries: photos & more

April is Portland Photo Month, and it's a wide-angle lens: a First Thursday guide to the month's shows

Snap, crackle, pop: April is Portland Photo Month, with events and exhibitions all over town. Photolucida, which sponsors the annual celebration, has put together a handy guide to several of the photo exhibits.

Philippe Halsman, “Marilyn at the Drive-in,” 1952, gelatin silver print, 10 x 13 inches, Edition of 250. In Augen Gallery exhibit of 20th century photography.

Among the gallery shows are works by such high-profile figures as the 20th century master Minor White (in a continuing show of images of Portland 1938-1942, at the Architectural Heritage Center), Christopher Rauschenberg (photos from Poland at Elizabeth Leach), and a couple of Portland photographers who balance fine-art photography and globe-trotting photojournalism (Corey Arnold and his Aleutian Dreams at Charles A. Hartman Fine Art; Susan Seubert with Not a Day Goes By, an exploration of suicide and the choice between being and nothingness, at Froelick).


Christopher Rauschenberg: The beauty of the bucket

Portland photographer Christopher Rauschenberg has spent his career paying deep attention to the beauty around him

John Cage said, “Beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look.” That seems to be the point of Christopher Rauschenberg’s photographs for more than 40 years.

Beyond that work as a photographer, Rauschenberg was one of the five founders of Blue Sky Gallery—now one of the premier photography institutions in America—back in 1975. He founded the Portland Grid Project in 1995. As the website states: “Christopher Rauschenberg took a pair of scissors to a standard map of Portland and cut it into 98 pieces. He then invited a group of 12 Portland photographers, using a variety of cameras, films, formats, and digital processes, to all photograph the randomly selected square each month. By 2005 they had covered every square mile of Portland and shown each other over 20,000 images.” The Grid Project is now on its third round of photographing the city.

Christopher Rauschenberg, Warsaw, 2016

In 1997-1998 he spent time in Paris rephotographing 500 scenes shot previously by Eugene Atget, who Rauschenberg considers “the greatest photographer of all time.” His website portfolio includes photographs from travels to Europe, China, Tanzania, Thailand, Brazil, and Guatemala. From March 26-April 19 a selection of recent photographs from Poland will be shown at Elizabeth Leach Gallery.


Art notes: Maryhill springs up

Plus: Final call for 'Mother' and Louis Bunce, Goltzius x 3, kickoff for Art Passport PDX, Portland Open Studios' be-a-patron plan

Sunday was shirtsleeve weather in Portland. The torrents returned on Monday, but the temperature’s been inching above 55. The hellebores and daffodils are pushing up. And if you want a sure sign that it’s almost spring (the calendar says it starts next Monday, the 20th) here it is: Maryhill Museum of Art opens for the season on Wednesday, with a big celebration on Saturday.

The museum, in a concrete castle that stands above the Columbia Gorge about a hundred miles east of Portland on the Washington side of the river, battens its hatches every winter when the storms grow fierce, and its reopening every March is a true regional reawakening.

Théâtre de la Mode: “My Wife is a Witch” (Ma Femme est une Sorcière)—A Tribute to René Clair, with 1946 fashions and mannequins; original set by Jean Cocteau, recreated by Ann Surgers; Gift of Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, Collection of Maryhill Museum of Art

The 2017 season, which runs through November 15, appears to be focusing on the museum’s own eclectic collections, with a new installation of its international chess sets, a show of ancient Greek ceramics from the permanent collection, some spruced-up dioramas from it weird and wonderful Théatre de la Mode models of post-World War II French fashion (including the Jean Cocteau design), and an exhibition of recent works added to the permanent collection, including pieces by, among others, Lillian Pitt, Rick Bartow, Betty LaDuke, Fritz Scholder, and R.H. Ives Gammell, the American realist whose symbolic/mythological series of large paintings The Hound of Heaven has long been in the permanent collection.

Angela Swedberg (American, b. 1962), Cheyenne-Style Elk Ladle, 2008, hot off-hand sculpted glass, brain-tanned leather, antique Italian glass seed beads, porcupine quills, silk ribbon and red ochre paint, 28” x 6”; Museum purchase, Collection of Maryhill Museum of Art

Visiting the esoteric blend of passions and aesthetic compulsions that make up the museum – they range from brawny Rodins to furniture designed by Queen Marie of Romania to celebrations of the iconic dancer Loie Fuller to American realist paintings of the 19th century to a significant collection of Native American and Western art – is almost always a blast, and getting there on a nice spring day is half the fun. You can plan your own route and take as much time as you like. I’m partial to a coffee stop in Mosier, then winding through the hills on the old highway into The Dalles, maybe stopping for lunch, and getting back on the freeway for the final lap. The Gorge beckons. Heed its call.


‘The Odyssey of These Days’: From tragedy to hope

Visual artist Wesley Hurd and composer/performer Eliot Grasso’s multimedia collaboration responds to personal and public loss


In the summer of 2015, Wes Hurd was in a melancholy place.

“My mom and dad had passed away, and artistically, I wanted to work on some fresh territory,” says the Eugene artist.

Hurd decided to challenge himself with a series of large, abstract paintings, each with the same size — 51 by 47 inches — and a unifying palette of black, white and gray.

“Through these works, which are process-oriented, I was working through grief and sadness,” Hurd recalls. “I’d finished five paintings and was pretty happy with them. Then the shooting happened.”

First in Wesley Hurd’s series: ‘Between the Knife and the Heart.”

On Oct. 1, 2015, a gunman opened fire inside a Snyder Hall writing class on the Umpqua Community College campus, killing nine people and wounding another eight before turning the gun on himself.

“The last two paintings in the series are a direct response to the shooting,” Hurd says.

Sixth in Wesley Hurd’s series: ‘The Ghost of These Days.’

Eugene composer and musician Eliot Grasso was also moved to reflect on the events that unfolded that day, too close to home. The pair met at an arts event in Eugene, and found they had a lot in common, artistically, but something more. Both artists were looking for answers.

“I first saw Wes’s paintings online and they inspired me to create solo flute sketches in reaction,” Grasso says. “But to see the paintings in person — the texture, depth, the shadows — we met and we both thought, ‘What can we do?’”

Composer/performer Eliot Grasso.

Grasso, who plays the uilleann pipes — like an Irish bagpipe — and Hurd began an artistic collaboration, together exploring and interpreting the intertwining emotional rivulets of tragedy and hope. The result, The Odyssey of These Days, was recognized by the Oregon Arts Commission with an artist fellowship for Grasso in 2017.

On March 3 and 4, in the studio of Eugene’s Hult Center, the pair presented a visual-art installation by Hurd, along with Grasso’s composition, played by an augmented version of Dréos — usually a trio featuring uilleann pipes, violin and Hardanger fiddle, vielle à roué, cello and double bass. For this project, Dréos brought together Wyatt True and Jannie Wei of the Delgani String Quartet, Holly Roberts and Kathryn Brunhaver of the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance Graduate program, Lisa McWhorter, assistant concertmaster of the Eugene Symphony, and bassist Noah Ferguson. Grasso plays uilleann pipes while Seattle’s Brandon Vance holds down a mean Scottish fiddle.

Last in the series: ‘Elegy and Gold.’

Grasso’s composition, The Odyssey of These Days, is divided into three movements: “Between the Knife and the Heart,” “The Ghost of These Days” and “Elegy and Gold.”

“There are three parts to the narrative,” Grasso explains. “Part one is the impact, the news and what it does to someone. Part two is the struggling — an ongoing mental fog — like your mind is slammed around in your head; it just exhausts you.”

Grasso’s second movement vibrates with piercing violin repetitions, “an ostinato to represent the mind spinning,” he says. “Finally, part three is like a resignation — graveside, in the rain, umbrella out, watching a real person lowered into the earth,” Grasso says. “It’s a state of recognition and acknowledgment.”

Creating contemporary music with traditional instruments, Grasso uses ancient sounds as an underpinning, the way Hurd’s paintings rest on massive steel beam armatures. Juicy and ripe, lushly melodic and inviting, with an arresting rhythmic pulse and driving core, Grasso’s music slips and slides from past to present, weaving in and out of folk and classical forms, bringing the traditional Celtic music — its jigs, reels, strathspeys, and aires — into an entirely new realm.

Dréos performed at Eugene’s Hult Center studio.

The festive after-work Friday night audience easily gave way to the portent of the evening, grouping in small pairs, quiet and hushed, as though attending a memorial, or wake. There’s a sobriety to sharing space with strangers, to see art and hear music, that holds a mirror up to your own loss, our loss, those universal dynamics.

As a whole, the music and art complemented each other — like muscle and bone — working to lurch from sitting, to standing, and from standing to walking, in the days and weeks following a death.

Wesley Hurd.

Could the art and music stand alone? Sure. But together, they created a pop-up nave, a temporary sacred space.

A centuries-old dialog — a musical language spoken in pubs and living rooms, around campfires and in cabins — is brought to the fore here. Within this collaboration, the musical composition and the visual art’s gentility and ease, the hard work of mourning is elucidated, and articulated, through each note, each line, scratch or dot in the frame.

Experienced in person last weekend, we felt the music, because it hits us in the same emotional center that makes us want to tap our feet, to sing along, or to weep.

The artists hope to bring The Odyssey of These Days to other venues. Information,  including how to support the project, is available on the project website. A recording of Grasso’s music and a printed catalog of Hurd’s art are also available.

Rachael Carnes has written for The Stranger in Seattle, as well as Eugene Weekly (where a version of this story originally appeared), since the mid-1990s. She covers dance, theater, performance art, as well as human interest stories, and also founded Eugene nonprofit organization Sparkplug Dance, where she teaches movement to kids who juggle any number of risk factors. 

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