Finding our way: Betty Feves, Adrienne Rich, Yasmeen Godder

So, in the past 24 hours I saw a dancer digging fake viscera out of a stuffed animal of unknown species (I’m thinking it was goat-like, though).  Before that I saw a beautiful exhibition of work by the late Betty Feves, and it made me want to start a bonfire. And then just moments ago, I appeared on OPB’s Think Out Loud and spent so much time talking about the unequal distribution of the goods of the society that I didn’t have time to distribute one of those goods — a poem by the late Adrienne Rich. Stick with me and I’ll rectify that for you, lucky readers,  though I’ll always feel bad for all those people in radio land who will go without!

Do these things have anything to do with one another? Well, maybe the work of Feves and Rich, but just glancingly. Feves was one of those dynamos who built a successful life for herself in Pendleton, Oregon, adventurous in its exploration of the arts and in its commitment to building and serving a community.  Perhaps because of her gender and her geography, her life and art reached fewer people than Rich, who was so important to so many woman (and men) seeking to understand the conditions that limited the reach of Feves, successful as she was. I don’t know, but that’s how I’m thinking about it right now.

The viscera? They came from the comic imagination of Israeli choreographer Yasmeen Godder, whose “Love Fire” is a work of comic genius of a sort, almost burlesque, and almost completely unthinkable in the world (1918-1985) that Feves inhabited.

Betty Feves, Three Figures No. 4, 1955; Stoneware;
18x12x6 inches; Oregon Ceramic Studio Purchase, 1998.55.02.
/Photo: Dan Kvitka

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I’ll start with Feves, because anyone who seeks to understand this specific ground we walk upon and the culture we operate within should consider seeing “Generations: Betty Feves” at the Museum of Contemporary Craft. Bob Hicks has already written eloquently about the show for ArtsWatch, but allow me to second some of his points and his motion that it’s well worth the trip.

I don’t know what I admire most about Feves. Her persistent energy, experimentation and creative mind, all applied to the people and landscapes of Eastern Oregon, so that to gaze at one of her gritty, striated tower constructions is like visiting that rocky, spare country?  The deft touch of her drawings? The scientific bent that led her to test so many different materials, glazes and firing techniques for her ceramic art? (This is where the bonfire comes in, actually in a film in the exhibition.) The number of people she touched and served in and around Pendleton, specifically, but the state, too?  The excitement this show creates in a visitor, such as myself? Maybe it’s just her capacity to be and do ALL of these things.

The show itself, carefully researched and curated by Namita Gupta Wiggers, the museum’s curator, is clear and open and beautiful, like the country that Feves loved, with natural light pouring into the space, even on a rainy day.  Enough explanation is available to help us understand Feves’s story (especially if you read Bob’s post!), and the show balances Feves’s big sculptural work and her smaller more delicate objects, giving the former room to stretch out and providing near neighbors to the latter. I especially loved the collection of bonfire-fired pots from 1981, which give us a sense of the breadth of her explorations within this single form.

This isn’t a pot show, though. There are those towers, lots of figures and other sculptural pieces, for example. Feves was involved very early with the fusion of Modernist-inspired art and a craft medium, and the work from the 1940s and 1950s took me back to those interesting times in Oregon art, maybe the most exciting ever here up until our own time. But go and see for yourself, the color and rough texture of our earth, this record of our pragmatics and our dreams.

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“Love Fire” reminded me of the madcap, internally consistent but crazy world of playwright Richard Foreman, with movement substituting for the wordplay. Because Foreman isn’t for everyone, neither is Godder’s “Love Fire,” brought to us courtesy of White Bird, even though dancer Matan Zamir is incredibly engaging — oh, the earnestness with which he digs out those internal organs! — and Yodder herself, bold as she can be, is willing to go to great lengths for a laugh. And you have to hand it to a dance in which one dancer dons the goat-like carcass on his head and the other rides it like Debra Winger in “Urban Cowboy”—and it also makes sense in its own weird way.

All of this plays out to a series of waltzes, both exuberant and melancholy, even a bit from Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21, which someone makes it even more absurd, this rush of activity. What does it all “signify,” exactly? I have no idea, though I viewed it as exemplifying how we get caught up in crazy situations, despite knowing how crazy it all is. At one point in his beginning solo, Zamir was in the thrall of “The Blue Danube,” the timing of his spasms matching Strauss’s 3/4 time, and he looked out at us with an expression that said, “Hey, this is the carnival ride I’m on, what can I do about it.”

Although I found parts of the show hilarious, I noticed that sometimes I was laughing alone, oops, and even I didn’t get the foggy visitation at the end by Yochai Matos and his play with fluorescent lights. But maybe you will! Here’s a video from a different Godder piece.

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Which gets me to Adrienne Rich, who died earlier this week at the age of 82. I was invited to appear on the Culture Club segment of Think Out Loud, and I was asked to come up with topics for consideration, and Rich was one that I suggested, given her cultural importance, especially to the early days of feminism in America, not because I’m an expert on her or anything. I was asked to find a Rich poem to read on the show, and I found Translations, which appeared in the The Nation, and which I hope they won’t mind if I use. The segment was dominated by discussion of Trayvon Martin and the prospects of health care reform in the Supreme Court. I contended that both were at heart a matter of uneven distributions — of justice in the case of Martin and of health care in the case before the Supreme Court. Others opposed that position. So be it.

Anyway, we didn’t have time for that poem. It’s from 1972. In fact, it’s subtitle is December 25, 1972. And the more I read it, the more I like it. Maybe you will, too?

Adrienne Rich/ Courtesy Poetry Foundation

Translations

December 25, 1972

Adrienne Rich

You show me the poems of some woman
my age, or younger
translated from your language

Certain words occur: enemy, oven, sorrow
enough to let me know
she’s a woman of my time

obsessed

with Love, our subject:
we’ve trained it like ivy to our walls
baked it like bread in our ovens
worn it like lead on our ankles
watched it through binoculars as if
it were a helicopter
bringing food to our famine
or the satellite
of a hostile power

I begin to see that woman
doing things: stirring rice
ironing a skirt
typing a manuscript till dawn

trying to make a call
from a phonebook

the phone rings unanswered
in a man’s bedroom
she hears him telling someone else
never mind. she’ll get tired
hears him telling her story to her sister

who becomes her enemy
and will in her own time
light her own way to sorrow

ignorant of the fact this way of grief
is shared, unnecessary
and political

 

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