In memoriam: Joan Shipley, creator of culture

Joan Shipley at Blue Sky Gallery

Editor’s Note: This originally appeared here last month. Today is the memorial service at PNCA dedicated to Joan Shipley, so it seemed appropriate to re-post it.

To my knowledge, Joan Shipley, who died last week, was not an artist herself, at least not a “public” artist.  But she was a creator of culture, very public culture, so in a way, that made her an artist, too, a culture artist.  And because she was such a good culture artist, the empty space left by her passing is culture wide.

Shipley was an adventurous culture artist. I saw her and her husband John mostly at “small” events, the kind that might just as easily leave you puzzled as amazed — and sometimes both. The farther shores of contemporary dance. Experimental music. Performance art. Edgier visual arts shows. I loved her sense of anticipation, her openness to what was about to happen, her sense of active attention. And if we talked, she frequently had a little story about the artist or the organization staging the performance or a memory to share from a performance past. Sometimes when I wrote about a dance or a concert, I wrote with her in mind, because I figured if I could write something that she would find useful, that would be a pretty good sign that I was on the right track.

Only gradually did I begin to understand how great her sphere of activity really was. And maybe I still don’t. I knew how important she was to the process that made sure the public art of the West Side light rail line was really engaging. She understood the dimensions of that project way before I got around to it, in time to do something about it. I saw her name in the programs of many organizations on the list of contributors, so I knew she and John were major donors, but I didn’t understand how many committees she sat on or how many fundraisers she pushed along. I have no idea how important her good advice and pertinent observations about art and culture have been, but when I look around I see that a lot of the organizations she worked with closely — PICA, Blue Sky Gallery, PNCA and the Museum of Contemporary Craft, Oregon College of Art and Craft, Chamber Music Northwest and many others — are strong and healthy, more so than I might have thought they should be.

As I have tried to understand just what it means to create a healthy, local culture, what that means exactly and how we build it together, Joan has served as a model for the actively engaged audience, how we non-artists can shape the culture around us by supporting what we find important both with money and informed discussion. When we sit passively in our seats or on our couches, we risk transforming the power of art into the anesthesia of entertainment. Unless we are attentive, unless we take responsibility ourselves for what’s in our culture-shed, we can’t make sure that we are getting what we really need, neither the consolation nor the terrifying insight. Joan showed us how to participate in the culture, take responsibility for it ourselves, create it on the fly.  “Thank you” just doesn’t quite say it.

10 Responses.

  1. Mead says:

    Barry, I’m stunned. Somehow I had not heard that Joan had passed. She was a person of enormous culture and intelligence whose thoughts I greatly respected. I know I’m one of many who will miss her presence and her good humor all over Portland. Thank you for your beautiful tribute to her.

  2. Deborah Dombrowski says:

    Barry–a lovely, considered, perceptive appreciation of Joan–as she so richly deserved. She was a generous and expansive presence who really did help this garden grow. Thank-you.

  3. Barb Fordyce says:

    I knew Joan for only a short time. In that time, I knew she was an amazing person with such vitality and vision. Her legacy lives on with her family. Not only has she contributed to our culture and society, but the members of her family will be an extension of her beliefs. John and Joan are truely amazing people. May there memories live on.

  4. Barry Johnson says:

    The first place I will miss her is at the Time-Based Art festival this weekend. I think the rest of us are going to have to be that much better of an audience… Thanks for the comments Mead, Deborah and Barb.

  5. Christopher Rauschenberg says:

    It’s hard to imagine a more magnificent and wonderful person.

  6. Joan was such a force and a friend. Working with Reed College and its earlier art galleries, she challenged young curators to be bold. She brought her friends and peers in to see what generative artists were doing. Her gift, maintaining true curiosity into adulthood, is the mark of a real creative.

  7. Barry, I didn’t know her but this is a beautiful tribute and I loved learning about her. Thank you for all you do to explore “just what it means to create a healthy, local culture, what that means exactly and how we build it together…” Louise

  8. Cheryl Snow says:

    Beautiful tribute, Barry. Among Joan’s many gifts was her ability to quietly listen and observe and then — pragmatically and matter-of-factly — help find solutions. And what I most admired about Joan Shipley is how much impact she had upon so many, with such little need for fanfare and horn-tooting while she was doing it. Joan was a rare and graceful person, Portland will miss her very much.

  9. Colleen Freidberg says:

    Joan’s death is a major loss for Portland.
    Our paths have crossed over the years
    at our children’s school, concerts and lectures.
    She was an elegant woman with classic
    style and an awesome intellect.

  10. Martha Ullman West says:

    Like Barry, I saw Joan and John at many many contemporary arts events, mostly dance and physical theater performances, but I also some years ago when Mary Catherine Bateson was in town doing a public lecture (maybe for Portland Arts and Lectures, but possibly for the other, Science and Society series, and I’m paraphrasing) and teaching a class at Catlin Gabel, I attended a dinner party Joan and John gave in Catherine’s honor at their home. The guest list was an extraordinary cross section of Portland artists and intellectuals, the conversation was fascinating, the warmth of the hospitality something to bask in. Joan was a real catalyst it seems to me, and that’s a gift not many people have.

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