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.