Profiles & Conversations 2017

From poets to painters to dancers to actors to musicians, 21 tales from ArtsWatch on the people who make the art and why they do it

Art is a whole lot of things, but at its core it’s about people, and how they see life, and how they make a life, and how they get along or struggle with the mysteries of existence. That includes, of course, the artists themselves, whose stories and skills are central to the premise. In 2017 ArtsWatch’s writers have sat down with a lot of artists – painters, actors, dancers and choreographers, poets, music-makers – and listened as they spun out their tales.

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Here are 21 stories from 2017 about Oregon artists and artists who’ve come here to do their work:

 


 

Erik Skinner. Photo: Michael Shay

Eric Skinner’s happy landing

Jan. 18: “On the afternoon that Snowpocalypse struck Portland, Eric Skinner walked into the lobby at BodyVox Dance Center after a morning in the studio and settled easily onto one of the long couches in the corner. As always he looked trim and taut: small but strong and tough, with a body fat index down somewhere around absolute zero. If anyone looks like a dancer, Skinner does. Even in repose he seems all about movement: you get the sense he might spring up suddenly like a Jumping Jack on those long lean muscles and bounce somewhere, anywhere, just for the sake of bouncing.” In January, after 30 years on Portland stages, Skinner was getting ready to retire from BodyVox – but not from dance, he told Bob Hicks.

 


 

Les Watanabe in ‘Sojourn’ by Donald McKayle, Inner City Repertory Company. Photographed by Martha Swope in New York. 1972. Photo courtesy of Les Watanabe

Les Watanabe on Alvin Ailey, Lar Lubovich, Donald McKayle and his life in dance

Jan. 20: In a wide-ranging Q&A interview, Jamuna Chiarini hears a lot of modern-dance history from Watanabe, who was in the thick of it and now teaches at Western Oregon University:

“During Alvin Ailey’s CBS rehearsals, Lar Lubovitch was teaching in the next studio. I ran into him at the drinking fountain. While living in L.A., I had read articles about him in Dance Magazine. So while he was stooped over drinking, I exclaimed, ‘Lar Lubovitch! I’ve read all about you!’

“At that point he stood up facing me wiping his mouth and looking incredulous like, ‘Who is this guy?’ I then asked, ‘Do you ever have auditions? I would love to dance with you.’

“’Are you dancing now?’ he asked.

“’Yes, with Alvin Ailey next door, but it is only for five weeks.’

“’Where do you take class?’ Lar asked. ‘At Maggie Black’s,’ I answered. ‘Good. Let’s meet at her first class. Then you can rush back to rehearsal. See you next week.’”

 


 

Tad Savinar, THE NEW MAN, 14 x 11.5 inches, Digital print on paper,
2014

Tad Savinar on making theater, urban design and studio art

Jan. 22: The longtime Portland artist, whose career has included public art, studio art, urban design, and theater (among other plays, he wrote Talk Radio with Eric Bogosian) discusses all of it with Paul Sutinen, including this on the nature of public vs. studio art: “Any time you have a client it’s not a studio piece. A client presents you with an opportunity, says ‘here are the parameters—are you willing to work within these parameters?’ That is completely different for me than an ongoing continual trajectory of personally driven studio practice because in a studio practice all work emanates from something internal. Although an external event may trigger the wish to create a piece, it’s not given parameters and it’s not work for hire. So that was kind of the beginning understanding of public art versus studio art for me, and I even allowed myself to do things in the public art that I might not have done in my studio work in terms of treating it like an assignment rather than the evolution of my studio work.”

 


 

Portland composer Kenji Bunch. Photo: Meg Nanna for Artslandia.

Kenji Bunch: Seeing the elephant

March 7: Brett Campbell talks with the multi-talented composer and musician about life in New York, returning home to Portland, and the many aspects of his musical career: “If you only heard him play and sing in his bluegrass band, you’d peg him as a folkie/Americana musician. If you spotted him in the viola section of the Oregon Symphony or with his Thunder Egg Consort, you’d think of him as a performing classical music violist. If you witnessed him teaching young Oregonians, you’d see him as a valuable mentor for the next generation. And if you heard any of the dozens of original works he’s created over the last quarter century for orchestra, chamber ensemble, solo instrumentalists, and singers, you’d think of him as one of the leading American composers of his generation, best known for amalgamating traditional American musical forms like the blues and European-based classical music.”

 


 

Roger Guenveur Smith as Rodney King. Photo: Patti McGuire

Can we all get along? Roger Guenveur Smith and Rodney King’s story for our times

April 14: The actor and playwright answered questions from Bob Hicks about his career as a solo artist and in particular his one-man play Rodney King, about the man whose brutal beating by Los Angeles police officers in 1991 was captured on videotape and spread around the globe. King performed the piece at Artists Rep: “King’s notoriety, as ‘the first reality TV star,’ was beaten into him, and his subsequent life
 was a largely solo performance, without benefit of an abolitionist movement or a Black Panther Party for Self-Defense.
 But like that other King, he delivered one of the great American speeches, pleading that we 
all ‘get along.’
 And his dream, like that other King’s, has been betrayed.
 The new American mantra is ‘I can’t breathe.’”

 


 

Blake Shell is the new executive director at Disjecta.

Blake Shell takes the lead at Disjecta

April 20: Paul Sutinen talked with Shell when she departed one important arts center – The Art Gym, at Maryhill University – to become, essentially, the producer at another, Disjecta: “Actually I was involved in one of the first shows that happened in this building, in the summer of 2008. I didn’t know the history of Disjecta. I walked in and I thought, ‘This is a really amazing space. I don’t know what goes on here, but I want to know more.’ That whole summer was like that for me. I was meeting people. People were showing me cool interesting spaces that were happening and also just connecting with me with people who wanted to see the Portland art community grow. I didn’t walk into the Disjecta building saying, ‘I’m going to run this in nine years,’ but I knew that there was a community that was excited about people coming in and wanting to do stuff. It’s worked out very well for me. I feel really fortunate because I could not have guessed at that point that I would get to do all the things that I’ve done.”

 


 

Tom Gold in the studio. Photo: Mark Murphy

Tom Gold on ballet

May 25: The celebrated choreographer and former New York City Ballet soloist sat down with Jamuna Chiarini to talk about his career, his links to Portland, and his work Festival Russe, which he was in town to set on the young dancers of The Portland Ballet. On working with choreographer Twyla Tharp: “Crazy, insane. Really exciting because it’s more cerebral than actual pleasure. I don’t know if that’s the right word. Basically, you’ll go into the studio and she won’t speak and she’ll just start moving and go … ( Tom is wildly gesticulating at different body parts) like mime, look at my feet, look at my head, no, you’re not doing it right. And then she’ll be like, ‘What did you think of that’ after three hours of no speaking. And you’re like, ‘Yeah, I like this, and I like that.’ And she’s like, ‘Come back tomorrow.’ And she just starts creating these pieces.”

 


 

Lee Kelly in his studio/shop. “Winter Garden at Muktinath” in process at left.

Sculptor Lee Kelly: Pointing toward Asia

June 1: At 85 and with almost 60 years of public and private commissions behind him, Kelly is the dean of Oregon sculptors, well-known for his signature works. Getting to this point, he told Paul Sutinen, has included a lot of side steps, including a stint in the military that got him the G.I. Bill and allowed him to enroll in art school: “It was the Air Force reserves unit at Portland Airbase. It was a whole Air Force wing. They had to keep all these planes going. They were all World War II guys who came home and wanted to have something to do on the weekends, so it seemed like a real good deal. There was an opening as a draftsman so I signed up. About a month after I signed up, they activated the whole damn unit. Then it took me almost 4 1/2 years to get untangled. That included the Korean tour.”

 


 

Choreographer Helen Simoneau in rehearsals for her new work for Oregon Ballet Theatre’s “Choreography XX.” Photo: Yi Yin.

Helen Simoneau’s work in progress

June 15: Jamuna Chiarini talked with the choreographer, who was in town to create a piece for “Choreography XX,” Oregon Ballet Theatre’s program of works by three women choreographers: “I think that there is a sense of tradition in ballet that is really wonderful and joyful, and I can also see how it could limit choreographically what you think you are allowed to do, or can go into. And I have to say that being here, Kevin (Irving) has not restricted us in any way. It was really up to us whether I wanted to do pointe work or not, how many dancers, if it was an even number of men and women. None of that was prescribed. He made it very clear from the beginning that he trusts us, based on our experience already and what he’s seen, to make the right choice. And that’s wonderful to have that trust. The dancers are the same way. They are very open and willing to try anything.”

 


 

Kailey Rhodes (left) and Andrea Vernea: moving up. Photo: Bobby Bermea

Spotlight: Rising actors Andrea Vernae and Kailey Rhodes

Sept. 10: The Portland theater season, Bobby Bermea wrote in his expansive double interview, “was brightened considerably by breakout performances from two of its newest stars,” who then went on to appear together in Artists Rep’s provocative hit An Octoroon: “Vernae strode the deck of the ship in Portland Playhouse’s’s pen/man/ship with ferocity and grit, infusing her character Ruby with incisive intelligence and sense of purpose. It was an arresting performance, grounded by Vernae’s rich gravitas. When she speaks, you believe her. If you’d seen her earlier in the season in Profile Theatre’s Antigone Project, you recognized her performance in pen/man/ship as simply promise fulfilled. … Rhodes made her mark with deft precision and impeccable timing in Artist Rep’s dazzling revival of The Importance of Being Earnest. In a cast filled to the brim with sterling performances, Rhodes stood out. She’s an effortless, economical performer, with a natural instinct for what’s needed and what isn’t. She steps into heightened realities and makes them feel totally natural. When Earnest opened she wasn’t a complete unknown to Portland audiences. After all, she’d been nominated for a Drammy for her work in Chicago (Metropolitan Community Theatre Project). But her move to the larger stage wasn’t just seamless, it was dynamic.”

 


 

Jef Gunn in his studio, August 2017. Photo: Paul Sutinen

Jef Gunn on the coming and going of his art

Sept. 10: Paul Sutinen interviews the Portland painter, who likes encaustic because it “can bring together all of my other methods: oils, papers and inks, fabric, tar, and gold”: “Actually, in my senior year in high school they said, ‘You’re not doing very well in high school. How about you take the last half of your senior year and go up to Pasadena City College and take art classes?’ I said, ‘Yup.’ I went and took color and design and drawing and found out that I wasn’t the only artist in the school. In high school I was the artist in the school. I spent a year not knowing what the hell to do and went back to PCC and then transferred to Cabrillo College. Before Marylhurst [BFA 2005] that was the only college I had—junior college painting classes, and I did a building technology program at the same time.”

 


 

Tess Gallagher: writing a life.

Tess Gallagher on Raymond Carver

Sept. 18: Danielle Vermette talked with the poet, essayist, and short story writer about her own career and her life with her late husband, the Clatskanie, Oregon-born short story writer Carver. Gallagher, who lives in Port Angeles, Wash., was in town to see Imago Theatre’s stage adaptation of three Carver short stories and a poem. She spoke of another adaptation of Carver’s work, Robert Altman’s film Short Cuts: “Well, Altman’s sense of humor was different from Ray’s and his nature was tougher in some sense, and perhaps Altman had a more fluid sense of reality than Ray. In Ray’s world his people were always running up against obstacles they couldn’t figure how to go forward with. They often ended up in a kind of Chekhovian hopefulness. Very impotent and wondering how they got so isolated and without notions of getting to what they wished for in life. Altman was able to connect up these stories and bring the characters into collisions and intersections with each other so they became more novelistic perhaps.”

 


 

Mizu Desierto.

Mizu Desierto: Embracing the matriarch

Sept. 27: Jamuna Chiarini talked with the butoh artist and co-founder of Portland’s Water in the Desert about her work Matriarch: “I have been crafting a series of short dying rituals for my grandmother over the past year. One of which I offered in her home, for her family, with many of her precious belongings, as a funerary dance. As a process of my healing, I needed to keep repeating and updating the ritual in various places and conditions. In June, while taking part in a residency at Playa Summer Lake, with Ævium (an intergenerational women’s dance project), I asked our photographer, Miana Jun; our filmmaker, Stephen Miller; and our sound designer, Lisa DeGrace; to join me at sunrise so I could perform and document the dying ritual on a small alkaline lake island on the cracked desert playa. That morning ritual on film became a kind of centerpiece for the work, and from there I began to think about other trajectories of past, present, and future that I felt were somehow related.”

 


 

Spenser Theberge and Jermaine Spivey. Photo: Michael Slobodian

Spenser Theberge talks dance in Europe and dance in Portland

Sept. 29: Jamuna Chiarini interviewed the Portland-native international dancer, who’s performed with Nederlands Dans Theatre among other companies, about his new work at Disjecta and his personal and professional partnership with Jermaine Spivey: “We came back to Portland because it’s my home. I haven’t performed in Portland since graduating high school—I miss sharing the work I’m doing with my family and community. Jermaine and I had already planned this visit for the whole month of September, so it seemed like a great opportunity to put on our own show! My sister, Amy, is an event planner and works at Disjecta. She made this whole thing happen, which is so awesome. Why not New York? I love New York, but making work there is difficult. It’s hard to carve out a space for yourself in such an intense field, and it’s hard, when you’re an emerging creator, to convince people to take a chance on you. It feels like there’s more room and open ears for new work in Portland and the West Coast. I also feel like it’s important to contribute to the place you come from. The Portland area has supported me so much and I’m really excited to start sharing back with the city.”

 


 

Samantha Van Der Merwe, Shaking the Tree’s driving creative force. Photo: Dmae Roberts

Spotlight on: Samantha Van Der Merwe and Caucasian Chalk Circle

Oct. 9: Bobby Bermea profiled the driving creative force behind the theater company Shaking the Tree: “Samantha Van Der Merwe, Shaking the Tree’s founder, artistic director, and primary engine, has built a sterling reputation for work that is visually striking, thematically powerful and dramaturgically daring. She is perhaps our most adept magician, with an eclectic and facile command of the theatrical vocabulary. Her singular visual sense is part and parcel of her storytelling oeuvre. She has a knack for making simple choices that feel audacious. Van Der Merwe’s special gift is knowing the one specific detail that will alight the audience’s imagination, and make its members her intimates in the act of creation.”

 


 

Stephen Hayes, “Self Portrait”, 2002

A conversation with painter Stephen Hayes

Oct. 14: Even when he was getting his MFA, the Portland artist told Paul Sutinen, he didn’t really think of himself as becoming a painter: “Not at all. And that other loaded word of being an ‘artist.’ It wasn’t until the last 10 to 15 years that I’ve had any ease with using that term—describing myself being an ‘artist.’ It’s easier to describe myself as being a ‘painter’ than being an artist because a ‘painter’ felt like something physical that I was getting to, something I was connecting to. Being an artist has always felt like something much less understandable and a little bit mystical—a bit like I’m not the one that gets to say that. That has to be said about the work that I make.”

 


 

Allie Hankins in Now Then: A Prologue. Photo: Ashley Sophia Clark

Allie Hankins talks about her creative process

Nov. 9: Jamuna Chiarini talked with the Portland performer about When We, her two-year, long-distance collaboration at Performance Works NW with San Francisco dance artist and curator Rachael Dichter. The work, Hankins said, is set in “an austere world characterized by coded language, penetrating focus, and biting humor”: “I write most every day. … In this piece … there’s very little text, there’s some. It was sourced from a rhythmic prompt, actually. We were trying to really research rhythm, this very specific rhythm inside the movement choreography, and we wanted to reflect it and balance it with text. And the way the text works in the piece is that it is obfuscated, so you can’t really discern what we’re saying, but it’s definitely there and it’s informing. So, it was then, ‘OK what’s the rhythm, how do we establish that, how do we layer that, how do we perform it together?’ It’s very minimal, but I really like it, I don’t know, we’ll see.”

 


 

Anthony Lam, relaxing offstage. Photo: Bobby Bermea

Spotlight on Anthony Lam

Nov. 14: Bobby Bermea profiled the actor who made a huge impression on audiences by starring this season in all three of Quiara Alegría Hudes’ soldier trilogy plays for Profile Theatre – Elliott: A Soldier’s Fugue, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Water by the Spoonful, and The Happiest Song Plays Last: “I learned that Elliott had this tough-guy mentality but inside he was this insecure kid. He longed for the love of his father. That’s me. That’s me in a nutshell. I had to be willing to allow myself to be that vulnerable, to show that side of Elliott. It’s very easy to show this tough kid, this charming, cracks-jokes kind of kid but on the inside he’s crumbling. He’s desperately trying to connect with his father, his grandfather. He’s trying to put the pieces together of where he went and who he became after that.”

 


 

Lucinda Parker, from “Face to Face.” Photo: K.B. Dixon

A conversation with Lucinda Parker

Nov. 16: One of the most prominent painters in the Pacific Northwest, Parker – who studied painting during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism – told Paul Sutinen she always knew she wanted to be an artist: “(From) childhood. I was always a painter. When I was a little tiny kid my mom used to let me paint on manila paper with the poster paint that you mix powder in with. She would put newspaper on the kitchen table and allowed me to paint when I was 2, 3, 4, 5. Lots of kids paint at that stage, but I just kept going. Then my grandma gave me a small sketchbook when I was 10, and I looked at that sketchbook and I said, ‘I know what—I’m going to actually use this to look at real things and draw them.’ Before that I lay on my stomach and copied the cartoons, for example Li’l Abner or Pogo, and then later on I was totally addicted to Tintin. I didn’t copy Tintin, but I thought he was wonderful. That was just something I was doing.”

 


 

Luisa Sermol: The North Star. Photo: Owen Carey

Spotlight on: Luisa Sermol

Dec. 8: Bobby Bermea profiled Sermol, the “North Star” and “grande dame” of Portland actors, as she was preparing for the next stage of her life in the San Francisco Bay Area. “If there’s one thing that that theater teaches us, it’s that all stories come to an end. And what a story it’s been. It’s a story that stretches from the Old World to the new and from one coast to the other. It’s a story that has elements of a classic romance, including, at the center, a fiery, red-haired heroine, sacrificing everything for love. It’s a story of a woman who fought to define her life on her own terms, even though at times that cost her. And it’s the story of that transitional period of Portland theater, from names like Storefront and Tygre’s Heart, to today with names like Shaking-the-Tree and Portland Playhouse. … The story of Luisa Sermol is the story of a city coming of age.”

Luisa Sermol, Part 2: Our grande dame takes a bow

Dec. 9: Bermea concludes the profile.

 


 

 

Candace Bouchard as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Peter Franc as her Cavalier in 2015’s “Nutcracker” at OBT. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Candace Bouchard: After one last Dewdrop, the world awaits

Dec. 7: Heather Wisner profiled the longtime Oregon Ballet Theatre soloist, who will retire after the final performance of this month’s Nutcracker: “’People would say to me, “I’ve never met a real ballerina before.” Saying you’re a ballerina is like saying you’re a princess or a unicorn. Many people [are] unfamiliar with the idea that this is a career path.’ It is, of course, and like many careers, it offers pet projects and professional disappointments. Bouchard has gotten to stretch her technical and artistic skills in a range of classical and contemporary ballets, including such personal favorites as William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude and Helen Pickett’s Petal, although she has also faced casting letdowns, such as dancing the mother in Romeo and Juliet instead of Juliet herself. And her retirement means that now there are ballets she’ll never perform, although she’s made peace with that.”

 


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