by RACHAEL CARNES
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.”
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.
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?’”
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.
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.
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.
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.