Philip Glass’s music makes a perfect match to Kafka’s provocative story in Portland Opera’s potent production 


Why on earth do we go to an opera? Great singing? Check. Realistic, affecting acting? Check. Innovative sets and staging ? Check. Uplifting and hopeful story leaving you with peace, happiness, and lightness of spirit.? Hmmm…uh, not so much, when the story is Philip Glass’s 2000 adaptation of Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.”

From the get-go, the plot is studded with emotional downers, with no end in sight. It features, in a nutshell, a sentry who failed to salute an superior and is condemned – without his knowledge or ability to defend himself – to death on a contrived (and thankfully non-existent) mechanical apparatus that imprints the letters of a man’s crime on his flesh. Meanwhile, an Officer oversees the torture and a Visitor drops in to observe. Soooo… it’s a grand night for singing, eh? 

Ryan Thorn as The Officer in Portland Opera’s new production of Philip Glass’s ‘In the Penal Colony.’ Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.

Yes, indeed, because it’s the Portland Opera and its production of In the Penal Colony, which runs through August 10 at Hampton Opera Center’s intimate studio theater, is a stunner.

But c’mon, this is not the only or last opera to get a bit grim. See Verdi: young Princess sealed in a tomb; father murders daughter in a sack. See Puccini: heroine dies of consumption, and so on. You see? Kafka’s grim, absurdist tale, void of heroes or redemption plot can exist comfortably in the opera genre – thanks to Philip Glass.


DramaWatch: Linda Alper’s place at the table

A staged reading of the veteran actor/writer's "The Best Worst Place" highlights this weekend's Proscenium Live showcase of new plays

“God is closest to those with broken hearts.”

— from The Best Worst Place, by Linda Alper

A decade ago, an American actor named Joseph Graves, artistic director of Peking University’s Institute of World Theatre and Film, hired some actors from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to teach workshops in Beijing, Hong Kong, and Taipei. A year or so later, one of those actors, Linda Alper, her appetite whetted to return to Asia, landed a Fulbright grant, allowing her to spend a year in Taiwan teaching Shakespeare at Soochow University and National Taiwan University.

Though her students mostly were fluent in English, the metaphor and symbolism of Shakespeare, she said, were a big challenge. Among the ways she made things clear?

I’d put signs on things.”

Signs and symbols and China all loom large in Alper’s new play, The Best Worst Place, a fascinating blend of coming-of-age story and historical fiction, with a dash of espionage thriller. Being developed as part of Artists Repertory Theatre’s Table|Room|Stage new-play program, The Best Worst Place gets a staged reading this weekend in PSU’s Lincoln Hall as part of Proscenium Live, presented by Portland Shakespeare Project and Proscenium Journal.

Linda Alper with Michael Mendelson in Artists Repertory Theatre’s 2013 production of Ten Chimneys. Photo: Owen Carey

This will be the fifth year for Proscenium Live, and as usual it draws on a wealth of Portland theater talent. The Best Worst Place, Saturday evening’s reading directed by Jane Unger, will feature Claire Rigsby, Jason Glick, Foss Curtis, Barbie Wu and Joshua J. Weinstein. On Sunday afternoon, Portland Shakes co-founder Michael Mendelson directs Kelly Godell, Agatha Olsen, Murri Lazaroff-Babin, Sharonlee McLean, Lolly Ward and Proscenium Journal editor-in-chief Steve Rathje in Water From Fire, Sue Mach’s extension of the story of Hermione from The Winter’s Tale. That evening, Seattle playwright Carl Sanders’ Mercer Island Misalliance, which transposes George Bernard Shaw’s pointed political template to the 2016 Presidential election, fairly overflows with Portland stage favorites: Sharonlee McLean, Olivia Weiss, La’Tevin Alexander Ellis, Kelly Godell, Bobby Bermea, Dave Bodin, Jim Vadala and David Sikking, with Mendelson again directing.

All that sounds promising. But I’m most excited for Alper’s play.

The Best Worst Place takes place in the shadow — and in the dark, world-wide wake — of World War II and the Holocaust. The story’s central character is Eva, a Jewish teen whose family flees from their small German town before the war. Refused entry to the United States and many other countries, they join a teeming, tumultuous international refugee community in Shanghai, where occupying Japanese authorities soon force them into a fetid ghetto. There, Eva struggles  — with the cramped conditions, with her attempts to learn Chinese, to maintain friendships, to understand her parents and herself and an increasingly chaotic world. Some of Alper’s most resonant writing in the play relates the uses and deciphering of signs and symbols, whether they be anti-Jewish restrictions posted around Germany, clues to meaning in the strokes of logographic Chinese characters, the coded communications of resistance networks, or even the behaviorial hints of romantic interest.

“It can’t just be like a newsreel,” Alper says, in a video above from the Artists Rep website. It’s also about what “any young person goes through growing up in those years of their life and becoming an adult, in all the ways that we all do. And so how is that different in an extraordinary circumstance? And how is it the same? There’s a lot of information that people left, that people wrote about.”

That Alper, too, has written about it is a sign of good things.



Now 70 years old and still a marvelous model of the American musical,  South Pacific, the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic about Americans stationed overseas during World War II, delivers romance, trenchant social commentary and a treasure trove of memorable songs such as “Some Enchanted Evening,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” and “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught.” Sad to say, its theme of the poisonous effects of racial prejudice remains painfully pertinent. Clackamas Repertory Theatre stages the sturdy crowd-pleaser, directed by  Jayne Stevens and Wesley Robert Hanson. 


The highest goal of human freedom and justice is the ability of teenagers to go dancing. Well, at least that notion appears to be the dramatic engine moving this stage-musical adaptation of the hit 1980s movie Footloose. Peggy Tapthorn directs a cast featuring the marvelous Malia Tippets, as Broadway Rose helps you “kick off the Sunday shoes.” 


Though set in a forest (mostly), As You Like It should work fine at a vineyard. Portland Actors Ensemble in collaboration with Willamette Shakespeare Company presents Shakespeare’s comedy — directed by Sara Fay Goldman with an extra emphasis on the fluidity of gender roles — at Stoller Family Estate in Dayton. After its initial weekend, the production moves to other area wineries and to Reed College.


“Now I lays me down to sleep

 I prays de Lord me soul to keep

 And if de cop should find me — den

 I prays he’ll leave me be. Amen.”

That “newsboy’s prayer” from the late 1890s gives a glimpse of the meager life and street-urchin argot of the youngsters who peddled penny newspapers around the big cities of the era. However humble their circumstances, their 1899 strike against millionaire publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst  eventually inspired a Broadway musical by Harvey Fierstein (based on a dud Disney movie). Plucky little guys bravely defy injustice! Plus: dancing!

Newsies gets a community-theater production by Journey Theater in Vancouver.


The Oregon Coast boasts plenty of attractions to lure folks on a summer weekend. But why don’t we add theater to that list. Red Octopus Theatre Company in Newport has On Golden Pond on the boards right now and a variety of intriguing selections for the coming months.


Director Brenda Hubbard’s The Comedy of Errors, which started a few weeks ago at the West Side Shakespeare Festival in Beaverton, concludes its run at Torii Mor Winery in Dundee.


Summer is for Shakespeare in parks. But Shakespeare in a cemetery has its place as well. Portland Actors Ensemble’s The Tragedie of King Lear, directed by Patrick Walsh, winds up its residence in the fitting setting of Southeast Portland’s Lone Fir Cemetery, with Jim Butterfield as the aging king and such terrific supporting actors as Paige McKinney (Goneril), Jill Westerby (Regan) and Gary Powell (Gloucester). 


in the late 1990s I had the privilege of spending a year on a National Arts Journalism Fellowship, a program funded by the Pew Charitable Trust. At one point, all the participating arts critics and associated academics gathered for a few days in New York City for a round of meetings, museum tours, performances and such. This was a group of folks accustomed to speaking with famous people, to artists and civic leaders (a different fellowship gathering included a tour of Pixar Studios, at which we were greeted by none other than Steve Jobs himself). And being culture mavens in NYC, we spotted a lot of celebrities that weekend. No big deal.

There was one moment, though, where I saw a ripple of nervous excitement go through our ranks, the uncontrolled thrill that comes with the sudden combination of hero worship and physical proximity. Several of our ranks went to see a Broadway production of The Little Foxes, and as we made our way from the lobby into the auditorium, there he was — not onstage, but among us, just a few feet away, another member of the audience, yet so much more: Wallace Shawn!

The play was excellent, but what we talked about afterward was that we’d seen Wallace Shawn!!

This is a column about theater, about art on the stage; but the screen has its virtues. One of which is that we can watch, repeatedly, something such as this, Shawn as Uncle Vanya, in Louis Malle’s film version Vanya on 42nd Street:


“Music is a moment. But life’s a long time. In that moment, when it’s good, when you really swinging — then you joined to everything, to everybody, to skies and stars and every living thing. But music ain’t kissing. Kissing’s what you want to do. Music’s what you got to do, if you got to do it. Question is how long you can keep up with the music when you ain’t got nobody to kiss.”

— James Baldwin, from “The Amen Corner”


That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

DanceWatch: August feast of fests

From Native American to Indian dance styles, bachata to bhangra to bellydance and obon to Art in the Dark, it's a month to see and do

If you thought you were going to catch your breath this month before the crush of fall performances, forget about it. August is busier than ever, and the many dance genres it promises is a good thing. From Native American to Indian dance styles, bachata to bhangra to bellydance, there’s enough to keep us occupied throughout the month. Better still? Much of it is free. We’ll sleep when we’re dead, right?


Painted Sky Northstar Native Dance Company plays the Washington Park Summer Festival. Photo courtesy Mary Hager.

Painted Sky Northstar Native Dance Company with Evening Star Painted Ponies
6 p.m. Aug. 2
Washington Park Rose Garden Amphitheatre, 410 SW Kingston Ave.

As Jamuna Chiarini wrote her in March DanceWatch column, the Portland-based Painted Sky Northstar Dance Company has been hard at work since 2005, breaking down stereotypes and myths about Native American people, and building bridges through education and performance. Its repertoire, performed nationally and internationally by a dozen or so dancers, includes traditional dance forms as well as blended contemporary styles. Washington Park’s amphitheater will provide a beautiful backdrop for this summer evening show.


JamBallah 2018 Instructor Showcase. Photo by Casey Campbell Photography.

JamBallah Northwest
Aug. 2-4
Lewis & Clark College, 0615 Palatine Road

The bellydance diaspora congregates on the Lewis & Clark campus this month for the three-day Jamballah Northwest. Practitioners from all over will take part in classes and performances focused on Middle Eastern dance and its American Fusion versions. Two Portlanders—Sharon Kihara and Bevin Victoria—are among the featured artists, as are Amel Tafsout (Algeria/California), Aziza (Quebec), Ozgen (Turkey/England) and Rin Ajna (Washington, D.C.). There will be a vendor fair and three days of workshops with such titles as “Zoe’s Book of Shimmies,” “Flexibility: Jaw-Dropping Trickster” and the “The Soul of Cairo.” The fun begins with a meet-and-greet and Donna Mejia’s lecture “Courageous Conversations in the Midst of Cultural Collusion” on Aug. 1, followed by two nights of mixed-level, all-ages public performance showcases demonstrate the breadth of bellydance technique and style.


Iñaki & Deblin represent Portland at this year’s Bachata en la Calle fest. Photo: Iñaki & Deblin.

Bachata en la Calle
Aug. 3
Vitalidad Movement Arts & Events Center, 116 S.E. Yamhill St.

The Dominican Republic gave us bachata, and Bachata en la Calle gives us a full day to celebrate it, not counting the pre-party held Aug. 2 on the Portland Spirit (it’s billed as “three floors of fun: salsa room, bachata room, and rooftop deck party,” and excuse us for a minute while we go cancel whatever we were planning to do that evening). Saturday is a Latin dance lovers’ paradise, with classes from 1-5 p.m., led by instructors who are headed our way from Miami, New York, and Chicago, although Portland will be well represented by local instructors Iñaki & Deblin. This is the place to learn what bachata is—it’s derived from Cuban bolero, for starters—and how it’s rightly done. On the musical end, looks for DJs and live music from outfits including the supercharged Portland collective Dina y Los Rumberos.


The Japanese Garden hosts one of two local Bon festivals. Photo: Japanese Garden.

Obon Fest
Aug. 3
Oregon Buddhist Temple

O-bon: Sapporo Cultural Festival
10 a.m.-7 p.m. Aug. 17-18
Portland Japanese Garden
Free with garden admission

Japan will celebrate this year’s Bon Festival Aug. 13-15; here in Portland, we’ll have our own parties before and after that. Obon is meant to honor one’s ancestors, and bon odori (bon dance) is a part of that: It’s a dance to receive the spirits of the departed, then send them on their way. The Oregon Buddhist Temple’s Obon Fest is a multicultural version of Obon, with bon odori as well as performances by the White Lotus Dragon & Lion Dancers and live music from the Minidoka Swing Band and the mightily percussive Portland Taiko. It wouldn’t be a festival without children’s activities and vendors; you can expect to find good things to eat and interesting items for sale, including kimonos. The story is much the same at the O-Bon Sapporo Cultural Festival, with the setting—Portland’s scenic and tranquil Japanese Garden—as additional incentive. Here, too, you’ll find bon odori, as well as food, crafts, and children’s activities. Both events are family-friendly and open to the public.


Multiple dance groups perform at the India Festival in Pioneer Courthouse Square. Photo: Pioneer Courthouse Square.

India Festival
Pioneer Courthouse Square
10 a.m.-8 p.m. Aug. 11

With at least eight classical dance forms to its credit (not to mention popular dance forms), India has a rich movement legacy. That will quickly become apparent at the India Festival, which celebrates India’s Independence Day with dance performances, live music, and other entertainment. (And, we’re happy to report, food.) India Festival is hosted by the India Cultural Association, a nonprofit dedicated to enhancing Indian cultural awareness.


DJ Prashant (left) and the Jai Ho! Dance Troupe celebrate Indian Independence Day. Photo: DJ Prashant.

DJ Prashant & Jai Ho! Dance Troupe

6:30 p.m. Aug. 15
Laurehurst Park, SE 37th Ave.


Celebrating Indian Independence Day with DJ Prashant and his Jai Ho! Dance Troupe is becoming something of a Portland summer tradition. This interactive evening of Bollywood and Bhangra dance unfolds outdoors: The company performs (likely the reprise of a dance sequence from a well-known Bollywood film), then invites viewers to join them for a basic dance lesson and impromptu group performance up front. Wear comfortable clothing, including shoes you can shed easily, and be ready to bounce. A screening of Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning feature film Slumdog Millionaire will follow at dusk.


Art in the Dark, 2016. Photo: A-WOL Dance Collective.

Art in the Dark
A-WOL Dance Collective
Aug. 1-4
Mary S. Young Park, West Linn

If you’ve never seen dancers suspended from old-growth trees, you clearly haven’t seen A-WOL Dance Collective. A-WOL doesn’t mean what you think it does, by the way: it’s an acronym for Aerial Without Limits, which should give you some insight into the kind of dance you’ll see. The Portland-based collective specializes in aerial, acrobatic and contemporary dance, and runs a school that teaches the same.  The company’s Art in the Dark outdoor performances have become a family-friendly summer tradition. Shows are done in the round, illuminated, and clock in at a manageable hour and a half. This year’s show, Frost and Fur, concerns itself with a snow leopard and other denizens of the natural world. Musician Chet Lyster provides a live original soundtrack blending traditional and electronic instruments. Seating opens at 7:30 p.m. for concessions and shows start at 8:45 p.m.


Galaxy Dance Festival, hosted by Polaris Dance Theatre, returns for a ninth year of classes and performance. Photo: Polaris Dance Theatre.

Galaxy Dance Festival
Aug. 3-4
Director Park

Watching is only half the fun at the Polaris Dance Theatre Galaxy Dance Festival: The other half is taking advantage of all the outdoor dance classes. Now in its ninth year, the downtown festival offers free performances and classes from local, regional and national choreographers, companies and organizations. Starting 11 a.m. Aug. 3 with an Open Argentine Tango Class led by Glykeria Manis, the festival fills two days with dance genres including swing, salsa, hip-hop and contemporary. You don’t need to be an expert dancer, you just need comfortable clothes and an enthusiasm for movement. Tango fans, take note: Friday evening has a tango theme, with a class, a milonga deejayed by Derrick Del Pilar, and performances.


New Vision Dance Company
5:30 p.m. Aug. 15
AmberGlen Park, Hillsboro

Dance and sculpture go waaaay back (think Degas, then keep thinking); at the dedication of a new public artwork at Hillsboro’s AmberGlen Park, that collaboration continues. Youth ensemble the New Vision Dance Company stages a lyrical/contemporary work inspired by Illinois artist Dann Nardi’s Elemental Sequence. Envision a concrete sculpture that pairs curving upright columns evoking trees with low curving benches recalling the graceful bends in a river, and you have some idea of what you’re in for. A dance party follows with live music.


PHAME Academy stages the rock opera “The Poet’s Shadow.” Photo: Friderike Heuer.

The Poet’s Shadow

PHAME Academy
Aug. 23-31
Hampton Opera Center, 211 SE Caruthers St.

PHAME, a Portland-based performing arts academy serving adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, has gone all in on its newest venture, rock opera The Poet’s Shadow. Eight PHAME students wrote it (in collaboration with the Portland Opera’s manager of education and outreach, Alexis Hamilton); more than 30 adults with developmental disabilities have been cast in leading and supporting roles, and the music will come from a choir and musicians playing iPads alongside Metropolitan Youth Symphony members playing their instruments. On the dance front, Erik Ferguson and Yulia Arakelyan—of the multidisciplinary, butoh-influenced performance company Wobbly Dance—have contributed choreography.

Sound like a big deal? It is: This is the first fully staged PHAME production written, staged, and performed by people with developmental disabilities (down to the musical composition and costume and set design), and marks the culmination of an 18-month collaboration between PHAME and the Portland Opera, which provided vocal coaching to the show’s lead actors.

And if you’re wondering what it’s all about, The Poet’s Shadow tells the story of Elizabeth, a young poet who, in despair following a breakup, writes a series of poems that take on a life of their own, sending her on a personal quest that challenges what she thought she knew.


Muddy Feet Contemporary Dance’s film “Unfolding” is among the selections at this year’s Northwest Screendance Exposition. Photo: Muddy Feet Contemporary Dance.

Northwest Screendance Exposition
7:30 p.m. Aug. 6-7
Broadway Metro, 43 West Broadway, Eugene

The Eugene Film Society spearheads the Northwest Screendance Exposition, which is now in its fourth year of soliciting and compiling collections of dance films by local and international artists. The best kinesthetic-cinematographic collaborations make the cut in an evening of dance on film, and a $500 Jury Award and $250 Audience Award only sweeten the deal for creators.  This year’s selections, which cover styles spanning swing to ballet, include Portland’s Muddy Feet Contemporary Dance in Unfolding, its second dance film together; In the House of Mantegna, by Michele Manzini of Verona, Italy, an ensemble movement piece gaining a worldwide following on the festival circuit; and two films by Cara Hagan, a filmmaker, dance professor, and choreographer from Appalachian State University of Boone, North Carolina. Cygnus, created with Portland filmmaker Robert Uehlin, celebrates a quiet morning sunrise, while Sound and Sole is a short documentary about the only professionally working African-American buck dancer in Boone.


Viewers suggest movement at #Instaballet. Photo: #Instaballet.

5:30 p.m. Aug. 2
Oregon Contemporary Theatre, 222 Southwest Columbia St., Eugene

Test your dancemaking skills at #Instaballet, a recurring feature of the Lane Arts Council’s First Friday ArtWalks. Eugene Ballet veterans Suzanne Haag and Antonio Anacan devised this simple but intriguing concept: create a new piece in real time, based on movement suggestions from viewers. The dance takes shape as onlookers add their input. The final work, performed at the end of the session, is a truly collective effort. All ages are welcome to contribute, and dance experience isn’t required—neophytes just might have the freshest ideas. (For more on the genesis of #Instaballet, see Gary Ferrington’s feature on its creators:


Broadway Rose Theatre Company gets “Footloose.” Photo: Broadway Rose Theatre Company.

Broadway Rose Theatre Company, 12850 SW Grant Avenue, Tigard
Aug. 1-Sept. 1

This musical isn’t six degrees of Kevin Bacon: It’s just one—plus one degree of Kenny Loggins, and if you have the title track stuck in your head for the next 24 hours, we feel your pain. Actually, that reminds us that that Footloose—best known in its original 1984 film incarnation—also brought us “Holding Out for a Hero” and “Let’s Hear it for the Boy.” Even Sammy Hagar was involved. But never mind all that. What’s important here is the story: it’s about a city boy who moves to a small town where dancing is outlawed and runs afoul of the local preacher who pushed for the ban after attracting the attention of his rebellious daughter. It’s dance as cultural protest, and in its way, fitting for the times we live in now



Sept. 5-15: Time-Based Art Festival
Sept. 26-28: NW Dance Project
Sept. 26-29: Union PDX Festival of Contemporary Dance

Oct. 3-5: Momix
Oct. 5-12: OBT Roar(s)
Oct. 10-12: Sasha Waltz
Oct. 17-19: Caleb Teicher and Company

November 21-23

Nov. 7-9: Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group
Nov. 21-23: CNDC-Angers/Robert Swinston

Ed Asner: On politics and performing

The actor, who will perform in Newport next month, talks about the political environment, favorite roles and what it's like to be working at 89 years old

In about 10 days, Ed Asner will take the stage at the Newport Performing Arts Center in the play God Help Us!  The 90-minute show is described as “a political comedy for our times, and centers on two opposite-leaning pundits who are transported to purgatory by the Supreme Being himself for the purpose of debating today’s political and social issues.”

Asner, as God, will be joined on stage by four local actors for the two-night run, Aug. 10-11. Performances will benefit the performing arts center’s capital campaign. Tickets are available here.

Ed Asner, who says a real Democrat is a euphemism for socialist, characterizes the current political environment as “like the monkeys escaped the zoo.” Photo by: Tim Leyes
Ed Asner, who says a real Democrat is a euphemism for socialist, characterizes the current political environment as “like the monkeys escaped the zoo.” Photo by: Tim Leyes

I spoke with the seven-time Emmy-award winner by phone from his California home.  We talked about the play, politics, favorite roles and what it’s like to be working at 89 years old.

I’ve heard you described as the last real Democrat. How did you earn that title and can you talk about how God Help Us! relates to the current political scene?

Asner: I was born in 1929, so it was good year to be christened a Democrat. I come from Kansas City, Kansas, so we were vastly outnumbered. You had to learn to fight dirty and fight hard. I felt like the last living Democrat. A real Democrat is a euphemism for socialist. I like it. I think Americans were shucked into equating socialism with communism. People have been placed badly by that equation. They’ve screwed themselves. Until they get over that prejudice, our social progress will be slow.

How do you feel about the current political environment?

It’s like the monkeys escaped the zoo.

Can you share your thoughts on art/theater as a medium for resistance?

I’m delighted that artists have played a prominent role in creating resistance and continue to do so.


Arden Forest comes to Yamhill County

And just to the south, you'll find Elsinore, as a Bard-filled weekend offers outdoor productions of "As You Like It" and "Hamlet"

Before we get to this week’s most exciting theater opening — an open-air production of As You Like It — let’s quickly cast our gaze just south of Yamhill County, where an intriguing Hamlet will be found. 

Western Oregon University keeps Shakespeare alive in the summer with free outdoor productions by its Valley Shakespeare Company. This year, WOU’s David Janoviak is directing Hamlet on the campus’s outdoor Leinwand stage. Valley Shakespeare shows offer a mix of student, faculty, community, and professional guest artists.

Janelle Rae plays Hamlet in Valley Shakespeare Company’s Asian-influenced take on Shakespeare’s tragedy.  Final performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Photo by: Ray Finnell
Janelle Rae plays Hamlet in Valley Shakespeare Company’s Asian-influenced take on Shakespeare’s tragedy. Final performances are Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Photo by: Ray Finnell, courtesy Valley Shakespeare Company

This is Janoviak’s fifth Hamlet. He’s played the Prince of Denmark twice, both in school and professionally, and he’s played Laertes twice, for professional companies in Utah and Texas. For this Hamlet, he’s going with a 2017 WOU graduate in the lead, Janelle Rae, who uses the pronouns they/them.

“Someone once said that you don’t simply decide to do Hamlet and then hold auditions to cast the title role,” he said. “You discover the actor first and then take on the project.  That was the case with Janelle.” The fact that Rae is female, he said, didn’t really cross his mind.


Improvisation and displacement: the ceramics of Hans Coper

Craft returns to the Park Blocks with Less is More at the Oregon Jewish Museum


Hans Coper’s vessels use silence like gravity. Coper, the British ceramicist who died in 1981, is having a resurgence. He is often associated with his mentor and friend British artist Lucie Rie but an exquisite new exhibition of Coper’s work at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, organized by guest curator Sandra Percival, seeks to reveal Coper’s influence on contemporary makers and to allow viewers to see his work independently of his collaborations with Rie. Chosen from the vast collection of the York Art Gallery in England and Portland collector John Shipley with additions from other West Coast collections, Less Means More teases out the connective tissue within Coper’s work. Percival chose to show Coper’s work as a gesamtkunstwerk or total work of art. This allows sympathies and formal rhythms to weave throughout the display. This is the first collection of this scale to be displayed on the West Coast.

Hans Coper, Disc form with cylindrical base and neck, stoneware, 1959. Courtesy of York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery), York, England.

Coper, like Rie, fled Nazi occupation to eventually settle in Britain. Rie left Austria in 1938 and Coper left Germany in 1939. Coper arrived in England as a Jewish refugee only to be sent to an enemy alien camp in Canada; after joining the Pioneer Corps of the British Army he returned to England in 1941. It was there he met Rie in 1946 and the two worked side by side making ceramic buttons and tableware. This experience led Coper to develop an ethos of a whole work, one that braids art, craft and life and is central to Coper’s staying power and enduring freshness. The contemporary art and craft worlds have caught up with his blurred lines between functional ware and sculpture. Coper has always been associated with the modernist wing of studio pottery, but his presence in the Oregon Jewish Museum allows for a more nuanced reading of his work. 

Displacement haunts Coper’s pots. The sculpturalness of Coper’s work is often privileged over the vesselness. He allowed his work to exist in between. Large spade form with vertical grooves from 1968 can be seen as being in dialogue with minimalist sculpture. One can stick to formalist terminology to describe its flattened uplifted disc or remark that its surface suggests metal or stone. But the spade has a void and the void is the soul of a vessel rather than a sculpture. The space within the spade’s walls could hold flowers, or equally, a metaphor. 

Hans Coper Large Spade
Hans Coper, Large spade form with vertical grooves, 1968. Courtesy American Muse-um of Ceramic Art, Gift of Bill Burke

As a teacher Coper was known for his stressing of improvisation and humor. He would just as soon take his students to a jazz club than lecture about form. He didn’t have the luxury of American post-war counterparts who used improvisation wildly and with abandon. On the West Coast, artists like Peter Voulkos and Paul Soldner used jazz to express wildness and machismo but Coper tapped into jazz’s improvization to explore classical forms. For American ceramic artists the war scarred them but they returned to a booming, spacious country in which victory was an adventure and the homeland was restored and triumphant. Coper never returned to Germany leaving a permanent rupture with his homeland. He remained a British citizen his entire life. His was a discipline, a full-life fling in which improvisation was tender and guarded fiercely. As a result if you give them the time, Coper’s pots pulse with an unyielding joy — the kind tinged by melancholy. He was not averse to a bright, impermanent flower to poke out of one of his austere bottle forms. 

The reticent surfaces and the singular focus on a handful of forms throughout his career can sometimes seem funereal. One of the centerpieces, Disc-shaped bottle on foot with indented front neck from 1959 can at one moment seem like a grave marker, but “with a certain slant of light,” to quote Emily Dickinson, the object becomes a neolithic gear or a rotund figure. I don’t mention Emily Dickinson lightly. There is a formal corollary between Dickinson’s spry, evergreen poems birthed from isolation and Coper’s abraded black, gray and white surfaces. Both ask patience and attention from the viewer and reader. Both also continue to yield illumination long after the hot light of more frantic and showy works have passed into obsolescence. The energy is under the surface. 

Hans Coper Cycladic
Hans Coper, Footed vase, Cycladic form, ca. 1975. Courtesy Crocker Art Museum

Percival does a wonderful job grouping of objects to show how form could be both archetype and brand new being. Coper visited the British Museum frequently. His love for Cycladic art is evident in his Cycladic vase forms. He dialogues with Constantin Brancusi, Pablo Picasso and Alberto Giacometti, all artists who also dug deep into the archeological record for inspiration. What we call modernism is often a reassessment of the Neolithic. But Coper had his own names for his stable of forms. Bottoms looked like, well, bottoms, there are spades and a diablo hourglass. These forms dance through influences of various times and cultures. 

The installation of the pots reminds me of a quote that the American sculptor Charles Ray once said of Giacometti, “Great sculptures, like some of Giacometti’s, have no scale. Rather, scale becomes one of the tools he uses to carve his work into our present space and time. It’s never big or small, it’s always simply the right scale.” There is a photo included in the exhibition of a small, egg-shaped, Egyptian vessel in Coper’s studio. Coper kept the pot as a lodestar. It fit perfectly in his hands. It was in that very human humility of form and material across time that motivates the vessels on view.

Percival added what would seem to be a wild card into the exhibition. The Minimalist artist Dan Flavin is represented by a fluorescent light sculpture titled Untitled for Robert Ryman It is one artist’s homage to a compatriot. Flavin was an avid collector of both Coper and Rie’s work. He created two florescent sculptures Untitled for Lucie Rie, Master Potter and Untitled for Hans Coper Master Potter. We tend to think of influence within boxes, but clearly a minimalist sculptor who uses fluorescent tubes found something  enduring in the warmth of another artist’s use of wheel thrown clay. Coper’s influence only spreads to new generations of artists and makers. 

Collection is part of the story for this exhibition. The bulk of the exhibition comes from the vast collection of W.A. Ismay which is now part of the York Museum in the UK. Ismay was an early and ardent enthusiast for Coper’s work. Like the American collectors the Vogels, he did not collect from deep pockets and assumed prestige but instead because of an abiding respect and love for the work. The collecting that is represented here in Less Means More reflects a generosity of spirit. 

Hans Coper Hourglass
Hans Coper, Hourglass pot, stoneware, 1970. Courtesy of York Museums Trust (York Art Gallery), York, England.

One of the standout pieces of the show Large ovoid form with vertical grooves from 1975 is from the Shipley collection in Portland. I have brought students to visit the collection at their home and the Coper pot is always a favorite. I remember the delight on the face of a student who was allowed to cradle the vessel in his arms. The ovoid with its cleft down the shoulder and dark void of a mouth shares a pedestal with Digswell composite form from 1964, also from the Shipley collection. One is large, broad, and sensually round, while the other is small with a disc shaped belly and beaker shaped neck. One is black and one is white. The confréres are joined by the collector’s eye and the artist’s studio practice.

Earlier I mentioned the context of the Oregon Jewish Museum as significant. OJMCME moved into this new space on NW Davis two years ago. The programming has been dynamic and it has become a bright spot in the cultural scene of Portland. The space, however, is not without baggage; it was formerly occupied by the Museum of Contemporary Craft which closed its doors in 2016, a devastating loss for craft-centered spaces in the Pacific Northwest. The May 2019 closure of Oregon College of Art and Craft was yet another blow. This exhibition is a sort of homecoming then, and a regeneration of some of the ideals of MoCC. In Less Means More, Coper’s very human studio practice is seen through its quiet influence on collectors and contemporary artists alike. The stories these vessels have to tell, of minimalism, of displacement and a very human studio practice is there for you. You just need to listen closely.

Daniel Duford is an artist, writer and teacher. His work tells stories drawn from North American history and mythology. He is a 2019 John Simon Guggenheim Fellow, a 2010 Hallie Ford Fellow and a recipient of a 2012 Art Matters Grant. His murals and public art can be found throughout Portland.

Exquisite Gorge 5: The Alchemist

Snippets of words, sounds, slivers, shreds, scraps, slices, morsels and fragments: Artist Mike McGovern transforms a stretch of the Columbia


Alchemy – noun : a power or process that changes or transforms something in a mysterious or impressive way.” (Merriam-Webster) 


THE ENGLISH WORD ALCHEMY has its historical roots in the Greek term chēmeia (the Arabic article al was added later when the word traveled across the Mediterranean world), referring to fluids and pouring. Long before the science of chemistry entered the scene, alchemists mixed liquids to create gold or cure diseases, seeking some sort of transformative power.

Mike McGovern, printmaker and professor in the art department at PCC Rock Creek Campus.

The term came to mind when I visited with Mike McGovern, yet another artist selected by the curatorial committee at Maryhill Museum for the Exquisite Gorge project, tasked with providing a wood block print representing a particular part of the Columbia Gorge. He will be among all those who gather on August 24 at the museum for the public printing of the aligned 8×6-foot blocks by means of a steamroller.