For Labor Day, the art of work

As the labor movement struggles against new challenges, a look at art that reveals the highs and lows of work and its significance in life

Monday is Labor Day, the 126th in the nation’s history, and amid the barbecues, ball games, and big-box-store sales of the three-day holiday it’s good to take a little time to remember what it’s all about. As we wrote last year at this time, Labor Day is “the day we celebrate the American labor movement and its drive to guarantee living wages and safe, decent working conditions for all workers. It’s been an official federal holiday since 1894, through boom times and hard times, strikes and strike-busting, and massive shifts in technology and public/private economic strategies that have weakened the labor movement that inspired the holiday. A historic transfer of wealth away from the working and middle classes and into the bank accounts of the superrich threatens much of what the labor movement has accomplished in the past century and more. Nevertheless, the movement persists.”

Gordon W. Gilkey, 6th Avenue Subway Construction, New York City, 1937, watercolor on paper, The Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection, © Portland Art Museum

Artists, of course, are workers in good standing. And over the years countless painters, sculptors, photographers and printmakers have created art depicting the centrality of work to human civilization. Sometimes the art is mainly documentary. Sometimes it’s psychologically or emotionally incisive. Sometimes it’s art of advocacy. We’ve gathered a small selection of art that in one way or another reflects the significance of work in our lives, grappling with the tolls it takes, the gifts it gives, and its relationship to a good and honest and fair way of life – precisely the things that Labor Day memorializes. Several of the works are in the permanent collections of Oregon museums. A pair of public outdoor works can be found to the north, in Seattle and Centralia, Washington. And we’ve pulled one photograph from the collections of the Library of Congress in the nation’s capital. 6th Avenue Subway Construction, New York City, for instance, celebrates the workers who build the brawling, muscular cities where so many of us live. And as a bonus, it’s an early work by Gordon Gilkey, who went on to become a Monuments Man, rescuing European art from Nazis during World War II, and then became a legendary teacher, collector, curator, and artist in Oregon: The Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection forms the core of the Portland Art Museum’s superb collection of prints and drawings.


Breaking: Opera switches season again; Tesner heads PSU museum

The opera, facing financial woes, abandons its summer season and returns to fall-spring. PSU's new Schnitzer museum taps a proven leader.

Portland Opera will move back to a fall-through-spring season beginning with the 2020-21 season, the opera and the consulting company Metropolitan Group have announced. The decision calls quits to a short-lived move to a primarily summer season, and follows last month’s announcement that Christopher Mattaliano, general manager since 2003, would leave that post immediately and become an artistic consultant for the 2019-20 season. Sue Dixon, the company’s director of external affairs, became interim general manager.

Meanwhile, Portland State University has just announced that the highly respected Portland curator Linda Tesner will be interim director of the university’s new Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art when it opens Nov. 7 in the refurbished former Neuberger Hall on PSU’s downtown campus. She began her new job Aug. 1.


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

The opera’s announcement was made with the release of a new five-year plan, and is in response to several seasons of deficit operation: “Cumulative operating cash flow losses since the FY 2015–16 change to a summer season could result in the opera drawing down its endowment completely in seven years if decisive action is not taken now.”

Among other things, the plan calls for “a venue mix that reflects the desire for both grand and intimate experiences.” The company currently performs in the 3,000-seat Keller Auditorium, the 870-seat Newmark Theatre, and the intimate studio space at the opera’s headquarters at the east end of the Tillicum Bridge. That space could be developed further in the future. “The second big strategy in this section is exploring a longer term vision and feasibility to redevelop the Central Eastside waterfront property that Portland Opera owns, through opportunities that could mutually benefit Portland Opera, other arts organizations, and the entire community,” the report says. The report also suggests that the company could do some programming in “unexpected places to meet people where they are,” as several of the city’s contemporary music groups do.

The opera’s shift to a summer season has been judged a failed experiment. But while the dates of productions changed, the kinds of operas being presented generally didn’t, and the company never created the festival approach that has been successful in other summer-season companies such as Santa Fe Opera.

You can read the complete announcement, which contains considerable more detail, here. The announcement emphasizes that the plan is a work in progress.


Linda Tesner. Photo courtesy Portland State University

PSU’s announcement that Tesner will be the first director of the new Jordan Schnitzer museum provides the answer to a big question in Oregon art circles. She’s spent decades as a curator, writer, and gallery director in the Northwest, and knows the territory and its artists deeply. She was most recently director and curator of the Ronna and Eric Hoffman Gallery of Contemporary Art at Lewis & Clark College, a gallery that she developed into a significant art center that drew audiences from well beyond the college campus. Lewis & Clark, in a financial retrenchment, eliminated her position late last year.

The new museum – which joins Schnitzer-named museums at the University of Oregon in Eugene and Washington State University in Pullman – was seeded by a $5 million contribution from the Portland collector, philanthropist, and real estate mogul Jordan Schnitzer. It will occupy 7,500 square feet over two floors of the rebuilt Neuberger building, between Southwest Broadway and the South Park Blocks on campus. You can read the press release here.

Tesner should provide a steady and creative hand as the new museum defines itself and gets on its feet. It almost certainly will include exhibitions drawn from Schnitzer’s own extensive collection of contemporary prints, which is one of the nation’s biggest. Tesner has also been an assistant director of the Portland Art Museum and director of the Maryhill Museum of Art, in the Columbia River Gorge.

From the press release: “Tesner will curate the museum’s first exhibition: Art for All, Selections from the Jordan D. Schnitzer Collection. The exhibition will underscore the ethos of the museum and highlight its mission to provide free access to a cultural and intellectual laboratory.”


ArtsWatch will have more on both of these stories as they develop.

The Week: It’s Stan Foote Day

Plus: It's a print in the Gorge, a paint-out at the coast, dance for a prince, a Woody Guthrie opera. The week that was, the week to come.

Stan Foote: today’s the day. Photo: Rebekah Johnson

WE DON’T KNOW IF SOMEONE’S GOING TO GIVE HIM THE KEY TO THE CITY, but today is Stan Foote Day in Portland, and if there’s anyone we’d trust with the key, Stan’s the man. After a stellar 28-year career with Oregon Children’s Theatre, Foote is retiring as artistic director and headed south to the sun and sea of Mexico. Mayor Ted Wheeler has announced that Thursday is officially Foote’s day in Portland (it’s also his birthday: talk about a two-fer), and at 2 p.m. in Council Chambers at City Hall, the proclamation will be read. For a man who’s devoted his career to creating first-rate theater for young people, this amounts to an exceptional, once-in-a-lifetime review: a kind of standing ovation from an entire city.

What makes Stan Foote so special? In May, on the day that he was in Atlanta to accept one of the highest honors in the world of American children’s theater, ArtsWatch dug deeply into the question, and one of the things we noted was his respect – for the theater itself, and for the intelligence and openness of his company’s young audiences. “Under Foote’s tenure Oregon Children’s Theatre has developed a reputation not only for producing new works and clever adaptations aimed at young audiences of different ages, but also for maintaining high professional standards and not playing down to its audiences, but respecting their ability to meet the storytelling on its own terms,” we wrote in our profile Stan Foote, at the top. “Theater is theater, Foote says. He objects to the belief ‘that directing a children’s play is different from directing for adults. It’s directing. It has all the same techniques; all the same elements of telling a story to an audience.’”


MusicWatch Weekly: This land is mine

Retro rock, math punk, psychedelic cumbia, shredded metals, and Jimmie Herrod

Well folks, we’re almost done with Second Summer and the world is on fire, from the Amazon to Africa to Indonesia to Portland’s Rocky Butte, but the usual churn of crazy local bands and composers continues to enliven bars, cafes, and churches all over the place. This week and weekend you’ve got free funk and two days of local metal in downtown Portland, psychedelic cumbia and shreddy math punk across the river, and a retro-rock sextet up in NoPo. But right now I need to put down my panggul mallet and my kretek cigarette and talk to you about Jimmie Herrod. 

Now, normally I wouldn’t talk about former singing coaches two weeks in a row. But it’s just my good fortune that (to reference a cruel old joke) those who can sometimes also teach–and it’s everybody’s good fortune that Portland and Environs are so full of wonderful singers who are also wonderful teachers. Last week it was mezzo extraordinaire Hannah Penn, and you can read all about her performance in Opera Theater Oregon’s This Land Sings in Angela Allen’s review right here.

This week it’s singer-composer Jimmie Herrod, who left me for Pink Martini.

Singer-composer Jimmie Herrod backstage with Pink Martini's Phil Baker and Bill Marsh.
Singer-composer Jimmie Herrod, laughing at me backstage with Pink Martini’s Phil Baker and Bill Marsh.

Kidding, kidding! Herrod is a Portland State alum who got hired on as a vocal teacher right after he got his Master’s; before he got drafted by Pink Martini he had a full vocal studio with all kinds of students, and I was certainly the least of them. While at PSU, Herrod studied composition with Cascadia composer Bonnie Miksch, and it shows. His music is in that sweet spot I’m always talking about listening for in contemporary music: his songs cross genres with lyrical grace, catchy melodies, and just enough harmonic novelty to keep the ears pricked and the heart fluttering.

And that voice! Not too many singers this young can rev up from breathy and tender to a hall-fillingly powerful yowl while still squeezing every possible drop of emotional complexity into each note. I think of Herrod every time I listen to my favorite Secret Chiefs 3 album, 2004’s Book of Horizons–halfway through, sandwiched between the electro-acoustica and the theological black metal, their surfy cover of Ernest Gold’s theme from the 1960 film Exodus comes on, and then I just have to pull up this video of Herrod singing it with Pink Martini last year in France:

This land is his.

This Saturday, back in Portland, Herrod is doing a solo show at The Old Church with another PSU alum, composer/singer/multi-instrumentalist Chibia Ulinwa, going solo and mononymic following the dissolution of Jazz Boyfriends. The supporting cast is pretty great too. If you somehow missed all of PSU professor George Colligan’s hundred appearances at Montavilla Jazz Festival two weeks ago, now’s your chance to catch up. Pyxis Quartet violinist Ron Blessinger will be there too (read our interview with Blessinger and fellow Pyxisist Greg Ewer here), but it’s the drummer that really excites me.

Micah Hummel–yet another fearless Viking, naturally–is a madman. A fine drummer and composer, sure, but the elegant and creative way he integrates technology into his playing is tasty as hell and truly beautiful to behold. I caught his act at a PSU noon show last year, and I’ve been wanting to see him in full swing ever since.

Jimmie Herrod and Chibia Ulinwa perform at The Old Church Saturday.
Jimmie Herrod and Chibia Ulinwa perform at The Old Church this Saturday.

In other words, this is where I’d be Saturday night if I weren’t eight degrees south of the equator hitting melodious metal with wooden hammers. You want to hear what the future of music sounds like? Check these two out.

Jimmie “Not a Tenor” Herrod, loving what he does.

Since Herrod–along with Edna Vazquez, another badass local singer-composer (and recent Darrell Grant collaborator)–was recently invited to formally join the PM crew, we thought it was time to holler at him and Chibia on [redacted] to catch up, discuss their show on Saturday, and talk about where the music comes from.

Formative musical experiences

Chibia Ulinwa: For me, it was in the 4th grade when I first started playing the violin. I had always been into music, but it didn’t really click until I had my first violin in my hands. It wasn’t the best violin in the world either, but I was so excited that that didn’t even matter at the time. I was fortunate enough to have an orchestra program in my public schools growing up, and my orchestra directors played a great influence in my pursuit of music over time. I wasn’t able to take lessons up until my first year of college, but I loved playing so much that I found some way to make it work. It was something that I understood from the get go–it just became apart of me.

Jimmie Herrod: I grew up playing clarinet, and I think the moment of playing music communally was a defining moment of my understanding and appreciation for music. That shared experience with others, making a collective sound no one can do independently.

Musical inspirations

Chibia: This is always a tough question for me. Growing up Nigerian-American, I was always surrounded by all sorts of African music so that was definitely a big influence in my upbringing. Nigerian artists like King Sunny Ade or The Nkengas, Fela for sure. I also grew up listening to a lot of Congalese music like Awilo Longomba. I’m a huge Strokes fan and always will be. As of right now, some of my top picks would be Thundercat, Laura Mvula, Lianne La Havas, Matt Corby, and Rex Orange County.

Herrod: I’d be lying if I said I listened to a lot of “compositions” or have a large vocabulary for classical music, but I think some people find my affinity for Bjork to be a surprise, and maybe also the Carpenters. I grew up listening to all sorts of music thanks to the influence of my dad, but wasn’t super immersed in regards to classical or jazz music.

This Saturday

Chibia: I’m doing all original tunes. I’m so ecstatic to be able to share music that I’ve put so much love and energy into with everyone. I really try to tap deeply into my emotions and I think my tunes reflect that.

Herrod: This concert is a funny one in comparison to shows I’ve put on in the past. Musically it will feature a few songs from my recent album, but many others from the past–nine of which I’ve never performed in any capacity, or haven’t played in over 5 years. Another factor is the instrumentation and ensemble itself. In some setting or another I’ve played with all of these musicians but one, but only a few of them have played my music before.

Genre drift and composition

Chibia: I think music is ever-shifting and that’s what makes it so cool. I mean, yes you can put music in a box and say this is this genre and what not, but I think that stifles the artist’s ability to explore their sound. We aren’t bound to the rules that were set before us. If we were, Gregorian Chant would be all the rage, and I’m not quite sure I’d be happy with that. Now I’m scared to answer this question [categorizing my own music] ‘cause I just ranted about putting myself in a box, but the goal is R&B. We’ll see. I might change my mind.

Herrod: I wonder about this a little too. Maybe people are being more exposed to things, like we are with food. I can go to a restaurant and try a localized version of something, maybe it’s not the most “true to home” version of that meal, but it’s at least an introduction. I think music has moments of this experience. I think my music leans on pop forms, while using some aspects of theater and jazz-based harmony from time to time. I used to hear melodies on the go a lot more frequently, but with the lifestyle I have now it’s rare that I have a real piano to touch and translate that musical daydream onto. I record things I’m humming, I write down words, and I travel with a mini two-octave keyboard and try to use some of my downtime on tour exclusively for writing. I would say what I’ve learned over time is to record everything. I’ve been haunted by many an idea that I will never hear myself play again, left only to misquote myself, or doubt the quote itself.

Meanwhile, in downtown Portland

If you find yourself in downtown Portland today (Friday in Portland, that is–I don’t even know what day it is in Bali), you might want to lace up your Docs and tromp your way along Third Avenue, past Cameron’s Books and Stumptown and the Voodoo Line and the corpses of Ash Street Saloon and Berbati’s Pan. Just before you get to the smoke shop at West Burnside you’ll find the infamous Paris Theatre, where the two-day Shake the Earth Fest will be ruining everyone’s weekend.

Ten bucks a day buys you a deadweight ton of Pacific Northwest metal: Portland bands (and a few neighbors) pile into Portland’s favorite pornhouse-turned-rock-club and start playing at three in the goddamn afternoon like they’ve got church the next morning. Check these dudes out, if you dare (yes, they’re all dudes; sorry about that).

Morbid Fascination’s demon-eyed bass player is tired of your light bulb jokes and will definitely swallow your soul.

From Rose City Itself: Proven, Othrys, Kingdom Under Fire, Apophis Theory, Battle Axe Massacre, Hed Change, Harrah’s Void

Neighbors: Piranhapuss (from across the Columbia River in woodsy Vancouver), Trojan Swamp Monster and Set In Stone (both down from smoldering St. Helens) Morbid Fascination and Pitch Black Mass (both up from sunny Salem on the other side of Wilsonville, Tigard, and those Terrible Terwilliger Curves).

I like my metal like I like my Balinese kopi–technical, extreme, and sludgy as fuck–so Morbid Fascination and Trojan Swamp Monster are my top picks from this line-up. Both bands brutalize your brains with their chewy cookie monster vocals, squealy-djenty guitars, Castlevania riffs, and sick modernist harmonies–and if they play early enough in the day, you can still dash over to The Old Church for aftercare with Herrod.

“You guys feel adjusted?”

Cross the river

Shimmy across the river like bananantifa is after you, and eventually–just past KBOO and Sizzle Pie East–you’ll come to Doug Fir Lounge, all cushy and woodpaneled and soft-lit like it’s Paris Theatre’s tethered. If you can make it there by Saturday evening you can get a load of Orquestra Pacifico Tropical.

Orquestra Pacifico Tropical rousts the street preachers from PSU’s park blocks stage.

If that sounds too sabroso and extroverted for your tastes, after you get across the bridge you can just duck behind The Ugliest Building In Oregon (to hide from the scary bananas) and hightail it up MLK. Be sure to stop into one of the Popeyeses!

Keep going until you get to High Water Mark at Northeast Dekum (right across from the historic Mount Olivet Baptist Church), where you will be delighted to discover local legends Gaytheist doing their sardonic tough nerd schtick. This is also on Saturday, so plan your evening out accordingly.

The first time I saw these beloved pronky weirdos (the only Portland band other than Pink Martini who can rock tattoos and coattails) it was right after my old cyberpunk band played a sweaty show with them at Foggy Notion–I mean, Lombard Pub. The last time I saw them, they were co-opening with Nasalrod at the packed Big Business Mississippi Studios show earlier this year. Gaytheist and the ‘Rods were so damn good that when the headliner came on my bandmates and I went ahead and Irishbailed three songs in, disappointed and exhausted.


Either you don’t believe me or you think I’m crazy. Fine. Go check em out for yourself.

No Po

If you’re reading this today–Portland Friday–you already missed your chance to haul ass up to the Peninsula, that part of Portland where the Willamette River curves and renders East and West meaningless (the 4 bus will take you right to the front door), where you could have spent the evening at the legendary Mississippi Studios with Martha Stax & Queen Elizabeth.

Every now and then I hear about a newish Portland band and blurt “omg wtf why have I not heard this yet?” (Actually that happens more than once in a while; grad school sucks). Martha Stax has only been around since 2017–they don’t even have a bandcamp page–but they’ve already played Treefort and opened for Kulululu, and now they’ve headlining the Mississippi stage, right under the vintage drum heads.

They had me at “6-piece minimalist/art-rock group” and “a small choir that repeats on a skipping record.” But woe is me, trapped in Paradise on the other side of the planet. According to the band, this is their last show for awhile. Sometimes that means the drummer is moving, sometime that means it’s record-recording time–either way, it could be decades before we hear from them again.

So you missed it. But don’t feel bad–so did I. Better luck next time!

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Exquisite Gorge 11: It’s a print!

On a bright & shining Saturday, it all came together: Maryhill Museum's audacious, 66-foot long print project went to press via steam roller

Woodblock print by Ken Spiering (Detail)


“Only in community with others has each individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; only in the community, therefore, is personal freedom possible.” Karl Marx The German Ideology (1846)


It was Print Day at Maryhill Museum of Art. Eleven wondrous woodcuts, each sized 6×4 feet, were inked, aligned in a row, and printed by a steam roller, producing the largest contiguous woodcut print that we know of. They depict the length of the Columbia River flowing through The Gorge, with geographic precision regarding the river, and imaginative representation for everything else.

The scaffold is ready, early morning


40 years and 363 miles along the Oregon Coast

A show at the Newport Visual Arts Center celebrates the rambling stretch from Astoria to Brookings in a variety of media including painting, woodwork and film

Some 360-odd miles of the Oregon Coast are condensed this late summer into one modest building set just a hop above Nye Beach. Art 363: Representing the Oregon Coast, on display throughout the Newport Visual Arts Center’s galleries, features work depicting the rambling length of the Oregon Coast, from Brookings to Astoria. I talked with three of the artists involved for a look behind the pieces.

Erik Sandgren (left) and his father, Nelson Sandgren, paint at Bandon in 2004, two years before the elder Sandgren’s death. The Sandgren Coast PaintOut began in 1978 as an OSU summer watercolor course taught by Nelson Sandgren. Photo by: Kathryn Cotnoir
Erik Sandgren (left) and his father, Nelson Sandgren, paint at Bandon in 2004, two years before the elder Sandgren’s death. The Sandgren Coast PaintOut began in 1978 as an OSU summer watercolor course taught by Nelson Sandgren. Photo by: Kathryn Cotnoir

The Sandgren Coast PaintOut Project celebrated 40 years this summer. More than 40 artists who have taken part in the plein air paintout over that time share an exhibit in the Runyon Gallery.

Artist Nelson Sandgren (1917-2006) started PaintOut as an extension class through Oregon State University, where he taught for 38 years. It has evolved under his son, Erik Sandgren, into a two-week, informal summer gathering where subject matter varies from sea to forest, headlands to harbors, streams and rivers, beaches and boats, wave-swept rocks, seabirds, and lighthouses.

"Newport Bridge," by Bets Cole, is one of the paintings produced during the Sandgren Coast PaintOut.
“Newport Bridge,” by Bets Cole, is a product of the Sandgren Coast PaintOut.

“It’s a select group of people who are interested in learning,” Erik Sandgren said. “We welcome people who are serious about painting and of all levels of experience. We have professional painters and artists, skilled amateurs, newbies. They offer camaraderie, critique, and opportunities to see how other serious painters handle their gear and painting problems on site, sometimes in adverse conditions created by sun, rain, or wind. I would describe them all as intrepid.”


Jerome Blankenship: ‘I catered my life to fit into music’

The founder of Ships to Roam, which opens McMinnville's Walnut City Music Festival on Friday, says his musical influences range from yodelers to grunge

We’ve arrived at summer’s end and Labor Day draws near, which means the Walnut City Music Festival is primed for launch this weekend.

The seventh-annual family-friendly musical event fills two days with a blast of indie, folk, and pop rock in McMinnville’s Lower City Park, at the west end of the restaurant- and tasting-room-packed downtown. Ossie Bladine started the event with just a few bands in 2013 in the Granary District at the other end of town. Since then, it has evolved into something more substantial.  Audiences can fill up on a dozen bands, both local and out-of-state. It’s a lawn-chairs-and-blankets affair, with kids 12 and under admitted free. Food carts (which in McMinnville is, increasingly, a thing) will be nearby, ready to serve. Tickets for adults are $25 and $35. Be sure to check the website for details on what you can and can’t bring.

It begins at 4:30 p.m. Friday with the homegrown Ships to Roam, which cites among its influences Rogue Wave, Old ‘97s, The War on Drugs, and the Jayhawks. I sat down recently with the band’s founder, Jerome Blankenship, to talk about his life and work. He’s a 1999 graduate of Yamhill-Carlton High School who went on to study music in Portland before hitting the road with a punk band. Along the way, he married and had children, and even gave up music for a while until he had an epiphany: “Rather than having music fit into my life,” he said, “I catered my life to fit into music.”

The following interview was edited for length and clarity.

How did you first encounter music?

Jerome Blankenship: I grew up in a musical family, some of them Irish-American immigrants. On my mom’s side, it was people from Oklahoma who used to yodel competitively. [Blues guitarist] Roy Buchanan is a distant relative, so it’s in my blood. My uncles and cousins had a band in the 1970s and 1980s, and they toured around the Northwest. So at family get-togethers, there were always 10 guitars, a bass, and an accordion, and sometimes even a flute. It got pretty interesting. The people I looked up to all played music, and that’s going to plant a seed.

As you saw all this going on, did you want to sing or play?

I remember having a little-kid guitar and just letting my imagination go. I always wanted to be a bass player because four strings was easier to master than six, and that was the route I took by the time I was 11. Uncles gave me pointers, but then my dad got me lessons in junior high. I took lessons for two or three years, and [the instructor] said, “I can’t teach you anything else.”

Did it come easily?

Not the music theory part. I still struggle with that. As an ear musician, I’ve always been pretty good, being able to pick out where we’re at in the song and how to key things in. But I definitely knew at a young age that I wanted to be a part of it.

What about influences outside your family? What musical cultures were you tuned into?

Growing up, the big thing was grunge. I’d been to a couple concerts when I was younger, but it was everything from Christian rock to bluegrass. I started really going to shows in high school, and that was during the grunge and punk era. Punk was still happening in the ‘90s. Idolizing bands like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam. Nirvana, of course. The Seattle scene was going to inspire anybody. It wasn’t just a music thing. It was like, it’s cool to feel depressed and wear flannel and grow your hair long and not do well in school. It was fashionable.