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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.’”

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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.

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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)

STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRIDERIKE HEUER


“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)

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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

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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.”

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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.

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