Making music in a time of isolation

As the world shuts down and the Oregon Symphony faces a stark financial crisis, musicians create a series of mini-concerts from home


PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOE CANTRELL
STORY BY BOB HICKS


AS AN ODD AND NERVOUS QUIET SETTLED over greater Portland and most other places from coast to coast in the past several days, small islands of sound broke the spell, scattered here and there like grace notes or staccato exclamations. They were counter-ripples against a tide of silence, little bursts of defiant pleasure, sounding carefully yet emphatically: Even in a time of plague, the music would not die.

These small musical uprisings were especially compelling considering the Oregon Symphony Orchestra’s announcement last Friday that it was suspending its current season, which was to run into June, and laying off its 76 contracted musicians, along with 19 staff members and two conductors. The situation, symphony President and CEO Scott Showalter told The Oregonian/Oregon Live, is dire. “We need emergency funds now,” he told reporter Nathan Rizzo. “What we’re staring down between now and the end of June is a $5 million loss.” Showalter had written to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, Rizzo added, urging state economic support for the orchestra as the coronavirus crisis takes its toll, and the symphony is actively seeking private funds as well. The danger of collapse, it seems, is very real. And the orchestra is not alone. Across Oregon and the nation, cultural groups of all sorts are staring nervously into what seems a daunting economic abyss.

An invitation to the neighborhood: come close, stay apart, join us at a distance as we make some music.

So on Friday through Sunday, in what was not quite a coincidence, a large handful of those recently furloughed symphony musicians went small. In Portland and its surrounds, seven musical mini-events took place, on musicians’ porches and in their yards, at neutral neighborhood gathering spots where listeners and players alike could keep their social distance and yet also be together, sharing something both sophisticated and elemental: the joy of music.

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DramaWatch: A new stage of “Otherness”

Unit Souzou turns to live streaming to present part of its performance project "The Constant State of Otherness." Plus: what isn't happening in local theater.

It’s lonely out there.

You might have that sense these days merely from looking outside. As Americans and others around the world practice — to unfortunately varying degrees — the newly ascendant and essential principles of social distancing, our streets appear emptier and therefore lonelier, and it’s not a big step to imagine that many folks sheltering in place (odd use of “sheltering,” as though the novel coronavirus were falling like acid rain) alone are sheltered in a lonely place.

Michelle Fujii has a different sense of it. She has long felt the loneliness of the outsider.

Michelle Fujii and Toru Watanabe, co-directors of Portland-based taiko-theater company Unit Souzou. Photo: Intisar Abioto and New Expressive Works.

An artist who has forged a career out of representations and explorations of her cultural identity, formerly as artistic director of Portland Taiko and for the past several years as co-director of Unit Souzou, Fujii has lately been digging into what her company’s current performance project calls The Constant State of Otherness.

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Photo First: Social distancing

We know. It's tough. But some Portlanders have been practicing it for a long time. K.B. Dixon's camera catches an abiding state of solitude.


TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY K.B. DIXON


As part of the effort to combat Covid-19 we have been advised by pretty much everyone to practice social distancing. It is important to slow the spread of the virus, to “flatten the curve,” as statistical analysts put it. As a concept it is not something entirely new to Portland. There are those predisposed among us who have been practicing it for years. They have it down.

2019
2014

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Paying the piper and the painter

ArtsWatch Weekly: a rescue fund for artists thrown out of work, arts move online, Oregon's animation magic, a week of good reading

AMONG MANY OTHER SUDDEN SHIFTS IN THE SOCIAL LANDSCAPE as we learn to deal with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the very real and urgent question rises: How will our artists eat and pay the rent when there’s no work to do? Like the arts organizations that normally employ them, many artists survive on a thin margin, counting on the next sale or the next show and the show after that to keep paddling abovewater financially. Most artists are freelance workers, moving from gig to gig, relying on a steady stream of work to keep them going. And when the museums and galleries and theaters and concert halls shut their doors, the jobs dry up – and so do the paychecks.

The artists’ dilemma: all dressed up with nowhere to go – and how to pay the bills? Frans Hals, Jester Playing a Lute, ca. 1623-1624, oil on canvas, 27.5 x 24.4 inches, Louvre Museum, Paris.


Two of Oregon’s leading cultural players, Portland Creative Laureate Subashini Ganesan and Oregon Poet Laureate Kim Stafford, have helped launch PDXARTISTRELIEF.COM, the Portland Area Artist Emergency Relief Fund, to help provide just that – emergency relief to artists in Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas counties facing financial crises because of coronavirus shutdowns. If this is you, click on the link above for information on how to qualify and how to apply. If this isn’t you, but you’d like to contribute to the fund, click the link, too. As of Wednesday evening the fund, seeded by a lead gift from arts philanthropist Ronni Lacroute (who is also a major contributor to Oregon ArtsWatch), had raised $63,000 and was aiming for more, Ganesan said: “The need is quite significant. $150,000 would be a good start but perhaps $300,000 – $350,000 would feel better. We don’t know how long this will last. We also don’t know how this impacts small/medium/large arts organizations and what that will mean for independent or freelance artists.” Many co-sponsors, listed on the link, have signed on to help. 

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Celebrating mundane interiors

Leslie Hickey's photographs capture the enigmatic appeal of the everyday

Those familiar with photography over the last sixty years or so will recognize the genre of Leslie Hickey’s photographs at Holding Contemporary. The work harkens back to the minimal interior shots of William Eggleston — a style emulated by a slew of photographers ever since. The primary goal of such photography, simply put, is to find something special about the mundane. Hickey’s photographs manage to celebrate the mundane and, at least in one case, convey a mood as well. (The lighting in the gallery may have been a factor, for each piece was dimly lit, not so dim as to lose details of the work, but enough to encourage only soft-toned conversations opening night.) 

When photographing mundane subject matter, that to which we typically are oblivious or wouldn’t otherwise think to document, the goal is not to have the final image appear as a manipulated/staged vignette, but instead use framing and technical abilities of the camera to elevate that which is seen. Success comes in how well one illuminates the extraordinary that lingers within empirical reality. The hope is that mediation by the photographer, and then contemplation by the viewer of the scene somehow replaces the superficiality with something more complex, perhaps even sublime, even as it remains matter of fact. And as in many other art forms, visual irony and/or paradox play a role in determining success.

rotary phone with note cards and wite-out
Leslie Hickey, Grandma’s Phone (Tacoma) (2019/2020). Pigmented inkjet print. 19.2×24. Edition of 3. Image courtesy of Holding Contemporary.

Notably, Hickey’s photographs do not contain people, and therefore narrative qualities are subdued. Nevertheless, we can read a story in Grandma’s Phone (Tacoma). A rotary phone (the image was taken in 2019) hangs on the wall above a corkboard full of index cards held with push pins.  A bottle of Wite-Out sits on a small ledge, and an electrical cord neatly runs along that ledge to a point out of frame. We recognize the old plastic wall tiles as something from our own grandma’s house. Based on this corner of her room, we get a good sense that while still in an analog world, she is as sharp as one of those push pins. Yet it is significant that Grandma is nowhere to be seen. We have no idea if she is still alive, which may answer why I feel a certain melancholy when I look at the image.

flowers leaning against glass on a plinth with sandpaper
Leslie Hickey, SACI still life, angle (2018/2020). Pigmented inkjet print. 11×14. Edition of 3. Image Courtesy of Holding Contemporary.

Hickey’s photo, SACI Still Life, Angle, while narrative in that it has a sense of place, is less specific than Grandma’s Phone (Tacoma). It could be a scene from any art school.. (SACI stands for Studio Arts College International in Florence, Italy. Hickey attended the school in 2004 and had an exhibit there in 2017.) The configuration of flowers and glass set up on an old, beat-up plinthe is likely for a painting class, yet Hickey has usurped it with her camera. To what end? While the flowers arranged against the light green glass is pretty enough, and we presume that it is the focus of a painting exercise, its arrangement strongly contrasts with other elements in the photo.The piece of easel, the used sandpaper, and most significantly, a foreground emphasizing the textures of the ragged plinthe, bring contrast and friction to the image. (Sandpaper!) 

A similar contrariness exists in Wire (Rockaway). The wire and its shadow presents as a simple drawing, largely due to the texture of the paper or whatever the wire rests on.Then again, in that we know this is a photograph, the raised bumps make the photo appear to be printed on rough handmade paper. Hotel Alla Salute bed (diptych) employs the same illusion, only this time it looks as though the walls in the photos have been hand colored, when in actuality, whoever painted the walls did a fairly uneven job. One can get a sense of these illusions from the images posted with this essay, yet seeing the work in person will bring another degree of appreciation, and the close engagement will find the viewer getting inches away and at an angle to see if there is indeed a manipulated surface. 

wire on a white background
Leslie Hickey, Wire (Rockaway) (2019/2020). Pigmented inkjet print. 11×14. Edition of 3. Image courtesy of Holding Contemporary.

Holding Contemporary is a small gallery and Hickey shares the space this month with Erin Murrray’s drawings as part of a two-person show, What We See and What We Know. With limited exhibition space, we can assume that Hickey’s six photographs in this exhibit were carefully chosen (especially given that the dates for the work span a four-year time period, and a photographer generally takes a lot of photos). I commend the gallery and artist in their curation.

Finally, I cannot resist relating these photos to this particular moment, our life in the time of Covid-19. Perhaps by nature and profession, visual artists are figuratively and literally some of the most self-isolating people one will know. If not lost in thoughts primed by the eye, they are in the studio realizing those ideas through a medium of choice. A day or two, a week or three, distraction-free and confined to the studio or house, is a blessing not often afforded. (However, this “free” time may come with great financial loss, so please, if you can, buy some art and support your local art institutions now.)  We might all do well to adopt this attitude and not only slow down to appreciate the simple things around us, but attend to what is important that has until now been put aside.


Holding Contemporary is open by appointment only. The gallery will also be amplifying its digital presence by having artists “take over” the gallery’s Instagram feed (@holdingcontemporary) and tag photos of interior architecture/still life.

Joanna Priestley: Discovering where the magic is

The Portland filmmaker, a spring resident at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, calls animation a “fascinating combination of art and science”

Joanna Priestley’s animated film, “Jung & Restless,” was scheduled to premiere this weekend at the Bijou Theatre in Lincoln City, but fell victim to the COVID-19 outbreak when the showing was canceled. Priestley, a spring resident at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology near Otis, promises she will eventually make it happen. We talked with her about her work as an animator.

Joanna Priestley began her animation career by making films using rubber stamps and index cards.  Photo by: Tim Sugden
Joanna Priestley began her animation career by making films using rubber stamps and index cards. Photo by: Tim Sugden

Tell us a bit about yourself.

Priestley: I was born in Portland, a third-generation Oregonian. I spent some time away, but I always come back to Oregon because Oregon is the best. I went to the Rhode Island School of Design, got my undergraduate from Berkeley, and in my 30s, went back to get a masters at the California Institute of the Arts. That’s the school Walt Disney founded.

Did you go to school knowing you were going to be a filmmaker?

I always really, really loved films. I watched everything I could. In high school, I connected to the Multnomah library system and they had a fabulous collection of animated films.

How did you discover it?

My teacher showed them in school. That’s where I was first exposed to animation as an art form.

I’m guessing animation has changed by leaps and bounds since?

It has and it hasn’t. It’s changed technically. People have much more sophisticated technology and techniques of creating animation. But the basic way you create animation is the same. It was invented in late 1880s. It’s been refined, but still, the basic idea is the same.

What is the basic idea?

The basic idea is you study and learn how movement is created. Animation is this really fascinating combination of art and science. You have to understand both. If you look at sports, for example, you see loads of interesting movement. Like in boxing, there’s a preparatory action where you pull your arm back and clench your fist and then you push your fist and arm forward and slam into something, and then there’s a reaction where your hand snaps back a little bit. As you study that motion you can begin to understand how to break it down into individual drawings — or sculpture, if you are doing stop-motion animation.

A forest of hands is among the stream-of-consciousness images in Joanna Priestley’s new film, “Jung & Restless.”

That seems like it would take so many, many drawings.

You just decide how many drawings a second you are going to do to create your motion. You use 12 drawings a second, or 24 a second, if you are a Disney studio. I use 12 drawings a second. Some use eight drawings a second, some, in what we call limited animation, use four. You decide at the beginning what you are going to use. So then, you just go about calculating how far to move things with the drawings. If you’re using stop-motion animation with puppets or sculpture, you have to figure out how far to move the puppet or sculpture. And that’s where the magic is.

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Fertile Ground 4: The one-act itch

In his final look back on Portland's new-works festival, Jae Carlsson scratches an "Itch" and dives into one-acts and other rabbit holes

(In Fertile Ground 2020, Portland’s 11th annual festival of new performance, Jae Carlsson witnessed four standout productions: “Vortex 1,” “Dorothy’s Dictionary,” “How to Really, Really? Really! Love a Woman,” and “Itch.” In four parts Carlsson has discussed each of these four theater pieces at length, as well as other works in the Festival dealing with similar issues.)

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One-act plays are the bastard child of serious theater. All playwrights write them.

But these tend to be throwaway, one-idea plays – usually comedies – which no one is expected to take all that seriously. Least of all their playwright.

At Fertile Ground 2020, this is clearly the case with The Portland Mini-Musical Festival, which you discuss in Part 1 of this series. Lots of entertaining song and dance, but each one-act is built upon a single thin idea through which to maintain audience attention – plus maybe a little ah-ha twist at denouement, good for a slightly more self-aware laugh from you just before applause at curtain.

But you are a fan of one-acts, when they are done right. Accomplished either by finding a means to very quickly give them depth and force. Or accomplished by stringing several one-acts together – connecting them thematically as in Itch or in Osho Returns, or as a discontinuous narrative as in Hannah and Other Stories or Dearly Departed. But what is it that permits such one-acts to work so well? And to work, sometimes, more effectively than even very good full-length plays? . . .

On the Cusp of the Absurd

When you try to stretch the single idea of a one-idea play to 90 minutes, people often whisper that the author should have whittled it down and made a one-act play out of it.

At pre-festival press “speed-dating” night, Fertile Ground director Nicole Lane keeps her mouth on the harmonica and her eye on the clock: Four minutes, and the mouth harp sounds. Photo courtesy Fertile Ground

The Ghost of David Balasco, written and directed by Cynthia Whitcomb, is a case in point. This festival piece is a mostly-staged full-length play performed at Lakewood Theatre, and it turns on one very clever idea. Four characters enter an old, rundown theater, speaking in period and foreign accents. They wish to do a seance, in order to exorcise a ghost from the theater, so they can clean up the space and produce a new play here – without all the freaky “mishaps” that closed up the theater years before, after a death in the building.

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