Starting Over: Masks and democracy

While Seoul opens its high-end art galleries, we're still wondering when the testing, tracing, isolation regime will begin

In Seoul, Korea, a metropolis of 10 million, “a steady stream of Mercedes sedans pulled up to the valet, disgorging their fashion-forward passengers,” in front of the Seoul outpost of a fashionable New York-based gallery, the New York Times reported yesterday. Seoul now has its share of high-end contemporary art galleries and collectors, and after months of lockdown, everyone was ready to see some art.

The art they were seeing was by Billy Childish, a long-time art world rebel and working-class leftist, not to mention garage band rock’n’roller.  His work is now fetching prices cresting beyond $25,000, which he himself considers a matter of luck—after 40 years, the curators and dealers who championed him had finally seized the reins at major institutions, he told the Times.

After experiencing the little tingle that comes when I see the prices politically progressive artists are commanding in the rarefied art marketplace, I marveled at another statistic in the story. Seoul, with more than double the population of Oregon, has recorded only two deaths due to Covid-19.

Billy Childish, birches with green shadows, 2016
© Billy Childish, courtesy of Carl Freedman Gallery, photo: Andy Keate

Two. Deaths.

South Korea jumped immediately into the appropriate pandemic response. The country locked down early, it embraced social distancing, it distributed N-95 quality masks to all of its people, it tested widely, and when people tested positive for Covid-19, it traced and isolated those who came into contact with them. The public took this regime seriously.


Virtual art show goes viral

An online exhibition at Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg explores artistic responses to COVID-19

The Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg, like every other gallery and cultural venue in Oregon, is closed to the public, but the nonprofit’s resolve to stay on task with showcasing art, bringing artists together, and building a cultural community is unbroken.

Last week, the center unveiled an extraordinary and ambitious online exhibition brilliantly curated (presumably from her home) by Carissa Burkett, who keeps the center’s multiple galleries full year-round. It answers, at least in a preliminary way, a question that’s been on my mind since mid-March when COVID-19 shut everything down: How will artists respond to a pandemic?

“A dream of flying,” by Stan Peterson of Portland (carved and painted basswood on birch panel, 11 by 14 by 4 inches, April 2020). Peterson says of his piece: “The reclining figure emanating the yellow light of sky rests in a boat adrift. There is a sort of reverie to sheltering in place. I’m also feeling adrift, waiting to fly again.”
“A dream of flying,” by Stan Peterson of Portland (carved and painted basswood on birch panel, 11 by 14 by 4 inches, April 2020). Peterson says of his piece: “The reclining figure emanating the yellow light of sky rests in a boat adrift. There is a sort of reverie to sheltering in place. I’m also feeling adrift, waiting to fly again.”

A global trauma like COVID-19 will surely reverberate through the art world in coming years and even decades in ways we can’t predict. But Our Changing Context: Initial Artistic Response to COVID-19 at least provides an expansive snapshot of what artists are up to right now.

The show’s emotional resonance is all the more powerful thanks to two personal notes Burkett includes in the program’s description. She credits her father, Phil Burkett, for “planting the idea for this exhibit in my mind and for continually nurturing my creative spirit.” Also: “My work on this exhibit is in loving memory of my grandmother, Arlene Sue Conner, who passed away this past weekend on 4/18/2020.” 

“Curating this online exhibit has been a unique experience,” she writes. “Arranging images and text on a screen instead of lugging around my hammer and nails has allowed me to spend more time looking at, thinking about, and arranging these artworks than any physical exhibition I have ever put together. This allowed me the opportunity to bring together artists from across the country who work in widely different mediums but share the common experience of a pandemic that leaves every life continually grieving a new context, one in which needs cannot be met.  However each person chooses to make it through each day during this crisis is unique and how each of these artists have created is a testament to humanity.”

The exhibition features work by more than 20 artists, from Oregon and around the country, and includes digital photography, collage, drawing, poetry, painting, and video.


Home Front: Living the Virtual Life

ArtsWatch Weekly: Is it real, or is it Memorex, or something in between? Amid the crisis, the arts world swims valiantly into murky waters.

WE ARE LIVING IN LONG-DISTANCE TIMES, AND YES, IT CAN GET A LITTLE DISORIENTING. We’re neither here nor there, it seems – and yet, we can be anywhere. Virtually, of course. As the long lockdown continues – for me, this is Day 43 – the “real” world seems just a computer-click away, so near and yet so tantalizingly far. The possibilities seem limitless, and limiting. My son, furloughed from his restaurant job, has been busily collecting insects and fish and various animals to stock the combination zoo/aquarium/natural history museum in a new video game. The creatures meet and mix in the most surprising combinations, chirping and roaring and burbling cheerily along: Like so much art, it’s both more and less than the natural world. I’ve been watching television shows set in Stockholm, Jerusalem, Warsaw, London, and Berlin. In my little corner of the Internet, experiences tend to travel through both time and space. They even, sometimes, involve creative activity, if usually by someone else. Maybe you’ve caught some of the clever “reenactments” of classic artworks being circulated by the Getty Museum and a Russian Facebook group, among others: cosplay taken to an absurd, and often absurdly funny, extreme, at a time when we need funny very much.

“December Sunrise at Catherine Creek,” by Cate Hotchkiss of Hood River; grand prize winner in Friends of the Columbia Gorge’s fifth annual nature photography contest.


Artist Ka’ila Farrell-Smith: Re-thinking the post-pandemic world

Ka'ila Farrell-Smith, Klamath-Modoc, sees the pandemic as a chance to break with the inequities of the pre-pandemic world

This is the first in a series of short(ish) interviews with Portland artists and arts professionals about their experiences and insights into the effects of the pandemic on our arts community. I hope these conversations will provide a bit of connection, critical perspective, and hope during this difficult time. 

Ka'ila Farrell Smith leans against a rock face bearing a circular petroglyph, she wears a pale blue t-shirt, white patterned bandana around her neck, brown tinted sunglasses and a multicolored baseball cap.
Ka’ila Farrell-Smith

Ka’ila Farrell-Smith (Klamath-Modoc) is an artist and organizer based in Modoc Point, Oregon. Her work “explores the space in between Indigenous and Western paradigms.” She is a Co-Director and Guide with Signal Fire Arts, a Portland organization that offers wilderness trips and residencies to artists and writers. Her work has been exhibited at the Tacoma Art Museum (WA) and the Missoula Art Museum (MT) and is held in the collections of the Portland Art Museum and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. She holds a BFA from Pacific Northwest College of Art and an MFA from Portland State University.

How are you doing? Do you have any strategies for managing the various anxieties, fears, and inconveniences the pandemic is causing?


Safe distance sounds

A roundup of recent recommended Oregon jazz for your stay-at-home enjoyment

April is really the cruelest month this year. We haven’t gotten to appreciate jazz during this plague-plagued Jazz Appreciation Month in the way we should: by personally observing the spontaneous creation of the “sound of surprise” in a club or theater. So we indulged in the next best thing: listening to recent releases by Oregon jazz — and jazz-ish — musicians. You can do the same with any of the recommended recordings below by following the links.

Much of the music listed here involves at least some improvisation, making it ideal for this moment where we’re all making it up as we go. If you like what you hear, be sure to tip your servers — by paying for a download, supporting your neighbors who created that beauty, and thereby equipping your digital device with a musical survival kit for the next pandemic.

Vol. 2: Into the Flow

Saxophonist, flutist and composer Hailey Niswanger’s wanderings have taken her from her native Portland to New England’s prestigious Berklee School to Brooklyn and, now, Los Angeles. Her artistry has also found new territories, most recently in her electric band MAE.SUN, whose sunny, spacy new album, Vol. 2: Into the Flow, advances its predecessor, Inter-Be’s creative jazz/pop fusion/electronica and 2015’s groovy PDX Soul and joins the other pop-tinged LA-based bands bringing jazz into the 21st century. Still under 30, Niswanger always sounded fine in more straightahead jazz, winning praise from venerable jazz writer Nat Hentoff in the Wall Street Journal among others, but she’s really found an original voice in MAE.SUN.

Make that voices, because some of these tracks feature vocals, Niswanger’s own as well as guest singers Amber Navran (of Los Angeles-based soul trio Moonchild) and Australian-born, Brooklyn-based Kate K-S. The album also showcases vibraphonist Nikara Warren, guitarist Andrew Renfroe, keyboardist Axel Laugart, bassist Aaron Liao, drummer David Frazier Jr, synthist Jake Sherman and producer Drew Ofthe Drew. Fans of synthy fusion like Herbie Hancock and Charles Lloyd’s 1960s-‘70s forays, jazztronica explorations and even Esperanza Spalding’s more recent efforts will find plenty to enjoy in both volumes’ neo-hippie spirit. 


Blood, sweat, tears — and a little Beatrix Potter

Lincoln City's Nora Sherwood left a lucrative career in geographic information systems to become a natural science illustrator

The daughter of a foreign service diplomat, Nora Sherwood has lived the life of a world adventurer from the start. Born in Colombia, she graduated high school in Spain and, in between, lived in Sweden, Finland, and Chile. She returned to the United States to attend the University of Colorado at Boulder, then embarked on a highly lucrative, but largely unknown, career in geographic information systems (think Google Maps).

After raising a family, she walked away from geographic information in favor of a career she wasn’t, to be honest, quite ready for. Not that it stopped her. Today, Sherwood is a successful natural science illustrator whose clients include Williams Sonoma, Oregon State University, and the High Desert Museum in Bend.

Lincoln City artist Nora Sherwood is scheduled to teach a workshop on bird illustration this summer at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology.
Lincoln City artist Nora Sherwood is scheduled to teach a workshop on bird illustration this summer at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology.

Sherwood recently hosted a virtual tour of her studio in Lincoln City and is scheduled to teach a July workshop at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology (it’s full, but there’s a waiting list). We talked with Sherwood about her career as a natural science illustrator.

So about the midlife career change — what made you trade a career in technology for one in the arts?

Sherwood: It’s kind of complicated. There are two main reasons. First, I got into that field very early on and rode a really interesting wave of trying to help people understand how that tool could be applied. When I got to the point of telling people I was into geographic information systems and they stopped asking, “What is that?,” I realized it was time to get into something else. I started a family and took time out to raise my kids. Geographic information systems is a fast-moving field. When I was able to focus again full-time, the field had gone past me. I would have needed to do some significant retraining, and with a family I just didn’t want to do that.

Why natural science illustration?

I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what I wanted to do next. I have always liked science illustration. I like the style of that artwork. There are programs where you can be taught how to be a science illustrator. I looked into that. If I had looked into it better, I might have realized how much money I was leaving on the table. (Laughs.)

Sherwood works primarily in watercolor, but also uses colored pencils, pen and ink, graphite and scratchboard. She says an involved illustration, like these ospreys building a nest, can take 50 hours to complete.
Sherwood works primarily in watercolor, but also uses colored pencils, pen and ink, graphite and scratchboard. She says an involved illustration, such as these ospreys building a nest, can take 50 hours to complete.

Are you a natural artist?

No, I am not. That was kind of the crazy part. The program at the University of Washington assumed you would already be an artist. I had the rude shock of realizing my art skills were not good enough. Fortunately, the Gage Academy of Art (a four-year art school oriented toward adults) was nearby, and I took all the basic drawing and color-theory classes it offered. It’s been blood, sweat, and tears. I felt a little bit desperate. I had walked away from my career. I had to do this. I graduated in 2014 from the University of Washington with a Certificate of Natural Science Illustration.

On your webpage, you talk about some of the illustrators who have influenced the field, Maria Sibylla Merian and John James Audubon. But your favorite is…

Beatrix Potter. She’s thought of as the “Peter Rabbit lady.” But she turned to doing those books partly out of frustration at not being taken seriously for her studies of mycology.

In this ever-changing age of technology, does science illustration still have value?

I think sometimes a piece of artwork is much more beautiful than a photograph, so that you will actually want to look at it. You might blow by a photograph of the same subject.

What about from a practical standpoint?

I get asked to do projects for people who need stuff you can’t photograph. I’ve drawn a lot of blister beetles. They’re a commercially important beetle used in surgery as a blistering agent so that medicines can be put in subcutaneously. I worked with a professor in entomology who needed drawings of blister beetles. The differences are really subtle, so that you need to see those differences only and not the whole beetle. You need to simplify it.

The Western Painted Turtle is native to Oregon. On a post for the Burke Blog, Sherwood writes: “Science illustrators don’t render individual specimens, but rather often illustrate an accurate ideal,” a composite of attributes from multiple specimens that can be used to illustrate guiding characteristics in scientific papers, journals, and field guides.
Sherwood says she enjoys illustrating reptiles, such as this Western Painted Turtle. On a post for the Burke Blog, Sherwood writes: “Science illustrators don’t render individual specimens, but rather often illustrate an accurate ideal,” a composite of attributes from multiple specimens that can be used to show guiding characteristics in scientific papers, journals, and field guides.

What is your favorite subject?

I am pretty much known for birds.

What is the most difficult?

I’m not as good a botanical artist as I would like to be. I’m still getting better at that.

How long does it take you to complete an illustration?

The simplest I would ever do would be five hours – for maybe a 5-inch portrait of a little bird. At the other end, 50 hours. That might be something more like a 13-by-19 illustration of a pair of ospreys building a nest.

You’ve lived all over the world. What drew you to the coast?

I really had no say in the matter. We lived in Steamboat Springs, Colo. My husband is from Southern California, and he wanted to get back to the beach, but not California. We moved in 2014. I didn’t like it initially. I thought, “Oh my gosh, how am I going to make this work?” But now I think this is a wonderful town for an artist.


This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.

A group of major Oregon foundations has pooled its money to create a new arts relief fund. So far, the Oregon Arts and Culture Recovery Program has $1.3 million to distribute to nonprofit arts and culture organizations throughout Oregon with grants for emergency operating support and recovery activities.

Organized and administered by the Oregon Community Foundation, the fund will give preference to arts nonprofits led by and serving communities disproportionately impacted by the social and economic consequences of the outbreak of Covid-19. The application process doesn’t look too onerous, either.

Carl Morris (American, 1911-1993), Audition, 1946; reworked 1951, oil on paper board, Gift of Frederic Rothchild, © 1946 Carl and Hilda Morris Foundation, 76.39/Portland Art Museum

The emergency funds are intended to meet “immediate operating needs and losses related to the cancellation of performances, gallery exhibitions, fundraising events and more,”  according to the RACC press release announcing the start of the program. The group of funders will also look for “proposals with strategies that allow art organizations and cultural institutions to innovate and adapt to the challenges of Covid-19. Organizations serving as a hub or facilitator for the arts and artists in their local, state and regional communities will also be prioritized for funding.”

Most of the money will be distributed in smaller grants, $5,000 and below, though larger grants (up to and even exceeding $25,000 in rare cases) will also be available.