Heard any good theater lately?

ArtsWatch Weekly: E.M. Lewis's Antarctic adventure "Magellanica" takes to the airwaves. $25 million+ for arts relief. A question of craft.

IT WAS A LONG TREK THROUGH ICE AND SNOW in January 2018 when Magellanica, Oregon playwright E.M. Lewis’s saga about a scientific expedition to Antarctica in 1986, premiered at Artists Repertory Theatre – a five-and-a-half hour trek, as TJ Acena reported in his review for ArtsWatch, including three intermissions and a dinner break. As Acena put it: “The question you’re probably asking is, ‘Does the payoff justify its length?’ The answer is a definite yes.”

At least partly because of its audacious stretch of time, Magellanica became a Big Event in Portland theater, along the lines of ART’s 2010 co-production with Australia’s Sydney Theatre Company of Long Day’s Journey Into Night with William Hurt as family patriarch James Tyrone and Australian legend Robyn Nevin as drug-addled matriarch Mary; or Storefront Theatre’s audacious 1989 production of The Cuchulain Cycle, all five plays in William Butler Yeats’s dramatic saga about the mythic Irish hero, performed one after the other on the same program, each play with its own director, cast, designers, and approach. 

From left: Vin Shambry, Joshua J. Weinstein, and Michael Mendelson in the 2018 stage premiere of “Magellanica.” All reprise their roles in the play’s new audio drama version. Photo: Russell J Young

For all of its continent-wide structure, Magellanica has a setup as familiar as an Agatha Christie trapped-in-a-mansion whodunit or a William Inge stuck-at-a-Bus Stop play: A group of mismatched people (in this case, from different and often competing nations) find themselves stuck in a mutual pressure cooker and have to hope the lid doesn’t blow off. 

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On revolt in the streets, circa 1971

The Mayday anti-war protests led to the largest mass arrest of demonstrators in American history, which author Lawrence Roberts will talk about via Powell's Books

Portland protests.

The city has been doing it a long time now—it seems like forever—and given the new justifications for protest that arrive almost every day, I don’t expect the protests to stop any time soon. I expect them to grow. So, the city has had to do a lot of thinking about protests, demonstrations, marches, and the nature of its dissent, and that will go on, too, I suspect.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading around these topics, and one of the most useful books to me has been Mayday 1971 by longtime investigative editor Lawrence Roberts. I met Roberts in Seattle at the very beginning of my own journalism journey, but Roberts soon left Seattle and spent most of his career in pursuit of answers to difficult questions, running investigations teams at the Hartford Courant, the Washington Post, Huffington Post, and Pro Publica, among others, leading three teams to Pulitzer Prizes along the way.

Mayday 1971, his first book, is about the week of anti-Vietnam War protests in Washington, D.C., that led to the mass, illegal arrest of around 12,000 protesters by D.C. cops. Despite claims to the contrary at the time, they were operating under the authority and order of the Nixon administration, as it turned out. The book makes the connection clear. Maybe already you’re getting the idea that past protests can inform our own.

Think of Mayday 1971 as a case history of a specific protest, maybe, or a military history of a specific battle. Roberts discusses the thinking of both the protesters and the government leading up to the engagement, considers the strategies employed by each side, follows the events as they unfolded, and then tracks the legal and political threads afterwards. Are the seeds of Nixon’s eventual destruction apparent in his response to the May Day protest, the lies that were told and the dirty tricks that were played? These weren’t tea leaves; they were practice.

The joys Mayday 1971 provides are considerable, especially if you know something about the time. Roberts sketches characters as diverse as Richard Nixon and Abbie Hoffman, telling delicious stories about the bully boys in the Nixon administration and the lives of the protest organizers.  He maintains a clear narrative thread through various digressions into their biographies, legal matters, drug consumption, paranoia and constant deceit. The stories are new, beautifully told, and get to the heart of the quixotic attempt by protesters to shut down the government for a day. They also reveal the absolute indifference to laws and the Constitution by the government, and the grotesque tough-guy talk they used to express it.

We learn, for example, that Nixon never for a moment thought about the position of the demonstrators, why they opposed the war and his part in it. He only thought of the demonstrators as enemies, maybe like the Viet Cong. As such, they didn’t deserve the truth, the protection of the law, or humane treatment once they were arrested. This idea—that those who dissent are automatically enemies—seems to be endemic to governments of all sorts. And it elicits a visceral, violent response to protests by the government, along with a whirlwind of lies and coverups. So yes, Roberts’ deeply researched account has a lot of parallels to our own tragic times.

Powell’s Books is hosting Roberts for a Zoom conversation about his new book at 5 pm today, Thursday, Sept. 24. I’ll be on hand, too, and we will be talking about some of these matters, I have no doubt. Please join us with your own questions and considerations?

Streaming: Fall film fests flourish from afar

Three Portland film festivals have figured out how to keep the images streaming, one way or another, during the pandemic

Around the globe, it’s fall film festival season, but of course it’s a season the likes of which has never been seen before (and with any luck intelligence, won’t be seen again). Industry pros, major critics, and the pass-buying public have been getting socially distanced sneak peeks at awards-caliber movies coming soon to a screen near you. Whether that’s a laptop screen or a theater screen, of course, remains to be determined. The Toronto, San Sebastian, and Venice Film Festivals have all limited public screenings, and the ability of festivalgoers to travel to them has been, of course, almost totally curtailed.

Closer to home, it’s fall film fest times, too. Perhaps the cruelest blow to Portland’s cultural corpus administered by the pandemic was the abrupt shutdown of the Portland International Film Festival in early March. The pain was especially acute since this was the first iteration of the city’s premiere filmgoing event to be conducted under the leadership of the Film Center’s new Director, Amy Dotson. Dotson brought a dramatic change in focus to the institution, intent on leaning forward into new technologies and new venues for both filmmakers and filmgoers.

The 42nd edition of PIFF, appropriately branded as Cinema Unbound, got off to an impressive start with a snazzy awards ceremony and a variety of nontraditional cinematic experiences on tap, along with a renewed focus on regional filmmakers. All that, of course, came to a screeching halt along with most other aspects of normal life, and with theaters still unable to host crowds for the foreseeable future, the Film Center has offered up PIFF 2.0, a weekend of screenings featuring works originally scheduled to show back in March.

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Spaces: Artists make room for the arts

Our series on artist spaces continues as artists try to figure out where to make art during the pandemic

By BRIAN LIBBY

Thirty years ago Ken Unkeles first began renting space in his family’s collection of riverfront warehouses to artists, starting with the Carton Service Studios on Northwest Front Avenue. 

Completed in 1911, the building was initially home to the world’s largest prune-processing plant, then during World War II it served in the U.S. Navy as a ship-building complex, and from the 1960s it was a Standard Steel warehouse. The Unkeles family took their Carton Service cardboard-box-recycling business to the space in 1984, and in 1990 began renting unused upstairs spaces to artists Dana Lynn Louis, David Airhart, and Kathryn Hathaway. Though the Unkles family sold the Carton Service company in 2006, they retained the building, and today all three original artist-tenants are still there.

Today, Unkeles rents studios in three more converted warehouses: the North Coast Seed building, River Street Studios and NW Marine Artworks, the last of which is expanding. Building 5, currently under construction, will be home to an artist and maker space anchored by the nonprofit FLOCK dance group when it is completed next spring. “It’s going to be a sensational situation,” Unkles says. “It’s going to be momentous, I think: something positive. That’s kind of our attitude: ‘Let’s do something positive.’”

Ken Unkeles will add Building 5 to the NW Marine Artworks studios in spring 2021./ Photo courtesy Dana Lynn Louis

Unkeles strikes an optimistic tone, but he’s never seen anything like 2020. “It’s quiet, that’s for sure,” he says, but amidst the pandemic “the studios are getting used, because they’re the perfect environment for distancing,” he says. “Everything is really spread out. Some people have caught on to that. They’re using it as a refuge and a way to hunker down. But some people are really struggling.”

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Balancing the beautiful and the horrific

Artists Natalie Niblack and Ann Chadwick Reid explore the Anthropocene and climate change in a show at Newberg’s Chehalem Cultural Center

The morning of Sept. 13, Natalie Niblack and Ann Chadwick Reid set out from their home in Skagit Valley about 60 miles north of Seattle for Oregon in a white Mercedes Sprinter van loaded with their artwork.

It was smoky where Reid makes her home on Samish Island, and Niblack lives along the Skagit River, and as they drove south the haze worsened. The two artists headed to Newberg, where, beneath brown skies and a few miles from one of two mercifully small fires in Yamhill County, they would oversee the installation of On the Edge: Living the Anthropocene. The newest exhibit to open at the Chehalem Cultural Center features, among other images, spectacular visions of fire.

The women regard the drive down I-5 through Seattle and Tacoma as among their least favorite because of the traffic and never-ending road construction. But on this Sunday, there were few travelers, allowing them to contemplate the surreal view.

Artists Natalie Niblack (left) and Ann Chadwick Reid share environmental interests that include monthly monitoring of beach debris for the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team Program (COASST), here at Bowman Bay in Washington’s Deception Pass. Photo courtesy: Ann Chadwick Reid
Artists Natalie Niblack (left) and Ann Chadwick Reid share environmental interests that include monthly monitoring of beach debris for the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) program at Bowman Bay in Washington’s Deception Pass. Photo courtesy: Ann Chadwick Reid

“What little landscape there was disappeared until we could see only about a quarter of a mile or so in front of the van,” Reid said. “By the time we got to Portland, we couldn’t see downtown from the freeway. The passing landscape became silhouettes of trees and buildings that faded from a dark smoky gray into the curtain of brown that enveloped everything. It was like experiencing the end time.”

“My overall sense was one of mourning,” Niblack added. “Mourning for the trees, ecosystems, and all the species that will be greatly diminished or become extinct, and guilt because it is our fault.”

“Anthropocene” is an unofficial unit of geologic time, describing the current period in Earth’s history when human activity has significantly affected climate and ecosystems. On the Edge: Living the Anthropocene, which opened last week and runs through Oct. 30, has been in the works for more than a year, and as curator Carissa Burkett observes in the program notes, the timing of the opening “is both triggering and prophetic.”

“Artists are always at the forefront of important issues and the predictors who bring a visual voice to things that cannot speak with words that others can hear,” Burkett writes. “To look at these works you see such beauty and softness that only makes the viewer feel heavy conflict as they try to hold the content.  You want to look, but you also want to look away.”

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More than a sum of parts

Rose Dickson's looping chains and cursive forms offer meditations on relationships and interconnectedness

By SUE TAYLOR

With remarkable ingenuity and endearing charm, Rose Dickson explores affairs of the heart. Her exhibition at Melanie Flood Projects, on view through September 27, reveals a gifted artist, creating watercolors, metals, ceramics, and wool rugs, all to draw us into her meditation on emotional connectedness. Dickson achieves this by means of a set of abstract symbols of her own devising; they repeat across her mediums in various combinations, like letters of a private alphabet. The cursive, symmetrical shapes stand in the artist’s mind for certain temperaments—or so we learn from an essay by artist Calum Walter that accompanies the show. He identifies two of the symbols as air and fire respectively, and we’re reminded of the ancient theory of humors associating mental and emotional dispositions with the four elements. Loops and hooks are characteristic features of Dickson’s graphic symbols; while the forms are individually unique, they are made to be linked together.

Rose Dickson, Ocean (2020). Hammered silver, 120 x 2 1/2 inches. Photo courtesy of Melanie Flood Projects.

Eight of the nineteen recent works on view are delicate chains of hammered silver, suspended from the gallery’s ten-foot ceiling and reaching to the floor. Each chain is composed of multiple iterations of one of Dickson’s symbolic forms, alternating right-side up, upside down, and so on, entwined in harmonious intricacy. A paper-clip chain is an apt but too crude comparison; Dickson’s chains are precious and beautiful, with evocative titles like The Kiss, A Balance of Power, or Vanity. Attempting visually and mentally to disentangle the basic unit from the whole, and to discern how the parts cohere, is a mesmerizing exercise. The structural principle may be simple, but the result appears complex, like the elaborate interlace in Celtic manuscript illuminations.

Rose Dickson, Seeing Eye to Eye (2019). Hand-hooked wool, 31 1/2 x 45 inches. Photo credit: Area Array

In the chain titled Ocean (perhaps to call up the rhythmic repetition of breaking waves), one may discover the curvilinear looping motif that reappears at a larger scale in the hand-hooked rug displayed on the floor in an adjacent room, Seeing Eye to Eye. Centered on the rug’s pale gray ground, the motif’s mirrored iterations, one red, one blue, interlock in pleasing unity. Conjured here through purely abstract form is that wonderfully agreeable feeling when two minds meet, or when similar personalities find themselves in sync. While pondering Dickson’s graceful emblem, I thought of Aristophanes’ theory of love in Plato’s Symposium, in which human beings are imagined as the severed halves of once whole, symmetrical organisms. Bifurcated by angry gods and thus piningly incomplete, when in life these beings locate their lost counterparts, they joyously reunite. Seeing Eye to Eye distills the spirit of this myth of romantic love in a heraldic symbol that could also represent friendship, brother- or sisterhood, collaboration, or like-minded solidarity.

The possibility that a conjoining of two might yield more than the sum of its parts underpins the design of Engine Room, a larger rug (nearly five feet long) mounted on the gallery wall. Here two side-by-side quatrefoils—they could be four-petalled flowers or four-bladed fans—are rendered in orange and green respectively, each decorated on three blades with its own set of Dickson’s graphic symbols. The fans’ respective fourth blades overlap at the center of the composition, forming a small pointed ellipse. This recombinant shape, picked out by Dickson in lavender and inscribed with a shared a symbol, suggests the miraculous potential we find in relationship with another, whether procreative, emotionally invigorating, or otherwise transformational. Partnership becomes a generative space, an “engine room” producing new power and energy otherwise unavailable to the individual alone.

Rose Dickson, Engine Room (2020). Hand-hooked and tufted wool, 42 1/2 x 57 1/2 inches. Photo credit: Area Array

That affectionate bonds of all sorts preoccupy this artist becomes apparent in several of her diminutive watercolor and gouache paintings. Seven are included in this exhibition; presented in shiny black glazed stoneware frames created by Dickson herself, they stand on wall-mounted shelves and demand close scrutiny. One of them, Almanac, contains a series of tiny vignettes within a grid formed by ten vertical rows of Dickson’s graphic symbol for fire traversed horizontally by hooked chains. The little scenes are captioned in the painting’s extra-long subtitle: conversations with my Aunt Elizabeth; my mom watching Mt. St. Helens erupt; The Burnside Bridge; some friends you have to leave; looking up; my house in Portland at nighttime; view from Alexander Studio; it was snowing. (The phrase “looking up” has no corresponding scene; perhaps it refers to optimism or respect or some other abstract quality represented by the solid orange-red areas of the grid.) Friends, family, landmarks, events, the natural world, all warm or trouble Dickson’s heart in this charming almanac of emotional weather. In one vignette, she depicts an open book to record those talks with her aunt, rendering the tenor if not the subject of each conversation by means of one of her signature graphic symbols inscribed on the book’s pages. The awful truth of her conclusion “some friends you have to leave” is conveyed by an image of a praying mantis: certain friends will love . . . then devour you. Dickson may be sentimental but is no Pollyanna about relationships. Some can injure or imprison you, just as her many-hooked grid in Almanac may begin to resemble a barbed-wire fence.

Rose Dickson, Almanac: conversations with my Aunt Elizabeth; my mom watching Mt. St. Helens erupt; The Burnside Bridge; some friends you have to leave; looking up; my house in Portland at nighttime; view from Alexander Studio; it was snowing (2020). watercolor and gouache on paper, wood, house paint, glazed stoneware. 9 x 11 1/2 inches. Photo credit: Area Array.

Silent Forces at Work depicts a house in flames. Inadvertently tragic today given the actual homes consumed by Oregon’s raging wildfires, the image is hard to contemplate in this particular moment without its literal dimension. If one’s mind could dwell in the realm of metaphor, it still might be possible to discover a moral about interpersonal relationships in the smoking conflagration Dickson envisions. An array of her cryptic symbols hovers in the sky above the burning home; they stand for different personality types, or different needs or moods, and signal how, however benign on their own, certain types become hotly combustible in contact with each other. Home and family offer the setting and the kindling for such explosive emotional catastrophes. 

Rose Dickson, Silent Forces at Work (2020). Watercolor and gouache on paper, wood, house paint, glazed stoneware. 11 x 9 x 1 1/2 inches. Photo credit: Area Array.

Thus the domestic subtext that runs through Dickson’s work—notable in her paintings of little houses or of interiors with chairs, drapes, or chandeliers, but also in the real rugs and candelabra on display in this exhibition, accoutrements for the home. A pair of ceramic candleholders with lighted beeswax tapers lends a votive aspect to the entire installation. Titled Bad Year and Good Year, the respective red and black ceramic candelabra, with their looping stems and hooked branches, translate Dickson’s graphic symbol for fire into three dimensions. It is a stunningly inspired elaboration of her graphic vocabulary, illuminating—for me at least—the burning brilliance of her art.

Rose Dickson, Bad Year (left) and Good Year (right) (2020). Glazed stoneware with hand-dipped beeswax candles. Each 9 1/2 x 5 x 5 inches. Photo credit: Area Array.

Dickson (b. 1989) is a native Portlander, which registers clearly in some of her work and will have special meaning for local audiences. The significance of the show’s title, however, “Giantess,” was lost on this viewer. Perhaps it describes the artist herself in outsized relation to the little doll-house worlds she presents in her pictures. Certainly her talent looms very large. Would it be impertinent, though, to propose an alternative title for an engaging body of work at once so intelligent and systematic yet so mysterious and deeply heartfelt? I respectfully submit to the artist for her consideration: “Rose Dickson’s Hieroglyphics of Love.”


Giantess is open through September 27th at Melanie Flood Projects by appointment only.


Sue Taylor received her BA in art history from Roosevelt University and her MA and PhD from the University of Chicago. Formerly critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, curator of prints and drawings at the Milwaukee Art Museum, and adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Northwestern University, she is a longtime corresponding editor from Portland for Art in America and professor emerita of art history at Portland State University. Her many publications include Hans Bellmer: The Anatomy of Anxiety (MIT) and the newly released Grant Wood’s Secrets (University of Delaware Press).

Finding freedom in adversity

A pandemic, a wildfire – while the hits keep coming, the Lincoln City Cultural Center responds with an online fundraiser and a transition to arts incubator

Some people just can’t catch a break.

Yes, it’s a cliché, but clichés exist for a reason, and at the Lincoln City Cultural Center this one may seem doubly true. And still they rise.

Last spring, after the pandemic changed our world, the center made the difficult decision to cancel its annual Culture, Of Course! fundraiser. The 6-year-old event typically brings in $20,000 to $30,000, unrestricted operating funds the center uses for necessities.

Niki Price, co-chair of the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition and vice chair of the Oregon Cultural Trust, says of donating to the trust, “Once we convince a donor to do it once, we rarely have to resell that donor. Once you try it, you’re in.”
Niki Price, executive director of the Lincoln City Cultural Center, says with travel restrictions imposed by the pandemic, the center decided to focus its auction on adventure, “interesting things we could go and do and dream about, something great to look forward to.”

Then, after months of finding innovative ways of operating safely — streaming concerts, virtual workshops, drive-in movies, take-out art supplies — center leaders knew they were ready to bring Culture, Of Course! back in a new way. There would a drive-in movie screen, food provided and prepared by Kyllo’s and delivered to tables set up alongside cars, entertainment by the surf/punk band Retroactive Gamma Rays, an arcade, and auction.

Then the Echo Mountain fire blew up. Parts of Lincoln City were evacuated and Pacific Power crews took over the center parking lot as a staging zone.

Canceling the Sept. 19 in-person event wasn’t a hard choice — they had no choice. But they did have options and, of course, they grabbed one — an online auction.

“We focused on adventure,” said Executive Director Niki Price. “Given all the travel restrictions and the way we have been kept at home, we focused on interesting things we could go and do and dream about, something great to look forward to.”

The list of items continues to grow, and so far includes a biplane ride, a mushrooming camp at Camp Westwind, an art class and retreat at Sitka Center, and a plein air artist getaway in Baker City, including accommodations, a tour of downtown, a gift card for lunch, and an artist-guided day-long high desert plein air workshop.

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