Smoke on the water

Photographer Benjie King captures haunting images of Newport’s bayfront and Yaquina Bay Bridge in the orange glow cast by wildfires

The morning after a historic windstorm swept over the central Oregon coast, igniting the Echo Mountain fire in Lincoln County and stoking the flames of other fires already burning, Benjie King was out looking for oxygen for his dad. As he usually does, King, 45, took his camera with him and soon found himself shooting photos of scenes around Newport he knew he was unlikely to experience again.

“I was actually working the night I realized things were going down,” King recalled. “You could look straight at the sun that evening and I knew it was going to be a gorgeous sunset, but I didn’t get a chance to go out that night. The next morning, there was just a gorgeous orange glow — almost like an unusual, beautiful sunset all day.”

It wasn’t a sunset, of course, but the light from fires miles away.

Benjie King shot the Yaquina Bay Bridge in the smoky glow caused by wildfire. "You won’t see the sky like that again, hopefully, ever again,” he says. Photo by: Benjie King, Out West Photography
Benjie King shot the Yaquina Bay Bridge in the smoky glow caused by wildfire. “You won’t see the sky like that again, hopefully, ever again,” he says. Photo by: Benjie King, Out West Photography

I first saw King’s photos on the internet 150-odd miles from home, where I was stranded after Labor Day weekend. Driving toward home from Central Oregon on Sept. 8, we knew of the windstorm that had struck the coast the previous evening, closing U.S. 101, and of the fire raging in Otis and Rose Lodge.

It was sunny and clear in the mountains — though the evening before had been heavy with smoke — but we soon noticed a strange wind, not one direction or another, but swirling and oddly foreboding. And then we came to the turnoff for home and discovered the highways were closed. We could drive dozens of miles out of our way to take an alternate route through a landscape that might or might not be safe, or we could wait it out.

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Linfield Theatre thinks outside the pandemic box

Yamhill County calendar: A "season like no other" on campus, plus a watercolor show in Newberg and a preview of McMinnville Short Film Festival

The pandemic has forced artists in every discipline to think outside the box, so I’m guessing that’s the analogy Linfield University’s Theatre department had in mind when it plowed into its 101st season Friday with an evening of improvisational sketches titled Out of the Box.

Students performed the live sketch comedy not before a live audience in the auditorium, but before audience members watching the live show on Linfield’s YouTube channel from home, regardless of whether home was a dorm room on the McMinnville campus or not; the show broadcast free to anyone with an internet connection.

They’re calling it “A Season Like No Other,” which it obviously is.

Out of the Box amounted to just more than an hour’s worth of sketches very much bound up with the present political and cultural moment, written and performed by a troupe of student actors and writers on a giant tic-tac-toe-style checkerboard with only a few set pieces constructed with what appeared to be PVC pipe. Graffiti adorned the rear wall: BLACK LIVES MATTER. SAY HER NAME. AMERICA IS BURNING.

Linfield Theatre students (from left) Caroline Calvano, Avery Witty, Sam Hannagan, Brielle Kromer (on ladder in back), Sara Cerda (on floor), Jordan Tate, and Sarah Ornelas perform an improvisational sketch during rehearsal for “Out of the Box.” The show can be seen on Linfield Theatre’s YouTube channel. Photo courtesy: Linfield Theatre
Linfield Theatre students (from left) Caroline Calvano, Avery Witty, Sam Hannagan, Brielle Kromer (on ladder in back), Sara Cerda (on floor), Jordan Tate, and Sarah Ornelas perform an improvisational sketch during rehearsal for “Out of the Box.” Photo courtesy: Linfield Theatre

Pieces were titled Womb to Tomb, We Don’t Need No Distance Education, A La Carte, and BBM in a TLB. Students wore transparent face masks. Student directors Clementine Doresey and Hailee Foster were assisted in putting the evening together by theater professors Derek Lane and Janet Gupton. With no copyright issues involved, the shows remain archived on the channel, available to watch anytime.

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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

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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