Looking Back 2020: Reports from the orchestra seats

A review of our favorite ArtsWatch music stories from The Longest Year in History

What the hell happened this year?


To begin, I’d like to share a bit of MTV Generation perspective with my younger readers, those who may have never known (for instance) a pre-9/11 world. When everything shut down this spring and it all started getting extra weird, I sat dazed in my kitchen, staring out on empty streets and clear skies, and decided to ask around–how much weirder is this than 2001-03? Or, to go a bit further back, how much weirder than “the end of history” in 1989-91, when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed and tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square and Iraq and Panama, and the New Cold War started?

Naomi Klein will tell you that a disoriented state of helpless confusion is exactly the point of such times (“shock and awe” indeed), while Rebecca Solnit continues to remind us that these times are also opportunities for human communities to come together in solidarity and mutual aid. But regardless of catastrophe’s many and varied uses, it’s mainly just exhausting for us normal humans who must suffer history (and its end) in our daily lives.


The year in dance: 2020, go away!

A look back at a year of closures, crises, streamings and reimaginings, and ahead to a more cheerful 2021

I have been trying to summarize 2020 Oregon dance events in my head for days now in anticipation of writing this piece, but every time I sit down to write, something catastrophic happens in my personal life that takes my attention away. It seems fitting that 2020, the year of Donald Trump’s impeachment, the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor by the police, the evisceration of the performing arts industry, and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people worldwide from Covid-19, should end so badly. 2020 has been the saddest, loneliest, most tragic year I have ever known.


Ironically, the first 2020 DanceWatch was a preview of Marquee TV, the newish streaming service for dance, opera, and theatre. Who knew that this idea would no longer be an anomaly a couple of months later and that ALL performing arts would end up online. 

Part 3 of Linda Austin’s (Un)Made. Choreographed by Linda Austin in collaboration with the cast. Visual design and costumes by Sarah Marguier; Set design by Linda Austin; Set construction by Seth Nehil; Sound design by Seth Nehil; Lighting design by Jeff Forbes; Performed by Austin, claire barrera, jin camou, Nancy Ellis, keyon gaskin, Jen Hackworth, Allie Hankins, Danielle Ross, Noelle Stiles, and Takahiro Yamamoto. Photo: Chelsea Petrakis

January, which feels like a thousand years ago, was a month packed full of dance performances. One was part three of Linda Austin’s a world, a world, which I previewed. This iteration of the four-year-long project was a collection of movements taken from the earlier two phases of the process, reworked and reimagined into a completely new idea performed in two disparate worlds. The entire process was chronicled on the (Un)Made website and includes performance and rehearsal photos and writing by Austin and Allie Hankins, the project’s dramaturg.


Streamers: What’s Next for Movie Theaters?

Welcome to the brave new world of total confusion in the movie business

If there’s one thing we’ve all learned, or at least should have learned, over the least year or four, it’s that prediction is folly. As a calamitous 2020 comes to a close, and we take a moment, despite ourselves, to imagine what the coming 12 months have in store for cinema, about the only thing we can be sure of is that it’ll be better. Right? I mean, it kind of has to be better. Right?

In Portland, movie theaters have been closed to the general public since mid-March. The survival of one of the nation’s best exhibition infrastructures hangs in the balance.  Beloved independent venues such as Cinema 21, the Hollywood Theatre, the Northwest Film Center, the Clinton Street Theater, the Laurelhurst Theater, Living Room Theaters, and more have explored inventive ways to bring in at least a fraction of their normal revenue. These have included partnering with indie distributors to serve as portals for online rentals, renting themselves out for private, socially-distanced screenings, and selling concessions to go.


‘This instrument brings joy’

A grant will help a Lincoln County arts activist spread happiness, one ukulele at a time

Crystal Akins calls herself an “arts activist” — that is, someone who “activates art in the community.” It’s a title bestowed by a journalist and one that Akins has been earning since her teen years, when she worked with the Ethos Music Center in Portland. During that stint, she says, she founded the first intergenerational women’s choir in Oregon, with a goal of  addressing sexism and ageism.

Crystal Akins, founder of the nonprofit Activate Arts, plans to use a $1,300 grant from the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition to buy dozens of ukuleles.
Crystal Akins, founder of the nonprofit Activate Arts, plans to use a $1,300 grant from the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition to buy dozens of ukuleles.

Recently, the Lincoln City music teacher founded the nonprofit Activate Arts. It was her response to the isolation of the pandemic, as well as a continuation of her goals of inclusion, community engagement, and creating access to the arts.

This fall, the nonprofit got a boost from the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition with a grant for $1,300. Akins plans to use it to buy an instrument that’s been played by everyone from Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo’ole to Eddie Vedder to Tiny Tim. That’s right, the ukulele. And she’s planning to buy dozens of them, which aspiring players can borrow from Activate Arts.

“People generally love the ukulele,” Akins said, for its “sweet timbre” and small size.  People are sometimes overwhelmed by the larger instruments, she added, but the ukulele is “something you can hold close to you. And It’s playful. At a time like now, when there is a lot of fear, anxiety, this instrument brings joy.”


Passages: The ones we lost in 2020

Looking back: Remembering Oregon writers, dancers, musicians, theater artists, and others who died in the past 12 months

The year 2020 included, among its many disruptions, the deaths of several notable arts and cultural figures in Oregon. Here are 15 who we remember in particular for the art they made and the lives they led. Some, like the National Book Award-winning writer Barry Lopez, whose Arctic Dreams is a genuine classic, have international reputations. Some, like contemporary choreographer and dancer Mary Oslund, had outsized and lasting impacts that focused on Oregon but also reached beyond. All deserve our notice and gratitude for helping to shape our notion of culture in the Pacific Northwest.

Oregon’s passages join a long list of national and international cultural figures who died in 2020. Among them are the likes of playwrights Larry Kramer and Terrence McNally; the stage designer Ming Cho Lee; visual artists Christo, Milton Glaser, and Peter Beard; musicians John Prine, Little Richard, Bill Withers, Charlie Pride, Leon Fleisher, and Krysztof Penderecki; novelist John le Carré; dancer/actor Ann Reinking; and actors Chadwick Boseman (brilliant in his final role as the trumpeter Levee in the Netflix film adaptation of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Olivia de Havilland, Zoe Caldwell, Kirk Douglas, and Diana Rigg.


A note on Rigg: Many people remember her primarily as the sizzling secret agent Emma Peel in the TV series The Avengers; others for her sterling stage career. I revere her also as the author of the collection No Turn Unstoned: The Worst Ever Theatrical Reviews, an often achingly funny compilation of terrible and frequently wrong-headed notices gathered from historical records and sent her by her friends and fellow performers. It was prompted in part by a 1970 review by the legendarily caustic John Simon of her appearance in the play Abelard and Heloise: “Diana Rigg is built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient buttresses.” Sometimes turnabout is fair play: She showed that she could play the game just as well or better, and her book landed on Simon and his soulmates like a ton of tongue-in-cheek bricks.

The people we lost in Oregon, and will remember:

Sara Waddell and BRAVO’s Seth Truby, passing the torch. Photo: Joe Cantrell

Sara Waddell, teacher and music lover. Sara “Penny” Waddell of Beaverton was a teacher and mother and aspiring cellist who learned, in her early 50s, that she had a fatal cancer. She and frequent ArtsWatch photographer Joe Cantrell had become friends, and when she told him she wanted to pass along her cello and violin to students who could use them, he helped her connect with BRAVO Youth Orchestras, many of whose members can’t afford their own instruments. On Jan. 21 we told her story, with Cantrell’s photographs, in A cello, a violin, a final grace note. On Feb. 23 Waddell died, at age 52 – but her memory, and her musical instruments, play on.


Patrick F. Smith: Recovering Old Portland

A trove of 1970s and ‘80s photographs floods social media, putting a worthy spotlight on a humble veteran photographer

Sometime during the late-summer wildfires I saw Patrick Smith’s photo for the first time. Taking time out on a September day from stuffing wet rags into the crevices of my apartment’s old casement windows (a last resort to keep the smoke out), on Facebook I came across Smith’s black and white shot of Hawthorne Boulevard in a suddenly recognizable haze, as if the horizon had disappeared. It was just like what I was seeing out my window.

Only this wasn’t a shot of the wildfire smoke that devastated Portland and the western United States in 2020. It was taken in May 1980, during one of numerous Mount St. Helens eruptions that filled the skies and ground with ash. I’d never before thought of how the volcanic eruption I lived through as an eight-year-old in McMinnville (where ashfall made the gutters fall off my parents’ house) was the closest comparison to a wildfire event so mammoth in scale that novelist Jon Raymond wrote, “we basically nuked the Cascades.”

But there was a lot more to this photo, and not just that it was taken a few blocks from where I’ve lived for the past 22 years. Without embellishment in Photoshop, it was gorgeously cinematic, dryly humorous, and exquisitely balanced. 

Ashen skies along Southeast Hawthorne Blvd in Portland, 1980/Photo by Patrick F. Smith

In Smith’s vertically-framed shot, a couple is walking down Hawthorne Boulevard, the only visible sign of life on an otherwise empty street. Because of the ash-laden air, acting like a kind of dirty fog, the visibility extends only a couple blocks. It’s almost as if they’re walking into an abyss. Yet signs of everyday banality, or at least of keeping calm and carrying on, still abound. The couple is approaching a shop marquee advertising INCOME TAX PREPARATION, as if to heighten the sense of absurdity. And the man is gesturing with his left hand, suggesting they’re immersed in conversation. More subtly, the couple, though walking right next to each other, is bisected by a line in the sidewalk that transitions to the lines of a telephone pole and bisects the entire frame, and the space taken up by the sidewalk in relation to the streetscape going by follows the Golden Ratio almost exactly.

As the year draws to a close, I haven’t stopped thinking about this photograph, perhaps because it led me to others.


After the Fire 2: Starting Again

Looking Back: 2020's wildfires left the artisans of Oregon's Santiam Canyon reeling. A luthier and a painter look at what comes next.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The year 2020 has been unlike any in recent memory, piling uncertainty upon uncertainty and disaster upon disasterIt’s included a devastating wildfire season across the West, including a massive September fire that destroyed forests and towns in Oregon’s Santiam Canyon, where a thriving arts and crafts scene had grown up. In yesterday’s first of two stories for ArtsWatch, After the Fire 1: Scarred Landscape, writer and photographer Dee Moore turned a lens on the ash and ruin of the fire’s charred aftermath. In today’s Part 2, we hear from two of the canyon’s artisans – a logger-turned-painter and a luthier/community radio station manager – about what might come next.


Paul Toews’s ties to Santiam Canyon are indelible. His career as a logger started there. It is where he has lived, built his home, made a life, and attempted to make reparations to nature and the forest for a career in logging. And it has long been the inspiration of his many paintings.

“I’ve got a real tie with the land, and it goes back to my profession as a logger,” said Toews, who is 74. “The reason that I am explaining that is that it’s directly connected with my land, and probably the reason that I moved up there. I wanted a little bit where I could do some payback. I could give back what I took.

“I paint realism, and it’s considered contemporary impressionalism. I don’t draw individual leaves as much as the movement of things.” Toews’s primary medium is watercolor. He has painted since high school, but embraced it professionally after he gave up logging following a near-death scare. He began painting professionally, he said, “about the turn of 2000; I started making an effort to establish a studio and establish a clientele and started doing shows and teaching.”

When the Santiam Fire burned through Gates on Sept. 9, Toews lost almost everything: his home, which he had designed and built; and more than 30 paintings. Only the items in his Stayton studio, Art Gone Wild, remained untouched.


“At least 35, maybe 40 (paintings),” he said with a groan when we talked in late November. “Every once in a while one comes to mind and I think, that was up there.”

His voice had a ragged edge as he described his loss. The trauma remains. Toews has yet to see the effect the fire and loss will have on his art. So far all he has worked on are commissioned pieces. He’s yet to pick up a brush for himself.

Paul Toews, logger turned artist: burned out, starting again.

“Well, I think you’d have to come back maybe in a year for me to be able to answer that,” he said, “because this week was the first time I picked up a brush, and it was a commission job so it was already established what I did. So it’s not a test of what might have shifted inside of me somehow. I haven’t painted – so, yeah, that’s going to be a test of where my mind is I think when I start off that, but I really haven’t had the chance to just say, ‘Okay, what do I want to do?’”