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2021: A year of rethinking who we are

Amid a year of cultural clashes over who belongs, artists in Oregon thought big, told untold stories, and spread the creative net wide.


The year 2021 was caught in the midst of a fascinating and crucial period of cultural change, dominated by the fundamental question, Who are we? The question both capsulizes and divides a nation at odds with itself as it grapples with issues of national mythology and fiercely argued opinions on who belongs. The inheritors of Plymouth Rock and the Jamestown Colony? The westward-moving settlers of European stock? The continent’s original inhabitants, pushed aside in the land rush? The immigrants and “outsiders” and descendants of slavery and current toilers in the factories and fields? The tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free?

In Oregon as elsewhere across the nation, artists have eagerly entered the conversation, giving voice to the often unheard, creating fresh ideas, opening doors, and casting the cultural net wide as they expand the stories that get told.


Art that feels enticing, heavy, and fatigued: Kayley Berezney, “Almonds and Wine” (2018). Wine, Ibrance 100mg, almonds, almond oil, salt, plaster of Paris, epoxy. 8″ x 6.5″ x 7″. Image courtesy Fuller Rosen Gallery.

Jan. 22: Bodily limitations recast: Penteha Abareshi and Kayley Berezny. In a time of public health crisis, Lindsay Costello ventured to Fuller Rosen Gallery to consider works in which “the body becomes more dynamic and versatile—not despite the limitations of disability, but because of them. Neither artist shies away from the fear, isolation, and rapid changes they face as artists with health challenges” – Abareshi with a form of Sickle Cell that causes debilitating chronic pain; Berezny with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. Berezney’s work, Costello writes, “is unveiled in her sculptures, which feel like stand-ins for bodies in recovery. They’re enticing, but also feel heavy, fatigued.” 

Feb. 15: Building resiliency with the arts. Brett Campbell tells the tale of I Am MORE (Making Our Lives Resilient Everyday), the group founded by Portland poet, novelist, educator, and former newspaper columnist S. Renee Mitchell and three of her former students from Roosevelt High School – “a nationally award-winning, creative-and arts-based youth development program” that has “trained hundreds of students, schools, parents, and educators – statewide and nationally – on culturally relevant trauma-informed and social-emotional practices that ‘increase hope, healing and a sense of belonging.’”


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March 13: For houseless women, a fresh Momentum. Elizabeth Whelan writes about the Momentum Workshops, offering “accessible online dance and movement classes as well as health/wellness seminars,” with proceeds going to aid houseless women, children, and nonbinary people at Rose Haven Shelter. The program, Whelan writes, gives “a new meaning to the phrase ‘we rise by lifting others’ in this town’s dance scene.”

In March the Japanese American Museum of Oregon revealed the jail cell from the Multnomah Courthouse where the civil rights activist Minoru Yasui (who would later be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom) was incarcerated for nine months during World War II. Photo: Brian Libby

March 23: Resistance: Minoru Yasui’s Prison Cell. Brian Libby writes about the relocation of Minoru Yasui’s onetime jail cell to the Japanese American Museum of Oregon. Yasui – the only Oregon native to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom – spent nine months in solitary confinement in the cell at the Multnomah County Courthouse in the war years of 1942 and ’43 before being transferred to a federal incarceration camp for Japanese American citizens. Yasui was born in Hood River in 1916 to Japanese immigrants, and devoted his life to civil rights issues.

Musician Amenta Abioto. Photo: Gritchelle Fallesgon, via Third Angle New Music

March 31: Black Music Matters, Vol. 3: Smell the Roses. In his series on Black music in Oregon, Matthew Neil Andrews writes about the many aspects of the music of Amenta Abioto, including Third Angle New Music’s “Soundwalk” series of music to wander by. “Abioto is well known for her solo live shows, in which she uses an array of looping technologies to support improvised layers of vocals, synths, and percussion,” Andrews writes – and she also performs with members of the Oregon Symphony.

April 11: The Endurance of The – Ism Project. Bennett Campbell Ferguson writes about the Covid-prompted shape-shifting of The – Ism Project, “a cinematic anthology from the multicultural production organization MediaRites that ruminates on race, gender and sexual identity in profoundly personal terms. It began as a series of monologues, but as the pandemic ravaged the planet, MediaRites shifted the project from stage to screen.”

May 5: Sing a Song of Oregon. Lori Tobias looked into the movement to dump Oregon, My Oregon, the state’s official song since 1927, or rewrite lyrics that extolled the “Manifest Destiny” storyline of white settlers creating something new in a virgin land. As Tobias wrote this story, it looked like the state might even end up with two anthems. On June 6 the State Legislature voted to revise the song’s lyrics – changing “Land of the Empire Builders,” for instance, to “Land of Majestic Mountains.”

May 25: Radio Rejuvenation. “Classical music radio: dated music for old people, written by dead white European males, out of step with a demographic growing younger and more diverse.” All Classical Portland, Brett Campbell wrote, “is blowing up that stereotype of contemporary cultural irrelevance” with such bold moves as recording the music of composers of color, starting a mentoring program for student journalists, and starting a new broadcasting station aimed at kids and teens.

May 28: Imagining the Portland of Tomorrow. So, where are we headed? Bennett Campbell Ferguson writes about Diana Burbano’s audio play Vertical City, which imagines a tragic (and triumphant) futuristic PDX, with an ending that transforms the tale into “a dystopian epic that is a meditation on dystopian epics.”


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In June, the culture wars that have shaken the nation took a sharp right turn in the Oregon city of Keizer, north of Salem, when protesters from a southern Oregon religious group crashed an LGBTQIA celebration in a public park, shouting and pushing and upending the event. Photographer Dee Moore was on the scene and emerged with a story and photos.

June 14: Pride & Prejudice in Keiser. In June, writer and photographer Dee Moore was in Keizer’s Chalmer Jones Park for the Keizer Pride Fair, “one of Oregon’s first in-person Pride events this year, and the first large in-person event in Keizer since the pandemic began.” Then an aggressive group of religious protestors crashed the party, with loud voices and big signs. “What started off as a family-friendly afternoon filled with babies, bubbles, drag performances, dancing teens, small kids running about the plaza, folks playing games, eating snacks, painting, listening to music and visiting with friends soon turned ugly,” Moore wrote – a classic clash in contemporary America. The last picture in Moore’s photo essay showed a sign taped to the end of an empty picnic table. “Love Is Love,” it read.

Aug. 21: A festival for voices to be heard. In the midst of the pandemic, Portland’s PassinArt: A Theatre Company went big, creating and producing the Pacific Northwest Multi-Cultural Festival. The new festival, presented virtually this year, took some of its cues from the National Black Theatre Festival, where PassinArt artistic director Jerry Foster and Portland festival producer and curator Leasharn Hopkins both have ties. The festival, Bobby Bermea wrote, featured “short films of plays and television scripts, and panel discussions on issues in the industry that those same artists have to deal with to survive and thrive” – and included a list of local participants that “reads like a who’s who of the Portland arts community.”

Darrell Grant's 'Sanctuaries' with Third Angle New Music. Photo by Intisar Abioto.
Darrell Grant’s opera “Sanctuaries,” with Third Angle New Music, took as its setting and subject the loss to urban renewal of the traditional Black neighborhood in Northeast Portland, and was performed outdoors at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, which sits on property that was once part of the city’s Black epicenter. Photo: Intisar Abioto.

Sept. 4,6,23: The new opera Sanctuaries, with music by jazz composer Darrell Grant and a libretto by Anis Mojgani, Oregon’s poet laureate, is rooted in the historical consequences of urban renewal and the uprooting of Portland’s traditional Black community in North and Northeast Portland. It was premiered outside Veterans Memorial Coliseum, on land that was once near the epicenter of Black Portland. History is crucially a part of contemporary culture, and at its best the art world understands that. Brian Libby, Brett Campbell, and Charles Rose each wrote about aspects of Sanctuaries for ArtsWatch.

“Invitation to Being A Future Being.” Photo courtesy PICA/Tojo Andrianarivo

Oct. 2: Invitation to Being a Future Being. “First, a stomp,” Lindsay Costello writes. “Yup’ik dancer and choreographer Emily Johnson, crouched with knees wide, jumps, both feet landing hard on the concrete congregating space outside the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art.” Part of PICA’s annual TBA Festival, Invitation to Being a Future Being was an exploration of Indigenous culture, history, and memory in dance, sounds, words, and images – a creative passage from the past into the future, and a story to be told.

Also in “2021: The Year in Review”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."


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