The year 2021 saw many deaths in the worlds of arts and culture, some of them voices from the past and some still-working artists who were very much a part of the contemporary mix.
On the final day of the year, actor and cultural icon Betty White, beloved for her roles on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls, died. She would have been 100 on Jan. 17. A very incomplete list of others lost includes visual artists Chuck Close (born and raised in Monroe, Wash., near Seattle), William T. Wiley, California legend Wayne Thiebaud (at 101), and conceptual pioneer Lawrence Weiner; writers bell hooks, Janet Malcolm, Eric (“The Very Hungry Caterpillar”) Carle, Anne (“The Vampire Lestat”) Rice, Booker Prize winner Keri Hulme, and poet Robert Bly; composer Carlisle Floyd; musicians Chick Corea, Biz Markie, Bunny Wailer, Don Everly, U-Roy, Mary Wilson of The Supremes, organist Lonnie Smith, Charlie Watts, and Tom T. Hall; playwright Arthur Kopit; actors Olympia Dukakis, Antony Sher, David Gulpilil, Jane Powell, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Clarence Williams III, George Segal, Cloris Leachman, and Michael K. Williams (“The Wire”); film directors Melvin Van Peebles, Lina Wertmüller, and Michael Apted; and comedians Mort Sahl, Rusty Warren, Norm Macdonald, and Jackie Mason.
2021: THE YEAR IN REVIEW
Below are 30 we remember in particular, mostly those who made their marks in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest; several of whom were national figures.
Those who died:
Jan. 18: Jimmie Rodgers, 87, singer. The second famous singer of that name, following “the singing brakeman” celebrated for his yodeling. This Jimmie Rodgers was born and raised in Camas, Wash., across the Columbia River from Portland, and had such huge pop/country hits in the 1960s as “Oh-Oh, I’m Falling in Love Again” and “Honeycomb.” The New York Times has a good obituary.
Jan. 21: Molly Cliff Hilts, 62, visual artist. The Oregon painter and printmaker’s works, including large encaustic landscapes, were well-known in her adopted state (she was born in Palo Alto, Calif.) and across the country, in galleries and shows from New York to Los Angeles to the collection of Bill Gates. Her influences ranged from J.M.W. Turner to the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich to California pop artist Wayne Thiebaud. “My work is always hopeful,” she told ArtsWatch senior editor Brett Campbell for a 2009 profile in Oregon Quarterly. “I’m really to that point where I feel satisfied, like this is what I set out to do and I’m finally there. That’s an incredibly satisfying feeling. I’m glad I kept pushing it.”
Jan. 23: Hal Holbrook, 95, actor. The veteran stage and film actor was most celebrated for his several decades of portraying the great American writer and cultural satirist in his touring show Mark Twain Tonight!, which for years made regular visits to Portland. In 2012 he sat down for a long conversation with ArtsWatch.
Jan. 28: Cicely Tyson, 96, actor. She was a riveting and honest performer, and a hugely significant public figure: From Sounder to The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman to Roots and much more, she made the world a better place.
Feb. 5: Christopher Plummer, 91, actor. The Canadian actor was revered for performances as disparate as Iago, Hamlet, Cyrano de Bergerac, John Barrymore, and, most famously, Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music. The veteran Portland actor and director Tobias Andersen wrote for ArtsWatch about his conversation with Plummer on how to approach playing Prospero in The Tempest.
Feb. 22: Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 101, poet and guiding light of San Francisco’s legendary City Lights bookstore. One of the fathers of the Beat generation of writers, to which several memorable Oregon writers also belonged, Ferlinghetti was also, quietly, a painter of some repute. Amy Leona Havin remembers him and City Lights.
March 10: Stephen Scott, 76, composer of plucked and bowed piano music. Born in Corvallis and headed on a path to jazz, Scott veered sharply in another direction when, as a University of Oregon music student, he was introduced to Terry Riley’s proto-minimalist masterwork In C. “It grabbed my by the throat,” Brett Campbell quotes Scott in this remembrance. Scott’s world enlarged, from the percussive music of Ghana to the possibilities of playing the piano in entirely new ways.
March 16: Ross McKeen, 63, Portland arts leader. In his many years as managing director, he helped build Oregon Children’s Theatre into a national force. He worked at other companies, including Portland Center Stage, played in what he called the “swell country band” Bourbon Jockey, and was a bright and witty writer who had legions of friends. Read more here.
March 25: Beverly Cleary, 104, legendary Oregon children’s book writer, who created Ramona the Pest and Henry Huggins and introduced the world to the splendid goings-on of the plucky kids along Northeast Portland’s Klickitat Street. Cleary was born in McMinnville, lived with her family on a farm near Yamhill, and then moved to Portland when she was 6 years old, later calling on her neighborhood memories and her vivid comic imagination to create her sparkling stories. Amy Leona Havin celebrates Cleary’s life and work.
March 25: Larry McMurtry, 84, author and antiquarian-book seller. Best-known for his sprawling “anti-Western” Lonesome Dove, McMurtry, whose accomplishments we remember here, was an articulate and talented storyteller whose books often upended romantic notions of the American West. Several of his tales were made into first-rate movies: The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, Hud (from his novel Horseman, Pass By.)
April 3: Dennis Cunningham, 71, Oregon artist. Born in Medford, Cunningham was a printmaker of uncommon talent, with a strong and yearning sense of his native state’s water and land: He was known and admired especially for his evocations of the fishing life. Art historian Sue Taylor writes this appreciation.
May 2: Jacques d’Amboise, 86, dancer/choreographer. The great American ballet star, on whom George Balanchine created many roles, was also a great teacher and a great human being, Martha Ullman West writes in this reminiscence.
May 24: Anna Halprin, 100, pioneering experimental dancemaker whose influence is felt far and wide, including in Portland’s fertile contemporary dance scene. She was married to landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, who led the team that designed the Keller Fountain and other distinctive water sculptures in downtown Portland. Read Wendy Perrin’s memorial on Anna Halprin in Dance Magazine.
July 5: Carlton Jackson, 60, jazz drummer, bandleader, and KMHD radio host. As Don Campbell wrote in a profile for Jazz Society Oregon, he was a Portland A-lister and also a player on the national scene, working with such artists as Booker T. Jones, Billy Eckstine, Jim Pepper, Tom Grant, Leroy Vinnegar, Thara Memory, and Bo Diddley.
Aug. 14: R. Murray Schafer, 88, composer. The Canadian experimental composer, Charles Rose writes, “reoriented our perspectives on sound and the place of sound and listening in our society, especially as we face down the existential threat of climate change.” Rose praises his “contributions to acoustic ecology and the politics of noise.”
Aug. 15: Ernie Casciato, 67, Portland actor and drama teacher. A Portlander through and through, Casciato was a celebrated star on the city’s stages in comic and musical-theater roles, from Neil Simon comedies to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Mr. Mushnik in a brilliant Little Shop of Horrors. But his greatest triumphs may have come in the classrooms and rehearsal halls of his alma mater LaSalle High School, where he taught and directed theater for 39 years, and was beloved. Read more here.
Aug. 26: Anne Hughes, 76, gallerist, coffee shop queen, gatherer of people. She was sometimes called “the Gertrude Stein of Portland,” and it was an apt if incomplete comparison. Hughes, as this reminiscence notes, brought people together and made things happen. Her 1970s art gallery represented such important artists as Sherrie Wolf, Henk Pander, Judy Cooke, and Louis Bunce. She helped found Saturday Market. She opened and reigned over the first coffee shop at Powell’s City of Books. She organized salons. She starred, seated nude in an easy chair in front of a fireplace, in a celebrated poster that carried a quote from Stein: “If you are not rich you either buy clothes or you buy art.”
Aug. 29: Hobie Hawken, 71, theater designer, technician, and teacher. Daniel Smith “Hobie” Hawken taught, directed the theater shop, and designed many productions at Portland State University, winning a pair of national awards for his set designs at the American College Theater Festival in the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. He designed many shows for Portland Civic Theatre, Storefront, New Rose, Stark Raving, and other theaters, and was master carpenter for nearly 20 years at the theatrical staging and scenery company R.A. Reed Productions. See his obituary here.
Aug. 29: Ed Asner, 91, actor. For years he entered America’s living rooms every week as the irascible newsman Lou Grant in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spinoff series Lou Grant. He was deeply involved in politics. And he acted onstage – including, in 2019 at age 89, as God in the political comedy God Help Us! in Newport on the Oregon Coast, where Lori Tobias had this conversation with him.
Oct. 13: Michihiro Kosuge, 78, sculptor and teacher. Born in Tokyo, he came to the United States in 1967 and 11 years later came to Portland to teach at Portland State University while building his own practice as a highly regarded abstract sculptor, working mostly in stone. Russo Lee Gallery, which represented him for many years, remembers him here.
Oct. 14: Ian Mouser, 42, founder and executive director of the Portland youth music organization My Voice Music. He was struck and killed by a pickup truck in Arizona while on a cross-country bicycle trip to raise money for his organization.
Oct. 14: Bill Royston, 75, founder and longtime leader of the Portland Jazz Festival, and prolific writer about the jazz scene. Oregon Music News has a good reminiscence.
Oct. 15: Debi Coleman, 69, board member, philanthropist, friend of artists. Coleman was a high-tech pioneer, first at Apple and then in Oregon at Tektronix and Merix, who had a longtime devotion to art and artists. She was a co-producer of Broadway’s Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, and a supporter of performance groups including the Oregon Symphony, Oregon Ballet Theatre, and the theater company Triangle Productions. Read her obituary here.
Oct. 26: Jeremy Eisen, Oregon Shakespeare Festival stage manager for 22 years, where he kept things running on dozens of productions ranging from As You Like It and Macbeth to Guys and Dolls, Death and the King’s Horseman, The Cherry Orchard, Wild Oats, Fuddy Meers, and Two Sisters and a Piano. He also was stage manager for six shows in the 2012 season at Portland Center Stage’s JAW Festival of new works.
Nov. 17: Dave Frishberg, 88, songwriter and pianist. The jazz pianist and wryly clever songwriter of such tongue-in-cheek hits as My Attorney Bernie, I’m Hip, and Peel Me a Grape moved to Portland and became a treasured fixture on the music scene, playing clubs and forming a fruitful musical partnership with jazz singer Rebecca Kilgore. We announced his death here, and Marty Hughley followed up with his own appreciation here.
Oct. 31: Holly Yasui, 68, writer, editor, documentary filmmaker, playwright. Yasui, who died from complications of Covid-19, was intimately linked to Asian American history, and so was her work. She was the youngest child of the civil rights activist Minoru Yasui, the Japanese American lawyer and Oregon native who took a challenge to the Supreme Court against racial profiling and other discriminatory measures during World War II. During the war he spent several months in a Portland prison before being transferred to a Japanese American internment camp, and later became the only Oregon citizen to have been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Holly Yasui co-founded the Minoru Yasui Legacy Project in Portland, and was co-director and executive producer of the documentary film Never Give Up! Minoru Yasui and the Fight for Justice. Read her obituary here.
Nov. 26: Stephen Sondheim, 91, legendary Broadway composer & lyricist. Sondheim’s legacy is vivid in virtually every corner of the theater world, from high school drama departments to community and professional theaters – including classical houses. A few seasons back the Oregon Shakespeare Festival had a huge hit with its production of his fractured-fairy-tale musical Into the Woods, which in a way seemed like returning a favor, because Sondheim’s first big hit, as lyricist for West Side Story, was an updating of Romeo and Juliet. With the likes of Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Assassins, Sunday in the Park with George, and the great Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Sondheim profoundly reshaped the American musical.
Nov. 27: Philip Cuomo, 58, actor, director, clown, artistic director of CoHo Productions. Cuomo, a beloved and influential figure on the Portland theater scene, died after a long struggle with lymphoma. “Cuomo had a motto: ‘Stop — find joy’,” Marty Hughley wrote in this appreciation. “That isn’t always easy. Cuomo, of course, knew that (which is why, I imagine, his advice begins by telling us to halt what sometimes seems the natural course away from joy). It is a skill and a practice, and his mastery of it is essential to the deep impact he had on so many in the theater community here.” Hughley had more to say about Cuomo’s life and achievements here.
Dec. 9: Margo Tufo, 71, Portland blues and jazz singer, bandleader and producer. A standout performer on the Northwest scene, she also worked with such leading lights as Etta James, Robert Cray, Albert Collins, James Cotton, and John Mayall. The winner of two Muddy Waters Blues Awards, she had a distinctively deep, clear, powerhouse voice that could also go soft without losing any energy. See her obituary here.
Dec. 23: Joan Didion, 87, essayist, novelist, memoirist, screenwriter. In her ArtsWatch appreciation of Didion’s life and art, Amy Leona Havin quotes the author: “I’m not sure that I have a social conscience. It’s more an insistence that people tell the truth.” Havin adds: “Joan taught me that we must write what happened in the way that it happened. Didion does and always has done her best to tell the truth about the way of things, and without her, the world of literature would not exist the way it does today. I, too, believe that I would not exist the way that I do now if not for the influence of her writing.”
Also in “2021: The Year in Review”
- Marc Mohan’s 10 Best Films of the Year. ArtsWatch’s chief film columnist picks ’em and praises ’em, from The Lost Daughter to Memoria to The Tragedy of Macbeth.
- 2021: The people who made the art. From Damien Geter and Leapin’ Louie to Bonnie Meltzer and Willy Vlautin, celebrating almost 30 artists in Oregon whose visions stood out and helped define and rethink a precarious year.
- Stage & Studio: Reflections on 2021. In her end-of-year podcast, Dmae Lo Roberts talks with ArtsWatch’s Bob Hicks, Steph Littlebird, Brett Campbell, and Amy Leona Havin about the highs, lows, and landmarks of the cultural year.
- 2021: A literary year of loss, renewal, and re-emergence. Amy Leona Havin looks back on the authors we lost and the bookish events that cheered us this year.
- 2021: A year of rethinking who we are. Amid a year of cultural clashes over who belongs, a baker’s dozen stories about artists in Oregon who thought big, told untold stories, and spread the creative net wide.
- 2021: A year of dance, up in the air. From dance on film in January to a flurry of Nutcrackers in December, Jamuna Chiarini tracks the ups and downs of Oregon’s Covid-tinged dance year.
- 2021: A year of looking at things. In a year of sharp contrasts, visual art in Oregon bounced between the stark and the hopeful, with plenty of surprises along the way.