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2021: The people who made the art

Celebrating artists in Oregon whose visions stood out and helped define and rethink a precarious year.

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For Damien Geter it’s been The Year of Making Things Happen. From the spring programming of works by Black composers for Portland Opera’s program Journeys to Justice, to his appearance as a performer in Sanctuaries, composer Darrell Grant’s lauded opera about the dislocation of Portland’s traditional Black neighborhood, to his fall appointment as Portland Opera’s interim music director, joining new artistic director Priti Gandhi, Geter seemed to be in the exuberant midst of all sorts of interesting and important Oregon musical events in 2021.


2021: THE YEAR IN REVIEW


And not just in the midst, but excelling. “In the 30 years I’ve covered Portland Opera—through many changes in administration, artistic direction and philosophy—I’ve never seen such a compelling program as this month’s Journeys to Justice,” the 75-minute program of Black opera and art songs that Geter shaped, ArtsWatch’s Angela Allen wrote. “Cutting-edge and contemporary in style, … Journeys reached into the deep folds of pain and occasional jubilance that define Black American culture in a historically white supremacist landscape.”

Bass-baritone Damien Geter.
Composer, conductor, and bass-baritone Damien Geter: In the middle of things.

Known as a talented bass-baritone singer and increasingly as a gifted composer, Geter has risen swiftly at Portland Opera, where he was named a co-artistic advisor in 2020. His shepherding of Journeys to Justice raised his profile further, and when longtime music director George Manahan stepped down, Geter, who has a masters degree in conducting from Indiana State University, was ready to step onto the podium.

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In 2021, ArtsWatch told the inside stories of all sorts of fascinating artmakers. From cowboy clown “Leapin’ Louie” Lichtenstein to novelist and musician Willy Vlautin, here’s a sampling.

Artmakers of 2021

Feb. 22: Enter Laughing: A World of Clowns. In March 2010, weeks after a massive earthquake killed 250,000 people in Haiti, and left much of the nation a shambles of ruined structures, water shortages, and tent cities, the members of Clowns Without Borders were on the scene. “The earthquake laid bare [the country’s] flimsy infrastructure and vast inequities,” Danielle Vermette writes in her profile of the organization, a kind of Doctors Without Borders for the spirit. “For one clown, Portlander David Lichtenstein – known the world over as Leapin’ Louie – the experience exposed something else: the playfulness and resilience of the Haitian people. ‘On that tour, I heard the loudest laughter of my entire life, reminding me just how fine the line is between comedy and tragedy,’ Lichtenstein said. ‘Comedy is overcoming and celebrating tragedy’.” 

Following the 2010 earthquake disaster in Haiti, Clowns Without Borders’ “Leapin’ Louie” Lichtenstein lassos a happy crowd eager for a little relief. Photo courtesy David Lichtenstein

Feb. 26: Gigi Little Covers the Book World. Unlike Leapin’ Louie, Gigi Little ran away from the circus, where she’d worked for 15 years, and into a new life in Portland that includes, in addition to writing and editing, a career as a top-notch designer of books and book covers, including the collection City of Weird: 30 Otherworldly Portland Tales (which she also edited) and Steven Allred’s novel The Alehouse at the End of the World. Carmen Burbridge profiles Little and her fascinating work.

March 13: Matt Blairstone: Oh, the Horror! – “Matt Blairstone makes horror comics happen,” Bobby Bermea writes in this profile. “He writes grim scary tales. He puts artists to work. He builds communities. He learns. In recent years he’s created and published his own intensely personal, delightfully deranged tale of crazed, freakish scientists battling for dominance over a world gone mad.” Now, Bermea adds, Blairstone was in the midst of “his craziest endeavor yet” – a 200-page “Green Inferno” anthology with 18 artists in six countries.

April 18: Gavin Larsen: A Life in the Dance Theater. “To an eight-year-old, especially one there for the first time, the New York School of Ballet was confusing,” Gavin Larsen writes in her vividly engaging new memoir. … “Crowded into the big hallway cum lobby, there were certainly a lot of young children who looked like they were there for ballet class, but then there were all these adults around – clearly dancers, real ones – who looked as old as parents, though they were, probably, late teenagers.” Larsen would go on to cap her adventurous dancing career as a star for Oregon Ballet Theatre, where she retired in 2010 and embarked on a new career as a writer. We review her 2021 memoir Being a Ballerina: The Perfection and Power of a Dancing Life.

April 26: Hobby to Passion to Mission. Photographer and writer Blake Andrews profiles Sankar Raman, who took up photography in his native India, immigrated to the United States in 1980, had a long career in Oregon at Intel, and kept taking photos, developing his own style and approach that have proven crucial to The Immigrant Story, the organization he founded and developed to tell the stories of immigrants from around the world who’ve made new homes and lives in Oregon.

Rich Bergeman, “Shirk Ranch, Guano Valley, Oregon.” Image courtesy of the artist.

May 17: Imagined Narrative for Past Lives. “(R)uins have been an attraction for me since the first years of picking up a 4×5 in the 1980s, that and cemeteries — I think it was for two reasons: First, those two venues allowed me to work uninterrupted, as no one else was around; and secondly, those two venues gave me a disquieting, unsettling feeling that seemed to translate into more visceral and emotionally charged images.” In another profile, Blake Edwards talks with Corvallis photographer Rich Bergeman about Bergeman’s show The Vanishing West, featuring pictures of early settlements in eastern Oregon and Washington shot over a 30-year span.

May 17: Young, Fit & Fancy Free. On an April evening in 1944, a young dancer from Portland made history in Jerome Robbins’ first ballet. That dancer, Janet Reed, forms half of a dual biography with the dancer and choreographer Todd Bolender in Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet, by the veteran Portland dance critic and frequent ArtsWatch contributor Martha Ullman West. George Balanchine and what was to become New York City Ballet are major players in the tale, but West’s vivid, deeply researched, and entertaining book makes the case that much of American dance history was made by people like Reed and Bolender, often working away from the spotlight of New York. In this excerpt, West writes about Reed’s crucial role in the creation of Robbins’ 1944 American classic Fancy Free, set to a score by the young Leonard Bernstein.

The Eggs & I: A series of 49 of the first 52 eggs in the series, arranged by choice, not sequentially. Photo montage by Mike Zacchino

May 31: The Eggs & I: A Love Story. “ ‘Everyone loves a good love story,’” photographer Mike Zacchino writes in this first-person tale. “That’s what Anne said to me this morning as we ate breakfast on our 15th wedding anniversary. Anne loves eggs, and I love her, which is why I have been making her breakfast daily since sometime last year.” Zacchino, who’s spent much of his professional life in news photography, almost inevitably began to take photos of each morning’s egg, and to play around with the images, and post them on social media. Before he knew it, he had a genuine project. At the time of his story he was at 52 eggs and counting. He’s now past 200, and still cooking, shooting, and posting. And Anne’s still eating.

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June 4: Leanne Grabel Talks About Comedy, Outrage, and the Heyday of Portland’s Lit Scene. “Leanne rode up to me like a ray of light beaming through a stormy fog, sporting a bright magenta sweatshirt embellished with sparkling gold hand-drawn flowers across the front of the Blazer logo, paired with reflective sunglasses resting over her expressive eyes.” Amy Leona Havin, kicking off a series of interviews with Portland poets, talks with poet/illustrator/memoirist/performer/teacher/activist Grabel, who’s been at or near the center of things since moving to Portland in 1975, and who for several years ran, with her husband, Steve Sander, Southeast Portland’s Café Lena, a crucial gathering spot for poets, musicians, artists, and others.

Richard Brown. Photo: Antonio Harris

June 9: Brown in Black and White. “Sometime in the early 1980s, photography plucked Richard Brown out of ‘retirement’ and placed the Portland photographer into full-time activism,” Maria Choban writes on the occasion of the release of Brown’s memoir (with Brian Benson) This Is Not for You: An Activist’s Journey of Resistance and Resilience. Born in Harlem in 1939, Brown moved to Portland’s Albina District, center of the city’s Black community, after retiring from the Air Force in 1976. Since then, art and activism have intertwined in his life as he’s made brilliant images of Black life here and elsewhere, creating a visual record of a community. “You feel connection, warmth, community, in his images,” contemporary Portland photographer and artist Intisar Abioto tells Choban about Brown’s photography, declaring that his work “could be in the Smithsonian collection, definitely need to be in the Portland Art Museum collection.”

June 10: Kim Stafford’s Great Energy Swap. “We’re back to where poetry has escaped the book,” Kim Stafford tells Danielle Vermette. “It’s not in the zoo of the library where it’s looking out through the bars of its cage.” Stafford – recent Oregon poet laureate, son of the great Oregon poet William Stafford, model of a public artist, reaching out to people where they are – talks with Vermette about words and performance and the Whole Earth Catalog and moving poetry into the future: His latest collection, Singer Come from Afar, arrives with inserted QR interactive codes that allow readers to access supplemental material such as readings and films.

Ansel Adams & Stu Levy, Yosemite, 1981. Photo courtesy Stu Levy.

July 14: Adams & Levy ~ In Their Time. On the occasion of the Portland Art Museum’s exhibition Ansel Adams in Our Time (see Laurel Reed Pavic’s ArtsWatch review here), Pat Rose tells the story of the great photographer of the American West and Portland photographer Stu Levy, who shared Adams’ love of music and the Western wilderness, and who taught for several years at the Ansel Adams Workshop in Yosemite National Park. Levy tells Rose about seeing a museum exhibit in the 1970s of Adams’ work: “This was my first exposure to real photographs made by a master printer, not just reproductions in a book, and I was awestruck.” Photography and the wilderness, Levy added, took Adams beyond art: “Ansel leveraged his love of Yosemite and his work with the Sierra Club into a model for political change.”

July 28: Letters & Lunches: About Ursula. Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018), the great Portland writer whose essays, poetry, and speculative fiction presciently addressed cultural, political, and environmental issues as they helped transform and broaden the borders of literature, was honored in 2021 by the issuance of a 95-cent stamp by the U.S. Postal Service. Her friend of a half-century, fellow Portland writer Martha Ullman West, spoke at the Portland unveiling of the stamp, and ArtsWatch published her remarks, among which was this observation on humor: “In Ursula’s work, in just about all of it, from poems, to essays, to novels, to children’s books, to letters to friends, the humor is in them, too. And in conversation: I once told Ursula that she was a role model for me.  ‘Oh?’ she said, giving me that sly, sidewise look.  ‘What kind of roll? Parker House?’”

Aug 3. Ryan Findley: From Gutters to “Lorelei.” “I went from doing gutters to the set for Lorelei, but then I’d have a conflict, because I’m needed on set for First Cow. They made sure I could be on both sets,” Findley told David Bates, marveling at the fact that he was a working actor shuttling between two productions. “That was one of those moments, this is what it’s like! It was amazing.” Bates talks with the McMinnville actor, who juggles not only multiple film shoots like these two made-in-Oregon features, but also his “other” job, as a busy construction contractor.

Wataru Sugiyama with his rhinoceros work-in-progress “One Who Sees Off.” Photo courtesy of the artist.

Aug. 10: Wataru Sugiyama: Building Beauty. “An unpaved road turns off of East Main Street at the southern end of Ashland, passing by cows, abandoned farm equipment, and old cars to arrive at an archetypically picturesque old barn. Wander through the brush to the back, where you’ll find the studio of sculptor Wataru Sugiyama. The shelves that line the spare, 10’ x 12’ room are crammed full of his unique interpretations of traditional Japanese Haniwa imagery – meditating elephants, beatified boars, violin-playing foxes, and turtle monks – all in various stages of completion for gallery exhibitions and commissions.” Beth Sorensen profiles Sugiyama, the Ashland sculptor, who was born in Tokyo and came in 1986 to southern Oregon, where he’s built a world out of clay.

Aug. 10: “If the Center Is the Human Soul”: Interview with Osvaldo Golijov. Angela Allen talks with the Argentine-born composer who’s written an opera, a Mass, movie scores, song cycles, symphonic music, and who declares his “spiritual home is chamber music, especially string music.” Golijov, who was composer-in-residence at this year’s Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival, talks with Allen about the advantages and disadvantages of traveling widely; the greatness of tango master Astor Piazzola and American jazz giants such as Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter; Iranian, Brazilian, and Cuban music; the influence of his teacher George Crumb; and his own wide-ranging music.

Aug. 11: Where Utopia Is Present. “Let’s begin with the image that graces the front cover of Meat Shot Idyllic, the dynamic new album from Jan Julius. The Portland-based future-pop/R&B artist is at the center of the frame, standing in what looks like a damp marshland, face framed by chin-length curly hair and punctuated by a nicely groomed mustache. But the only clothing on their body is a banana yellow string bikini.” Robert Ham talks with Julius about bodily fluids, slippery beats, pleasure, pain, his new album, and – yes – a vision of utopia.

Kate Nason, author of the memoir “Everything Is Perfect,” made collages relating to her scrape with notoriety. Image courtesy of Kate Nason.

Sept. 7: Making Everything Perfect. “At a recent party in Portland to celebrate her first book,” Elizabeth Mehren writes, “Kate Nason decorated the tables with china painted with delicate pink roses. ‘Please take a cup or a saucer home with you,’ she told her guests. ‘And if you feel like it, throw it against a wall.’” That book, Everything Is Perfect, tells the tale of Nason’s now long ex-husband and the young family “friend” who went on to a job as a White House intern during the term of a certain saxophone-playing president. But that’s just the backdrop for Nason’s story of emerging on the other side. And, yes, china was broken in the process.

Sept. 16: Got talent: A toast to Jimmie & Storm. Two terrific Portland singers, Jimmie Herrod and Storm Large, kept a television-watching nation on its toes in 2021’s version of the entertainment spectacle America’s Got Talent. In the end a magician named Dustin Tavella walked off with the million-dollar check. But Herrod made it to the finals, and Large picked up legions of fans on her way to the semifinals. “It wasn’t the outcome a lot of Oregonians were hoping for,” ArtsWatch commented. “(But) let’s appreciate Herrod and Large for what they are: genuinely talented and accomplished artists who bring the originality of their own personalities, tonality and phrasing to the songs they sing, and who offer insight and deep pleasure to their audiences. … They’re grownup performers – their craftsmanship is superb.”

Sept. 24: Jerry Mouawad: Re-envisioning opera. “Opera is a new world for me,” Mouawad, the intensely mime- and movement-oriented cofounder of Imago Theatre, tells Brett Campbell, who adds: “He’s learning fast.” How does a movement-obsessed director adapt to a world of music and sound? Mouawad began a few years ago by collaborating with Portland Opera on a pair of David Lang chamber operas and what Campbell calls a “stark, chilling setting” of Philip Glass’s In the Penal Colony. Then, this year, he staged composer John Glover’s monodrama Lucy for Eugene Opera and his own original mini-opera Satie’s Journey, using Erik Satie’s music, for Imago. “Mouawad may consider himself an opera newbie,” Campbell declares, “but his off-center approach is finding itself welcome in an operatic world freeing itself of historical constraints.”    

Oct. 4: Bond fan picks brain of “Dr. 007.” As the wide release of No Time To Die marked the end of the Daniel Craig era as movie superspy James Bond, Bennett Campbell Ferguson sat down for a long conversation with the University of Oklahoma’s Dr. Lisa Funnell, author of two books about the geopolitics and gender asumptions of the Bond novels and films, and who’s known in Bondsiana circles as “Dr. 007.” “James Bond’s cool in and of himself,” Dr. Funnell tells Ferguson, “but Bond is nothing without the women who occupy the world around him. He’s defined by his relationships with them, and they change over time—and when I say change, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they progress in positive terms. We can debate which [characters] are more progressive than others.”

Kevin Jones of The Red Door Project; actor and singer Ithica Tell. Portraits by K.B. Dixon

Oct. 27: The Cultural Landscape: 11 Portraits. Among his many contributions to ArtsWatch, photographer and writer K.B. Dixon has done several series of probing black-and-white studio portraits of Oregon painters, sculptors, musicians, writers, and other arts and cultural figures. With this portfolio he begins another series, spotlighting cultural leaders in several disciplines: as Dixon puts it, “the talented, dedicated, and creative people who have made significant contributions to the art, character, and culture of this city and state, people whose work and various legacies are destined to be part of our cultural history.” His subjects range from jazz pianist and composer Darrell Grant to Northwest Film Center director Amy Dotson to publisher and editor Rhonda Hughes.

Artist Bonnie Meltzer describes Tikkun Olam as the “work of her life.” Photo courtesy of Kayley Hoddick

Nov. 1 “Tikkun Olam”: Repairing the World a Stitch at a Time. “The vision for Tikkun Olam, Hebrew for ‘repair the world,’ came to Meltzer on January 21, 2017, the day after the inauguration of the nation’s 45th president, when she joined the Women’s March in downtown Portland — one of the largest public protests in Oregon’s history, with as many as 100,000 participants,” Beth Sorensen writes. “ ‘I saw all these people coming together to repair what’s wrong with our society,’ she says. ‘And everyone was saying the social fabric is falling apart, the fabric of American life is unraveling, and I heard fabric, fabric, fabric.’” That led, finally, to Meltzer’s interactive installation at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, in which visitors add their stitches to a continually shifting group creation with a 20-foot-diameter parachute at its center. “Petite, with flame-red hair, wearing sweeping dresses that are as vivid as she is herself,” Meltzer “moves continuously through the gallery, occasionally stopping to look over a sewer’s shoulder and offer encouragement or to answer questions about the installation to others,” Sorensen writes.

Nov. 15: The Art of Arts Management: Pat Zagelow and 30 Years at Friends of Chamber Music. Often in the arts, what you don’t see or hear is at least as important as what you do, because it makes the seeing and hearing possible. Pat Zagelow has been the guiding hand behind the vital Friends of Chamber Music for three decades, Brett Campbell writes, and has reliably brought great music to audiences while dealing coolly with various crises, including the very large coronavirus crisis. “The pandemic forced cancellation of a season’s worth of live shows, and a shift to streaming,” Campbell notes. “According to FOCM’s board, she managed the pandemic-propelled cancellation and shift to streaming with similar aplomb. ‘It’s mind-boggling to think of all the challenges associated with coordinating the negotiation and production of all these streaming concerts,’ wrote one board member in her latest performance evaluation, calling the successful pivot ‘impossible without Pat’s experience and long-term relationships with the involved organizations.’”

Willy Vlautin and Any Boone of The Delines
“I like my dog and my horses and I like being in a band,” says author and musician Willy Vlautin, shown here with Amy Boone, singer for The Delines.

Nov. 27: Disappearing Act: Willy Vlautin Captures a Vanishing Portland. “From Northline’s Allison Johnson, who flees an abusive boyfriend to navigate the uncertainty of a new life, to the brothers in The Motel Life who go on the run after a hit-and-run accident, to the teenage boy in Lean on Pete who embarks on a journey with a broken down racehorse to find his missing aunt, Vlautin’s protagonists know what they’re running from, but not where they’re running to,” Valarie Smith writes about the characters in Willy Vlautin’s stories. “But Lynette, the protagonist of his new novel, The Night Always Comes, is different. She not only knows what she wants, but she also has a plan to get it.” In a long and discursive conversation, Smith and Vlautin, the excellent Oregon novelist and musician, talk about dogs and horses and band practice and James M. Cain and Sam Shepard and The Original Hotcake House and Myrna Loy and just about everything except whether pigs have wings (we’re guessing no, although they probably yearn mightily after them and deeply regret the limitations of the laws of nature).

Dec. 21: Whatever the music needs, whatever the story needs. Bennett Campbell Ferguson talks with Katherine FitzGibbon, founder and artistic leader of the choral group Resonance Ensemble, about the group’s commitment to both music and social issues. “Emotional distance wasn’t a problem for Resonance Ensemble in 2021,” Ferguson writes. “As the noose of the pandemic tightened, the group became emboldened, bringing their music outdoors with two new series—Under the Overpass and Commissions for Now—and confronting Portland’s houselessness crisis with a blockbuster concert called Home.”

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.

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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