Remembrance of Things Past

The once and future city? K.B. Dixon turns his camera lens on downtown Portland, before the pandemic and the plywood


PHOTOGRAPHS AND TEXT BY K.B. DIXON


There has been a lot of depressing talk lately about what our city has become this past year. It’s hard to argue. The images here have been gathered for nostalgics.  They are, à la Proust, a small remembrance of things past—images of Portland before the pandemic, the protests, and the plywood.


SIMON BENSON HOUSE, 2016



JACKSON TOWER, 2011


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How to make an American quilt

A conversation about the difference between America's ideals and its reality leads to a fiber arts show at the Chehalem Community Center

In his sprawling trilogy on the mythology of the American West, historian Richard Slotkin observes that there is a “continued preoccupation with the necessity of defining or creating a national identity” in the United States. In recent years, the preoccupation has become a roiling public obsession. Ask Google, “What does it mean to be an American?” and you’ll see many people grappling with the question — in newspapers, in community gatherings, and in academia.

And in art. A new exhibit at Newberg’s Chehalem Cultural Center brings the question to Yamhill County, refracted through textile arts, both by a single artist and crowd-sourced.

What Does It Mean to Be an American? is a collaborative project by Alicia Decker and Ellen Knutson, two Portland artists and educators. The show runs through April 2.

The community quilt includes nearly 50 squares embroidered by people who participated in conversations with Ellen Knutson on what it means to be American. Embroidered details address everything from racism and disenfranchisement to liberty and compassion. Photos by: David Bates
The community quilt includes nearly 50 squares embroidered by people who participated in conversations with Ellen Knutson on what it means to be American. Details address everything from racism and disenfranchisement to liberty and compassion. Photos by: David Bates

Knutson is a research associate at the Charles F. Kettering Foundation, where she works with university faculty and librarians on deepening their connections to their communities. She is also a printmaker. Since 2017, Knutson has worked with Oregon Humanities to facilitate discussions around Oregon on the question that titles the show.

Decker is a freelance designer and adjunct assistant professor at Portland State University. According to the show’s notes, her “research-based studio practice involves storytelling through textiles; utilizing illustration, various printing and dyeing methods, quilting and embroidery, to create compelling visual fiber-based narrative through print, pattern, and color about events currently shaping our world.”

The two met at one of Knutson’s town halls about a year and a half ago, and Decker suggested expanding the conversation into a visual art exhibit.  

“My goal has always been to build community and deal with some difficult questions about things that are going on in the world through fibers,” she said.

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Enter laughing: A world of clowns

In a world of trouble, Clowns Without Borders goes to hot spots and lightens the load. At Pandemic Pandemonium, you can pitch in.

A few days into the tour, the clowns felt exhausted. Port-au-Prince, the capital city and chief port of the Republic of Haiti, lay in ruin. It was March 2010, ten weeks after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake ripped the country asunder, killing an estimated 250,000 people. Twisted rubble disfigured the skyline and 40,000 tents overtook the country’s only golf course. Running water was scarce: The clowns, hot and humid, took small “showers” with purchased drinking water. On tour with an organization called Clowns Without Borders, and sponsored by Handicap International, which provides prosthetics and medical equipment, the clowns brought another kind of crucial medicine: laughter. 

They began their shows with a traditional clown parade in makeshift hospital tents, hugging and playing for hundreds of children with new amputations. The city was already ravaged by poverty and political volatility. The earthquake laid bare its flimsy infrastructure and vast inequities. 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.” 

The people of Haiti are living proof of what Red Skelton so nicely put into words: “No matter what your heartache may be, laughing helps you forget it for a few seconds.” I like to hope Mr. Skelton had knowledge of the work of Clowns Without Borders, whose beginnings can be traced back to 1993, when school children in Barcelona raised money to send the Catalonian clown Tortell Poltrona to their pen pals in Croatian refugee camps. 

Following the 2010 earthquake disaster in Haiti, “Leapin’ Louie” lassos a happy crowd eager for a little relief. Photo courtesy David Lichtenstein

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The Year of Living Cautiously

Veteran dance critic Martha Ullman West looks back on a year of Covid isolation and moments of movement that vividly broke the spell

My year of living cautiously began the end of February last year, and while I had hoped it would conclude close to the same day this year, I think it’s more likely to stretch into a second year of the same.   

 In the past year I have seen two, count them, live dance performances, and one dance film in a theater, Alla  Kovgan’s stunning 3D documentary Cunningham. (I think all dance films should be shot in 3D, based on this one and Pina, Wim Wenders’ 2011  film about Pina Bausch, both shown at Portland’s Cinema 21.) 

 I have watched as many streamed performances as I could bear; written one obituary tribute;  read a dozen or so dance and dance-related books, some of which I was dipping into for a second and third time; and, in the name of shameless self-promotion, finished writing a book I started thinking about at the turn of the millennium.  Todd Bolender, Janet Reed and the Making of American Ballet, the gods and Covid willing, will be published in May.  

Jacqueline Schumacher, in her teaching studio in downtown Portland’s Odd Fellows Building, ca. 1975. Photographer unknown.

Dance watchers will know that Reed was a native Oregonian, who was trained in Portland by Willam Christensen, as was her close friend Jacqueline Martin Schumacher. Schumacher, who died in September, 2019, would have been 100 on November 30, 2020, and a centenary celebration was under discussion when Covid hit; needless to say it did not take place. 

Both women were founding members of the San Francisco Opera Ballet (now the San Francisco Ballet) and danced, respectively, the roles of Odette and Odile in the first American evening-length production of Swan Lake.  Reed went on to a stellar career with Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet.  Schumacher brought her star power back to her  home town, returning to Portland in 1942, when San Francisco Ballet went on hiatus right after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  

Here she established a ballet school with rigorous standards (ask any former pupil!) where she taught generations of Portland students, many of whom became professional dancers. Equally important, as the founder of the Portland Ballet, a successor to Christensen’s company and a precursor of Oregon Ballet Theatre, she was pivotal to the establishment of the city’s resident ballet company.

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No news like good news

ArtsWatch Weekly: I Am MORE, Broadway Rose's 'Story of My Life,' PDX Jazz Fest, art around Oregon.

A COUPLE OF DAYS AGO MY FRIEND (AND OCCASIONAL ARTSWATCH CONTRIBUTOR) STEPHEN RUTLEDGE, who writes the Born This Day column and other stories for The WOW Report, sent along a YouTube link to an old clip of Sam Cooke singing Good News on American Bandstand. Along with the link he sent high praise for the recent movie One Night in Miami, a fictional imagining of an actual meeting in a Miami hotel in 1964 of Cooke, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and football star Jim Brown to celebrate Ali’s heavyweight-championship victory over Sonny Liston. Rutledge’s note reminded me that, yes, even in traumatic times there is good news, it’s worth singing about, and its triumphs so often are the result of hard creative work and leaps of the imagination.
 

S. Renee Mitchell (left) and, from left, Jeanette Mmunga, Justice English and Johana Amani of I Am MORE.

In Building Resiliency with the Arts, the latest chapter in our occasional series The Art of Learning, Brett Campbell relates another story of Good News, one with deep Portland roots. The poet, activist, and former Oregonian newspaper columnist S. Renee Mitchell, he writes, “had been recruited to Roosevelt High School to teach journalism. But she also helped mentor students with their personal issues; brought in fruit, day-old bagels and cream cheese; revived the Black Student Union; created a Black Girl Magic Club, and invited in community members to perform, speak, encourage and share their wisdom with the school’s low-income students.”

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‘One drop of water in the deep blue sea’

An interview with Sophia Wright Emigh and Jaleesa Johnston's about their pandemic-inspired dance video project "Bodies Apart, Moving Together"

Scrolling through Instagram one evening, I came upon a link to a short film co-created by Jaleesa Johnston, a multi-disciplinary artist whom I follow. I watched the film—a meditation on our isolation and connection during the pandemic, explored through movement—and burst into tears. It evoked every emotion I’d been feeling over the past many months. I immediately emailed Jaleesa to ask for an interview. She told me that the film was the second in a series of three—a virtual triptych titled Bodies Apart, Moving Together (the third has yet to be made)—the brainchild of her collaborator Sophia Wright Emigh. I invited them both for remote chat and what follows is an edited, condensed version of that interview (you can watch the full interview here).

still from a dance video by Sophia Wright Emigh and Jaleesa Johnston. Three figures at sunset on an empty road.
Sophia Wright Emigh and Jaleesa Johnston. Still from Bodies Apart, Moving Together II. (2020)

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Bard to the bone: A Star (Wars) is born

Ian Doescher has built a mini-empire of modern pop stories retold in Shakespearean style. (Read through the history plays with him, online.)

Ian Doescher’s favorite Shakespeare line comes from Hamlet, Act 5 Scene 2. “If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.” I find this line most relatable in this moment as we all are forced to contend with matters out of our control. Sickness, political unrest, racial tension; while these forces are ever present in 2021, they are also ever present in Shakespeare’s work. In focusing on Shakespeare’s universality, verse and literary devices, Doescher has carved out a place for himself as the bard of reframing modern classics as poetic tales.

Portland author Ian Doescher: modern pop classics with a Shakespeare beat.

Since the beginning of his William Shakespeare’s Star Wars series of books in 2013, the Portland writer has been exploring this literary niche within a niche. Doescher has always loved writing, though his background is in music and theology (with a B.A. in music from Yale, a Master of Divinity from Yale Divinity School, a Ph.D. from Union Theological Seminary and ordainment from the Presbyterian Church, this background is extensive). But he never thought he would find himself here. Academic writing, maybe. Pop culture as Shakespeare stories, no way.

What do you get when you combine rewatching the Star Wars trilogy, reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and taking a trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival? If you’re Doescher, you get William Shakespeare’s Star Wars. Ian is a prolific writer with work spanning the Star Wars Universe, Mean Girls, Back to the Future, Clueless, A Christmas Carol, Deadpool, and Frankenstein. He is also co-author,  with Jacopo della Quercia, of MacTrump: A Shakespearean Tragicomedy of the Trump Administration. In addition, he’s completed a four- part volume covering the complete Avengers series, coming out in July.  

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