Art for and from unprecedented times

RACC's "Capturing the Moment - Stories from a Pandemic" provided much needed funding to artists in the Portland Metro area. Luiza Lukova reviews the initiatives debut selections.

As the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted every facet of our lives over a year ago, the sudden upheaval and economic fissures left many individuals without employment, fearful, and struggling to make light of this new reality. Lockdown and mandated quarantine forced communities to look inward and into new methods of coming together and providing support. 

Capturing the Moment – Stories from a Pandemic is the recent initiative by the Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC) to support artists in the Portland Metro area during this unprecedented time. The initiative’s open call invited artists of color to submit emerging work in all mediums that reflected their response to the crises unraveling and deepening in their communities. Eligible work needed to be created in the present moment and capture a creative response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The program was made possible by funding from the federal CARES (Coronavirus, Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act. 

RACC’s Public Art Team invited four Black community curators who represented a range of experience, and who identified as Black, Indigenous or artists of color to review submissions. The curators chosen were Christine Miller, Bobby Fouther, Ambush, and Stacey Drake Edwards. As artists themselves working and surviving during the pandemic they approached their curatorial process with a consideration of RACC’s guidelines as well as with an intimate understanding of the truths felt by the artists submitting. The work from the final artists chosen for this initiative also encapsulated the weight of the Black Lives Matter movement, racial justice, and the urgent socio-political environment; limiting the artists to addressing only the state of emergency brought on by the virus would have only perpetuated a historic dismissal of otherness.

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Fishermen’s sanctuary weathers a different kind of storm

Vandalism at the building in Yaquina Bay State Park has supporters wondering how to maintain public access while protecting the memorial

On Saturday, the Newport Fishermen’s Wives will host the annual Blessing of the Fleet. Like much else, this year’s event will be pared down, but at heart, it remains a time to remember those lost at sea and to honor those who continue to work the turbulent waters that provide sustenance for the state and beyond.

Fishing is a culture in itself in this ocean-and-bayfront town, a way of life that colors the community far beyond the fishing docks.

The nature of the blessing gives it a solemn tone — albeit lightened in non-COVID times with fun and games — but this year it is shadowed by the discovery last month that the Fishermen’s Memorial Sanctuary had been vandalized. Now, this place of contemplation, worship, and remembrance will be just a little less open, access to the mementos that mark fishing-family lives, restricted.


Newport Fishermen's Memorial Sanctuary in Yaquina Bay State Park. Photo by Lori Tobias

Blessing of the Fleet

Saturday, May 15

10 a.m. Memorial service, Fishermen’s Memorial Sanctuary in Yaquina Bay State Park

11:30 a.m. Boat Parade/Blessing, Port of Newport, near the International terminal

1:30 p.m. Barbecue, Port of Newport parking lot 


The sanctuary has been in place since the late 1970s, when the Fishermen’s Wives contracted with Oregon State Parks to locate the shelter in Yaquina Bay State Park. Visitors leave photos of loved ones, as well as flowers and candles in their memory. The benches in the partially enclosed shelter offer a place to reflect or just a quiet escape. The park overlooks Yaquina Bay and the jetties leading out to the Pacific, and families and friends can often be found watching from above, as boats transit the bar separating the bay from the sea.

“When a boat goes down and a fisherman is lost, a lot of the time no body is recovered,” said Taunette Dixon, spokeswoman for the group. “It’s very hard to recover the body. A lot of large ports have memorials in place for people to grieve their loved one. The reason this one is so large and covered is we wanted families of not only fishermen lost, but also families who have their loved ones out at sea working, to go to feel comfort. It’s been a pretty big part of our community since it was built.”

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‘The Step Back’: Coming of age and basketball

Book review: J.T. Bushnell’s "The Step Back" is a coming-of-age story of family loyalty, bad decisions, and the redeeming abilities of empathy

Ed Garrison’s family home is a familiarly unhappy one, wracked with divorce and parent-child misunderstandings; the angst of a typical suburban upbringing. From the opening words of Eugene writer J.T. Bushnell’s debut novel – “Our dog ran away in May” – to the protagonist’s generally glum outlook through the first few chapters, The Step Back immerses the reader in the absorbing malaise of a teenage boy as he fumbles his way into adulthood.


IN REVIEW: THE STEP BACK, by J.T. Bushnell
Ooligan Press, publication date May 11, 2021
256 pages, paperback, $16


Children in America are constantly and unabashedly asked by teachers, parents, and television programs what they intend to “be” when they grow up. In Ed’s case, it seems that he’s known all his life: a basketball player. During the spring season of his final year in high school, Ed’s one true love is basketball – and he has a seemingly happy, wholesome family to come back to at the end of the day. This all changes when, one afternoon, after the disappearance of the family dog, his mother announces that she will be leaving them not only for Maryland, but for a relationship with a woman. This declaration becomes the catalyst in Bushnell’s new novel that sends Ed, his 14-year-old brother Charlie, and their father into a snowball of negligence and repression as they grapple with the unpleasantness of change.

J.T. Bushnell, author of “The Step Back.”

Mr. Garrison, Ed’s father, is a standoffish English professor, a sad but sweet workaholic with a stiff drink in hand: As his work life and hermit-like tendencies increasingly interfere with his ability to cultivate meaningful relationships with his sons, he does his best to offer life advice through a series of critical-thinking questions.

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A more hopeful apocalypse

Ryan Pierce's lush paintings invite the eye to meander and the mind to contemplate cultural and environmental resilience

Ryan Pierce, Storm-Born Waters (J.W. Powell, Forgotten) (2019). Flashe and spray paint on canvas over panel, 47” x 60″.

Images of the apocalypse tend to follow a theme: Dark skies, derelict buildings, smoldering fire. Over the last few years, phrases like “end of the world” and “fascist uprising” have circled around in public consciousness, tense and unyielding. It’s no surprise. We’re facing down the planetary crisis of climate change, another rise of white supremacy in our communities, and a virus killing millions. This is scary. Many of us perceive a world that’s becoming near-cinematic in its bleakness.

Despite these very real threats, Ryan Pierce chooses to envision the potential for worldly change from an optimistic, anti-apocalyptic lens. What if a collective revolution could be celebratory, wild, improvisational? The exhibition at Elizabeth Leach Gallery, Awake Under Vines, is the second in a series Pierce calls Jubilee. The large-scale paintings depict the confluence of environmental chaos and the end of industrial capitalism as a sort of revelrous feast, full of mayhem and clutter and uniquely human messes. Pierce’s paintings don’t force a new narrative on the viewer, but instead offer possibility: What if the future looked like this? What if resistance also meant regeneration? Although his compositions are jumbled and layered and complex, they offer the viewer a breath, a space in which the capacity for human resilience can spark hope instead of dread.

Ryan Pierce, After the Treehouse Fell (2020). Flashe and spray paint on canvas over panel, 47” x 60″.

Pierce’s paintings, all of which are Flashe and spray paint on canvas, contain obvious connections to the natural world. Vines twist around fences and lattices; hollyhocks entangle with snakes; cacti flourish among toppled monuments to John Muir and John Wesley Powell. It’s no mistake that Pierce depicts destroyed monuments celebrating white men of environmental movements. In After the Treehouse Fell and Storm-Born Waters (J.W. Powell, Forgotten), these figures are, in Pierce’s vision of revolution, literally sinking back into the earth.

As a summer wilderness guide with Signal Fire, Pierce has traveled extensively throughout the West, and his botanical references stem from real-life experience; there’s a felt sense of love and sentimentality in the natural elements of his paintings that then snarls dynamically with weapons and tools of uprising. Masks, knives, helmets, and makeshift bombs drive home the urgency of Pierce’s envisioned revolution. The works are also profuse with distinctly “human” clutter—clothing, broken bottles, balloons, picnic baskets, blankets—suggesting our entanglement with authoritarianism. We’re the ones who have strewn detritus over Pierce’s paintings, and it’s now our task to envision a collective, cultural resilience. 

Ryan Pierce, Flash Flood (2020). Flashe and spray paint on canvas over panel, 72” x 96”.

Plants and animals, on the other hand, flourish within the chaos of these paintings. As always, we can trust them and learn from their flexibility. Ceramic vessels are sometimes depicted broken, as though the plants they housed have burst free of them. Snakes, historical symbols of fertility, rebirth, transformation, and even eternity (in ouroboros form) are also frequent figures in Pierce’s works. In Flash Flood, a snake’s curvature emulates a crawling vine. In this subtle gesture, Pierce expresses a reciprocity within the natural world that humans could learn from and emulate.

As Pierce explained in his exhibition tour, the paintings for Awake Under Vines were created in isolated, vigorous studio sessions last year. This intensity shines in the dense, layered quality of the works and their symbolic meanings. Pierce researched societies during the rise of fascism, reading memoirs from those who lived in Italy in the 1930s, for example. He also read about white power movements and specifically cites Kathleen Belew’s Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America as an influence. These inquiries inform a sense of latent violence in Pierce’s paintings—there are numerous signs of a struggle that has just passed, or that is impending—and drive home how this latency is present in our current lives. For instance, in The Waterworks, Pierce uses gardening tools to reference his research on a Proud Boy working within the Portland Parks and Recreation department. 

Ryan Pierce, The Waterworks (2020). Flashe and spray paint on canvas over panel, 42.25” x 40.25″.

The title of Pierce’s exhibition references a vision of Gulliver (of Gulliver’s Travels) awakening pinned under Lilliputian vines. This fairytale idea finds real-world translations in restricted societies, sleeper cells, and resistance movements simmering just out of sight. Pierce’s constant weaving of the natural world into his paintings is, in itself, another radical hidden reference. It’s a reminder that we are not separate from nature—as humans, we are also nature, and thus flora and fauna must be central figures in our plan for regeneration. (Depictions of gardening tools like pitchforks and rakes, which could be either weapons or cultivation tools, further this idea.) 

Pierce is disengaged with the notion of apocalypse in the traditional, melancholy sense. Instead, he looks to our capacity for community-building, organizing, and returning to Earth-centered modes of knowledge. The symbolism within Awake Under Vines suggests an optimistic, improvisational dismantlement of the capitalism and climate-change-denial that threatens our current world, but Pierce’s compositions in themselves are also joyous. His paintings are rife with tangled imagery to pore over, each like a children’s seek-and-find book. 

Feasts, floods, broken objects. Pierce says, Look at all of these things. What are we going to do with them? How can they be repurposed? What happens next? 

Awake Under Vines is on view at Elizabeth Leach Gallery and online until May 29, 2021.

Navigating the wave: An interview with Kirsten Volness

Composer and Reed professor discusses the making of her album 'River Rising'

Last year, composer Kirsten Volness did the thing all composers should do: she released a whole album of her own music. The compositions on River Rising are the type that would occupy seven to ten minutes of a typical Fear No Music or Cascadia Composers concert, and it would be the best seven to ten minutes of the whole show–but that’s all you’d get. This is the complete experience those minutes always leave me longing for.

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Stage moms storm the gates

ArtsWatch Weekly: Storm Large and 3 Leg Torso make a movie, Chamber Music NW goes live, the Joy of words, news & views

SUNDAY IS MOTHER’S DAY, AND IN THE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS someone in the Pacific Northwest would be producing a streaming version of the great show-biz musical Gypsy, which features that most outrageous stage mom of all time, Mama Rose. So far as we can tell, that isn’t happening – but it’s worth noting that this not-quite-docudrama has Northwest roots. Rose’s daughter Gypsy Rose Lee, the celebrated ecdysiast on whose memoir the musical is based, was born in Seattle. Her sister, Baby June – the actress June Havoc – was born in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Storm Large is Mom, carpooling the boys in the movie “M Is for Mischief,” a musical comedy with 3 Leg Torso.

Ah, but who could be a more Mama Rose-size figure for Mother’s Day than Storm Large, the Portland rocker, musical memoirist, and stage and concert star whose triumphs range from Cabaret to Pink Martini tours to singing Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins at Carnegie Hall to writing and starring in her own musical play, Crazy Enough? And what better sidekicks than the brilliantly eclectic Portland band 3 Leg Torso? Large stars as Mother Torso, an overworked mom of four boys, in the new film M Is for Mischief, which is produced by 3 Leg Torso and Lakewood Center for the Arts (where it was filmed), and co-stars those wry and effervescent boys in the band. It premieres at 7 p.m. Sunday: Ticket details here, and a short film trailer here. In what sounds a bit like a Mom’s Day twist on the movie 9 to 5, Ms. Torso, it seems, has raised good boys: “The brothers secretly use their special musical powers to prank her wretched boss, who learns the hard way that it’s not nice to fool with Mother Torso.”

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Festivals of the future

Oregon Symphony’s reborn season, examined

With over a million vaccine doses delivered and summer looming, the Oregon Symphony has announced their return to the Schnitz for a 2021-2022 season. This isn’t simply a re-formulated version of the cancelled 2020-21 season, though a couple of pieces reappear. You can investigate the whole season for yourself right here.

There are two other exciting pieces of news, one of which is the hiring of new music director and conductor David Danzmayr (stay tuned for our interview with Danzmayr in the coming weeks). The other is the Schnitz’s acoustic renovations; the OSO has been coy about that so far, so we eagerly await more details. What we know is that the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust generously donated the $1 million that will pay for the renovations. 

Despite their season being cancelled last March, the symphony has adapted to the moment with their Essential Sounds series, the Storytime series and “minute for music” (listen to them all on Youtube here). Considering how poorly some organizations treated their musicians near the beginning of the pandemic, the Oregon Symphony has done a good job keeping their musicians employed over the last year.

This video may be the best musical primer for the new season: Danzmayr conducting Gabriela Lena Frank’s Elegía Andina, which we will hear at the first concert of the season, alongside a premiere by local violist and composer Kenji Bunch and Mahler’s death-defying Second Symphony.

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