Letters & lunches: About Ursula

A Portland gathering dedicates a new stamp in honor of the late, great writer Ursula K. Le Guin. Here's what one of her best friends had to say.

Ursula K. Le Guin at the Oregon Coast, from the Arwen Curry film, “Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin”

EDITOR’S NOTE: 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, has been honored by the issuing of a new, 95-cent U.S. Postal Service stamp. A Postal Service day-of-issue event on Tuesday in the sculpture garden of the Portland Art Museum commemorated Le Guin’s life and introduced the stamp. Among the speakers was one of Le Guin’s oldest and closest friends, Portland writer and dance critic Martha Ullman West, whose own book, Todd Bolender, Janet Reed, and the Making of American Ballet, was published in May 2021. Here are Martha’s comments from Tuesday’s celebration.

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URSULA LE GUIN WAS A WOMAN OF LETTERS, in every sense of the phrase. Via the postal service and e-mail, for nearly six decades, we exchanged words on the page and on the screen, sometimes at great length, often briefly. We made lunch dates, and we broke them.  We wrote about our families, our work, current events, and our cats. We sent each other poems, and recipes, and jokes.  Ursula sometimes illustrated her letters with line drawings (“The catless manuscript is not worth writing,” she once said on a postcard, the words written in feline form. I had complained that my cat had sat on a page of manuscript I was trying to edit by hand. )

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Chamber of Musical Delights

From world premieres to brilliant performances, Angela Allen looks back on highlights of July's Chamber Music Northwest Festival

Chamber Music Northwest was the first major Portland arts group to go live indoors since the pandemic with its Reflect/Rejoice summer festival June 28 to July 25 at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium.

And boy, did its month of live music— not to mention its streamed concerts continuing through Aug. 31 at CMNW’s At-HOME Summer Festival — make a splash, even if the live audience was vastly reduced from former festivals. Concerts in previous years (not counting 2020, which was not live due to Covid) averaged 450 people. This season’s events were set up for about 150 people, socially distanced in pods, with bleachers removed from the auditorium. July 22’s “Reflecting upon Classics’’ audience hit 229, the festival’s largest, with extra chairs moved in for last-minute ticket-holders. Masks were required and picnics and wine were verboten, but the music was live and alive. The musicians who played it might have been happier than the audience who listened to it. Many had not played since Covid began.

Here are some festival highlights if you missed it – or if you want to catch the streamed At-HOME taped versions:

Chamber Music Northwest’s new co-artistic directors, violinist Soovin Kim and pianist Gloria Chien, led a highly successful re-entry into indoors concerts. Photo © Pilvax Studio

New and accomplished: CMNW artistic leaders, as of 2020, are the team of Gloria Chien and Soovin Kim. Their joy of playing is infectious, and it showed in their spectacular musicianship throughout the festival. Not only was their programming varied, full of new work, tough pieces, rarely heard composers’ work, and new musicians, but these two can play anything—Chien on piano and Kim on violin. And guess what? Not one Beethoven piece in three weeks of music was to be found. Remember the year that every concert featured Beethoven? I do.

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Chatting with the new laureates

Portland's new creative laureates, Leila Haile and Joaquin Lopez, talk about where we've been, where we're headed, and the state of the arts

In 2012 Portland City Council appointed its first Creative Laureate, photographer Julie Keefe. The position, reporting to the City’s arts commissioner, is meant to serve as the official ambassador for the creative community in Portland. It’s an unusual distinction. Portland was the first city to create such a position, and the laureate may take on a variety of endeavors such as community education, advocacy, and ceremonial duties.

In 2018 Subashini “Suba” Ganesan-Forbes, an arts educator and dancer, was appointed into the position. As COVID shut down the arts scene in Portland, she and then-Oregon Poet Laureate Kim Stafford co-founded the PDX Area Artist Emergency Relief Fund, an effort that distributed $170,000 to 250 artists across the Portland tri-county region. Current Arts Commissioner Carmen Rubio has announced that the next Creative Laureate position will be held jointly be two artists: Joaquin Lopez and Leila Haile.

I sat down with the two for a casual interview to get to learn more about them, what they think about their new position, and what hopes they have for the future of the arts in Portland.

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T: Did you two know each other before becoming the Creative Laureates?

L: We know of each other, but we weren’t homies. It’s funny, in our last interview we were told they couldn’t have guessed that we didn’t know each other for years.

T: What are the artistic mediums you work in? And what draws you to them?

J: My education was in theater arts, I was an actor, and then I transitioned to being a musician. I’ve released a couple albums but the breadth of my work is community projects and arts producing. For about 10 years I produced an event for Latinx Pride called Voz Alta where I interviewed folks and rewrote their stories into a poetic narrative that was performed by musicians and actors.

L: I’ve been a tattoo artist for 10 years now. I’m a dancer when I have the time and space, I’m gonna take up quilting soon, and I co-founded Ori Gallery with Maya (Vivas). [You can read Martha Daghlian’s January 2020 ArtsWatch interview with Haile and Vivas here.] I believe that one of my creative strengths is my community work, the way I connect and activate people. It’s part of my healing work from the isolation of my youth. Tattooing and dance are both healing and collaborative work. I thrive off of building ideas with other people and that bleeds into my organizing.

New Cultural Laureate Leila Haile. Photo courtesy Ori Gallery

J: In short, when I was a kid I wanted to be famous. That’s why I wanted to be an actor. I never quite understood why people wasted their time in theater. But then I learned that theater was an art form, and the power of story, and I got over myself (kinda!). I realized that theater, especially new and devised works, offered an opportunity to explore not just my identity but the community’s identity through sharing personal stories and presenting new narratives. I love the collaboration, going back and forth over ideas, and bringing people together. I love having a role as a synthesizer. As a musician it’s an opportunity for me to get my feelings out and… feel. (laughs)

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Photo First: A day with the makers

As the world begins to waken, K.B. Dixon and his camera rediscover the pleasures of wandering among the crowds at an arts & crafts fair


PHOTOGRAPHS BY K.B. DIXON


On a bright and sunny Saturday, photographer K.B. Dixon did something he hadn’t done in fifteen or sixteen months: He grabbed his camera and went out to mingle in a crowd. What lured him, besides the weather and sense that the world was waking from its long shutdown, was the gathering of the artists and craftsmakers at the Slabtown Makers Market, a mini-street fair and studio tour at NW Marine Art Works, a warehouse-turned-artists-center in Northwest Portland. The two-day market will also be open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, July 25.

What Dixon discovered was a lot of people rediscovering the pleasure of simply being out and about, admiring row after row of beautiful handmade things, from jewelry to clothing to clayworks to paintings large and small; maybe grabbing a nibble; maybe even buying a thing or three that struck their fancy. For the vendors, it was just as much of a pleasure: showing their works, seeing people, engaging in conversations, maybe selling something.

Dixon’s pleasure came in part from eyeing a scene, framing it and snapping it, and capturing the spirit of the time and place in visual images. Here’s a flavor of the things he saw on Saturday, and that you can see, too, if you venture out on Sunday:

Let there be art: old warehouses have been transformed into artist studios.

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A killer of a party on the radio

Imago takes Carol Triffle's newest play offstage and onto the mysteries of radio. Listen up: A cast member explores how and why they dunnit.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: On Monday evening, July 26, Imago Theatre debuts Carol Triffle’s new radio play, “Happy Times,” on Portland’s KBOO-FM 90.7. This time around, Triffle’s quirky, absurdist, and ordinarily highly physical form of theater takes something of a modern-day “Arsenic and Old Lace” twist: Three woman friends throw a party once a year, invite a man to serve as butler, then knock him off and bury him in the back yard. This year, though, something different happens.

How do a playwright and theater company renowned for their physical approach adapt to doing a show on the sightless medium of radio? We asked Imago veteran actor Danielle Vermette, who’s in the show as “a rather maniacal party host with a passion for exceptionalism, a hankering for the ‘butler’ she’s enlisted for nefarious purposes, and a slim grasp on reality,” to give us an inside look at what the process was like. Vermette is also a writer who’s contributed stories to ArtsWatch ranging from profiles of poets Kim Stafford and Leanne Grabel to a look at the life and work of Palestinian American embroidery artist Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim, a literary dive into the global work of Clowns Without Borders, and her own memories of touring the world with Imago in a polar bear costume – all of which help make her an ideal person to tell this tale.)

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THE IRONY ISN’T LOST ON ANY THEATER ARTIST that the very medium that so adeptly explores human travails and uncertainty plunged into its own existential crisis when Covid shuttered the world. An art form dependent on close-proximity gatherings found itself in a dire state, given that its value to the community isn’t exactly essential (at least according to Maslow and his hierarchy of needs). The arts tend to breed a resilient bunch, though, and fear at the gut level figures into the whole enterprise in the first place.  

Still, marquees perhaps captured this new, particular fear best—signs of encouragement laden with a shaky subtext that seemed also to say, “What’s next?” and “Guys, this is really, really bad!”  “Take care of each other,” read many. “Stay safe,” read several. Sometimes, humor won the day: “Home Alone,” and “No Close Encounters of Any Kind.”

So, while marquees beamed messages of good will, and ghostlights took center stage, and artists scrambled for emergency funding, and artistic directors contemplated new platforms, and grant writers hustled through applications to plead their case, some theater companies blazed into the great unknown by embracing technologies like Zoom performances. Others, like Imago Theatre in Southeast Portland, took another route and explored the challenges and delights of radio drama.

A party to die for: Laura Loy (left) and Amy Katrina Bryan in Carol Triffle’s “Happy Times,” an Imago Theate radio play premiering on KBOO-FM 90.7. Photo: Jerry Mouawad

I’ve been a company member since 1999, and when I learned that Imago had paired with KBOO radio to create a series of radio plays, I felt fairly certain the venture would yield interesting results. In “ordinary” times Imago’s artists are masters of movement, and highly reliant on the whole architecture of a space and all its elements. I wondered what the strictures of radio would inspire in Artistic Directors Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad. 

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Rosetta: The making of a musical

Composer Jenn Grinels and director Merideth Kaye Clark discuss the concert version of a musical about a woman who fought in the Civil War

Of the 2.27 million soldiers who fought in the American Civil War, an estimated 400 were women. They bound their breasts and cut their hair, claiming their right to fight and die alongside their male counterparts.

“The notion of a woman in pants was not only illegal, but just so foreign that all women had to do was put on pants and they would register as male to other men,” says singer-songwriter Jenn Grinels, who is the composer of The Rosetta Project, a folk-rock musical about a Union soldier named Sarah Rosetta Wakeman.

A period photograph of Sarah Rosetta Wakeman in her Union army uniform.

Wakeman enlisted when she was 19 and was killed in 1864, but her experiences were immortalized in the book An Uncommon Soldier, a collection of the letters she wrote during the war. “She felt like a badass and I think that’s what I loved most about the letters,” Grinels says. “She wasn’t ever nervous. She never expressed worry about being found out.”

On the eve of the concert version of The Rosetta Project—which will lay the groundwork for a hoped-for Broadway premiere—Grinels and director Meredith Kaye Clark spoke to Arts Watch about Wakeman’s legacy, the complexities of writing about a trailblazing teenager, and their collaboration with Jenna Tamimi, a gender and identity dramaturg who helped them investigate the ambiguities that reverberate through Wakeman’s story.

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Tim & Samie: A rare partnership

ArtsWatch Weekly: An enduring friendship in art; a new opera leader; Ursula K. Le Guin's stamp of approval; performance & music & more

PORTLAND’S LONG BEEN A MAKERS SORT OF TOWN – a do-it-yourself, homespun, Saturday Market, farmers’ market, craft-centric, street-art, life-as-art kind of place, spinning its populist creativity from handmade craft to handmade food to handmade clothing and jewelry, and reaching its tentacles upward into fine art, whether it’s found in museums or galleries or home studios or among the booths and displays of street fairs. Not unlike the centers of the Arts & Crafts Movement that flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it’s a place that believes art and artisanship fit together in a heightened, rounded, everyday way. As the city and state slowly waken from the pandemic shutdown, people are beginning to gather again – to see things and maybe buy things, and to rekindle the lost pleasure of being together, shoulder to shoulder (or maybe a little more distanced, and maybe still wearing masks) in a public place, simply celebrating the joy of being alive.

Left: “Arizona #2,” Timothy Wayne Stapleton, acrylic on canvas, 60 x 36 inches. Right: “Harmonic Memories,” Timothy Wayne Stapleton and Samie Jo Pfeifer, acrylic on canvas, 36 x 30 inches.

One of those revived gatherings, the Slabtown Makers Market, will be hosting visitors this weekend, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, July 24-25, at NW Marine Art Works, 2516 N.W. 29th Ave., Portland, a haven of artists studios amid a sprawl of former heavy-industry buildings. More than 40 artists and crafters will be showing and selling their goods, and giving back a little, too: 5 percent of sales will be donated to local nonprofits.

Amid the clayworks and macrame and baked goods and clothing and artworks by the likes of painters Daniel Duford and Chinese American artist Clement Lee, one booth leaps out: the one being operated by Samie Jo Pfeifer, friend and assistant to Tim Stapleton for four years before he died in September 2020 from the effects of ALS, or Lou Gherig’s Disease. Tim was a beloved and multitalented artist in Portland for many years, known in varying circles as a theatrical stage designer of uncommon creativity, a graceful writer whose stories often looped back to his early life in the coal-mining regions of Kentucky, an actor, a teacher at various colleges, and a visual artist whose paintings also regularly took their inspiration from the people and culture of the Coal Belt. You can read much more about Tim and his life in Farewell to the Tangerine Window, Marty Hughley’s heartfelt ArtsWatch memorial to him from last October.

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