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2023 in Review: Around and about Oregon

From coast to desert to hills and valleys and places in between, culture thrived in towns large and small around the state. Wherever people were, so was art.

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Organizers describe opening night of Bend's annual 20-Dollar Art Show as “art chaos.” Photo: Amanda Long, courtesy of Bright Place Gallery.
Organizers describe opening night of Bend’s annual 20-Dollar Art Show as “art chaos.” Photo: Amanda Long, courtesy of Bright Place Gallery.

From the theater spaces of Ashland to the galleries of Madras and Astoria to the high desert of Bend to the tribal lands on both sides of the Cascades to the drum circles of McMinnville and the screening rooms of LaGrande, art of all kinds thrived in Oregon in 2023.

ArtsWatch’s writers spent a good deal of time exploring the broad expanses of Oregon and its interlocking cultures in 2023, and found a wealth of stories about the creative lives of people in towns large and small — places where artists found inspiration in the patterns of their own communities.

Sometimes the stories were about kids and adults coming together to explore ideas and create things in places like the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology and the Willamina Public Library.

Sometimes the stories took sharp and surprising and even traumatic turns. Lori Tobias’s October story Veronica Lundell, founder of Nye Beach Banner Project, seriously injured in fall told about the Newport business and art leader’s tumble when her ladder gave way while she was removing this year’s Nye Beach art banners in preparation for the annual banner benefit auction.

Lundell is a passionate advocate for the local arts community, and founder of the Nye Beach Banner Project, which raises money for local youth arts education and public art. In the fall on Oct. 21, she suffered a serious head injury. Friends organized a GoFundMe to help with her bills.

We are pleased to report that, with the help of neighbors, family and friends, Lundell was able to return to her home to heal and is on her way to making a full recovery, though progress is slow. “The doctor said I am lucky; I could have died,” Lundell said. “I am very grateful.” 

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2023: A Year in Review


Sometimes the stories had a profound effect in other ways, as David Bates commented after seeing the Mohegan playwright Madeline Sayet’s solo play Where We Belong at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. “It truly changed the way I think about all things Shakespeare,” Bates said.

The Portland metropolitan area, with its large population, might seem like the center of Oregon’s cultural activity. But wherever people are, so is art. The impulse to create is a deeply human drive to explore and explain the mysteries of life, to understand the complexities and jagged edges of civilization, and to discover beauty in its many forms.

Here’s a generous sampling of the fascinating tales from around Oregon that ArtsWatch’s writers told in 2023:

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Willow was from Calgary, Alberta. Her body was found on May 5, 2021; she was just shy of 17 years old. (“Willow in RED,” by Nayana LaFond, acrylic on canvas, 40 by 30 inches.)  
Willow was from Calgary, Alberta. Her body was found on May 5, 2021; she was just shy of 17 years old. (“Willow in RED,” by Nayana LaFond, acrylic on canvas, 40 by 30 inches.)  

Jan. 24: “Portraits in Red”: Artist Nayana LaFond honors missing and murdered Indigenous people. “The first portrait came out of a mix of boredom and awe, sparked by a chance online encounter,” Lori Tobias writes. “Artist Nayana LaFond didn’t expect much attention to the portrait she painted: a selfie of a woman wearing red in support of missing and murdered Indigenous people. But overnight, the portrait shared on Social Distance Powwow drew more than 2,000 hits, and LaFond found herself with an unexpected calling that has since all but consumed her life.”

For LaFond, the portraits – she’s now painted more than 100 — became something of a mission, and from February through May Newport’s Pacific Maritime Heritage Center exhibited 40 of them, including two portraits of missing members of Oregon’s Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians.

Feb. 8: Royal Nebeker: The man who put Astoria on the arts map. “Eight years after his death, people still share stories about Royal Nebeker – about how he nearly died in a coastal storm or how he became friends with Robert Redford or the amazing workshops he hosted,” Lori Tobias writes. “But mostly, they talk about how Royal Nebeker made Astoria an Oregon arts mecca. ‘Royal had an outsized influence,’ said Jeannine Grafton, owner of Astoria’s RiverSea Gallery.  ‘Astoria became a printmaking hub due to him.'” Tobias tells the tale of the late renowned artist, his effect on his adopted town, and the continuing legacy of the gallery named for him at Astoria’s Clatsop Community College.

March 26: Final phase of Newport Performing Arts Center’s capital campaign. Lori Tobias reports on the long-awaited renovation and expansion of usable space of the central coast’s 35-year-old cultural center, which has helped transform Newport’s Nye Beach neighborhood from “poverty gulch” into an arts community.

April 16: “We Were Always Here”: Remembering Rick Bartow in the shadow of his work. In 2012, four years before his death, Lori Tobias interviewed the great Oregon Coast Wyot artist about his two commissioned sculptures for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, in Washington, D.C. In 2023, for the first time, Tobias saw the finished pieces in their Washington setting, sparking a reminiscence of both the artist and the project, which, Bartow told Tobias, was “the cherry on my lifetime cake.”

Cody Bustamante, 2022, “Untitled,” digital image. Image courtesy of the artist.
Cody Bustamante, 2022, “Untitled,” digital image. Image courtesy of the artist.

April 22: Cody and Laurel Bustamente: Otherworldly, disorienting, mesmeric. Beth Sorensen profiles two Southern Oregon painters with distinctively indefinable styles who find rejuvenation and inspiration in a post-pandemic respite. “Newly settled in an expansive home in the countryside outside of Jacksonville, Oregon, they found themselves in the lockdown of March 2020,” Sorensen writes. “For Cody, a professor of art at Southern Oregon University, the pandemic brought with it new challenges of teaching drawing and painting to art students via Zoom. For Laurel, it brought a welcome break from the wearying business end of being a professional artist. But both of them were still making work. Really unusual, really interesting work.”

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Coralee Popp (left), director of Art Adventure Gallery, and board member Jana Charl each found an unexpected artistic home in Madras. Popp created the mosaic horse, “Rocinante,” when she was studying at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland and brought it with her to Madras in a horse trailer. Photo: D. “Bing” Bingham
Coralee Popp (left), director of Art Adventure Gallery, and board member Jana Charl each found an unexpected artistic home in Madras. Popp created the mosaic horse, “Rocinante,” when she was studying at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland and brought it with her to Madras in a horse trailer. Photo: D. “Bing” Bingham

May 9: Madras’ Art Adventure Gallery is art central for Jefferson County. Since 1986, D. “Bing” Bingham writes, the all-volunteer gallery has worked to exchange ideas and opportunities for artists in all mediums and cultures. In the region the gallery serves, including some of southern Wasco County, “the population is about equal thirds Native American, Hispanic, and non-Hispanic white,” Bingham notes. “That was part of the attraction for Portland ex-pat and gallery Director Coralee Popp. ‘There was such cultural diversity and the things that could happen in a small community were amazing to me,’ she said.”

Heather Halpern demonstrates an antique platen press in the letterpress room at Whit Print. The press weighs about 2,000 pounds and runs in part by pedaling. “It’s a good workout,” Heather says. Photo: Ester Barkai
Heather Halpern demonstrates an antique platen press in the letterpress room at Whit Print. The press weighs about 2,000 pounds and runs in part by pedaling. “It’s a good workout,” Heather says. Photo: Ester Barkai

May 17: Eugene’s Whiteaker Printmakers: A culture of sharing, and some big machines. Ester Barkai profiles the busy neighborhood print studio, which highlights the social aspect of printmaking and provides members 24-hour access to a variety of presses, some more than 100 years old. “The handful of artists I talked to associated with the print studio use it as a place to teach, learn, work, or just have fun being creative. … Not to mention the  efficiency and excitement of working with the old presses, as compared with modern digital technology,” Barkai writes.

Gary Harvey, inside his small Wasco County home. Photo courtesy Tim McClure
Gary Harvey, inside his small Wasco County home. Photo courtesy Tim McClure

May 20: At The Dalles Art Center, an unknown artist and a path to the future. On a warm Friday evening a small crowd gathered at The Dalles Art Center to see a show of mostly abstract paintings and drawings and then sit down for a gallery talk to learn a bit about the unlikely story of the man who made them. William Gary Harvey was a farmer and fence-builder and craftsman and loner and mostly life-long resident of Wasco County whose decades-long devotion to making art was utterly unknown to all but a very small number of friends – and even they were surprised to learn, after his death, how many artworks he’d stashed away, apparently with little to no interest in having them seen by anyone else. Bob Hicks tells the story of the discovery of this idiosyncratic Oregon artist, and of the turnaround-in-the-making of an art center that had been in dire straits.

Howard Hughes’ massive Spruce Goose provided an untraditional setting for Third Angle’s performance of “1000 Airplanes on the Roof,” an opera about alien abduction. Photo: David Bates
Howard Hughes’ massive Spruce Goose provided an untraditional setting for Third Angle’s performance of “1000 Airplanes on the Roof,” an opera about alien abduction. Photo: David Bates

May 23: Third Angle takes flight at the Evergreen Aviation Museum with “1000 Airplanes on the Roof.” While McMinnville’s annual UFO Festival was creating an otherworldly commotion downtown, David Bates writes, another unlikely yet undeniably fetching and at least tangentially related event was unfolding at the nearby Evergreen Aviation Museum: Third Angle New Music Ensemble was giving a performance beneath the spreading wings of Howard Hughes’ massive “Spruce Goose” plane of “1000 Airplanes on the Roof,” the Philip Glass/David Henry Hwang opera about — guess what? — an alien abduction.

Children learn about making dyes and inks from plants, then paint using Sitka spruce tannin ink, in a workshop at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology. The center has expanded its youth programs, including taking over stewardship of the Community Art Project previously run by local schools. Photo courtesy Sitka Center for Art and Ecology.
Children learn about making dyes and inks from plants, then paint using Sitka spruce tannin ink, in a workshop at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology. The center has expanded its youth programs, including taking over stewardship of the Community Art Project previously run by local schools. Photo courtesy Sitka Center for Art and Ecology.

June 14: Nurturing creative spirits: Sitka Center melds art and science. The pandemic gave the 53-year-old coastal center opportunities to “look at things in fresh ways,” Lori Tobias writes, including youth programs, residencies, and Indigenous fellowships. It was, as Tobias writes, “one roller-coaster of a ride.”

July 8: From slave to homeowner in Oregon. Alexander Banks explores the story of Letitia Carson, “a Black matriarch and former slave, who traveled the Oregon Trail from Missouri to forge a life with her partner, David Carson, in Soap Creek Valley, Oregon – just north of Corvallis.” A Corvallis Museum exhibition on Carson’s life, assembled by the group Oregon Black Pioneers, brought a fascinating and little-known chapter in Oregon life to contemporary audiences, and was buttressed by complementary displays on the lives of other Oregon Black pioneers. As Banks notes, Carson “became one of the few Black people – and likely the first Black woman – to be a homesteader in Oregon at that time.”

July 31: Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians: Sharing their story. A new Cultural Center and Museum under construction will expand the tribe’s outreach, Lori Tobias writes, which includes classes in the Siletz Dee-ni language, two pow-wows, and the Run to the Rogue relay. The new center will be a 20,000-square-foot, three-story building adjacent to the tribal community center in Siletz, on the tribal reservation in Lincoln County.

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Pendelton Round-Up Display at Tamástslikt Cultural Institute.
Pendelton Round-Up Display at Tamástslikt Cultural Institute.

July 31: Celebrating the land and its people: Tamástslikt Cultural Institute. Georgina Ruff explores the treasures and significance of the institute, which celebrates the past, present, and future of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. It’s one of the state’s five Oregon Trail Interpretative centers, and the only one that’s tribally owned and operated, giving it a distinctive perspective on the region’s history. And on Sept. 11 Ruff looked at the many offerings of another Pendleton cultural hub, housed in an old Carnegie Library building, in her story Fertile Ground: Pendleton Center for the Arts.

Untitled, mixed media by Ummarid Eitharong of DeLand, Florida. Photo courtesy of Art in the High Desert.
Untitled, mixed media by Ummarid Eitharong of DeLand, Florida. Photo courtesy of Art in the High Desert.

Aug. 10: Art in the High Desert returns to Central Oregon. For the first time since 2019, Art in the Desert returned this summer. “As suddenly as Covid shuttered the 12-year-old institution of Bend summers,” Kristin Thiel writes, “the festival has been revived, thanks to a brief, spur of the moment, leap of faith conversation in late 2022 between the show’s founding directors, Dave and Carla Fox, and Corvallis artist David Bjurstrom. … (W)ith this restart, the show feels less like a new show and more like an old friend the community is welcoming back.” 

Aug. 16: Siletz Bay Music Festival finale commemorates Oregon’s Trail of Tears. The festival’s How Can You Own the Sky? A Symphonic Poem Honoring Native Wisdom tells the story of the forced march of Native Americans from the Rogue Valley to the Coast, Lori Tobias writes.

Aaron Akers (left), the "Bob Ross of Oregon," and students Steve, Joanna, and Haley show their finished work. Photo: David Bates
Aaron Akers (left), the “Bob Ross of Oregon,” and students Steve, Joanna, and Haley show their finished work. Photo: David Bates

Aug. 29: Aaron Akers: “The Bob Ross of Oregon.” Aaron Akers, a plumber from McMinnville, taught himself to paint by watching YouTube tutorials during the pandemic. Now he’s teaching others what he taught himself – and the inspiration goes back to a television champion of painting for the pleasure of it. “Growing up in La Grande,” David Bates writes, “Akers recalled lazy interludes on his grandmother’s couch watching [Bob] Ross paint as he described the ‘wet-on-wet’ process in the memorably soothing tones that are his signature. ‘I watched him when I was in grade school and then every now and then in middle school and high school,’ he said. ‘He relaxed me, he calmed me down. If you listen long enough, you’ll doze right off.’”

Sept. 4: Newberg’s Gather Repertory Theatre offers an artistic response to political strife, with “A Feminine Ending.” Born following a ruckus about “political” symbols in local schools, the professional company aims to create a safe space for minority communities. With a successful run of Sarah Treem’s 2008 one-act play A Feminine Ending under its belt, it’s become a key player in Yamhill County’s suddenly thriving theater scene, David Bates writes.

Sept. 15: 20-Dollar Art Show in Bend offers thousands of pieces of original art. Power – and art – to the people: Who says art has to cost an arm and a leg? It can, of course — and sometimes a good deal more. But for the 10th year, Carolyn Lamberson writes, Bend’s 20-Dollar Art Show featured thousands of small art works created by artists from around Central Oregon and beyond, and sent hundreds of people home happy from the event site at the High Desert Museum with fresh art to hang on their walls. 

Mary Eldred, Dori Bash, and Norma Jean Goss turn food labels and loofahs into fancy dress at the 2023 Heart of Cartm Trashion Show held at Nehalem Bay Winery. Photo: Broken Banjo Photography
Mary Eldred, Dori Bash, and Norma Jean Goss turn food labels and loofahs into fancy dress at the 2023 Heart of Cartm Trashion Show held at Nehalem Bay Winery. Photo: Broken Banjo Photography

Sept. 28: Heart of Cartm recycling center in Wheeler beats with pulse of sustainability. The Tillamook County center, with The Refindery shop and Repair Cafe, has a mission of helping people creatively “step away from the garbage,” Lori Tobias writes.

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Mike O’Brien, “Springtime in the Forest,” Opal Creek, 2011. Photo courtesy Mike O’Brien.
Mike O’Brien, “Springtime in the Forest,” Opal Creek, 2011. Photo courtesy Mike O’Brien.

Sept. 28: Opal Creek Wilderness: A Story of Survival. Decades of battle over a pristine old-growth forest climaxed with the devastating 2020 Beachie Creek Fire in the Willamette National Forest and nearby communities. But new growth is happening, Pat Rose writes – and Mike O’Brien and other photographers are documenting a rebirth.

Lisa Abia-Smith (standing, with mask) and Yeseul Lee (standing, left), from the Art Heals program at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, work with Samaritan Evergreen Hospice volunteers at a cancer survivors’ workshop at the Albany YMCA. Photo courtesy Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. 
Lisa Abia-Smith (standing, with mask) and Yeseul Lee (standing, left), from the Art Heals program at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, work with Samaritan Evergreen Hospice volunteers at a cancer survivors’ workshop at the Albany YMCA. Photo courtesy Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. 

Oct. 2: Art Heals: Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art program reaches far beyond museum walls. It all began, Ester Barkai writes, when Lisa Abia-Smith, education director of the Eugene museum on the University of Oregon campus, created an art workshop “aimed at helping student athletes – who faced the dual stressors of academics and athletics – decompress. The session was about 90 minutes long and designed around a single art project — a self-portrait.” As it turns out, what’s good for athletes is good for a lot of other people, too: Creating art “can be a tool for helping people feel well,” and the program, now called Art Heals and no longer confined to the university campus, has blossomed into multiple forms, helping to de-stress university students, community members, and all sorts of people including “hospice workers caring for the terminally ill or patients dealing with their own cancer diagnosis.”

Oct. 23: “Where We Belong” at Oregon Shakespeare Festival tackles colonialism, language, ethnocide, and assimilation. Madeline Sayet’s solo play at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival cracked open some fascinating contradictions, David Bates writes. “Sayet wrote it as a sort of catharsis in 2018 upon returning from studying Shakespeare in London and finding herself torn between two powerful cultural tides: her heritage as a Mohegan woman who grew up in what is now called Connecticut and her passion for the plays and language of the most famous writer a colonialist power ever produced.”

Oct. 25: A La Grande old time: The Eastern Oregon Film Festival keeps on truckin’. ArtsWatch film columnist Marc Mohan took in the annual festival’s 14th season and discovered some fine films and loads of cinematic enthusiasm: “The relatively remote city of under 15,000, four hours from Portland and three from Boise, Idaho, may seem like an unexpected place to find filmmakers, artists, musicians, and assorted others gathered around burn barrels talking movies and making friends until deep into the night,” he writes. “But the stereotype of Oregon past the Cascades as a cultural desert is as misguided as it is lazy.” A week earlier, Mohan traveled to Central Oregon to take in “a bounty of gripping documentaries, local gems, and highly anticipated indie releases,” reporting on his discoveries in Bend Film 2023: Seems like old times as the festival celebrates twenty years of user-friendly cinemania.

When Willamina Library Director Sarah Frost was hired in 2016 to help the struggling library, she faced a daunting task. “I spent a good solid year going to Chamber of Commerce meetings and connecting with Kiwanis and civic clubs and just talking about libraries and what libraries can do for communities,” she says. Photo: David Bates
When Willamina Library Director Sarah Frost was hired in 2016 to help the struggling library, she faced a daunting task. “I spent a good solid year going to Chamber of Commerce meetings and connecting with Kiwanis and civic clubs and just talking about libraries and what libraries can do for communities,” she says. Photo: David Bates

Nov. 8: Willamina Public Library: The little library that could. The small town of Willamina nestled near the slopes of the Coast Range has a thriving center of activity — a place that not too long ago was a community afterthought and on the financial ropes. “There are books here, of course, and in 2022 more than 15,000 flew off the shelves for both adults and children,” David Bates writes. “But depending on the time, day, and season you drop by this green, ramshackle pole-barn building that used to house the city’s fire trucks and ambulances, you’re likely to see any number of activities not directly connected with reading. … This is the Little Library That Could, and under the leadership of Library Director Sarah Frost, with help from a small but spirited team of volunteers, it has emerged as a very busy gathering place in this rural community of about 2,200.”

Nov. 12: Brownsville Art Association: The perfect location, in more ways than one. In the historic Willamette Valley town made famous by the movie Stand by Me, Ester Barkai discovers a volunteer-run gallery that provides a year-round showcase for members, as well as classes and workshops for children and adults. “The gallery is a happily crowded space, with displays of handmade cards and boxes, plaques and decorations, purses, jewelry, and more,” Barkai writes. “… The space is also an art center. Open Studio Tuesdays are art get-togethers where people bring art to share or come just to socialize.”

Nov. 28: Lincoln City Cultural Center: Plaza party celebrates milestone along bumpy road. For 16 years, Lori Tobias writes, the center has provided cultural programs at the historic Delake School, but with COVID closures and cancellations, devastating wildfires, $1.5 million in Oregon Lottery funds pledged and then rescinded, it hasn’t been easy: It’s been, Tobias writes, “one roller-coaster of a ride.” The future once again brightened with the receipt of $1.8 million from the American Rescue Plan Act. And on Nov. 18 the center threw an all-day public party to celebrate the opening of a grand new plaza with public art and gathering spaces, a Poetry Path with lines in Spanish and language from the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, a music park, Audubon “Bird Bricks,” and, installed earlier, Poppy, an interactive, 24-foot-tall, steel-and-fused-glass beast created by Portland artist Pete Beeman. 

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Willow Heveron (left) holds a hide destined to become a drum top as Terry Filer helps with smudging it during a workshop last summer on Heveron’s Newberg property. Smudging is an Indigenous practice to clear away negative energy and create a positive space. Photo: David Bates
Willow Heveron (left) holds a hide destined to become a drum top as Terry Filer helps with smudging it during a workshop last summer on Heveron’s Newberg property. Smudging is an Indigenous practice to clear away negative energy and create a positive space. Photo: David Bates

Dec. 4: Inner Oasis Drum Circle: Connecting to the heartbeat of life. “The first time I saw Terry Filer, a 74-year-old with Irish and Osage Nation roots, she was beating  a drum in the breezeway of the McMinnville City Library on the summer solstice,” David Bates writes. “It was Make Music Day 2022 and she was there with the Inner Oasis Drum Circle, an informal group that meets Monday evenings year-round. She handed maracas out to children in tow with parents and encouraged everyone to join in as the spirit moved them.” From that beginning, Bates spins the tale of a group that gets together and, well, beats on things for the pleasure and the calming effect of it. As Filer tells Bates: “If you think about it, when we were conceived in our mother’s belly, we heard the heartbeat. So all of us have the beat. It’s already there.”

Dec. 7: Bloom where you are planted. In their continuing ArtsWatch series Gender Deconstruction, Hannah Krafcik profiles community organizer Nik Portela, who’s embraced The Dalles as their home, helping to tip the rural town’s local culture toward more LGBTQIA2S+ acceptance. “I came into this community thinking that I was going to show them my big city ways,” Portela told Krafcik. “What actually ended up happening is a kindness and a sense of reflection grew in me that couldn’t have ever happened in a big city. Being able to see that interconnectedness is scary but it’s really beautiful if you come at it the right way.”

The concert hall currently under construction. Photo courtesy of the Patricia Reser Center for the Creative Arts.
The concert hall under construction at PRAx, on the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis. Photo courtesy of the Patricia Reser Center for the Creative Arts.

Dec. 7: Science, technology, and creativity: OSU blurs the lines between the arts and STEM with new PRAx building. Alexander Banks gets down to the hows, whys, and wherefores of building the new Patricia Valian Reser Center for the Creative Arts, or PRAx, on the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis. The $75 million PRAx, the second ambitious arts center in Oregon to bear Patricia Reser’s name following the successful opening of The Reser in Beaverton, will serve both town and gown — and with an expansive arts gallery, a concert hall and a black-box theater it’ll be instrumental in creating connections between OSU’s scientific, mathematic and technological programs and the arts. Also: Gabe Braukman’s Nov. 20 story PRAx Facts: OSU’s Patricia Valian Reser Center is a transformative investment in the arts gives more information about the center-in-the-making, which is set to open in Spring 2024.

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