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Derek Chauvin, George Floyd & the art of crisis

ArtsWatch Weekly: A Portland Oscar nod; Dawson Carr's big day; diving into dance; conversation with a laureate; musical BRAVO; fish tales

ON TUESDAY, THE BIGGEST CULTURAL NEWS OF THE WEEK – maybe the biggest since the January 6 insurrection in the nation’s capital – came down. Derek Chauvin, who almost a year ago, as a Minneapolis police officer, pressed the life out of George Floyd with his knee, was found guilty of second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. It was a rare case of a police officer being held accountable in the killing of a citizen – even, as with Floyd, of an unarmed citizen – and it seems, at least for now, to have topped off a year and more of intense cultural division. Any other decision by the jury most likely would have set off a firestorm across the nation.

The political and cultural fissures of the past year have pulled the arts & cultural world into the fray, perhaps inevitably: If art reflects its culture, how can it possibly stay uninvolved? In Portland, public statues have come tumbling down and institutions have been under attack: Two men were arrested and charged with smashing another $10,000 or more worth of windows at the frequently targeted Oregon Historical Society during rioting last Friday. The window-smashing and other acts of destruction came during protests against recent national killings of Black citizens by police, and a police killing in Portland’s Lents Park of a man with a history of mental illness.

George Floyd was the focus of a Black Lives Matter mural painted by Emma Berger and others last year at downtown Portland’s Pioneer Place.

In the past year a rapid growth of public protest art has transformed the sides of many buildings in the city and the plywood covering boarded-up storefronts. Across the nation, in arts and cultural organizations large and small, racial equity has become the issue of the day, an overdue conversation in search of action, and an issue that is unlikely to be resolved by a single decision in a single courtroom on a single day.

In a way, the jury’s decision Tuesday was the result of a form of art – of the documentary, eyewitness video made by an unflinching onlooker, 17-year-old Darnella Frazier, depicting a reality for the world to see. In the end, it seems, the evidence of the hand-held telephone camera was too much to overcome even for a system stacked in favor of police nonculpability.

The mixture of “art” and “real life” has always been muddy, and in light of the nation’s deep divide it’s unlikely to become clear anytime soon. Times of crisis breed art of crisis, from Francisco Goya’s Disasters of War to Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, Käthe Kollwitz’s haunted German Expressionist prints, Horace Pippin’s World War I paintings, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Lorna Simpson’s photographs and works in multiple media probing the roots of race and gender and identity, Portland artist Arvie Smith’s satiric paintings about America and race, and much more. For better and for worse, art is in the mud with everything else, slugging it out, reshaping the argument, and maybe – just maybe – helping to alter the way people see things. Keep tuned in. This show is far from over.

Curator Dawson Carr tops off a grand career

Curator Dawson Carr discussing “Volcano! Mount St. Helens in Art” in February 2020. Photo courtesy of the Portland Art Museum’s American Art Council.

DAWSON CARR’S PORTLAND ADVENTURE. After eight years of creating shows about European art (and the occasional volcano) and building the collection as the Portland Art Museum’s first full-time staff curator of European art, Carr is retiring on April 30. He came to Portland from prestigious postings at the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and London’s National Gallery, then rolled up his newly Northwest sleeves and started to work, topping off his major exhibitions with last year’s Volcano! Mount St. Helens in Art, a personal enthusiasm. Recently Carr, who quickly became known in Portland for his erudition, deep knowledge, connections, and a certain whimsy, sat down for a long Zoom conversation with Laurel Reed Pavic and reminisced. “Carr’s Portland ‘adventure’ seems to have been a smashing success,” Reed Pavic writes, and then quotes him on the subject: “I’m glad I did it. I’m very happy. The idea all along was to find a great place to retire. I found it and I think I’ve made a difference in the representation of European art in the collection.” 

Dance: Diving for pearls, jazzing it up, being a ballerina

Screen shot from BodyVox’s production of Lois Greenfield’s “Photo Synthesis.”

WHAT KIND OF DANCE DO YOU MAKE IF YOU’RE NOT A CHOREOGRAPHER? That’s the vital question in the dance company BodyVox’s series Pearl Dive Project, a fascinating and often rewarding continuing experiment in de-siloing creativity. In it, the company and its dancers pair with other kinds of artists – painters, writers, musicians, cartoonists – to see what might happen if the non-dancing artists are given a chance to work with a few excellent dance professionals and develop a piece of their own. How might their own brand of creativity mesh with a group of artists who specialize in the skills of dance, and who would be tasked with taking their ideas and transforming them into movement?

BodyVox is immersed in its newest Pearl Dive Project – this time around, with yet another curveball thrown into the mix: The chosen creators can’t be in the studio with the dancers, swapping ideas and feeding off the energy in the room. It’s all done by Zoom. A couple of days ago I watched the first of five pieces in Pearl Dive Project 2021, a creation by the distinguished dance photographer Lois Greenfield: If it’s in New York and it moves, she’s probably photographed it. She’s done a gorgeous session, for instance, with BodyVox’s co-director Ashley Roland. The other four neo-dancemakers are equally intriguing: Italian pianist and composer Ludovico Einaudi; Chinese-born writer Yiyun Li; drag queen Poison Waters; and Portland homie Matt Groening, father of The Simpsons and the legendary comic Life in Hell

Greenfield’s piece, called Photo Synthesis, is intensely cinematic, and includes brief interviews with the makers. “Her idea was to push us in the direction of musical reflection,” Roland notes, and Greenfield comments on the challenges of the project: “It’s easier to make a photograph out of a dance than a dance out of a photograph.”

Photo Synthesis, which plays out to music by Philip Glass and DJ Shadow, begins with a woman dancer lying down inside a flexible fold of shiny material that looks something like a length of film without the sprockets. Slowly she stands, and begins to move, with the material as a “partner.” A real partner, in his own flexible fold, joins her, and then a third, fourth, fifth, sometimes slow and fluid and sinuous, sometimes wrapped in clumpy golden foil that makes them seem like geological beings. Images ripple like water; the camera is an integral partner in the dance. There is something here about pure form – and then, finally, a lone male dancer arrives, in his own unadorned shape amid the geodes, and they all emerge, like chrysalides from their shells, which slump back to the floor. All that’s missing is the communal energy of being in the same room at the same time with the performers – that indefinable heightened awareness that’s been absent from performance for more than a year now.

The Pearl Dive Project is building on its own intriguing history, which goes back half a dozen years. “What do they know about choreography?” I wondered about the non-dancing dancemakers in the series’ 2019 version. “Maybe not much. But the meeting of the minds reveals the difference between creativity, which is a way of thinking, and technique, which is a learned skill. And because the ‘tools’ the novice dancemakers are using – the minds and bodies of the dancers – are themselves creative, a painter, for instance, can describe a certain mood or action and the dancers possess the skills to interpret how that mood or action might move. Ideas are roughed out, recalibrated, shaped. In a sense, the most valuable tool in the creative toolbox is the ability and willingness to collaborate.”

  • DYAD: DANCE & MUSIC DUOS. Cross-disciplinary collaborations are in the air this week. At 7 p.m. Sunday online, the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble and contemporary performance hotbed Performance Works NW team up for another round of jazz and dance – this time featuring dancer Crystal Jiko Sasaki with multi-instrumentalist Darian Patrick Anthony, and dancer/experimentalist Marissa Rae Niederhauser with bassist/composer Andrew Jones.
  • A  LIFE IN THE DANCE THEATER. “I never wanted to dance ‘to’ the music, and not even ‘with’ it, but as if we were the same thing,” Gavin Larsen writes in her new memoir, Being a Ballerina. Larsen, the former Oregon Ballet Theatre star, tells a tale of a lifelong obsession that began when she was 8 and entering a ballet school in New York City for the first time. In my review I write that Being a Ballerina “is a pleasure to read not just for the backstage stories it tells but also for the line-by-line, sentence-by-sentence reward of her way with words. Like a good dance, it’s swift, taut, and abundant.”
Ballerina Gavin Larsen, in her Oregon Ballet Theatre days. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Streamers: An Oscar nod for victims of a horrific war

Portland filmmaker Skye Fitzgerald’s “Hunger Ward” is an Oscar nominee.

PORTLAND DIRECTOR’S ‘HUNGER WARD’ EARNS OSCAR CRED; FILMS IN THEATERS? In his new “Streamers” movie column, Marc Mohan talks with Portland’s Skye Fitzgerald about Fitzgerald’s film Hunger Ward, which is nominated for an Oscar as best documentary short. Hunger Ward, Fitzgerald’s second Oscar nominee (he was also nominated in 2019 for Lifeboat), takes a deep look at the devastating war in Yemen and two women’s struggle to aid children and infants caught in the nation’s war-caused famine. The film, Mohan declares, “bears witness to hell.” The column also takes note of a handful of new movies either streaming or actually opening in movie houses.

Portland’s creative laureate on the way things are

Subashini Ganesan. Portland creative laureate. Photo: Intisar Abioto 

SUBASHINI GANESAN: CREATIVE LAUREATE CHECKS IN. In her newest Stage & Studio podcast, Dmae Roberts has a conversation with Portland’s official arts advocate – Subashini Ganesan, Bharatanatyam dancer and operator of the valuable New Expressive Works performance space – on subjects ranging from Covid-19 relief for artists to the outlook for equity, diversity and inclusion initiatives, the post-Covid outlook for the city’s creative community, and what lies ahead for her successor as Portland Creative Laureate. As we noted in this space last week, Ganesan’s term ends in June, and applications to succeed her for a two-year term are being accepted through April 30

Changing the world with music: BRAVO

BRAVO students show off their instruments and enthusiasm.

BRAVO YOUTH ORCHESTRAS: SOCIAL CHANGE THROUGH MUSIC. In our continuing series “The Art of Learning,” Brett Campbell profiles the BRAVO after-school orchestras, which are modeled on Venezuela’s El Sistema program of bringing music education to children who couldn’t otherwise afford it. BRAVO works in concert with several Portland public schools in lower income areas. Campbell traces BRAVO’s history in Portland, its many challenges and successes, and the passing of artistic leadership to Portland musician Alonzo Chadwick, with his predecessor, BRAVO co-founder Seth Truby, sliding over to become development director.

Out & About: Hat tricks, onstage, music notes, fish tales

“Mad Hatter,” 2015. Photo: K.B. Dixon

HAT DANCE. “The hat, by virtue of its privileged perch, occupies a special place in fashion’s vocabulary,” K.B. Dixon writes in his photo essay on the many-splendored head adornments he’s encountered on the street. “It is the final piece of the sartorial puzzle, the concluding point in a proclamation of identity, the star placed atop the Christmas tree that is you. … This new age of the hat is very much in evidence here in hat-happy Portland and has been for a while, as this handful of street portraits will attest.”

ACLU SUES CITY OF ASHLAND OVER SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL ACTOR’S ARREST. In yet another case of alleged overpolicing of people of color, OPB’s Sydney Dauphinais reports that the Civil Liberties Union has filed suit against Ashland over what it calls the illegal arrest of former Oregon Shakespeare Festival actor Juan Anthony Sancho, who is Latino. The city declined Sancho’s offer to hold a conversation to resolve the case before litigation was filed. In a separate suit, Sancho has sued Jackson County and several sheriff’s deputies over his treatment at the county jail after his arrest in Ashland in 2019. Daughinais reports: “Jail cell video shows officers wrestling Sancho to the ground and kneeling on his back and neck, reportedly causing him to go unconscious. The officers later handcuffed him to a urine grate on the cell floor for over two hours.” 

SHUTTERED VENUE OPERATOR GRANTS. The online application portal for these federal grants has had a few hiccups, but administrators plan to have it up and running again by the end of this week. The $16 billion in available grant money is meant to help operators of theaters, movie houses, performing arts halls, museums, zoos, aquariums, and others who’ve lost money because of Covid shutdowns. If this means you, check out that link. 

THE SOUL OF HUMANITY AND THE FATE OF THE PLANET ARE INTERTWINED. Gary Ferrington explores the “exciting array of artists” featured in Ashland-based Anima Mundi Productions’ spring Heart of Humanity concert series, among them HEX Vocal Ensemble, Third Angle New Music, Cappella Romana, and a new film from composer Robert Kyr.

VITAL SIGNS AND SHAKY MARRIAGES. Among theatrical newcomers this weekend are a couple of tried-and-true favorites. On Friday, PassinArt presents a virtual reading of Vital Signs, the pseudonymous Jane Martin’s suite of more than 30 two-minute monologues about contemporary womanhood, which debuted in 1990 at the Humana new-plays festival in Louisville. The reading’s free, but you should sign up for a ticket. Also on Friday, Broadway Rose unveils its streaming production (through May 16) of The Last Five Years, Jason Robert Brown’s popular 2001 two-character musical about a couple of struggling actors who get married, to uncertain result. Kailey Rhodes and Jeff Rosick star. Details here.

LIKE A FISH OUT OF FIRE. Fused glass and blown glass don’t mix? Tell it to artists Ann Cavanaugh and Andy Nichols, whose works at Cannon Beach’s Spring Unveiling Arts Festival make finned figures full of color and movement. Lori Tobias tells the fish tale.

The artists went through a lot of trial and error before they discovered the best way to turn the flat tiles into cylindrical shapes.
Artists Cavanaugh and Nichols say they went through trial and error before they discovered the best way to turn the flat tiles into cylindrical shapes.

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Women of Art ~ A Visual Life, 1

A profile of three of Portland’s most creative photographers, Part 1: Grace Weston

“The visual life is an enormous undertaking, practically unattainable,” the renowned American documentary photographer Dorothea Lange once said. “I have only touched it, just touched it.” As she chronicled some of the most consequential events of the twentieth century, Lange amassed an enormous body of work that places her squarely in the pantheon of the most influential photographers in history. In the final year of her life, she devoted her time to curating a retrospective exhibition of her work to be held at the Museum of Modern Art. Sadly, she died before the exhibition opened. Though it was the museum’s first retrospective solo exhibition of work by a female photographer, it is uncertain whether Lange considered it her crowning achievement. We can only hope that she appreciated her legacy and felt satisfied that she had lived a visual life to her fullest potential.

Like Dorothea Lange, many visual artists feel the enormity of the covenant they have undertaken to create their work. The burden they bear is to fill an essential need for creativity that presses them onward to the next project. For some artists the burden is a torment, but for the many lucky ones it brings pleasure and fulfillment. These happy warriors fight the good fight and make their art with a passion that nourishes their creative souls. To them the visual life is a blessing.

In Portland we are blessed with an embarrassment of riches. Our town is a veritable Mecca for visual artists who have moved from other locations to join a thriving community of fellow creatives and share in a life of art. Oregon ArtsWatch recently caught up with three visual artists from other regions who have relocated to Portland to create their work. Besides having made Portland their adoptive home, these three artists have other commonalities, including an early exposure to the arts as children, a lifetime spent creating art in many forms, and a personal commitment to achieving their highest creative potential. Still, each of these remarkable women has developed a distinctive style of artistic expression all her own.

Grace Weston, originally from New Jersey, is internationally recognized for a unique style of narrative photography for which she builds meticulously crafted miniature scenes that address a variety of human psychological themes.

Laura Kurtenbach, born and raised in Central Illinois, is an artist, photographer and educator whose work tackles important social issues, such as the depiction of women in the media and the human relationship with the natural environment.

Susan Bein, a California native, creates ethereal, often whimsical, photo-based art captured almost exclusively with her iPhone and transformed into wonderfully evocative images that stir the imagination of the viewer.

The following is the first in a three-part series profiling the visual lives of these exceptionally creative photographers. In this three-part series, we’ll concentrate on one of these artists each day, beginning with Weston.


House of Atlas (from the series Short Stories/Tall Tales)

Grace Weston cannot recall a time when art was not an integral part of her life. Growing up in New Jersey, she was the bright child of working-class parents who made a point of teaching their daughter an appreciation for the arts. As a youngster she often accompanied her father on visits to the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, learning early on the importance of art in enriching our lives. In addition to the visual arts, Grace was exposed to music at a young age and learned to play violin and guitar, even trying her hand at the bagpipe chanter for a while after she attended the Scottish Games in New Jersey with her parents.

She started making her own photographs as a kid when she received a Polaroid Swinger, and later in high school she owned a Kodak Instamatic camera, which she used to document the escapades of her circle of artist friends. With a desire to pursue art after graduating high school, she enrolled in Mercer County College in New Jersey, which had a brand new campus with a sizable art department. In addition to the standard art classes, she took courses in black and white photography and film processing, and she later became a darkroom assistant in the excellent facilities provided on campus. In college she became serious about photography as a form of art, and she purchased her first consequential film camera, a Nikkormat 35mm single-lens reflex.

After college, she pursued other forms of art, including dance, singing and acting, but she eventually returned to photography. She studied studio lighting at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, and later became assistant to the studio photographer Mark Hooper when she moved to Portland in the late 1980s. It was then that Grace finally settled on studio photography as the mainstay of her work as an artist.


New horizons

Renegade Opera breaks all the rules

In January 2020, shortly before the city’s concert halls and music venues began their long period of hibernation, Portland acquired a new opera company.

On its website, Renegade Opera announces itself as being “committed to creating accessible and immersive opera and promoting institutional reform in the performing arts community.” The company is the artistic child of three local musicians: Madeline Ross, Danielle Jagelski, and Elliot Menard. Renegade’s first production, a multimedia collage of Mozart arias titled Secret Diaries of Pennsylvania Avenue, was released last October.

Madeline Ross in 'Secret Diaries of Pennsylvania Avenue.' Photo courtesy of Renegade Opera.
Madeline Ross in ‘Secret Diaries of Pennsylvania Avenue.’ Photo courtesy of Renegade Opera.


In praise of Ramona & ‘Lonesome Dove’

ArtsWatch Weekly: Remembering Beverly Cleary, Larry McMurtry, and composer Stephen Scott; revolutions & the way things change

HERE AT ARTSWATCH WE LIKE TO LOOK FORWARD: Where are our culture and its art taking us? But culture is a cumulative thing, and every present and future is built upon a past – on the people and beliefs and events and achievements that have shaped us. They amplify us and help explain us to ourselves. So today we pause to honor three storytellers who have left us recently, but whose memories and achievements remain a part of us: the children’s novelist and memoirist Beverly Cleary; the novelist of Western life and culture Larry McMurtry; and the musical innovator Stephen Scott, known for his “bowed piano” compositions.

Author Beverly Cleary with her tabby cat, Kitty, in 1955. Photo: Cleary Family Archive

BEVERLY CLEARY, CREATOR of the wonderful world of Ramona Quimby and Henry Huggins and the scintillating cast of extraordinarily ordinary kids living extraordinarily ordinary lives in a somewhat antique yet eventful-in-an-everyday-sort-of-way Northeast Portland neighborhood, died last Thursday at the almost biblical age of 104 (she would’ve been 105 on April 12). Her loss is felt not just in her native Oregon but anywhere and everywhere you might bump into a gang of kids, a teacher, a librarian, or a couple of parents happy to see their kids absorbed in the mysteries and delights of a good book. Cleary was born in McMinnville and spent her early years on a farm near Yamhill and then moved with her family to the Portland neighborhood that became the epicenter of action in a string of children’s novels that for verve and wit and imagination beat the pants off most anything assigned in class.


One year after: Waking up to the slow thaw

ArtsWatch Weekly: A year into shutdown, signs of revival: Stimulus aid for the arts, museums reopening, a theater with an audience of 1 to 5

A YEAR AGO TODAY I PARKED MY CAR IN FRONT OF MY HOUSE, tossed the key in a drawer, and began to shelter in. Suddenly I was home (if not, thank goodness, home alone), away from the concerts, theater and dance performances, museum visits, coffee-shop conversations with artists and writers, and other rounds that had made up my peregrinations around Portland and the Pacific Northwest going back deep into the previous century. The day before, I’d been at the Portland Art Museum, walking with curator Dawson Carr through Volcano!, the big exhibition of artworks relating to the 1980 eruptions of Mount St. Helens. Scant days later, the museum shut down. As “ordinary” life began to crumble I was also putting the finishing touches on an essay about revivals of two retro plays I’d recently seen – Blood Brothers at Triangle Productions and The Odd Couple at Lakewood Theatre. That piece never went beyond my computer files: Both shows were quickly canceled as Covid-19 restrictions hit Oregon, and the nation, and the world, full force. 

The world had tipped upside down, and the arts & cultural world, which in the intervening twelve months has been devastated economically by shutdowns, tipped with it. Now, after more than half a million deaths in the United States (including more than 2,300 in Oregon) and more than 2.6 million globally, the world is cautiously trying to tip itself back up again. It has a long way to go. Many millions of people in the U.S., and billions globally, are awaiting inoculation, and a new wave of infections is only a few indiscretions, mask-burnings, or rogue viral variants away. But vaccines are being manufactured much more quickly and on a much bigger scale, and delivery systems are improving. Cautious hope, perhaps crossed with reckless impatience, is beginning to rise.                     

Unknown Russian artist, Icon of the Mother of God of the Sign (Platytera) with beaded riza, c. 1800–1850, tempera on wood panel and glass beads, 9” x 8”; Collection of Maryhill Museum of Art; among the featured works as the museum reopens March 15.


MusicWatch Monthly: Labors of love

Opera on the lawn, cyborg music, and more clamouring

Today we’d like to shine light on some of the rose gardens Oregon musicians have been tending lately, from an outdoor opera in Newberg to a sci-fi surf bunker in McMinnville. But before we get to those labors of love, the roses need fertilizer–so we’d like to turn the mic over to fearless FearNoMusic Artistic Director and violist-composer-father Kenji Bunch, who has something to say on behalf of the City of Roses.


Chamber Music NW: never waste a good crisis

Forced to quickly shift from live to virtual performances, the venerable Portland institution achieves surprising intimacy and success

By the middle of March, Chamber Music Northwest’s leaders knew their upcoming summer festival would have to change. The spreading pandemic was clearly going to make the kind of crowded concert halls common in the annual summer festival dangerous at best, illegal at worst. How could the festival, approaching its 50th anniversary, respond? 

I know a lot of folks enjoy classical music performance precisely for the sense of grandeur and occasion and the chance to dress up. But for me, CMNW — except for the performers’ dorky, ill-fitting ‘50s-style white dinner jackets that no one looks good in — has always been about casual informality. From its earliest days with audience members sweating on cushions in a Reed College cafeteria to today’s college and club concert halls, CMNW’s relaxed atmosphere contributes to that feeling of accessibility. How would the festival be able to recapture it on screen instead of in person?  

(L-R) Incoming Chamber Music Northwest Artistic Directors Gloria Chien and Soovin Kim played Bartok with their predecessor, David Shifrin. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Like every other festival and performing arts organization, CMNW was entering uncertain territory. But unlike other summer festivals, which mostly happen in July and August, CMNW wanted to stick to its June opening, when performers and listeners would presumably have already blocked out. So it would have no examples to guide its response. “We’d been talking weekly with similar organizations around the country since the pandemic began,” Executive Director Peter Bilotta remembers. “We realized no one had a model for doing this. Being one of the first festivals occurring this summer, we essentially pioneered the model.”

That model turned out to be a surprising success — and it’s influencing other music festivals beyond Oregon.