Riva Wolf: Under a black cloud, a bright palette emerges

A McMinnville retrospective shows the late artist’s range, from echoes of the Holocaust to Fauvism to “Van Gogh meets Dr. Seuss”

When Riva Wolf attended the 1986 screening of the nine-and-a-half-hour Holocaust documentary Shoah, it was as both artist and witness. Wolf’s parents and two brothers died in Auschwitz, and a collection of nearly 20 of her paintings, drawings, and etchings, some based on her family, filled the lobby of the New Community Cinema in New York. A reporter at the scene wrote that her work was “like an echo of the monumental movie playing inside.”

Gershon Wolf has been busy preparing for a retrospective show of his mother’s work at Currents Gallery in McMinnville. Photo by: David Bates
Gershon Wolf has been busy preparing for a retrospective show of his mother’s work at Currents Gallery in McMinnville. Photo by: David Bates

Wolf died last fall at age 87. A retrospective exhibition curated by her son, Gershon Wolf, and his wife, Veronica Ruth, makes the echo audible for a few weeks in Yamhill County. Riva Wolf — A Solo Retrospective can be seen through Feb. 14 at Currents Gallery in McMinnville. Nearly three dozen pieces are available for purchase in the artist-owned and -operated gallery and may be viewed during regular business hours or by appointment.

Gallery co-owner Marlene Eichner and her husband, Steve, first met Riva after befriending Gershon at the Chabad Center for Jewish Life in Salem in 2018. “He was new to Salem,” Eichner  recalled. “He is a wonderful musician and played guitar for some of our events.” His mother moved to Oregon from New Mexico, where she had been active in the arts community, three years after the 2015 death of her husband, Donald, an accomplished photographer.

The plan, Gershon said, was to start fresh in Oregon with a new business name, social media campaign, and a multi-media show incorporating the family’s work that would bounce around the West Coast. Eichner invited Riva Wolf to visit Currents, where she met other artists. There was talk of her resuming oil and pastel painting and possibly being represented by the gallery.

The family’s artistic launch in Oregon came a year ago with a show of Donald Wolf’s photography marking his yahrzeit – the observance of the anniversary of his death. Later that month, a show of Riva’s work at the Chabad Center, titled Knock at the Door, included a documentary of the same name about Wolf’s family in Europe during the war.

"Self-Reflection," by Riva Wolf (oil, 18 by 24 inches)
“Self-Reflection,” by Riva Wolf (oil, 18 by 24 inches)

Shortly after, Gershon and Riva prepared a third show for the Borland Gallery in Silverton. They planned to open in March 2020 — a point on the calendar now fixed in the nation’s collective memory.

“COVID hit and ruined our show,” Gershon said. “Technically, we set up and had an opening with food and music, but only like five people came to the opening. A few others came while the show was up that first week by appointment, and then we started taking it down.”

By this time, Riva was ailing from a brain tumor that had been diagnosed on New Year’s Day 2020. There would be no more painting. She died in a Salem hospice in November.


A couple of months before much of Oregon burst into flames last year, Gershon noticed that Currents was auctioning artwork online. He asked Eichner if he could throw in a few pieces of his mother’s work.

“They gave me a full-blown show instead,” he said.

Summer wildfires interrupted the show’s curation. Silverton was spared, but between the Beachie Creek and Lionhead fires, the Wolfs took no chances. “I literally had to truck all the art out of the house when the fires were coming and stash it at the temple,” Gershon said. Eventually, he came up with enough pieces for a show.

What’s striking about the Currents exhibition is that it isn’t obvious that the pieces are by a single artist. Looking at the body of work that spans more than half a century, it becomes clear that this woman who survived the Holocaust and spent the rest of her life under what Gershon calls a “black cloud” was an accomplished artist versatile in a variety of media and stylistic approaches. Also, she was not content to make any one topic her subject.

Riva Wolf included her likeness (second from left) in this painting that was included in the 1986 show held in conjunction with the New York screening of “Shoah” (photo reproduction of untitled lost oil painting from the “Persistent Memories”series).
Riva Wolf included her likeness (second from left) in this painting that was included in the 1986 show held in conjunction with the New York screening of “Shoah” (photo reproduction of untitled, lost oil painting from the “Persistent Memories” series).

A few pieces evoke the Holocaust; others are less obviously tied but have a somber, reflective tone. Still other paintings are playful, blending bold colors with expressive flourishes reminiscent of Fauvism, a style that emerged in early 20th-century France. Wolf, who traveled extensively in Europe after the war, studied that movement carefully and delighted in creating a visual palette, Gershon said, “where Van Gogh meets Dr. Seuss.”


Are you ready?

The new era at Portland Center Stage is set to begin next month with the arrival of Marissa Wolf as artistic director.

The theater announced Wolf’s hiring on Wednesday afternoon, concluding an eight-month search for a successor to Chris Coleman, who left earlier this year to take over the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company, having made a huge impact on PCS and its community over his 17-year tenure.

Wolf will come to PCS from Kansas City Rep, where she’s spent the past three years as an associate artistic director in charge of developing and producing plays through the OriginKC: New Works Festival. She’ll start her new post on Sept. 15.

Marissa Wolf, Portland Center Stage’s incoming artistic director, brings “a dazzling spirit, spectacular taste, and a fierce vision” to the task. Photo: Tess Mayer/The Interval-NY

The PCS press release featured a laudatory comment about Wolf from one of the leading figures in the field, Oskar Eustis, artistic director of The Public Theater in New York and a producer who has worked with Wolf over the years: “Marissa Wolf is a rising star of the American theater. She has a dazzling spirit, spectacular taste, and a fierce vision which she imparts with grace and wit. Her institutional and artistic brilliance has led her to this moment. Portland Center Stage is lucky to have nabbed her just as her talent is fully exploding.”


Sherrie Wolf: The freedom of the still life

Paul Sutinen talks to master painter Sherrie Wolf about her explorations of the still life, which in her hands contains universes

Painter Frank Stella said, “In great art all the relationships sparkle, radiating coherence.” In Sherrie Wolf’s still life paintings there is marvelous rendering of fruits, flowers, reflections in glass and copying of old masterworks, but the key element in her work is the musicality of the relationships among all the objects depicted—the loud, the quiet and the spaces between them. Wolf takes a genre with a 2,000 year history and keeps it fresh and new. Her new paintings are at Russo Lee Gallery through May.

Sherrie Wolf, Self Portrait with Red Drape, oil on canvas, 90″ x 60″ , after Charles Wilson Peale, 1741-1827

You were at the Museum Art School (now Pacific Northwest College of Art) in the early 1970s when minimalism and process art were in fashion. You probably studied with painters steeped in abstract expressionism. Were you planning to be a realist painter when you went to school?
It was hard to be a realist painter then because it wasn’t the thing, except I saw Jim Dine, David Hockney, Wayne Thiebaud, and I went to a huge retrospective of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work when I was a first-year art student. I wouldn’t say it was minimal. It was all abstract expressionism.


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.


Fertile, Grounded, Virtual & Here

ArtsWatch Weekly: Portland's festival of new performance goes online; finding the humans in the frame; fresh flicks; new theater & more

RIGHT ABOUT NOW EVERY YEAR FOR THE PAST ELEVEN YEARS before 2021 the hustle and bustle’s hit performance spaces large and small in Portland and environs – an energetic outpouring of new work at just about every stage of development, from first reading to workshop to staged reading to full-blown premiere production. In an ordinary year the Fertile Ground festival of new works presents more than 100 pieces of theater, dance, film, and other performance, by Oregon artists, from first-timers and unknowns to projects from the biggest performance companies in town. It’s been a creative free-for-all, predictable in its unpredictability, a sprawling mega-event in which you never know what you’re going to see next, and that’s a very big part of the fun.

Scene from Myhraliza Aaza’s “Oh Myh Dating Hell,” debuting at 9 p.m. opening night – Thursday, Jan. 28 – in this year’s online Fertile Ground festival of new works.

This year, of course, is far from ordinary – and so, Fertile Ground 2021 is far from ordinary, too. You might say it’s breaking new ground, which might be as fertile as the old, but in very different ways. Fertile Ground opens today – Thursday, Feb. 28 – and continues through Feb. 7 entirely online, with a lineup that’s both curated and vastly reduced: thirty-six projects, all created to be streamed online, making their debuts over the run of the festival and available to view on the festival’s Facebook and YouTube channels through Feb. 15. Streaming the shows is free, although the festival is happy to accept donations.


Making music for the love of it

ArtsWatch Weekly: A very different kind of orchestra, a weekend of horrors, board moves, toppled statues, farewells, flicks & how we see

SOMETIMES, IN THE UNDERSTANDABLE QUEST FOR EXCELLENCE AND EVEN PERFECTION in the arts, performers and artists can lose sight of something that should be at the core of the entire enterprise: a love of the game. That happened, Brett Campbell writes in ‘Orchestrating change’: healing music, to Ronald Braunstein, an up-and-coming orchestral conductor whose promising career was derailed, despite his prominent and obvious talents, by the stress and pressure of the job. “Anxiety, distraction, emotional ups and downs paralyzed him,” Campbell writes. “He couldn’t keep it all together.” 

For the love of it: Dylan Moore, a bassist with Me2/Orchestra. Photo courtesy of Me2.

Eventually Braunstein discovered that he had a crippling bipolar disorder, and that might have been the end of the story – except it wasn’t. He still had all of that talent, and a growing appreciation for the love that attracted him to music in the first place. And he discovered that there were a lot more people like him: professionals, amateurs, in-betweens who genuinely loved the music but not the pressure that goes along with a fast-track career. He discovered he had a simpatico with those among them who also had some form of mental illness. And so was born the Me2/Orchestra, a place where people could go for the simple joy of playing. It’s an amazing story, a genuine joy to read, and the original Me2 has spawned offspring groups, including one in Portland. It’s also a timely reminder of the genuine pleasures of amateurism – a word derived from the Latin amare, which means, simply, to love. Whether you’re a professional or an acolyte, it’s where it all begins.


The Artists Series 5: Visual Artists

The creators: Ten final portraits by K.B. Dixon of Oregon artists who are helping to define what Portland and the state look like


This is the fifth and final installment of portraits in The Artists Series—a Series focused on the talented people who have made invaluable contributions to the art, character, and culture of this city and state; people whose various gifts have enriched our lives and whose legacies are destined to be part of our cultural history.

Parts 1 and 2 of the series are dedicated to Oregon writers, the artists working in words; Parts 3, 4, and 5 are dedicated to the artists working in visual media—our gifted painters, sculptors, and photographers.

My hope has been to call attention to the remarkable work of these remarkable people and, as always, to produce a decent photograph—a photograph that honors the medium’s allegiance to reality, that preserves for myself and others a unique and honest sense of the subject.

MEL KATZ: Sculptor

“The pieces in Katz’s studio appear vaguely figurative, but the works are abstract, conceptual. They were born out of the post abstract-expressionist moment to encompass several ‘-isms’ spanning the last few decades, including post-painterly abstraction, op art, hard-edge abstraction and minimalism.” 

– Grace Kook-Anderson, The Oregonian

Examples of Katz’s work can be found at Russo Lee Gallery


Oregon ArtsWatch