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A flood of memory, a mosaic of the future

ArtsWatch Weekly: Vanport Mosaic goes virtual, bringing the the great flood of '48 into modern Portland.


ON MEMORIAL DAY IN 1948 A RAILROAD BERM BURST in the lowlands just south of the Columbia River and north of Portland, sending a swiftly moving wall of water over the edge and inundating the city of Vanport, killing 15 people, leaving 17,500 homeless, and essentially wiping the city off the map. Vanport had been hastily constructed six years before to house workers and their families building warships in the Kaiser shipyards of Portland and Vancouver. At its height it had had a population of 40,000, making it the second-biggest city in Oregon at the time. In the decades since, the disaster has been forgotten by many, lost in the march of “progress” (Delta Park and the Portland International Speedway now sit where Vanport once thrived). For others it’s become an almost mythological touchstone, an emblem of what Portland and Oregon had been and what it would become, especially in its attitudes and actions about race. As Brett Campbell put it in his 2015 review of Rich Rubin’s play Cottonwood in the Flood, which debuted at an early Vanport Mosaic Festival and was set in Vanport in the 1940s, the city became, “along with Celilo Falls, Oregon’s Atlantis.” 

Henk Pander, “Vanport,” watercolor, 40 x 60 inches, from his series of large history paintings of the flood and its aftermath. Pander will be part of the Vanport Mosaic virtual festival in an online conversation, “Painting History,” with Chisao Hata and other artists who have depicted Vanport in their work. Image © Henk Pander 
Overturned cars and devastation after the deluge of 1948. Photo: City of Portland Archives
Samson Syharath performs his “8-24-9 (Secret Asian Man)” in the virtual festival.

A few years ago Damaris Webb and Laura Lo Forti got together to create the Vanport Mosaic, a Memorial Day weekend festival in and around the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center in North Portland, to remember in exhibits and talks and performances the city and its citizens and their continuing influence on the shape and character of Portland. The festival became something of a bond between the people who put it on and the people who came to see it. I remember, in the early years, walking through the historical exhibitions and listening as other viewers exclaimed. A few of the older ones had been children or even young adults who had lived in Vanport. Others would talk about how their parents or uncles or older sisters had lived in the city. The Mosaic sparked living memories and the telling of tales. People talked about how the city had been no paradise of racial harmony, and yet had been far more forward-thinking than Portland just down the road. It was integrated, at least in a lot of ways; kids of all races went to the same schools.

Vanport Mosaic quickly established itself as one of the most genuinely interesting annual events on the Portland cultural calendar, in part because it’s always seen the story of Vanport as part of a bigger, continuing story that reverberates down the decades to now. There was a historical Vanport diaspora of sorts, boosting Portland’s small Black community as former Vanport residents moved into the city proper and helping to turn mostly white Portland and its metropolitan area into a more racially and culturally diverse place – an enriching process that nevertheless continues to be controversial and resisted in some circles. Left Hook, for instance, another Rubin play from a later festival, moves the action to Portland’s Albina district in the 1970s, when urban renewal accomplished through political and bureaucratic fiat a kind of Vanport 2, forcing large numbers of African Americans out of their homes and out of their neighborhood.

This year the coronavirus pandemic threatened to wipe away the Vanport Mosaic Festival as surely as the Columbia floodwaters had flattened its namesake city. But Lo Forti decided to forge ahead, turning what has always been a very communal festival into a virtual, online series of events that begins tomorrow, May 8, and continues through May 30. She’s had to do an enormous amount of work on the fly, but the lineup she’s assembled is impressive, and the Vanport Mosaic 2020 Virtual Festival leaves no doubt about its intentions. “(T)he Spirit of Vanport lives on through a virtual season of hope, moral imagination and solidarity,” the festival’s homepage declares, and then describes the key questions the events intend to address: “Who gets to be an American? What does it mean to be an American today? What are the lessons that can inform how we respond to today’s crisis as a city, as community and as individuals?”

You can see the entire lineup on the festival schedule. (Performances and events will be streamed on Vanport Mosaic’s web page and its Facebook page.) Among the many potential highlights are virtual appearances by Laotian American actor/writer Samson Syharath performing his solo show Secret Asian Man and, later, his See Her Strength from Media Rites’ The  – Ism Project; Unit Souzou taiko drummer Michelle Fujii in conversation with Douglas Detrick; a May 17 conversation between Sankar Raman of The Immigrant Story and Ramiza Koya, author of The Royal Abduls; a May 21 video installation, (Un) Belonging, by the Pakistani American artist Sabina Haque; another piece from The – Ism Project, Dmae Roberts’ Harvest, performed by Jane Vogel Mantiri; a May 24 Confluence Conversation, Who Gets To Be American?, with Patricia Whitefoot (Yakama Nation), artist/writer and former Oregon poet laureate Elizabeth Woody (Warm Springs) and Chuck Sams (Umatilla); a screening and conversation on Northwest hip hop history; and, on closing day May 30, a Vanport Day of Remembrance. It’s all curated by Lo Forti, who calls herself, appropriately, a “story midwife.” Tune in and be part of the birthing.  


SHUTDOWNS FROM THE CORONAVIRUS CRISIS HAVE BATTERED large cultural organizations that carry big overheads, and the Portland Art Museum is feeling the pain. The museum, which last month put 80 percent of its staff on unpaid leave effective April 16, is preparing for the possibility of a large round of layoffs. Early last week the museum – one of the Pacific Northwest’s most significant cultural institutions – filed notification under the federal WARN Act, or Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, of possible layoffs. The act requires employers of 100 or more workers to give their employees 60 days’ notice of impending layoffs.

“We project that by the end of June, the Museum and [Northwest] Film Center will have exhausted funds from the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and emergency support received from several trustees and foundations,” Museum Director Brian Ferriso wrote in a message to staff. Ferriso projected that the museum has money on hand to continue operations through June. If the museum is unable to reopen in July, he wrote, layoffs will become necessary effective June 30.

And that seems to be the way things are pointing. “Based on the best information available at this time, reopening the Museum and Film Center by July seems unlikely,” Ferriso wrote. “At this time we do not know when it will be safe to reopen, which positions we will be able to rehire, or whether these layoffs will be temporary or permanent,” he added. “… I remain hopeful to be able to reopen our facilities and rehire as many employees as needs and resources allow, as quickly as possible.”

The Portland museum is far from alone in this situation. The New York Times reported this morning that the Metropolitan Opera, which has a $308 million annual budget, has lost $60 million since its forced shutdown in March, and has put more than 40 staff members on furlough.


Radish amuse-bouche at Arpège in Paris, shiny like enamel. Photo: Angela Allen

PICTURE THIS: A PLATE OF FOOD SO EYE-CATCHING IT LOOKS LIKE A WORK OF ART. But can it actually be art? “Of course it can, and it does. Just look! Just taste!” Angela Allen declares in Food and art, art and food, her lavishly illustrated essay on – well, what art means, and why food fits right in. She talks about the Himalayas of dining, and checks in with some top-rank Oregon chefs and even a couple of poets, almost (but not quite) all of whom agree with her assessment. 

PHOTOGRAPHER K.B. DIXON, MEANWHILE, HAS BEEN SOCIAL-ISOLATING AT HOME, which is keeping him off the streets and away from the group events he usually haunts. So in Still Life in a Time of Sequestration, Part 2 (it goes with his earlier Still Life in a Time of Sequestration, Part 1) he turns his camera on a series of everyday objects around the house, and reveals some singular sensations.


CMNW Summer Festival SB FIXED #1, TP, Top

Pinecones, 2020. Photo: K.B. Dixon


COREY BRUNISH, BEYOND BROADWAY. Like almost all public gathering places in America, the Great White Way has lowered the curtain for the duration. So what’s a multiple Tony-winning producer to do? As it turns out, Brunish – who splits his time between New York and Portland, and is happily sequestered with his family in their Lake Oswego home – has plenty going on, inside and outside of theater. Think streaming. Think music. Think big new projects.

LOOKING FOR A FEW WILD WOMEN. Then again, if you want to actually put a show onstage in this strange time we’re living in, it’s not exactly business as usual. Lori Tobias checks in with Cannon Beach actor Sue Neuer, who’s set to co-direct a production of a comedy called The Wild Women of Winedale scheduled to open on Labor Day weekend, and discovers a few obstacles cluttering the pathway to theatrical happiness and fulfillment.


“Again, the public showed that they would bear their share in these things; the very Court, which was then gay and luxurious, put on a face of just concern for the public danger. All the plays and interludes which, after the manner of the French Court, had been set up, and began to increase among us, were forbid to act; the gaming-tables, public dancing-rooms, and music-houses, which multiplied and began to debauch the manners of the people, were shut up and suppressed; and the jack-puddings, merry-andrews, puppet-shows, rope-dancers, and such-like doings, which had bewitched the poor common people, shut up their shops, finding indeed no trade; for the minds of the people were agitated with other things, and a kind of sadness and horror at these things sat upon the countenances even of the common people. Death was before their eyes, and everybody began to think of their graves, not of mirth and diversions.”

– Daniel DefoeA Journal of the Plague Year: 1665first published 1722 


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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."


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