Art from the quarantine life

Artists emerge from the shutdown with work created in isolation, and live theater returns to the Yamhill County stage.

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Cultural life in Yamhill County hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels of activity, but the engine is revving louder these days. People are making plans, holding rehearsals, scheduling summer art camps. We won’t see a full-scale Aquilon Music Festival or Terroir Creative Writing Festival until probably next year, but optimism is in the air.

To begin this week, a delightful new exhibit at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg addresses a question that’s been on my mind since mid-March 2020: What will artists do with this? How will they spend their time? How will a historic, life-changing pandemic translate to the stage, page, and canvas?

From Gesture to Jester: Finding the Reality of Memory, by Molly Van Austen and Joe Robinson, begins to answer those questions with sketches and sculpture — work done while living the quarantine life.

Joe Robinson says his “East Creek Vessel [2]” (20 by 17 inches) is a “culmination of skill and community.” During firing, Robinson and his students burn 10 cords of wood and produce 1,000 or more pots. “These works speak for themselves as pieces that couldn't be made by a single artist, given their size and firing method.” Behind the pot, Molly Van Austen’s 175-foot scroll snakes through the Parrish Gallery. Photo by: David Bates
Joe Robinson says his “East Creek Vessel [2]” (20 by 17 inches) is a “culmination of skill and community.” During firing, Robinson and his students burn 10 cords of wood and produce 1,000 or more pots. “These works speak for themselves as pieces that couldn’t be made by a single artist, given their size and firing method.” Behind the pot, Molly Van Austen’s 175-foot scroll snakes through the Parrish Gallery. Photo by: David Bates

Robinson owns East Creek community art studio outside Willamina, where this summer he’ll host workshops and camps that give participants a chance to fire ceramics in his 40-foot anagama wood-fired kiln. His large, beautiful pots are positioned around Chehalem’s Parrish Gallery, and in the show notes he reflects on his art, “a process that can only be accomplished when many hands come together, a coming together that our society deeply craves as the pandemic has forced us into isolation.

“As artifacts of process and community,” he continues, “these vessels display the evidence of micro-geology driven by humans and recorded in stone through flame.”

Weaving among Robinson’s majestic ceramics is a single, 175-foot-long roll of paper on which Canby artist Van Austen used graphite and colored pencils to record, day by day, her memories and imaginings over our pandemic year. COVID-19 wasn’t her first pandemic; she also lived through the polio epidemic of the mid-20th century.

“The isolation makes me concentrate on others,” she states in the show notes. “Each image in this long drawing is a meditation on some dear person in my life.  That brings me joy and sadness. Memories prolong life and intensify our emotions.”

Frida Kahlo, among the 20th-century artists Molly Van Austen depicts in her tapestry of figures, is pictured with the Russian socialist revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Photo by: David Bates
Frida Kahlo, among the 20th-century artists Molly Van Austen depicts in her tapestry of figures, is pictured with the Russian socialist revolutionary Leon Trotsky. Photo by: David Bates

There is no right or wrong way to take it in, although if you want to go in the order she drew them, proceed left to right; or you can go Manga-style and start on the right end. Take time to linger, because there are treasures and mysteries here: more than 120 figures, mostly human, although skeletons and cats figure into the mix. There are also a few pandemic masks of various kinds.

Best of all, look for art in the art, including portraits of famous creators, such as Käthe Kollwitz, Judith Leyster, and Dorothea Tanning, among others. You’ll also find Mexican surrealist painter Frida Kahlo in the company of a gentleman who is not husband/artist Diego Rivera. It took me a few swings through to see it’s Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who visited the couple while he was on the run from Stalin’s thugs and was intimate with Kahlo.

There’s plenty of time to catch the exhibit, which runs through June 18. If you’re lucky, you might have a chance encounter with the artist herself; I’m told she regularly wanders through to add a few strokes here and there.

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Time, however, is running out to see local acrylic painter Anna Tooze’s Pacific Northwest floral art, which brightens the Central Gallery through May 29. All pieces by Tooze and Robinson are for sale, and all may be viewed in an online gallery.

CHEHALEM ART WING LANDS $300,000: An update on the $5 million Performing Arts Wing project at the Chehalem Center, which in November was included among 11 arts infrastructure projects that got a thumbs up from the Oregon Cultural Advocacy Coalition. Last week, center director Sean Andries announced the center had received matching gifts of $300,000 each from the Marie Lamfrom Charitable Foundation and Newberg residents Nick and Kathy Tri. The center terms the gifts “a turning point.” To date, $3 million has been raised for the project, which appears to be on schedule for completion in the spring of 2023.

LIVE THEATER ON AN ACTUAL STAGE: Later this month, Gallery Players of Oregon in McMinnville will pull up the curtain on a shortened 2021 season that will include live theater on the stage, where it belongs. I’ll have more on this next week, but for now know that Willamette Valley theater artist Lance Nuttman is in rehearsal for the one-actor show Novecento, which was among the COVID casualties of the 2020 season. Tickets are on sale now. This show will go on.

About the author

David Bates is an award-winning Oregon journalist with more than 20 years as a newspaper editor and reporter in the Willamette Valley, covering virtually every topic imaginable and with a strong background in arts/culture journalism. He has lived in Yamhill County since 1996 and is currently a freelance writer whose clients have included the McMinnville News-RegisterOregon Wine Press, and Indulge, a food-oriented publication. He has a B.S. degree in journalism from the University of Oregon and a long history of involvement in the theater arts, acting and on occasion directing for Gallery Players of Oregon and other theaters in Oregon.

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