WE ARE IN THE MIDST OF LIFE-CHANGING TIMES, and in the face of multiple crises remarkable work is being done. How do artists fit in? Sometimes, smack in the middle of things. Many news organizations have been doing excellent work of discovering the artists speaking to the moment and bringing their work to a broad audience. Oregon Public Broadcasting, for instance, has been publishing some sterling stories – including the feature The Faces of Protest: The Memorial Portraits of Artist Ameya Marie Okamoto, by Claudia Meza and John Nottariani. Okamoto, a young social practice artist who grew up in Portland, has made it her work not just to document the events of racial violence in Portland and across the United States: She’s also, as OPB notes, “crafted dozens of portraits for victims of violence and injustice.”
Ameya Okamoto, “In Support of Protest.” Photo courtesy Ameya Okamoto
“People get so attached to the hashtag and the movement of George Floyd or Quanice Hayes,” Okamota tells OPB, “they forget that George Floyd was a trucker who moved to Minneapolis for a better life, or that Quanice Hayes was actually called ‘Moose’ by his friends and family. When individuals become catalysts for Black Lives Matter and catalysts for social change … there is a level of complex personhood that is stripped away from them.” In her work she strives to give that back.
Okamoto also, radically, makes her work available to anyone who wants it. OPB notes that she offers her work online free for nonprofit use, with a $10 suggested donation to the activist group Don’t Shoot Portland.
In a piece by Eric Slade, Street Artists Transform Portland’s Boarded Buildings With Murals, OPB also has documented a movement to bring beauty to the streets in trying times. And in Pain Fades, but Murals Remember People Killed by Police, The New York Times’s Zachary Small gathers images and meanings of artists’ responses to multiple slayings over multiple years across the nation.
Artwork by Dan Cohen on Southwest Second Avenue in Portland, part of a collection of street art images in OPB’s story “Street Artists Transform Portland’s Boarded Buildings With Murals.” Photo: Eric Slade/OPB
MEANWHILE, AMY WANG of The Oregonian/Oregon Live has had two fine stories published in recent days. She wrote a moving memory of Portland writer Ramiza Shamoun Koya, who died last week of breast cancer at age 49, and whose novel The Royal Abduls was published earlier this year by Portland’s Forest Avenue Press. The novel, Wang wrote, is “an elegantly multilayered and deeply moving story of a Muslim American family caught in the fissures of identity, immigration and race that were deepened by 9/11.” And in 35 books about race, recommended by black Portland writers, Wang talked with writers Intisar Abioto, Walidah Imarisha, David F. Walker, and Emmett Wheatfall to produce a small library of essential reading about America’s great divide.
MORE GOOD READING, FROM THE PARIS REVIEW: The literary quarterly magazine has unlocked several of its in-depth Writers at Work interviews from past years, offering free access to lengthy conversations with such important black writers as Maya Angelou (1990), Ralph Ellison (1955), Charles Johnson (2018), Ishmael Reed (2016), Edward P. Jones (2013), and Samuel R. Delany (2011). Ellison’s comment from 65 years ago seems particularly pertinent to now: “I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest. Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground is, among other things, a protest against the limitations of nineteenth-century rationalism; Don Quixote, Man’s Fate, Oedipus Rex, The Trial—all these embody protest, even against the limitation of human life itself.” And Reed, speaking of the highly political Amiri Baraka, whom he calls “a great writer,” also homes in on the importance of artistry and style, and how black artists have helped shape an American expression: “He did for English syntax what [Thelonious] Monk did for chords.”
Meanwhile, back at the Plague
Henk Pander, “Plague Ships Fleeing the Burning City of Caffa. Ca 1347.” Oil on linen, 150 x 206 centimeters (59 x 81 inches), 2020.
THE STRIKING NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL UPRISING against police brutality and racial injustice has been dominating the news, even though the Covid-19 pandemic still rages, and indeed, is more destructive in the United States right now than almost anywhere else. In Oregon and across the nation lockdown restrictions, which have taken a huge economic toll, are easing, and no one knows what effect the massive public protests of the past two weeks will have on the potential spreading of the coronavirus. But reported cases are on the rise, and many health authorities are warning of a second wave of infection that could be worse than the first.
Such things have been on the mind of Henk Pander, the Dutch-born and -trained painter who’s lived and worked in Portland since 1965. On Wednesday morning in his Southeast Portland home studio he finished his newest painting and signed his name to it. Maybe he’ll do a little touchup here, maybe a little change there, but probably not. “I don’t like to overwork these things,” he explained over the phone on Wednesday afternoon.
Much of Pander’s work carries forward the rich tradition of history painting, and in a way Plague Ships Fleeing the Burning City of Caffa. Ca 1347 does, too. It reimagines an actual devastation during the Black Death years of the 14th century in the trade-center city of Caffa, on the Crimea, in what is now Ukraine. The seeds of the painting were planted a few years ago when Pander picked up a copy of John Kelly’s 2005 history of the Plague years The Great Mortality, at Powell’s City of Books, and then took bloom with the rise of this year’s pandemic. “We should be grateful that this is not THE Plague,” which began in eastern or central Asia and spread across the Middle East into Europe and beyond, killing by varying estimates 30 to 60 percent of Europe’s population, Pander commented.
Learning more about the historical calamity, Pander said, gave him an opportunity to make a painting about the current Covid-19 crisis without including such things as face masks: “It’s a vision, a fantasy. You’ve got the burning of Rome in it, for crying out loud.” He studied etchings of the ruins of Rome by the 18th century Italian artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi, and looked up the designs of Plague flags from ships during the Black Death. What he was looking for was a sense of devastation and ruin, and that included adding the year “1347” to the painting’s title: “By giving the date it gives it a kind of authenticity. You can look it up” and discover the full story, he said.
Still, this is an unfinished story. Pander’s painting may be finished. The pandemic is far from it.
In isolation: images & consequences
Angel O’Brien, collage photograph, “My Shoes Worn Thin”
THE PANDEMIC AND THE AMERICAN RACIAL CRISIS, along with a tense and unsettling political season, have shaken business-as-usual in many ways: The sense that the “new normal,” whenever it emerges, will look very different from the “old normal” is strong. This holds true in the arts world as much as in the culture at large. We’ve seen in recent days national uprisings in the world of theater, where major artists of color including Lynn Nottage, Suzan-Lori Parks, Lin-Manuel Miranda, David Henry Hwang, Viola Davis and Quiara Alegría Hudes have signed a letter decrying racism in the industry, and in the world of poetry, where the president and board chairman of the richly endowed Poetry Foundation have resigned after an open letter signed by more than 1,800 poets and others criticized the Foundation’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement. “As poets, we recognize a piece of writing that meets the urgency of its time with the appropriate fire when we see it — and this is not it,” the letter said in part.
OTHER FALLOUT HAS BEEN MORE PERSONAL, particularly in the case of pandemic-imposed isolation. In Focusing in Isolation, Portland photographer Pat Rose talks with five prominent Oregon photographers – Ray Bidegain, Jamila Clarke, Jim Fitzgerald, Heidi Kirkpatrick and Angel O’Brien – about how the lockdown has or hasn’t affected their lives and their work. “How can we all not be changed by this?” O’Brien comments. “The whole world has been upended, and any sense of stability has been erased. …. Now we are all having to deal with these innumerable humanitarian crises, but without hugs, without the closeness of friends and family.” This is the first of two parts: Look for the words and works of five more photographers next week from Rose.
THE WORLD’S TURNED VIRTUAL DURING LOCKDOWN, even more than it already was, and in Accounts to follow: Irresistible colors Shannon M. Lieberman continues her exploration of the Instagram accounts of Oregon artists, this time coming up with some colorful recommendations in the work of Don Bailey, Ernesto Aguilar, and Meghan NutMeg, a trio of artists who, Lieberman declares, “draw viewers in through their irresistible profusion of color.”
AN INEVITABLE CHANGE IN THE ARTS LANDSCAPE WILL BE A SHAKING-OUT and reorganizing of organizations and how they go about their business. On Thursday the Oregon Cultural Trust reported results of a statewide survey of arts groups that reveals a “devastating impact” of Covid-19: “The majority of Oregon’s cultural organizations are facing suspension of operations or permanent closure,” the Trust declared. The Trust projects a revenue loss of more than $40 million statewide to arts groups by the end of June, with the arts & culture sector of the state economy being hit “disproportionately hard by the crisis, especially in rural communities with little access to relief funding.”
WILL BIG AND LITTLE ARTS GROUPS BE SCRAPPING for the same vastly reduced pile of money? Former Portland Opera General Director Christopher Mattaliano, in Will Portland protect its ‘Big 5’?, his essay for ArtsWatch that’s spread far and wide, argues for a “big picture” look beyond the pandemic. He criticizes the city’s “smaller is better” ethos and argues that the major groups – the opera, Oregon Symphony, Portland Art Museum, Oregon Ballet Theatre, Portland Center Stage at the Armory – should be considered “anchor” institutions that “establish a strong cultural foundation for the city and provide an anchor for other important, smaller-scale arts organizations and local artists to coexist within a rich arts ecology.” Mattaliano’s essay feels like the beginning of an important conversation that almost surely will reveal sharp differences of opinion: Expect to hear counter-arguments soon.
EVEN WHEN THE NEWS IS GOOD, IT SEEMS, IT’S ALSO PARTLY BAD. Last week the Portland Art Museum, which has been closed since March 14 and bleeding money because of lost income, announced plans to reopen the second week in July. At the same time, it also announced that because of the hole already shot in its budget, it will lay off 51 full-time and 72 part-time workers. The museum hopes that many of the layoffs will be temporary.
- Other museums and galleries are cautiously beginning to reopen, too. David Bates reports that several Yamhill County art galleries and the Chehalem Cultural Center are reopening at least part-time, with fresh exhibits.
- In Bend, the High Desert Museum will reopen June 17, with restrictions, including mandatory face covering.
- On the coast, the Lincoln City Cultural Center has also reopened with restrictions: As Lori Tobias reports in Fire birds: Sweet!, it’ll take new wing with its annual bird-themed show, including images by pyrographer Cynthia Longhat-Adams, who creates her paintings by applying heat to their surfaces.
- Inevitably there are shutdowns. The PAMTAs, the Portland Area Musical Theatre Awards, had been scheduled to be livestreamed Sunday evening, but instead have been postponed indefinitely to honor Black Lives Matter protests. You can see the list of nominees here.
- And Portland Pride’s annual Waterfront Festival and Parade has been forced into virtual space by the coronavirus: a full schedule of online events kicks off Friday. In Zoom: Portland Pride goes virtual, photographer K.B. Dixon takes a visual journey into Pride Parades Past.
Damien Geter’s African American Requiem
Composer and vocalist Damien Geter, performing with Portland Concert Opera.
PORTLAND COMPOSER AND SINGER DAMIEN GETER’S newest project, his large-scale work An African American Requiem, seems to have one foot in the Black Lives Matter movement and the other in the pandemic crisis. It’s deeply concerned with the roots and meanings of the black experience in America – and its world premiere has been delayed because of the coronavirus. With Black music is the center of American culture, Charles Rose begins a three-part interview with Geter on what the music is and why it takes the shape it does. The Requiem, Rose declares, “remains poised to become a landmark achievement both for Portland’s musical culture and for American music as a whole.” Commissioned by the choral group Resonance Ensemble, it’s a full-length choral and orchestral work that was to premiere in concert with the Oregon Symphony, along with Resonance, the gospel choir Kingdom Sound, and poet S. Renee Mitchell, and was to be broadcast live by Portland’s All Classical radio and New York’s WQXR. After the Symphony was forced to cancel the remainder of its current season, the premiere was rescheduled for January 22, 2021. But the Requiem’s here, ready and waiting, and the anticipation’s building. On adding texts to the standard mass, Geter says in part: “I wanted to use something that related directly to the black experience and the experience of black Americans … I chose ‘I Can’t Breathe’ because it’s such a prevalent thing in this world. Whenever someone says it you instantly know what they’re talking about.”