This is the first in a series of short(ish) interviews with Portland artists and arts professionals about their experiences and insights into the effects of the pandemic on our arts community. I hope these conversations will provide a bit of connection, critical perspective, and hope during this difficult time.
Ka’ila Farrell-Smith (Klamath-Modoc) is an artist and organizer based in Modoc Point, Oregon. Her work “explores the space in between Indigenous and Western paradigms.” She is a Co-Director and Guide with Signal Fire Arts, a Portland organization that offers wilderness trips and residencies to artists and writers. Her work has been exhibited at the Tacoma Art Museum (WA) and the Missoula Art Museum (MT) and is held in the collections of the Portland Art Museum and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. She holds a BFA from Pacific Northwest College of Art and an MFA from Portland State University.
How are you doing? Do you have any strategies for managing the various anxieties, fears, and inconveniences the pandemic is causing?
I’m good considering the financial and health care impacts we all face. I moved out of Portland a couple of years ago, and I’m building my studio practice in my Tribe’s ancestral homelands on the former Klamath reservation, near Modoc Point on the Upper Klamath Lakes. My partner Cale, our dog Pele, and I have been in self-quarantine since March 24th, 2020. As of today (April 3), we have 14 confirmed cases in Klamath County, and Sky Lakes Medical Center can only do 15 tests a day.
Strategies that we are using to manage our anxieties and fears during this pandemic are a balance between relaxing and resting as much as possible with staying busy with the projects we have on our ranch and forest land. Since the State and National parks are closed we started building a trail system on our land. As a Co-Director and Co-Guide with Signal Fire, hiking is a big part of my life, I stay healthy by walking frequently. Building hiking trails at Modoc Point Studio is a big goal of ours and now we have the time to dedicate to trail building. This leads to big piles of branches and wood, Cale spends a lot of time chopping and stacking firewood and he is doing a controlled burn while I write this. Working the land is how we are coping with the current events, elections, and watching the COVID-19 updates at the John Hopkins Coronavirus Map website.
Other strategies are focused on food preparation. We’re planting seed starts for our garden. We spent days cooking up soups to freeze. Initially, I worked through a deep depression by cleaning and organizing all of our food, cleaning supplies, and medical kits. I have my quarantine reading list and as an avid reader, I’m using this time to finish books I was “too busy” to read pre-pandemic. Now that I’m into a groove of self-quarantine, I’m feeling the pull to get back in the studio and work on my next series of paintings.
How has all this affected your art practice? Are you currently working on any new projects?
It’s a bummer that everything is cancelled. My next two Spring exhibitions have been postponed by at least a month and everything art related feels like it’s hanging in limbo. My 2020 is booked with exhibitions throughout the year and it’s unfortunate to have everything delayed, but our community health is the most important, so we can return to social gatherings and art shows when we come out of this pandemic.
I have a new series of paintings I’m working on for an exhibition at Ditch Projects proposed for later this year and I need to get back in the studio and finish that work. The exhibition is titled “Ghost Rider: Performing Fugitive Indigeneity,” stay tuned at my website for updates on when my work will be on view.
Signal Fire’s 2020 programming is called “Rise from the Rot”—that seems kind of apropos for what feels like a rotten situation for humans right now. What does the Covid-19 outbreak mean for Signal Fire’s programming this year and in the future?
Community Resilience is a big part of our programming and the theme this year is a double play on words. Yes, we are suggesting artists will be the leaders to rise from the political rot we’re surviving through, but most importantly we’re inspired by the resiliency and transformative qualities of mushrooms. We’re reminding creatives that the forest floor is fertile ground, that what is rotten is also compost and soil to bring new harvests, new inspiration.
We’ve never faced anything like this in recent memory. Signal Fire is asking our team big questions, both as an organization and guide collective. As Wilderness First Responders, the safety of our guides, participants, and students is our number one priority. At this time Signal Fire has cancelled our Spring trips and we’ll reassess the situation in early May regarding our Summer trips. We are planning for Fall trips to run as planned. The Tinderbox residency, which pairs a Southern Oregon artist with our programmatic partners at Rogue Climate to create work for their environmental campaigns, will happen virtually.
We know that hiking, swimming, backpacking are vitally important activities for physical and mental health. We’ll weather the pandemic as an organization and are looking into relief funds to support payroll. When our communities are healthy, we look forward to continuing our important work of safely guiding creatives in the backcountry.
Obviously, the economic fallout from this crisis is massive and is affecting everyone, but the art world may be particularly vulnerable. What have you seen/heard/experienced in terms of how Covid-19 is affecting the arts and artists here?
This is a legitimate concern for artists and the art world. However, these inherent problems will always exist when we create anything in a market system designed to commodify everything and everyone.
When I posited these questions to my colleagues, our new Field Coordinator Aviva McClure said, “Art is seen as extra, as the first thing to go away when money goes away.” In this current system of late-stage capitalism, this is true. But the funny thing is capitalism doesn’t know how to value or devalue art. Art is truly the trickster that can shift the world. This got me thinking about what role does the artist play as a social practitioner during a global health crisis? This pandemic will reveal everyone’s true nature under the paradigmatic thumb of a dying Western capitalist system. Is money real, in any other sense than as an insane fanatic religion of the uber greedy?
My recent artwork and writing have critiqued the violent history of capitalism and its big thug brother settler/invader colonialism. If we don’t start to view earth’s resources as finite and sacred, we will not be in existence as a species for much longer. This pandemic could quickly teach us to reassess our freedom and our prison. What is the role of creative freedom in a time of global biological warfare?
A large portion of Signal Fire’s recent programming has been geared specifically to indigenous artists, and you have advocated for Oregon’s tribal members in the face of proposed Jordan Cove Pipeline. Do you have thoughts on how indigenous Oregonians are experiencing this crisis and what communities like the Klamath Tribes need right now?
For rural and Indigenous artists living and working in our tribal communities, we are terrified of being infected and are taking social distancing very seriously. We have fewer medical resources and pre-existing medical conditions like diabetes that make our tribal communities extremely vulnerable to COVID-19. Viral diseases are a PTSD trigger for Indigenous communities. The news of the pandemic came at the exact same time that FERC [Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] approved the Jordan Cove LNG [liquified natural gas] pipeline that the Klamath Tribes have been actively opposed to for years. This news combo sparked an array of anxiety and fears for me personally as a frontline activist.
Right now, Canadian LNG companies are moving forward with pipeline construction across Canada and they are building man camps near Indigenous communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. This virus will spread through these man camps. This is genocidal biological warfare against Sovereign Indigenous Nations. LNG man camps are equivalent to the smallpox blankets our ancestors were killed with. If the Federal Government tries to illegally push through the Jordan Cove LNG pipeline and export terminal, the Klamath Tribe will be facing the exact same threat here in the State of Oregon.
The Klamath Tribes has declared a state of emergency. According to the Klamath Tribes website, they “have closed the majority of Tribal offices and suspended all non-essential services to the Tribal Members during these uncertain times.” If Southern Oregon gets hit like other communities, we will need N95 masks, sterile gloves, cots, ventilators, food donations and gardening supplies. The main thing Indigenous peoples are asking is for urban people to stay away from Tribal communities during the spread of the COVID-19.
When this is all over (hopefully soon), what will you take away from this experience? What do you hope the rest of the world will take away?
COVID-19 reveals a violent system of oppression that cripples every human being as equally vulnerable. We are corporate captured, and if we don’t revolt against this insane capitalist paradigm we may not have another chance to. This pandemic has silver linings: mass pollution has calmed during the height of infections, the fact that people are sitting at home not driving is crippling the fossil fuel industry; the LNG market is crashing to the ground. There is a lot to take away from having to slow down and reassess our fragility in this for-profit death system. We recognize that we’re more in contact with our families and neighbors during this crisis than ever before. It’s sad to know capitalism keeps us so busy, we forget to check in with our families, who live hundreds and thousands of miles apart.
My main takeaway is community and family are everything, and maintaining daily practices to build healthy immune systems is of dire importance.
More specifically, what do you think artists and the art world at large will lose or gain as a result of the challenges we are experiencing now? Do you think the role of art or the way arts communities and institutions function will change permanently?
I’ll start by answering the last question first: yes, the role of arts communities and institutions function will change permanently. I think we’ve been on this path of drastic change in the arts communities in Portland for many years now. The US empire has been in a deep decline and we’ve seen the devastating impact that the corporatization of our institutions has had on art as an industry. The Museum of Contemporary Craft closed, Marylhurst University and the Art Gym closed, OCAC closed, what’s next? On the flip side, we’ve seen inspiring calls to change institutionalized racism through movements like “Decolonize the Museum.” Everything works in a balance and with great suffering can come great societal change. Artists and arts administrators have a unique opportunity at this juncture to reassess our role in what will become wartime conditions and a Greater Depression than occurred in the 1930’s as unemployment reaches unprecedented numbers.
I think artists and the art world will lose in market sales, because who can buy expensive art in a time of global health and economic crisis? I think artists and the art world will gain through the creative challenges of redesigning a healthier, more sustainable world, based on reciprocity and consuming much less. We will be charged with reimagining and designing decolonized systems to support struggling communities. I know that art and artists will play a key role in the possible futures to come.