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ArtsWatch Weekly: A season of strong women

From Imogen Cunningham to the Brontë sisters to the new NEA chief and more, women take the holiday-season cultural spotlight.


“DEEP IN DECEMBER,” as the song from the enduringly popular musical The Fantasticks puts it, “it’s nice to remember the fire of September that made us mellow.” For the next couple of weeks we’ll be in that curious state somewhere between frenzied and mellow, making haste to achieve a state of relaxation, fired up to let the embers glow.

Things simultaneously speed up and slow down. School’s out, winter break’s begun, maybe you’re taking some end-of-the-year time off. This time of year a lot of Oregonians head north for a few days to Puget Sound, visiting family or maybe just getting away for a bit. 

At the Seattle Art Museum: “Ruth Asawa, Sculptor,” 1952, Imogen Cunningham, American, 1883–1976, sepia toned gelatin silver print, 9 1/2 × 7 1/2 in., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Ruth Asawa and Albert Lanier, 2006.114.1, Photo: Randy Dodson, © 2021 The Imogen Cunningham Trust.

If you find yourself in Seattle, one very good bet is to take in the retrospective exhibition of works by the photographer Imogen Cunningham, at the Seattle Art Museum though Feb. 6. Cunningham was born in Portland in 1883, raised and schooled in Seattle, and for many years was a legendary figure on the San Francisco Bay Area cultural scene.

Misha Berson, writing for ArtsWatch in Letter from Seattle: The many faces of Imogen Cunningham, suggests the spirit that made Cunningham a great artist: “When I spotted her in the 1970s, Imogen Cunningham was fondly considered a San Francisco character. But thanks to a boyfriend of mine who loved art photography and was a photographer himself, I knew that Cunningham was more than a colorful local celebrity. She was a creative pioneer, an early feminist, a true daughter of the West, and an artist with an instinct and talent for capturing beauty in natural forms – be it in the expressive face of dance legend Martha Graham, the curves of calla lilies, or in an unmade bed with black hairpins strewn on a white sheet.”

One of my favorite Cunningham images is the portrait above of the San Francisco sculptor Ruth Asawa, an important and underrecognized modernist who often worked with wire, “crocheting” rounded figures that almost seemed as if they might come alive. In her portrait, Cunningham makes Asawa and her art seem almost to fuse into a single being. Berson adds: “(Cunningham) also said: ‘The formula for doing a good job in photography is to think like a poet.’ Clearly, Imogen did.”

It’s enough to make a person slow down and be mellow. Holiday bonus: Listen to the great Nana Mouskouri singing Try To Remember in 1972.


Portland Area Theatre Alliance Fertile Ground Portland Oregon

Strong women No. 2: A memorable Resonance

Katherine FitzGibbon. Photo by Rachel Hadiashar.
Resonance Ensemble leader Katherine FitzGibbon. Photo: Rachel Hadiashar

WHILE WE’RE ON THE SUBJECT OF STRONG WOMEN, let’s hear from Katherine FitzGibbon, founder and director of the Portland choir Resonance Ensemble, as she talks with ArtsWatch’s Bennett Campbell Ferguson in Whatever the music needs, whatever the story needs. “When you’re singing, you are willing to make the story and the emotional commitment to the music be paramount,” FitzGibbon tells Ferguson, who adds: “Emotional distance wasn’t a problem for Resonance Ensemble in 2021. As the noose of the pandemic tightened, the group became emboldened, bringing their music outdoors with two new series—Under the Overpass and Commissions for Now—and confronting Portland’s houselessness crisis with a blockbuster concert called Home.”

Strong women No. 3: A new leader for the NEA

Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson, new chair of the National Endowment for the Arts. Photo: David K. Riddick

ON SATURDAY THE U.S. SENATE CONFIRMED Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson, who was nominated by President Biden in October, as the new chair of the National Endowment for the Arts: See ArtsWatch’s story Arts Endowment gets a new leader. Dr. Jackson becomes the 13th chair of the endowment since it was created in 1965, and the first African American and Mexican American leader to hold the post. The new chair, 56, immediately announced some firm intentions. “I will lead the NEA with dedication to inclusivity, collaboration, and with the recognition that art, culture, and creativity are core to us reaching our full potential as a nation,” she said in a statement released by the endowment.

Hold on: What about the Brontë sisters?

Luisa Sermol (left) and Vana O’Brien play sisters Charlotte and Emily Bronte in Cygnet Radio Hour’s “Withering Looks.” Photo by: Mike O’Brien, courtesy Cygnet Productions
Luisa Sermol (left) and Vana O’Brien play sisters Charlotte and Emily Brontë in Cygnet Radio Hour’s “Withering Looks.” Photo: Mike O’Brien, courtesy Cygnet Productions

WANT TO TALK ABOUT STRONG CHARACTERS? Lets talk about the literary Brontë sisters, and lit-class melodrama, and the joys of radio-style theater from a woman-run company – in this case, Portland’s Cygnet Productions, led by Louanne Moldovan. In Cygnet Radio Hour: “Withering Looks” adds humor and madness to the traditional Brontë trope, Amy Leona Havin writes that the takeoff on Wuthering Heights “flips the story on its head with  a humorous radio-hour satire developed as a stage play by Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding of England’s LipService Theatre.” Havin adds: “Withering Looks satirizes and anatomizes the story ‘in the name of both feminism and fun,’ making the obvious even more obvious and thereby bringing hilarity to some otherwise overly melodramatic plot points.” The cast is led by the excellent duo of Luisa Sermol and Vana O’Brien, and – o seasonal gift – is streaming free through Jan. 31.

… and Faye Driscoll turns her audience into performers

Faye Driscoll’s “Come On In,” 2020. Installation view, Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and now at Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. Photograph: Bobby Rogers, courtesy of Walker Art Center.

IT TAKES A STRONG PERFORMER to simply disappear from the stage and tell the audience, through instructions delivered via earphones, what to do, where to wander, and how to become the performance themselves. That’s what performer, choreographer, and multidisciplinary artist Faye Driscoll does in her piece Come On In at PICA. “I’ve gotten some really strong sense of a whole journey people have gone on through the work. They went through a whole range of emotions and came out transformed or altered,” Driscoll tells Amy Leona Havin for her story Faye Driscoll talks process, vulnerability, and the inheritance of performance amid her ‘Come On In’ at PICA. “I wanted there to be a sense of stakes for the experience,” Driscoll adds.


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ArtsWatch & the Cultural Trust: Double your impact

THANKS TO OREGON’S INNOVATIVE CULTURAL TRUST TAX CREDIT, you can make a donation to Oregon ArtsWatch and essentially double your gift by matching your donation to the Oregon Cultural Trust. It works like this: You can make a gift to ArtsWatch or any other nonprofit arts, heritage, or humanities groups from a long list, then make a gift of the same amount (you can bundle several eligible donations, within limits) and receive 100 percent of your Cultural Trust donation back as a credit on your state income tax. The Cultural Trust, in turn, dispenses your gift to worthy groups across the state. Click below or on the link in this paragraph for details. And, thanks doubly!

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Gift-book ideas, straight from the coffee houses

All masked up and ready to read. Will, relaxing with a couple of books  at Caffé Vita in Portland, has a thumbs-up for Clive Barker and a thumbs-sideways for Harlan Ellison. Photo: Amy Leona Havin

WHAT ARE YOU READING? DECEMBER’S LAST-MINUTE BOOKS GIFT GUIDE. Amy Leona Havin goes straight to the source for her last-minute list, talking with people at Portland’s coffee hangouts about the books they’ve brought along and what they think about them. Their recommendations range  from Clive Barker and Karl Ove Knausgaard to classics by James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. Bonus: Amy’s tips on good small independent book stores with interesting titles.

Endnote: Dewdrops & other signs of the season

Makino Hayashi as Dewdrop in “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®” at Oregon Ballet Theatre.

THE DAYS ARE GETTING LONGER (TRULY!) but the holiday season’s getting shorter. Here are a few seasonal entertainments you can still fit in:

“The Nutcracker” at Oregon Ballet Theatre. Four shows left at Keller Auditorium: two on Thursday, one on Friday, one on Sunday, Dec. 23-26.


Seattle Opera The Life and Times of MalcolmX McCaw Hall Seattle Washington

Christmas at The Old Church with Michael Allen Harrison. The popular pianist and friends have tickets remaining for their final two performances on Friday; you can also, through 11:59 p.m. Friday, watch a streamed version

“A Christmas Carol.” Portland Playhouse’s version with music continues through Dec. 30.

“A Christmas Carol,” radio style. Cygnet Radio Hour (which is also producing Withering Looks, above) is streaming a new, free version of Dickens’ tale, adapted by Lisa Barck Garofalo and directed by Alana Byington, with a crackerjack cast including Sarah Lucht, Michele Mariana, Linda Hayden, Bruce Burkhartsmeier, Kristen Martha Brown, and Dave Bodin.

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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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