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ArtsWatch Weekly: Adventures in a wild & woolly week

Theatrical barbecue, skeleton piano, down on the sheep farm, Troubles in Belfast, schools & Congress, bustle of books, a galaxy far far away.


THIS WEEK  ARTSWATCH’S WRITERS AND EDITORS HAVE BEEN PEEKING into some strange and fascinating corners of the universe. A sassy theatrical barbecue. A creative space for skeleton pianos and trash. A sheep farm near the Columbia River. Belfast during the Troubles. Schoolrooms and the halls of Congress. A bustle of books. A gallery of giant ceramic sculptures. A galaxy far, far away. 

Let’s dive right in and sort out a very busy week:

Flipping pages with the Portland Book Festival

books by oregon authors. photo by Karen Pate
A herd of distinguished books by Oregon authors, corralled on a shelf. Photo: Karen Pate

IT’S ALWAYS BOOK TIME IN PORTLAND, but this week it’s turbocharged book time: Literary Arts’ 2021 Portland Book Festival kicked off on Monday with several days of virtual events leading up to Saturday, Nov. 13’s, in-person festival, headlined by Pulitzer Prize winner Louise Erdrich. In a way this annual love letter to literacy could hardly come at a better time, occurring as it does amid a national wave of purgings or restrictions of books in school and public libraries, including such modern classics as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Toni Morrison’s Beloved and The Bluest Eye, and August Wilson’s drama Fences. Literacy and literature are touchstones of a free society, and what better expression than a big, sprawling, defiant-if-necessary celebration of both?

More than 100 writers from Oregon and around the world are taking part in this week’s festival, and ArtsWatch writer Amy Leona Havin and editor Karen Pate are keeping close tabs as the stories unfold. Look for more coverage from them as the festival proceeds, and check what they’ve produced so far:

Stage & Screen: Skeleton pianos, BBQ, rompus rooms

Jennifer Wright at the Skeleton Piano, accompanied by kitty Kipper. Photo: Matias Brecher

THE PHOENIX PROJECT RISES: JENNIFER WRIGHT AND THE SKELETON PIANO AT BODYVOX THEATER. Bennett Campbell Ferguson talks with composer and pianist Wright, who explains how she and her students are fighting climate change using instruments made from trash. Yes, that includes a (not literal) skeleton piano.

DANCE PREVIEW: KEYLOCK & BIELEMEIER IN THE ROMPING ROOM. Generations meet and play when Shaun Keylock’s young dancers take on the witty choreography of Oregon legend Gregg Bielemeier, 71. Martha Ullman West talks with both about what’s coming up in their highly promising odd duck of a dance program, ROMP!.

FILMWATCH WEEKLY: BRANAGH’S “BELFAST,” PLUS “MAYOR PETE” AND STREAMING SHORTS. Marc Mohan at the movies: Kenneth Branagh recalls his childhood during the Troubles; a political bio puts things in and leaves things out; some short streaming gems.

OUR LOVE OF FREEDOM: WILLAMETTE MASTER CHORUS SALUTES VETERANS DAY WITH VIRTUAL CONCERT. Carrying on a tradition launched 17 years ago, the Salem choir opens its 37th season with a salute, Daryl Browne reports.

IN “ONE MAN STAR WARS TRILOGY,” THE FORCE IS WITH CHARLES ROSS. The Canadian actor travels to Portland from a galaxy far, far away to perform his madcap, laser-paced solo interpretation of the original Star Wars trio (yes, he plays all of his show’s characters). Bennett Campbell Ferguson chats with Ross before Sunday’s performance in the Newmark Theatre.

DANCE REVIEW: A UNION PDX FESTIVAL TO MATCH THE SEASON. Push/FOLD’s festival drew national and international contemporary-dance ideas from Brooklyn to New Jersey to Portland to L.A. to the Dominican Republic and Taiwan, Elizabeth Whelan writes, taking its place as a welcome fall event.

DRAMAWATCH: BRAIN FOOD AT “BARBECUE.” Marty Hughley takes a look at the week in theater: Chewing over the issues in Portland Playhouse’s prism on race and language; Mean Girls and 600 Highwaymen hit town; what hath Baz Luhrmann wrought?; last chances & more.

From left: Ithica Tell, O’Neil Delpenha, Andrea White, and Treasure Lunan in Portland Playhouse’s “Barbecue.” Photo: Shawnte Sims

The art of learning: Congress & classrooms

U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (far right, leaning over the table) visits students at Beaverton‘s Sato Elementary School. Photo: Office of Rep. Bonamici

RESTORING THE BALANCE: OREGON REP. SUZANNE BONAMICI’S NEW LEGISLATION USES ART TO IMPROVE STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT AND REDRESS INEQUITY. Brett Campbell digs deep into the rationale and political possibilities for Bonamici’s new bill in the U.S. House, which would redirect federal funding to support broad arts education in the nation’s public schools.

“The Beaverton Democrat chairs the Congressional STEAM caucus, which aims to redress the imbalance in education funding by adding that all-important A (for arts) into the formula that has recently focused on sciences, technology and math, at the expense of the creative and innovative thinking the arts and humanities can inspire,” Campbell writes. “She noted that arts education has been neglected because earlier education ‘reform’ efforts such as No Child Left Behind excluded much of it from testable — and therefore, fundable — subjects. Her bill, which would help redress that mistake, is the culmination of years of advocacy for arts education.”

Bonamici’s bill has many supporters in Congress but has a long path to passage. It’s built in part on years of studies that reveal sharp disparities in arts access between students from wealthy and poorer school districts, and that also reveal the beneficial effects of arts classes on at-risk students. 

Portland Playhouse Performances Portland Oregon Events

Sheep and wool and weaving the exquisite

A sheep on Merrit and Pierre Monnat’s M+P Ranches. Photo: Friderike Heuer

EXQUISITE GORGE II: IT BEGINS WITH SHEEP. Sheep? Absolutely. Many of you may remember Exquisite Gorge, the 2019 project organized by the Maryhill Museum of Art, in which artists working in and with communities in sections of a 220-mile stretch of the Columbia River between its confluences with the Willamette and Snake rivers created prints depicting life and the environment in their section of the river system. It all culminated with the pressing by steamroller of a 66-foot-long print on the museum grounds. Photographer and writer Friderike Heuer covered the process for ArtsWatch from beginning to triumphant ending: You can revisit her stories here

Now Maryhill is embarking on Exquisite Gorge II, a similar project involving communities and artists along the same 220-mile stretch, but this time being created by fiber artists – in an almost literal way, weaving the strands of wildlife, river, land, and community together. Heuer will follow the process of this new collaborative art project in a series of photo essays running through its conclusion in August 2022. This week she began with a visit to a sheep farm – M+P Ranches, near Goldendale, Wash., where Merrit and Pierre Monnat raise almost 300 fine-wooled Targhee and Rambouillet ewes on their 320-acre spread. Sheep grow wool, of course, and wool becomes fabric, and fabric can be made into art. For Exquisite Gorge II, it’s where things start.

Seeing: Giant Puerto Rican dreams, love letter to Yemen

An installation view of “tierra de GIGANTES” at PDX Contemporary Art.

REVIEW: IVÁN CARMONA’S “TIERRA DE GIGANTES” AT PDX CONTEMPORARY ART. Ashley Gifford looks at Carmona’s joyful and exuberant large ceramic sculptures, which are inspired by memories of his childhood home in Puerto Rico: “The saturated color palette conjures warmth, vitality, and effervescence.”

REVIEW: “PATTERNS DO FURNISH A LIFE” AT SATOR PROJECTS. Mohammed Murshed’s exhibition, Justin Duyao writes, is a “love letter” to his native Yemen, exploring memory, violence, and hope: “What charges these pieces with emotional power is the fact that Murshed hasn’t seen these places since he fled to the U.S. in 2011, during the Arab Spring.”

Senior Editor

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."