ArtsWatch Weekly: Boxing Day and the power of stories

As a year closes, stories keep reinventing Oregon's culture and art. Looking back, and peeking forward into 2020 and beyond.


THIS MORNING, FOR A DAILY ONLINE SERIES THAT’S NOT PART OF ARTSWATCH, I celebrated Boxing Day by publishing a picture of “Dempsey and Firpo,” a 1924 painting by the great American artist George Bellows that shows the Argentine boxer Luis Ángel Firpo, the “Wild Bull of the Pampas,” knocking reigning champ Jack Dempsey out of the ring in a famous 1923 heavyweight championship bout at the Polo Grounds in New York City. Dempsey banged his head hard when he landed. After a controversial long count he climbed back into the ring and, in the next round, knocked out Firpo to retain his crown. 
 

George Bellows, “Dempsey and Firpo,” 1924, oil on canvas, 51.2 x 63.25 inches, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

It’s a brutal story about a brutal sport, and yet Bellows’ painting of it is a fascinating work of art, a mirror of his time and a reflection into ours. It’s great storytelling, a refined and recomposed version of the raw reality of the fight game, which is itself an ordered and ritualized sublimation and sharpening of the violence and aggressiveness that are deeply ingrained in human culture, at once repelling and exciting us. It’s this compulsive aggressiveness and its effects that artists explore and reveal to us. For good and bad, it’s the wellspring of stories, and we tell and listen to stories because they take us deep inside the mysteries of ourselves.

Bellows’ painting sweeps me back to a stretch in my early twenties, when I’d been thumbing around the country (Greyhounding in the Deep South) and ran out of money in Salem, Massachusetts. I got a job for a few months in a grocery store and took an attic room in a ramshackle, 250-year-old woodframe house a little more than a mile’s walk from work. There were two attic rooms. In the room across from me lived an old ex-boxer named Archie: These were the days of the great Archie Moore, and every other boxer seemed to be named Archie (a lot of the others were “Sonny”). “My” Archie, a little wiry guy who must’ve been in his sixties, had probably been a welterweight, more a dancer than a puncher, relying on the speed and strategy that had abandoned him all too soon. He’d taken too many punches and couldn’t hold down a regular job, but he still hung around the gym and did whatever odd jobs he could pick up. 

It was tough, because Archie forgot things. But he also remembered things. He told long and rambling and entirely enthusiastic stories of his days in the ring, which he never seemed to regret even though they’d left him addled and erratic. We became friends, sitting in each other’s room, swapping stories. Sometimes we’d go to the corner tavern and I’d buy him the beer he could rarely afford himself. I knew very little about boxing (much later I would discover the boxing writing of the late, great Portland writer Katherine Dunn, author of Geek Love, which would make me a fan, if not of boxing itself, at least of the lore of it) but Seattle had a hardscrabble boxer named Bobby Hicks at the time, and because we shared a name I followed his career a bit, and so I could also follow Archie’s stories. Archie’s elusive memory meant that both he and I repeated stories a lot. Every now and again he’d ask me where I’d come from (he could tell by my way of speaking that I wasn’t from around Boston). I’d been living in Bellingham, Washington, but figured no one on the East Coast would have heard of Bellingham, so I just said “Seattle.” Even that was often a stretch in pre-Microsoft, pre-Starbucks, pre-Amazon times, when Boeing was king of a blue-collar town. And more than once Archie would brighten when he heard “Seattle.” “I got a nephew plays for the Oakland team,” he’d say, conflating the entire West Coast into a cozy neighborhood. “Maybe you know him.” I’d smile and say, no, I didn’t think I’d had the honor of making his acquaintance. And that would be that, until it was story-swapping time again.

Was Archie a “victim” of the ritualized violence that had defined his life? Yes and no. Yes, it had taken away much of his functional power; and who knows what it did to his opponents? But it also gave him love and passion and meaning. Boxing for Archie was his connection to life, his joy and his companion, the font of the stories that made him, or at the least defined him to himself. It was his art. He was eager to connect: to be known, but more importantly to be understood; to tell his story to the world and himself. This is what storytelling is. Sitting in our attic rooms, telling tales, inventing the world and ourselves; hearing the tales of other people’s worlds and selves and taking them into our own. We keep on talking, and listening, and creating, and finding joy.

Happy holidays, and happy stories, to you.




Give today. Keep the stories coming.

ARTSWATCH WOULD LOVE YOUR HELP. As the calendar year nears an end, we’re asking you to join us in making it possible to present good journalism about arts and culture in Oregon. We don’t have a paywall: Anyone and everyone is welcome to read what we publish, free. That means the money it takes to do what we do comes from you, our readers, and the foundations and other groups that believe in what we do. We’d love you to be a part of us by sharing what you can. Laura Grimes, our executive director, explains how here.

You can double your pleasure, and effectiveness, by also donating before year’s end to the Oregon Cultural Trust. The Trust’s matching-gift provisions allow you a full credit on your Oregon state taxes for the amount you match, with some limits. ArtsWatch’s Lori Tobias talks with the Trust’s vice-chair, Niki Price, about how it works.

JOIN US AT ARTSWATCH. Become a member. Make a donation. It’s easy. Just press the “donate today” button below.

Thank you!



… AS VISIONS OF 2020 DANCE IN OUR HEADS


Maya Vivas and Leila Haile, taking charge at Ori Gallery in North Portland. Photo courtesy Ori Gallery

HERE AT ARTSWATCH WE TELL STORIES. Stories about artists and culture and the ways we live in Oregon and the world. What can you look forward to reading in January? Our writers and editors have been cooking up a lot of tales, including a series called Vision 2020 – twenty stories in twenty days based on twenty interviews with artists and cultural leaders around Oregon who tell us what the cultural state of the state looks like from their vantage, and what they think or hope is coming down the pike as we enter the 2020s. Look for provocative insights from, among others: Maya Vivas and Leila Haile, operators of Ori Gallery in North Portland; visual artist and activist Kai’la Farrell-Smith, from Modoc Point north of Klamath Falls; salsa dancer Rachel Barreras-Kleemann, who teaches dance to lower-income kids in Lincoln County on the Coast; Yulia Arakelyan and Erik Ferguson of Portland’s Wobbly Dance; and Martin Majkut, music director of Southern Oregon’s adventurous Rogue Valley Symphony. Happy reading!


THE MUSIC (AND THE WRITING) NEVER STOP


… switching the gears on the years, in style.

WHILE ARTSWATCH HAS BEEN WORKING MOSTLY ON PLANNING AND WRITING stories for the new year, we’ve got some fresh stories for you this week, too:

  • A WRITER’S JOURNEY. Oregon Coast columnist tells the tale of the long gestation of her novel Wander, and the secret to getting a novel published: never, never, never give up.
     
  • MUSIC NOTES: COMINGS, GOINGS, STAYINGS. Brett Campbell rounds up a rodeo’s worth of recent news from Oregon’s classical and jazz scenes, from big changes at Portland Opera to awards and plaudits for the Oregon Repertory Singers and the University of Oregon Chamber Choir.
     
  • MUSICWATCH HOLIDAYS: AULD LANG SYNE. Matthew Neil Andrews gives us the lowdown on how to end the old year and start the new one with a musical bang.

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