WHEN I STARTED WRITING THIS WEEKLY NEWSLETTER/COLUMN more than seven years ago it didn’t occur to me that it’d still be chugging out of the station on a regular schedule after all this time. Since that first edition on July 9, 2013, I’ve sent it on its merry amble almost every week – there’ve been a few breaks in the dog days of summer and a holiday or two – which means that some of you have found it in your mailbox or read it on the ArtsWatch home page something in the neighborhood of 350 times.
Over that time we’ve gone through a lot of adventures together. ArtsWatch Weekly, which began as mostly a quick what’s-going-on? update for regular readers, evolved into something of a cobbled-together beast, like a medieval gryphon: a little bit of this and a little bit of that, held together by an unlikely structure of skin and imagination. It’s had a variety of purposes, which shift in relative importance from time to time and sometimes week to week. Always it’s been a guide to stories that ArtsWatch has published in the previous week, and many of you have told me that’s the way you like to use it, catching up on stories when you see them mentioned here. Often it also gives a hint of what’s to come in the week ahead. And usually, these days, it covers ideas and events that we haven’t written about elsewhere – news, interviews, mini-features, mini-essays on the cultural topics of the times.
Like ArtsWatch itself, this column has tried to look at the idea of culture broadly, not as something separate from everyday life but as something intimately interwoven with it. ArtsWatch has always had an expansive sense of what culture is. Yes, we’ve spent a lot of time on art’s aesthetic aspect, nudging and peeking and poking at the qualities of specific shows and events. But we’ve been at least as interested in art as an expression of everyday life and cultural values and beliefs. How, as a people, do we see ourselves? What kinds of stories do we tell ourselves of who we are? A sidewalk chalk festival, we’ve believed, or a community art project to tell the stories of the Columbia River, are as important as a symphony concert or a museum exhibition.
That very first ArtsWatch Weekly, in July 2013, opened with a visit to the old Otis Café, a place just inland from the Oregon Coast that I’d been dropping in on for around 30 years. “In all those years,” I wrote, “the Otis hasn’t changed much: same short row of funky counter stools, same wooden booths around the edges and crammed-in pair of four-tops in the center, same clear jars of homemade salsa, same wander through the tiny kitchen past the pantry and bread-and-pie ovens to the little latched-door bathroom if you want to wash your hands or otherwise ease your travel pains. Sometimes, even the same waitresses as a decade or two ago, who don’t look any older than you do.” Then this, to tie things together: “Hitting the Otis is a ritual, a comfort, a touchstone, a fleetingly borrowed home away from home. And it strikes me … that this sort of ritual and comfort is important in our cultural lives, too. Art thrives and grows on its daring leaps into the unknown. But it’s nurtured by the familiar, by the repetition of experiences that somehow along the way have accumulated meaning.”
THAT SEEMS ALMOST AN INNOCENT OBSERVATION from the viewpoint of 2020, a year that seems to have been going on for a decade now, allowing us no quarter: nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. Just look at the most recent headlines. A fizzle by the Proud Boys in Delta Park. Reporters and news photographers roughed up by police during Portland protests. Portland police officers deputized federally through 2020, allowing the possibility of federal prosecutions and a bypass of the local district attorney’s office. The rollout of Donald Trump’s tax records by The New York Times (yes, you paid more – probably a lot more). A fierce partisan battle over a rushed Supreme Court nomination amid warnings by both sides that the upcoming elections are being manipulated. A street brawl of an opening presidential debate. A Covid-19 death count in the United States climbing past 200,000 (and past a million globally), with no end in sight.
Here at ArtsWatch the extraordinary events of the past several months – including a horrific fire season that’s not over yet – have recharged the way we think about what we do. How do we cover the arts at a time when so much of what we think about as the arts – dance, theater, concerts, easy access to the visual arts – has either been shelved or forced to go virtual? Part of our response has been simply to report on how groups and individual artists are responding, as in Pat Rose’s report on the steps the photographic arts center Blue Sky Gallery has taken to combat the pandemic slowdown, or Brett Campbell’s assessment of the creative adjustments that Chamber Music Northwest made to turn its 50th anniversary season into an online success. How are artists and arts groups holding on financially? What sorts of lifelines are they getting? How are they reshaping what they do? What kind of art are they creating in response to this multiple-crisis time?
We’ve also begun to stress more the broader aspects of what “culture” means – the connections that the arts world makes to the world at large. Recently that’s ranged from Monica Salazar’s report on a historical tour of Portland’s Albina District with former Black Panther Mr. Kent Ford, to actor/director/writer Bobby Bermea’s Fourth of July essay on the inescapable dangers of being Black in America, to conversations by our founder and executive editor, Barry Johnson, on a pair of books that meet the times: Daniel Mathews’ Trees in Trouble: Wildfires, Infestations, and Climate Change and Lawrence Roberts’ May Day 1971: A White House at War, a Revolt in the Streets, and the Untold History of America’s Biggest Mass Arrest, a book whose events echo our own civil unrest.
THIS ISN’T A REINVENTION but a doubling down on something that’s always been an important part of our mix. The weave of culture and everyday living is, in a way, our sweet spot – the practice and expression of art as the fabric of a way of life. Still, the tension’s tightened considerably on American culture in all sorts of ways since ArtsWatch began publishing in July 2011. Curious about how our coverage has changed with the times over the past several years, I took a look at ArtsWatch Weeklies published at about this time every year since 2013. What were the stories and topics that seemed most important three-quarters of the way through each of those years? Here’s what I rediscovered:
- Oct. 1: 2013: Good news on a very strange day. On the day The Oregonian cut back its daily deliveries from seven days a week to four, ArtsWatch began its News & Notes section. Portland Baroque Orchestra kicked off its season, the Portland Art Museum was about to open its blockbuster art-and-armor show Samurai!, and the literary festival Wordstock (now known as the Portland Book Festival, and set to take place online this year, Nov. 5-21) was about to begin.
- Sept. 30, 2014: Trolls in boxes, hits onstage. The Oregon animation studio Laika rolled out its new hit The Boxtrolls, and A.L. Adams went behind the scenes to see how it was done. Portland Playhouse was in the midst of a hit run of The Piano Lesson, its sixth production in August Wilson’s 10-play cycle of African American life in the 20th century.
- Sept. 29, 2015: Riffing on rap and the gallery map. Portland Playhouse opened Iris Goodwin’s How We Get On, a play “set in the late 1980s, a golden age for rap and hip-hop culture,” and Christa Morletti McIntyre had a free-ranging conversation with musical director Mic Crenshaw. Art galleries were busy with First Thursday openings, including Jim Riswold’s political provocations at Augen.
- Oct. 4, 2016: Warhols, dismemberments, giant ballets. More First Thursday shows, from James Lavadour to the citywide studio crawl Portland Open Studios to Day of the Dead and Warhol; classic tales of dismemberment at Shaking the Tree; Jennifer Rabin considered layers of racism and social progress as explored in The Soul of Black Art: A Collector’s View at Upfor Gallery.
- Oct. 5, 2017: Wyeths and book sales, everywhere. The Portland Art Museum was getting ready for its hit show looking at three generations of Wyeth family artists. The sprawling annual fall book sale by the Friends of the Multnomah County Library – a massively popular event, called off this year because of pandemic restrictions – was about to begin. Complexions Contemporary Ballet, whose motivating impulse is “about removing boundaries, not reinforcing them,” was going onstage in the White Bird dance series.
- Oct. 4, 2018: 110 in the Shade: Empty Seat Blues. Things were starting to sound very current: Wildfires had turned the West into a tinderbox, and smoke from California and Oregon fires was cutting deeply into attendance at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Same thing for the Maryhill Museum of Art, hundreds of miles away above the Columbia River Gorge. Meanwhile, pipa virtuoso Min Xiao-Fen – “the Jimi Hendrix of the banjo-like Chinese lute” – was playing in Eugene, and Nancy Pearl – “possibly the best-known librarian since Marian in The Music Man” – was booking it to an appearance at a writers’ group in Manzanita.
- Sept. 26, 2019: Fasten Your Seatbelts. It’s Going To Be a Bumpy Night. A week to presage 2020, with echoes of news headlines across the cultural divide. Whistleblowers, climate activists, the buildup to impeachment hearings – it all felt like a logical setting for the opening of the anxiety-play complex at Theatre Vertigo, the company that writer Bobby Bermea called “the David Lynch of Portland theater.” A sharply political biennial exhibition opened at Disjecta, with racial and environmental overtones; and Fear No Music performed new work by Kenji Bunch based on the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings. As the column summarized: “Art wading into real life, with all of its contradictions and perils and anger and anxieties, again and again.”
As the Covid-19 and climate crises continue, and Black Lives Matter and other protests challenge the prevailing social, political, and racial structures, and financial pressures on arts organizations become more severe, and the nation hurtles toward a bitterly contested election, where will ArtsWatch’s eye turn? It’ll depend very much on how artists and the cultural world respond to these divisive and difficult times. We’re as eager to find out as you are – and we’ll keep looking for the deep cultural stories that get to the heart of the matter, even as it shifts. The adventure, if you want to call it that, continues.
OUT OF THE SMOKE, AN EERIE BEAUTY
SMOKE ON THE WATER. “It’s personal,” photographer Benjie King tells Lori Tobias. “I know a few people who lost their homes. I grew up in Rose Lodge. I know nearly everybody in Otis and Rose Lodge. It was horrible. I’m sitting here taking pictures while people’s homes are burning to the ground. But I knew it had to be captured. You won’t see the sky like that again, hopefully, ever again.” Tobias talks with King, who captured the otherworldly images of Newport amid the Echo Mountain fires.
IMPROVISING OUT OF THE SHUTDOWN
LINFIELD THEATRE THINKS OUTSIDE THE PANDEMIC BOX. As the theater world slowly begins to wake up and start responding to the coronavirus shutdown that’s disrupted the entire industry (there are solo shows online, a few open-air readings, a very occasional live performance indoors) the theater at Linfield University in McMinnville has come up with its own twist on the times: improv sketch comedy performed live to the cameras and then released on YouTube. David Bates looks at how it all works, and also brings us up to date on other cultural news in wine country, including the Watercolor Society of Oregon’s annual exhibit at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg and an early-bird report on this year’s McMinnville Short Film Festival.
A FINAL PIECE FOR CULTURAL CORONAVIRUS RELIEF
MONEY FOR WASHINGTON COUNTY, AFTER ALL. When we wrote last week about the Oregon Cultural Trust’s awarding of $25.7 million in coronavirus relief grants to 621 organizations across the state, we noted that no money was disbursed to groups in Washington County, which had declined to participate. Officials told the Portland Tribune that the county’s Cultural Coalition “never received clarity from the state about who would be liable if organizations that received funds had actually been ineligible to receive them or if they misspent the money.” That left more than 30 Washington County groups and more than $1.6 million hanging, and Cultural Trust leaders scrambling for a way to get the money into their hands. Now the Clackamas County Cultural Coalition has stepped into the breach, agreeing to be the go-between. Among the larger grants: $361,994 for Centro Cultural, $292,631 for Broadway Rose Theatre Company, $204,670 for the Beaverton Arts Foundation, $189,639 for Nordic Northwest, $110,573 for Ten Grands Concerts, $83,004 for Beaverton Civic Theatre, $75,702 for Hula Hulau ‘Ohana Hola’oko’a Ka Aha Lahui O Olekona Hawaiian Civic Club.
SOUNDS OF OREGON, READY TO DOWNLOAD
NOW HEAR THIS: OCTOBER EDITION. Veteran Portland music journalist Robert Ham’s monthly delve into what’s cool, local, and available on Bandcamp takes an October look at sounds from Natasha Kmeto, friends of neo-folkie Graves, SMMR, Pulse Emitter, The Daphnes, Farnell Newton and Toranpetto, various artists from Boathouse Experimental Studios, Omni Gardens, and Yaara Valey.
TAD SAVINAR’S POLITICAL WEATHER REPORT
ART REVIEW: WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THAT? “We are right in the final innings of our quadrennial playoffs—in the seventh inning stretch,” Paul Sutinen writes. “A Report on America’s Weather 2016-2020: Selected Works by Tad Savinar on the Eve of an Election, at the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation Exhibition Space, invites speculation on the fundamental nature of the American democratic enterprise itself. In these prints and sculptures Savinar gives us ‘political’ works, but absent sloganeering or cliché melodramatic imagery.” The veteran Portland conceptualist Savinar, Sutinen suggests, leaves things hanging: “We view these covertly political works through the lens of our particular views of the political situation today. We look at Savinar’s works, like all art, as critic Peter Schjeldal recently wrote, ‘with contemporary eyes, the only kinds of eyes there ever are.’”
DANCE: A MONTH OF MOVEMENT IN OCTOBER
DANCEWATCH: THE ARMCHAIR OCTOBER EDITION. Jamuna Chiarini’s monthly look at what’s up on the Oregon dance calendar reveals a host of possibilities, live and virtual, from ballet to Bharatanatyam to a dance film fest to BodyVox’s latest annual comic screamfest BloodyVox, and more.
ENDNOTE: VIOLA DAVIS ON LEVEE’S AMERICAN SONG
“I THINK A LOT OF TIMES PEOPLE LOOK AT SOMEONE’S LIFE BACKWARDS. Now we have the unfortunate knowledge that Chadwick succumbed to cancer at 43, but really, Levee represents so many Black men living in America. What we’re constantly navigating on a day-to-day basis is the traumas of our past – we’re trying to heal from it, we’re even trying to understand that it’s there, and we’re negotiating that with our dreams and who we want to become. … Now we know that the role mirrors Chadwick’s life, but if that were omitted, it still mirrors his life in a way. Because it mirrors the life of every Black person grieving, and especially the life of a Black man.”
– Actor Viola Davis, as quoted by Kyle Buchanan in his New York Times story Haunted by Past and Present, published in print on Thursday, Oct. 1, and online on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020. Davis plays the title role in the upcoming Netflix movie version of August Wilson’s landmark play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Chadwick Boseman – the Black Panther series star who died of colon cancer on Aug. 28 – co-stars in his final film role as the rebellious trumpeter Levee.
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