Oregon ArtsWatch

 

A Healing Journey Through Song

Baritone Christòpheren Nomura and Ashland’s Heart of Humanity series

By ALICE HARDESTY

At the end of a recent concert at Southern Oregon University, some of the audience left in tears. Certainly, all were deeply moved by baritone Christòpheren Nomura’s voluptuous rendering of a program spanning the centuries from early Romantic to the present moment. The January 12 concert, “With Malice Toward None, With Charity For All,” was the second in the three-concert Heart of Humanity series presented by Anima Mundi Productions, a non-profit arts organization in Southern Oregon.

Baritone Christòpheren Nomura with accompanist Daniel Lockert at Hearts of Humanity. Photo by Chava Florendo, courtesy of Anima Mundi.
Baritone Christòpheren Nomura with accompanist Daniel Lockert at Heart of Humanity’s January concert in Ashland. Photo by Chava Florendo, courtesy of Anima Mundi.

The organization’s mission is to “create, promote, and produce new musical works that harness the power of the arts to stir the soul, foster community, and address urgent social and environmental problems.” Co-founders composer Ethan Gans-Morse and poet Tiziana DellaRovere believe that the arts provide a vehicle for healing, and that when a person’s soul is healed and their heart is touched, a piece of the entire world is healed because we are all connected. 

Oregon ArtsWatch contributor Gary Ferrington has written about the first concert in this series, Peace Through Music, as well as the composer-librettist team’s two operas (see Ferrington’s “Finding Hope Through Music” and “Composer Ethan Gans-Morse: Music as Social Voice.”) 

Toward intimacy on the concert stage

This concert series represents a shift away from large performances like opera to the concert stage, which the producers have designed to be more intimate and interactive than the usual concert setting. Mr. Nomura accomplished their intent skillfully with humor and charm, chatting about the music between numbers and leaving the audience lights part-way up so that he could see faces. He talked about several of the pieces and told relevant stories, some of them self-deprecating anecdotes from his own life. At the end of the concert there was a discussion period, for which most of the audience stayed.

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A tree grows in Eugene

Eugene Ballet showcases a revival of "Alice in Wonderland" and the premiere of "The Large Rock and The Little Yew" at the Hult Center


By GARY FERRINGTON


The Eugene Ballet Company continues its 41st season on February 8 and 9 with a revival of Alice In Wonderland, last performed in 2010, and the introduction of an exciting new work, The Large Rock and The Little Yew

The new ballet “The Large Rock and the Little Yew” tells astory of life’s challenges and perseverance. Photo courtesy of Eugene Ballet Company

World Premiere

The world premiere of The Large Rock and The Little Yew  is based on a children’s book written by Oregon author and  arboriculturist Gregory Ahlijian and choreographed by Eugene Ballet’s resident choreographer Suzanne Haag

Ahlijian’s book tells a heartwarming story of a yew seed that falls into the crevice of a large rock. The rock awakes and, angered at the yew’s presence, tells the young seed that it will never grow into a tree. Though discouraged at first, through courage and perseverance the seed takes root and seemingly, against all the constraints and challenges the rock presents, grows into an amazingly strong yew tree full of hope and self-respect. The message of overcoming hostile environments and obstacles through determination and willpower is one not only for children, but adults as well.

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A cello, a violin, a final grace note

At a North Portland school, a lifelong music lover and students in the BRAVO music program meet and learn in the circle of life


PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOE CANTRELL
STORY BY BOB HICKS


On a busy musical afternoon at Sitton Elementary School in Portland’s St. Johns district earlier this month, a woman arrived at after-school music rehearsals bearing gifts: a cello in a hard case, and a half-size violin.

As it turns out, the cello and violin – as welcome as they were for the BRAVO Youth Orchestras program, in a school where the price of instruments is often beyond the means of the young musicians’ families – were emblematic of a larger gift: a gift of love and legacy; a passing-on, from generation to generation, of joy and encouragement. A going-away gift; a final grace note.

Sara Waddell and BRAVO’s Seth Truby, passing the torch.

The students are part of BRAVO, a program fashioned after the El Sistema movement that began in 1975 on the outskirts of Caracas, Venezuela, to bring the love and challenge of music to children in the barrios. Portland’s program began in 2013, and also concentrates on areas with higher than average poverty rates.

The woman is Sara Waddell, a 52-year-old mother of two teens from Beaverton who set aside her own musical studies and teaching career years ago to raise her sons. “I had sold my wonderful cello with its rich, beautiful tone from my younger years of trying to learn in college when my kids were very small and my little family needed the money,” she said. “Then I did without and believed I had given up learning to play forever.”

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Unwound and unbound

Ko Kirk Yamahira's intriguing painting/sculptural/fiber hybrids at Russo Lee Gallery defy easy categorization and interpretation

By RACHEL ROSENFIELD LAFO

In the 1970s and 1980s, fiber arts—weaving, textiles, tapestry, embroidery, knitting, crocheting, sewing, quilting, etc.—along with other “craft” media such as ceramics, glass, and wood—were usually classified as a separate category of art and were shown primarily in craft and design museums. As a result, artists who worked exclusively in fiber, such as Lenore Tawney, Claire Zeisler, and Sheila Hicks were often excluded from the critical discourse within the “mainstream” contemporary art world.

There were notable exceptions to this exclusion. Artists such as Faith Ringgold, Magdalena Abakanowicz, and Alan Shields, among others, despite their embrace of fiber as an artistic material, achieved critical attention and inclusion in “fine art” exhibitions during those decades. By the 1990s, however, the wall that separated “art” from “craft” had begun to crumble. By the time the Whitney Museum of American Art exhibited The Quilts of Gee’s Bend in 2002, the show’s critical success and popularity further erased any remaining boundaries. Today there has been a dramatic increase in the number of artists working either exclusively in fiber or incorporating it into their work in other media. 

One such artist is Seattle-based Ko Kirk Yamahira whose exhibition Fractions is on view at Russo Lee Gallery through February 1. A self-taught artist who moved to Seattle from New York City in 2015, he is a founder of the artist collective Art Beasties and a member of the Seattle collective SOIL. His elegant, reductive, and tactile artworks hover somewhere between paintings, fiber art, and sculptural installation and reflect modernist principles in their emphasis on materials, techniques, and processes.

During a recent gallery talk the artist described his works as paintings while acknowledging that they could also be considered drawings or sculptures. Yet they also present as fiber art, due to the artist’s unusual technique of deconstructing the canvas support into individual strands of fiber. Ultimately what is important is not how we categorize Yamahira’s artworks but how we perceive them. As the artist Alan Shields once said in an interview about his own hybrid artworks, “It doesn’t really matter what you call them. It’s the experience you’re looking for.”

Ko Kirk Yamahira. Untitled (Pink and Blue Intersection) (2019). acrylic, graphite, partially unwoven canvas, wood.

Yamahira begins by applying a coat of acrylic paint, graphite or transferring a silkscreen image to the surface of the canvas. Then, with a process that is the obverse of weaving, he deconstructs all or part of the canvas, meticulously and painstakingly removing individual threads from the weave of the canvas using an X-Acto knife, unweaving and exposing the warp (vertical) and weft (horizontal) components, so that the strands of cotton fiber drape loosely or stretch tautly across the wood stretcher bars. He then progressively disrupts the rectangularity of the grid by dividing the canvas into sections, deconstructing all or part of the canvas, hanging panels off kilter on a diagonal, allowing loose fibers to drape towards the floor, projecting part of an artwork off the wall, or suspending one piece from the ceiling. 

The artworks are all untitled, distinguished by their formal properties of shape, color, and surface treatment. The viewers are left to deduce their own interpretations. The exhibition title, Fractions, refers to the relational measurements of one part of each painting to another. With the exception of one work that has an image silkscreened on the canvas, the paintings are non-referential and elude specific meaning, focusing attention instead on material and process. 

Ko Kirk Yamahira, Untitled (Silkscreen Sculpture) (2019) acrylic, silkscreen, unwoven canvas, wood

The varied permutations of these conceptually based artworks range from formal, geometrically centered compositions to those with skewed edges and draping fibers. For an off-white square painting hanging over the gallery desk Yamahira unwove the fibers of the canvas, tightly stretching them horizontally and vertically to form a cross with arms of equal length. In another square painting the geometry is relaxed so that the unraveled cotton threads sag organically across the surface, resembling a belly with a slight bulge. There are many variations on this theme, as each artwork assumes a different shape, color, relationship to the wall, and level of surface deconstruction. Motion is both implied and actual – implied by the hanging fibers, tilted panels, and resulting shadows cast on the wall, actual when air currents activate the loosened threads. This sense of motion is notable in a large black-gray painting in which approximately three-quarters of the middle section has been unwoven resulting in a sweeping swoosh of fibers that move from left to right. 

Ko Kirk Yamahira, Untitled (Black Horizontal) (2019). acrylic, graphite, partially unwoven canvas, wood.

The most sculptural piece in the exhibition hangs suspended from the ceiling. Originally a triangular canvas painted pink, it has been completely deconstructed and then folded so that the fibers descend in straight vertical lines from the wood support, causing them to sway gently as visitors pass.

Yamahira poetically alludes to the characteristics of the unwoven fibers in an accompanying wall text:  

Vibrations.
They are just purely captivating.
Wavering and trembling.
Continuous, sustained, and momentary.
Sensual and Sensory.
Ripples that are static or dynamic.
Sound and voice.

Ko Kirk Yamahira

For Yamahira the meaning of his art comes from the process of making: “There is no specific aim to find a meaning,” he writes on his website, “neither in the creative act itself, nor through the creative process. The totality of the meaning can be found in the continuation of the process.” 

The artist begins with small geometric drawings made in his sketchbook. Since the process is more important to him than the final outcome, he is not fixed on a specific configuration for each work. Instead he is open to working with art installers to arrive at the appropriate hanging arrangement for each piece depending on the exhibition space. He also encourages collectors who purchase his artworks to find an installation arrangement that is most to their liking. Adhering to the premise from conceptual art that the artwork isn’t finished until the viewer completes it, he writes:  “The moment of Now that exists as the Artist creates their work looks toward the future when it will be encountered by the viewer, at which point that future becomes the Past, producing a sort of index of time in the work.”

Ko Kirk Yamahira, Untitled (Suspended Pink Triangle) (2019) graphite, partially unwoven canvas, wood

Ko Kirk Yamahira’s intriguing painting/sculptural/fiber hybrids defy easy categorization and interpretation. One progresses from wondering how they are made to realizing that for the artist the canvas is not only a support, but a material that can be manipulated like any other. Through a process of deconstruction and reconstruction he transforms flat monochromatic surfaces into areas that are organic and textured. Intellectually and formally satisfying, Yamahira’s artworks retain a sense of mystery and a meditative quality that is deeply engaging.


Fractions by Ko Kirk Yamahira is at Russo Lee Gallery until February 1, 2020. The gallery is located at 805 NW 21st Ave in Portland is open Tuesday through Friday from 11-5:30, Saturday 11-5:00 and by appointment.

Rachel Rosenfield Lafo is an independent curator and arts writer.

Raúl Gómez: Living in a world of optimism

The Metropolitan Youth Symphony director talks full STEAM ahead about the vital positive links among science, education, and the arts

[Editor’s note: Gómez, music director of the Metropolitan Youth Symphony, delivered a version of this essay as a speech to Intel employees in November 2019. It has been updated, and edited for length. See also Vision 2020: Raúl Gómez, Brett Campbell’s interview with Gómez in ArtsWatch’s Vision 2020 series.]

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By RAÚL GÓMEZ

I live in a world filled with optimism. The reason is that I work with young people in the arts. Every Saturday, more than 500 students come to Metropolitan Youth Symphony rehearsals in Portland and Hillsboro. I get to conduct two out of fifteen ensembles at MYS. One of these ensembles is our most advanced full orchestra: MYS Symphony Orchestra. These are highly gifted young musicians, playing near or at professional levels, many of whom have made their ways up the ranks at MYS,  from our youngest entry-level orchestra to our top group, which recently came back from touring Italy and Austria.

These young musicians fill me with optimism every Saturday, because they walk in the door, they say “hi” to their friends from different schools, chat a little bit, then they sit down, we tune, and then, for three hours, they’re laser-focused on slaying some of the most challenging and rewarding orchestral repertoire there is. This include masterworks like Beethoven Symphony No. 7 or Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, and brand-new music by their peers: local, young composers from Oregon. 



THE ART OF LEARNING: an occasional series



My world is filled with optimism because after rehearsal, these kids go back home, hopefully rest and get some sleep, and then proceed to make it through their weeks at home, school, and their communities with the same focus, leadership, team spirit, and excellence that they exhibit in the orchestra. I go back home –exhausted and depleted of physical energy after rehearsing two ensembles for six hours – but on such a high. Five hundred-plus kids in Portland and Hillsboro just spent hours, under the leadership of an amazing team of conductors and coaches, doing what neuroscientists are calling “the brain equivalent of a full-body workout.” 

MUSIC & BRAIN DEVELOPMENT

As somebody who is a professional musician and as somebody who works in music education, I am very aware of the many benefits that music brings to anybody who engages in some kind of music-making on a regular basis. Music performance, music education, and the arts in general are good for the brain, and they are a booster for creativity and discipline. 

There are many studies, articles, scientific and scholarly publications about the correlation between music education and academic achievement. Students who participate in music score substantially higher on many standardized tests of math, reading, and writing, and in other measures of academic achievement and skill development.  

In the last few decades, neuroscientists have made great breakthroughs in understanding what music does to the human brain. A video publication by Dr. Anita Collins, a music educator in Australia, addresses this beautifully.

She explains that neuroscientists are able to monitor how our brains work with instruments like Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Positron Emission Tomography scanners. They monitor the brains of people who are doing activities like reading or solving math problems, and different areas of the brain are activated. However, when they monitor people listening to music (not even playing, just listening) multiple areas of the brain light up at once. The scientists compare it to fireworks.

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The person that could have been

Kerry Skarbakka's "White Noise" at PCC Sylvania imagines an alternate reality filled with toxic masculinity

By SUE TAYLOR

Titled White Noise, Kerry Skarbakka’s first exhibition in Portland—at Northview Gallery, PCC Sylvania—unfolded a disturbing fantasy: in twenty-five powerful photographic and video works, a grisly-bearded white man prepares for an Armageddon of his own devising. We see him vigorously proclaiming his Bible verses, working out at a punching bag, shaving his face and his head. Ammunition piles up. Jesus appears on a billboard, offering him encouragement and reassurance. The righteous avenger scrawls a final note to the daughter he likely has not seen in years. Whatever mass violence he will inflict is left for us to imagine.

Kerry Skarbakka (American, born 1970), Self-Flagellation(triptych), 2017. Archival pigment prints. Each 60 x 40 inches.


The would-be shooter is portrayed in these works by the artist himself. It is a bold move for Skarbakka, an assistant professor of photography at Oregon State University in Corvallis, who had to inhabit the role of a mad man continually for the several years it took him to realize this project. He is the tattooed antagonist who stands naked at the entrance to his garage in Castle Doctrine (aka Stand Your Ground Law) from 2016, armed not with one but with two big pistols, determined to defend his territory at all costs. He is the assailant in Neighborhood Watch, also from 2016, a series of twelve warning signs each imprinted with his bust-length image, out of focus and partly obscured by the gun he aims directly at the camera. Posted at various points around the perimeter of the gallery, the menacing signs positioned the viewer as target, making the gunman’s threat terrifying and personal. 

Kerry Skarbakka (American, born 1970), Neighborhood Watch, 2016. Twelve adjustable signs consisting of high-intensity prismatic film, galvanized posts, concrete, buckets. Dimensions variable.


Hanging overhead at the center of the exhibition, which closed in December, was American Muscle (2018), a huge photograph on stretched vinyl, almost eighteen feet long, of a vehicle undercarriage. Framed all around by sky, the car seen from below appeared, without a hoist, to hover in the air. The work bore the subtitle 2010 Dodge Challenger. A wall label provided a chilling explanation: the vehicle is the identical make and model that a white supremacist plowed into a crowd of counter-protesters at a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, injuring nineteen people and killing one. Skarbakka here has us envision what that one fatality, Heather Heyer, might have seen the moment of her death. 

car undercarriage
Kerry Skarbakka (American, born 1970), American Muscle: 2010 Dodge Challenger, 2018. Stretched vinyl banner. 108 x 214 inches.


In such works, the artist probes a kind of murderous, masculinist rage whose societal effects are all too familiar from the news. It defines an insecure racial and class demographic that fulminates against minorities, feminists, the left, and/or the government, and pines for an ideal past when men were men, women knew their place, and Blacks accepted their servitude. Recently in the New York Review of Books, historian Adam Hochschild described this imaginary era as the Great Yesterday, a common myth embraced by disaffected groups vulnerable to malevolent demagoguery. Skarbakka evokes it in his exhibition with Antebellum Wallpaper (2017), sheathing a gallery partition in a reproduction of vintage wall-covering printed with a picturesque scene: a white manor house near a river with passing steamboat, white picket fence, and horse-drawn buggy carrying a white couple and their Black footman.

An entire ideology is encoded in this quaint Dixieland tableau, an example of the “white noise” to which Skarbakka alluded in the exhibition’s title. White noise in the usual sense is pervasive and ongoing, environmental, and fades from conscious awareness, like the unexamined assumptions that inform a person’s background and shape his behavior in the world. Beyond merely showing and condemning a social type in this exhibition, Skarbakka wondered how his Bible-beating alter ego came by his angry estrangement, what kind of “white noise” gave rise to his expectations, his sense of entitlement, and ultimately his disappointment and destructive fury. 

On the antebellum wallpaper, the artist arranged framed photos from what might have been his character’s youth: snapshots of a towheaded boy with brother and mom in a modest family living room, in the backyard with his dogs, in the kitchen displaying the prized bass he’s just caught on a fishing trip with dad. Later, his teen missionary identification card reveals his evangelical indoctrination. A U.S. flag flies on the porch. Then things fall apart: a sheriff’s sale sign is taped on the door of a foreclosed house, empty interiors show busted sheet rock and leaking ceilings. The boy becomes a man, leaves home, joins the army. The handsome blue-eyed recruit is photographed in camouflage fatigues with the stars and stripes draped behind him. 

Many of these images, it turns out, derive from the artist’s own family album. What makes Skarbakka’s project truly profound is his personal implication in the narrative of toxic American masculinity he constructs in White Noise. Skarbakka grew up in Tennessee in an Evangelical Christian household and later served in the military. Significantly, he began work on this exhibition after the birth of his own child, troubled by the potential transmission of a certain type of male-identified behavior from fathers to sons.

Skarbakka man in fishing boat
Kerry Skarbakka (American, born 1970), Pedigree, 2016. Archival pigment print. 30 x 20 inches.


He pondered the problem of inheritance in his exhibition, grouping together on one wall three photos of three generations: the image of the artist himself as his pistol-wielding persona in the aforementioned Castle Doctrine, flanked by photographs (both 2016) of his son and father respectively. In the latter, titled Pedigree, a fisherman sits alone at the rear of a boat, his back turned, arms hanging loosely, cigarette in hand—an image of utter detachment if not dejection. Here is a father aloof and unavailable. Vaccines depicts a wailing baby pinned in place by mother’s hands as he receives his shots from a pediatrician or nurse. What lies ahead for this infant, we want to know? Must boys inherit the ways of their fathers, or can they be inoculated somehow against a kind of virulent manliness that may result in alienation and even erupt in violence?   

Such questions issue from Skarbakka’s actual point of view, that is, from outside his racist, pugilist persona as he contemplates his own individual development. An artist, teacher, and family man, he worried in White Noise how, given his upbringing and experience, he could instead have become the noxious soul he portrays. Was it nature or some aspect of nurture that allowed him, once inculcated into an oppressive belief system, to escape it? Are there qualities of character that allow one to transcend one’s circumstances? In conversation with a fellow photographer in the catalogue to his exhibition, Skarbakka discusses the dangerous potential of his received doctrinaire influences and white male privilege, noting, “I’m also proof that you can change.”

Kerry Skarbakka (American, born 1970), All In (detail), 2019. Video. 15 minutes.


It is tantalizing to speculate how his creative role-play may have functioned in this (ongoing?) transformative process. In the hands of another artist, the angry white man may have emerged as a mere cliché. For Skarbakka, though, everything is at stake as he simultaneously displays and disavows his potential exhibitionist swagger and lethal aggression, projecting it onto a fictional other. Getting into character in this brave and brilliant project—toying with guns, growing his beard wild, shaving it off, ritualizing rage and regret—may also have been a way for him to exorcise his own nagging demons.

Sue Taylor received her BA in art history from Roosevelt University and her MA and PhD from the University of Chicago. Formerly critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, curator of prints and drawings at the Milwaukee Art Museum, and adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Northwestern University, she is a longtime corresponding editor from Portland for Art in America and professor emerita of art history at Portland State University. Her many publications include Hans Bellmer: The Anatomy of Anxiety (MIT) and the forthcoming Grant Wood’s Secrets (University of Delaware Press).

Singing across the centuries

Excoriated musical Americana lives on with Portland Sacred Harp’s recent shape note singing convention

By DANIEL HEILA

I was running a bit late for my visit to Portland Sacred Harp’s Pacific Northwest Convention at the Laurelhurst Club. The parking options were few on Ankeny Street down along the bottom of Laurelhurst Park, but I found a tight space about a quarter mile up the street from the club and squeezed in. Lucky me, since the stroll down to the event was alongside giant evergreens, quiet pathways, and distant green swards where folks walked or jogged, caught up in the serenity of the place. I admit, I was timid about attending the event. I am a bit of an introvert, and, although I like to sing, I was not sure I wanted to put myself out there in a crowd of strangers.

I shouldn’t have worried. That crowd on this October day was nowhere to be found. Instead, inside the woody confines of the lodge ballroom (complete with crackling fireplace blaze) I found a familiar family of folkways enthusiasts. Someone’s grandpa greeted me at the doorway with a smile (there was a definite edge of interest at my unfamiliar face) and thrust a loaner copy of The Sacred Harp songbook into my empty hands. I filled out a name tag with the dorky tagline “Talk to me about Sacred Harp!”, slapped it on my lapel and headed into my foray.

The singers were on a break and milling about saying hello to friends and being introduced to new faces. Volunteers were going about their duties, one of which was preparing the long banquet table for the potluck lunch to come at noon. The comforting smells issuing from the kitchen piqued my appetite, and I sheepishly considered being late to my next appointment. A glance around the room revealed a demographic that I have considerable experience with via the New England contradancing scene: mostly 30-60ish men and women, a handful of seniors and people of color, a few brave teens and twenty‑somethings, and a marauding flock of tweens, tots, and rug rats of various sizes. I started to relax.

Portland Sacred Harp performed shape note music in October. Photo by Daniel Heila.
Portland Sacred Harp performed shape note music in October.

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