Danielle Vermette

 

ZooZoo, straight from the polar bear’s mouth

What makes Imago's all-star critter spectacular such a cool seasonal treat? Get the whole scoop from an inside-the-costume source.

ZooZoo, Imago Theatre’s one-of-a-kind, all-ages, greatest-hits show, opens again in Portland on Friday, and I’m here to tell you, if you’ve never seen it, get your tickets now. If you have seen it, see it again: Things are always shifting, and given the unique relationship between audiences and performers, no two performances are exactly alike. An amalgamation of vignettes from Imago’s internationally renowned signature show, Frogz, which has been hopping around the globe since Carol Triffle and Jerry Mouawad founded the company in 1979, and Biglittlethings, which opened in 2003, ZooZoo is an enthralling 90 minutes of mask and mime theater and benefits from the blood, sweat and tears of some of Portland’s most gifted artists over the past 40 years. Last year’s production, for instance, featured a new piece called “The Magic Cloth,” a collaboration with The Lion King’s Broadway co-designer, Michael Curry.    

The author in full polar bear mode. Photo courtesy Danielle Vermette

Why take my word for it? First, I’ve gifted this show many times to friends and family, always to ecstatic responses. More to the point, as an Imago performer since 1999, I’ve been in it. I still appear now and then in Imago’s other works, namely in Triffle’s original shows, but my touring career ended after about a decade.  While my heart is forever green and some of my fondest memories are of slithering, frolicking, and white-knuckling my way across the country with comrades in the show (and sometimes in the snow), frog legs ain’t easy to come by: my knees began the slow slide into retirement mid-career in 2005 in a gymnasium in Arcata, California. 

Continues…

The Right Brain for learning

The revolutionary mission of an innovative program in the greater metropolitan area schools: to transform learning through the arts

Shannon McClure, an arts integration specialist for the Regional Arts and Culture Council’s innovative Right Brian Initiative, stood before a classroom of teachers this fall at North Clackamas Scouters Mountain Elementary School, helping to brainstorm as they kicked off the planning phase for this year’s artist residency. 

The residency, which brings an artist to the school to work with students over the school year, is a crucial component of Right Brain’s mission to use the arts to help spark learning in all disciplines. What exactly is arts integration, which McClure travels from school to school to nurture and promote? In the words of the initiative, which serves schools across Clackamas, Washington, and Multnomah counties, it’s “the secret sauce when supporting kids’ abilities to problem-solve, innovate and think critically. By introducing new ways to learn, kids will become more engaged students.”


THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series


Shannon started things off by mentioning a significant book in neuroscience and education – Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, by a trailblazer in the field, Zaretta Hammond – before offering the most simple and compelling explanation for why the Right Brain Initiative and arts integration in general matter so much: dendrites, the little tree-like extensions from nerve cells that spark connections. Shannon had just read some exciting research which confirmed “that the more we are able to form dendrite connections in our brain, the more we are able to retain over time. Arts integration – learning through different pathways – makes those connections in the brain.”   

***

Shannon McClure in the classroom, spreading the Right Brain word. Photo courtesy Right Brain Initiative

Continues…

Playing chicken at the book bash

Stamina, lively conversation & Colson Whitehead's chicken recipes help our correspondent survive the crush of the AWP's national gathering

I don’t eat chickens, much less cook them. That didn’t stop me from enjoying the delectable chicken-themed keynote speech by Colson Whitehead that officially kicked off the 2019 Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) national conference the last week in March at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland.

Established as a nonprofit group by fifteen writers in 1967, AWP “supports literary authors who teach, provides services, advocacy, resources, and community to nearly 50,000 writers, 550 college and university creative writing programs, and 150 writers’ conferences and centers.” To get a sense of the breadth and scope of this year’s conference, imagine how such a mission statement translates into the organization’s premier annual event—the biggest of its kind in North America, one that draws somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 attendees each year.

Colson Whitehead: on writing, and cooking chicken. Photo: Madeline Whitehead

Like any story, time—the actual fact of it, and how it’s negotiated—is really the engine of the narrative. Sessions began at 9 a.m., lasting an hour and fifteen minutes, and went all through evening, with fifteen-minute breaks, allowing for an airport-like rush from one end of the convention center to the other. Preparation was unruly and complex, and scrolling through the substantial online schedule seemed to be the only real option (though, I confess, it took me hours to do this: more than once, I would get half way down a page and forget what time-slot I was looking at). I did hear a few stories from those daredevil types who went without any plan whatsoever, and they seemed to fare just fine. If I had advice to offer future attendees, just know that your swag bag will contain a comprehensive glossy program, and unlike the impressively designed online app that didn’t work because my phone could not manage to stay connected to the internet in the conference center, the glossy program never let me down!

Continues…

Chelsea Bieker, on her way

The rising Portland writer, with a $30,000 Rona Jaffe Foundation award in her pocket, is making her mark in the literary world

Chelsea Bieker cuts a striking figure as she makes her way into a coffee shop in Portland’s Foster-Powell neighborhood on a recent Sunday morning. It is impossible not to notice how put together she is, rather apart from the folks already gathered there who adorn themselves in sweatshirts and wind-breakers and general day-off, will-it-or-won’t-it-rain gear. Chelsea, dressed in a full-length gingham coat and looking as flawless as if she’s come from a photo shoot, reminds me of a movie star who has just appeared out of thin air, perhaps from a big city, which, in fact, she has. Our meeting lands on the heels of her having accepted a prestigious $30,000 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award on September 13 in New York City. As we stand in line next to each other, my first question comes out rather underwhelming: “Did you get taller?” Chelsea smiles. “Nah, it’s just the shoes,” she says in a sweet, these-old-things kind of way, pointing toward her feet (the shoes are lovely).

Returning into conversation with a person you haven’t seen in some time can be a powerful experience. Our relationships with peers provide a mirror, high-powered enough to reflect us back to ourselves while taking in the subtle shifts and differences in the other. As we order our drinks (she has tea; I have espresso), it occurs to me that this is not the same young woman I exchanged ideas with in workshops in Portland State University’s MFA fiction program years ago. Though she retains the poise and centeredness I associate with her early training as a gymnast, there’s a new dimension to her now, owed possibly to the fact that, since I last saw her, she has married a man she credits with fully encouraging her compulsion to write, and with whom she started a family (she is a mother two times over). She finds herself in that most wondrous place, past the threshold of “dabbler” and “aspiring” and “amateur,” and into the realm of bona-fide writer.

Chelsea Bieker, in the catbird seat.

SHE’S LANDED AN AGENT SHE ADMIRES (“I love my agent so much; she is just amazing”) and a two-book deal with Catapult Books, and has grown into a woman who takes herself seriously as a writer and wields the sort of work ethic to prove it. On top of parenting and writing, Chelsea also maintains a full-time job as a composition instructor for the Virtual Campus of central Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg Area Community College, a position that, she says, “takes a lot of time. It comes in waves.” The waves can be challenging: She teaches four reading-intensive classes a term, yet she enjoys the work and recognizes her luck in finding a position that allows her to work from home. Unlike many institutions that offer no job security for adjuncts, HACC provides yearly contracts, lending some peace of mind for her young family.

Continues…

A life, stitched in time

Oregon's new national folk art fellow, Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim, embroiders her Palestinian heritage and refugee past into a living art

I had the great pleasure recently to meet with Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim, the master traditional embroiderer and newly named national folk art fellow, to discuss her life and work. Feryal, who was born in Palestine and lives in Milwaukie, Oregon, is one of nine artists named last month as winners of the 2018 National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship, the highest form of recognition for folk and traditional artists by the United States government. She received this tremendous distinction for her lifetime of work in the centuries-old art form of Palestinian traditional embroidery, or tatreez, which features detailed cross-stitch designs and adorns clothing, pillows, and wall hangings.

Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim, in her Milwaukie home, with memories on the wall. Photo: Danielle Vermette

When I arrived at her home I was unsure of which entrance to use, and my misstep left me a little jangled. But once ushered inside by Carrie Kikel from the Oregon Arts Commission and Oregon Cultural Trust, who joined us for our conversation, I quickly fell under Feryal’s spell. Soft-spoken, thoughtful, exceedingly kind, and with an uncanny ability to hear the questions within a question, Feryal offered a master class in her fascinating and endangered folk art form and a generous and moving look at her history and culture.

Continues…

State of the poet laureate

A conversation with Kim Stafford, Oregon's new laureate, who carries on a family tradition of spreading the word and its power to all corners

Broadway Books, the lively literary-oriented bookstore in Northeast Portland, recently hosted a celebration for Kim Stafford, Oregon’s ninth, and newly appointed, poet laureate, who succeeds Elizabeth Woody for a two-year term. We met for a bite close to the venue beforehand, joined by his longtime friend and fellow poet and teacher, Tim Gillespie. The conversation clocked in at under two hours and meandered with gusto and ease. We spoke on subjects ranging from his views on teaching, to the perils of writing programs, to the wonder of Verslandia, Literary Arts’ citywide youth poetry slam, and even to the late Irish mystic and poet, John O’Donohue (Kim brings him to mind in so many important ways), but it was truly Stafford’s way of seeing–and his friend’s way of seeing him–that left echoes for days and also sent me home celebrating Governor Kate Brown’s auspicious appointment.

Oregon Poet Laureate Kim Stafford at Eagle Creek.

Chatting with Kim Stafford is a bit like stepping out of time. There’s something both ageless and perennial about him. He possesses a sort of egalitarian everyperson quality and inspires the feeling that he has always existed somewhere, that you could run into him anywhere, from a muddy river bank to a fancy lecture hall — that he’s spent a hundred lifetimes cultivating just the skills that make a great poet. His roots are deeply Midwestern, with a father (the poet William Stafford, who also served as Oregon’s poet laureate) from Hutchinson, Kansas, and a mother whose family hails from Beatrice, Nebraska — both quaint, conservative towns. But his parents met and fell in love in California, perhaps recognizing “each other’s homesick Midwest ways,” Kim wrote in his riveting book, Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford.

Kim has lived in Oregon for most of his adult life despite early years that found the family trailing behind his “gypsy scholar father.” By Kim’s eighth year of life, he had moved eight times. His father was “always looking for a different job. California, Iowa, Indiana, Alaska, from the Midwest to the West Coast. We did that several times,” the younger Stafford said. Even though there’s a hint of the way-back Midwest to him (a practicality, maybe, or a certain restraint and graciousness I always associate with some folks from my own birth region of Missouri) Kim belongs to Oregon as surely as rain belongs to the valley, a fact he seems proud of, and one that seems fitting for our new poet laureate. He relishes the diversity of our great state. “Having coast, mountains, Eastern Oregon, enables us to have different powers of thought than other, more homogenized environments,” he said. He also sees the benefit of connecting all of our disparate parts: “I am hoping that poetry can make the cultures of communities more diverse, the emotionally informed communities deepen, and make communities more curious about themselves and each other.” 

Continues…

A visit with: Shalonda Menefee

With her SISTAS network, a Portland artist and entrepreneur crafts a creative world of dolls and design, cloth and community

Shalonda Menefee, creator and talent behind SISTAS Dolled Up, finds herself between events on a recent Saturday afternoon. She’s just come home from hosting a brunch for women in the community and has a couple of weeks (and a whole lot of fabric beckoning to her) before the next extravaganza: a dance, theater, fashion experience and panel discussion on Tuesday, April 10, called “VISIBLY INVISIBLE, Honoring Our Unsung Sheroes.”

Shalonda will produce Tuesday’s event, which aims to explore the complex roles of black women in communities and pay tribute to their journey. “As women of color,” she says, “we carry a lot of weight. We are kind of the backbone of the country and everyone’s kids, but we get the least amount of credit sometimes.” The event, which incorporates many facets of her work and displays her commitment to both art and community, will run 7-9 p.m. at The Old Church Concert Hall downtown. Amid her preparations she has kindly eked out some time to chat with me in her Northeast Portland home while her two tuxedo cats mosey about the house and her teenagers occasionally make an appearance and then disappear again.

Shalonda Menefee, in one of her head wraps: art and community.

A lot of people know Shalonda for her colorful small fabric figures, which she describes as “similar to paper dolls except with cloth and hair,” and which seem comfortably at home with African traditional apparel and the communal tradition of African American quiltmaking. But her interests go far beyond making art for art’s sake. With three bachelor degrees, a certificate in project management, and a host of intense life experiences, she calls herself a “healer in the background,” and she seems to embody the aphorism that a rising tide lifts all boats. She runs creative workshops for women to make their own “healing dolls,” and creates clothing, jewelry, purses, hats, head wraps, and other fashion accessories.

Continues…