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Backflips: Sudden spring of stories

ArtsWatch Weekly: As Covid ebbs and flows, arts & culture find fresh form – and Oregon stories arrive in a rush.


IT’S BEEN A BUSY WEEK HERE AT ARTSWATCH, with fresh stories tumbling across our desk like Olympics gymnasts doing high-speed backflips in a quest for perfect 10s. (Unfortunately, we lack video evidence of this astonishing spectacle.) The breadth and diversity of these stories has underscored that, although the coronavirus crisis of the past year and a half has had a deep effect on the world’s cultural and artistic life, it hasn’t stopped human expression. Artists have responded in an invigorating variety of ways, from digging in their heels and doing their art come hell or high water to creating entirely new ways of looking at things. In the process they’ve also helped us reassess just what “culture” means.  

Take, for instance, “Venice VR Expanded,” the virtual-reality arm of the Venice International Film Festival, which for the second year in a row will be hosted by the Portland Art Museum and Northwest Film Center, the only venue in the United States for this international event. Virtual reality? you might ask. Isn’t real reality more than enough? For some, it sounds like dystopia. For others, it’s the brave new future realized. Strap on your headset, or don’t: Laurel Reed Pavic has the lowdown in Venice returns to Portland, virtually, The alternate-reality extravaganza runs Sept. 1-19, and Pavic and ArtsWatch film writer Marc Mohan will have more to write about it as it swings into virtual action.

“Venice VR Expanded” at the Portland Art Museum in 2020. Image courtesy of the Portland Art Museum.

In his most recent FilmWatch Weekly column, Mohan takes another look at altered realities – the new remake of Candyman, a 1992 horror flick about a hook-handed killer who comes out of the ether and creates bloody havoc when his name is repeated in a mirror five times. (Shades of the Brothers Very Grimm.) “Truth be told, I’ve never been a huge fan of horror movies,” Mohan concedes. “I don’t mind being disturbed, creeped out, unsettled, or outright scared by a movie, but I’ve found that the vast majority of horror movies (as typically defined) don’t accomplish those things for me. And I’m repelled by the sensationalistic nihilism that seems to motivate too many run-of-the-mill entries in the genre.” And yet, in the new Candyman, he discovers “a furious and impactful statement on the generational trauma passed down through generations of white, state-sanctioned violence against the bodies of people of color. Also, it’s pretty scary.”

What do we mean when we talk about culture? Much more, as it turns out, than the easy old silos of theater / dance / music / film / literature / visual art. Culture is all around us, in everything we think and do. Take architecture, and democratize it: What sorts of places to live attract us, and why? Lori Tobias approaches that question in Cannon Beach cottages: ‘Portland’s idea of air conditioning,’  her story about the beach town’s old houses, which have been attracting coastal visitors (and, yes, lots of interior urbanites looking for a bit of natural summer air conditioning) to an annual tour for almost 20 years. This year’s tour, because of Covid, will be a drive-by affair: no browsing through the interiors. 

In A festival for voices to be heard, Bobby Bermea gives an inside look at the making of last wekend’s Pacific Northwest Multi-Cultural Festival, a broad-ranging outlet of creative energy sponsored by PassinArt, Oregon’s oldest continually running Black theater company. Because it was virtual, the festival included a lot of national artists and projects in addition to its many Oregon participants. Focusing on work by artists of color, it included short films of plays and television scripts, and panel discussions on industry and cultural issues. “When you tell a story you cast a spell,” Portland fimmaker Ajai Tripathi tells Bermea. “A person can hear a story about an experience that is not their own, and a window can open up in their brain. For a time, they can see what it’s like to be someone else. That’s a powerful thing. And for us people of color, it is a validation that our experiences mean something. We can share our stories with each other to empower ourselves.”

“What’s New In Spring Hats,” by Mildred Blount, Ebony Magazine cover, April 1946. Blount designed the hats for Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind,” and for private clients including Marian Anderson and Gloria Vanderbilt.

Meanwhile, in Rhonda P. Hill and the EDGE of design, her latest Stage & Studio podcast and interview on ArtsWatch, Dmae Lo Roberts moves the cultural discussion into the world of fashion as she talks with Hill, a fashion industry analyst and founder of EDGE Fashion Intelligence and EDGExpo.com. (The acronym stands for “Emerging Designers Get Exposed.”) Hill, who in 1998 became the first African-American Vice President of Disney Consumer Products, is a historian of the Black influence on fashion, too: Her series A Study of Eight, the Untold American Story, chronicles the achievements of pioneering Black design figures ranging from Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker and confidante to the designer of Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding gown to the groundbreaking first Black supermodels. 


Portland Playhouse A Christmas Carol Portland Oregon

Good news/bad news: Covid, safety, and cultural events

THE BIG NEWS OF THE WEEK ARRIVES ON THE COVID FRONT, with conflicting messages. Good news: The Food and Drug Administration has officially approved the Pfizer vaccine as safe, dropping the “emergency” status it’s held since the beginning of vaccinations last December. Bad news: The Delta variant is running rampant, raising infection levels and death rates in some parts of the country higher than they’ve ever been, and filling hospitals and emergency rooms to overflowing.

With the FDA’s official stamp of approval, The New York Times reports, “a cascade of vaccine requirements by hospitals, colleges and universities, corporations and other organizations” is expected. You can add performance venues to that list. And while the FDA approval is likely to persuade many vaccine-hesitant people to finally get their shots, the new round of requirements is also likely to push many politically motivated anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers to defy the mandates, allowing the virus to keep spreading. In Oregon, which has fewer hospital beds per capita than most states, bed availability is dangerously low almost everywhere, and the infection rate is dire in southern and eastern regions that have low vaccination rates.

On Tuesday, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced a new mandate requiring masks in crowded outdoor spaces, effective Friday. Masks in indoor public spaces are also required. The mandates will affect large gatherings such as the Pendleton Round-Up, the Oregon State Fair, and college football games. It’ll also align with steps already taken by cultural gatherings such as Art in the Pearl, the arts & crafts festival that’ll celebrate its 25th year on Labor Day weekend in the North Park Blocks. The festival, which features more than 100 artists and artisans, already had mandated masks and social distancing for this year’s event.

And it aligns with the efforts of the newly minted Portland Performing Arts Vaccine Coalition, a group of producers that will require all attendees at their events to show proof of vaccination or a negative recent Covid-19 test. So far the coalition is 38 strong, with additional groups likely to join. Other companies and performance halls have adopted similar requirements independently: The five theaters of Portland’5 Centers for the Arts (Keller Auditorium, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Winningstad Theatre, Newmark Theatre, Brunish Theatre) also will require proof of vaccination or an up-to-date negative test.  And the concert hall Alberta Rose Theatre will require proof of full vaccination. As of Wednesday the Vaccine Coalition includes:

  • The Actors Conservatory, Artists Repertory Theatre, Bag&Baggage Productions, Big Mouth Society, BodyVox Dance, Broadway Rose Theatre Company, Cappella Romana, Chamber Music Northwest, CSz Portland – Producers of ComedySportz;
  • 45th Parallel Universe, Hand2Mouth Theatre, Imago Theatre, Kickstand Comedy, Literary Arts, Live Wire radio, Magenta Theater, Newport Performing Arts Center, NW Dance Project, Oregon Repertory Singers, Oregon Symphony;
  • PHAME, The Portland Ballet, Portland Baroque Orchestra, Portland Center Stage, Portland Columbia Symphony, Portland Opera, Portland Piano International, Portland Shakespeare Project, Portland Youth Philharmonic;
  • Resonance Ensemble, Shaking the Tree, Stumptown Stages, Theatre Vertigo, Third Angle New Music, Third Rail Repertory Theatre, Triangle Productions, VOXnorthwest Voice Studio, White Bird Dance.

In other words: If you want to see the show, show the card. 

Here’s looking at you (and Cuba, and Portland streets)

Belkis Ayón, “La Cena (The Supper),” 1991. Collagraph in six parts. Image courtesy JSMA.

THE WEIGHT OF SECRETS. “It is not unusual for artists to create their own visual language,” Ester Barkai writes. “But Cuban printmaker Belkis Ayón (1967 – 1999) went one step further and developed her personal iconography while telling the story of a secret society she could never join.” That society, Barkai writes in her review of an exhibition of Ayón’s works at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene, is Abakuá, an all-male society that “functions, at least in part, to protect its members and is believed to have been brought to Cuba in the early 1800s by enslaved Africans originating from the Cross River region in southeastern Nigeria.” Both the art and its subject tell fascinating tales.


Portland Playhouse A Christmas Carol Portland Oregon

Storm Tharp, “Einstein,” 2006. Sumi ink, gouache, and colored pencil on paper. Image courtesy of the Portland Art Museum. 

MAKING LIVES SMALL. Sebastian Zinn considers matters large and small in the Portland Art Museum’s current exhibit of portraits from its own collections by Northwest artists. Assembled by Grace Kook-Anderson, the museum’s curator of Northwest art, and artist Storm Tharp, whose own portrait of Albert Einstein (above) is included, the show stretches back in time, containing works from almost every decade of the 20th century. And it includes many interconnections: “Tharp and Kook-Anderson no doubt took pains in their curation of the exhibit to underscore the incidental, uncanny, and interpersonal connections … which exist among so many artists of the American Northwest.”

“Nuns,” 2018. Photo: K.B. Dixon

STREET PHOTOGRAPHY DAY: SHOTS SEEN ‘ROUND THE WORLD. Last Sunday was Street Photography Day, celebrated on the birthday of the great candid photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004), and Portland photographer K.B. Dixon celebrated by rustling through his files and assembling a portfolio of candid street shots from his own wanderings amid Portland’s streets. His images range from a group of nuns out for a stroll to an open-air chess match beside a transit stop to a lunch lineup for Egyptian food at the Gyro House.

The Big Dance: Questions at OBT

OBT: MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS. More than two months after Oregon Ballet Theatre’s abrupt surprise split with Kevin Irving, its artistic director of eight years, questions continue to swirl about exactly what happened, why it happened, and where the company is heading. In June, the company announced that Irving had resigned. Irving responded that the split was prompted by the board, not him – the board, he said, asked for his resignation by the end of the day, and he felt he had little choice but to comply. Since then, nobody’s been saying much of anything. Jamuna Chiarini catches readers up with the situation, including a conversation with Executive Director Thomas Bruner.

And more: Poets speaking, deep voices singing

Oregon poets Judith Barrington (left; photo PBS.org) and Bethany Lee (right; photo: Bee Joy España).

JUDITH BARRINGTON: LITERARY FORCE AND FEMINIST PIONEER. “Having moved to Portland in the summer of 1976 for a brief stay that turned into a lifelong residence, Barrington has a knowledge of Old Portland’s poetry scene as prolific as her writing catalog,” Amy Leona Havin writes in this expansive and engaging interview/conversation. Barrington, who grew up in the seaside town of Brighton, England, has become an eminent voice in Oregon contemporary literature, as a poet, memoirist, and guiding light, exploring matters both internal and external, from her immigrant status to the reach of feminism to her long and loving relationship with the editor Ruth Gundle to health and aging and environment and much more. “Portland is further from the sea than I have ever lived,” she tells Havin. “The pandemic time was the longest I’ve ever gone without seeing it. The sea, like horses, seems to creep into my poems without my noticing.”

BETHANY LEE: ‘THE MORE I WROTE POETRY, THE MORE IT FORMED ME.’ David Bates has a conversation with Lee, the Yamhill County writer, who in addition to being a poet is a Quaker minister, a believer in a link between poetry and science, and a musician who plays harp for hospice patients. While preparing her first book, she tells Bates, “I realized I’d been organizing poems in a musical order. With ‘andante,’ which is a walking speed. ‘Allegro’ is always happy and quick and fast, and ‘largo’ is slow and sad.”


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Davóne Tines performing in 'The Black Clown' in 2018. Photo by Richard Termine.
Davóne Tines in ‘The Black Clown’ at the Mostly Mozart Festival in 2018. Photo: Richard Termine

NOT BASS, NOT BARITONE, DAVÓNE TINES REVELS IN A REGISTER ALL HIS OWN. What makes Davón Tines run? In a piece first published by Classical Voice North America, Angela Allen talks with the 34-year-old singer, and others in the music world who’ve seen his star rise, about the unusual vocal path he’s taken  – “a bass cantante, a bass with a high upper extension, as in falsetto, balanced by a booming lower register.” As Gloria Chien, co-artistic director of Portland’s Chamber Music Northwest, puts it: “We were all overwhelmed by the power of his voice … it’s visceral, it’s undeniable. But what he does with the high range of his voice is really remarkable … he is so comfortable up there, and he can do things that I’ve never heard before.” (CMNW’s summer-festival live performances have ended, but video versions of the concerts are available through August.) 

YACHATS CELTIC MUSIC FESTIVAL CANCELED DUE TO COVID SURGE. The pandemic continues to have an outsized effect on cultural life. In a story published originally by YachatsNews.com, Cheryl Romano reveals why the Delta surge has forced cancellation of the coast town’s popular Celtic festival for the second year in a row, and details several other coastal cancellations.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

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."

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