ARTSWATCH FOCUS

Making music in a time of isolation

As the world shuts down and the Oregon Symphony faces a stark financial crisis, musicians create a series of mini-concerts from home


PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOE CANTRELL
STORY BY BOB HICKS


AS AN ODD AND NERVOUS QUIET SETTLED over greater Portland and most other places from coast to coast in the past several days, small islands of sound broke the spell, scattered here and there like grace notes or staccato exclamations. They were counter-ripples against a tide of silence, little bursts of defiant pleasure, sounding carefully yet emphatically: Even in a time of plague, the music would not die.

These small musical uprisings were especially compelling considering the Oregon Symphony Orchestra’s announcement last Friday that it was suspending its current season, which was to run into June, and laying off its 76 contracted musicians, along with 19 staff members and two conductors. The situation, symphony President and CEO Scott Showalter told The Oregonian/Oregon Live, is dire. “We need emergency funds now,” he told reporter Nathan Rizzo. “What we’re staring down between now and the end of June is a $5 million loss.” Showalter had written to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, Rizzo added, urging state economic support for the orchestra as the coronavirus crisis takes its toll, and the symphony is actively seeking private funds as well. The danger of collapse, it seems, is very real. And the orchestra is not alone. Across Oregon and the nation, cultural groups of all sorts are staring nervously into what seems a daunting economic abyss.

An invitation to the neighborhood: come close, stay apart, join us at a distance as we make some music.

So on Friday through Sunday, in what was not quite a coincidence, a large handful of those recently furloughed symphony musicians went small. In Portland and its surrounds, seven musical mini-events took place, on musicians’ porches and in their yards, at neutral neighborhood gathering spots where listeners and players alike could keep their social distance and yet also be together, sharing something both sophisticated and elemental: the joy of music.

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Joanna Priestley: Discovering where the magic is

The Portland filmmaker, a spring resident at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, calls animation a “fascinating combination of art and science”

Joanna Priestley’s animated film, “Jung & Restless,” was scheduled to premiere this weekend at the Bijou Theatre in Lincoln City, but fell victim to the COVID-19 outbreak when the showing was canceled. Priestley, a spring resident at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology near Otis, promises she will eventually make it happen. We talked with her about her work as an animator.

Joanna Priestley began her animation career by making films using rubber stamps and index cards.  Photo by: Tim Sugden
Joanna Priestley began her animation career by making films using rubber stamps and index cards. Photo by: Tim Sugden

Tell us a bit about yourself.

Priestley: I was born in Portland, a third-generation Oregonian. I spent some time away, but I always come back to Oregon because Oregon is the best. I went to the Rhode Island School of Design, got my undergraduate from Berkeley, and in my 30s, went back to get a masters at the California Institute of the Arts. That’s the school Walt Disney founded.

Did you go to school knowing you were going to be a filmmaker?

I always really, really loved films. I watched everything I could. In high school, I connected to the Multnomah library system and they had a fabulous collection of animated films.

How did you discover it?

My teacher showed them in school. That’s where I was first exposed to animation as an art form.

I’m guessing animation has changed by leaps and bounds since?

It has and it hasn’t. It’s changed technically. People have much more sophisticated technology and techniques of creating animation. But the basic way you create animation is the same. It was invented in late 1880s. It’s been refined, but still, the basic idea is the same.

What is the basic idea?

The basic idea is you study and learn how movement is created. Animation is this really fascinating combination of art and science. You have to understand both. If you look at sports, for example, you see loads of interesting movement. Like in boxing, there’s a preparatory action where you pull your arm back and clench your fist and then you push your fist and arm forward and slam into something, and then there’s a reaction where your hand snaps back a little bit. As you study that motion you can begin to understand how to break it down into individual drawings — or sculpture, if you are doing stop-motion animation.

A forest of hands is among the stream-of-consciousness images in Joanna Priestley’s new film, “Jung & Restless.”

That seems like it would take so many, many drawings.

You just decide how many drawings a second you are going to do to create your motion. You use 12 drawings a second, or 24 a second, if you are a Disney studio. I use 12 drawings a second. Some use eight drawings a second, some, in what we call limited animation, use four. You decide at the beginning what you are going to use. So then, you just go about calculating how far to move things with the drawings. If you’re using stop-motion animation with puppets or sculpture, you have to figure out how far to move the puppet or sculpture. And that’s where the magic is.

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Kathy Coleman, beyond disability

The disability-arts champion's unexpected death shocks the community. But the organization she built vows to keep building.

When Kathy Coleman had cancer many years ago, the treatments changed her body. She wanted to understand those changes, and as someone who loved to dance, she thought dance might help.  “I really wanted to explore my body,” she said in a 2014 interview with Cheryl Green.  “And I really wanted to connect with it in a way and learn about it differently.” She began taking dance classes, then joined a dance company, where one of her teachers — herself not standard dancer-size — had the unusual notion that “you didn’t all have to look the same way. [That] was really powerful to me.” 

That mind-opening experience helped inspire Coleman to found Portland’s Disability Art & Culture Project, which over the past 15 years has shown artists and audiences alike that art doesn’t have to be limited to narrow traditional notions of what is beautiful, or who can create it. It’s spawned a groundbreaking dance company, a festival dedicated to art created by people with disabilities, a leadership training project, and more. And under her leadership, DACP showed how the arts can uniquely contribute to social change.

Kathy Coleman, far right, and dancers.

Coleman, who died unexpectedly last month in Portland, left a lasting impression on Oregon artists and audiences — that rare figure who not only creates an enduring new institution, but also an enduring new perception, by expanding artists’ and audiences’ idea of what art can be. 

“She was just a force, an irreplaceable piece of Portland arts,” says Wobbly Dance co-founder Erik Ferguson.

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Nataki Garrett on OSF’s jubilant future

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director talks about her first full season at the helm, expanding a legacy of inclusion.

“I’ve never been to a theater where people move to a city to be closer to the theater!”

The strange magic of Ashland, Oregon is starting to work itself on Nataki Garrett. Of course, as the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival since last August — only the sixth in the festival’s long history — Garrett herself moved to Ashland to be closer to the theater. But she’s talking about the passion and dedication of the festival’s nationwide audience, and about inheriting the leadership of a company that can inspire fans to not just buy tickets but rent U-Hauls.

I’ll just say that I’m excited that this is my first official season at OSF,” Garrett says, talking recently by phone. “I’m really taking the opportunity to learn about this community, this amazing company, this audience. I’m really happy to be here.”

New Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director Nataki Garrett: Photo: Kim Budd.

Garrett’s hiring, last March, was the result of a nearly year-long search to replace Bill Rauch, who was OSF artistic director from 2007 until leaving last year to help start the new Ronald O. Perelman Performing Arts Center at New York’s World Trade Center. Before coming to Ashland, Garrett, who’s a graduate and former staff member of California Institute of the Arts (CalArts),  spent 18 months as acting artistic director at Denver Center for the Performing Arts, where former Portland Center Stage leader Chris Coleman eventually took the reins. 

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Film fest preview: PIFF hits fast-forward at 43

New Northwest Film Center Director Amy Dotson brings a new emphasis and a new energy to Portland’s premiere cinematic event

“It’s not going to be robots and lasers!”

That’s Amy Dotson’s way of reassuring fans of film art—and of the Portland International Film Festival in particular—that the 43rd incarnation of the event is staying true to its mission. Since 1977, that mission has been to expose Portland audiences to a cornucopia of global cinema, allowing those with flexible schedules and insatiable appetites to gorge themselves on a diverse menu of movies. And so it remains.

Amy Dotson, the director of the Northwest Film Center

But while some things never change, others do. Dotson took over as the Director of the Northwest Film Center last year, following the 2018 retirement of Bill Foster after nearly four decades at the organization’s helm. Rising to the challenge of putting her own stamp on the Film Center and the Festival, while retaining the core appeal of each, Dotson’s approach can be encapsulated by PIFF’s 2020 motto (and new URL), “Cinema Unbound.” She spoke with ArtsWatch during the run up to PIFF, which kicks off Friday, March 6.

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The Artists Series 3: Visual Artists

Ten portraits in black and white by K.B. Dixon of Oregon artists who are helping to define what Portland and the state look like


TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY K.B. DIXON


This is the third installment of portraits in The Artist Series. The first two focused on Oregon writers. This one focuses on visual artists—the gifted painters and sculptors who have made invaluable contributions to the character and culture of this city and state, people whose legacies are destined to be part of our cultural history.            

It would take pages to catalog the awards, commissions, and honors of these artists and color reproductions of their work to provide a full appreciation of their wizardry so I will simply refer you to their various perches in cyberspace—their virtual ateliers.


LEE KELLY: SCULPTOR



Kelly is one of the most revered artists in the Pacific Northwest. He is best known for his monumental public sculptures. These large pieces are “often animalistic, sometimes suggestive of calligraphy or Asian script, always poetic.” – Bob Hicks, ArtScatter.

Examples of Kelly’s work can be found at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery and at lee-kelly.net.

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There is a value in simple things

An interview with composer-singer-violinist Caroline Shaw, performing next week with Third Angle

Whenever composers get together and talk about other composers, the topic inevitably drifts to Who’s The Most Important, a typical domesticated primate behavior which normally results in lists and fights (for the record, Pärt and Saariaho remain verifiably at the top). In terms of living U.S. composers, the question for us often takes the form, “who will be in future music history books?” The really big living names–the Adamses, Crumb, Elfman, Glass, Gordon, Higdon, Lang, Mackey, Monk, Reich, Riley, Tower, Whitacre, Williams, Wolfe, Zwilich–are already in the history books, so for this exercise we’d like to really dig down and focus on the rising generation of composers, the ones who are (let’s be generous) underfortyish.

Prediction’s a messy business, laden with personal biases and all the customary cultural baggage, but the present author would like to report that, in our experience, a handful of names nearly always make the speculative Future Music History Book list: Andy Akiho, Gabriela Lena Frank, Gabriel Kahane, Missy Mazzoli, Andrew Norman, and Caroline Shaw. My money’s on Frank and Shaw, who I think will be remembered as the Bartók and Stravinsky of this era. Frank as Bartók is an easy one, but don’t take our Shaw=Stravinsky equation too literally (sonically Norman is much closer). However we must note that if, as David Lang suggests, Riley’s In C premiere was his generation’s Rite of Spring premiere, then Shaw’s Pulitzer win for Partita for Eight Voices was quite likely ours.

In an important sense there has never been a composer like Caroline Shaw, who will be in town twice next month, starting with Third Angle’s “Caroline in the City” concerts March 5th and 6th. Brahms needed Joachim, Britten needed Pears, the Three Brothers of Minimalism (Phil and Steve and Terry) never could have existed without each other, ditto Bang on a Can’s Bizarre Love Triangle. But as near as I can tell, Shaw (like, say, Laurie Anderson) doesn’t actually need anyone else–and (again like Anderson) she has the generosity and collaborative spirit characteristic of such autonomous artists. We’re talking about a classical composer who can go on stage with a megastar like Kanye West and she makes him look cool. Suddenly Barbara Strozzi comes to mind.

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