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ArtsEd: Age of anxiety

Create More, Fear Less provides imaginative art projects that empower middle-schoolers to take on anxiety during school and in our new era of distance learning

By ALEX BEHR

Create More, Fear Less is an arts-based program that helps schools respond to their students’ anxiety levels, which had reached alarming levels in this country, even before the Covid-19 pandemic closed kids in. 

None of us is immune from either the anxiety or the coronavirus: Peel back the neutral façade of a reporter and who’s there? An anxious single mother trying to regulate herself and her high school son, home 24/7, while social distancing. A few years ago, I performed in Mortified comedy shows reading diary entries from my middle school years, the prime time for Create More, Fear Less art projects. To huge crowds, I said, “What’s wrong with me? Will I live my life in the shadows covered by doubt? … Why do people worry about who their gym partner is? Is that the purpose of school? Join the pep club? When children are starving in India?” I read these entries for laughs, though when I wrote them back in middle school, I was completely earnest. 

Since 2014 I have taught creative writing residencies through Literary Arts’ Writers in the Schools program, where I incorporate space on the packets I distribute for students to sketch before writing. Part of the reason for my months’-long reporting into Create More, Fear Less was to subtly incorporate de-stressing techniques into my teaching process, especially since my current residency is moving online. 

“capture the feeling” a drawing by Abby, age 10,
a student at Grout Elementary School/Image courtesy of Kathleen Lane

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A sharp shutdown at the museum

The Portland Art Museum puts 80 percent of its staff on unpaid leave as it and the cultural world face the economic upshot of the pandemic

The Portland Art Museum announced details Friday of an expansive staff cutback, bringing hard numbers to the painful economic plight that even large cultural organizations are facing because of the global coronavirus pandemic. The museum, including its allied Northwest Film Center, has put 80 percent of its staff on unpaid leave effective April 16, a cutback that affects 158 of 213 employees. Because many are part-time or occasional staffers, the cuts amount on the books to 60 percent of FTE, or full time equivalent, jobs.

Being placed on unpaid leave rather than being laid off allows workers to draw on their unused sick and vacation time so they can keep at least some cash flow. Health and dental benefits also will be covered through June. The museum and film center shut down on March 15 and since then “have incurred $1 million per month in payroll and other expenses, without offsetting revenue from admissions, rental event business, retail operations, and other channels,” the museum said in a press release. Museum Director Brian Ferriso elaborated in an email message to museum staff: “This is not sustainable, and we are projecting to end the fiscal year with a deficit of $4 million. The leader of the American Alliance of Museums has suggested that one-third of all museums may not reopen if this crisis continues. We must not let our Museum and Film Center join the list of casualties.”

The museum entrance, with a sign of the times. Photo courtesy Portland Art Museum.

The drastic cutbacks are emblematic of what’s happening in museums, theaters, concert halls, opera houses, and other major cultural centers around the globe. In Portland, the Oregon Symphony has laid off all of its musicians, Portland Opera has canceled the remainder of its season, the White Bird dance series has canceled several high-profile performances and is facing extreme financial hardship, and theater and dance companies from the biggest to the smallest have gone idle and are bleeding money. Regional museums and cultural centers in towns around the state have shut their doors. In southern Oregon, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which has a $44 million annual budget, has shut down until September, losing all of it high season and the income that goes with it. As the economy crumbles – more than 17 million Americans have filed for unemployment in the past four weeks, bringing the nation’s official unemployment rate to 13 percent and its actual rate, including freelance and contract workers, many homeless people, and workers who have dropped out of the job market, even higher – the nation’s cultural infrastructure crumbles with it.

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Ch-ch-ch-changes: ghosts in the machine

ArtsWatch Weekly: As the culture moves toward an uncertain future, new art is in the making – and the art of the past shifts with the times

DEEPER AND DEEPER WE DIVE INTO THIS STRANGE NEW WORLD, shifting priorities, scrambling in place, adapting on the virtual run. Everything’s well and truly shut down now. Well, not everything: You can still trek out to the liquor store or pot shop, or get your groceries, or fill ‘er up with bargain-basement gasoline, although my car’s been sitting unused for close to a month now, and maybe yours has, too. But if you’re a going-out person, the going’s gone out. Theaters, concert halls, galleries, museums, restaurants and cafes, coffee shops, even churches and ballparks: See you in June, maybe. Or July, or if paychecks don’t start rolling in again soon, maybe next year.

Much of what we call our cultural life is suspended, and if and when it comes back it’s unlikely to look the same. ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson makes the case in Starting Over: Enter the Dragon, the second episode in his new “Starting Over” column. The disrupter that is the pandemic, he writes, has changed things in fundamental ways: “I now think of it as a dragon, swooping in and out of our lives, destroying markets, fields, workshops and houses, and threatening all of us with misery and death. … it even gets into our dreams. We will respond with myths and legends, new survival techniques and methodologies, songs and histories, solos and duets, household singing groups and mask-making projects, and new ways to convey comfort, solidarity, sorrow—new words, gestures, dances, music. Those things? They will stay after the dragon leaves.”


Dragons over Portland, and most of the world. Image by Nathan Johnson


THE DRAGON’S KICKING UP QUITE A STORM. Livelihoods in the arts are disappearing left, right, and in between – the Portland Art Museum, for one, has gone through a massive round of layoffs while its doors stay shut – and I worry about those people, and the people who make their livings in theater or dance or music or movie halls, and the librarians and bookstore workers and restaurant workers, too. I worry that many of the companies that so recently employed them won’t survive, and that we’ll wake one day, when the dragon’s gone, to a very different world.

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Powell’s Books: The next chapter?

A surge of online orders is keeping the great Portland gathering spot going. A look back on its glory days, and a hope for their return.

Editor’s note: Powell’s Books, and in particular its flagship store off West Burnside Street, Powell’s City of Books, is Portland’s best-known and probably most-loved cultural institution, a gathering spot for locals and visitors alike. Everybody goes to Powell’s. Or did, until the coronavirus crisis forced the company to shut down its brick-and-mortar stores and lay off its staff. Fears rose that the economic hit would make it impossible for the stores to reopen. But a surge in online business has brought 100 workers back, with hopes for more once the crisis abates. Photographer and writer K.B. Dixon takes a look at the city’s quintessential cultural destination in its glory days.


TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY K.B. DIXON


This small collection of photographs is excerpted from a larger project completed three years ago. It is a simple homage to the act of reading in general and to one of Portland’s defining institutions in particular—Powell’s City of Books. The largest independent bookstore in the country, it is a vital part of this city’s cultural and intellectual life. It is not “a” bookstore—it is “the” bookstore. It has been “my” bookstore for more than thirty years.

Right now, with all five Portland-area stores shuttered in response to the COVID-19 menace, it is community support that is keeping Powell’s alive. A surge in online book sales at Powells.com has allowed the company to rehire more than 100 laid-off workers.

***

2016

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Starting Over: The arts fight back

A new column rolls into view, and news from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, RACC and the Oregon Cultural Trust

Way back before the Covid-19 virus pandemic sent us into a sad and alarming combination of hibernation and vertigo—way back before then, let’s say early March—I would have used the same two words to describe the situation of the arts community in Oregon. “Sad” and “alarming.”

I didn’t need the March 5 panel on Building Political Support for the Arts in Portland to make me think that, but the conclusion was unavoidable after the panel members testified. It was pretty glum. It was also the last public event I attended.

I could quote almost anyone on the panel, hosted by Portland State University and moderated by Portland Creative Laureate Subashini Ganesan, to illustrate this conclusion, but let’s choose Dámaso Rodríguez, the artistic director of Artists Repertory Theatre for the past seven years. Artists Rep is Portland’s second-largest theater company, 38 years old and counting. Its past couple of years have been financially tumultuous and the company is in the middle of raising money for a new theater space. But unusual in a public setting for an arts administrator, Rodríguez was plaintive, and his melancholy had an edge to it, . 

Oregon Shakespeare Festival is closing until at least September 8. /Photo by Kim Budd

“Art elevates society,” he said, quietly and intently. “It is essential to living a good life. It would be nice if public policy made that statement. I feel isolated. I feel alone. I feel like we [in the arts] have become experts at surviving, and public policy could lead to us thriving.”

Artists Rep is going to need all of its survival skills now. And if the people associated with the company do manage to pull that rabbit out of the hat, where will they be? Back to “sad and alarming” where they entered this particular movie? Back to alone?

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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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