A quilt show takes on ecocide, consumerism, and capitalism

Fiber artists explore the toll plastics and the "invisible hand" are taking on the oceans in an exhibit in Newberg's Chehalem Cultural Center

One does not instinctively think of politics and protest when a quilt show appears in a local gallery, which is why the latest exhibit at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg may catch you off guard. Perhaps the stereotype ignores the versatility to be found in the textile arts, but I suspect that for most people, a quilt conjures up feelings of comfort, warmth, and security —  exactly the opposite of what Shifting Tides: Convergence in Cloth by Studio Art Quilt Associates has to offer.

Shifting Tides, which fills three of the Chehalem Center’s galleries and runs through April 27, is a penetrating look at the planet’s ecological predicament, particularly as manifested in the oceans. It could not come at a more appropriate moment. My visit last week coincided with the publication of a horrifying 7,163-word piece in Rolling Stone: Tim Dickinson’s Planet Plastic: How Big Oil and Big Soda kept a global environmental calamity a secret for decades. It landed in my Facebook news feed just hours before I visited the exhibit, and the introduction highlights the show’s relevance. “Every human on Earth,” Dickinson declares in the opening sentence, “is ingesting nearly 2,000 particles of plastic a week.” It gets worse from there.

“Rings of Eternity,” by Lisa Jenni (33 by 41 inches), incorporates plastic rings from bottles and jugs into its design. Photo by: David Bates

It’s appropriate — no, necessary — then, that many of the more than 40 pieces featured in Shifting Tides actually incorporate plastic. Juried by Ann Johnson of West Linn and overseen by a national panel, the show is an official regional exhibit by Studio Art Quilt Associates based in Hebron, Conn. The program notes make clear what many of the associated textile artists are thinking about:

“As residents of the greater North Pacific region, fiber artists share personal narratives and statements regarding the Pacific Ocean ecosystem, its marvelous natural diversity, and the human activities that both sustain and threaten it. The exhibit is an artistic convergence, where quilting and surface design techniques come together into stunning works of contemporary textile art. The wide variety of viewpoints and artistic styles will delight and challenge viewers to assess their own perceptions regarding the interplay of oceanic and human communities.”


First Thursday: Solitude and connection

The galleries and art fans braved coronavirus, coughed in their elbows and sought shelter

As I biked downtown to visit a few galleries for First Thursday, I wondered if the news of pandemic would keep local audiences at home. I was happy to see that I wasn’t the only one willing to throw caution to the wind in order to support Portland’s art community — the Pearl District was full of small groups of all ages bouncing between shows.

Much of the artwork on view was hushed and intimate, though the crowds were chatty and restless as usual. It felt almost as though artists and curators were unwittingly building virtual shelters, providing protection, if not comfort, from the increasingly chaotic world outside. 

Abstract black-and-white drawing featuring organic-looking shapes overlayed with sharp angular forms and calligraphic designs, evoking a dark room layered with sheer curtains and wrought metal decor
Graphite and ink drawing by Erin Murray/Courtesy Holding Contemporary

My first stop was Holding Contemporary, where a show-scheduling snafu had serendipitously resulted in the last-minute pairing of Philadelphia-based Erin Murray and Portland’s own Leslie Hickey in a show titled What We See and What We Know. The gallery was mostly dark as I approached, and I wasn’t even sure it was open since I couldn’t see anybody inside. But the door wasn’t locked, so I went in and realized the sleepy lighting scheme was intentional, and lovely.

The other visitors were in the back, hovering near an alcove that contained a sort of side exhibition by André Filipek Magaña. There, the small pencil drawings of children’s cartoon character Dora the Explorer in various surreal situations and seemingly uncomfortable positions were funny in their way, but were a bit of a non sequitur in the context of the feature show.


Fertile Ground 3: Herstories

Looking back on Portland's new works festival: How to Really, Really? Really! Love a Woman, and other vulvagyric herstories

(In Fertile Ground 2020, Portland’s 11th annual festival of new performance, Jae Carlsson witnessed four standout productions: “Vortex 1,” “Dorothy’s Dictionary,” “How to Really, Really? Really! Love a Woman,” and “Itch.” In four parts Carlsson will discuss each theater piece at length, as well as other works in the Festival dealing with similar issues.)


The Lapis Lazuli Archetype of Time

Life is a journey.

This is an archetype — embedded deep down in your genes. The idea that there is a narrative to your life. That your life has a story to tell. That there is a history there.

And extend this beyond the narrow arc of your own life. That your family, your tribe, your nation . . . has a history. That history is larger than your personal life. But it still is a journey. One line, extending from the obscure past into the unknown future. One history.

But what if your genes are wrong — that this is just a self-serving tale you tell yourself? What if time is not linear? That time works by some eerie and entirely other process?


Jephthah’s Daughter by Katie Bennett.

This play utilizes cutting-edge biblical research in addressing one of the more perverse folktales in the Hebrew Bible (chapter 11 in the book of Judges). Jephthah rashly promises his god Yahweh a sacrifice in exchange for Yahweh’s aid in a coming battle:

I will give you as a burnt offering the first thing that emerges from my house to meet me when I return from the victory.

It is not his dog or a servant, but his cherished daughter who first runs to meet him upon his return. The Bible does not provide her with a name, but Bennett does — “Tali.” And in Bennett’s fanciful retelling, Tali is able to travel back and forth in time along “time roads,” locating Isaac, who is also set to be sacrificed by his father, Abraham. This serpentine character of time is possible because there are actually two gods of equal standing in ancient Israel — Yahweh (a sky-god) and his wife, Asherah (the earth mother).

The feminine is inscrutable . . . Masculine is so easy to understand — a straight and righteous path.

Archeologists of the ancient Middle East and linguists in ancient Hebrew over the last 40 years have largely proven this two-god situation as fact for Iron Age Israel, a situation which began sometime after 1150 BCE and began to die out 400 years later with the rise of monotheism — with the enforced worship of “one god only,” the masculine one. This is when, in Bennett’s tale, the time-roads close up and time itself becomes a straight line. It is also a time when human sacrifice by and large stops (again accurate according to recent scholarship).

What is sin?

A naive Abraham asks, as a hidden Tali mimics Yahweh’s voice. This hidden voice staying the knife in Abraham’s hand, just as the obedient patriarch is about to slay and barbecue Isaac. (Genesis, chapter 22. Interestingly, linguists point to discrepancies at this juncture in the biblical text — the insertion here of a later style of Hebrew phraseology, by an editor at some later time. A hint maybe that — in the earliest version of the biblical folktale — Abraham did in fact sacrifice his firstborn son as an act of obedience to God’s commandment?)

Katie Bennett’s “Jephtha’s Daughter”: It’s about time.


Making the world smaller through food

Two Mississippi chefs will bring a taste of the Deep South to Astoria as part of Chef Outta Water, a program to expand cultural horizons by cooking

For a short time this month, Astoria will take on a taste of the Deep South as it welcomes two Mississippi chefs for a southern family-style dinner. It’s part of Chef Outta Water, an international consortium aimed at exposing chefs to other cultures.

Chef Chris Holen of Astoria’s Baked Alaska restaurant and Australian economic development executive Simon Millcock founded the group about three-and-a-half years ago.

“Chef Outta Water is a bit of a social enterprise,” Holen said. “We want to get chefs out of their comfort zone. It can be a monotonous profession, so we travel and work with other chefs in other states and countries. The idea is when you go home you are inspired.”

Chef Chris Holen (middle) put on a dinner with Delta Supper Club chefs Stewart Robinson (left) and David Crews in Greenwood, Mississippi, in 2018. On March 14, he will welcome them to Astoria for RIVER2RIVER, a Southern family-style dinner that is part of an effort aimed at exposing the world’s chefs to diverse cultural experiences.  Photo by: Rory Doyle 

Holen and fellow members have worked with chefs in countries including Iceland, Saudi Arabia, China, Mexico, Korea, and Portugal, visiting the foreign locales and bringing chefs here.

“We took seven Chinese master chefs on a road trip in Australia,” Holen said. “They wanted to see where their beef was coming from. We met in Melbourne, flew to Adelaide, and rented a big car and trailer and drove back. It was awesome. What we’re trying to do is make the world a little bit smaller through food and get people out of their normal routines.”  


Fertile Ground 2: ‘Dorothy’s Dictionary,’ etc.

In E.M. Lewis's newest play and several others at Portland's new-works festival, the key question is "talking it thru."

(In Fertile Ground 2020, Portland’s 11th annual festival of new performance, Jae Carlsson witnessed four standout productions: “Vortex 1,” “Dorothy’s Dictionary,” “How to Really, Really? Really! Love a Woman,” and “Itch.” In four parts Carlsson will discuss each theater piece at length, as well as other works in the Festival dealing with similar issues.)

Talking it Thru

Is there anything unique and compelling about the Portland theater scene? Or is it just a colonial outpost of the New York or London or Chicago or Los Angeles theater scene?

Are the stageworks sprouting from Portland stages invasive, non-native species? Foreign species of theater, transplanted to Oregon soil but emotionally native to some faraway physical and social ecology? Evidencing a very different affective ecology from how most Oregonians actually feel about things?

Or is it just the case that . . . things today are so entirely globalized that no emotionally unique ecosystems any longer exist? That “an Oregon voice” is 100-percent irrelevant?


E.M. Lewis’s “Dorothy’s Dictionary,” from LineStorm Playwrights. Design: Holly Richards

Dorothy’s Dictionary by E.M. Lewis (directed by Dan Kitrosser) is a remarkably tight and precise two-person play. You’ve seen it read at Lakewood Center in Lake Oswego last May, and now again during LineStorm’s noon readings at Fertile Ground.


Fertile Ground 1: ‘Vortex’ and more

A musical about Tom McCall and his rock festival is a highlight of Portland's new-works fest. The Roosevelts and MLK Jr. show up, too.

(In Fertile Ground 2020, Portland’s 11th annual festival of new performance, Jae Carlsson witnessed four standout productions: “Vortex 1,” “Itch,” “How to Really, Really? Really! Love a Woman,” and “Dorothy’s Dictionary.” In four parts Carlsson will discuss each theater piece at length, as well as other works in the Festival dealing with similar issues.)


You would like to float the idea that the Fertile Ground performance festival, which ended February 9, is not just a way of taking “the pulse of Portland” – of feeling out what is currently on the minds of its creative individuals – but that, more significantly, the festival at its best is a telescope for doing some serious thinking about the future.

It is easy to think of Oregon as always having been a hotbed of environmental concerns & the fight for “sustainability.” Unless your memory travels as far back as the 1960s.

In 1962 there is this reporter doing commentary at KGW radio & TV on issues of the day. One series, titled “Pollution in Paradise,” particularly catches the public’s attention, about the open sewer running right through Portland called the Willamette River.

The name of this reporter is Tom McCall. Four years later he is elected governor of Oregon and uses the office as a bully pulpit: to clean up the WIllamette, to make all Oregon beaches public property, to institute a “bottle bill” to clean up litter and put in place a controlled-growth land-use plan, promote energy conservation instead of more dams, and on. He famously said to tourists something like:

“Please visit Oregon. It’s a beautiful place. But then go home. Don’t move here.”

McCall is the first major state figure to talk about “sustainability,” wanting to protect the livability of your cities and towns, and farm-country and forests. He preached it so passionately and so vociferously that people listened, and it started to become part of the way that Oregonians think about life – right up till the present. Without Tom McCall, Oregon today would be a very different state.

One of McCall’s most significant but most bizarre achievements as governor was the public sponsoring of the 1970 rock festival “Vortex 1: a festival of life” at McIver Park in Estacada. One of the outstanding works at this year’s Fertile Ground festival is the musical Vortex 1, celebrating this event. Book & lyrics by Sue Mach, music by Bill Wadhams, arranged by Reece Marshburn, directed by Allen Nause, and exquisitely acted and sung by the cast of twelve, this play not merely celebrates this unusual public event but analyzes it too, with acuity and no small degree of earned emotion.


DramaWatch: “Indecent” proposal

Artists Rep and Profile stage Paula Vogel's play about an infamous episode in theater history. Plus: other openings, closings and theatrical miscellany.

Two women, in love — kissing even! That was controversial stuff a century ago when the Sholem Asch play “God of Vengeance” made its English-language premiere on Broadway. Paula Vogel’s 2017 Tony nominated play Indecent tells the tale of Asch’s iconoclastic approach to the stage, his (originally Yiddish) play’s worldwide success, and the tragic consequences of its travails in America.

A staged reading of God of Vengeance presented last month by Readers Theatre Rep showed how potent its characters and themes remain, as well as what an important step it was in the development of a more modern kind of theater. A recent essay for ArtWatch by Jae Carlsson lauded God of Vengeance, raising it up as an example of a theater aesthetic that’s  “off-kilter,” “naked,” “raw…real…slightly out-of-control,” while posing questions about how Indecent may or may not honor this inspiration. Despite a persistently skeptical tone toward it, Carlsson doesn’t give much indication of having seen the latter play. And though it might well ascribe to the more scrupulously organized psychological approach that Carlsson casually dismisses as “neoclassical,” Indecent is a powerful work in its own right.

Paula Vogel’s Indecent, in a joint production by Artists Rep and Profile Theatre, at Lincoln Hall. Photo: Kathleen Kelly.

Co-commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “American Revolutions” history-play program (along with Yale Repertory Theatre, where it premiered in 2015), Indecent was staged in Ashland last season, in a production by Shana Cooper that I found both captivating and heartbreaking. The remarkable Linda Alper, a veteran of OSF and Artists Rep, was in that production and serves as a kind of bridge to the Artists Rep/Profile Theatre co-production opening at Lincoln Hall. Here, Alper joins a veritable Portland all-star team, with the likes of Michael Mendelson, Gavin Hoffman, Jamie M. Rea, Joshua Weinstein and David Meyers.