Field of Vision

Conference introduces national organization to Portland through performance and discussion of pressing issues in Oregon arts

A group of prominent Portland artists sat around a table with representatives of some of Oregon’s heaviest hitting arts funders, and the conversation was growing tense. How do funders determine which artists receive support, one artist asked, especially individuals and small organizations that might lack resources and track record compared to better-funded and -staffed institutions? Why do funds seem to flow to the same organizations year after year, even though the art they pay for doesn’t reflect the diversity of the community the organizations and artists both purport to serve? 

Such questions have long troubled Oregon’s art scene as it evolves into a more diverse community. But we seldom hear them voiced aloud in a public event, especially with both donors and recipients present. It’s even rarer for the conversation to proceed beyond accusation to explanation and understanding.

But that’s what happened last spring when Portland’s New Expressive Works hosted the 2019 National Field Network Conference. Presented by staff members from the national organization Jennifer Wright Cook and Shawn René Graham, local Field office representatives Jen Mitas and Katherine Longstreth, and conference consultant Subashini Ganesan, the two-day event — which included performances, installation, and discussion– introduced the New York-based arts organization The Field to Portland, and offered about 200 Oregon artists and arts advocates the chance to participate in conversations about the work The Field is doing, and related issues arts organizations face here.

Pepper Pepper performed excerpts from the forthcoming ‘Noise/Data’ at The Field conference. Image: Karl Lind.

Along with putting artists and art funders around the same table for candid discussions, the first day events presented The Field’s history and explained its Fieldwork method for giving artists needed feedback on their work. The second day featured a panel of Northwest artists discussing the role of social media and digital media in their art practices, plus several performances of dance, music, installation and multimedia art — a welcome injection of actual art into the discussion of arts issues. The event raised some tough but necessary questions about Oregon’s art scene pertinent to artists, presenters, funders, and audiences.

This weekend, Portlanders can see some of the fruits of The Field PDX’s work as artists who’ve received feedback through its Fieldwork process show their work at New Expressive Works’s 12th Residency Performance, where they participated in a residency with Longstreth.


How to be a critic? Just do it

A critic’s voice is not the voice of God. It is human, and fallible, and individual. It will sometimes please you, sometimes amuse you, sometimes infuriate you.

I told a friend the other day that I was working on a talk to be titled “How To Be a Critic,” and when she asked me how it was going I said, “Well, I hope I figure out the answer before Tuesday night.”

Truth is, there are about as many ways to be a critic as there are critics. If you’re looking for a decoder ring, that’s kind of annoying. Nevertheless, it’s true. Critics are writers, and writing is more art than science. It has rules, but they’re bendable. And all critics will bend them in their own peculiar ways.

A critic’s voice is not the voice of God. It is human, and fallible, and individual. It will sometimes please you, sometimes amuse you, sometimes infuriate you. Always, it should engage you. You should find critics who speak to you, one way or another, and stick with them as long as the conversation stays interesting. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t disagree or argue with them. Most critics argue with themselves quite a bit, and are plagued by second thoughts.

A critic ought to stimulate you, and get you to thinking in fresh ways, and open new windows for you to look into or out of. A good critic helps frame a conversation. She opens sometimes unexpected views to the subject at hand. She helps you see things in different ways. Good criticism is informed, but it’s also open and curious. It’s an exploration. It’s quite possible that the critic’s got to where she’s leading you just a couple of steps before you. I once ran across a description of the beast that I haven’t been able to track down since: “A critic is someone whose education takes place in public.”    

This essay was delivered on Sept. 17, 2019, as a speech for the Artalk! series at the University Club of Portland. Sections of it are adapted from “Three Hands of Art,” a December 2014 speech delivered to the art-book publisher Pomegranate Communications.

Working artists, as you can imagine, often have different definitions. Picasso framed the difference between critic and artist as the difference between theory and practice. “When art critics get together they talk about Form and Structure and Meaning,” he said. “When artists get together they talk about where you can buy cheap turpentine.”

The actor Eli Wallach was a little more pointed: “Having the critics praise you is like having the hangman say you’ve got a pretty neck.”

Or the poet Robert Burns, in rhyme: “Critics! Appalled I ventured on the name. Those cutthroat bandits in the paths of fame.”

Oscar Wilde, on the other hand, saw something of a collaboration, if not quite an equal one: “The critic has to educate the public,” he wrote; “the artist has to educate the critic.” I like this, and find it true. I’ve learned about art through the grace and good will of many artists who have introduced me to their work, shown me how they do it and talked about why, trusted me enough to take the chance that if they open up to me I’ll get it right, or mostly right, and pass along what I’ve learned. Sometimes, I imagine, they find it vexing that I skew the view toward my own.

I have informal guidelines to how a critic should or shouldn’t go about the task. I’ll get to those later. And as an aside, I’d like to say that I don’t really much care for the word “critic.” I’m not overly fond of the word “art,” either. Both are reductive and limiting, and prone to serious misinterpretation, but we use them because they’re quick and handy. I think of myself as a writer first, but the phrase “writer who is writing today about the theater” doesn’t fit very well in a byline. The pieces I write, as a cultural journalist, I like to think of as engagements in a continuing conversation. I once mentioned to Libby Appel, when she was artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, that I didn’t think of myself as a critic. She rolled her eyes. “Oh YOU’RE a critic, all right,” she said. We liked each other, but on that point she was firm: I was an inevitability.


Honoré Daumier, Walk-through of an influential critic, from ‘Sketches from the Salon,’ published in ‘Le Charivari,’ June 24, 1865. Lithograph on newsprint, second state; image: 9 7/16 x 8 9/16 inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Rogers Fund, 1922.

CRITICISM, OF COURSE, CAN’T EXIST WITHOUT ART. A good critic should never forget this. However creative your process may be, what you practice as a critic is a secondary art form. And you can’t – or at least, I can’t – talk about art without also talking about its social context. So let me observe that our culture is schizophrenic on the subject.


Artists talking to artists

The inaugural Clatsop County Arts Summit will cover everything from lease-to-own art to copyright law

We bought our first “major” piece of art from a little gallery in Belize. It was an oil of a favorite stretch of beach where the hubs and I had taken to spending a few weeks every winter. It was a large painting, and we decided it would go over our bed in place of a headboard. Carefully, carefully, we packed the canvas home, then dropped it at the local frame shop to be mounted. Home, we headed to the bedroom to hang the piece, eager for this finishing touch that would complete our master bedroom.

“It’s too big,” my husband announced.

I looked on from the foot of the bed, nodding grimly. What the hell had we been thinking?

Fortunately, there were a few other spaces it would fit, and the painting found a home on our living room wall. But the lesson hasn’t left me, and now as I ponder a piece that we recently fell for, I can’t escape the doubts. What if?

Astoria artist Dave Ambrose will talk about how artists can use a lease-to-own program to get art into the hand of would-be customers during the Clatsop County Arts Summit next month. Photo courtesy: Dave Ambrose
During the Clatsop County Arts Summit next month, Astoria artist Dave Ambrose will talk about how artists can use a lease-to-own program to get art into the hands of would-be customers. Photo courtesy: Dave Ambrose

It’s a vibe Astoria artist Dave Ambrose picks up on all the time as would-be buyers peruse his work, wondering, will it or won’t work in my house? So Ambrose created his own lease-to-own program. He’ll share his tips on making that work next month at The Business of Art: Artists Teaching Artists, the inaugural Arts Summit hosted by the Arts Council of Clatsop County. The summit is designed both to promote arts in the county and to provide workshops and discussions to “educate, empower, and inspire professional artists.” It will run from 1 to 5 p.m. Nov. 12 in the Seaside Civic and Convention Center. Admission is free.

“Art is so subjective,” Ambrose said. “When people come to visit on our studio tour, I can watch them walk around the house and then they stop and look at a painting and they look at it and look at it, and I know they’ve connected. I say, you know you can take it home for $10 a month and see how it looks. I don’t have white walls, and background colors make art look completely different. You have to get it home and look at it. About 50 percent of the time they take it home, come back, and pay me in full.”


Falling in love with movies and film festivals

Justin Zimmerman of the McMinnville Short Film Festival talks about his gateway films, the festival life, and this weekend's mini-fest fundraiser

The hottest movie ticket in Yamhill County this weekend isn’t at a theater. That distinction belongs to the Ice Auditorium on the Linfield College campus, where the McMinnville Short Film Festival will hold a sneak preview.

Eight films will be screened Saturday night (including one of last year’s crowd favorites, the hilarious I Will Not Write Unless I Am Swaddled in Furs). Afterward, audience members will meet some of the filmmakers and players behind the ninth annual event, scheduled for Feb. 21-23. Tickets are only $5, and Linfield students with ID get in free. The mini film fest runs from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Oct. 26. Proceeds will be split between the  McMinnville Short Film Festival and scholarships for immigrant students in Yamhill County.

Justin Zimmerman was involved in the McMinnville Short Film Festival as a filmmaker and a judge before becoming executive director last spring. Photo by: David Bates
Justin Zimmerman was involved in the McMinnville Short Film Festival as an entrant and a judge before being named executive director last spring. Photo by: David Bates

One guy who will be in the audience and working the crowd afterward will be filmmaker Justin Zimmerman, who last spring was brought aboard as the festival’s executive director.

Zimmerman’s Portland-based Bricker-Down Productions has had films in more than 150 international festivals and won in dozens of them. Zimmerman also contributed a story to the Eisner Award-winning graphic novel Love Is Love. His connection with the McMinnville festival, founded by Dan and Nancy Morrow nearly a decade ago, goes back several years — first as an entrant and later as a judge.

I sat down a few weeks ago with Zimmerman during one of his visits to McMinnville, where he’s been discovering our restaurants and shops as he meets with the festival’s growing roster of partners (Linfield College among them) in preparation for February’s event. The festival has expanded to three days, entries are up, and it’s booked the largest auditorium at the local Coming Attractions multiplex for the entire weekend. “I have peers and friends in the world of film festivals, film programmers, executive directors, etc.,” he told me, “who, if they saw the budget of what we’re doing, they would be astounded.”

Zimmerman and I talked for about 90 minutes in a conversation that veered from his background and experiences and the festival to a few geek-out moments over movies we have both seen and loved. The following exchange has been edited for length and clarity.

What was your first movie memory growing up?

Zimmerman: I was fortunate enough to see Return of the Jedi, Gremlins, and Ghostbusters in a theater. Those really hit me. I remember those having a visceral effect. I remember seeing E.T. at a drive-in theater, that one blew me away. Movies really spoke to me. I was pretty young when I realized how powerful a movie could be. I didn’t have the training to contextualize it — the cinematography, the score, the acting, etc. — but it was very early on that I fell in love with movies.

What did you study in college?

Ohio State didn’t have a film production program, so I studied English and film criticism. I was fortunate to have a professor who taught the history of art named Ron Green, who was one of the most amazing film voices you could ever hope to find. I was studying Milton and Shakespeare and comparative world religions. I studied abroad in England and Ireland. Being in Scotland when Trainspotting hit was incredible. I took these courses in English where professors would teach what they were interested in: Feminism in horror movies; Orson Welles into Kubrick; and looking at the films of these wide-angle auteurs. It was remarkable.

Any particular film leap out, get inside your head?


The Inside Show

An innovative collaboration among Portland artists and prison inmates gives lively, often funny voice to the view from inside the walls


It is in collectivities that we find reservoirs of hope and optimism.”
Angela Y. DavisFreedom is a Constant Struggle – Ferguson, Palestine and the Foundations of Movements.


The first time I set foot into an American jail happened in New York City in 1978, while accompanying lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights during a visit to a city jail with their clients. My familiarity with the German prison system had not prepared me for what I encountered on U.S. soil in that and later visits, starting with the physical factors of overcrowding and horrid sanitary conditions alone and amplified by reports of continual violence both among those who were incarcerated and from those who guarded them. The memory was triggered, for one, by the fact that the New York City Council voted this week to close the abominable Rikers Island Jail complex, and secondly, by a visit inside a prison, this time in Oregon, but for all intents and purposes on a different planet from Rikers.

View from the Parking Lot at Columbia River Correctional Institution.

Bureaucratic hurdles to enter the Northeast Portland minimum-security prison were surprisingly few. My pre-approved camera was checked both at entry and upon leaving, and the dress code requirements (no blues allowed, lest you couldn’t be differentiated from the inmates) were minimal. For this one-time visit I did not have to undergo volunteer training, thus being spared the instruction not to be open to manipulation from prisoners, an aspect that always struck me as sowing suspiciousness and bound to instill an us vs them attitude right from the start.


Finn builds a galaxy… with help from a pro

Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr. and 6-year-old Finn Connaughton collaborate on an extraterrestrial installation at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg

The Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg features an exhibit, Finn Builds a Galaxy, that was created by two artists whose life experiences could scarcely be more different.

Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr. is 32 years old, has studied art at Alfred University School of Art and Design, and is doing graduate work at Portland State University. Stevenson has worked as a figure model, a cook, a grocery store clerk, and a community organizer. Born in Gaithersburg, Md., the artist has traveled to Mexico, Canada, Scotland, Italy, and Germany. For the past 10 years, Stevenson has worked on a variety of projects while also studying.

The exhibit is named after the other artist, Finn Connaughton. He’s 6 and attends first grade at Yamhill-Carlton Elementary School. The son of a pharmacist father, Erin, and Jacki, a stay-at-home mother, he’s fond of Minecraft, building with LEGOS, and Pokémon. And, of course, art. 

Finn Connaughton, 6, and Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr., 32, collaborated on an other-worldly exhibit on display through Oct. 31 at the Chehalem Cultural Center. Photo by: David Bates
Finn Connaughton, 6, and Artist Michael Bernard Stevenson Jr., 32, collaborated on an other-worldly exhibit on display through Oct. 31 at the Chehalem Cultural Center. Photo by: David Bates

At a reception last week, Finn stood on the center’s spacious lobby mezzanine gazing at his galaxy — planets, stars, LEGO spaceships, and a few flying creatures — looking a bit awed by the attention but clearly proud of his galactic creation. Below, his parents and extended family, other visitors, and staff looked up, some taking pictures.

Next to him, Stevenson grinned and offered Finn one of many compliments: “You are even more famous in Newberg than I am!”


Happy birthday, Street Roots

Portland's weekly newspaper celebrates 20 years as a beacon of advocacy for the city's homeless, and its crew of vendor poets


“THERE IS A LOT OF COURAGE OUT HERE,” Kaia Sand, executive director of Street Rootscommented recently when introducing women and men at a poetry reading at Gallery 114 ready to present their writing to the assembled guests. The poets were people who are living, fighting, and surviving houselessness. One should add grit, determination, persistence and talent to the notion of courage – both with regard to the presenting poets and the organization that endeavors to support them.

Symbols of the street: the right to speak out.

Many of us might be buying Street Roots on occasion or on a regular basis. The weekly newspaper is produced to provide income opportunities for people experiencing homelessness and poverty, and to act as a catalyst for individual and social change. Vendors pay 25 cents for every paper they sell for $1. For that, they stand days on end on street corners, in all weather, facing who knows how many people who avert their eyes for every one who glances at them, or engages in quick conversation while buying the paper. What stays invisible is the talent and perceptiveness of those vendors trying to connect. What stays hidden is our own timidity to face misery that contrasts with our privilege. Off we rush, having paid a token buck.