‘A world of uncertainty’

Voices from the front: Arts philanthropist Ronni Lacroute says COVID-19 is forcing arts groups to think in new ways. Her role? “I just calm people down a lot.”

If you’ve attended plays or concerts in Portland or visited the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland with any regularity over the past decade, chances are good you owe at least one afternoon or evening of cultural enrichment to philanthropist Ronni Lacroute.

Lacroute lives in Yamhill County, where in 1991 she co-founded a vineyard and world-class winery on property that had been a cattle farm. As co-owner with her former husband of WillaKenzie Estate, she immersed herself in the wine business for a quarter century, until the winery was sold in 2016.

Lacroute, whose father was in the foreign service, had traveled extensively abroad in her youth. She studied romance languages and literature and has degrees from Cornell University, the University of Michigan, and both the licence ès lettres and the maîtrise ès lettres in North American literature from the Paris-Sorbonne University. She was a college professor and taught French language and culture in high school in Massachusetts in the 1970s and 1980s.


Along the way, she became a patron of the arts and for years has given widely to a variety of Oregon arts organizations. She’s a generous donor to arts programs at Linfield College in McMinnville, where she’s a member of the Board of Trustees. (From the Department of Full Disclosure: She’s also a donor to Oregon ArtsWatch, and earlier this year I appeared in a play at Gallery Theater in McMinnville that she sponsored.)

Ronni Lacroute says arts organizations hardest hit by the coronavirus shutdown are those locked into a venue, like a symphony hall or a theater that doesn’t allow flexible spacing. Smaller, project-based companies are better able to look at alternatives. Photo by: Carolyn Wells-Kramer
Ronni Lacroute says smaller and project-based arts organizations that have flexibility in terms of venue are coming up with creative alternative ways of connecting with audiences. Photo by: Carolyn Wells-Kramer

She now is involved full time in individual philanthropy, holding nonstop meetings with the nonprofit community. She’s particularly interested in artistic projects and groups that promote important conversations across social, economic, and political divides and that effect social change.

Because Lacroute is so connected with the region’s artistic life, we thought it would be enlightening to find out what she’s hearing in the wake of COVID-19. A lot, it turns out. And she was more than happy to share. The following interview was conducted via Facetime and has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me what it was like for you, when this really hit, as far as your meetings and contacts.

Lacroute: Well really, the only thing in my life that’s changed is no live meetings. I used to have people here every single day for meetings. The structure of my work life was to meet live and spend a couple of hours brainstorming ideas. It’s really hard to do that when you just have a phone call. You don’t do that for two hours. We exchange ideas, but how much can you put into an email or a 10-minute phone conversation? I’m missing the depth of exploration that we had before, where people were expecting that we’re going to hang out until we have some plans.

How did those conversations change once everyone really understood what was happening?


A poet laureate for new times

As the world turns, new Oregon laureate Anis Mojgani embraces his role: "Writing a poem is the answer to an unknown question."

On Monday, April 27, Governor Kate Brown named Anis Mojgani as Oregon’s 10th Poet Laureate. Mojgani, whose two-year appointment begins May 4, succeeds Kim Stafford, who has held the post since 2018. In a press release Brown praised Mojgani as “the pragmatic optimist Oregon needs in these unprecedented times. His words breathe fresh air into the anxiety and negativity that we all feel. He urges us to resolutely reflect in the moment and with each grounding breath, our hearts ‘come closer and come into this’.”

The role of the Oregon Poet Laureate is to foster the art of poetry, encourage literacy and learning, address central issues relating to humanities and heritage, and reflect on public life in Oregon.

Mojgani is the author of five books of poetry, most recently In the Pockets of Small Gods, published in 2018. He is a two-time individual champion of the National Poetry Slam and a winner of the International World Cup Poetry Slam. His work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies and he has performed at venues around the world, including the United Nations.

Born and raised in New Orleans. Mojgani received a BFA in Sequential Art and a Master of Fine Arts in Performing Arts from Savannah College of Art and Design. He first called Portland, Oregon home in 2004.

Anis Mojgani takes over as Oregon’s 10th poet laureate on May 4. Photo: Hilde Frazsen

What does it mean to win this award, especially right now, in this world?

It’s strange and weird and bananas. One feels very excited and validated while at the same time humbled and unsure. But (it’s) also terribly exciting and fantastic for a number of reasons. As many years as I’ve had a relationship with Oregon I haven’t seen a majority of the state. To be tasked specifically to go to places I haven’t been is in itself a wonderful opportunity. To get to do that while introducing poetry to people or fostering the reading and writing of poetry and widening that dialogue and space and permission to engage in that with folks is very exciting.


Starting Over: Masks and democracy

While Seoul opens its high-end art galleries, we're still wondering when the testing, tracing, isolation regime will begin

In Seoul, Korea, a metropolis of 10 million, “a steady stream of Mercedes sedans pulled up to the valet, disgorging their fashion-forward passengers,” in front of the Seoul outpost of a fashionable New York-based gallery, the New York Times reported yesterday. Seoul now has its share of high-end contemporary art galleries and collectors, and after months of lockdown, everyone was ready to see some art.

The art they were seeing was by Billy Childish, a long-time art world rebel and working-class leftist, not to mention garage band rock’n’roller.  His work is now fetching prices cresting beyond $25,000, which he himself considers a matter of luck—after 40 years, the curators and dealers who championed him had finally seized the reins at major institutions, he told the Times.

After experiencing the little tingle that comes when I see the prices politically progressive artists are commanding in the rarefied art marketplace, I marveled at another statistic in the story. Seoul, with more than double the population of Oregon, has recorded only two deaths due to Covid-19.

Billy Childish, birches with green shadows, 2016
© Billy Childish, courtesy of Carl Freedman Gallery, photo: Andy Keate

Two. Deaths.

South Korea jumped immediately into the appropriate pandemic response. The country locked down early, it embraced social distancing, it distributed N-95 quality masks to all of its people, it tested widely, and when people tested positive for Covid-19, it traced and isolated those who came into contact with them. The public took this regime seriously.


Virtual art show goes viral

An online exhibition at Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg explores artistic responses to COVID-19

The Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg, like every other gallery and cultural venue in Oregon, is closed to the public, but the nonprofit’s resolve to stay on task with showcasing art, bringing artists together, and building a cultural community is unbroken.

Last week, the center unveiled an extraordinary and ambitious online exhibition brilliantly curated (presumably from her home) by Carissa Burkett, who keeps the center’s multiple galleries full year-round. It answers, at least in a preliminary way, a question that’s been on my mind since mid-March when COVID-19 shut everything down: How will artists respond to a pandemic?

“A dream of flying,” by Stan Peterson of Portland (carved and painted basswood on birch panel, 11 by 14 by 4 inches, April 2020). Peterson says of his piece: “The reclining figure emanating the yellow light of sky rests in a boat adrift. There is a sort of reverie to sheltering in place. I’m also feeling adrift, waiting to fly again.”
“A dream of flying,” by Stan Peterson of Portland (carved and painted basswood on birch panel, 11 by 14 by 4 inches, April 2020). Peterson says of his piece: “The reclining figure emanating the yellow light of sky rests in a boat adrift. There is a sort of reverie to sheltering in place. I’m also feeling adrift, waiting to fly again.”

A global trauma like COVID-19 will surely reverberate through the art world in coming years and even decades in ways we can’t predict. But Our Changing Context: Initial Artistic Response to COVID-19 at least provides an expansive snapshot of what artists are up to right now.

The show’s emotional resonance is all the more powerful thanks to two personal notes Burkett includes in the program’s description. She credits her father, Phil Burkett, for “planting the idea for this exhibit in my mind and for continually nurturing my creative spirit.” Also: “My work on this exhibit is in loving memory of my grandmother, Arlene Sue Conner, who passed away this past weekend on 4/18/2020.” 

“Curating this online exhibit has been a unique experience,” she writes. “Arranging images and text on a screen instead of lugging around my hammer and nails has allowed me to spend more time looking at, thinking about, and arranging these artworks than any physical exhibition I have ever put together. This allowed me the opportunity to bring together artists from across the country who work in widely different mediums but share the common experience of a pandemic that leaves every life continually grieving a new context, one in which needs cannot be met.  However each person chooses to make it through each day during this crisis is unique and how each of these artists have created is a testament to humanity.”

The exhibition features work by more than 20 artists, from Oregon and around the country, and includes digital photography, collage, drawing, poetry, painting, and video.


Artist Ka’ila Farrell-Smith: Re-thinking the post-pandemic world

Ka'ila Farrell-Smith, Klamath-Modoc, sees the pandemic as a chance to break with the inequities of the pre-pandemic world

This is the first in a series of short(ish) interviews with Portland artists and arts professionals about their experiences and insights into the effects of the pandemic on our arts community. I hope these conversations will provide a bit of connection, critical perspective, and hope during this difficult time. 

Ka'ila Farrell Smith leans against a rock face bearing a circular petroglyph, she wears a pale blue t-shirt, white patterned bandana around her neck, brown tinted sunglasses and a multicolored baseball cap.
Ka’ila Farrell-Smith

Ka’ila Farrell-Smith (Klamath-Modoc) is an artist and organizer based in Modoc Point, Oregon. Her work “explores the space in between Indigenous and Western paradigms.” She is a Co-Director and Guide with Signal Fire Arts, a Portland organization that offers wilderness trips and residencies to artists and writers. Her work has been exhibited at the Tacoma Art Museum (WA) and the Missoula Art Museum (MT) and is held in the collections of the Portland Art Museum and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. She holds a BFA from Pacific Northwest College of Art and an MFA from Portland State University.

How are you doing? Do you have any strategies for managing the various anxieties, fears, and inconveniences the pandemic is causing?


Blood, sweat, tears — and a little Beatrix Potter

Lincoln City's Nora Sherwood left a lucrative career in geographic information systems to become a natural science illustrator

The daughter of a foreign service diplomat, Nora Sherwood has lived the life of a world adventurer from the start. Born in Colombia, she graduated high school in Spain and, in between, lived in Sweden, Finland, and Chile. She returned to the United States to attend the University of Colorado at Boulder, then embarked on a highly lucrative, but largely unknown, career in geographic information systems (think Google Maps).

After raising a family, she walked away from geographic information in favor of a career she wasn’t, to be honest, quite ready for. Not that it stopped her. Today, Sherwood is a successful natural science illustrator whose clients include Williams Sonoma, Oregon State University, and the High Desert Museum in Bend.

Lincoln City artist Nora Sherwood is scheduled to teach a workshop on bird illustration this summer at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology.
Lincoln City artist Nora Sherwood is scheduled to teach a workshop on bird illustration this summer at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology.

Sherwood recently hosted a virtual tour of her studio in Lincoln City and is scheduled to teach a July workshop at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology (it’s full, but there’s a waiting list). We talked with Sherwood about her career as a natural science illustrator.

So about the midlife career change — what made you trade a career in technology for one in the arts?

Sherwood: It’s kind of complicated. There are two main reasons. First, I got into that field very early on and rode a really interesting wave of trying to help people understand how that tool could be applied. When I got to the point of telling people I was into geographic information systems and they stopped asking, “What is that?,” I realized it was time to get into something else. I started a family and took time out to raise my kids. Geographic information systems is a fast-moving field. When I was able to focus again full-time, the field had gone past me. I would have needed to do some significant retraining, and with a family I just didn’t want to do that.

Why natural science illustration?

I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what I wanted to do next. I have always liked science illustration. I like the style of that artwork. There are programs where you can be taught how to be a science illustrator. I looked into that. If I had looked into it better, I might have realized how much money I was leaving on the table. (Laughs.)

Sherwood works primarily in watercolor, but also uses colored pencils, pen and ink, graphite and scratchboard. She says an involved illustration, like these ospreys building a nest, can take 50 hours to complete.
Sherwood works primarily in watercolor, but also uses colored pencils, pen and ink, graphite and scratchboard. She says an involved illustration, such as these ospreys building a nest, can take 50 hours to complete.

Are you a natural artist?

No, I am not. That was kind of the crazy part. The program at the University of Washington assumed you would already be an artist. I had the rude shock of realizing my art skills were not good enough. Fortunately, the Gage Academy of Art (a four-year art school oriented toward adults) was nearby, and I took all the basic drawing and color-theory classes it offered. It’s been blood, sweat, and tears. I felt a little bit desperate. I had walked away from my career. I had to do this. I graduated in 2014 from the University of Washington with a Certificate of Natural Science Illustration.

On your webpage, you talk about some of the illustrators who have influenced the field, Maria Sibylla Merian and John James Audubon. But your favorite is…

Beatrix Potter. She’s thought of as the “Peter Rabbit lady.” But she turned to doing those books partly out of frustration at not being taken seriously for her studies of mycology.

In this ever-changing age of technology, does science illustration still have value?

I think sometimes a piece of artwork is much more beautiful than a photograph, so that you will actually want to look at it. You might blow by a photograph of the same subject.

What about from a practical standpoint?

I get asked to do projects for people who need stuff you can’t photograph. I’ve drawn a lot of blister beetles. They’re a commercially important beetle used in surgery as a blistering agent so that medicines can be put in subcutaneously. I worked with a professor in entomology who needed drawings of blister beetles. The differences are really subtle, so that you need to see those differences only and not the whole beetle. You need to simplify it.

The Western Painted Turtle is native to Oregon. On a post for the Burke Blog, Sherwood writes: “Science illustrators don’t render individual specimens, but rather often illustrate an accurate ideal,” a composite of attributes from multiple specimens that can be used to illustrate guiding characteristics in scientific papers, journals, and field guides.
Sherwood says she enjoys illustrating reptiles, such as this Western Painted Turtle. On a post for the Burke Blog, Sherwood writes: “Science illustrators don’t render individual specimens, but rather often illustrate an accurate ideal,” a composite of attributes from multiple specimens that can be used to show guiding characteristics in scientific papers, journals, and field guides.

What is your favorite subject?

I am pretty much known for birds.

What is the most difficult?

I’m not as good a botanical artist as I would like to be. I’m still getting better at that.

How long does it take you to complete an illustration?

The simplest I would ever do would be five hours – for maybe a 5-inch portrait of a little bird. At the other end, 50 hours. That might be something more like a 13-by-19 illustration of a pair of ospreys building a nest.

You’ve lived all over the world. What drew you to the coast?

I really had no say in the matter. We lived in Steamboat Springs, Colo. My husband is from Southern California, and he wanted to get back to the beach, but not California. We moved in 2014. I didn’t like it initially. I thought, “Oh my gosh, how am I going to make this work?” But now I think this is a wonderful town for an artist.


This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.

Portland’s variety and vitality, in print

Bijan Berahimi's latest project, Joon, is a multi-disciplinary arts magazine that celebrates all the city has to offer from food carts to funeral homes


JOON, a colloquial term of endearment in Farsi, is the name of Portland’s newest arts and culture magazine. The magazine is the brainchild of Bijan Berahimi, owner of FISK, a local design studio, gallery, and publisher. Born of a collaboration with Brown Printing, Inc, JOON’s first issue is now available exclusively in print through stockists in Portland, Los Angeles, New York City, and Tokyo, as well as FISK’s online store. The 160-page, polychrome tome is the product of six years of conversations with different members of Portland’s creative community. Combining the radically inclusive content of a zine with the aesthetic appeal of a high-quality, glossy print magazine, JOON is unique, personal, non-conformist, and beautifully executed. Luiza Lukova and Sebastian Zinn sat down with Berahimi to discuss the eclectic group of creative individuals and institutions involved in JOON’s publication, as well as his idiosyncratic approach to print media as an art form in itself.

Stack of JOON magazine. Image courtesy of FISK.

A calculated reaction to the scarcity of platforms for in-depth arts coverage in the Pacific Northwest, JOON emphasizes the sundry manifestations of culture which distinguish a community like Portland’s. The magazine is a manifestation of Berahimi’s personal ethos and professional values. With it, he uses his own brand and first-rate skills as a graphic designer to spotlight artists from very diverse backgrounds who have enriched this city through their distinctive creative practices and sui generis aesthetics.