LANGUAGE ARTS

Seeing with fresh eyes

ArtsWatch’s Coast correspondent reflects on what she learned covering the arts in 2018

An editor once told me the best way to learn anything is to write about it. That lesson was driven home this year as I took on the beat covering arts on the Oregon Coast. Prior to that, I would have told you that, yes, the arts are alive and well on the edge of the Pacific. At other times, I could have been heard grumbling that there was nothing to do here. Then admitting, grudgingly, that even when there was, I didn’t do it. I might have said it was a case of “been there, done that.”

In truth, after so many years of covering breaking — often tragic — news, lightened by the occasional feature, and even then hamstrung by the rules of conventional journalism, I kind of forgot about art and just how much it encompasses. I forgot that art unites us, teaches us, makes us better people. That art brightens the world.

Newport’s Nye Beach neighborhood once hosted more rats than visitors.

And so, when the offer came to write this weekly column, I was sorely tempted to say no. Other than living here, I didn’t think I had the connections. But I thought about it and I wavered — yes, no, maybe, well OK, at least for now. I had this idea that it could be a chance to broaden my horizons, to move from that place of stagnation, and start growing again. It was an enticing thought, but really, I had no idea what I’d happened upon.

I soon learned that you can’t write about the arts in a place like the Oregon Coast — a place where one of the largest cities has roughly nine traffic lights — and not come away inspired. Again and again, I have been awed by what people in these small towns accomplish through sheer will, generosity of time and spirit, and the absolute refusal to give up.

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Beauty, Romance, Horror: The Queer Poetics of Leigh Nishi-Strattner’s ‘Bone Honey’

Best known for her vogue triumphs in New York and Portland clubs, Leigh Nishi-Strattner has published a set of poems that celebrates sensory delights

By ANDREW JANKOWSKI

In his now-classic essay collection Ways of Seeing, the late artist and art critic John Berger distilled lightning with his take on classic depictions of the feminine: “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her. Put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting ‘Vanity,’ thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.”

In Portland, the poet, performance artist and model Leigh Nishi-Strattner embodies Berger’s sentiment as a queer high femme, concerning herself with validating labors and expressions discouraged by toxic masculine culture. Whether she’s writing poetry, serving looks, or sharing her beauty secrets with one of the world’s biggest magazines, Nishi-Strattner stretches and bends the antiquated binary notions of how a woman can be. In November, the small press Club Soft Things hosted a salon to celebrate the release of Nishi-Strattner’s debut collection of romantic prose poetry, Bone Honey.

Leigh Nishi-Strattner at the publication party for Bone Honey, her new poetry collection/Photo by Alec Marchant

Held at a warehouse in inner Southeast Portland, three dozen people gathered to hear Nishi-Strattner and fellow Club Soft Things poet Gary Gamza, who uses they/them pronouns. Salon patrons ate hors d’oeuvres, drank cocktails, chatted and perused other CST titles sold by publisher Emily Daniels.

The warehouse had one room decorated with gilded tropical leaves, a candelabra, tea and prayer candles, lit by what looked like a red gelled X-ray reader. The other was lit only by a circle of white prayer candles and dried flowers repurposed from the rapper Maarquii’s album release party the week prior. This room, containing an antique upholstered wicker chair that belonged to Nishi-Strattner’s grandmother, was where Daniels introduced Gamza and Nishi-Strattner, describing their work as making the reader feel comfortable being vulnerable.

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Social engagement: politics, resistance, and art

2018 in Review, Part 5: Oregon ArtsWatch visited creators in all media who are addressing problems ranging from racism to climate change

The world is indisputably in a precarious position — not just politically and socially, but economically and even ecologically. It is a moment of crisis. Artists play a crucial role in moments like these, helping the rest of us arrive at a shared cognition of what is — of seeing, sensing, and feeling that roil of life in a way that clarifies, opens eyes, and maybe even showing us a way forward.

What struck me in compiling this year-end reading list on socially engaged art in Oregon is the extent to which artists strove not simply to see and interpret, but to peel back layers, to reveal what is largely hidden — either by design or by accident — by institutions, by geography, and even by the telling of history. There may be no “new” stories to tell, but too many stories haven’t been heard by those who need to hear them, by people who perhaps want to see, but don’t know how.

So dive into this compilation. There’s a bit of everything: visual art, theater, music, conceptual art, literature. And, of course, the usual disclaimer: The choices here are highly subjective and presented in no particular order, and obviously are not intended to be comprehensive.

 


 

Witnesses in a churning world

Artist Hung Liu says “Official Portraits: Immigrant” (2006, lithograph with collage) is one of three self-portraits representing stages of her life.

Sept. 27: ArtsWatch’s Bob Hicks checked out a fall show at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem called Witness: Themes of Social Justice in Contemporary Printmaking and Photography. It featured a lineup of artists who look at the world through a lens that is both personal and cultural, and in a way that connects our present moment with history.

“The idea of art as a pristine thing, separated from the hurly-burly of the everyday world and somehow above it all, is a popular notion,” Hicks wrote. “But a much stronger case exists for the idea of art as the expression of the roil of life, in all its messiness and cruelty and prejudices and passions and pleasures and occasional outbursts of joy. Art comes from somewhere, and that somewhere is the world in which we live.”

The article is a mini-tour of the exhibition itself, with nearly 20 pieces accompanied by the artists’ personal statements reflecting the roil and rebellion of their creative processes.

 


 

David Ludwig: Telling the Earth’s story through music

Chamber Music Northwest performs ‘Pangæa.’ Photo: Tom Emerson.

July 27: “Pangæa was the single huge continent on Earth encompassed by one vast ocean over 200 million years ago – eons before dinosaurs, much less humans,” musician David Ludwig writes in the program notes for composition of the same name. “It was an entirely different planet than one we’d recognize today, lush with life of another world.” That’s the world Ludwig interpreted musically in the West Coast premiere of Pangæa, a piece inspired by the ancient Earth, and the threat of extinction as a result of human-caused climate change. Matthew Andrews talked to him about this extraordinary piece of music for ArtsWatch. Best of all: You can listen to it yourself.

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Imagining a different world with Ursula K. Le Guin

Arwen Curry, whose documentary about Le Guin will play in Nehalem, says she wanted to share the experience of being with the Oregon author

As Oregon authors go, few are better known or beloved than the late Ursula K. Le Guin. A list of her awards alone would probably fill the space of this column. Most famous for her fantasy and science fiction works, including A Wizard of Earthsea and The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin died last January at age 88, only months before a documentary on her life, 10 years in the making, was finished.  

Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin will show at the North County Recreation District theater in Nehalem — presented by Hoffman Center for the Arts’ Manzanita Film Series — at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 21. Tickets will be available at the door for $5.

I spoke with film director and producer Arwen Curry about the documentary and her relationship with Le Guin.

Filmmaker Arwen Curry (left) worked with author Ursula K. Le Guin over a period of 10 years to
make the documentary “Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin.” It will be shown Dec. 21 in Nehalem.

Where does this begin? How did you decide you would take on the subject of a celebrated, world-renowned author?

AC:  I read the books for children or young adults and then I read the grown-up novels. She was a known voice to me. She was a figure in my internal bookshelf from my childhood. Seeing writers talk and the experience of seeing them in person can be so powerful and tell you so much more about the experience of being a writer. Who it is that became Ursula K. Le Guin? I wanted to share that experience of being in a room with her.

When I first decided to do that I didn’t know how to make films at all. I was writing for a magazine. I enrolled in a class on making documentaries at Berkeley with this project in mind. That was kind of a crapshoot.

Was it difficult to get Le Guin on board with you to make the film?

It wasn’t till after I finished and made one dissertation film that I came to her. I wanted to have one film under my belt. First, we had a correspondence asking to let me do this. She sort of agreed tentatively. Then, she sort of backed off. I convinced her to let me come and meet her. She invited me to her house. We talked about my vision for the film. After that point, she agreed to do it with me and stayed with me the entire time.

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Rick Bartow’s spirit inhabits play premiering in Newport

A Portland writer imagines an encounter between the world-renowned artist and three famous poets from whom he drew inspiration

Fourteen years ago, I was reporting a news story when I encountered a man weed-whacking. His back was turned and he wore a headset meant to protect his hearing. Few things are more awkward — and possibly risky — than approaching a stranger who can’t hear you, can’t see you, and has no idea you are there. I managed to get his attention. He greeted me with a smile and, reaching for my hand, introduced himself: Rick Bartow. He invited me inside the family home, offered me a glass of something cold, and introduced me to his wife and child.

Rick Bartow was photographed in 2015, the year before he died, by K.B. Dixon. From Dixon’s book, “Face to Face: 32 Oregon Artists.”

That’s how I met Bartow, an everyday guy who just happened to be a world-renowned artist. In Newport, it seems everyone has a story about Bartow, who died in 2016 at age 69. He was the guy you saw in the gym, jamming at the local café, perusing the library shelves. He was a member of the Northern California Wiyot Tribe, with close ties to the Siletz tribes of the Oregon Coast. He was kind, generous, straightforward, multi-talented, and possessed a certain instinctive wisdom, both enviable and humbling.

Portland writer Merridawn Duckler says her play, “Rick Bartow: In Spirit,” includes projections, songs, and a little bit of dancing.

That’s the man Portland writer Merridawn Duckler set out to portray in her new play Rick Bartow: In Spirit, which concerns an imaginary encounter between Bartow and three writers who inspired him. The play, directed by Marc Maislen, premieres at the Newport Performing Arts Center Dec. 14-16. Tickets are $20 and $25.

Duckler never met Bartow, but describes herself as a “huge fan always.” The path to writing a play based on Bartow’s art is a one-thing-leads-to-another tale, beginning with her work years ago as a writer for Tom Webb at a Portland arts magazine. Duckler went on to write an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s play, The Informer; Webb moved to the coast to manage the Newport Visual Arts Center. Bartow had donated a collection of 17 portraits of acclaimed writers to the Newport Public Library, the drawings were subsequently displayed at the Visual Arts Center, where Duckler’s adaption was performed. The conversation — plays, portraits, artists, shows — began and In Spirit was born.

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The strangest epic poem you’ve never heard of

Linfield professor Sonia Ticas is part of the team translating a 456-page work by Costa Rican poet Eunice Odio for Portland’s Tavern Books

Nothing was foreseen.
All was imminent.

— “The Fire’s Journey, Part I: The Integration of the Parents”

With offices tucked away in Union Station, Portland-based Tavern Books is in the home stretch of an ambitious project that began more than five years ago: the translation and publication of more than 400 pages of the strangest epic poem you’ve never heard of. Written in the mid-20th century by Costa Rican poet Eunice Odio (a poet you’ve also probably never heard of), it’s called The Fire’s Journey. Tavern Books claims that it is the first book-length translation into English of the work of any Costa Rican woman poet.

Eunice Odio (1919-1974) is considered the leading Costa Rican poet of the 20th-century, according to Tavern Books, which is publishing “The Fire’s Journey” in four volumes.

The idea to bring this mysterious and complex work to English-speaking readers was the brainchild of Keith Ekiss. A Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford (where he still lectures) from 2005-07, Ekiss is the author of Pima Road Notebook, a poetry collection published in 2010 by New Issues Poetry & Prose.

Ekiss had help on this epic literary excavation, and as Tavern was preparing to release the third of what ultimately will be four volumes, I sat down with one of his collaborators, Yamhill County resident Sonia Ticas.

Since 2001, Ticas has taught Spanish at Linfield College in McMinnville, along with classes in Latin American literature and culture, women writers, and history. Before we dive into my conversation with her, an introduction to Odio is in order, because she’s an obscure figure who has only in the past couple of decades started getting attention in the poetry world. Let’s start with an excerpt from the introduction Ekiss wrote for Vol. 1: Integration of the Parents, which Tavern published in 2013. After noting that Costa Rica is largely viewed as the “Switzerland of Central America,” with a prosperous democracy, high literacy, and national health care, Ekiss continues:

But when it comes to the arts, and poetry in particular, English-speaking readers and literary translators have mostly turned their attention elsewhere in Central America, gravitating to the more politically-charged writers of war-torn Nicaragua and El Salvador, to the poetry of Rubén Dario, Ernesto Cardenal, Claribel Alegría and Roque Dalton. Eunice Odio’s poetry has thus remained almost wholly unknown to readers outside Latin America, obscured on the margins of the region’s avant-garde and proletarian-poet traditions.

Odio was born in 1919 in San Jose, Costa Rica. According to Spanish American Women Writers, she learned to read when she was very young and gravitated to science-fiction writers such as Jules Verne and Emilio Salgari, preferring getting lost in a book to paying attention to her classroom teacher. She wasn’t much for hobnobbing with the region’s literary and publishing world, and while she associated with the political left early in her life, Odio eventually fell out with them. She was clearly a fiercely independent woman, and what little I read about her made me want to know more. Her letters must be fascinating.

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Demanding to be seen in a faceless bureaucracy

Mohamed Asem's memoir "Stranger in the Pen" reflects on identity and belonging

Mohamed Asem is a man between countries and cultures, which puts him squarely at odds with bureaucratic systems that crave neat little scribbled-in circles. When everything is carefully defined, there are fewer choices. No gray area. Nothing to consider or worry about. So what happens when it isn’t?

Asem is a man of independent means with no permanent ties, free to explore the world when and how he chooses. Yet he learns abruptly, rudely, and quite painfully that “where” is not always a possibility. Not all doors are open to him. In his short memoir (131 pages), Stranger in the Pen, newly published by Portland’s Perfect Day Publishing, Asem recounts in his understated prose how he’s detained overnight at Gatwick Airport in London in July 2016, a few days after the Bastille Day terrorist attack, in which a semi-truck drove through crowds in Nice, France, killing 86 people.

Mohamed Asem for Perfect Day Publishing, June 2018. Photo by Jason Quigley.

Like a film lens moving in and out of a close-up, throughout the airport story Asem deftly weaves in memories and details about the rest of his life, one that defies categories and easy identification so that it stymies Border Control agents. Born in California and raised in Paris and Kuwait, he’s not truly at home anywhere.

His accent doesn’t fit no matter what language he speaks. He’s comfortable with family and friends in Kuwait, but his introverted ways (so “Western”) make him a tough fit in a culture that is so social, and his perpetual single status inhibits his ability to buy property so he can have privacy and write. On top of that, he’s light-skinned because his ancestors moved to Kuwait from other countries, so even in a Kuwaiti airport he’s often asked to get in a line for non-citizens. Where does the meta stop?

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