MEDIA

Young writers, burning bright

The Fire Writers conference helps Yamhill County teenagers tap into their potential while fighting the stigma associated with being a smart kid

A literary scene is a knotty thing to define and locate. Unlike live theater, music, or visual art, it has no brick-and-mortar base. It is everywhere and nowhere, from the “local author” shelf at a bookstore to events such as creative writing festivals to the occasional open mic night to the world that exists in the electronic ether: Instagram posts, tweets, Facebook, even text messaging.

Yamhill County has had for a while two tangible measures of the region’s literary life: the Terroir Creative Writing Festival, which was scheduled for its 11th annual renewal in April until COVID-19 shut it down, and the 27-year-old Paper Gardens literary journal. Published every spring by the Arts Alliance of Yamhill County, the journal features prose and verse by locals of all ages. Oregon authors including William Stafford, Kim Stafford, Primus St. John, Robin Cody, and many others have served as judges.

A third, writer-centric tent-pole event has sprung up. On a mild, overcast Monday morning last winter, more than 100 high school students from around Yamhill County sauntered into the ballroom at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg for the Fire Writers Conference. The brainchild of retired McMinnville educator Deborah Weiner, the 2-year-old gathering is as ambitious, polished, and well attended as the Terroir festival.  The goal of the daylong conference is to “ignite the fire” in teenagers who show an aptitude and interest in writing. Validating that interest, organizers say, makes students, who pay nothing to attend the event, feel they are part of a writers’ community and can instill confidence in kids who might feel marginalized for being academic achievers.

The opening session of Fire Writers organizer Lisa Ohlen Harris addresses the opening session of the Fire Writers Conference at the Chehalem Community Center in Newberg. “Writers are everywhere,” she told students, “doing things that on the surface may seem to have nothing to do with writing.” Photo by: David Bates
Fire Writers organizer Lisa Ohlen Harris addresses the opening session of the Fire Writers Conference in Newberg’s Chehalem Community Center in January, before masks and social distancing were the norm. “Writers are everywhere,” she told students, “doing things that on the surface may seem to have nothing to do with writing.” Photo by: David Bates

“There is still a stigma for being a smart kid, a kid who reads, who cares about grades,” said Julie Stubblefield, one of several language-arts teachers at Amity High School, which sent nearly 30 students to the January conference. Teaching writing to teens poses several additional challenges, she said.

“One thing is that this is not a reading culture right now,” she said. “The current culture in high school is dominated by smartphones, YouTube, social media, Netflix, and video games. The practice of imagination, self-reflection, and the slow work of resourcefulness is not a part of their everyday lives. So when it comes time to get quiet and listen for the inner voice, the creative voice, the imagination, it can take a lot of patient exercise and reorientation to wake it up and get in touch with it.”


THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series


This year’s conference drew 123 students from eight schools — five public, three private, and a couple of homeschooled students. Attendance is largely by invitation. Teachers have an eye for which kids have taken to writing, who might benefit from what ultimately amounts to an educational field trip. One other brand of stigmatization — or possibly something else — emerges in talking with organizers, who asked that two students not be photographed; their parents didn’t know they were attending.

Writer and organizer Lisa Ohlen Harris, who is also instrumental in organizing Terroir, opened the event with a casual attempt at perhaps removing some of the stigma and illusions students might connect with writing and writers.

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Stage frights and podcasts

As the theater world goes dark, actors' tales of real-life stage disasters as told on "The Actor's Nightmare" seem a perfect antidote

From Portland to Paris, Ashland to Ankara, Beaverton to Beijing, theaters around the world are shut down. One of the longest-lived forms of social mingling and creative contact has met its match in the form of the Covid-19 pandemic, which is keeping this most gregarious form of art from expressing itself.

In the meantime, film – that is, already recorded and edited film – and television are surging in popularity as people stay at home with their screens and live their lives virtually, binge-watching everything from The Americans to the complete British and American versions of The Office. Occasional filmed theater productions help fill the gap, too: The National Theatre’s streamed “At Home” series, including the recent Frankenstein with Danny Boyle and Benedict Cumberbatch, has drawn a global audience of more than 9.3 million views.

Ah, but what about the real thing? Anyone who’s ever hung around a backstage, or dropped in on a bar where theater people congregate after a show, knows that in theater circles a lot of the after-the-fact pleasure comes from regaling other insiders with disastrous tales of what went wrong, whether the audience ever realized it or not. In a way this swapping of stories is a kind of theater of its own.

“The Actor’s Nightmare” host Louanne Moldovan, caffeined up and ready to roll.

A while back, Portland actor, director, producer, and playwright Louanne Moldovan realized the potential of this form of storytelling and decided to take it beyond the bars and theater parties. This kind of tale would be ideal for podcasting, she thought: Invite some actors, interview them, let them spin their stories, record and edit and release. And so, The Actor’s Nightmare was born – or, as the series is subtitled on its Web site, “REAL HORROR stories from THE STAGE.” (The Actor’s Nightmare also has a Facebook page.)

A few days ago I interviewed Moldovan in Officially Sanctioned Covid-19 Socially Distancing Format: I emailed her a few questions, and she emailed back her replies. Sit back and enjoy the transcript below – and when you’ve finished reading, go to the Actor’s Nightmare Web site and listen to a podcast or four yourself:

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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.

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Solidarity through song

Voices from the front: Aquilon Music Festival founder Anton Belov brings a community of singers together through Facebook Karaoke

The pop culture reference point of the moment is Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 thriller Contagion, which is surely streaming into quarantined homes at some kind of record. That COVID-19-inspired resurgence of popularity is justifiably shared with Albert Camus, whose 1947 novel The Plague rendered a pandemic.

For our purposes, however, the most salient line from an artistic rendering of pestilence may be found in Mary Shelley’s little-known novel, The Last Man, published in 1826. Yes, that Mary Shelley. Eight years after she unleashed Frankenstein, Shelley tried her hand at a literary pandemic.

In one section, she laments on the passing of what today we’d call the humanities: “Farewell to the arts, to eloquence,” she wrote. “Farewell to music, and the sound of song… !”

Ah, but Shelley wasn’t on social media.


OREGON IN SHUTDOWN: VOICES FROM THE FRONT


Anton Belov, founder of the Aquilon Music Festival and a Linfield College music professor, recently launched Facebook Karaoke. Photo courtesy: Linfield College

The “sound of song” is alive and well in Yamhill County, thanks in part to the efforts of Aquilon Music Festival founder Anton Belov, who this week began teaching his spring term classes at Linfield College online. Earlier this month, I stumbled upon a video of him on Facebook singing Sunday Morning Coming Down, a Kris Kristoffersen song that was included in Ray Stevens’ final album, Have a Little Talk With Myself, for Monument Records in 1969. Johnny Cash later recorded it for a hit on Billboard’s country chart.

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Portland’s All Classical teams with Linfield College

Yamhill and Polk county residents will have clearer listening to the classical radio station beginning Thursday

Starting Thursday, Yamhill and Polk county residents will have an easier time listening to classical music on the radio. FM station All Classical Portland is integrating Linfield College’s campus radio station into its network, meaning the signal of 24-hour classical music and arts programming will be much clearer for the 100,000 people who live in McMinnville and surrounding communities.

The donation of Linfield’s KSLC 90.3 FM to All Classical Portland was, according to a press release, initiated by McMinnville college students.

1955 Toshiba Vacuum Tube Radio. Masaki Ikeda/Wikimedia Commons
All Classical Portland fans would not actually be able to hear their station on this 1955 Toshiba vacuum tube radio, because it is AM only. But isn’t a thing of beauty? Photo courtesy: Masaki Ikeda/Wikimedia Commons

ICAN, the station’s International Children’s Arts Network channel, also will be available to residents of Oregon’s Wine Country through All Classical Portland’s HD2 channel. It offers noncommercial entertainment and educational programs for children through age 12.

In the press announcement, Joe Stuart, a Linfield student and KSLC’s general manager, said: “Although student radio has been a staple of the college experience for decades, we at KSLC are excited about this new era of digital student media that will help journalism students inform and engage with their community in the constantly evolving modern media landscape.”

Roughly 3 million listeners across Oregon and Southwest Washington have access to classical music on the FM dial through All Classical Portland’s current broadcast coverage. The existing signal already reaches Yamhill County, of course, but depending on weather and other conditions, the quality can be spotty.

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‘Tightrope’: A working class in tatters

Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn will make a series of local appearances to talk about their book, "Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope"

Many Yamhill County residents will recognize the street scene on the cover of Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope as downtown Yamhill. New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof grew up in the 1970s on a farm outside the tiny town and rode the bus to school with people whose stories are told in the book written by Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn.

The couple, the first husband and wife to share a Pulitzer Prize for journalism, will visit McMinnville on Friday to talk about the book, which, despite its title, largely focuses on Americans who have lost hope after decades of vanishing blue-collar jobs.

Tightrope is the latest in a growing body of journalistic work examining what George Packer in 2013 called The Unwinding in his book of that name: The seismic economic shifts that have left the working class in tatters, trying to find a way in an economic world very different from the one their parents grew up in.

Yamhill County native Nicholas D. Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, are authors of “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope,” which chronicles the epidemic of loneliness that has overtaken the American working class. Photo by: Michael Lionstar, courtesy Penguin Random House

What distinguishes Tightrope, however, is its deeply personal nature. Kristof is writing — with great respect and obvious affection — for many of his former classmates. He estimates that about one-fourth of those kids he grew up with died in adulthood from drugs and alcohol, suicide or reckless accidents — “deaths of despair,” as they have come to be called. One official quoted in the book talks about the epidemic of loneliness, a social phenomenon that’s hardly surprising in a society coming apart at the seams.

A few weeks ago, piles of Tightrope appeared at Third Street Books in downtown McMinnville and also at the McMinnville Public Library, in anticipation of the latest MacReads, a community-wide book discussion series that traditionally culminates with an appearance by the author.

Kristof and WuDunn will appear at 6 p.m. Friday, Feb. 7, in the McMinnville Community Center. Additional discussions will be held at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 19 in Linfield College’s Nicholson Library and at 7 p.m. Feb. 20 in McMinnville Public Library’s Carnegie Room. All those events are free. In addition, the couple will appear at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 6, in Portland’s Newmark Theatre in a ticketed event.

I caught up with Kristof by email, and he was gracious enough to respond to a few questions. Our exchange appears below:

Not that it’s important to fit Tightrope into a neatly defined genre, but given that you’ve known some of these folks for most of your life, it occurs to me that it has elements of memoir or autobiography. Maybe that’s a stretch, but beyond the straightforward work of reporting, did you ever think of it in those terms?

Yes, we did. Tara Westover, author of Educated, is a friend, and I hugely admire not only her journey but also her book. I also knew that a personal story would be more accessible than an analysis from 30,000 feet about Americans left behind. But Sheryl and I were also clear that we didn’t just want to write a memoir, and we wanted the focus to be on the issues and solutions, and not on my journey. One of my frustrations with Hillbilly Elegy was that it didn’t offer enough in the way of solutions.

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Yamhill County calendar: From tea to ‘Tightrope’

Gallery shows focus on glasswork, the Rogue River Wars, and tea service; Linfield hosts a one-night play reading; and a native son is coming to town

Yamhill County’s lively gallery scene continues to intrigue this week with a couple of new openings, and we’ve also got a one-night theatrical affair at Linfield Theatre. Finally: Have you read Nicholas Kristof’s new book? There’s still time before he comes to town.

Let’s get to it:

“Ancient Cedars at Fort Orford Site,” by Rich Bergeman. The U.S. Army fort housed more than 200 men and more than 1,000 Indigenous prisoners during the peak of the Rogue River Wars in 1855-56. Nothing of the fort remains.

CHEHALEM CULTURAL Center has several shows ready for your viewing pleasure. Hanging River, an installation of glasswork by Takahiro Yamamoto and Andy Paiko, occupies the Parrish Gallery, visible to visitors as they enter the Newberg center. You’ll marvel at both the glass pieces themselves and the exquisite care it must have taken to install them. In the Founder’s Gallery at the rear of the building is a collection of Fretta Cravens’ stunning botanical photography, titled Intimate Conversations.

Down the hall to the right is a new exhibit that’s been traveling around Oregon: Rich Bergeman’s collection of photographs documenting the landscape of the mid-19th-century Rogue River Wars of Southern Oregon. The Land Remembers is both an exhibit and a handsome book (available for sale). Bergeman used infrared light for the images, which are mostly void of any sign of human presence. “I felt that the haunting quality of infrared would help transport viewers to another time,” he writes in the introduction to his book. “And because the infrared spectrum is invisible to the human eye, it seemed especially appropriate for photographs that follow in the footsteps of ghosts.” The show runs through Feb. 28. Highly recommended.

Tea is the theme of a show by ceramicist Jonathan Steele in George Fox University’s Minthorne Gallery. Photo courtesy: George Fox University

A FEW BLOCKS AWAY at George Fox University, we find … tea! I haven’t seen this one yet, but it looks inviting: In the Service of Tea features ceramic work by Jonathan Steele in  the university’s Minthorne Gallery in the Hoover Academic Building. A reception for the show, which opened last week, will be from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 27, in the gallery. Steele will perform a Chinese tea service at the free event. An artist’s talk follows from 6 to 7 p.m. in the Chehalem Cultural Center.

“Tea is a quiet joy – art is a fervid one,” Steele said of his exhibit in the press materials. “I make the tea to be still, to observe the present moment, to watch slowly unfurling leaves, feel the weight of the warm cup pressing against my fingertips, steam rising through my nostrils, the sweet, light astringency of the perfect steep welling on my tongue. I make the teapot, the cup, the tray and boat, the floral arrangement, the interior décor, the room and the house itself – all to the same end.”

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