Converge 45: Popping up with the times

Responding to a year of crisis, Newberg's Chehalem Cultural Center hosts a show of Oregon contemporary posters for public spaces

One of the strengths of gallery programming at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg is that the deep, long-term planning that arts director Carissa Burkett packs into the calendar for as much as a year in advance is coupled with an ability to pivot when circumstances change, when new opportunities and challenges present themselves.

Like, for example, 2020 — the year, one might add, of the center’s 10th anniversary. 

The #Act for Art posters in their natural public-spaces habitat. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, Converge 45 said via Twitter, Portland has the fifth-largest concentration of artists in the nation, after Manhattan, San Francisco, Brooklyn, and Los Angeles. Photo: Converge 45.

The center has already had a couple of COVID-inspired pop-ups this year, and for a few more days, visitors will find the latest of these unscheduled surprises: #ACTforART is originated as a PDX-centric project organized by Converge 45: a series of commissioned posters for public spaces that share the artists’ vision during this new, weird normal. Yes, theaters are shut down and concert halls are closed, but windows and fences and walls provide space for art, so the group has been spreading the love in lieu of its traditional programs, which typically involve exhibitions and gatherings where the six-foot rule wouldn’t work. The work is also being shared on social media platforms.

From the show’s notes:

“Converge 45 is unequivocally stating that experiences with art and culture are fundamental to the health and prosperity of civic life for all of our communities. Those of us working or volunteering with Converge 45 wholeheartedly feel that the personal and shared emotions that artists draw out of us with their creativity are an integral piece now, in a moment of change and for a future we must build together.” 

The Chehalem exhibit offers a dozen pieces. There’s a nice variety here, both in terms of the images and the artists themselves. Most are women; there’s Indigenous work by Sara Siestreem (Hannis Coos), an artist from Umpqua River Valley in Southwestern Oregon who has her own exhibit in the lobby through Sept. 19. The image of a clenched fist is provided by Samantha Wall, who is originally from Seoul, South Korea, and was a finalist for the Portland Art Museum’s Contemporary Northwest Arts Awards in 2016 and the winner of the Arlene Schnitzer Prize.

Left: Anna Fidler’s “Re-Vision,” 2020, gouache and flashe on handmade grid paper, 57″ x 43″, courtesy of the artist and Charles Hartman Gallery. Right: Samantha Wall’s raised fist, courtesy of the author and Russo Lee Gallery.

For Wall, as with so many others, 2020 ushered in expectations that were torched by March. She’d spent some time in 2019 reconnecting with family and her birthplace, her first time back since leaving as a child. That trip, she said, “sparked a sense of renewal after a long period of grieving that charged my practice and left me feeling hopeful for the upcoming year.”

Last winter, she was poised to create her first large-scale, site-specific drawing installation: a commission from the Regional Arts and Culture Council to do a portrait of Gladys McCoy, the first Black person to be elected to public office in the state of Oregon. Scattered throughout the rest of the year were other exhibition opportunities.

“Many of those exhibitions have been postponed,” she said. “But I was able to present a body of work at [Portland’s] Russo Lee Gallery in August, which was supported by a Project Grant through RACC.”

Given the COVID19-centric circumstances of #ACTforART, I asked Wall the question that’s surely on the mind of every serious artist in the world: What, in this moment, do we expect art to actually do? And what is the responsibility of the artist in times of political and cultural upheaval?

“I’ve been asking myself this exact question since the pandemic began,” she replied. “I believe our responsibility as artists hasn’t changed because of the current political and cultural upheaval. I believe we feel the weight and urgency of that responsibility but we continue todo what we’ve always done. We record, translate, disrupt, educate, energize, unite, inspire, and so much more.”

I put the same question to artist Ralph Pugay. He responded: “I believe it is our continued responsibility to make and navigate the world with as much braveness and honesty as possible. Given how isolated we are in our households and how much we filter information we receive through the news and other medias, I believe it is our responsibility to offer perspectives that are rooted in our passions as opposed to the things that make us fear.”

Speaking of inspiration, as Wall did, there’s one piece in the collection that surely qualifies. It’s a portrait in graphite on paper, titled The freedom of Mom’s love. The artist is Jamal Smith, age 8, and the piece was selected by the King School Museum of Contemporary Art in Portland. I can’t help but wonder what his stuff is going to look like in ten or fifteen years.

Left: “The freedom of Mom’s love,” by 8-year-old Jamal Smith of Portland. 2020, graphite on paper. 11″ x 8.5.” Right: Ariana Jacob, “Redistribute Joyfully,” 2020 archival digital print, 30″ x 24″, courtesy of the artist.

The show was curated by Meagan Atiyeh, Stephanie Snyder and Mack McFarland, who was recently named executive director of Converge45.

Before starting the full-time position, he was director of exhibitions and community relations for Pacific Northwest College of Art. I asked him about the show’s origins, and what Converge45 would be doing if we were not in the middle of a pandemic.

August, he said, was to have been “a culminating moment” for Converge 45’s Guest Artistic Director Lisa Dent’s program, Facing Between Centers, with exhibitions and programs scheduled for major venues around Portland. It was the second year of Dent’s three-year curatorial program that “engages artworks as complex forms of aesthetic, cultural, and political choice.” Her program continued another that began with an exhibition by Snyder, The Autopoets, at the Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery at Reed College.

“However, there is a global pandemic, so like much of what we all once had planned for our year, things changed,” he wrote in an email. “Converge 45 with Lisa Dent agreed that it was impossible or impractical to carry out the 2020 program. Adding the continued uncertainty of what lay ahead for cultural institutions, along with Lisa’s work as executive director at ArtSpace in New Haven, we agreed to close Facing Between Centers.”

MaryAnn Deffenbaugh, then Converge 45’s executive director; board chair Elizabeth Leach; and program assistant M Prull turned to the curatorial committee, which included McFarland, Snyder and Atiyeh. Their marching orders were to respond to the public health crisis, one that prevented people from coming together to enjoy cultural experiences.

“Utilizing the outdoors and the form of the poster quickly emerged, as did the need to call out the power of art and the outstanding artists and artists and arts organizations around our region,” he said. “When we began to think of this project as a moment to advocate for an engagement with art, to support artists, museums, galleries, and educational institutions, Converge 45 expanded the team to include folks like Kandis Brewer Nunn, who have a deep commitment to the arts and artists of Oregon.”

Since Aug. 3 the group has distributed more than 750 posters around Oregon, displaying them in mostly outdoor spaces. They reached out to Burkett, and that’s how Newberg got this dash of pop-up art. It’s indoors, but the gallery is large enough that maintaining social distance is easy. Masks are required, however.

Along with those mentioned above, the artists include Judy Cooke, Anna Fidler, Melanie Flood, Jessica Jackson Hutchins, Ariana Jacob, Chris Johanson, sidony o’neal, and Jess Perlitz.

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  • The Converge 45 show ends Saturday at Chehalem Cultural Center, 415 E. Sheridan St., Newberg. Open Tuesday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Admission to all galleries is free. Masks are required and hand sanitizer is available inside. More information: 503-487-6883.

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.

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