“To get to the Tangerine Window you had to go on a bit of a spirit journey,” as Mary McDonald Lewis puts it.
The window in question was at West Hills Health & Rehabilitation, a nursing facility in Portland’s Multnomah Village, with low-slung yellow-brick buildings and well-manicured lawns. “You’d walk down the narrow side of the building, through a gate and into a little courtyard of small lawns, park benches, little gardens,” McDonald Lewis continues. The anodyne surroundings are scrupulously, pleasantly plain — except for one section. There, little bursts of color catch the eye — flowers in sky-blue planter pots, a yellow rubber duck in a rusted iron bird feeder, large ceramic carp glazed in brilliant cobalt blue, seeming to swim along a dry stream of stones. And then, instead of the standard-issue white curtains of the other rooms, a flash of bright orange appears like a welcome.
“It’s like a window that you’d expect to see on ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.’ A window that glowed like monarch butterfly wings. But then, inside, is a very ill man. And yet, within moments you’re caught up in his eyes, and in his stories, and then it’s just Tim. You’re with Tim.”
Timothy Wayne Stapleton, an accomplished and beloved figure in the Portland arts scene, died on Sept. 7, at age 71, from the effects of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, the motor neuron condition commonly known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease.” For the last several months of his life, pushing against the isolating effects of both the COVID-19 pandemic and his progressively debilitating illness, many of his many friends made pilgrimages to what everyone called the Tangerine Window.
Even in a year filled with trials and sorrows, Stapleton’s death landed as an especially emotional blow for the Portland theater community. “It’s just weird: He’s such a part of the fabric of all of our lives, for anyone who’s done theater for any amount of time in this town,” sums up Portland Actors Conservatory founder Beth Harper. Adds the actor/director JoAnn Johnson, “We all knew this was coming, but it was also like it wasn’t possible.”
Among its countless other thefts, COVID-19 has robbed us of the tearful/joyful gathering, huge and full of hugs, with which the theater community would have marked Stapleton’s passing. Yet there is this: Stapleton’s last works will be exhibited on a limited basis, this Saturday and Sunday at Northwest Marine Artworks (2516 NW 29th Ave). “My Father and His Brothers,” a set of nine-foot-high paintings honoring the Kentucky coal miners he knew in his childhood, will be displayed in the vast warehouse space, with 20-minute viewings by no more than 20 attendees at a time, from 1-5 p.m. each day. In addition, copies of the just-completed coffee-table book “Beyond Acceptance,” a chronicle of the post-diagnosis artistic journey he undertook with the help of his painting assistant/collaborator Samie Joan Pfeifer, will be for sale at the event. Reservations are required, available through StapletonTW6@gmail.com.
It is conceivable that even someone who attends theater in Portland regularly (or at least did when such a thing was possible) might not know Tim Stapleton by name. Though he could be a compelling performer, he appeared onstage only occasionally. His work as a scenic designer, though, was hard to miss, in decades of productions for the historic Storefront Theatre, Artists Repertory Theatre, Profile Theatre and countless other companies and projects, all of which earned him a 2017 Drammy Award for Lifetime Achievement. Trained as a painter, he returned to that form in later years to remarkable results, even as ALS stole strength and control from his body. Over the past 15 years, he also had become an intriguing writer, a memoirist of powerful, plainspoken truths and poetic insights.
And yet, in terms of the impact he made and the legacy he leaves, easily equal to his impressive artistic output stand his preternatural gifts in the art of friendship: a rare charm and wit, hard-earned wisdom, and a deep, attentive engagement with those around him.
“Every person, to him, was a painting, a movie — you were your own unique story to him,” recalls the director Devon Allen, for whose production of “This Lime Tree Bower” Stapleton provided a Drammy-winning scenic design. “And when he’d see somebody, he could land right there with them. It was a unique ability to hone in on the essence of somebody. He met you where you were and he didn’t demand that you go somewhere else.”
“With Tim, you always felt that he really saw you, and when he was with you he was with you 100%,” says Allen Nause, the Portland actor, director, and former artistic director of Artists Rep. “I think people were spellbound by that sense of being so accepted by him.”
Harper describes his legacy in a way that applies, fittingly, to both the artistic and the interpersonal: “His generosity — the degree to which he gave himself to us — will live on forever.”
One of seven children in a coal miner’s family, Stapleton grew up in a tiny town called Haymond in southeastern Kentucky, facing poverty, sexual abuse and the strictures of a conservative Christian upbringing — experiences he’d eventually explore in works such as his play “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and other writings, and the 2018 exhibit of abstract paintings, “The Hem of the Robe: dragged through the mud of my childhood.” With the encouragement of an older brother’s girlfriend, he began drawing, went on to study visual art at Morehead State University, then became a high-school teacher. When rumors of his sexual orientation put him in danger, he left Appalachia for a job at BoarsHead Theater in Lansing, Michigan, where he designed a dozen shows a year for several years. In 1986, a visit to his older brother Charles, in Estacada, prompted a move to Oregon, where he soon began working with such leading directors as Ric Young and Allen Nause.
“I feel that Tim as an artist made me have to be a better artist,” Nause recalls. “Very often you get a play that you think has to be done one way, and he’d take it in an entirely different direction. He’d make discoveries and they’d feel so right. He made me go places I never imagined I’d go.”
Says director Brenda Hubbard: “Most designers hand you a design and walk away; Tim was a big part of the collaborative process from beginning to end.” Mead Hunter, a retired University of Portland theater professor and the dean of the city’s dramaturgs, suggests that directors loved to work with Stapleton not just for the end product of his designs but for the conversations he sparked throughout the creative process.
Even after being diagnosed with ALS in March, 2017, Stapleton continued to design theatrical productions — as well as to enter an especially fruitful phase as a painter and writer, in either form plumbing the depths of childhood trauma, familial bonds and the rich imagery of Appalachian life.
Yet the disease soon took away the use of his arms and hands. In October of 2017, a neurologist suggested that Stapleton might have a variant of ALS, called brachial amyotrophic diplegia, with effects largely isolated to the upper limbs.
“What my doctor told me is, ‘It will take your arms, but it won’t take your life,’” Stapleton said to ArtsWatch at the time.
But according to the actor Jane Fellows, who along with her husband Steve Young became Stapleton’s late-stage medical representative, that diagnosis actually was more provisional than Stapleton had described. “What the doctor really told him was, “If in the next three years it doesn’t start affecting your legs, then you’ll probably die of pneumonia like all the rest of us.”
Sadly, such hope was short-lived. “Every day was a loss for him,” Fellows laments. “Every day something went away.”
Hubbard, a close friend of Stapleton’s since the late 1980s, admits to having had a “silly” thought when she first learned of the ALS diagnosis. “I thought, in my grief and fear, ‘How will I ever take care of Tim all by myself?’” Perhaps it was natural for her to think of herself as Stapleton’s best friend — he had a way of making many people feel that way. But she should have known that help would be plentiful.
Katie Doyle, a close friend of Stapleton’s from his years in Michigan, moved to Portland and into Stapleton’s rented little home near the Columbia Slough (affectionately known as “the Holler”), becoming his full-time caregiver, eventually joined there by another longtime Stapleton friend, the photographer Dale Peterson. In addition to Pfeifer and Young and Fellows, the actors Val Landrum and Chris Harder — who “became family,” as Landrum puts it, working with Stapleton on “Fool for Love” at CoHo in 2009 — played major roles. Numerous friends logged onto a page that Young created through the website Lotsa Helping Hands, signing up to drive Stapleton to appointments, help with tasks or just get a precious time slot for a visit.
By early March of this year, Stapleton’s decline reached a turning point. “Tim had a realization,” Fellows says. “David Bodin and Dale Peterson were with him. Tim fell and they were having trouble getting him up, because his legs could no longer support (his weight). And he just said, ‘Call 9-1-1.’
“We had been taking care of him for so long by the skin of our teeth. We put him in danger and he put us in danger. Steve and I, as his medical representatives, had to look at him and say, ‘You are not able to go back home.’”
After a week’s hospitalization for a bladder infection, Stapleton moved into West Hills Health — not yet graced with tangerine curtains — two days before COVID-19 restrictions put Multnomah County into a relative lockdown.
Still, somehow, Stapleton managed to work, to create. Pfeifer, who Stapleton had taught at Portland Actors Conservatory, continued to work at Stapleton’s Marine Artworks studio; but now, Stapleton took part at a digital remove, discussing creative decisions and directing the physical efforts via Skype and FaceTime.
In his last weeks, the muscles in his throat having atrophied to the point that swallowing was difficult, Stapleton stopped eating. Yet just a few days before his death, he finished the final edits on his book “Beyond Acceptance.”
“He was so present, so engaged in the process, it was phenomenal,” says Fellows. “This was what he needed to get done.” By this point, Stapleton had accepted that it was time for hospice care. While his body was shutting down, his personality still sparkled. Fellows recalls Stapleton’s first meeting with his hospice nurse. “She explained to him all about how she worked and what she’d do for him, and finally she told him, ‘Tim, we want you to know it’s not just one person who comes to visit, you’re working with a whole team. Is that all right?’” The loss of muscle control had made Stapleton’s voice quiet and garbled; Fellows was one of only a couple of people still able to make out what he said, and even she had to lean in close to listen again before translating his response: “He says it’s OK, as long as he can design the uniforms.”
Talking to JoAnn Johnson, I mention that one of my favorite things about Stapleton was how he inspired me to want to be a better person — more kind and gracious, the way he was. “I always felt that way, too, when I visited Tim,” she replies. “I always came home filled with determination to be better, always came away with some new enlightenment….He understood us all; I really think he could look into our souls.” Her husband, Pat Patton — also in on the phone conversation — doesn’t disagree. But he highlights a different side of the man: his “wicked sense of humor. He used to do things when he was watching a rehearsal, like say to me, ‘Are they going to do it that way?’ And he’d say it so that the actors could just hear him.”
Which is to say, Tim Stapleton was wonderful. But he was no guru, no saint.
“That guy know how to party!,” says Adrienne Flagg, who presented Stapleton’s “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” at IFCC. “He had a wild, sexy life!”
Turn that lens another way, and you get an observation from Hubbard: “He was a very — on a certain level — complex and sometimes tortured man who used a lot of the pain from his life in his art and in his living.” Blend those images and you get something like McDonald Lewis’ recollection of a drive to the beach with that “sexy beast”: “We told stories about our sexual exploits and shocked each other at every milepost — while we were also singing hymns.”
No wonder, then, that both Harper and Landrum — who also boast of sharing Stapleton’s Appalachian roots — liken him to Tennessee Williams.
It’s fitting that Stapleton’s final works address both the challenges that ALS visited upon his last years and the enduring impressions of his early life. McDonald Lewis recalls a conversation with him just a week and a half before his death. “He said, ‘On my last trip to Kentucky I found a box of my old things. And I put everything about Kentucky in that box and I closed it.’ He could have been talking about a literal box or a figurative box. Or both. I don’t know. But he told me, ‘I only have happy memories.’”
Flagg, who also cast Stapleton in her 2016 devised-theater project “Note to Self,” offers a trenchant view: “He never lost who he was as a child. And he looked through you the way a child can. He could be wonderfully superficial! But underneath that facade was the 11-year-old boy who was petulant and demanding and loving and needing all at the same time — that boy from the holler. He never left that behind and he saw you through those eyes as well. That child never failed to be vulnerable and to expect vulnerability. That was there in his eyes, that quality, all the way to the end.”
Little boy lost. Great artist found. Hard worker. Hard partyer. Caring teacher. Charming raconteur. Caring, curious, hilarious, invaluable friend. Tim Stapleton was all of those and so much more.
Perhaps the most succinct and fitting comment on his passing came from the playwright Steve Patterson, in a simple Facebook post: “I have to think Tim wears his halo at a jaunty angle.”