Seattle Opera Pagliacci

Four chords and a dark mirror

Leslie Peterson Sapp's vivid collage-paintings reflecting the moods of Film Noir echo a long creative history of borrowing and revising in music and art.


There are no quotation marks in the grammar of music or painting. But composers and painters quote from each other all the time. Sometimes they do it intentionally, but more often, the creations of others have been so absorbed into their artistic vocabulary that they can’t help themselves.

Peterson Sapp’s “Boudoir.”

Artist Leslie Peterson Sapp does both in her Film Noir collage-paintings, a selection of which are on exhibit through May 31st at Portland’s Arrowood Restaurant. Although Peterson Sapp may at times quote directly from the films, these paintings more generally reflect how deeply she has absorbed the atmosphere and vocabulary of the Noir genre. But before we take an imaginary seat in a darkened theater in 1945, let’s briefly visit the quotation conundrum, that maze of tension between copyright law and creative instinct in a world where nothing is truly original.

Left: Lynn Goldsmith’s “Prince.” Right: Andy Warhol’s “Prince.”

As I write these words, the U.S. Supreme Court is deliberating whether Andy Warhol’s Prince series violates the copyright of the photographer Lynn Goldsmith. As I have commented in previous letters, it is a case with potentially disruptive implications for American art. Dealing with a similar issue, a jury recently found that Ed Sheeran’s song Thinking Out Loud did not violate copyright by using the same four-chord progression that Ed Townsend and Marvin Gaye used in Let’s Get It On. Classical music is similarly chock-full of examples of one composer taking from another to make something new. I recently had the pleasure of hearing the Oregon Symphony (at the wonderful new Reser Center in Beaverton) performing Ted Hearne’s Palindrome for Andrew Norman, which is the second movement of Hearne’s The Law of Mosaics. This musical collage “pilfers phrases from familiar works in the classical canon to dazzling effect.”[i] Indeed, it is constructed entirely of quotations. But don’t expect to hum along to familiar tunes. The quotes are distorted and contorted in tempo, meter, and context. One piece is even quoted backwards as a palindrome. Fragments of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Barber’s Adagio for Strings, and Hanky Panky from the 1960s hit by Tommy James and the Shondells are all but unrecognizable.

An architectural rendering of the Reser Center before construction.

Palindrome is not just a fresh and engaging composition; it is also a sermon celebrating appropriation as essential to creative imagination (listen up, Supreme Court!). Hearne’s point came home to me as I realized, after reading several articles about the piece, that I couldn’t tell which of the word progressions I was typing were embezzled and which were my own synthesis. Nothing comes from nothing (should that be in quotes?). All of which raises the question: Is a fish out-of-water the same fish?

Peterson Sapp’s “Keys” (detail).

Peterson Sapp’s Film Noir series wrestles with that question as she quotes from crime mystery movies of the 1940s and ‘50s. A little background is in order: The Noir genre was an outgrowth of the emotion-laden Expressionist Movement (think of the angst in the paintings of Edvard Munch), which was, in large part, a reaction to the dehumanizing effects of industrialization. As memories of the Nineteenth Century receded, the movement flowered, especially in Germany, in the work of radical painters, writers, poets, architects, and composers who rejected physical reality in favor of emotional experience. Then the traumas of the First World War fed a reaction to all free-thinking, and the movement turned inward and ever darker. Take yourself back to the Kit Kat Club in Cabaret and you will get the mood.


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German refugees were instrumental in bringing this zeitgeist to American cinema. This is not a sunny worldview—but it is a powerful window into the defiant human capacity for joy, courage, and perseverance.

Peterson Sapp’s “Lookout.”

Film noir captured that resilience, a trait that Peterson Sapp distills in her paintings as she layers the gloomy mood with skillful draftsmanship and her personal vision. Despite pistols pointed menacingly and cigarettes dangling from cold frowns, these are characters you can’t help but relate to. Although noir films were mostly the creation of male directors, Peterson Sapp injects a subtle feminist point of view. While the women she paints are often depicted in precarious and vulnerable situations, they project a toughness and confidence which they pull off with an elegant insouciance. These are women with stories to tell. Peterson Sapp gives them the stage.


Peterson Sapp will host an artist reception at Arrowood (5846 N.E. Sandy Blvd, Portland, OR) on Wednesday, May 10th, and a freewheeling give-and-take Salon on Wednesday, May 24th. Both events begin at 6 p.m.



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This essay is also published by Portland artist David Slader as part of his  art letter series to subscribers, and is published here with permission.


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Photo Joe Cantrell

David Slader is an Oregon painter, digital artist, sculptor, and photographer. His youthful art ambitions were detoured by an almost forty-year career as a litigator, child-advocate, and attorney for survivors of sexual abuse. Although a Portland resident, David's studio is in the Coast Range foothills, along an oxbow of the Upper Nehalem River, where he alternates making art with efforts to reforest his land. In the Fall, a run of Chinook salmon spawn outside his studio door.


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