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Home Front: Living the Virtual Life

ArtsWatch Weekly: Is it real, or is it Memorex? Amid the crisis, the arts world swims somewhere in between.


WE ARE LIVING IN LONG-DISTANCE TIMES, AND YES, IT CAN GET A LITTLE DISORIENTING. We’re neither here nor there, it seems – and yet, we can be anywhere. Virtually, of course. As the long lockdown continues – for me, this is Day 43 – the “real” world seems just a computer-click away, so near and yet so tantalizingly far. The possibilities seem limitless, and limiting. My son, furloughed from his restaurant job, has been busily collecting insects and fish and various animals to stock the combination zoo/aquarium/natural history museum in a new video game. The creatures meet and mix in the most surprising combinations, chirping and roaring and burbling cheerily along: Like so much art, it’s both more and less than the natural world. I’ve been watching television shows set in Stockholm, Jerusalem, Warsaw, London, and Berlin. In my little corner of the Internet, experiences tend to travel through both time and space. They even, sometimes, involve creative activity, if usually by someone else. Maybe you’ve caught some of the clever “reenactments” of classic artworks being circulated by the Getty Museum and a Russian Facebook group, among others: cosplay taken to an absurd, and often absurdly funny, extreme, at a time when we need funny very much.

“December Sunrise at Catherine Creek,” by Cate Hotchkiss of Hood River; grand prize winner in Friends of the Columbia Gorge’s fifth annual nature photography contest.

Outdoor mural by Ernesto Marajnje and Suhaib Attar, Southeast 10h Avenue and Washington Street, Portland. Photo: K.B. Dixon

Climbing on the sculpture “The Phoenix and the Butterfly,” by Swig Miller, during the 2019 Burning Man in Nevada. This year’s Burn has been called off. Photo courtesy Jill Rosell

THERE ARE PLACES WE REMEMBER (to paraphrase an old British rock band), or have dreamt about, or longed to see – and there they are, within virtual reach. The top photo above, Cate Hotchkiss’s December Sunrise at Catherine Creek, is the grand prize winner of this year’s Friends of the Columbia Gorge Nature + Nurture photography competition, which attracted 568 submissions. You can see all of the winners and finalists at the link above – but unless this is almost literally in your back yard, keep your visit virtual.

In the center photo is an outdoor mural from Portland’s close-in East Side. You can see it and 14 others in Photo First: An Open-air Museum, K.B. Dixon’s photo essay on murals scattered around Portland, creating a sort of makeshift mobile outdoor exhibition while the city’s more formal museums are shut down. If you live in town, some of them might even be in your neighborhood. 

The third photo above is from last year’s Burning Man, an annual gathering of the tribes that attracts a temporary city of 80,000 or so revelers to the Nevada desert. Except this year: Like so many other gatherings, the 2020 Burning Man has been canceled – or rather, moved to the Multiverse, which seems a very Burn-y thing to do. There’s still a chance you can get your Burning Man fix a little closer to the home planet, though: The photo’s part of the exhibition Infinite Moment: Burning Man on the Horizon, at the High Desert Museum in Bend. Like just about every museum just about everywhere, the High Desert’s shut down for the duration. But Infinite Moment is scheduled to stay through Jan. 3, 2021, so depending on the whims of the pandemic, you just might get a chance yet.


MEANWHILE, THE CALENDAR OF “REAL” EVENTS KEEPS SHRINKING. On Monday the Oregon Bach Festival in Eugene announced this summer’s concerts and events are canceled. It follows, among many others, Portland’s annual July 4 weekend Waterfront Blues Festival, which made its decision early, realizing that the complexities of scheduling couldn’t be done even if the lockdown proved to be swiftly lifted, which it hasn’t. Among many others, the Siletz Bay Music Festival, with its engaging variety of musical styles from classical to cabaret to vintage jazz, has called off its summer season on the Central Oregon Coast. In Ashland, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival – the biggest arts organization in the state – has shut down all shows at least until September. And this morning Clackamas Repertory Theatre announced it’s postponed its summer season until next year.

An event that HASN’T canceled – exactly – is the Vanport Mosaic Festival, one of the most interesting Oregon cultural offerings to crop up in the past several years. It’s meant to commemorate the city of Vanport, which came into being just north of Portland during World War II as a home for workers in Portland and Vancouver’s Kaiser Shipyards. About 40 percent of its residents were African American, changing the cultural shape of a predominantly white area. The city was flooded out of existence on May 30, 1948, when a section of railroad berm collapsed and the waters of the Columbia River came rushing in. In previous years the festival has offered history exhibits, theater and music performances, art exhibits, lectures and more, keeping alive Vanport’s history and carrying its significant cultural influence into the present and future. There’ll be no real-time, real-space events this year. But the Mosaic is planning an array of online offerings through much of May. We’ll have more on that next week.



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Lauren Steele in last year’s “Queens Girl in the World” at Clackamas Repertory Theatre. The native Portland actor moved on to New York shortly after, but has moved back again to her hometown for the pandemic duration. Photo: Travis Nodurft/2019 

MEANWHILE, MUST THE SHOW GO ON? In plain fact, not right now, and the implications run deep for Oregon’s cultural and economic health. We are hardly alone. A New York Times report this week on the shattering effects of the virus on New York City and the city’s years-long projected recovery time gives a little context: “The very features that make New York attractive to businesses, workers and tourists – Broadway, the subway system, world-class restaurants and innumerable cultural institutions – were among the hardest hit in the pandemic. And they will take the longest to come back.” On a smaller scale, the same is true in Portland and other urban parts of Oregon.

The shutting down of cultural institutions and public gathering spaces such as restaurants isn’t just a temporary annoyance: It has real economic effects on a lot of people’s lives. Like baristas and barbers and store clerks and delivery workers and caregivers and many others, arts workers tend to cluster at the lower end of the wage scale, and when their jobs disappear they often have little or nothing to fall back on. A top-to-bottom wealth disparity the likes of which the nation hasn’t seen since the days of the late 19th century robber barons makes the stresses all the more extreme.

How are cultural workers making do? In Love & loss in the time of coronavirus, Bobby Bermea talks with a half-dozen theater people and musicians – actors Lauren Steele, John San Nicolas, Seth Rue and Cycerli Ash, stage manager Carol Ann Wohlmut, musician Michelle Alany – about how things are shaking down in the Time of Isolation. As an actor, director, and producer of note in addition to being a regular ArtsWatch contributing writer, Bermea told his own story, too. The consensus, if there was one? “They were all realistic, but hopeful. It’s a scary time, but the people I spoke to had not yet been overwhelmed. Everyone was hurting. No one was broken.”

Still, everyone was also wondering: What comes next? Bermea stirred up something of an online hornet’s nest by declaring that, whatever we call virtual performance deliveries on Zoom or Facebook or streaming sites, they’re a substitute, a different beast. “The twin pillars of theater are story and community,” he declared. “Take away the community, separate the storyteller from her or his audience, even if that audience is a single person, and you don’t have theater. You have something else. If the actor cannot exist in the same physical space with the audience, then theater doesn’t exist. COVID-19 has managed to accomplish what the internet, movies, television, and a shoddy business model had failed to do. Nobody is telling a story to a live audience, in the same room, anywhere. Theater is dead.”

Or maybe, once again, just intensely ailing. In his latest “Starting Over” column, Point to point, Barry Johnson talks with Portland Center Stage at the Armory’s managing director, Cynthia Fuhrman, about her pragmatic, step-by-step approach to guiding the city’s biggest theater company through the crisis. “Everybody is on the ropes,” Fuhrman told him. “It’s an existential moment.” Later she added: “When has the American theater not been in crisis? It’s kinda how we live. This is like my third or fourth one—this is the weirdest one.” 

It’s not just performing arts that are facing big changes. In Re-thinking the post-pandemic world, the first in Martha Daghlian’s series of front-line interviews with Oregon visual artists, Klamath-Modoc artist Ka’ila Farrell-Smith tells Daghlian that exhibitions have been canceled. But she also sees a political and cultural opportunity rising from the ashes: “We will be charged with reimagining and designing decolonized systems to support struggling communities. I know that art and artists will play a key role in the possible futures to come.” 

No one doubts that the crisis is extreme. Yet good news arrives amid the bad. In Foundations pool their COVID-19 arts relief cash, Johnson lays out the basics of a $1.3 million emergency fund for arts and cultural groups – not enough by a long shot to solve everyone’s problems, but a good and welcome beginning. And the Oregon Symphony – which more than a month ago canceled all of its remaining concerts for this season, putting all of its musicians and most of its staff temporarily out of work – made a virtue of the virtual on Monday evening with its big, splashy, and extremely long-distance fundraising Virtual Gala 2020. Revelers dressed to the nines, maybe poured themselves a drink, and then signed in from home to watch a video stream and pledge support. The result? More than $1.2 million raised, proving that even in tough times there’s money to be shaken from the money tree.



PPH Passing Strange

Sylla McClellan (right) laid off her staff at McMinnville’s Third Street Books when the pandemic forced the shop to close its doors, but has hired back one employee. Emily Kelly (left) hosts online story times, streaming Thursday mornings on Facebook. Photo: David Bates 

EVEN IN CRISIS TIMES, GOOD THINGS HAPPEN. Sometimes they’re tales of survival, sometimes just stories that remind us of the capacity human beings have to create new and satisfying “normals.” In Portland’s variety and vitality, in print, for example, Luiza Lukova and Sebastian Zinn tell the tale of Bijan Berahimi and his quest to bring his brainchild, the arts and culture magazine JOON, to fruition. It’s designed to read well and look beautiful, and to be not virtual but in actual print, something you can hold and feel and heft, and the first issue – all 160 pages of it – is out now.

One thing we’re learning, if we didn’t know it already, is that brick-and-mortar bookstores also function as community gathering places, and are well and truly loved in that capacity: They’re one of those everyday cultural fixtures that, in a time of lockdown, people genuinely miss. In The little bookstore that could, which has been by far ArtsWatch’s most-read story of the past week, David Bates talks with Sylla McClellan, owner and operator of McMinnville’s Third Street Books, about how her literary hub is keeping its connections with readers in and around Yamhill County. 

You can stop the concerts, but you can’t stop the music: Even in a time of pandemic, it plays on. In Safe distance sounds, Brett Campbell rounds up a fine herd of recent jazz recordings with Oregon connections, from native Portlander Hailey Niswanger’s electric band MAE.SUN to new releases from the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble, the Ezra Weiss Big Band, sax masters Rich Halley and Patrick McCulley, trumpeter Josh Deutsch, bass virtuoso David Friesen, impeccable vocalist Rebecca Kilgore, pianist Matt Cooper and singer Sharon Porter, and the great veterans Randy Porter and Nancy King. Enjoy, as the title suggests, from a safe social distance.

And in Blood, sweat, tears – and a little Beatrix Potter, Lori Tobias talks with Nora Sherwood, who left a highly lucrative first career to start again as a natural science illustrator. It was a leap: One of the first things she realized was that she needed to improve her drawing skills. She did, and in the process reinvented her career, blending art and science in a creative, satisfying way. Sometimes things change because you want them to, not because an international crisis forces your hand.

Drawing on nature: Illustration of a Western Painted Turtle, by Nora Sherwood.


“Money, I’ve always felt, money – pardon my expression – is like manure; it’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around encouraging young things to grow.”

– Dolly Levi, in Thornton Wilder’s 1954 play The Matchmaker (and repeated, in slightly different form, in the play’s musical version, Hello, Dolly!)


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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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