In praise of Ramona & ‘Lonesome Dove’

ArtsWatch Weekly: Remembering Beverly Cleary, Larry McMurtry, and composer Stephen Scott; revolutions & the way things change.

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HERE AT ARTSWATCH WE LIKE TO LOOK FORWARD: Where are our culture and its art taking us? But culture is a cumulative thing, and every present and future is built upon a past – on the people and beliefs and events and achievements that have shaped us. They amplify us and help explain us to ourselves. So today we pause to honor three storytellers who have left us recently, but whose memories and achievements remain a part of us: the children’s novelist and memoirist Beverly Cleary; the novelist of Western life and culture Larry McMurtry; and the musical innovator Stephen Scott, known for his “bowed piano” compositions.

Author Beverly Cleary with her tabby cat, Kitty, in 1955. Photo: Cleary Family Archive

BEVERLY CLEARY, CREATOR of the wonderful world of Ramona Quimby and Henry Huggins and the scintillating cast of extraordinarily ordinary kids living extraordinarily ordinary lives in a somewhat antique yet eventful-in-an-everyday-sort-of-way Northeast Portland neighborhood, died last Thursday at the almost biblical age of 104 (she would’ve been 105 on April 12). Her loss is felt not just in her native Oregon but anywhere and everywhere you might bump into a gang of kids, a teacher, a librarian, or a couple of parents happy to see their kids absorbed in the mysteries and delights of a good book. Cleary was born in McMinnville and spent her early years on a farm near Yamhill and then moved with her family to the Portland neighborhood that became the epicenter of action in a string of children’s novels that for verve and wit and imagination beat the pants off most anything assigned in class.

In her reminiscence Beverly Cleary: Plucky, adventurous kids can be fun!, ArtsWatch literary columnist Amy Leona Havin recalls the time when Beverly was a young children’s librarian in Yakima, Washington, and a student asked her, “Where are all the books about kids like me?” Well, she decided, maybe she’d have to write them herself. Those books, as it turned out, had both a precise specificity and a sense of being readily adaptable to anytime, anywhere – maybe even to your own back yard. Havin quotes Cleary: “Quite often somebody will say, what year do your books take place? And the only answer I can give is, in childhood.”

As it happens, I’ve lived within a hop, skip, and jump of Klickitat Street, the home turf of Cleary’s tales about Ramona, Beezus, Henry, and their friends and families and pets, for more than thirty years, and it’s been a point of mildly possessive pride – something much better, in a secret-society sort of way, than living in the shadows of, say, Pennsylvania Avenue or Rodeo Drive. Cleary’s Klickitat Street leads you easily into a neighborhood of advanced imagination, whatever age you are now or might once have been. Let me just mention my sister, a learned woman of sophisticated taste who knows her Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Dickens and Austen and Morrison and Eliot and Dickinson and even her Longfellow backward and forward and upside down. Upon learning of Cleary’s death, she said simply: “I was in love with Henry Huggins.”


Sam Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, and Cybill Shepherd in the 1971 moview “The Last Picture Show,” adapted from Larry McMurtry’s 1966 novel. McMurtry also wrote the screenplay, with director Peter Bogdanovich. 

LAST THURSDAY WAS A BAD DAY for American arts & letters: In addition to Cleary, Larry McMurtry, one of the great storytellers of the West, also died, at 84, of congestive heart failure, at his home in Archer City, Texas. McMurtry was a Texas native and son of a rancher, and as Dwight Garner notes in his obituary for The New York Times, he saw his biggest hit, the epic adventure tale Lonesome Dove, as “an anti-western, a rebuke of sorts to the romantic notions of dime-store novels and an exorcism of the false ghosts in the work of writers like Louis L’Amour. ‘I’m a critic of the myth of the cowboy,’ he told an interviewer in 1988. ‘I don’t feel that it’s a myth that pertains, and since it’s a part of my heritage I feel it’s a legitimate task to criticize it’.’’

I confess that I know McMurtry’s works more through their movie adaptations than through the novels themselves. Hud, adapted from his first novel, Horseman, Pass By. The wondrous, bleakly yearning The Last Picture Show, with a young Cybill Shepherd and Jeff Bridges and a devastating Cloris Leachman. The acerbic and hugely popular romance Terms of Endearment.

But a few days ago I browsed through my bookshelves and pulled out a McMurtry book – not a novel – that I’ve gone back to several times since it was published in 2008: Books: A Memoir, his light and breezy string of vignettes about his life in the antiquarian book business (with brief side notes on his career as a successful novelist and screenwriter). It’s a wry and warm and funny reminiscence of what, by his death, had been a half-century of bookselling, much of it in his huge and rambling shop in Archer City, and I was looking for a particular passage that, over the dozen or so years since I first stumbled across it, has given me enduring delight.

In Chapter 98 — the chapters are short; it’s page 235 — I found it. McMurtry writes about coming across an old copy of The Whale, which is the British title for Moby-Dick, and noting in his drily comic tone one of the multitudinous ways in the publishing business in which a good idea can go wrong:

“(I)t appeared from a note in the book that this copy had been the working copy of the once acclaimed, now forgotten author Charles Reade, famous for ‘The Cloister and the Hearth,’ whose job was to edit ‘The Whale’ down to a handier and possibly more salable one-volume edition.

“We were unable to buy this book, but we did note that Charles Reade was not a man to be intimidated by a mere American classic.

“He began his editorial work by drawing a bold line through ‘Call me Ishmael’.”

Don’t cut. Don’t print. But yes, that’s a tale worth telling.  

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A farewell to Stephen Scott, musical innovator

Still from a video of the Bowed Piano Ensemble playing music by  Stephen Scott. The piano strings are plucked, struck, and bowed from the inside, often by several performers at once.

“STEPHEN SCOTT WAS ALL SET TO BECOME A JAZZ MUSICIAN until the day in 1964 his mentor, University of Oregon music professor Homer Keller, brought a cassette to class. ‘There’s something going on in San Francisco,’ he said, ‘and you should hear it’.” So begins Singing Strings, Brett Campbell’s reminiscence of composer Scott, who died March 10 at 76. On the cassette was an early capture of In C, Terry Riley’s mellifluous, repetitive, and groundbreaking composition. “It grabbed me by the throat,” Scott recalled. “We were all stunned by it.” It set Scott on his own radical path, one that led him to an essentially new instrument – the bowed piano – to play the sounds he heard. Campbell continues: “’I instantly started composing for it in my head,’ he remembers. And he never stopped. Over the years, using fishing line, horsehair mounted on popsicle sticks, and eventually guitar picks, fingernails, mutes, piano hammers and other unconventional items, Scott produced beautiful, almost orchestral textures, rooted in minimalism and jazz harmonies, that mesmerized listeners. The instrument’s surprisingly spacious range of timbres could shift from percussive and focused to singing and shimmering.”


Moving from the past into the present and future

Hank Willis Thomas, “Unity.” The 22.5-foot-tall public artwork was installed in 2019 in downtown Brooklyn, New York. Photo: NYC Department of Design and Construction / Matthew Lapiska

HOW DOES CHANGE HAPPEN, IN THE ARTS WORLD, OR ANYWHERE? “In the weeks following George Floyd’s murder—when people all over the country were taking to the streets in force, in anger, and in desperation for change; when an acrid cloud of tear gas was hanging over downtown Portland every night—my beloved art institutions were quiet,” Jennifer Rabin begins her essay Diversity and inclusion can’t accomplish what we need. “At first, I hoped it might be a productive silence.”

For the most part, she declares, it wasn’t. Part of the problem, she believes, is systemic: “The world of visual and performing arts is still focused on the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) model, which can never solve the problem it purports to solve because it works at cross purposes with itself.” 

A system of change that simply tacks inclusion and diversity onto an essentially white and wealthy world view without shifting the balance of power, Rabin suggests, will fail. There are other, better ways, she argues, that are difficult but necessary: “I’ve been thinking about the phrase ‘Nothing about us without us,’ which originated from Eastern European labor organizers. It was later adopted by South African, and then U.S., disability rights activists in the 1980s to explain that no policy or system should be created without the full participation of the people who are directly affected by that policy or system. It is a profound rallying cry that can be used as a lens to discuss equity in the arts, particularly given the art world’s track record for ableism and inaccessibility.”


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CHANGE ALSO CAN COME INCREMENTALLY, through direct action that helps open new ways of thinking about things. The museum world, for instance, has been gradually adjusting to the fact that Indigenous art and art by people of color aren’t just traditional and historical, they’re also contemporary, made by living artists, some of whom work in traditional forms and some of whom don’t. Last week in this column we talked about Portland artist Roberta Wong, who was the most recent guest on Dmae Roberts’ Stage & Studio podcast, on which she mentioned a 1983 call to artists of color by the old Metropolitan Arts Commission for grant submissions in a “folk art” category.

In a later email conversation, Wong elaborated. “A request for exhibition proposals went out seeking artists of color to apply for a traditional folk arts grant,” she wrote. “Rarely were there calls for artists of color, and when (one did go out), it was conditional. In this case, there was an expectation that artists of color did traditional ethnic art. I was insulted. As a recent grad of PSU in Sculpture, I was not trained in traditional crafts nor was it my focus. I raise this … not to critique the organization, but the practice of racial bias imposed by stereotypes. 

“As a consequence, I recruited fellow artists: Kanetaka Ikeda and Robert Dozono (two contemporary artists). We responded with an application contesting the premise that artists of color did traditional arts. Our proposal to showcase a Pan-Asian group of artists was funded and exhibited in the heart of Chinatown. Thirty-four multiethnic/multidisciplinary artists from around the state met for the first time and were well received, highlighting our individuality and diversity.”


April Fool’s Day (and a month of events)

TODAY IS APRIL FOOL’S DAY, and I’d be a fool not to mention it. There. That’s out of the way. Today is also the first day of a new month, and that means ArtsWatch has a fresh crop of columns talking about what’s coming up in the next few weeks, from visual arts to books to dance to film.

Work by Iranian-American artist Taravat Talepasand, in her Fourteen30 Gallery exhibition “Are You There, Taravat? It’s Me, Allah.” “With a title inspired by Judy Blume’s iconic teen novel ‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,’ Talepasand’s works similarly navigate self-reflection, trust, and belief,” Lindsay Costello writes in VizArts Monthly. Blume, in turn, was inspired by the children’s novels of Beverly Cleary. Image courtesy Fourteen30 Gallery 

VIZARTS MONTHLY: DAY TRIPS, LOCAL FAVORITES, AND VIRTUAL VIEWINGS. From Astoria to Eugene to Newberg to Portland’s galleries and that old Covid standby Virtual Space, Lindsay Costello leads us on an April art tour that ranges from an exploration of what’s so funny to the jangle of Disjecta’s “unquiet objects.”

LITWATCH MONTHLY: IT’S NATIONAL POETRY MONTH. April is, indeed, National Poetry Month, and so Amy Leona Havin begins her literary column with a quote from Salman Rushdie: “A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.” That established, she offers eight practical ways to celebrate the month, and a calendar of literary events, including national Poet Laureate Joy Harjo’s virtual appearance in the Portland Arts & Lectures series.

DANCEWATCH: PANDEMIC DOWNS AND UPS. Jamuna Chiarini looks back on a difficult year and ahead to the possibilities of the Feelings Festival at the Elisabeth Jones Art Center – plus flamenco, and a happy hour from Performance Works NW.

STREAMERS: A FORGOTTEN FEMINIST FILMMAKER, AND THE STELLAR BIOGRAPHY “MIKE NICHOLS: A LIFE.” Marc Mohan celebrates the French director Nelly Kaplan and a quartet of her films on the Criterion Channel, and reviews a vivid and engaging biography of an American director-of-all-trades.



Amenta Abioto’s revolutionary sounds 

Amenta  Abioto, in a screen shot from a TEDx Mt. Hood performance video. 

BLACK MUSIC MATTERS, VOL. 3: SMELL THE ROSES. In his third deep dive into the fertile waters of Black music, Matthew Neil Andrews explores the soundstreams of Portland’s Amenta Abioto, from her live performances to her videos to songs such as Revolution, and even her portable soundscapes for walking in the woods. He also lends an attentive ear to the work of Portland singer, bandleader, and producer Tony Osier, and suggests that maybe you should, too.



Notes from here, there, and everywhere

Ashland’s Schneider Museum of Art reopens April 6 with the exhibition “Collecting Cuba: Selections from the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art.” Above: “Album de la Revolución Cubana,” Ernesto Capdevila (1926-95); with Mario Jiménez and J.M. Picart, authors; L. Domínguez Triay and René Jiménez Ornelas, contributors. Original circa 1959, reprinted late 20th to early 21st century, Lithograph on paper, ca. 10 x 16 inches, Gift of Randall and Susanne Stender, Courtesy of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon.

ASHLAND’S ART MUSEUM REOPENING. Good news for Southern Oregonians and visitors to Ashland: Southern Oregon University’s Schneider Museum of Art will reopen for in-person visits on Tuesday, April 6. Kicking off the reopening and continuing through July 1 will be the exhibition Collecting Cuba: Selections from the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. Hours will be limited to begin: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; admission is free, with a $5 suggested donation.

PORTLAND CHILDREN’S MUSEUM CALLS IT QUITS. The news is far more dire for the children’s museum, which has been a Portland fixture since 1946 and is the oldest U.S. children’s museum west of the Mississippi River. Coronavirus closures have dealt a heavy financial blow to museums and other cultural organizations, and the museum announced a week ago that it was too deep in debt and would shut down permanently on June 30. Before the pandemic it averaged about 250,000 visitors a year. A group of parents and interested parties has begun a petition drive, hoping to find a way to reverse the decision and keep the museum doors open. 

RIVERBEND PLAYERS GOES TO THE DOGS. After a quiet year, Lori Tobias reports, a theater company in Nehalem puts on a show – and all the characters are canines. Plus: The Oregon Coast Council for the Arts picks a new leader.

PORTLAND OPERA LOOKS AHEAD. The opera company, meanwhile, is looking ahead with reshaped goals and a planned three-production 2021-22 season highlighted by a March 2022 run of Anthony Davis’s topical The Central Park Five, winner of last year’s Pulitzer Prize for music. The season opens in November in grand traditional style with Puccini’s Tosca, which was postponed because of coronavirus shutdowns from last season, then takes on its new contemporary look in January and February 2022 with the U.S. premiere of Leslie Uyeda’s chamber opera When the Sun Comes Out, which had its world premiere in 2013 at the Vancouver Queer Arts Festival.

2021 OREGON BOOK AWARD FINALISTS NAMED. Literary Arts has released the names of 35 finalists for the annual awards, covering seven categories: fiction, poetry, general nonfiction, creative nonfiction, children’s literature, young adult literature, and drama. You can see all of the nominees at the link, plus a schedule of events leading up to the awards, which will be May 2.

ALL CLASSICAL PORTLAND NAMES FINALISTS FOR INCLUSIVITY INITIATIVE. Billing its nominees as “twelve composers who could change America’s playlist,” the radio network has named a dozen composers – six contemporary, six posthumous – whose music expands and enriches the classical repertoire beyond the European mainstream. There’s more to come from the initiative: five of the composers will be chosen later this spring to have their works recorded in Portland, and distributed internationally by Naxos Records. 

STANDING AT THE INTERSECTION OF ART AND BUSINESS. Stephanie Basalyga profiles Portland filmmaker, composer, and photographer Elijah Hasan for the Business Tribune.


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