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Mixed art signals amid the turmoil

ArtsWatch Weekly: Tumbling toward Inauguration; Carrie Mae Weems' billboard campaign; Zoomy theater.


AS WE TUMBLE TOWARD INAUGURATION DAY, fear and uncertainty fill the air like a chemical cloud. Will another attack take place? If so, will it be more damaging than the first, from which five people died – six, if you count the police officer who took his own life after dealing with the mob in the Capitol Building? What of President Trump, now impeached for a second time, this time charged with “incitement of insurrection“? Will he stand down, or once again ramp things up? What will happen in the capitals of the fifty states, whose centers of government right-wing radicals have vowed to occupy? How and when will the impeachment trial play out in the Senate? Will it aid or harm the process of actually governing during perilous times? What of the coronavirus vaccines? When will they become available to the mass of American citizens? Who will or won’t agree to be inoculated, let alone, at a time when even basic public health has been turned into a radically politicized subject, simply wear a mask?

Above all: How did we reach such a state, and how do we extract ourselves from it? 

Such questions both override our cultural lives and define them. The arts are a reflection of their culture and their times, sometimes underlining the flow of world events and sometimes reacting against them. They can no more exist in a vacuum than a demagogue can exist without a ready and willing audience. 

From the Five Oaks thread: “A far-right extremist wearing animal furs and holding a plastic shield and a wooden walking stick sits beneath an oil painting of Charles Sumner by portrait artist Walter Ingalls. Charles Sumner was a U.S. senator from Massachusetts who was an abolitionist and supporter of civil rights for African Americans in the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. He was once severely injured and nearly killed when Representative Preston Brooks beat him with a walking cane on the Senate floor after Sumner made an anti-slavery speech. A small object label is located under the painting.”

Yesterday ArtsWatch ran across a Twitter and Instagram thread from Washington County’s Five Oaks Museum that addresses one small slice of the situation: the visual images of power and legitimacy that we send out to support our world views. They range, in this case, from the Confederate flags, mountain-man gear, and anti-Semitic slogans of the insurrectionists at the Capitol to the historic paintings on the Capitol Building’s walls, ranging from a romanticized history painting of Columbus landing in the West Indies to a portrait of the 19th century abolitionist and civil rights advocate Senator Charles Sumner. The contrast between the two sets of images juxtaposed in the same space can be both jarring and harmonious. Five Oaks’ curators responded to the images with historical and cultural commentary, and with their permission we republished the visual conversation, which you can see at Art on the walls, violence in the Capitol.  



Artful reminders of the coronavirus challenge dot the city and Multnomah County.

AND WHAT OF THAT SECOND AMERICAN STORYLINE, the burgeoning pandemic crisis that has made the United States one of the epicenters of Covid-19 infections and deaths? For those of you who have access to it, I highly recommend reading Lawrence Wright’s long investigative essay The Plague Year: The Mistakes and the Struggles Behind an American Tragedy, which ran in the Jan. 4 & 11 print edition of The New Yorker. Wright addresses the personal, political, scientific, racial, economic, and practical aspects of a crisis that, handled differently, might have been far less harmful and invasive.

On a smaller scale, you might have noticed the billboards and signs around Portland and Multnomah County addressing the crisis, including the message pictured above, which repeats timely basic information – “Wash Your Hands Cover Your Face Maintain Distance & Get Tested!!!” – with a reminder that the virus has hit BIPOC communities disproportionately hard, and the problem is a cultural in addition to a strictly medical one.

The campaign, called Resist Covoid / Take 6! (the “6” refers to six feet of social distancing), is an artist-driven project spearheaded by Carrie Mae Weems, the internationally known contemporary artist and Portland native who recently joined the Portland Art Museum’s board of trustees. (Several signs are on the museum campus.) The campaign focuses on the racial and cultural disparities in who gets sick and dies – BIPOC populations are hit roughly twice as hard as white populations – and a kind of consumer-friendly reminder of things that can be done. “Thank the workers of the world,” one billboard says: “The Farmer The Shopkeeper The Bus Driver The Postal Worker The Delivery Person The Barber and the Butcher The Teacher and The Sweeper The Clerk and The Doctor The Nanny and The Nurse. To the front line we say thank you!!!” Another states its case in Spanish: “Un poco de distancia hase mucho.


WESTAF Shoebox Arts


Vanessa Isiguen singing Melissa Dunphy’s “Come, My Tan-Faced Children,” with lyrics from a Walt Whitman poem. Photo: Don Valentine 

CLAP GOOD AND HARD FROM HOME. Max Tapogna gets into the virtual trenches with a pair of recent recitals from Portland Opera’s “Live from the Hampton Opera Center” series and discovers a wealth of talent and a heartening breadth of music: Concerts by Martin Bakari and Vanessa Isiguen displayed, in addition to superb vocal acuity, a range of material that traveled from Mozart to Gershwin to African American spirituals to Catalonian composer Fernando Obradors to a contemporary setting of a Walt Whitman poem and more.

NOW HEAR THIS: JANUARY EDITION. Once a month Robert Ham surveys the catalog of the music distributor Bandcamp for ArtsWatch, looking for likely releases from Oregon artists in a variety of musical genres and styles. This month he discovers a half-dozen likely candidates for your digital library, from metal to meditative to hip-hop and more.


 ONE OF THE THINGS THAT MAKES THE OREGON VISUAL ART SCENE INTERESTING is the frequent collaborations among different galleries and art organizations. One such project that’s just gone on display is the Jordan Schnitzer Printmaking Residency 20th Anniversary Folio, which will be showing through Feb. 28 at Portland’s Waterstone Gallery. It’s a three-way collaboration, among the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, on the Oregon Coast, where the residencies take place; Waterstone; and collector & philanthropist Schnitzer, who sponsors the residencies. The goal of the residencies is “to provide working artists with little or no printmaking experience the opportunity to explore a new creative medium with guidance, instruction and technical assistance from an expert etching printer” – in this case, master printmaker Julia D’Amario.

This year’s crop of nine artists is a particularly interesting one. It includes Baba Wagué Diakite, Sabina Haque, Linda Hutchins, Dana Lynn Louis, Ryan Pierce, Larry Thomas, Patti Warashina, Heather Watkins, and Marie Watt, plus D’Amario. Here’s a sampling of the work that’s being shown:

Sabina Haque, “Silent Protest.”
Baba Wagué Diakite
Marie Watt.
Patti Warashina.



MYS Oregon to Iberia

“Chocolate Cake & Ice Cream,” an animated short about friendship between a dog and cat by Steve Cowden of Lake Oswego, is on the schedule for the McMinnville Short Film Festival.

BRIGHT SPOTS PEEP THROUGH IN YAMHILL COUNTY ARTS FORECAST. David Bates takes a sharp look at the 2021 cultural calendar in the heart of Oregon wine country and discovers a little sparkle amid the blend. Several attractions that would ordinarily be there are canceled or scaled back because of the coronavirus. Others – including the highly anticipated McMinnville Short Film Festival, which will unveil 127 films over nearly two weeks beginning Feb. 18 – are boldly carrying on. There’ll be art exhibits in Newberg and down the valley a bit farther in Corvallis, and even the possibility of a little Shakespeare under the stars in August.


From left: Kamilah Bush, Thomas Bruner, Kisha Jarrett 

THREE LEADING PORTLAND PERFORMING ARTS ORGANIZATIONS have announced major appointments in the past week, bringing fresh voices into key leadership roles:

  • Portland Center Stage at The Armory has named Kamilah Bush its new literary manager. Bush is a dramaturg, playwright, and educator who’s worked for Asolo Rep in Sarasota, Florida; Two River Theater in Red Bank, New Jersey; and Triad Stage in Greensboro, North Carolina. She’ll move to Portland from North Carolina in February. She’ll be “charged with deepening the literary and artistic core of Portland Center Stage, bringing a lens of equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility to script reading and season programming, liaising between artistic, production, and marketing teams, and cultivating a diverse pool of voices and aesthetics to enrich the company’s artistic offerings,” the company said in a statement.
  • Oregon Ballet Theatre announced that Thomas Bruner, who’s been serving as the company’s interim executive director since June 2020, has been named executive director through the end of 2021. He was instrumental in keeping the company going after its Covid-forced cancellation of much of its last season, and has worked closely with artistic director Kevin Irving on creating the company’s multiple-platform OBT MOVES current season.
  • Artists Repertory Theatre named Kisha Jarrett its new managing director, replacing J.S. May, who takes the new position of executive director. It’s a succession role for Jarrett, putting her in line to replace May “as early as 2023,” when he plans to retire following the company’s capital campaign to revitalize its facility at 1515 S.W. Morrison Street. Jarrett joined the company in 2016 and served most recently as director of development and marketing. “I lean into my role as an innovator and while I celebrate being a Black woman in this position at Artists Rep, our evolution is not finished,” she said in a statement.    


Zoom Theatre’s “Collective Rage.”

ZOOMING INTO A NEW THEATER. Theater director Patrick Nims, Brett Campbell writes, was ready for a new life. He and his wife were ready to leave the Bay Area, where he’d cofounded Marin Summer Theatre, and settle somewhere smaller. They chose Portland, where their son was a student at PSU. Nims began to dive into the city’s theater scene – and then the coronavirus hit, shutting everything down. Nims’ response was to start a new company, Zoom Theatre, and help create a template for live video theater, delivered from an electronic distance. “The fact that Zoom allows audience members to turn on their microphones and provide instant feedback — laughs, applause — to performers — could help ameliorate the canned feeling of recorded online theater, and allow plays to happen live, in real time,” Campbell writes. Now, theater people from all over are seeking out Nims to get advice on how to make it work.

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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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