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News & Notes: Animals in Astoria, a children’s theater’s big move downtown, Paseo and chalk art festivals, ‘indie folk’ art in Ashland, Bridgetown sings

Matthew Dennison's paintings explore the divide between the natural and human worlds, and NW Children's Theater finds a home smack in the center of the Cultural District.

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Matthew Dennison, “Deerscape,” oil on panel, 30 x 40 inches, in his solo exhibit “Sovereignty of the Ancients” at Imogen Gallery in Astoria.

Animals abound in Sovereignty of the Ancients, the show of paintings by Matthew Dennison that opened Saturday at Imogen Gallery in Astoria and continues there through Aug. 8. Not cute or psychedelic animals, in the manner of Louis Wain’s cats, or specimen animals, like John James Audubon’s rigorously detailed and anatomically measured creatures. Dennison’s animals – deer, shark, rabbits, woodpeckers, crows, sea lions, elk, bears, fish, and more – are individuals, imbued with as much sovereignty or soul or whatever you want to call it as any human looking at their images on the gallery walls.

The veteran Portland painter’s works are figurative but not realistic. They have a sharp illustrative quality, with depth, set off by a vivid sense of color and depicting creatures that know things humans can only speculate about. Many are quite large — about three or four feet square, so they truly make their presence known. Others are more intimate.

Whatever size, they are portraits, searching, like all good portraiture, for the unexplainable beneath the skin. “I enjoy going into the surface where there is almost an abstract quality, with the animals replacing the human,” Dennison said in an online exchange on Sunday. “We exist with these creatures … however often in an uneven balance.” There is an alien intelligence to his animal portraits, and yet the word “ancients” resonates: Who, after all, is the interloper here?

Interloping, or the rough edge between human culture and the natural world, is core to Dennison’s work. How does the animal kingdom survive in the face of human expansion and environmental degradation? The painting Deerscape, depicting a pair of houses, a sidewalk, a swath of yard and a stag racing across the scene in the foreground, away from the built environment, evokes the sense of something out of whack. “Deerscape” might refer, benignly, to “deer in a landscape.” Or it might mean, “deer, escaping.”

Dennison is one of several artists who left Portland’s Froelick Gallery amid a controversy in February and March. He was “elated,” he said, when Imogen’s Teri Sund got in touch with him and invited him to do a show. “Leaving Froelick and landing at Imogen seems a natural process,” he said. “Teri has embraced my work, and that means a lot to me.” Indeed, he’s recently bought a home in Astoria overlooking Youngs Bay, and plans to split his time between there and Portland. “I am close to the wild things now, always trying to get and touch closer,” he said. “The balance we need to obtain with the natural world is critical. I am optimistic, but very worried.”

In his artist’s statement for Sovereignty of the Ancients, he declares: “My intent is to point people back to the natural world, reminding us that we are connected to this place and land.” It’s a notion that has global relevance and seems particularly of the Pacific Northwest. And Astoria seems a good place to explore it — a human outpost in a richly diverse natural terrain. Yes, deer race across the lawns in a place like this.

 

Matthew Dennison, “Golden Eagle,” oil on panel, 48 x 48 inches, Imogen Gallery.

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THE BIG NEWS ON THE THEATER FRONT is the scheduled move of Northwest Children’s Theater and School from its longtime home in Northwest Portland’s NW Neighborhood Cultural Center to the large former movie-theater complex in the 1000 Broadway Building downtown. The move puts the children’s theater company smack in the center of the downtown Cultural District — across the street from the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, catercorner from the Newmark, Dolores Winningstad, and Brunish theaters, a couple of blocks from the Portland Art Museum, close to the Oregon Historical Society and the Multnomah County Central Library.

The 1000 Broadway Building, future home of Northwest Children’s Theater and School. Photo courtesy NWCT.

The move is a huge score for the children’s theater and school, which has been looking for a new home for years. The new complex, taking over the former movie fourplex space in the 24-story office and mixed-use tower, will include a 240-seat proscenium theater, a 120-seat flexible black box performing space, a 190-seat family cinema for film showings and other events, and several classroom, rehearsal, office, and other spaces. The building also has an attached parking garage.

The project has a $6.3 million goal, with $4.2 million in hand as of late June and another $1.2 million in potential grants under review. The campaign got a huge opening boost with a $2 million gift from company founder Judy Kafoury and her husband, Gregory Kafoury, and the fund drive continues. The company’s lease in Northwest Portland expires on October 1, 2022, and its planned grand opening on Broadway is in January 2023.

The new center will be named The Judy Kafoury Center for Youth Arts, or “The Judy” for short. “NWCT founder Judy Kafoury has been a bedrock of support for the children’s theater for the past 30 years,” the company said in a statement. “Under her management the company has grown from ‘$6,000, a desk, and a phone’ to a $2.2 million a year nonprofit impacting over 75,000 lives each year.”

NWCT is one of two large children’s theater companies in Portland. Oregon Children’s Theatre, which performs downtown in the Newmark and Winningstad theaters, has lost its office and classroom spaces in close-in Northeast Portland and is seeking a new home space.

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The LaRhonda Steele Band will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, July 16, at downtown Portland’s Paseo festival.

PORTLAND’S NEWEST DOWNTOWN FESTIVAL, Paseo, takes over much of the Cultural District Friday through Sunday, July 15-17, bringing an array of music, dance, drag, and other events to the South Park Blocks and Director Park. The festival, sponsored by the Portland Parks Foundation and PGE, is named for the traditional Spanish community stroll that enlivens city and village streets in the evenings.

Sponsor
Portland Center Stage Portland Oregon Events

The new festival began to take shape in 2021, following the previous summer’s civil unrest after the murder of George Floyd. The Parks Foundation assembled a “think tank” with BIPOC leaders to consider what a new downtown event might be. From there, a 14-member steering committee curated the festival and its events. “Our collective goal with Paseo is to center artists, organizations, and grassroots parks, health, and aid groups from communities traditionally disenfranchised from the financial and cultural center of the city,” Randy Gragg, the Parks Foundation’s executive director, said in a press statement. “We want to heal our downtown by bringing it back, but also by bringing it forward.”

Music and dance stages will be near the Portland Art Museum and in Director Park, and Shemanski Square will be devoted to Indigenous performers and vendors. You can see the full schedule here.

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Chalk artist Cynthia Kostylo at work during 2019’s La Strada dei Pastelli Chalk Art Festival. Photo: Joe Cantrell

THIS YEAR’S LA STRADA DEI PASTELLI CHALK ART FESTIVAL, an annual summer event in Washington County, is coming up fast: It’ll be Saturday and Sunday, July 16-17, in downtown Hillsboro’s Cultural Art District, along East Main Street between First and Fourth avenues. The festival, produced by Tualatin Valley Creates, draws chalk artists from all over, who converge for the weekend to stake out a square of concrete on the street and execute colorful drawings as the crowds are looking on.

In one sense the work is quite traditional — generally representational, emphasizing the power of color and the skill of the line. In another it’s quite contemporary — a form of performance art, like visual dance, transforming a utilitarian space into a vibrant public gallery. And it’s very fleeting: once the festival’s over the concrete’s washed clean, and the cars can start rolling through again.

Like any good summer festival, it’s accompanied by music stages, food carts, beverages, and hands-on activities for kids — and it’s free. Hours are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. each day. Photographer Joe Cantrell covered the 2019 festival, at Cedar Hills Crossing in Beaverton. To get an idea of the sort of art you might might see in Hillsboro, take a look at Chalk up another win for art, his ArtsWatch photo essay from the 2019 festival.

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Gaylen Hansen, “Kernal with Four Red Grasshoppers,” 1980, oil on canvas, 78 x 99.6 inches, Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art WSU permanent collection.

WHAT’S INDIE? WHAT’S FOLK? WHAT IS AND ISN’T THE “MAINSTREAM” in the world of art? Southern Oregon University’s Schneider Museum of Art in Ashland is taking a stab at those questions in its exhibit Indie Folk: New Art and Sounds, which opened in mid-June and continues through Aug. 13. The show features work by 17 visual artists in the Pacific Northwest, and indie folk music selected by Portland’s Mississippi Records is piped into the gallery spaces to help set the mood.

Historically, “folk,” “naive,” or “primitive” art – each a loaded term in its own way – has suggested something both outside the main body of the art world and, particularly to traditionalist gatekeepers, something lesser than: homespun; unsophisticated. For ages that belief held true for Indigenous art, too, although it didn’t stop artists like Picasso from being influenced by and borrowing freely from the traditional arts of Africa and elsewhere.

What do “folk” and “indie” mean now? In a culture swamped with information, do they simply mean, artists not tied to art schools? Is it a matter of materials? — if you use fabric or found objects or wood, are you categorized differently? (The old linguistic battle between “art” and “craft” raises its head here.) There are, of course, artists who survive and sometimes thrive outside the gallery system. But the 17 artists represented in Indie Folk are for the most part well-known and well-represented in the galleries; they’re hardly outsiders in that sense. Artists such as Whiting Tennis, the Colville painter/sculptor/glass artist Joe Feddersen, the late Salem artist D.E. May, ceramicist Jeffry Mitchell, Seattle glass artist Cappy Thompson, and Portlander Jessica Jackson Hutchins, who uses any and everything from old fabric to newspaper clippings in her work, are well-known and completely accepted in the “mainstream” art world.

So what makes them folk or indie? Maybe it’s simply a matter of independent thought, which can splay out in any number of directions, and seems almost the ordinary state of things in the Pacific Northwest. “The Pacific Northwest is home to a unique artistic ecosystem involving craft traditions, pre-industrial cultures, and Indigenous and settler histories,” the Schneider says in a press statement. “Like folk art, the exhibition features handmade works that are unpretentious, and often blur the line between functionality and aesthetics.” Is that line important? Only if you say it is. Maybe these artists simply represent a movement toward independence and away from “schools” or labels — a world in which you just make art. There’s something refreshing about that. And in this show, there’s plenty of fascinating “just made” art to see, no matter what you call it.

The exhibit, curated by Melissa E. Feldman, was organized by the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Washington State University, moved on to the Schneider for its current run, and will travel to the Bellevue Art Museum in Washington state. It was first seen as a virtual exhibit from Portland’s Adams and Ollman gallery in 2020, at the height of the pandemic, when most museums and galleries were shut down.

Marita Dingus, “Scissor Basket,” scissors, found metals, 6 x 6 x 9 inches, courtesy the artist and Traver Gallery, Seattle.
Warren Dyckman, “So What,” 2020, acrylic on paper, 60 x 48 inches, courtesy of the artist and studio e, Seattle.

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NORTHWEST CHILDREN’S THEATRE AND SCHOOL isn’t the only theater company to make a big move. Bridgetown Conservatory of Musical Theatre has signed a lease to move from the St. Johns neighborhood to larger and more adaptable quarters in The Tiffany Center, also known as the Neighbors of Woodcraft Building. The 3,500-square-foot street level space is being renovated, and move-in date is Sept. 1. The center, at Southwest 14th Avenue and Morrison Street, is close to downtown and just up the street from Artists Repertory Theatre, which is undergoing its own long and radical structural renovation.

Now Bridgetown, which under theatrical music director Rick Lewis’s leadership sends its mostly high school students on to advanced college and professional training programs all over the United States, is getting ready to do a “sneak preview” show in the Tiffany’s second-story Crystal Room: a short-run revival of the 1976 revue Side by Side by Sondheim, playing July 28-31.

Senior Editor

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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