Oscars, books, and strange things

ArtsWatch Weekly: Oscars, Oregon Book Awards, operatic triumph, strange tales and a stranger firing.

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ON SUNDAY HOLLYWOOD THREW ITS BIG BACCHANALIA, the 93rd such annual fling, and even in its pandemic-year virtual tuxedo it was an obsessively overproduced wingding that was, at heart, a gigantic sales pitch for the movie industry. Nomadland (based on a book by Jessica Bruder, a former reporter for The Oregonian) won, the late Chadwick Boseman did not, and television viewership numbers took another tumble. Marc Mohan wraps things up smartly in his new “Streamers” column. Most refreshingly, he notes, the studios pushed their big fall and winter releases back to this summer, a move that “allowed greater recognition for films that didn’t conform to Hollywood ‘Oscar-bait’ formulas. As a result, the Academy took a few more halting, belated steps towards racial, gender, and aesthetic diversity.” 

A doff of the ArtsWatch cap also to Portland filmmaker Skye Fitzgerald, who scored his second Oscar nomination for his short documentary Hunger Ward, about the war-caused famine in Yemen and the struggle of two women to feed the devastated nation’s children and infants. Colette, about a former French Resistance member who travels to Germany for the first time in 74 years, won that category, but that takes nothing from Fitzgerald’s achievement. Mohan, ArtsWatch’s movie columnist, talked with Fitzgerald a week before the ceremony, and the resuting interview is worth a second read.

And now, back to our previously scheduled coverage.


WRITE A BOOK. MAKE IT GOOD. SEND IT INTO THE WORLD.



Left: Joe Wilkins, author of “Thieve.” Right: Ann Vileisis, author of “Abalone.”
 

THE OREGON BOOK AWARDS ARE COMING UP SUNDAY, and although they’re much less high-profile than Sunday’s Academy Awards blowout was, a lot of talent and a lot of prestige will be in the virtual room when this year’s winners are announced. That’ll be at 7 p.m. Sunday, May 2, on a special episode of OPB Radio’s The Archive Project, a co-production of OPB and Literary Arts, which also sponsors the annual book awards. (You can see the list of nominees here.)

Amy Leona Havin provides some of the vital details about the Book Awards in her monthly literary-news column, LitWatch May: Oregon Book Awards. She roams well beyond the awards excitement, too, spotlighting a month of virtual events that range from a new release from Oprah Winfrey to the rollout of Whitney Otto’s Art for the Ladylike, voting-rights activist Stacey Abrams on her new suspense thriller, an oceanic deep dive into Moby-Dick, some good old rock and roll with Jonathan Taplin and The Band’s Robbie Robertson, and more.

Unlike all of those eager prognosticators before the Oscars (anyone bet big on Anthony Hopkins?) here at ArtsWatch we’re not about to make any guesses about the winners at The Oregon Book Awards, which come in seven categories: fiction, poetry, general nonfiction, creative nonfiction (we’d argue that both brands of nonfiction are creative), children’s literature, young-adult literature, and drama. But coincidentally, in the past week our writers have spotlighted two finalists in enlightening interviews:

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  • FREEWHEELING IRIDESCENCE OF THE ABALONE. Lori Tobias has a conversation with Port Orford’s Ann Vileisis, whose book Abalone: The Remarkable History and Uncertain Future of California’s Iconic Shellfish is a finalist in the general nonfiction category. Vileisis thought it would be a relatively simple story about a single mollusk. Ten years later, she knew that it was just one part of a vastly interrelated tale: “Little did I know it was hitched to so many other things.  To do it right, I had to learn about marine biology, cultural history, science, and weave all those stories together.”
     
  • JOE WILKINS: ‘I’M ALWAYS WRITING POEMS.‘ David Bates talks with the McMinnville poet, memoirist, and novelist Wilkins, whose collection Thieve is a book-awards finalist in the poetry category. In a wide-ranging conversation, Walker talks about growing up poor in Montana, the idea of the Western, the urban/rural cultural and political divide, and the crucial joy of writing poems: “The act of fitting precise language to what I see, to what bewilders me and scares me, to what I love — well, it’s the best way I know to attempt to understand, empathize, and more deeply know the world around me.”

MUSIC: ‘THE MOST COMPELLING I’VE SEEN IN 30 YEARS’


Soprano Leah Hawkins performing “Songs for the African Violet” in the opera’s “Journeys to Justice” concert. Photo courtesy of Portland Opera.

GOOD MEN MUST PLAN: A REVIEW OF ‘JOURNEYS TO JUSTICE.’ “In the 30 years I’ve covered Portland Opera … I’ve never seen such a compelling program as this month’s Journeys to Justice,” Angela Allen writes – and that’s just the beginning. “The creative and accomplished quality of singing, staging, lighting, costumes, hair design! – the twinning of operatic and theatrical values came together as these six art songs and chamber operas based on Black experience (and written in the last 30 years) unfolded across 75 minutes with no intermission,” she continues. “Cutting-edge and contemporary in style, and convincingly done on camera, Journeys reached into the deep folds of pain and occasional jubilance that define Black American culture in a historically white supremacist landscape.” The concert is available for streaming through May 31.

  • CATCHING UP WITH: FEAR NO MUSIC. ArtsWatch Music Editor Matthew Neil Andrews inaugurates our new “Catching Up With” series in conversation with the married leaders of the adventurous ensemble Fear No Music, executive director/pianist Monica Ohuchi and artistic director/violist Kenji Bunch. Consider these conversations pandemic-year check-ins. The new series, Andrews declares, “asks the long-running local music groups: how the hell have you been doing? …how have you gotten through the last Year of Weirdness? … and what’s next?” Ohuchi and Bunch get right down to it.



SANKAR RAMAN’S PHOTOGRAPHIC IMMIGRANT STORY


Photo of Oregon Symphony violinist Fumino Ando by Sankar Raman for The Immigrant Story.


FROM HOBBY TO PASSION TO MISSION. Sankar Raman took up photography as a boy in India. He kept at it through his immigration to the United States to study physics and engineering at Purdue University, a long career at Intel in Oregon concentrating in high-precision optics and lighting, and his founding and managing of the innovative website The Immigrant Story, which tells the stories of people from around the world who have picked up their lives and resettled in the United States. Raman talks with fellow photographer and writer Blake Andrews about how the realities of immigration changed his perspective on what a photograph – a photographic portrait, in particular – ought to be, and how that process helped develop a distinctive photographic approach for The Immigrant Story. “Raman pays particular attention to camera placement,” Andrews writes. “He avoids the upward perspective popularized in National Geographic and other magazines to confer a foreboding, exotic quality upon people. Instead he prefers to place his tripod at eye level, placing himself literally on equal footing with his subjects. ‘I don’t tell the subject how to look or how to dress but just invite each one to come to the photo session looking the way she or he wants to look.’”



A CARVER AND HER ART CIRCLE BACK TO HOME


Grand Ronde Tribal member Qahir Beejee Jamil Peco-Llaneza with her carvings. Image courtesy of the artist.

RECLAIMING IDENTITY THROUGH TRADITION. In the newest chapter in her series Indigenous Resilience in Oregon, Steph Littlebird profiles traditional carver and Grand Ronde tribal member Qahir Beejee Jamil Peco-Llaneza, or Beejee for short. After a long and satisfying career as a social services worker and a teacher in traditional schools and places such as the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, she began to learn traditional Indigenous art forms and settled on wood carving, at which she’s excelled. “Part of what makes Beejee’s carving work so special is the stories behind them,” Littlebird writes. “Sometimes they are referring to ancestral knowledge, sometimes she’s using traditional techniques to talk about contemporary issues.” Beejee began to make her art through fellow Grand Ronde member Greg Archuleta’s  Lifeways class (which Littlebird wrote about here), explaining that it “was a really healthy way to pass on the culture and not pass on wounds. To pass the connection to the land, to the water, to the earth, the stories of our people, and our connection with each other.”



THEATER: STRANGE FIRING, STRANGE CASE, STRANGE YEARS


Actor Sean Doran, recording the title role in Imago Theatre’s new radio play “The Strange Case of Nick M.,” written by Drew Pisarra Photo: Jerry Mouawad


THE BIGGEST NEWS IN OREGON THEATRICAL CIRCLES – AND VERY LIKELY IN ITS ACADEMIC CIRCLES, TOO – was Linfield University’s firing on Tuesday of one of its star professors, Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, holder of the Ronni Lacroute Chair in Shakespeare Studies, until very recently the faculty member of the private university’s board, and a gifted writer whose stories in such places as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The New York Times have boosted Linfield’s reputation far and wide. Deeply admired by his students and  widely supported by fellow faculty members, Pollack-Pelzner had been embroiled in disputes with the school’s president and powerful members of the board over what began as an effort to have the board deal with allegations from students and faculty members of sexual misconduct by some members of the board. The board rebuffed Pollack-Pelzner’s efforts, the president became angry, and things got even uglier, spiraling into what very much has the appearance of a case of shooting the messenger. Maxine Bernstein’s post-firing story in The Oregonian and her followup on campus reaction sum up the situation well.

I know Pollack-Pelzner slightly, and admire him deeply. I’ve edited stories he’s written for ArtsWatch, about as enjoyable a process as editing can be. I’ve edited stories by a couple of his former students, who were smart and capable and exceedingly well-trained. I’ve been a guest in his classroom and witnessed his teaching skills and rapport with his students. By simply asking Linfield’s board and administration to do the right thing – by supporting his community – he placed himself in danger, and his career is hanging by a thread. At the same time, by scapegoating Pollack-Pelzner and plowing through when it might have responded honestly to allegations and devised some protocols, Linfield has exposed itself to a public relations disaster. When it comes to the university’s power structure, I find myself thinking of the story of the fellow who cut off his nose to spite his face. Linfield’s board is about to head off for a two-day retreat. It’s unlikely to be a picnic.

  • A STRANGE CASE OF SOUND OVER SIGHT. What’s this? Imago Theatre, known for its highly visual and physical brand of performance, creating a radio play? Writer Drew Pisarra and director Jerry Mouawad talk about the bicoastal process that led to their new play, The Strange Case of Nick M., about a man who can only remember what’s happened in the past 30 seconds. It opens Monday, May 3, on a KBOO-FM 90.7 broadcast.
     
  • THEATER: 5 YEARS, 1 MURAL, 1 WAG. I review Broadway Rose’s streaming production of the musical The Last Five Years, and add items on the making of a James Baldwin mural at Portland Center Stage at The Armory, and a droll video adaptation of a short comic piece in The New Yorker on how Shakespeare survived the Plague, written by – ironic drumroll, please – Daniel Pollack-Pelzner.

LATE-BREAKING NEWS: FEDERAL BUCKS, MUSEUM (UN)CROWDS


 A COUPLE OF THURSDAY AFTERNOON NEWS NOTES:

FEDERAL AID FOR OREGON ARTS GROUPS. The National Endowment for the Arts announced its recommendation that $803,500 go to the Oregon Arts Commission as part of the endowment’s $135 million allocation to aid the arts sector under the Covid-relief American Rescue Plan. “Over the next several weeks, Arts Commission staff and Commissioners will review federal guidance to develop a statewide distribution plan for the funds,” Brian Rogers, executive director of the state arts commission, said in a prepared statement.

JOIN THE PORTLAND ART MUSEUM CLASS OF 78. Multnomah County re-enters high-alert Covid status on Friday, which means a lot of high-alert shutdowns. But the Portland Art Museum has announced it’ll be keeping its doors open, on a very limited basis: It’ll allow just 78 visitors a day. You could spread 78 people across the museum’s sprawling galleries and, spaced properly, no one would ever see anyone else. Check the link for tickets and times – and don’t plan on an impulse drop-in. It’s a little like trying to score a vaccination appointment: Tickets are sold out through May 9, so if you’re all vacced up and you want to go, find a date and sign up now.


HISTORICAL POSTSCRIPT: WATCH YOUR (MUSICAL) STEP


City of Portland photo. Circa 1948. Downtown Portland. Safety Week poster.

THIS CITY OF PORTLAND PHOTOGRAPH, circa 1948, has been making the Internet rounds in the past couple of days. The scene is Southwest Broadway in downtown Portland. The safety sign? A music teacher’s dream. Fascinating that its symbolic safety message seemed simple enough for any pedestrian to decipher before getting flattened by a speeding Studebaker or Packard in the intersection. See sharp – look all ways – or you’ll be flat – under the wheels. Musical literacy, come home.


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About the author
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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