The year 2020 included, among its many disruptions, the deaths of several notable arts and cultural figures in Oregon. Here are 15 who we remember in particular for the art they made and the lives they led. Some, like the National Book Award-winning writer Barry Lopez, whose Arctic Dreams is a genuine classic, have international reputations. Some, like contemporary choreographer and dancer Mary Oslund, had outsized and lasting impacts that focused on Oregon but also reached beyond. All deserve our notice and gratitude for helping to shape our notion of culture in the Pacific Northwest.
Oregon’s passages join a long list of national and international cultural figures who died in 2020. Among them are the likes of playwrights Larry Kramer and Terrence McNally; the stage designer Ming Cho Lee; visual artists Christo, Milton Glaser, and Peter Beard; musicians John Prine, Little Richard, Bill Withers, Charlie Pride, Leon Fleisher, and Krysztof Penderecki; novelist John le Carré; dancer/actor Ann Reinking; and actors Chadwick Boseman (brilliant in his final role as the trumpeter Levee in the Netflix film adaptation of August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Olivia de Havilland, Zoe Caldwell, Kirk Douglas, and Diana Rigg.
LOOKING BACK: 2020 IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR
A note on Rigg: Many people remember her primarily as the sizzling secret agent Emma Peel in the TV series The Avengers; others for her sterling stage career. I revere her also as the author of the collection No Turn Unstoned: The Worst Ever Theatrical Reviews, an often achingly funny compilation of terrible and frequently wrong-headed notices gathered from historical records and sent her by her friends and fellow performers. It was prompted in part by a 1970 review by the legendarily caustic John Simon of her appearance in the play Abelard and Heloise: “Diana Rigg is built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient buttresses.” Sometimes turnabout is fair play: She showed that she could play the game just as well or better, and her book landed on Simon and his soulmates like a ton of tongue-in-cheek bricks.
The people we lost in Oregon, and will remember:
Sara Waddell, teacher and music lover. Sara “Penny” Waddell of Beaverton was a teacher and mother and aspiring cellist who learned, in her early 50s, that she had a fatal cancer. She and frequent ArtsWatch photographer Joe Cantrell had become friends, and when she told him she wanted to pass along her cello and violin to students who could use them, he helped her connect with BRAVO Youth Orchestras, many of whose members can’t afford their own instruments. On Jan. 21 we told her story, with Cantrell’s photographs, in A cello, a violin, a final grace note. On Feb. 23 Waddell died, at age 52 – but her memory, and her musical instruments, play on.
Kathy Coleman, disability-arts champion. When Coleman had had cancer years earlier, Brett Campbell writes, “the treatments changed her body. She wanted to understand those changes, and as someone who loved to dance, she thought dance might help.” Her experience – not standard dancer-size; in a wheelchair – led her to found Portland’s Disability Art & Culture Project, which over the past 15 years, in Campbell’s words, “has shown artists and audiences alike that art doesn’t have to be limited to narrow traditional notions of what is beautiful, or who can create it. It’s spawned a groundbreaking dance company, a festival dedicated to art created by people with disabilities, a leadership training project, and more.” Erik Ferguson, co-founder of Wobbly Dance, added: “She was just a force, an irreplaceable piece of Portland arts.”
Arlene Schnitzer, philanthropist and gallerist. For decades Schnitzer, who died on April 4 at age 91, was a towering figure in Portland’s cultural world. A keen-eyed art collector and supporter, she had founded the pioneering Fountain Gallery, and with her late husband Harold had been a major philanthropist, contributing significant amounts to the Portland Art Museum and nurturing or shoring up countless other groups. Our story on her death noted just a few of her many donations to cultural, health, and Jewish causes: Between 1993 and Harold’s death in 2011 they donated more than $80 million. Arlene kept giving until the end: Shortly before her death she announced a $10 million lead gift to the art museum for its $100 million Rothko Pavilion project.
Michael Gibbons, Oregon Coast artist and organizer. Gibbons, for years a leading figure among coastal visual artists, died July 2 at age 76, from complications following a stroke in 2016. A skilled landscape painter, he was a founder of Toledo’s annual Labor Day Art Walk and of the Yaquina River Museum of Art. In Remembering ‘a poet with a paintbrush’, ArtsWatch’s Lori Tobias wrote: “In Toledo, the Oregon mill town of less than 3,500 where he lived, the idea of creating an artists’ community may have sounded foolish to some, yet that was exactly what the self-described ‘poet with a paintbrush’ did.”
Glenda Goldwater, collector, volunteer, personality. Goldwater, who died Sept. 3 at age 85, moved to Portland after retiring from her career as a librarian in San Francisco and quickly became a familiar and anticipated figure at all sorts of events. After her death we wrote: “From gallery and museum openings to concerts and the theater, Glenda was a ubiquitous, and deeply adored, part of the scene, her appearance at an event a sort of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. And she collected art, by living Oregon artists, that lined her apartment walls. She even inspired a Facebook page called Glenda Goldwater Is My Hero. A lot of people smiled and nodded their heads in agreement to that.”
Tim Stapleton, stage designer, writer, visual artist, actor. On Sept. 7, after several years of living with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, the veteran Portland theater and visual artist died in hospice care at age 71. A stage designer of imaginative gifts, a graceful writer of memoirs, a magnetic if occasional actor, and a visual artist whose style evolved from sharp naturalism to vivid abstractions as he lost muscular control, he looked often for artistic inspiration to his childhood in a Kentucky coal town. In Farewell to the Tangerine Window, Marty Hughley wrote movingly about Stapleton’s life, art, and friendships.
James McQuillen, music journalist. McQuillen, who died of natural causes in September, wrote classical music criticism for many publications, including ArtsWatch, and served a stint as chief classical reviewer for The Oregonian. In commenting on his death we noted: “James’s writing was deeply informed, deeply opinionated, often wryly funny, and committed to the possibilities for greatness in the world of sound. He wanted music to be the best that it could be, and was a passionate advocate for its importance and the importance of the people who made it.”
Anne Richardson, film and animation advocate. Richardson, who died on Oct. 14 at age 66, was a key behind-the-scenes figure in Oregon film circles, especially in the world of animation. In 2007 she and her husband, Dennis Nyback, founded the Oregon Cartoon Institute, which paid attention not just to the many artists in the state’s vibrant contemporary animation scene but also to the state’s print and film cartoon pioneers. She had begun work on a book about Oregon film history when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer in May.
Michael Berkson, actor, director, teacher, classical music lecturer. Berkson, a familiar figure in many realms of Portland performance, died Oct. 19 at age 81. As a young man he was an actor on and off Broadway, and then spent years as a well-loved professor of theater at Illinois State University before moving to Portland, where he led Portland Opera’s outreach programs as education director, bringing the music out of the opera house and into the schools and other places where people mingle. In Portland he returned to the stage often and was especially noted for his comedy skills, including a 2002 turn for Profile Theatre as “a banty rooster peck-peck-pecking away as Max, the dyspeptic father” in Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming.
Art Maddox, composer and pianist. Maddox, who lived in Springfield, died Oct. 19 at age 80. As both a composer and a pianist he was comfortable working out of the classical mainstream, following an American tradition of outsider adventurism. He was a close friend of novelist Ken Kesey, and wrote the orchestral setting for Kesey’s children’s tale Little Tricker the Squirrel Meets Big Double the Bear. He collaborated for many years with composer/musician Mason Williams, was pianist for the U.S. Women’s Gymnastic Team at the Munich and Montreal Olympic Games, and studied electronic composition on a Fulbright grant in Poland.
Mary Oslund, choreographer and dancer. Oslund, a leading figure in Oregon contemporary dance circles first in Eugene and then in Portland, died Nov. 17 at age 72, after a decade-long struggle with the neurological disease MSA, or Multi-System Atrophy. She was a founder of the legendary Portland contemporary dance center Conduit, and for years led her own company, which included a virtual who’s who of Oregon contemporary dancers. Dance writer Martha Ullman West wrote this lovely personal remembrance of Oslund for ArtsWatch.
Damara Bennett, dancer and dance teacher. Bennett, who had been director of the Oregon Ballet Theatre School from 2003 to 2013, died in November. A distinguished teacher, she had begun her professional dancing career in 1971 with San Francisco Ballet, where former OBT artistic director Christopher Stowell had also spent his years as a dancer. Elise Legere, a teacher at the OBT school, wrote that she “was impressed most by her demanding emphasis on technique while instilling the joy of movement in her dancers. … Damara Bennett will be missed by many hundreds of former students.”
Dorothy Goode, visual artist. The prominent Portland abstract painter, who died unexpectedly in her sleep on Nov. 23, had a big personality that encompassed a large part of the Portland art world. She was, as she wrote on her website, “born in 1969 and raised by hippies in the wilds of Mendocino County, California,” and she seemed never to have lost that free spirit. In Nothing at all of this is fixed, from January of this year, Friderike Heuer wrote for ArtsWatch about her visit to Goode’s studio. “It struck me as joyful,” Heuer wrote of Goode’s art. “Playful beauty.”
Bruce Browne, choral director, educator. Browne, an absolute legend in Pacific Northwest choral circles (and an occasional music reviewer for ArtsWatch), led Portland State University’s distinguished choral program for years, and also led Choral Cross Ties (which he founded) and the Portland Symphonic Choir, among others. Born in California in 1941, he died in late November in Portland, where he helped shape the careers of generations of singers. In his ArtsWatch story Remembering Bruce Browne, Brett Campbell quotes actor and singer Isaac Lamb: “Dr. Browne was a bear of a man. Tall, stout, larger than life. His voice boomed. He had a wicked sense of humor and a demanding work ethic and ethos. He scared the crap out of me, but in that way that the best teachers do: you knew he could see you were capable of more and he was going to hold you to it. Beneath the sometimes gruff exterior, however, was the heart and soul of a true educator. He loved his students – he made that known – and wanted them to achieve their potential. He taught me what excellence was.”
Barry Lopez, novelist, naturalist, National Book Award winner. Lopez, the widely admired writer of fiction and book-length contemplations of nature and culture, including his best-selling Arctic Dreams, a book born of five years among Inuit people in the northern wilderness, died at age 75 on Christmas Day, from cancer. He and his wife, fellow writer Debra Gwartney, had been living in Eugene after having to leave their longtime home near Finn Rock on the McKenzie River during Oregon’s September wildfires. Lopez traveled the world in his quest to understand how it worked and how people fit into it. In addition to the National Book Award winner Arctic Dreams he produced several other fine and enduring works, from fiction including the short-story collection Field Notes: The Grace Note of the Canyon Wren and the fable Crow and Weasel to nonfiction evocations including the National Book Award finalist Of Wolves and Men; his short but indelible journey into the meanings and disruptions of the European conquest of the Americas, The Rediscovery of North America; and his final book, 2019’s Horizon, on which he worked 30 years. Among several good memorials is this one, by Dave Blanchard, for NPR. Robert D. McFadden, in his obituary for The New York Times, quotes Lopez on his motives for writing: “I can tell you in two words. To help. I am a traditional storyteller. This activity is not about yourself. It’s about culture, and your job is to help.”