People & Conversations 2018

2018 in Review, Part 3: ArtsWatch goes behind the scenes for conversations with 22 creators who talk about their lives and art

By Sarah Kremen-Hicks

Theaters have their curtains. Paintings have their frames. Books have their covers. The act of presentation, of framing, of giving things edges, shifts the subject to the work itself and hides the artist away, if only a little bit. ArtsWatch’s writers have spent the past year seeking out the artists behind the frames and bringing them to you. Here are 22 glimpses behind the curtain from 2018.

 


 

Michael Brophy in his North Portland studio, 2017. Photo: Paul Sutinen

A conversation with Michael Brophy

Jan. 3: Prominent Northwest painter Michael Brophy talks with Paul Sutinen in an interview that begins with being “the kid that drew” and becomes a meditation on medium and viewership:

Where did that lightbulb come on for you to say, ‘OK, I saw all that stuff in London and now I want to go to art school.’

I knew the minute I saw paintings, like in the National Gallery. The scale of things—my mind was blown by the size of things. An artist I don’t think about much, Francis Bacon, there was a room of Bacon’s paintings [at the Tate Gallery] and it terrified me. I didn’t know that art could do that. I had to leave the room. I had a kind of like a panic attack.

I think they call it ‘epiphany.’

Yeah, so after that I just knew what I was going to do. Just as simple as that.

 


 

E.M. Lewis, author of “Megellanica.” Photo: Russell J Young

E.M. Lewis and ‘Magellanica’

Jan. 19: Bobby Bermea discusses epics and Antarctica with playwright E. M. Lewis, whose five-and-a-half hour Magellanica was about to open at Artists Repertory Theatre. “Here, in the most inhospitable place on the planet, Lewis had found a setting with the sheer size and scope to explore themes and questions that were at the forefront of her mind. ‘I want to hear big stories. You need some scale and some scope for that. I want to see those sorts of plays that are asking the Big Questions and I want to write the sorts of plays that ask the Big Questions. I’m an Oregon farm girl but I have big questions about the universe and my part in it and what we’re doing here. I have ecological questions and scientific questions and human questions and political questions and writing the only way I know to figure stuff out. So, I write plays.’”

 



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Ursula K. Le Guin. Photo: Eileen Gunn

Ursula K. Le Guin: a lioness of the mind

Jan. 25: “Elegy, as I wrote six years ago, suggested a silence I did not want to contemplate. And now the silence I so dreaded has arrived. I will no more hear that lovely, emphatic voice instructing me to do my job, which is writing, or making me laugh with a joke about role models. “What kind of roles? Parker House?” she once scoffed when I told her she was a role model for me, a writer who also had a family to tend to, who was also a faculty wife, also a political activist, and who shared her passion for the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment: in one way or another I think everything she wrote is about free speech and freedom of expression.” – Martha Ullman West reflects on the late, great writer Ursula K. Le Guin, who died in January at 88, and their 52 years of friendship.

 


 

Elizabeth Malaska, “Apocrypha”, oil, Flashe, charcoal, pencil, glitter on canvas. Image courtesy Russo Lee Gallery

Elizabeth Malaska: the ancient within the modern

Feb. 19: “I work in bodies of work. When figuring out what my next body of work will be, I set parameters, but I’m not creating a fortress. Rather, like when searching for North, South, East, or West, I leave a lot of space in between. I’ll always be working with history—art history, and the history of painting; it’s a given for me. And I’ll always be focused on working to centralize the female body. It’s forever been the central figure in Western art history, but there’s a big difference between the body and a subject. What has to happen for that body to become a subject?” – Elizabeth Malaska discusses the constant presences in her work with Paul Maziar, in an interview that ranges throughout that vast space between.

 


 

La’Tevin Alexander Ellis, fists first. Photo: Owen Carey

And In This Corner … La’Tevin Alexander Ellis

March 1: “To break the rules properly, you first have to master them. Over the course of And In This Corner: Cassius Clay, you’ll also see that. ‘Every day, before rehearsal, before we do fight call, I start out hopping around as twelve-year-old Clay, and then I progress to fourteen-year-old Clay, then sixteen-year-old Clay, then eighteen-year-old Clay, when it’s all starting to solidify now, and then twenty-two year-old Clay when it’s just swagged out. I’m most proud of that. Because I do start out here (hands up) then slowly the hands drop as more confidence comes.’” – La’Tevin Alexander Ellis tells Bobby Bermea about learning to fight like Cassius Clay.

 


 

Visual artist and playwright Phyllis Yes.

A visit with: Phyllis Yes

March 5: Artist and playwright Phyllis Yes talks with Danielle Vermette about the many forms her artistic endeavors have taken, and about making the familiar strange in order to see it anew. “Phyllis has, as she puts it, spent a lifetime learning ‘to observe things as if you are from a different world.’ This notion likely came to her early on, perhaps during a formative time as a Peace Corps volunteer in Brazil, when she did exactly that–bring a new sensibility to a different world, complete with its own culture and customs surrounding gender. By ‘feminizing’ implements (for example, a handgun, which we typically associate with violence and which Phyllis deftly reimagined for another exhibit) we also reconsider our relationship to the implement itself, and by extension, to our world at large.”

 


 

Tom Prochaska in his studio. Photo: Paul Sutinen

Tom Prochaska: painting in the round

March 11: Tom Prochaska tells Paul Sutinen about finding the perfect moment and knowing how to stop just before ruining a painting: “You have to practice coming to a point in a painting where you’ve got that tension just right. You’re surprising yourself. You’ve got some place you’ve never gone before—doesn’t happen unless you practice. When you practice you learn your own possibilities, your own dialogue. You show up every day or every other day, put in the practice, put in the periods of pulling your hair out a little bit, and then hanging in there. I always think of the same thing when I think of football where the receiver practices catching and catching the ball, catching over the shoulder, and then in one game to make this incredible catch—everybody says, ‘The guy’s got magic, how did he do it? How did he do that?’”

 


 

Shalonda Menefee: art and community.

A visit with: Shalonda Menefee

April 7: “As we head downstairs into her workspace, her movements turn slow and more considered. The ebullience was for upstairs. Downstairs is a different kind of space. She gathers cloth dolls that sit in their shadow boxes, regal and majestic. She arranges them on stands. Yards of fabric lay folded on shelves behind her, and against the wall, a makeshift altar with photos of her ancestors, one of whom, her great-grandmother, had also been a master seamstress.” – Shalonda Menefee discusses art, healing, and connecting with the community when Danielle Vermette visits her studio.

 


 

screenshot of “negro faerie” by kiki nicole

the first and the last: talking with kiki nicole and ariella tai

April 17: Hannah Krafcik talks with ariella tai and kiki nicole about claiming artistic space beyond the structures that are set up to keep them out. tai comments: “I see kiki’s work, and the things that they’re doing with such limited means are so incredible—breaking apart narrative, thinking about how we exist as black queer spectators, who imbibe so much media. And not from a marketing perspective, but rewriting cultural criticism and film criticism in ways that are much more accessible to people like us, built to speak to other people like us.”

 


 

Stephen Hayes, “Self Portrait”, 2002

Stephen Hayes: a Guggenheim to fuel ‘In the Hour Before’

April 20: Stephen Hayes talks with Paul Maziar about winning a Guggenheim fellowship, his project to depict the sites of gun violence in his paintings, and what it means that humans can find something beautiful in a terrifying world. “I am as surprised as anyone that beauty can exist so seamlessly side by side with horror. It is very confusing. I find myself wondering if we don’t have the ability to see this dichotomy as some kind of a paradoxical safety net; part of our limbic brain that protects us in an almost prehistoric way.”

 


 

Sherrie Wolf, “Self Portrait with Red Drape,” oil on canvas, 90″ x 60″ , after Charles Wilson Peale, 1741-1827

Sherrie Wolf: the freedom of the still life

May 11: “There’s so much going on. It’s very very unpleasant for me to paint things too small because of the detail. For me it’s painful to work small. I’d like to do everything bigger. Some of it is just economics, just having all these huge canvases and shipping them and the whole deal. I’d like to do more big work. Scale is really important. I like the human scale, like it’s nice when the peach isn’t smaller than a real peach could be.” – Paul Sutinen interviews Sherrie Wolf, who dares to paint a (full-sized) peach.

 


 

Chris Coleman. Photo: Portland Center Stage

Chris Coleman: the exit interview

May 16: As Chris Coleman prepares to leave Portland Center Stage for atop spot in Denver, he talks with Barry Johnson about what brings audiences to the theater. “What the culture is making us all very facile at is being in relationship to screens and being quick, visual and close to the surface. That part of our brain is getting developed and getting a real steady workout. What I think it leaves us hungry for are opportunities that take us deep and ask us to slow down and reflect. Feel what an event actually means. I think that’s what theater has done from day one, before it was actually a formalized event. I think it is the value of stories and why human beings have needed, craved, created narrative from day one. It’s trying to carve meaning out of a seemingly random series of events that make up our lives.”

 


 

Tim Stapleton. Photo: Gary Norman

Tim Stapleton: call and response with paint

June 13: Tim Stapleton talks with Marty Hughley about how an illness changed his painting process and led him to discover a new way of interacting with his work. “With the help of his assistant, Samie Pfeifer, formerly his student at Portland Actors Conservatory, Stapleton has adopted a new style of painting. He still has enough strength in his hands to sometimes use large brushes, like you’d use for house painting, but mostly his new approach involves propping up the canvases and dripping acrylic paint across them, turning the surface and adjusting angles to create patterns that look like both woven fabrics and expressionist landscapes.

“‘It’s the first time I’ve had call-and-response with the paint,’ he adds. He may set the canvas and drip the paint with a particular intention, but the flow can go in unexpected directions. ‘You can catch it, and then it says, ‘No, I wanna go over here’.’”

 


 

Kim Stafford at Eagle Creek. Photo courtesy Oregon Humanities

Kim Stafford: state of the poet laureate

June 19: “Even though there’s a hint of the way-back Midwest to him (a practicality, maybe, or a certain restraint and graciousness I always associate with some folks from my own birth region of Missouri) Kim belongs to Oregon as surely as rain belongs to the valley, a fact he seems proud of, and one that seems fitting for our new poet laureate. He relishes the diversity of our great state. ‘Having coast, mountains, Eastern Oregon, enables us to have different powers of thought than other, more homogenized environments,’ he said. He also sees the benefit of connecting all of our disparate parts: ‘I am hoping that poetry can make the cultures of communities more diverse, the emotionally informed communities deepen, and make communities more curious about themselves and each other.’” – Oregon’s poet laureate, Kim Stafford, discusses the interplay of words and geography with Danielle Vermette.

 


 

Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim, in her Milwaukie home, with memories on the wall. Photo: Danielle Vermette

A life, stitched in time

July 11: NEA Heritage Fellow Feryal Abbasi-Ghnaim speaks with Danielle Vermette about preserving her Palestinian heritage through embroidery that tells stories of a homeland to those in diaspora. “Also on display was her passion to keep this endangered folk art alive, a determination that accounts for her lifetime of mentoring younger generations and carrying forward the stories, skill, and history of the embroidery: ‘After diaspora, my daughters were born here; if I don’t teach them, they won’t know anything. Many people have to go to other countries, they don’t have time to do these things. That is why we call endangered art.’”

 


 

Musical innovator Bright Sheng.

Bright Sheng: cross-cultural emissary

July 20: Bright Sheng discusses cultural transmission as both an inevitability and a genesis in an interview with Alice Hardesty. “Bright Sheng worked with Yo Yo Ma in the development of the Silk Road Project. In fact, he took a trip to various places along the Silk Road to research the development of Chinese music. ‘The Chinese think they invented everything,’ he said, ‘and I was taught that way when I was a child.’ But he found much about the roots of Chinese culture in Central Asia, along the Silk Road. For example, he maintains that the pipa, historically prominent in Chinese music, was developed by the Babylonians. It was the grandmother of the lute family, from which came the guitar, and eventually the violin and the cello, and now the pipa is the quintessential Chinese instrument.”

 


 

American composer Joan Tower.

Joan Tower: ‘The voice is in the risks’

Aug. 10: Joan Tower considers how composers can navigate an overwhelming world with ready access to nearly any musical influence, in an interview with Matthew Andrews: “So then you have to have find your own voice amongst all of that, and that’s the real challenge and the biggest goal that every composer should have. Because if you don’t have some kind of voice, the music may sound good, well made, but it’s not gonna have a big life. How do you get that? Big question mark! One thing is to take risks. The voice is in the risks. But you have to know what a risk is in the first place, so you have to have a context that’s stable enough that it can create a risk. Because if you’re in an incoherent environment the risk doesn’t mean anything.”

 


 

The Chorus of Inconvenient Statistics, from left: Holcombe Waller, Gabriel Kahane, and Holland Andrews. Photo: Yi Yin.

Confronting America’s empathy deficit

Aug. 28: Gabriel Kahane talks to Matthew Andrews about his new oratorio emergency shelter intake form, and about how context changes reception and formal restrictions can bring both artist and audience closer to a difficult subject: “emergency shelter is an interesting case where there was this express demand: the commission was for a piece that engaged the twin crises of housing and homelessness, something that was really difficult for me to wrap my head around initially. And then I happened upon this formal idea of using the intake form. And that was an instance of wrestling some extant ideas—both text and music—into this loose formal container of very mundane and banal forms.”

 


 

Eleanor O’Brien, making Dancing Naked work.

Eleanor O’Brien’s naked truth

Sep. 28: Actor and producer Eleanor O’Brien talks with Bobby Bermea about her journey from putting a frame around titillation to inviting the audience to sit closer with Come Inside: A Sex & Culture Theatre Festival. “…I think I was afraid because of the subject matter being so incendiary that I had to package it in a way that felt safe because there’s a distance because of the theatricality. What I notice now with my shows is I’ve stripped away a lot of that and made it much more breaking through the fourth wall and talking to the audience. I still want it to be theatrical. But some of the techniques I was using, like where we all say a phrase and then we move and a phrase and we move, or you break up a story into three different parts, etc. I do a lot less of that now. I’m less afraid of just putting someone on stage and having kind of an honest story about their sexuality.”

 


 

Will Vinton at home in 2017 with his piano and his dog, Lulu. Photo: K.B. Dixon

Will Vinton, 1947-2018: an appreciation

Oct. 9: “In retrospect, and without dissing the fine work that Laika has produced, one wonders if the ouster of Vinton by [Phil] Knight fifteen years ago was one of the first fault lines to crack the pedestal that Portland had been putting itself on during the 1990s. Sure, it was still a few years before Portlandia, skyrocketing rents, and police brutality (among other things) would solidify the notion that the city had jumped the shark. But there was something about Vinton that recalled the loose, unpretentious style of mayor Bud Clark, and it wasn’t just his predilection for distinctive facial hair. He was an artisan, not a technocrat; a visionary, not a bean-counter; a maker, not a buyer.” – Marc Mohan reflects on Will Vinton’s career as an animator, studio head, and barometer for Portland’s fortunes, after the Claymation pioneer’s death.

 


 

Directing is fun: Scott Yarbrough pauses for a laugh. Photo: Owen Carey

Scott Yarbrough’s radiant direction

Oct. 11: As Third Rail founder Scott Yarbrough returns to directing, Marty Hughley tells his story through the words of those who have worked with him, including how growing up with his nose in a book gave Yarbrough insight on working with scripts. “‘I’ve learned an enormous amount from Scott in terms of how to dissect and communicate a text,’ says Philip Cuomo, a Third Rail company member as well as producing artistic director for CoHo Productions. ‘How to listen for that operative word, the pacing, and the musicality of the language that he teases out so beautifully. He has a great sense of humor and comedic timing. And he knows the adjustments to give an actor to make a line land.’”

 


 

Author Chelsea Bieker, in the catbird seat.

Chelsea Bieker, on her way

Oct. 17: Danielle Vermette has coffee with Rona Jaffe Foundation award-winner Chelsea Bieker, and sees her graduate school colleague looming large in a field of emerging writers. “By now we’ve long finished our drinks. We’ve shared a good number of stories and laughs, plus one mishap, when the lid to Chelsea’s teapot took a nose-dive into her cup, a comical moment made more funny by her response. ‘Oops,’ she said, without moving a muscle. ‘That just fell in there.’ Her background as a gymnast is evident in this moment, somehow, and also in her physicality in general, and most certainly in her steely discipline. I am already thinking ahead to her books, her readings, to that day that will inevitably come when she steps even more fully into the air of destiny that seems always to have surrounded her.”

 


 

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