Riding the musical merry-go-round

ArtsWatch Weekly: Thanks and farewell to David Shifrin, music virtual & live, news briefs, a gallery sampler, saving public art, left turns

IN A WORLD SO VOLATILE AND ABSURD that the president of the United States declares war on the post office (!), it might seem difficult to find a solid rock of stability, something to cling to with assurance and trust through snow or rain or heat or gloom of night. Yet for forty years David Shifrin has been just such a rock in Oregon: a musical anchor, guiding and safekeeping the estimable Chamber Music Northwest to a creative blend of traditional and contemporary music-making through a combination of grace, good humor, generosity, vision, variety, and a positively swinging clarinet.

David Shifrin, after forty years still caught up in the music. Photo courtesy Chamber Music Northwest

With the wrapping-up of the chamber festival’s virtual summer season, which drew 50,000 listeners worldwide for its 18 streamed concerts, Shifrin is finally passing the torch. Though he’ll continue to perform with Chamber Music Northwest on occasion, he’s passing the festival’s artistic leadership to the married team of pianist Gloria Chien and violinist Soovin Kim. In A hearty encore for David Shifrin, Angela Allen takes a look at Shifrin’s four decades of leadership and talks with several of the musicians who know him best, and to a person admire him. The reviews are in, and from his colleagues as well as the festival’s many fans, they are glowing.

Derring-do at the keyboard with Anderson & Roe. Photo: Lisa Maria Mazzucco

THE KIDS ARE DOING ALRIGHT on the musical scene, too, as Brett Campbell makes clear in his story Anderson & Roe: Daring Musical Mix. In it he looks forward to this weekend’s live-streamed performances for Portland Piano International of the bicoastal piano duo’s newest Virtual Piano Extravaganza – a program that includes mixology and “also boasts birds, video, photography, and plenty of Portlanders. Plus, yes, alcohol.” Campbell continues: “It’s a wildly experimental two-day presentation — make that party — that creatively tries to solve a pressing dilemma. How do musicians create substitutes for the very elements — intimacy, spontaneity, connection — that make live performance so attractive to audiences and performers alike? ” 

Peter Frajola and Trish Thompson, singing and playing those front-yard tunes. “This is rock and roll; I think maybe we can still say that.” Photo: Joe Cantrell

THEN AGAIN, WHAT IF THE MUSIC ISN’T VIRTUAL, BUT ACTUALLY WELL AND TRULY LIVE, the way things used to be? Photographer Joe Cantrell showed up with pen and camera at a house on an ordinarily quiet Northeast Portland residential street, and this is what he found: five renegade classical musicians, appropriately distanced on the front yard, playing to an equally appropriately distanced audience of friends and neighbors and the occasional dog and one curious cat. In the words and pictures of A joyful front-yard noise, Cantrell tells the tale of this liberating act of musical real-time-and-spaceness, noting almost casually that “this wasn’t Haydn and Vivaldi. It was The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, sort of Blues, and some kindy country sangin’ that had been composed by the musicians themselves.” As your friendly neighborhood postal delivery person might’ve put it, it was downright First Class.


A PEEK INSIDE THE GALLERIES, VIRTUAL AND ACTUAL


SLOWLY, SLOWLY (OR VERY QUICKLY, IF YOU’RE CROWDING ON A BEACH IN FLORIDA or heading into South Dakota on your Harley D), the world is beginning to open up a bit. Pacific Northwest museums have begun to reopen, with many restrictions in place, and a lot of art galleries are doing the same: limited schedules, limited number of visitors at any one time (best to make an appointment) but gradually opening so you can see the art in the flesh. If you’re wary of or unable to go out, several also (or in lieu of) are featuring virtual exhibitions that you can access from the safety of your computer screen. Here’s a snippet of what you can find in Portland’s galleries (and one in Eugene) right now. It’s only a taste. Much more is available to see in many more gallery spaces. Call it an appetizer, with full visual meal yet to come:

Jim Denomie, “Kansas,” 2020, oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches. It’s in “Toppled Monuments,” the prominent Ojibwe artist’s first solo exhibition at Froelick Gallery, through Aug. 29. Also at Froelick: “The Shacks My Daddy Built,” Willie Little’s intriguing-looking collection of miniature ceramic shacks, “glazed and textured to evoke the weathered facades of tar paper and corrugated tin buildings of his childhood.” 
Claire Cowie, “Elegy No. 2,” 2020, watercolor, acrylic, and Sumi on paper, 30 x 42 inches, from her exhibit “In the Vacuum, Outside the Atmosphere” through Sept. 26 at Elizabeth Leach Gallery. Also in the gallery: recent works by the multi-talented Malia Jensen.
William Paul Thomas, “Yvonne’s Baby Boy,” 2019, oil on canvas, 24 x 36 inches, in the group exhibition “Favorite Things,” curated by Jeremy Okai Davis, through Sept. 5 at Stephanie Chefas Projects.
Todd Davis, “Watercolor #247 Urchin,” digital photograph, in the 2020 Eugene Biennial, continuing through Aug. 29 at Karin Clarke Gallery in Eugene.
Marilyn Joyce, “Vast and Deep,” 2020, ink, paper, thread, beeswax, in her exhibition “Dark Sky Rhythm” through Aug. 29 at Laura Vincent Design & Gallery. Also in the gallery: Annie Meyer’s show “Sauvie Island By My Home.”
Eva Lake, “Nurse No. 2 (With Child),” in “Summer Group Show: Artists Under Quarantine,” through Aug. 29 at Augen Gallery.


NEWS BRIEFS: MONEY, GRANTS, OPENINGS, CUTS


FEDERAL CORONAVIRUS AID-FOR-ARTS GRANTS DUE. Remember that $50 million in federal funds that the Oregon Legislature’s Joint Emergency Board voted a month ago to spend on the state’s cultural and arts sector? More than half of it – $25.9 million – was left open to the grant process. On Wednesday the Oregon Cultural Trust opened applications, and the clock is ticking: Applications are due by noon Monday, Aug. 24, and all the money must be distributed by Sept. 15. All Oregon cultural nonprofits and community venues are welcome to apply. If this means you, move quickly: It’s now, or not at all. Guidelines and application forms are on the link.

JORDAN SCHNITZER TO GRANT $150,000 FOR BLACK LIVES MATTER ART. Schnitzer, the Portland real estate developer, collector, and philanthropist, announced plans to award $150,000 to 60 artists in Oregon and Washington for new work “directly responding to the current Black Lives Matter movement, responding to marginalized communities; experiences with systemic racism and inequality.” The grants, of $2,500 each, will be made through the three university art museums that bear Schnitzer’s name — at Portland State University, the University of Oregon in Eugene, and Washington State University in Pullman. ArtsWatch will report on the grantees after they’re chosen. Application deadline is Sept. 30, recipients will be announced Oct. 31, and the resulting works will be displayed next year at the respective museums.

Lobby of the Multnomah County Library system’s Central Library in downtown Portland. The library, a core of the urban area’s cultural life, is instituting steep layoffs. Photo: multcolib.org

MULTNOMAH COUNTY LIBRARY CUTBACKS AND LAYOFFS. The county’s vaunted library system, by many calculations the Portland metropolitan area’s crown jewel of cultural life, is undergoing steep cuts in staffing and a rethinking of its priorities to emphasize online services and remodeling of physical spaces to increase safety in a time of pandemic. The changes have a lot of librarians both worried and up in arms. Douglas Perry has a good review of the situation in The Oregonian.

SALEM’S HALLIE FORD MUSEUM OF ART TO REOPEN. More than five months after closing because of Covid-19 restrictions, Salem’s museum is set to reopen next Thursday, Aug. 20. The museum, which has multiple collections and is perhaps best-known for its strong emphasis on historical and contemporary Northwest art, will reopen with a major retrospective on the 20th century Oregon artist Clifford Gleason, a 50-year look at the work of Salem artist Bonnie Hull, and an exhibit of works from the permanent collection by Black artists along with the loan of  Barkley Hendricks’ iconic 1974 painting Brenda P.


NEW ARTS LEADERSHIP FOR THE OREGON COAST. The Oregon Coast Council for the Arts announced Thursday that it has appointed David Carnevale as its interim executive director. He replaces Catherine Rickbone, who last month announced her retirement after 13 years at the helm of the council, which manages the Newport Performing Arts Center and the Newport Visual Arts Center, and is the arts council for Clatsop, Lincoln, Tillamook, Coos, and Curry counties as well as coastal towns in Lane and Douglas counties. Carnevale, who is chairman of the board for a healthcare nonprofit, has an extensive background in the arts. The search for a permanent director will begin soon.



ON SHIFTING VALUES AND THE THREAT TO PUBLIC ART


“History of Medicine in California,” WPA mural by Bernard Zakheim with Koi Anderson and Phyllis Wrightson, 1935-36, part of an endangered 10-panel fresco in the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center. The woman working on a malaria patient is Biddy Mason, a nurse born into slavery in 1818, who became a key figure in California medical history. Photo via The Living New Deal

LAST WEEK WE TALKED BRIEFLY ABOUT THE DEPRESSION ERA’S Works Progress Administration and its double success of putting artists to work during a national emergency and creating a wealth of popular art that aspired to be of, by, and for the people. In their eight years of existence beginning in 1935, the WPA’s art programs, including the Federal Theatre Project, the Federal Writers’ Project, and the Federal Art Project – in addition to the many artisans who worked on public works projects such as the string of masterfully designed bridges on U.S. 101 along the Oregon Coast – added significantly to the nation’s cultural life as they put food on people’s tables. Over those eight years the Federal Art Project, for instance, employed more than 10,000 artists and craft workers.

Evidence of the Art Project’s success remains vibrantly with us, perhaps most noticeably in the many public murals dotting school buildings and post offices and government centers and other public spaces from coast to coast. But fashions change, and memories are short, and more and more these works are deemed unnecessary, unwanted, or expendable. Maybe the buildings they’re in are due for demolition. Maybe the cost of maintaining or restoring them is deemed too high. Maybe their historical implications are uncomfortable. Maybe a shifting political world views them as enemies of the values of the people they were created for. 

In Wednesday’s print editions of The New York Times, Carol Pogash spins the fascinating tale of one such imperiled, and possibly rescued, piece of significant American cultural history. Black Nurse Saved Lives, and May Save an Artwork tells the story of a set of 10 WPA murals that had been slated for demolition at a university medical center in San Francisco. It’s a story about a university bottom-lining the “worth” of works of art in its care, and eager to build something new, and dismissive of what would be destroyed in the process. It’s a tale of unreasonable demands on the artist’s descendants, and of a cultural historian’s significant discovery, and mostly of the remarkable life and career of one woman depicted in one of the murals: Biddy Mason, a Black nurse born into slavery in 1818, and her emancipatory role in the history of American medicine.

Pogash talks with historians, and descendants of both Mason and the murals’ artist, and spokesmen for a brewing battle between the university and the federal government, which, having commissioned the murals in the first place, is now asserting an ownership interest with a goal of preserving the art. The case underscores the fragile status of historically and culturally resonant artwork in a nation that worships the new.

It also raises interesting questions about the future of culturally and artistically significant artworks being created in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement and protests – much of it in the form of “street art” and almost none of it having the advantage of governmental sponsorship. Will it simply be art of the moment, to be scooped into the nation’s landfills? Will it find private or public or museum homes? How will its story, and the story of this remarkable time, be passed to the world of 80 years from now?


FIVE GOOD STORIES FOR A SUNNY SUMMER DAY


Two hand-woven pieces by Vo Vo in the “Settle/Settler” exhibit in the Chehalem Cultural Center reflect a Western feel. Photo: David Bates

AN ARTISTIC SMORGASBORD AT CHEHALEM CULTURAL CENTER. Yamhill County’s annual Art Harvest Studio Tour has been canceled because of Covid-19. Cultural Center to the rescue: The work of more than 40 artists who would have been part of the tour is sprawled across the galleries of the Newberg center. And that’s only part of a bigger story, David Bates report

FLIGHTS OF MUSIC FROM A BARREL ROOM. Message in a bottle: Angela Allen pops the cork on the story of the first recording by the Willamette Valley Chamber Music Festival, an album of pieces by composer Gabriela Lena Frank, which was recorded in the cellars of J. Christopher Wines in Newberg.

COAST CALENDAR: GETTING BACK IN THE SWIM. Did we mention “in the swim”? The Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, one of the coast’s top attractions for visitors and locals alike, has reopened with restrictions. And that’s just the top of the coastal cultural news, Lori Tobias reports.

MUSIC NOTES: GONE VIRTUAL. Who’d’ve guessed eight months ago that the word “virtual” would become one of the most familiar words of 2020? Virtually no one, we’d guess – and yet, here we are. Brett Campbell rounds up an impressive collection of sounds from Oregon musicmakers to stream from the comfort of your getaway retreat. 

NOW HEAR THIS: AUGUST EDITION. And more for your listening delight: Robert Ham lends an ear to a slew of sounds and emerges with a terrific 10 recommendations from Oregon musicians, from hip-hop to contemporary classical.


ON THE OTHER HAND … LOOK TO THE LEFT


TODAY, IT SEEMS, IS INTERNATIONAL LEFT-HANDED DAY, and as a lifelong member of this esteemed yet somehow suspect club I feel the occasion should not pass without comment. (You can call me “southpaw,” but please don’t call me “gauche.”) The proclamation of Our Day set me to thinking about the late, great Portland writer Ursula K. Le Guin and her novel titled, appropriately for this conversation, The Left Hand of Darkness. What insights might Le Guin and this book, which fellow novelist Becky Chambers declares “changed everything,” have to offer? After a quick computer search (with my left index finger I typed “left hand of darkness quotes”), I nominate this snippet of literary truth:

“To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is needful in times of stress and darkness.”– Ursula K. Le GuinThe Left Hand of Darkness 


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Bob Hicks is a Senior Editor and writer at Oregon ArtsWatch. He's been writing about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, first as arts editor and movie critic at the Oregon Journal, then for 25 years at The Oregonian as a writer and editor covering the performing, visual, and literary arts. His most recent art books include "Kazuyuki Ohtsu" (Pomegranate), "James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time" (Hallie Ford Museum of Art), and "Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora" (Pomegranate). His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Prologue, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series “Today I Am.”

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