Roll on, Columbia, roll on

ArtsWatch Weekly: An expansive exhibit looks at the lives and issues along the great river. Plus: Splendid music, home cinema, comics, more

RIVERS RUN THROUGH US. We all have our list. I’ve lived by or near the Nooksack, Chenango, Susquehanna, Danvers, Cowlitz, Willamette, and Columbia, and had my dealings with many others, among them the Skagit, Mackenzie, Siletz, Hood, Sol Duc, Russian, Rogue. The attraction is complex and simple. We’re liquid creatures, made up of roughly 60 percent water, and we require water, for survival and sustenance. Water feeds us, transports us, gives us trade routes and energy, and for many of us, simply feels like home.

In the Pacific Northwest, the greatest of these rivers is the Columbia, a 1,243-mile behemoth that begins in British Columbia and runs through Washington and along the Oregon border until it tumbles into the Pacific Ocean. For 10,000 years or more of human history the river and its tributaries have been the region’s source of life – and for just as long, a source of cultural and artistic inspiration. It’s also the focus of a large group exhibit, Knowing the Columbia, continuing through Sept. 20 in the Elisabeth Jones Art Center, on the western edge of Portland’s Pearl District. 

The exhibition began with a series of prints by Erik Sandgren and expanded from there into a broad exploration of “the river that shaped the Northwest,” says Inga Hazen, the art center’s director of exhibitions and the show’s curator, with center director John Teply. It includes a crackerjack collection of artists: Sandgren, Lillian Pitt, Sara Siestreem, Jonnel Covault, video artist Genevieve Robertson, and the team of Fred Wah, Rita Wong, Nick Conbere, Santigie Fofana-Dura, and Sapata Fofana-Dura. Together they’ve created an expansive look at the history, cultures, economy, and challenges of the great river. As Hazen and Teply put it in their exhibition statement: “The artwork in this show aims to celebrate the beauty, abundance, and cultural significance of the Columbia River, as well as to document the effects of industrialization on the ecology and the culture of the surrounding region.”

Elisabeth Jones opened a little over two years ago with The Condor and the Eagle, a nationally significant exhibit of art that grew out of the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access oil pipeline, and a little like that show, Knowing the Columbia represents a couple of the art center’s core goals: representing art that addresses environmental and human-rights issues. It also follows last summer’s extraordinary Exquisite Gorge group project by Maryhill Museum of Art that culminated in the creation of a 66-foot-long steamrolled print representing a 220-mile stretch of the Columbia, a project that Friderike Heuer documented in an 11-part series for ArtsWatch. The river creates a lasting and ever-evolving mythology of its own.

The Elisabeth Jones Art Center reopened early this month, under strict distancing precautions, giving Knowing the Columbia a chance to be seen (it had originally been scheduled to open in the spring, right about the time that Covid-19 shut most places down). If you’re not ready to reenter public spaces – a lot of people aren’t – the art center is working on providing a fuller virtual experience of its exhibitions on its web site. In the meantime, the web site includes a lot of images from the show. And here’s a selection from the exhibition, with commentary mostly from the arists themselves:
 

Lillian Pitt, “Sturgeon Design,” monotype. Pitt, a revered Northwest artist, was born and raised on the Warm Springs Reservation, and her ancestors, she says, have lived “in and near the Columbia River Gorge for over 10,000 years.” Her prints and tapestries follow the tradition of “thousands upon thousands of pictographs and petroglyphs up and down the Big River. Most of them are underwater now, on account of the dams that were built, but many of them are still visible today.”
Genevieve Robertson, “Still Running Water,” still from a 12-minute video, 2017-19. The video, Robertson says, “follows the Columbia River over nearly 2,000 kilometres from source to mouth. … The project bears witness to the imposition of fourteen hydroelectric dams along the Columbia, as well as demolished townsites and flooded forests in the reservoirs behind them. While the filming process was essentially an attempt to grasp the immense scale of the river and the complex geopolitical relationships playing out on its shores, these images are not meant to be exhaustive. Instead, they offer some reflections on the human hubris of large-scale industrial energy production and its impact on the Columbia River watershed.” 
Erik Sandgren, “Face of the Wind.” Sandgren: “In moving back to Oregon from Aberdeen, Washington in 2017 I have gradually refocused from the Chehalis River and its watershed to the Columbia. These particular prints bring a lot of things together; past and present, near and far … Here we feel in intimate detail the grand water cycle that works out of the Pacific Ocean to water the land and back. Salmon hatch far inland and work their way to the ocean. Returning to the sea they disperse. To this day, no one knows where they go! … Timeless as these cycles may seem, the very resiliency of interrelationships between land, plant, animal communities and peoples of the Columbia watersheds have been sorely tested by European/American settlers. The new economic interests of just over two hundred years ago have us already at a point in history where (we) must learn all over how to take care of these and why.”
Sara Siestreem, “Aretha Franklin Reigns Supreme from the Hexsa’am To Be Here Always,” natural fibers and found materials. Siestreem (Hanis Coos) is well-known for her contemporary paintings and prints that draw on Indigenous designs. She also works in traditional weaving such as this dance cap, following traditional practices, as Laura Grimes explained in ArtsWatch last year: “(I)t starts with scouting where the plants grow. A scouting mission is just that: Siestreem surveys and takes note; she never harvests plants when she first sees them. No. She studies who owns the land, figures out how to contact them, and seeks permission. … she reaches out and explains her purpose and waits to be granted access. She requires an invitation. … A bond. A matter of trust. And so it begins and continues every step of the way. A respectful nod. When Siestreem harvests plants, she talks to them, telling them her plans and all she hopes for them. How important they are. … And she leaves an offering. A salmonberry, perhaps.”
Poetry by Fred Wah, Rita Wong; map by Nick Conbere, “beholden: a poem as long as the river.”  This 114-foot-long mapping of the river from British Columbia to the Pacific Ocean – which also includes salvaged wood construction by Santigie Fofana-Dura and Sapata Fofana-Dura; see below – was undertaken as “a response to the damming and development of the Columbia River in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon, as well as to the upcoming renegotiation of the Columbia River Treaty.” The poetry, imprinted in two long lines on the map, does, indeed, flow like a river. In an excellent video version of part of it, filmed by Josh Sellers and narrated by Sellers and John Teply and available to view on the Art Center’s web page, the two trajectories of the poem ripple fleetingly over the terrain, elusive shards of meaning moving swiftly out of reach, leaving liquid impressions.

Jonnel Covault, “The Powers That Be,” 20 x 28 inches, 1999. The print reveals two technologies along the river: a hydroelectric dam, and a net and platform for traditional salmon fishing. Covault’s art is intensely tied to the waters and lands of the West: “Wilderness has been a source of artistic inspiration, spiritual nourishment, recreation, and for many years provided my livelihood. My family and I spent 17 summers harvesting sockeye salmon at a remote fish camp in western Alaska. Isolation and natural forces are familiar conditions that influence my work. These images are meant to be visual reminders that chronicle a particular time and place. I am attempting to describe transient human connections to the natural environment.”
Santigie Fofana-Dura and Sapata Fofana-Dura, salvaged wood installation created as part of the collaborative project “beholden: a poem as long as the river.”

MAKING SPLENDID MUSIC, TOGETHER AND APART


A generational meeting of the musical minds: Violinist Soovin Kim and pianist Gloria Chien, incoming artistic directors of Chamber Music Northwest, get into the swing of things with the festival’s outgoing artistic leader, clarinetist David Shifrin. Photo: Tom Emerson

WE ARE LIVING IN COUNTERINTUITIVE TIMES. When trouble strikes our instincts urge us to gather together for comfort and joy – and yet amid this public health crisis that has swept the globe, the one thing we are most urged not to do is to assemble in crowds. For the performing arts in particular, this has been like snatching water from the cup of a thirsty man. How do you dance, act, make music in isolation?

There are ways – and in the five weeks of its just concluded fiftieth summer season, Portland’s splendid Chamber Music Northwest discovered many of them. In his excellent and revealing essay Chamber Music NW: never waste a good crisis, ArtsWatch senior editor Brett Campbell explains how the festival, with its back against the wall, achieved surprising intimacy and success by switching to an all-virtual format. It was hardly easy. It meant inventing solutions on the fly. And it meant committing to high quality in its video feeds, in both sight and sound. Brief interviews and forays into musicians’ homes helped the virtual festival approximate the relaxed intimacy that’s been such a hallmark of the festival for half a century. 

“How do you measure success in a festival that necessarily departed from all norms, including ticket sales?” Campbell asked. “For me, this summer’s emergency rebooted festival proved surprisingly successful at maintaining the sense of connection that’s always made this festival so appealing. … While streaming will never come close to replicating the thrill of live music, what I saw of CMNW’s virtual festival managed to capture many of the real thing’s best features: excellent performances, hefty doses of new music, and, thanks to (retiring artistic director David) Shifrin’s easygoing approach, the relaxed intimacy that has made it an Oregon summer standard. How ironic that a medium so detached from human contact could nevertheless bring us closer, in some ways, than attending a live show, and somehow convey a measure of the close-up intimacy many of us are craving in these socially distant days. And let’s face it: it’s hard to get more relaxed than watching from your couch.”

*** 

Settling into the neighborhood for a little Messaien and Kermit the Frog. Photo: Mike Pullen

ON THE OTHER HAND, SOMETIMES MUSIC FINDS A WAY TO GO LIVE IN SPITE OF IT ALL. In Oregon lately, that’s meant thinking small and outside the usual concert halls – in the front yard, on the porch, in the driveway or cul de sac. It’s meant small groups of musicians, and small, socially distanced audiences. The Driveway Jazz Series, for instance, is hosted by pianist Kerry Politzer in front of a Southeast Portland bungalow: On Friday this week it’ll feature the Brazilian choro group Choro de Alegria; on Saturday it’s another go-round with Bossa PDX. And photographer Joe Cantrell has led ArtsWatch readers on a merry tour of pop-up performances by classical musicians in his photo essays A joyful front-yard noise and Making music in a time of isolation, for which he hopped all over town following musicians as they pulled out all their strings and played ’em for the neighbors in their own neighborhoods.

It happened again on Saturday – this time in Portland’s leafy Laurelhurst neighborhood, where roughly fifty friends and neighbors, ranging in age from three months to 93 years, settled into socially distanced chairs or grabbed a spot on a curb to listen to a Front Porch concert by a talented and musically intriguing duo: Oregon Symphony violist Brian Quincey and Portland Opera harpist Denise Fujikawa, who are married. It was a free show, sponsored by the national Music Performance Trust Fund, which spreads the love through such performances across the U.S. and Canada. What was on the program on this bright August day? Music ranging from “the Intermezzo from Mascagni’s opera Cavalleria Rusticana, to a group of tangos, to the Rainbow Connection from The Muppets’ Kermit the Frog,” our informant-on-the-spot told us. “The audience was charmed.”

Harpist Fujikawa and violist Quincey take the music outdoors. Photo: Mike Pullen

HOME CINEMA: HOT DOCS, COOL JAZZ   


Streaming Satch: Louis Armstrong in “Jazz on a Summer’s Day,” available to watch from home via the Hollywood Theatre and the Clinton Street Theater.

STREAMERS: HOT DOCS AND COOL JAZZ. All right, so you love to go out to the movies, but the theaters aren’t open (actually, a few national chains are tiptoeing very cautiously into highly controlled screenings) and you’re pretty much stuck at home with your TV or computer screen if you want to catch a good flick. In his new column “Streamers,” Marc Mohan has good news: There’s some fascinating stuff out there, just waiting to be streamed. The classic concert film Jazz on a Summer’s Day, for instance, documenting the sights and sounds of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, with the likes of Thelonious Monk, Mahalia Jackson, Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry, and many more “in top form.” Or maybe Luis Buñel’s 1962 trapped-in-a-mansion surrealist masterpiece The Exterminating Angel. Or a good hard-hitting documentary like The Fight or Boys State or The Swamp. Or even a little Ren & Stempy, or Seth Rogen’s generation-hopping dual starring role in An American Pickle (not, Mohan declares, the best of all possible titles).



A GRAPHIC LOOK AT THE ‘WAR ON TERRORISM’ PRISON


GRAPHIC VOICES OF GUANTANAMO. “Forty prisoners of the ‘War on Terror’ are still held in the United States prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba,” TJ Acena begins his review of Guantanamo Voices: True Accounts From the World’s Most Infamous Prison, Portland journalist and comics writer/editor Sarah Mirk’s new graphic book about the unlikely American prison in Cuba where 779 prisoners found their way after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 – most of them never charged with a crime but held anyway. Working with a distinguished crew of illustrators, and following her own visit as a journalist to the prison, Mirk delves into the history of the prison and the lives of the workers, advocates, and inmates of a place where those forty remaining prisoners exist in what Acena calls “a distopian legal limbo.”


FIVE GOOD THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT THIS WEEK …


OREGON CULTURAL TRUST AWARDS $2.7 MILLION ACROSS STATE. The Trust’s latest round of grants divides the money among 128 organizations, ranging from the Deschutes Public Library Foundation in Bend to the Four Rivers Cultural Center in Ontario to the Montavilla Jazz Festival in Portland, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde to develop two Chinuk preschool immersion classrooms, Oregon Black Pioneers in Salem to help create an Oregon Online African American Museum, Eugene’s Delgani String Quartet to record music by Tomas Svoboda, and the Ross Ragland Theater in Klamath Falls to replace a leaking roof. Click on the link to see the full list. It includes an award of a little over $7,000 to ArtsWatch to help underwrite a series of stories on Indigenous history and contemporary resilience in Oregon – a project that’s been many months in planning and will spool out over many more months.

CHARLES GRANT’S MATTER. With this week’s shootings and killings in Kenosha, Wisconsin adding even more urgency to an already urgent national crisis over policing and race, the talented Portland actor and writer’s newest project – a play about “the quest of one young Black man looking to find answers to police brutality and gun violence” – is something to look forward to. Sponsored by Portland Playhouse and Many Hats Collaboration, it’ll be filmed, and made available to view Sept. 25-Oct. 1: Click the link for details. The project is also supporting Don’t Shoot PDX.

WILLIE LITTLE TALKS WITH ANYA MONTIEL. Little, the North Carolina-raised Portland artist whose exhibit of rustic miniature carvings, The Shacks My Daddy Built, closes on Saturday at Froelick Gallery, talks about his work via Facebook and YouTube at 4:30 p.m. Friday with Montiel, a curator at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian. When he was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s his parents ran a small grocery store and after-hours juke joint, and much of Little’s highly varied art is based on memories of that time and place.

LE CHAT NOIR MODERNE. Experience Theatre Project has been putting on “live monthly virtual salons” to help shake the shut-in blues, and this Saturday, in collaboration with Lacy Productions, it’ll be a Cirque Soiree, with a featured turn by “boylesque” performer Isaiah Esquire – “vintage music reborn, inspired cabaret dance, sword dancing, and mystical artistry reminiscent of a vintage Cirque.” They had us at the sword dancing. Virtually speaking, of course.

PORTLAND PLAYPHONE: BRIDGING THE GAP. Longing to hear somebody’s voice other than your own, or your cat’s complaining about the lack of food in its dish? In yet another project, Portland Playhouse has a deal for you. Its “Playphone” will hook you up with a theater artist and someone from a different generation for 45 minutes of mutual story-swapping. (Who knows? Maybe that guy really did walk six miles through eight feet of snow to school every day.) The phone rings next this Friday and Saturday, and you need to sign up for a time slot. Click the link for details.


… AND THREE GOOD STORIES FROM OTHER NEWS SITES


The Thompson Elk statue, created by sculptor Roland Hinton Perry in 1900 and removed temporarily from its downtown Portland perch between Chapman and Lownsdale squares for cleaning and safekeeping in 2020, as pictured in June 2006. Photo © Cacophany / Wikimedia Commons

THE ELK STATUE IS JUST FINE. Brian Libby, on his excellent Portland Architecture web site, writes about his visit to “an old friend” – the 1900 statue Elk, a downtown Portland icon that was removed in July and taken into storage for cleaning and safekeeping after its base was damaged when protesters against the killing of George Floyd lit several small fires in the fountain trough. The elk is in excellent shape, Libby discovers – and then takes his readers on a fascinating time trip through a history that touches on the early city mayor who donated it to the career of its sculptor to its role in Gus Van Sant movies and the Portland Trail Blazers’ 1977 championship victory parade and the adjacent squares’ long history as centers for public protest. He also talks about why everyone in Portland – left, right, in-between – seems to love this statue: “Elk as a sculpture is partly about power and grace like a heroic-human sculpture usually is, but it’s also about humility: our humility, before the natural world. The bronze elk statue in the middle of Oregon’s biggest city is a kind of reminder, just like seeing Mt. Hood, that living here we are closer to the forests and beaches than most urban denizens. For a lot of us, it’s a big part of why we live here.”

BLACK ARTISTS FIND WAYS TO MAKE THEIR VOICES HEARD IN PORTLAND. “The burst of creativity that has swept through town in recent weeks could provide a road map for other cities confronting historical racism,” headline writers at The New York Times summarize Zachary Small’s conversations with several Black artists in Portland, including musician and visual artist Bobby Fouther, artist and organizer Sharita Towne, and photographer Intisar Abioto. “Portland has experienced four major ‘slum’ clearances in the last 50 years, so the Black community has experience responding to root shock with creative resistance,” says Towne, and Fouther – a lifelong Portlander who at age 69 has seen it happen – elaborates: “They tried to scoop us out of the city. Now there are generations of Black artists working in Portland to create historical artifacts around our own existence to show that we have always been here.”  

JOURNALISTIC NUANCE IN JOE SACCO’S PAYING THE LAND. Sarah Mirk’s Guantanamo Voices isn’t the only Oregon graphic-reporting creation to hit the book stores recently. Sacco, the groundbreaking illustrator and journalist from Portland, has created a bold and rigorous hybrid form that combines art with deep reporting on political and cultural flash points and sets them on a comic-book platform. As Hans Rollmann notes in Pop Matters, his “classic work on Middle Eastern politics Palestine (1996) revolutionized the genre of war correspondence and the comics medium alike.” Sacco’s latest, Paying the Land, explores the lives and histories of the Indigenous Dene people of the Canadian north. Rollmann’s essay dives deeply into the complex issues the Dene face, including a strong push for resource extraction in their traditional lands, and also champions Sacco’s work as a model of honest and creative journalism. 

From “Paying the Land,”  Portland journalist and cartoonist Joe Sacco’s new book about Indigenous Dene communities in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

END NOTE: IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED …


“I was writing poetry. But I found the theater such an exciting experience that one day I went home to try. I had one character say to the other guy, “Hey, man, what’s happening.” And the other guy said, “Nothing.” I sat there for twenty minutes and neither of my guys would talk. So I said to myself, ‘Well, that’s all right. After all, I’m a poet. I don’t have to be a playwright. To hell with writing plays. Let other people write plays.’ I didn’t try to write a play for a number of years after that first experience.”  

– August Wilson, in an interview conducted by Bonnie Lyons and George Plimpton for the Winter 1999 edition of The Paris Review. Wilson, the author of a decade-by-decade cycle of plays about African American life that includes such masterworks as The Piano Lesson, Gem of the Ocean, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, figured out how to get his characters talking to each other in time to become one of America’s greatest playwrights.


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About the author
Senior Editor

Bob Hicks has been writing about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki OhtsuJames B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Prologue, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series “Today I Am.”

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