MYS Oregon to Iberia

Sweltering days & shady places

ArtsWatch Weekly: Beating the heat, 'Frida' at last, Creative Laureate x 2, hip-hop dynamo & more.


WITH TRIPLE-DIGIT TEMPERATURES FORECAST for Saturday through Monday in Oregon and across much of the West Coast, it looks like we’re in for it. Forecasting models vary, but they seem to be ranging somewhere between out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire and the Seventh Circle of Hell. What to do? Strategies vary, but one popular one is also simple and natural: Look for some shade.

On Monday afternoon, with the temperature in the mere mid-90s, my family and I – including two key members, one a recently and gratefully inoculated 15-year-old, visiting from Seattle – ventured  to the Portland Japanese Garden. Except for a couple of jaunts to Sauvie Island and a trip to Longview, Washington, for vaccinations, it was our first such group outing since before the shutdowns. We found the shade, all right: plenty of it in this serene and magnificent garden. And we found a lot more.

Taking a break in the Portland Japanese Garden. Oregon ArtsWatch photo

There was the mix of deciduous and conifer trees, so well-established and well-shaped, a lush and subtly manicured eden guided by the firm and gentle hand of art. There were the koi, and garden gates; the sand and stone garden; the proliferation of mosses; the paths alongside ponds and heron statues and waterfalls; the bridges and tea house and quietly spectacular wisteria arbor.

And there were the people. The garden was well-populated on Monday, filled with visitors of many ages and sizes and colors and shapes, some young and exuberant, some using crutches or canes, and speaking many languages: I heard Japanese and Spanish and what sounded like Mandarin, and English in various accents. I found my mind wandering back several decades, to sitting on the steps or benches of Golden Gate Park with my grandmother, Lizzie Lou Willingham Hicks, as she quietly taught me the gentle art of people-watching. And now, as I sat on a bench in this tucked-away corner of the West Hills and watched, Portland seemed a better version of itself, a cosmopolitan place of  variety and good intention and agreeable differences, balanced between the natural and the artistically shaped.

The garden was begun in 1963, less than 20 years after the end of World War II, with the intention of growing peace rather than war. It wasn’t easy. There were anti-Asian sentiments then, as much as or more than now, and the gardeners had a hard cultural row to hoe. They persisted, and planted a place of beauty, and we are all the beneficiaries – made, if we are simply open to the possibility, in the shade.


EVEN EDEN HAS ITS TURMOIL. Right now the fate of Portland’s South Park Blocks – that stretch of leafy urban respite that runs from the far south end of the Portland State University campus past the Portland Art Museum and Oregon History Center and through the Cultural District to midtown, north of the back entrance to the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall – is in heated dispute. Fred Leeson, the talented veteran journalist and preservationist, has run a couple of pieces on his Building on History blog (the first is titled, bluntly, Assault on the South Park Blocks) sharply criticizing a proposed city master plan that he declares could include removal of 26 percent of the park’s trees, crowd it with activities, and fundamentally alter its character. Proponents of the plan say that Leeson and a group of heavy-hitter allies – including former City Commissioner Mike Lindberg, who was the commissioner in charge of parks for many years – have it all wrong, and that the plan prepares the park for a better and more accessible future, open to more people and a greater variety of uses. Lindberg and former state senator Stephen Kafoury laid out their case in an opinion piece for The Oregonian/Oregon Live, and the paper’s Shane Dixon Kavanaugh wrote a lengthy analysis of the dispute, However the disagreement is resolved, one side or the other’s going to be made in the shade. The question is: How much shade will there be?


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Flight of fancy: Howard Fonda, Untitled (Goldfinch) (2021). Oil and paper on canvas. 12 x 9 inches. 

AS OREGON BEGINS TO COME OUT OF ITS COVID COCOON, parks are reasserting themselves as natural gathering places. In Theater: Playing in the park, Bennett Campbell Ferguson wrote for ArtsWatch readers about the making of the all-ages play Hannah + the Healing Stone, which had a successful run last weekend amid the greenery of Portland’s Laurelhurst Park.

In Howard Fonda: Birds, cages, and flying away, Lindsay Costello looks at the stylized naturalism of the Portland artist’s recent show of 15 paintings at Ampersand Gallery & Fine Books in Northeast Portland’s Alberta District. In a show whose French title translates as When the cage is made, the bird flies away, Costello writes, “Fonda uses his characteristic ebullient style to create deceptively complex portraits of Pacific Northwest birds and further-flung landscapes. … Using bird imagery as a clever springboard to reflect on his desire for freedom and nostalgia for past travels, Fonda illustrates a relatable experience of pandemic confinement.” Fonda’s paintings, Costello continues, are prompted by memories of visits to such respites of nature as the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, Sauvie Island, and others. Flying the coop or not, his birds and landscapes seem, well, vibrantly cool.

And the Vanport Mosaic Festival has been scrambling to update its plans for its grand closing We, the People Celebration, a free multi-event gathering in Portland’s North Park Blocks planned for Saturday through Monday – the three worst days of the expected heat wave. It has an excellent-looking lineup including Native drummer John Edmo and storyteller Ed Edmo, jazz pianist and composer Darrell Grant, dancer LaToya Lovely, a podcast collective including Mic Crenshaw, several poets in the park, and more. At this point the Mosaic is planning to livestream events from the park in the early mornings and from indoor venues later in the day, so you can experience the celebration from home. Check here for updates.


AMONG THE GREAT COOLING-OFF PLACES OF DOWNTOWN PORTLAND are the parks and fountains designed by the stellar landscape architect Lawrence Halprin and known collectively as the Open Space Sequence: Lovejoy Fountain, Pettygrove Park, and especially the Keller (originally Forecourt) Fountain, a great tumble of water and stone that the architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, when it opened in 1970, called “one of the most important urban spaces since the Renaissance.” Just in time for the heat wave, the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education has reopened with an expansive exhibit titled Lawrence Halprin, Fountains.

In his ArtsWatch review, Watershed moments, Brian Libby captures the cooling allure of the Keller Fountain: “You don’t just stand before this urban waterfall and gawk. You descend down into the earth, away from the clamor of street life, as the white noise and the mist cast a meditative spell.” Libby’s essay deftly surfs a slice of Portland and American urban history, and also discusses the cultural costs of creating something new. His essay also reviews the companion exhibition South Portland and the Long Shadow of Urban Renewal, at the Architectural Heritage Center, which focuses on the thriving downtown neighborhoods, including a largely Jewish one, that were bulldozed to make way for the new city design. It was the West Side echo to the East Side urban renewal that wiped out the heart of Portland’s Black community – and in both cases, with scant recompense to the people who were forced out of their homes. Change sometimes sweeps through like a devastating fire.


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Risk, reward, and the long-awaited Frida Kahlo opera

Catalina Cuervo as Kahlo in Portland Opera’s “Frida.” Photo: Trace Downen.

BEYOND FRIDOLATRY. Portland Opera’s been waiting a long time to perform Frida, the highly regarded opera about the life and times of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, and it’s finally happening. “Since its premiere, Frida has been staged more than two dozen times around the U.S. and Europe, with cast sizes ranging from six to 60, receiving rapturous reviews from Vienna to Mexico,” Brett Campbell writes, adding that while “the creative team fashioned an opera that matched her artistic and amorous adventures, they strove to avoid deifying Kahlo.” Campbell talked extensively with composer  Robert X. Rodriguez, who explained part of the opera’s appeal: “In Frida Kahlo, all people can see something of themselves. We all know what it’s like to undergo pain. And she is the poster child for so many groups of people — Latinx Americans, women, gay and lesbian people, people with physical handicaps. Her rising above her pain is emblematic of humankind, so she speaks to everyone on a personal level.”

Several live performances at OMSI’s outdoor theater space are sold out, and this Saturday and Sunday’s final shows have just been cancelled because of high heat. (An evening show Friday has been added to accommodate ticket-holders for the canceled performances.) But the production’s also available to stream and experience from home. Watch for Angela Allen’s ArtsWatch review of the opening-night performance soon.


Moriviví Theatre will be among five groups presenting short films in the Risk/Reward Festival.

THE RISK/REWARD FESTIVAL continues in a live/virtual format with drive-in performances Thursday through Saturday at Oaks Park Hangar, 7805 S.E. Oaks Park Way. It’s an in-the-flesh event with food carts, beer, and wine, plus live music before the fiims begin at about 9 p.m., after sunset. Five local groups, including the excellent Wobbly Dance and the Latinx group Moriviví Theatre, will have films, each 20 minutes or shorter. Check the link for any heat-wave updates. 

Portland gets a pair of new creatives laureate


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New Portland Laureates Joaquin Lopez (from the cover of his 2019 album “Universo”) and  Leila Haile (photo courtesy Ori Gallery).

PORTLAND CITY COMMISSIONER CARMEN RUBIO, whose portfolio includes the arts, announced the city’s newest creative laureate on Thursday. Make that two. Joaquin Lopez and Leila Haile will be the city’s first dual laureates. They’ll serve two-year terms beginning July 1, succeeding Subashani Ganesan-Forbes, who’s made deep connections throughout the arts community and was especially busy during the coronavirus crisis, providing vital information and helping arrange emergency financial aid to artists and groups across disciplines.

Lopez is “a performing artist, musician, and counselor whose work is grounded in personal transformation, self-expression, and Latino Queer identity,” according to a release from Rubio’s office. His 2019 techno-pop album UNIVERSO “pays homage to his coming-of-age as a gay man.” The city’s release quotes him: “I’m excited to integrate my lived experiences as an artist, entrepreneur, non-profit manager, and mental health counselor to broaden the conversation about the arts, social change, and culture in our city.” 

Haile is “a Queer activist, dancer, and tattoo artist,” and a partner in North Portland’s Ori Gallery, an art space for Queer and Trans communities. You can learn more about them from Martha Daghlian’s January 2020 ArtsWatch interview with Haile and Ori partner Maya Vivas. “Art is our most powerful tool for disrupting the dominant hegemony that drives oppression,” Haile said in the city release. “I’ve had the privilege of building creative communities across identity, practice and ability and, as one of Portland’s Creative Laureates, I look forward to connecting, uplifting and mobilizing folks towards making Portland more equitable.” 

Art & about: Tapestries, hip-hop dynamo, farm art, more

Kathe Todd-Hooker says her small-format tapestry, "Last Stand" (embroidery floss - cotton and rayon, 8.5 by 11 inches), tells the story of a politically active friend who felt put out to pasture.
Kathe Todd-Hooker says her small-format tapestry, “Last Stand” (embroidery floss – cotton and rayon, 8.5 by 11 inches), tells the story of a politically active Lakota friend at the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee who felt put out to pasture because of her age.

SMALL FORMAT INVITES CLOSE SCRUTINY. “I consider myself a narrative tapestry weaver; I tell stories,” artist Kathe Todd-Hooker tells Lori Tobias. Todd-Hooker’s tapestries – coming July 2 to the Lincoln City Cultural Center’s Fiber Arts Gallery in the American Tapestry Alliance’s group exhibit Elements – are small, but the stories they tell are big. And, she reminds readers, they have a long history behind them: “Most of the major artists in the Renaissance were doing tapestries before they painted. Pope Urban hired Raphael to design tapestry. The pope got halfway through and ran out of money and made Raphael paint tapestries on the wall. When you didn’t have enough money to design tapestries, you painted the walls.”

CATCHING UP WITH: 45TH PARALLEL UNIVERSE. Charles Rose continues ArtsWatch’s series of check-ins with musical groups about how they’re faring in pandemic time. The adventurous 45th Parallel, it turns out, has been very, very busy, thanks in part to an innovative ap that’s allowed musicians to perform safely from their homes: “By the end of June we will have given fifty-four performances and I don’t think anybody anywhere will have come even close to that,” violinist Ron Blessinger tells Rose.


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Old Grape God. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Old Grape God, creating. Photo courtesy of the artist.

GO HARD ALL THE TIME: OLD GRAPE GOD KEEPS CREATING. Lockdown? What’s that? “The multidisciplinary hip-hop artist known as Old Grape God had the pandemic experience we all wanted to have,” Robert Ham writes after visiting with the extremely active Portland artist. “Since May of 2020, he has released six full-length albums–with a seventh, Da Fence Less, out soon. He recently set up a new home recording studio, complete with a bright purple rug sitting underneath a keyboard rig. New paintings litter the comfortably cluttered living room of his Sunnyside neighborhood home, including a colorful abstract inspired by a dream of nearby Mount Tabor in flames. The first time I stopped by, he didn’t hear the doorbell–he was in the basement, embroidering a t-shirt for me.”

FILMWATCH WEEKLY: “IN THE HEIGHTS,” RITA MORENO, AND SPARKS BRING THE TUNES. Movie music’s in the air with a trio of new releases, from a celebrated Lin-Manuel Miranda story to a documentary of a legend and a tale of two fascinating but little-known brothers, the perfoming Sparks. Marc Mohan lays down the beat. 

RISING LEADERS & THEATER’S FUTURE. It was a meeting of rising leaders when TJ Acena, part of Theatre Communications Group’s 2017 national cohort of Rising Leaders of Color, Zoomed in with two of this year’s winners for a long conversation. Rebecca Martinez, who’s now based in Brooklyn, spent several years in Portland, working with Milagro Theatre and others, and is still a member of Portland-based Sojourn Theatre. Zi Alikhan is Artists Repertory Theatre’s inaugural Artistic Directing Fellow and director of the Portland company’s DNA: Oxygen creative hub for developing new work by, and featuring, artists of color.

ART ABOUT AGRICULTURE 2021. For the 38th year, Oregon State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences is presenting an exhibition of works by Oregon artists about farms and food. It always draws interesting work. You can see this year’s art virtually at the link above, or see the show in person at OSU through July 28, or at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg, Aug. 3- Sept. 30: Details here.

Roberta Lavadour, “Solitary Bee,” artist book, 5 x 3 x 1.75 inches in protective enclosure; extends to 18 inches. In the 2021 “Art About Agriculture” exhibition in Corvallis. © 2021 Roberta Lavadour

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Photo Joe Cantrell

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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