Chehalem Cultural Center

Britt Block: Paintings about presence

A Yamhill County artist visited a local park over a year and came away with a series of pastels expressed through the “porous medium" of her life

Along with restaurants, bars, and gyms, the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg was swept up in Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s two-week freeze, which is scheduled for a thaw Dec. 2. If the center does in fact reopen that day, you’ll still have several weeks to catch Britt Block’s A Year at Grenfell Park  in the Central Gallery.

Ed Grenfell Park is a seven-acre park owned by Yamhill County about five miles west of McMinnville. I know it for personal reasons: My wedding rehearsal dinner was there; and a few years ago, my son’s school held a  social event in the park. Parents crowded around a covered eating area while children played in Baker Creek, which meanders past banks rich in native plants and trees, including Douglas fir, western hemlock, big-leaf maple, and Oregon white oak.

Enter Britt Block, a local artist who spent many years directing high school theater in Southern California, producing plays on sets designed by her husband. All the while, she was painting. She received an MFA in Arts and Consciousness from John F. Kennedy University. On her website, she describes herself as a “re-emerging” artist. “After ten years of intensive painting and gallery representation I took a detour — a hiatus that was not a hiatus — which led me through the world of pastels to the present moment.”

Of “September” (pastel on paper, 26 by 38 inches, 2019), Britt Block says that Ed Grenfell Park has everything she is drawn to in painting: water, rocks, trees, light, land.
Of “September” (pastel on paper, 26 by 38 inches, 2019), Britt Block says that Ed Grenfell Park has everything she is drawn to in painting: water, rocks, trees, light, land.

For the Chehalem show, Block sought a year’s worth of moments depicting Oregon landscape. She describes her thought process in the show’s notes:

“My initial impulse was to explore the act of painting with pastels in an intensive way over time: making one or more paintings each month for a year. In a way, the content began as unimportant to me, except that I knew I wanted to paint what I loved – the landscape.  Instead of searching for content out in the world (going for day trips around Oregon and searching out the fabulous photographic moments that abound here), I decided to look closer to home – to find a place that had all of the elements that interested me: rocks, water, light, earth – and revisit that one spot over time.”


Chehalem Cultural Center expansion makes A-list

The Newberg center's planned performing arts wing wins the support of an influential statewide arts lobbying group

The Chehalem Cultural Center is feeling some wind beneath its planned $5 million Performing Arts Wing. Last week, the Oregon Cultural Advocacy Coalition included the expansion on its list of $9.5 million in capital construction projects it will encourage Gov. Kate Brown and state lawmakers to support when the Legislature convenes next year.

The Chehalem center’s effort was one of 11 projects the nonprofit advocacy group named as compelling candidates for support in the 2021-23 state budget. The coalition will lobby for the Newberg center’s project to the tune of $1.25 million. If approved, construction would likely be completed by the spring of 2023.

To say that the center’s staff is excited is an understatement. Upon learning the news, they announced it on Instagram: “We are thrilled, honored, overjoyed, grateful … and more!”

They have good reason. Since 2013, the coalition has successfully lobbied for more than $13 million in state funds (derived from lottery-backed bonds) that have supported capital projects around Oregon, from heavyweights like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Portland Art Museum to smaller projects, such as the Liberty Theatre in La Grande and the Lincoln City Cultural Center.

A rendering by Scott|Edwards Architecture shows the future LaJoie Theatre in the Performing Arts wing of the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg. This view is looking north at the facility, which will be on the second floor. Photo courtesy: Chehalem Cultural Center
A rendering by Scott|Edwards Architecture shows the future LaJoie Theatre in the Performing Arts Wing of the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg. This view is looking north at the theater, which will be on the second floor. Courtesy: Chehalem Cultural Center


Book ’em, Dano. (Online, of course.)

ArtsWatch Weekly: Portland Book Festival is virtually yours; art around the state; dance on film; October musical surprise; two remembrances

A BIG SLICK BROCHURE FROM LITERARY ARTS PLOPPED INTO MY MAILBOX a day or two ago, announcing the imminent arrival of this year’s Portland Book Festival (the festival formerly known as Wordstock). The good news is that what has traditionally been a one-day event cramming Taylor Swift-sized crowds into the streets of Portland’s downtown Cultural District will now spawl across two weeks, Nov. 5-21. The expected news is that, of course, all of the events will be online. Portland’s long been a hotbed of live literary celebrations, from poetry slams and open mics in bars to celebrity author talks in bookstores to this great big annual bash that lures the devotees of a solitary artistic passion – reading – into a cultural swarm of conviviality. The necessity of making this year’s festival virtual puts a new twist on the oddity of an extroverted event for introverts, which will now by an introverted event for introverts, simulating extroversion.

Intro- or extro-, it’s a good-looking festival, with more than a hundred authors, a full table of contents of classes and events, and some top-of-the-line featured speakers. Maybe the biggest current-events voice among those will belong to Isabel Wilkerson, author of Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents, which argues that America’s race problem is more accurately a matter of caste, to be compared with India’s caste system and Nazi Germany’s hierarchy of citizens. A key aspect of caste is that people can’t escape the caste into which they were born, meaning that in the United States, the conflation of caste and race both muddies the distinction and makes it all the more indelible. It’s a book that clearly and potently summarizes current research, and gains much of its power from Wilkerson’s impassioned observations and retellings of encounters in her own life. The featured fiction speaker will be Jess Walter, the best-selling novelist who lives in Spokane, author of Beautiful RuinsThe Financial Lives of the Poets, and the new The Cold Millions. And it’s quite wonderful and lovely that Margaret Atwood, the great Canadian writer and author of The Handmaid’s Tale, an essential novel of the 20th century that remains unnervingly pertinent in the 2020s, is being featured in conversation about her poetry. Writers’ worlds are often more complex, and therefore interesting, than their greatest hits.


Charles Grant collaborates with Jessica Wallenfels to add a vivid sense of movement to his performance in his short play-turned-film “Matter.” Photo: Tamera Lyn

CHARLES GRANT’S MATTER AT HAND. The Portland actor/writer’s new version of his 2017 short play Matter (he now refers to it as Matter 2.0) takes it off the stage and into streamable movie form with the aid of videographer and editor Tamera Lyn, director James Dixon, sound designer Sharath Patel, and lighting designer Thyra Hartshorn. One other crucial collaborator – movement director Jessica Wallenfels, of co-producer (with Portland Playhouse) Many Hats Collaboration, helped Grant create a vivid sense of motion in his solo show, Jamuna Chiarini writes. Chiarini talks with Grant and Wallenfels about how the movement and the script work together to amplify Grant’s story of the constant threat of police brutality and gun violence that Black Americans face. 


Not your grandmother’s watercolors

The Watercolor Society of Oregon’s show in Newberg debunks stereotypes that the medium is about wimpy, washed out florals and bowls of fruit

The Watercolor Society of Oregon’s original plan was for members to converge in Newberg this fall for their annual convention, to be held in the Chehalem Cultural Center. As with so many other cultural doings, that was not to be.

But the paintings are there, more than 80 of them filling the center’s largest space along with the spacious lobby. The show runs through Nov. 28, and it easily qualifies as must-see fare, for it opens your eyes to the range of possibilities with a medium that tends to be mistaken for what I suppose one would call the stereotype.

I thought it was just me, but I asked Oregon watercolorist Kristi Grussendorf about it. She juried the show and is active not only in the 800-plus-member state organization, but also in regional groups. She knew what I was talking about.

“Chrome of Fire II,” by Sandra Wood (38 by 30 inches , watercolor)
“Chrome of Fire III,” by Sandra Wood (38 by 30 inches )

“Yes, it’s not your typical, wimpy, washed out florals that little old ladies did,” she said. I actually did not cite “old ladies,” but I knew what she was talking about. It’s part of the stereotype, maybe at a subconscious level, but it’s there: this image of aging women using watercolors to produce flowers, pastures, and bowls of fruit. “Watercolor is a powerful and versatile medium,” Grussendorf said. “It’s also archival. It’s past time for the old stereotypes to be discarded.”

The Chehalem show smashes through this stereotype powerfully. Indeed, the first impression a few of the pieces made was that they weren’t in watercolor. Dona White’s enchanting Play Time on first glance looks like it might have been done with acrylic. Doyle Leek’s Olive Oil from a distance vaguely resembles a graphite drawing. Sandra Wood’s Chrome of Fire III briefly appears almost like it was “painted” digitally, but no. I’m not sure what I thought upon first seeing Marjett Schille’s Slipping Into Darkness, which hauntingly depicts a surreal exodus of butterflies leaving Earth, but it definitely was not “watercolor.”


Linfield Theatre thinks outside the pandemic box

Yamhill County calendar: A "season like no other" on campus, plus a watercolor show in Newberg and a preview of McMinnville Short Film Festival

The pandemic has forced artists in every discipline to think outside the box, so I’m guessing that’s the analogy Linfield University’s Theatre department had in mind when it plowed into its 101st season Friday with an evening of improvisational sketches titled Out of the Box.

Students performed the live sketch comedy not before a live audience in the auditorium, but before audience members watching the live show on Linfield’s YouTube channel from home, regardless of whether home was a dorm room on the McMinnville campus or not; the show broadcast free to anyone with an internet connection.

They’re calling it “A Season Like No Other,” which it obviously is.

Out of the Box amounted to just more than an hour’s worth of sketches very much bound up with the present political and cultural moment, written and performed by a troupe of student actors and writers on a giant tic-tac-toe-style checkerboard with only a few set pieces constructed with what appeared to be PVC pipe. Graffiti adorned the rear wall: BLACK LIVES MATTER. SAY HER NAME. AMERICA IS BURNING.

Linfield Theatre students (from left) Caroline Calvano, Avery Witty, Sam Hannagan, Brielle Kromer (on ladder in back), Sara Cerda (on floor), Jordan Tate, and Sarah Ornelas perform an improvisational sketch during rehearsal for “Out of the Box.” The show can be seen on Linfield Theatre’s YouTube channel. Photo courtesy: Linfield Theatre
Linfield Theatre students (from left) Caroline Calvano, Avery Witty, Sam Hannagan, Brielle Kromer (on ladder in back), Sara Cerda (on floor), Jordan Tate, and Sarah Ornelas perform an improvisational sketch during rehearsal for “Out of the Box.” Photo courtesy: Linfield Theatre

Pieces were titled Womb to Tomb, We Don’t Need No Distance Education, A La Carte, and BBM in a TLB. Students wore transparent face masks. Student directors Clementine Doresey and Hailee Foster were assisted in putting the evening together by theater professors Derek Lane and Janet Gupton. With no copyright issues involved, the shows remain archived on the channel, available to watch anytime.


Balancing the beautiful and the horrific

Artists Natalie Niblack and Ann Chadwick Reid explore the Anthropocene and climate change in a show at Newberg’s Chehalem Cultural Center

The morning of Sept. 13, Natalie Niblack and Ann Chadwick Reid set out from their home in Skagit Valley about 60 miles north of Seattle for Oregon in a white Mercedes Sprinter van loaded with their artwork.

It was smoky where Reid makes her home on Samish Island, and Niblack lives along the Skagit River, and as they drove south the haze worsened. The two artists headed to Newberg, where, beneath brown skies and a few miles from one of two mercifully small fires in Yamhill County, they would oversee the installation of On the Edge: Living the Anthropocene. The newest exhibit to open at the Chehalem Cultural Center features, among other images, spectacular visions of fire.

The women regard the drive down I-5 through Seattle and Tacoma as among their least favorite because of the traffic and never-ending road construction. But on this Sunday, there were few travelers, allowing them to contemplate the surreal view.

Artists Natalie Niblack (left) and Ann Chadwick Reid share environmental interests that include monthly monitoring of beach debris for the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team Program (COASST), here at Bowman Bay in Washington’s Deception Pass. Photo courtesy: Ann Chadwick Reid
Artists Natalie Niblack (left) and Ann Chadwick Reid share environmental interests that include monthly monitoring of beach debris for the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team (COASST) program at Bowman Bay in Washington’s Deception Pass. Photo courtesy: Ann Chadwick Reid

“What little landscape there was disappeared until we could see only about a quarter of a mile or so in front of the van,” Reid said. “By the time we got to Portland, we couldn’t see downtown from the freeway. The passing landscape became silhouettes of trees and buildings that faded from a dark smoky gray into the curtain of brown that enveloped everything. It was like experiencing the end time.”

“My overall sense was one of mourning,” Niblack added. “Mourning for the trees, ecosystems, and all the species that will be greatly diminished or become extinct, and guilt because it is our fault.”

“Anthropocene” is an unofficial unit of geologic time, describing the current period in Earth’s history when human activity has significantly affected climate and ecosystems. On the Edge: Living the Anthropocene, which opened last week and runs through Oct. 30, has been in the works for more than a year, and as curator Carissa Burkett observes in the program notes, the timing of the opening “is both triggering and prophetic.”

“Artists are always at the forefront of important issues and the predictors who bring a visual voice to things that cannot speak with words that others can hear,” Burkett writes. “To look at these works you see such beauty and softness that only makes the viewer feel heavy conflict as they try to hold the content.  You want to look, but you also want to look away.”


ArtsWatch Weekly: A world on fire

Trees in Trouble. Farewell, Tim Stapleton. Maryhill finally opens. Lots of music. Women in film. Pop-up posters. TBA, Street Roots & more.

NOTHING I CAN WRITE ON A DAY LIKE THIS IS MORE IMPORTANT than the story sweeping across Oregon and the West, where high winds and wildfires and crackling-dry conditions have unleashed historic devastation. Whole communities have been erased. Main highways are blocked off; others have been bumper-to-bumper crawling with people fleeing danger zones. Hundreds of people have been burned out of house and home. Complex ecosystems have been uprooted; wildlife flee with no sure place to go. In Oregon as of Thursday afternoon at least 800 square miles of land was burning, much of it out of control. 

Amid the chaos I’ve seen many small tales of courage, generosity, and resourcefulness. People in the country offering refuge for horses, livestock, pets. Parking lots and driveways offered for people escaping in their trucks or campers. Neighbors helping clear downed trees. Medical and utility and emergency workers, already stretched by the mounting catastrophes of this most extraordinary year, laboring overtime under daunting and exhausting circumstances. As I sit at my desk at 10 in the morning and look out the window the sky has turned from blood-orange to a pink-tinged gray. The acrid smell of smoke seeps through the cracks and into my nostrils. And I am deeply aware, and immensely grateful, that I am one of the fortunate ones, sitting in a stretch of Portland that’s been spared the worst of these multiple conflagrations, and that, barring a radical shift in weather patterns, is likely to remain a safe shelter. 

How did we get here? Where are we heading? In search of some answers ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson talked with Portland writer Daniel Mathews, author of the recent book Trees in Trouble: Wildfires, Infestations, and Climate Change. Mathews takes a long view of the state of the forests, the destabilizing effects of climate change, the role of public policy, and other factors contributing to the chaos of the land. “I’m heartbroken looking at the maps and seeing so many towns and forests I visited just in reporting for this book,” Mathews tells Johnson. “This week’s fires are shocking and truly historic: it’s likely that more acres burned in the West than in any 48-hour period in written history, including the Big Blow-up of 1910. … I  guess there are a lot of disconnects between science and policy in this country, but forest fire policy is one of the most stubborn.”


The much loved Tim Stapleton, in transition. Photo courtesy Gary Norman

TIM STAPLETON, THE LONGTIME PORTLAND set designer, visual artist, writer of uncommonly good memoirs, and occasional actor, died at a hospice care center on Labor Day morning, Sept. 7, from the effects of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He leaves legions of friends and admirers, and an enormous hole in Portland’s artistic community. Tim, born in Kentucky coal country in 1949, constantly called in his work on memories of those days and that culture, and before he had to move to hospice care he made his home in The Holler, a stretch of country-in-the-city in a tucked-away part of northern Portland, which is where photographer Gary Norman took the portrait above. In it, Tim seems to be simply walking away, toward something, taking his soft wry voice and sometimes jagged laughter and passion and wit with him, but leaving a trail of memories behind.