COVID-19

Connecting in a time of isolation

ArtsWatch Weekly: As the world turns, will real reality replace virtual reality? Plus: The mountain blows its top – this time, virtually.

EVEN AS OREGON BEGINS TO MOVE CAUTIOUSLY TOWARD REOPENING its social and commercial activities – today Gov. Kate Brown announced a loosening of restrictions in 28 of the state’s 36 counties, though not in the greater Portland metropolitan area – the new reality of social isolation remains with us. This holds true in the cultural world in particular: The reopening of theaters, concert halls, museums, and cultural centers is likely months in the future, and for many people the experience of the past two months has prompted a rethinking about the importance of art and what, in fact, “art” means.

In the Pacific Northwest in particular, art has long had a deeply rooted connection with the land itself, from the days of Indigenous stone paintings and carvings to the place-inspired work of contemporary artists and, presumably, the work of future artists grappling with the stark realities of environmental crisis and climate change. You can feel it even in the work of Oregon giants of abstract art, such as Lucinda Parker and the late Carl Morris and Mark Rothko, all of whose paintings are intellectual yet also deeply, unashamedly physical. At a time when the long lockdown and the world’s resulting switch to virtual reality have people yearning for a reconnection with real reality, the region’s stubborn insistence on connecting to the land seems suddenly to put it ahead of the game.
 

Aleksandra Apocalisse, “Grow” (2015). 11 x 14 inches. Watercolor and pen on paper. Image courtesy of the artist. 

Oregonians also have long been open to the idea of outsiderism, in a positive sense: Where you come from or who you trained with seem less important than what you do. And in a time of deep economic and structural insecurity the rigors of the academic and deep-pocket Wall Street pipelines don’t dominate the region’s artistic hierarchy the way they do in more heavily populated art centers. Here, if you Just Do It, as one local corporate juggernaut likes to put it, you stand a fair chance of being seen.

In Oregon, an artist might arrive from anywhere. That’s the case, for instance, with Aleksandra Apocalisse, who, as Shannon M. Lieberman writes for ArtsWatch in Celebrating connection in many forms, “started painting on a whim when she was 21.” Apocalisse’s interests, Lieberman continues, were both broad and focused: “After a series of unusual jobs, including farming, teaching children circus arts, and a stint as a camp science instructor, Apocalisse reached a turning point while interviewing for graduate programs in neuroscience. Unable to stop thinking about how she would balance the demands of graduate work with her desire to make art, Apocalisse realized that her hobby had become her passion–but could she turn it into a career?”

Yes, she could – and her route was not art school but the deeply populist, and popular, Portland Saturday Market, a grand communal gathering of all sorts of people with all sorts of interests. It was connecting at street level, taking art to the people in a way similar to the WPA art projects of the 1930s, except on an individual basis, not government-run. “It has been a good fit for Apocalisse, who thrives on talking to people,” Lieberman writes. “… In her explorations of connection, Aleksandra Apocalisse’s work does not call for change per se. Yet it powerfully implies that we all have tremendous power to forge the kinds of connections we want to see in the world.  Maybe we’re already making them. And if not, what are we waiting for?”

Bruce Conkle, “Quarantine,” 2020. Image courtesy of the artist.

More established Oregon artists are taking a turn in their work during the shutdown, too. As Martha Daghlian writes in Artist Bruce Conkle: Isolation as meditation time, Conkle has been doing a series of drawings inspired by the great turn of events taking place beneath our noses – or at least by the headlines and news feeds of a world turned upside down. At the same time, Conkle says, in a strange way the shutdown fits right in: “Artists in general thrive having a lot of time alone, to be inside their own head, so I think in a way we are getting through this house arrest a lot easier than people who constantly need external stimuli. The creative mental state is a type of meditation—one loses track of time, of place, and of self. I draw mandalas as meditations on a certain subject. After a few minutes (of drawing) you become unaware of the subject itself.”


WATCHING MOUNT ST. HELENS BLOW HER TOP


Lucinda Parker, “Magma opus,” July 1980. Mixed media on paper. Collection of Stephen McCarthy, L2019.69.1. Image courtesy Portland Art Museum

SPEAKING OF PHYSICAL REALITIES: Monday, May 18, will be the fortieth anniversary of the big blow that shook the Pacific Northwest to its foundations and sent clouds of ash from the Mount St. Helens eruption scurrying around the globe. And Volcano! Mount St. Helens in Art, the sprawling exhibition at the Portland Art Museum that opened with a bang in February and was packing ’em in until the museum’s forced shutdown in March, was scheduled to close on Sunday the 17th. The museum, of course, is already closed for an undetermined time. But you still stand a decent chance of seeing Volcano! in the flesh. “After much work with cooperative lenders, we can now confirm that we expect Volcano! to reopen when the museum does (whenever that may be),” museum spokesman Ian Gillingham said in an email exchange on Tuesday. “We expect it to run through sometime in January.”

Now you can get about as good a virtual experience of the exhibition as is possible. The museum staff has assembled and made available online a virtual tour of the exhibition, beginning in prehistory and continuing through early European American paintings, images of the explosion itself, and paintings and photographs from the aftermath. There are even a few examples of ceramics made of Mount St. Helens ash, which for several years formed the basis of a vibrant souvenir cottage industry.

This week’s edition of Willamette Week features a very good, lavishly illustrated guide to the exhibition, We Brought a Piece of Mount St. Helens to You, that’s well worth your time.

And at 3:30 p.m. Sunday – the day before the anniversary – museum curator Dawson Carr, who brought the exhibit to fruition, will host an online event, Mount St. Helens: A Landscape Across Time, with several guests discussing aspects of the show: Seattle artist Barbara Noah, whose excellent painting Tag III is featured in the exhibit; Nathan Roberts, an ecologist and interim director of cultural resources for the Cowlitz Indian Tribe; and director Ray Yurkewycz and science education manager Sonja Melander of the Mount St. Helens Institute.

Barbara Noah, “Tag III,” 1981. Oil on photolinen. Collection of the artist, Seattle, ©1981 Barbara Noah, for changes and additions to a Mount St. Helens image courtesy of USGS, L2019.93.1.


IN TOUCH: KEEPING A LINE ON WHAT’S ONLINE


Elizabeth Woody, part of May 20’s “Who Gets To Be an American?” online conversation in the Vanport Mosaic 2020 Virtual Festival. Photo courtesy Oregon Cultural Trust

IF YOU HAVE A KEYBOARD AND A CONNECTION (and if you’re reading this, you do) the world’s at your fingertips. All right, not the real world: These days it’s prety much all virtual, all the time. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of good stuff to plug into. Here’s just a sampler:

VANPORT MOSAIC 2020 VIRTUAL FESTIVAL. We wrote about this vigorous and positively provocative festival in last week’s ArtsWatch Weekly, and the online attractions just keep coming through May 30, the 72nd anniversary of the Memorial Day flood in 1948 that wiped the city of Vanport off the map, killing 15 people and leaving 17,500 homeless. Among the upcoming attractions (check the full schedule in the link above): taiko artist Michelle Fujii in conversation with Douglas Detrick on “the constant state of otherness,” Friday, May 15; a conversation with Sankar Raman of The Immigrant Story and writer Ramiza Koya about “becoming American,” Sunday, May 17; a Confluence Conversation among Patricia Whitefoot (Yakama Nation), former Oregon poet laureate Elizabeth Woody (Warm Springs) and Chuck Sams (Umatilla) about “who gets to be an American,” Wednesday, May 20.

THE TURN OF THE SCREW. The Beaverton-based Experience Theatre Project is offering an encore performance of its live-screened production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s two-actor adaptation of Henry James’s classic ghost story on Friday, May 16. The original screening on May 1 played to a stay-at-home audience of 7,000. You need to register to get your virtual seat; click on the link above.

BROADWAY ROSE AT HOME. The Tigard theater company, which is the metro area’s most prominent home for musical theater, is going virtual with its new series Midday Cabaret, at 1 p.m. every Wednesday. It’s just what it sounds like: livestreamed cabaret shows, hosted by Broadway Rose’s Dan Murphy and featuring stars from past company shows. Right now, performances by David Saffert and Benjamin Tissell are available, with more on the way.

MOMENTARY JOYS, WITH HENK PANDER AND BRUCE GUENTHER. Two lions of the Oregon art world – painter Pander and curator Guenther – talk in a webinar sponsored by the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education about how, in the museum’s words, “bad times can produce great art. Dadaism grew from the tragedy of the First World War; the Depression sparked a social realist movement and Jews created art in ghettos, concentration camps, and in hiding during the Second World War. … Momentary joys, if you will, that help us get through confinement.” Noon Wednesday, May 20, and you need to register: Once again, click on the link above.


ISOLATIONISTS ARE LOOKING FOR A FEW GOOD READS


Alison Dennis is executive director for Sitka Center for Art and Ecology near Otis.
Alison Dennis, executive director of the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, on the Oregon Coast, says in “I am Still here … it still is a time for singing” that she feels both more isolated and more connected than ever.

‘I AM STILL HERE … IT STILL IS A TIME FOR SINGING.’ In the latest in our “Oregon in Shutdown: Voices from the Front” series, Lori Tobias, ArtsWatch’s Oregon Coast columnist, talks with five key coastal arts figures about how the pandemic has changed what they do and think. It’s not all bad news.

MY APPETITES: ON EATING AND COPING MECHANISMS, CHILDHOOD AND SELF-CONTROL, CRITICISM, LOVE, CANCER, AND PANDEMICS. Jerry Saltz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic for New York Magazine who is married to Roberta Smith, art critic for The New York Times (imagine their conversations over coffee), writes a beautiful, searing, and sometimes heartbreaking personal essay about the accumulations of experience and realities we carry with us into the time of plague.

SAFE DISTANCE SOUNDS, PART 2: CHAMBER TERROIR. “With live performances temporarily out of the picture, I’ve been fulfilling my jones for homegrown sounds by listening to recent releases from Oregon-based or -born musicians that caught my ear,” Brett Campbell writes. This compilation, which features ambient and other contemporary sounds (including Kenji Bunch’s fresh score for Eugene Ballet’s The Snow Queen) follows his first Safe Distance Sounds, a roundup of recent Oregon jazz recordings.

INTERVIEW IN A TIME OF SEQUESTRATION. Alone with his camera and his keyboard, photographer and frequent ArtsWatch contributor K.B. Dixon resorts to desperate measures: He interviews himself. His resulting essay in Q&A form (which is illustrated with several of his portraits of Portland arts figures) is both illuminating and amusing. Think the mysteries of shadows, and native soil, and “that much revered Southern snake-charmer, William Faulkner.” 

WHAT SHAKESPEARE ACTUALLY DID DURING THE PLAGUE. Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, who teaches at Linfield College and is an occasional ArtsWatch contributor, manages two difficult tasks with aplomb in this short humor piece for The New Yorker: He makes light of Shakespeare and of the Plague Times that Shakespeare lived through, and makes us laugh at both. “Day 13: You’ve been wearing the same doublet and hose for two weeks.” 

OZZIE GONZÁLEZ: STAGING A RACE. The theaters have shut down for the duration. But Portland actor González has moved onto a much bigger stage, as a serious candidate to become mayor of Portland. Bobby Bermea talks with him about why he’s running, what his goals for the city are, and how the world of theater and the arts is good preparation for politics.

MUSEUM CURATOR GRACE KOOK-ANDERSON: FIGURING IT OUT. Martha Daghlian talks with the Portland Art Museum’s curator of Northwest art about working from home, the economic impact of the pandemic, and how things are changing: “There’s a huge emphasis on the extreme local right now that I think is really interesting. … The DIY culture that is celebrated here is evident in many art spaces, and I see that reflected in the ways they are adapting to this situation.”


QUOTABLE (THE NEW BROADWAY VERSION)


Corey Brunish, the Broadway and Portland theater producer who we wrote about last week, was challenged online a few days ago to develop some ideas for updated musicals to fit our shutdown times. He came up with a few:


The Pajama Game All Day Long
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to 2021 
Into the Woods for a Walk
Bye Bye Income
Annie Get Your Face Mask
How To Succeed in Business by Washing Your Hands
HAIRcut

– Your turn. Create a Broadway Quotable of your own!


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Starting Over: Point to point

Portland Center Stage's Cynthia Fuhrman shows that when the navigating gets hard, the pragmatic go point-to-point

Like many of those who still have a job but are working from home, Cynthia Fuhrman, the managing director of Portland Center Stage, has taken to Zoom, “seeing the faces and talking to more people than ever.”

“I talk to people all day,” she said as we talked by telephone (not Zoom).

All those meetings are exhausting. Generally, she says, she suffers from really bad insomnia. But now? “I am sleeping better than ever, I am sleeping like a champ!” 

One of those early Covid-19 virtual group meetings had a big effect on how Fuhrman has managed Center Stage’s response to the pandemic. She managed to sneak into a short lecture by Nancy Koehn, a business historian at Harvard Business School, who was addressing the problem of crisis management to an audience of (mostly) art museum leaders.

Cynthia Fuhrman, Portland Center Stage’s
managing director/Photo Gary Norman

The primary takeaway for Fuhrman? That we are operating in a  point-to-point navigation situation. 

“We don’t have a playbook here,” Koehn says in the video. “We all have to ask ourselves, can I get comfortable with ambiguity and confusion and uncertainty and much less than perfect information…in order to navigate from point to point? …We’re going to make a lot of mistakes, but we’re going to quickly pivot, respond, do something different, learn—and keep heading for the next point. And help our people do that.”

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On with the show? Hold on. Really.

ArtsWatch Weekly: In Oregon arts & culture, COVID-19 changes the game. Everything's shifting, and the future's uncertain.

. . . AND THEN THE DAM BURST. Oregon Governor Kate Brown’s announcement late Wednesday that large public gatherings will be banned in the state for the next four weeks while the health system tries to put a cap on the rapidly growing COVID-19 pandemic crisis changed everything. What had seemed a kind of wait-and-see, business-as-almost-usual unreality (well, goodness: It’s not like we’re Seattle or Italy, is it?) overnight became the new not-so-normal: It’s here. It’s real. It’s serious. Already universities had shifted their students to online classes. The aged and infirm were paying close attention, understanding they were in high-risk categories. Homeless advocates were worrying about potential disaster on the streets. Busy parents were juggling daycare as schools took time off, and if they were lucky, telecommunicating to the office from home. Stores were being wiped out of toilet paper, providing Internet wags a running joke. Then the NBA canceled the rest of its basketball season, and that shook people a bit. Tom Hanks announced he’d tested positive for the virus, and that shook things up a little more. But for a lot of people, until the governor literally called off the show, the seriousness of the situation – and the serious lack of planning or preparation on a national level – hadn’t quite sunk in.

The loneliness of the long-distance human: Laurits Andersen Ring, Mrs. Sigrid Ring Standing at a Stone Ballustrade, 1912, oil on canvas, 12.6 x 10.6 inches; private collection.

In the circumstances, whether a play or concert is canceled falls pretty far down on the list of international priorities. But for the arts and culture world, the shutdown is a true crisis. All day today, a flood of cancellations and postponements has been pouring in. (And it’s not just here. In New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is shutting down all three of its campuses for rigorous basement-to-ceiling cleanings. In the nation’s capital, tours and events at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery are canceled through May 3.) The Oregon Symphony has canceled several concert series, including some high-profile ones. The Oregon Historical Society has canceled all programs through April 12, and Portland Opera has canceled its run of Vivaldi’s rarely performed Bajazet. School tours to museums and performances have stopped in their tracks. PassinArt has postponed its opening of August Wilson’s Seven Guitars for a week, and the city’s biggest theater company, Portland Center Stage, has called off or rescheduled performances of both of its current shows, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and 9 Parts of Desire, through April 8. March Music Moderne, Fear No Music, Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra have canceled concerts. Music Editor Matthew Neil Andrews gives details in his column MusicWatch Weekly: Stay home!, and fresh news of postponements or cancellations keeps pouring in.

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DramaWatch: Your no-show of shows

The coronavirus crisis makes a dramatic impact on Portland theater, causing numerous postponements and cancellations.

“The show must go on…unless it shouldn’t.”

That’s the aphoristic take from American Theatre magazine in an assessment of the industry’s response to the current public health crisis. But then, the article headlined “Theatres Stay Open but Make Backup Plans Amid COVID-19 Concerns” was published on Tuesday, March 10. Since then, the NBA has suspended all its games, and the concert companies Live Nation and AEG have suspended tours nationwide. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will not hold any public gatherings around the world until further notice. Disneyland is being closed.

The situation is changing fast.

On Wednesday, Oregon governor Kate Brown  announced a temporary ban on gatherings of more than 250 people. Accordingly, Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Portland Center Stage have canceled all performances through April 8, and Artists Rep has canceled its fundraising gala, which had been scheduled for this Saturday. Also on Thursday, Hand2Mouth Theatre announced that director Stepan Simek’s production Danse Macabre: The Testament of Francois Villon — which was to have been the featured subject for this column — has been postponed, and tentatively is being rescheduled for June. 

The past grows more distant: Because of social distancing recommended to slow the coronavirus pandemic, theater fans will have to wait until June to see Jean-Luc Boucherot in Danse Macabre: The Testament of Francois Villon. Boucherot and director Štěpán Šimek collaborated on the show about the late-medieval French poet. Photo: Sarah Marguier.

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