Fire Writers

Bright spots peep through in Yamhill County arts forecast

Many events are canceled or scaled back for 2021, as gathering in crowds remains unlikely for some time, but it’s not all bad news

As the calendar rolled over into the new year, I reached out to more than a dozen leaders in Yamhill County’s arts scene (along with a couple in Salem) to ask what they could say about their plans and expectations for life returning to some degree of normalcy in 2021.

Bottom line? It probably won’t.

With a few exceptions, the organizers behind major local cultural events, institutions, and venues don’t expect we’ll be flinging our masks away anytime soon. We won’t be packing theaters to see plays, and we won’t sip wine at crowded artist receptions. More of us will (presumably) be vaccinated, but in terms of events where people come together to experience art up close and personal, 2021 pretty much resembles 2020.

“We have lost a lot of art and culture in this pandemic,” said Lisa Weidman, a Terroir writing festival planner. And, she added, “ a sense of community, too.”

It’s not all bad news. So let’s begin with the good news, because there is some.

McMinnville Short Film Festival: This year marks the 10th anniversary of the short film festival organized by Dan and Nancy Morrow. It is the only major tent-pole cultural event left standing in Yamhill County’s largest city. The festival barely squeezed under the quarantine wire last year because the event is held in February, which is otherwise a bit of a cultural dead zone. But organizers learned last fall, with their annual fundraiser, that people can and will attend such an event in significant numbers if the goodies are streamed online, which is where most of us are watching movies anyway. So instead of scaling down, they’re ramping up. The festival kicking off Feb. 18 will unveil 127 films with screening blocks scheduled over nearly two weeks. Visit the website to check out the titles and register.

“Chocolate Cake & Ice Cream,” an animated short about friendship between a dog and cat by Steve Cowden of Lake Oswego, is on the schedule for the McMinnville Short Film Festival.
“Chocolate Cake & Ice Cream,” an animated short about friendship between a dog and cat by Steve Cowden of Lake Oswego, is on the schedule for the McMinnville Short Film Festival.

Paper Gardens: Yamhill County’s annual writing contest, culminating in a spring publication of the best of the best, will soldier on. “We know the pandemic has sparked lots of writing,” said one of the organizers, Deborah Weiner. “So we encourage children, teens, and adults who live, work, or go to school in Yamhill County to submit their pieces.” Entries are due March 3 and a release party is tentatively scheduled for May 13 at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg. As that date looms, organizers will reassess the COVID situation in crafting protocols for gathering in person.

Willamette Shakespeare: The theater company is sound financially, according to board chairman David Pasqualini, and operating on the assumption that an outdoor production of Pericles will be unveiled at select area wineries in August. They’ll be working with Patrick Walsh, executive artistic director of the Northwest Classical Theater Collaborative, and expect to have COVID safety protocols in place for both the company and audience. 

Chehalem Cultural Center: Along with local art galleries that remain open, the Newberg nonprofit will continue to be a cultural beacon for visual art. The exhibition calendar has shows booked through April 30, and beyond that, Director of Arts Programs Carissa Burkett has 2021 mapped out for visual art. “I do have additional exhibits planned for the rest of the year that aren’t on the website yet, primarily because of delays in getting info from the artists,” she said.

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Fighting the one-two punch

ArtsWatch Weekly: Amid twin crises, arts and social awareness mix and meld and come together

IT’S BEEN A WEEK TO PICK OURSELVES UP, DUST OURSELVES OFF, START ALL OVER AGAIN: The one-two punch of pandemic and racial injustice has kept the culture on the ropes even as some of the contenders take a premature victory lap. The United States has solidified its dubious distinction as the epicenter of the global coronavirus crisis: Dr. Anthony Fauci, who in the face of a rudderless national response is the closest thing we have to a national leader on the issue, warns that if Americans don’t get serious about the threat we could be facing 100,000 new cases a day. While the nation gradually and sometimes not so gradually reopens, the numbers of infections and deaths have spiked. In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown has ordered that people wear masks in indoor public settings in every county, a directive that many, even those assigned to enforce the law, feel free to flout. 

The designer Milton Glaser’s final project. miltonglaser.com 

Culturally, in the past week the nation’s lost two towering figures. The great comedian Carl Reiner, who with the likes of Sid Caesar and Mel Brooks helped shape a stream of antic and sometimes subversively open American popular comedy, died at 98. And Milton Glaser, the graphic artist/designer/entrepreneur/American hybrid, died on his 91st birthday. Glaser’s touch was all over the culture, from book and album covers to concert posters to restaurant designs to the iconic “I (Heart) NY” logo that’s been copied by cities from here to the farther moons of Pluto, or so it sometimes seems. At the time of his death he was working on a new cultural connector to bridge the divides of troubled times: a distinctive image of the word “Together.”

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Young writers, burning bright

The Fire Writers conference helps Yamhill County teenagers tap into their potential while fighting the stigma associated with being a smart kid

A literary scene is a knotty thing to define and locate. Unlike live theater, music, or visual art, it has no brick-and-mortar base. It is everywhere and nowhere, from the “local author” shelf at a bookstore to events such as creative writing festivals to the occasional open mic night to the world that exists in the electronic ether: Instagram posts, tweets, Facebook, even text messaging.

Yamhill County has had for a while two tangible measures of the region’s literary life: the Terroir Creative Writing Festival, which was scheduled for its 11th annual renewal in April until COVID-19 shut it down, and the 27-year-old Paper Gardens literary journal. Published every spring by the Arts Alliance of Yamhill County, the journal features prose and verse by locals of all ages. Oregon authors including William Stafford, Kim Stafford, Primus St. John, Robin Cody, and many others have served as judges.

A third, writer-centric tent-pole event has sprung up. On a mild, overcast Monday morning last winter, more than 100 high school students from around Yamhill County sauntered into the ballroom at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg for the Fire Writers Conference. The brainchild of retired McMinnville educator Deborah Weiner, the 2-year-old gathering is as ambitious, polished, and well attended as the Terroir festival.  The goal of the daylong conference is to “ignite the fire” in teenagers who show an aptitude and interest in writing. Validating that interest, organizers say, makes students, who pay nothing to attend the event, feel they are part of a writers’ community and can instill confidence in kids who might feel marginalized for being academic achievers.

The opening session of Fire Writers organizer Lisa Ohlen Harris addresses the opening session of the Fire Writers Conference at the Chehalem Community Center in Newberg. “Writers are everywhere,” she told students, “doing things that on the surface may seem to have nothing to do with writing.” Photo by: David Bates
Fire Writers organizer Lisa Ohlen Harris addresses the opening session of the Fire Writers Conference in Newberg’s Chehalem Community Center in January, before masks and social distancing were the norm. “Writers are everywhere,” she told students, “doing things that on the surface may seem to have nothing to do with writing.” Photo by: David Bates

“There is still a stigma for being a smart kid, a kid who reads, who cares about grades,” said Julie Stubblefield, one of several language-arts teachers at Amity High School, which sent nearly 30 students to the January conference. Teaching writing to teens poses several additional challenges, she said.

“One thing is that this is not a reading culture right now,” she said. “The current culture in high school is dominated by smartphones, YouTube, social media, Netflix, and video games. The practice of imagination, self-reflection, and the slow work of resourcefulness is not a part of their everyday lives. So when it comes time to get quiet and listen for the inner voice, the creative voice, the imagination, it can take a lot of patient exercise and reorientation to wake it up and get in touch with it.”


THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series


This year’s conference drew 123 students from eight schools — five public, three private, and a couple of homeschooled students. Attendance is largely by invitation. Teachers have an eye for which kids have taken to writing, who might benefit from what ultimately amounts to an educational field trip. One other brand of stigmatization — or possibly something else — emerges in talking with organizers, who asked that two students not be photographed; their parents didn’t know they were attending.

Writer and organizer Lisa Ohlen Harris, who is also instrumental in organizing Terroir, opened the event with a casual attempt at perhaps removing some of the stigma and illusions students might connect with writing and writers.

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