James B. Thompson

Going, going, gone: 2019 in review

A look back at the ups and downs and curious side trips of the year on Oregon's cultural front

What a year, right? End of the teens, start of the ’20s, and who knows if they’ll rattle or roar?

But today we’re looking back, not ahead. Let’s start by getting the big bad news out of the way. One thing’s sure in Oregon arts and cultural circles: 2019’s the year the state’s once-fabled craft scene took another staggering punch square on the chin. The death rattles of the Oregon College of Art and Craft – chronicled deeply by ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson in a barrage of news stories and analyses spiced with a couple of sharp commentaries, Democracy and the arts and How dead is OCAC? – were heard far and wide, and the college’s demise unleashed a flood of anger and lament.

The crashing and burning of the venerable craft college early in the year followed the equally drawn-out and lamented closure of Portland’s nationally noted Museum of Contemporary Craft in 2016, leaving the state’s lively crafts scene without its two major institutions. In both cases the sense that irreversible decisions were being made with scant public input, let alone input from crafters themselves, left much of the craft community fuming. When, after the closure, ArtsWatch published a piece by the craft college’s former president, Denise Mullen, the fury hit the fan with an outpouring of outraged online comments, most by anonymous posters with obvious connections to the school.

Vanessa German, no admittance apply at office, 2016, mixed media assemblage, 70 x 30 x 16 inches, in the opening exhibit of the new Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University. Photo: Spencer Rutledge, courtesy PSU

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ArtsWatch Weekly: dark & stormy nights

Frankenstein, Día de Muertos, tribute bands, dinosaurs, warps & wefts, and a Dope Elf: Welcome to the art week.

TODAY IS BOTH HALLOWEEN AND THE BEGINNING OF DÍA DE MUERTOS, two holidays that have distinct backgrounds and meanings but are often linked in the public mind, because they occur each year at about the same time and because they deal, in their own ways, with the souls of the dead. Día de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which begins today and continues through Saturday, is a celebration that began in central and southern Mexico and has spread broadly from there. It’s a time for remembering friends and family who have died, and helping them along their spiritual journey.

Carlos Manzano as Bombón in the Día de Muertos-inspired play Amor Añejo, at Milagro Theatre through November 10. Photo © Russell J Young 

Milagro Theatre’s current show, Amor Añejo, gives you a good sense of the spirit of Día de Muertos. Bennett Campbell Ferguson, in his review for ArtsWatch, Into the Beyond, with Pain and Laughter, calls it a “tale of bereavement and rebirth.” “It’s an elegy—and more,” he continues. “The story flows from a single death that leaves everything from pain to joy to absurdity in its wake. Amor Añejo’s fullness of spirit makes it an unmissable play. At once profoundly soulful and gloriously silly, it invites us to touch the life of Hector, a painter who refuses to accept the death of his wife, Rosalita.” Naturally, that’s only the beginning.

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James B. Thompson, 1951-2019

Remembering the wide-ranging Oregon artist and Willamette University professor, who has died at 68. A memorial service will be held Nov. 5.

When James B. Thompson was growing up in Chicago in the 1960s he often hopped on the Illinois Central train and headed down to the Loop to spend the day hanging out at the Art Institute of Chicago, one of America’s great museums. What he saw there added to an eclectic list of influences on his own emergence as an artist. “I had the movies and I had TV, and both were important to me,” he said. “And I had books. And radio. Baseball cards. And then, the world of music. It’s a weird world. Forms of entertainment become dominant in our lives.”

As he grew and traveled and established his own distinguished career as an artist and teacher, other experiences and influences added to his broad vision of the world of art: medieval books of hours and their free-floating sense of space, the mysteries of Neolithic stone art, the techniques and possibilities of fused glassmaking, the game of golf, the act of mapping, geological shifts, the ways in which science and nature and human beings interact, the human impact on the changing landscape, the fading of traditional cultures in a modern world, the cultural and artistic implications of the fragmentation of the universe, the liberating breakup of Renaissance perspective in contemporary art.

Thompson died on October 27, 2019,at his home in Salem, Oregon, from effects of the cancer mesothelioma. He was surrounded by his loving and supportive family. He was 68.

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State of the art, art of the state

2018 in Review, Part 2: From Ashland to Astoria to Bend and beyond, twenty terrific tales about art and culture around Oregon

In 2018 ArtsWatch writers spent a lot of time out and about the state, putting the “Oregon” into “Oregon ArtsWatch.” Theater in Ashland and Salem. Green spaces and Maori clay artists in Astoria. A carousel in Albany. Aztec dancing in Newberg. Music in Eugene, Springfield, Bend, the Rogue Valley, McMinnville, Lincoln City, Florence, Willamette Valley wine country. Museum and cultural center art exhibits in Coos Bay and Newberg and Newport and Salem. Art banners in Nye Beach. A 363-mile art trail along the coast.

In 2018 we added to our team of writers in Eugene and elsewhere weekly columnists David Bates in Yamhill County and Lori Tobias on the Oregon Coast, plus regional editor Karen Pate. We expect to have even more from around Oregon in 2019.

Twenty terrific tales from around the state in 2018:

 



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The Original Tesla

“Tesla”: The wireless joint is jumpin’.

Jan. 11: “Clean energy. Wireless charging. A world connected by invisible communication technology. For many,” Brett Campbell writes,” they’re today’s reality, tomorrow’s hope — but they were first realistically envisioned more than a century ago by a a Serbian-American immigrant whose name most of us only know because a new car is named after him. … ‘He’s an unsung hero,” Brad Garner, who choreographed and directs Tesla: Light, Sound, Color, a multidisciplinary show about the technological genius Nikola Tesla that played in Eugene, Bend, and Portland, tells Campbell. ‘We wouldn’t have cell phones and power in our homes without his work. He was an immigrant with an American dream who changed the world.”

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Out & About: Twice the party

The crowds mingle as Willamette University's Senior Art Majors show and James B. Thompson's endangered-water exhibit open. Party on.

SALEM – It was two parties for the price of one at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art three Friday nights ago, and if at first they seemed an unlikely fit, the partygoers almost immediately mingled and merged until you really couldn’t tell who was here for what, because everybody was taking in both scenes, and having a grand old time of it.

The occasion was the opening celebrations for two new exhibits, both of which continue at the Salem museum through May 13: the annual Senior Art Majors show from Willamette University, with which the Hallie Ford is affiliated, and which drew a young and brash and demonstrably exuberant crowd; and Water Is Sacred: Water Is Life, the latest solo show by James B. Thompson, a longtime Willamette art-faculty member and a mature artist at the height of his career. It was a bit of a time warp, but a satisfying one – young artists on the verge, trying things out; a master craftsman and broad artistic thinker exploring terrain he knows intimately, and still making discoveries in it.

Peri I. Hildum’s “Shattered New Surface” (foreground) and Miles Solomon MacClure’s “Growing Up, Growing Away (Not What It Looks Like)” on the wall on opening night.

All the accouterments of an opening party were here, and then some: the long table overflowing with free munchies (deeply appreciated by the students there to see their friends’ work); the bustle of people attired variously in student funky, old beatnik artist, Northwest casual, and Friday-night-out-on-the-town; the museum guards keeping a friendly but practiced eye on the proceedings to make sure nothing went bump in the night. Artist friends of the artists were on hand, among them Thompson’s fellow veteran Salem artist D.E. May, one of whose precise template paintings hangs just through a doorway into the museum’s Carl Hall Gallery and its fine collection of Pacific Northwest art.

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