portland state university

Resourcefulness and resilience: Local thesis shows in a global pandemic

Graduating art students pivot from in-person thesis shows to an array of virtual offerings

By BRIANA MILLER

There is a lot going on in the world right now, and in the midst of it, a newly minted class of fine art and craft students is setting out into the world. The timing couldn’t be better – we need their hope, creativity, resiliency, and ingenuity now more than ever. Equally, the timing couldn’t be worse – nearly all of their final in-person thesis shows were cancelled because of Covid-19 related closures. But art and artists are attuned to change, and as the pandemic forced colleges and universities across the Portland Metro area to close their campuses, their art departments moved swiftly to adjust expectations and find meaningful ways to culminate their degree programs. 

“Our role was to be responsive to the moment and work with the circumstances and not despite them,” said Jess Perlitz, who teaches sculpture at Lewis & Clark College and is the co-chair of its Department of Art. “Something about the arts is to be prepared and resourceful and resilient. We got to model that.”

For many schools, delaying or postponing the thesis exhibition wasn’t an option. Students left as campuses closed in mid-March, and because they were graduating, any plans to return were uncertain. As a result, institutions pivoted to thinking of the final exhibitions as virtual, building new online galleries or substantially enhancing existing web pages. 

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MusicWatch Weekly: A song and a dance

Irish songs, Latinx bienestar, Balkan Brass, Viking musicians, and the return of Federale

As the great Pacific singer, dancer, composer, percussionist, instrument builder, and calligraphist Lou Harrison loved reminding us, “music is basically a song and a dance.” This week’s selections might be all over the genre map–cumbia psicodélica; twisty Balkan brass; rowdy cinematic rock and other local uncategorizables; clarinets and percussion and laptops; songs from Ireland and World War I; a siege catapult’s worth of jazz–but all of it hews to this basic formula. Sing. Dance. Repeat.

You’re probably going to get snowed in with the cats and the chessboard next week, so now’s your chance to clear your throat, lace up your red shoes, and get into some music.

Tonight, tonight, tonight

We already talked about Blue Cranes and the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble in November’s monthly column, so hopefully you’ve already bought tickets and hired a babysitter. In case you haven’t, this is your reminder that their Siege of Cranes concert, featuring the tight-knit BC quintet and PJCE’s eight-piece horn section, is happening tonight at Holocene. Get on it, Portland.

You could go up to T.C. O’Leary’s on Northeast Alberta to hear Irish folk songs–and even sing along if the mood strikes you–every month. But the special guests on tonight’s Oíche na namhrán (“night of song”) deserve a mention: Uilleann piper Preston Howard Wilde and harpist Elizabeth Nicholson will join regular host Michael Steen-Orr for tonight’s shindig. No doubt the harp in question is the lovely diatonic variety used by Taliesen and Dolphin Midwives, and that’ll be sweet–but it’s those pipes we’re curious about. You’re probably picturing the noisy bagpipes of countless cheap jokes, but these are different; sweeter, gentler, more Irish. Have a listen to Wilde right now and tell me you don’t want to go order up a Jameson’s and sing along.

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ArtsWatch Weekly: One for the books

Portland Book Fest turns the page, downtown gets a new museum, music and theater light up the stage, it's beginning to feel a lot like ...

WORDSTOCK IS DEAD. LONG LIVE THE PORTLAND BOOK FESTIVAL. And the city’s big blowout of a book festival, by any other name, is just around the corner: Saturday’s the day. Portland’s South Park Blocks is the site, centering on the Portland Art Museum but sprawling like free verse across the territory. “A circus is a good analogy for Portland’s big annual book event, with its 100+ authors appearing on nine stages all in one dense, delirious, daylong literary orgy,” Katie Taylor writes in her aptly titled ArtsWatch preview, Portland Book Festival: Sometimes too much is a good thing. “It’s intentional FOMO,” or Fear of Missing Out, festival director Amanda Bullock told Taylor. “There’s always something happening, a new event starting every 15 minutes. Even if one thing is full, there’s always something else to check out.”

Checking the goods at 2018’s Portland Book Festival. Photo courtesy Literary Arts

Among this year’s headliners will be the big-idea journalist Malcolm Gladwell and former Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice. As always, the party will be overflowing with authors, readers, speeches, workshops, browsers and impromptu discoveries – a blossoming of language for a book-besotted town. As for that name change, the beloved Wordstock rebranded itself last year, trading in its smart, snappy, cheeky, and memorable monicker for something that sounds a little more boardroom drab. On its web site, the festival explains the change. I’m not convinced. Then again, open book, open mind: Maybe I’m just reading too much into it. 

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At PSU’s new museum, art for all

The new Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the urban university gives Portland a new center for contemporary art. And it's free to everyone.

As you walk around the new Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University, the eyes have it. Staring out from the prints on the walls in the museum’s inaugural exhibition, Art for All, they leap across the space between art and visitor, intimate and visceral and commanding. When the new museum’s interim director, Linda Tesner, was shaping its first show she wanted to appeal to as broad a potential audience as possible, and decided to stress portraits: person to person, universal and immediate. What could be more democratic?

“Art for All” might well also be the new museum’s motto. When the newest Schnitzer-named university art museum – the third in the Pacific Northwest – opens its doors on Thursday at PSU, Portland will gain something that’s common across Europe but almost as rare as hen’s teeth in the United States: a free art museum. That’s free, no strings attached: free admission for any PSU student or staff member; free for anyone and everyone, from anywhere and everywhere, who wants to visit.

Left: Robert Colescott’s Haircut, 1989, oil on canvas, 84 x 72 inches. Right: David Shrobe’s Keeper of Secrets, 2018, oil, acrylic, graphite, paper, canvas, wood, fabric, metal, and vinyl. Photo: Spencer Rutledge, courtesy PSU

That fact alone distinguishes the new JSMA from most American museums. It tears down the stubborn economic wall that traditionally keeps lower-income people on the outside and turns museums into havens for the middle and upper classes. The costs of building, maintaining and exhibiting museum collections are high, and in the U.S., where government underwriting of cultural institutions is scant, that usually means high admission prices, too: standard admission to the much larger Portland Art Museum, for instance, is $20, an amount that doesn’t even begin to cover the costs of keeping its doors open.  

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Column Zero: Summer comes alive

Chamber Music Northwest blows its clarinets, Storm Large sings about craziness, Makrokosmos gets nightmarish

We here at Oregon Arts Watch tend to pay a lot of attention to Oregon composers. In a sense, our job is made easier by the problem outlined yesterday by Senior Editor Brett Campbell: we like local composers, living or recent, diverse in gender and age and race and genre. That’s exactly who is often underrepresented in the largest institutions, and—lucky us!—that means we have a journalistic obligation to write about exactly the artists we’d want to write about anyways.

Wolfie

But never mind that for a moment—I want to talk to you about Mozart. We’ll come back to Kenji Bunch and Storm Large and George Crumb and Tōru Takemitsu and all the rest, but for right now I want to take the somewhat contrary position that we should absolutely be happy about hearing Mozart’s clarinet music at Chamber Music Northwest this week.

The pair of opening concerts (Reed College June 24, PSU June 25) are a handy confluence of musical meanings. Outgoing CMNW Artistic Director David Shifrin is, of course, a very fine clarinetist himself, and in past years has dazzled and transported us with gorgeous renditions of everything from Bach and Mozart to Messiaen and Akiho. This season—his second-to-last before handing the reins to Gloria Chien and Soovin Kim for the 2020/21 season—thus fittingly concludes with a whole lot of clarinet music. And, because this is CMNW, the concerts stretch all the way back to the instrument’s first great composer and all the way forward to recent and newly commissioned works by those beloved modern composers we talked about earlier.

But they’ll have to wait a little longer while I justify Mozart to the kids.

Chamber Music Northwest Artistic Director David Shifrin

You probably learned in music history class or here on internet that Mozart was pals with pioneering Viennese clarinetist Anton Stadler, an early virtuoso who sold Mozart on the new instrument’s charms. It’s a pretty weird instrument, essentially three instruments in one body, its lower chalumeau register stretching almost to the bottom of the cello’s range, its upper clarion and altissimo registers covering the violin’s entire range. Its tone is unlike any other woodwind instrument, a “long purply sound” in Berio’s phrase, somewhere between a human voice and a bowed string instrument.Mozart ended up composing plenty of really good music featuring clarinets and their sibling basset horns, and the best of it pairs the Frankenstein instrument with voices and/or strings—an ideal blend of sound colors and expressive possibilities.

Mozart ended up composing plenty of really good music featuring clarinets and their sibling basset horns, and the best of it pairs the Frankenstein instrument with voices and/or strings—an ideal blend of sound colors and expressive possibilities.

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‘She never wanted to leave anyone out’: Bonnie Merrill, 1935-2019

Collaborators remember a Portland dance pioneer’s generous spirit

Generations of Portland dancers—with one conspicuous exception—turned out to see Minh Tran’s concert Anicca (Impermance) last weekend at Reed College. Tran’s work, inspired by the recent deaths of his parents, premiered just a week after one of his teachers, Bonnie Merrill, succumbed to leukemia on Valentine’s Day. Tran’s piece, already weighted with grief and memory, felt like a kind of elegy for Merrill, an influential Portland dancer, instructor, and choreographer, and a founding mother of the city’s contemporary dance scene.

Merrill's work We Gather was performed at the citywide Portland arts festival Artquake in 1994. Photographer unknown.

Bonnie Merrill dances a solo in Donald McKayle’s “Collage.” Photo courtesy of the Merrill family.

Merrill kept her Portland dance card full for close to 40 years. She worked with modern and ballet companies, public school students, and collegiate dancers from Portland State, Lewis and Clark, and Reed. She created more than 100 works that were performed on film, onstage, and in city streets. Along the way, she forged creative alliances with musicians and visual artists, and earned accolades including the only Oregon Governor’s Award for the Arts given to an individual dance artist.

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Commentary: Democracy and the arts

The closure of Oregon College of Art and Craft and why we couldn't help

Let’s say someone said, “Tell me, Mr Bones, what should happen next, now that Oregon College of Art and Craft has decided to close the college and sell the campus?”

I’d probably sputter, make a few false starts, and then I’d say something like this:

  1. The campus, designed by architect John Storrs and pioneering landscape architect Barbara Fealy, is a sweet example of late Northwest modern design— where the shed merges with modernism and is informed by the wise touch of the Arts and Crafts movement. It should be preserved.
  2. The site should continue the celebration of craftwork in this place, which begins some 10,000 years ago, when the first tribes started making tools to fit their hands and please their eyes using the plants and stones of the local forests, lowlands, mountains and rivers. It should be a place where anyone can learn this history—native, pioneer, arts and crafts movement, and contemporary—and learn to make their own objects, whether in a folk craft style or an art craft design. Its studios should be buzzing, its library packed, its meeting rooms full of people talking it all over. It should be vitally interested in the crucial meeting of craft and environment, art and ecology, technology and nature. A visitor should be able to take a class, see great examples of craft work, buy work at the gift shop, research in the library, hear a lecture, and eat a great lunch.

“But Mr. Bones, what are the chances of all that happening?”

Just about nil.

“So what WILL happen?”

I don’t know for sure, but it looks like all elbows and bulldozers to me.

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