Starting Over: The arts fight back

A new column rolls into view, and news from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, RACC and the Oregon Cultural Trust

Way back before the Covid-19 virus pandemic sent us into a sad and alarming combination of hibernation and vertigo—way back before then, let’s say early March—I would have used the same two words to describe the situation of the arts community in Oregon. “Sad” and “alarming.”

I didn’t need the March 5 panel on Building Political Support for the Arts in Portland to make me think that, but the conclusion was unavoidable after the panel members testified. It was pretty glum. It was also the last public event I attended.

I could quote almost anyone on the panel, hosted by Portland State University and moderated by Portland Creative Laureate Subashini Ganesan, to illustrate this conclusion, but let’s choose Dámaso Rodríguez, the artistic director of Artists Repertory Theatre for the past seven years. Artists Rep is Portland’s second-largest theater company, 38 years old and counting. Its past couple of years have been financially tumultuous and the company is in the middle of raising money for a new theater space. But unusual in a public setting for an arts administrator, Rodríguez was plaintive, and his melancholy had an edge to it, . 

Oregon Shakespeare Festival is closing until at least September 8. /Photo by Kim Budd

“Art elevates society,” he said, quietly and intently. “It is essential to living a good life. It would be nice if public policy made that statement. I feel isolated. I feel alone. I feel like we [in the arts] have become experts at surviving, and public policy could lead to us thriving.”

Artists Rep is going to need all of its survival skills now. And if the people associated with the company do manage to pull that rabbit out of the hat, where will they be? Back to “sad and alarming” where they entered this particular movie? Back to alone?


ArtsWatch Weekly: a squeeze, a shuffle, a Fertile sprawl

Real-estate blues and a major reshuffle at RACC top the news; Fertile Ground's new works sprawl across the city; Federale's Hegna sounds off

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION, the real-estate mantra goes, to which we might add: Availability, availability, availability. Price, price, price. As greater Portland’s real-estate market heats up, prices are rising and affordable places to use for performance halls and galleries are becoming scarce: In a city that’s staked its future on the creative economy, many of its creative groups and people are finding the landscape tough to negotiate.

High-stakes space crunch: Lever Architecture has designed a new theater and office complex for Artists Repertory Theatre on half of the block it used to occupy in Goose Hollow. The other half features a large tower. Rendering courtesy Artists Repertory Theatre

In his story Arts groups play the real estate game, architecture and planning writer Brian Libby, who knows the city’s development scene through and through, takes ArtsWatch readers into the space squeeze and the many ways that artists and cultural groups are coping with it. “The erosion of small performance spaces seems to indicate how a booming economy can be a curse for struggling arts organizations as much as a blessing,” Libby writes. This is the first of several stories Libby will be writing for ArtsWatch on the complex topic of space and art: Watch for more.


News: RACC reorganizes and changes directions

The Regional Arts & Culture Council has shifted focus to fundraising, advocacy and outreach

The Regional Arts and Culture Council is reorganizing to expand its advocacy and fundraising programs with a deeper focus on reaching underserved communities, RACC announced today. In the process it will eliminate five vacant positions, lay off 15 employees and hire 15 new positions later to support the new direction.

The changes are occurring one year after RACC hired a new executive director, Madison Cario, and almost two years since the Portland City Auditor determined that the City had failed to set budgeting priorities for the non-profit group. Though it’s nominally a regional organization, RACC receives most of its budget from the City. It performs a variety of functions for the City in return, from managing public art and city art collections to distributing money to the city’s arts groups. It also manages the distribution of money from the city’s Arts Tax, which passed  in 2012.

RACC manages public artworks in Portland/Image courtesy RACC website

According to the RACC press release, the proposed changes are responsive to the audit of RACC in 2018 and the city’s current budget priorities. The changes are effective immediately. 

“We take this transition very seriously and deeply appreciate the work of RACC employees, especially those leaving the organization,” said RACC board chair Linda McGeady in the release. “These changes respond to what we are seeing and hearing from our community, and position RACC to better serve our region today and in the future.” 

At least some of the eliminated positions will be in the agency’s Right Brain Initiative, which places working artists in classrooms in the tri-county region and integrates the arts into classroom work. The initiative has 70 partnerships with area schools. The Right Brain program will move to another nonprofit, Young Audiences. RACC is also “sunsetting” its workplace giving program.

Some of the new positions will be in a new development team at RACC with clear fundraising goals to help increase and diversify revenue and use public dollars to secure new national and local funding. RACC also intends to increase its outreach and advocacy efforts, both with the general public and elected officials and policy makers, according to the release, hoping to increase awareness of the arts in the area and arguing for their importance.

We will be digging into the changes and the reasoning behind them in future reports. Stay tuned.

The Right Brain for learning

The revolutionary mission of an innovative program in the greater metropolitan area schools: to transform learning through the arts

Shannon McClure, an arts integration specialist for the Regional Arts and Culture Council’s innovative Right Brian Initiative, stood before a classroom of teachers this fall at North Clackamas Scouters Mountain Elementary School, helping to brainstorm as they kicked off the planning phase for this year’s artist residency. 

The residency, which brings an artist to the school to work with students over the school year, is a crucial component of Right Brain’s mission to use the arts to help spark learning in all disciplines. What exactly is arts integration, which McClure travels from school to school to nurture and promote? In the words of the initiative, which serves schools across Clackamas, Washington, and Multnomah counties, it’s “the secret sauce when supporting kids’ abilities to problem-solve, innovate and think critically. By introducing new ways to learn, kids will become more engaged students.”

THE ART OF LEARNING: An Occasional Series

Shannon started things off by mentioning a significant book in neuroscience and education – Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, by a trailblazer in the field, Zaretta Hammond – before offering the most simple and compelling explanation for why the Right Brain Initiative and arts integration in general matter so much: dendrites, the little tree-like extensions from nerve cells that spark connections. Shannon had just read some exciting research which confirmed “that the more we are able to form dendrite connections in our brain, the more we are able to retain over time. Arts integration – learning through different pathways – makes those connections in the brain.”   


Shannon McClure in the classroom, spreading the Right Brain word. Photo courtesy Right Brain Initiative


A cityscape in crochet

Jo Hamilton's new public mural in SE Portland


Scottish fiber artist and Portland transplant Jo Hamilton endows yarn with the representational properties of paint. Using a traditional crochet technique learned from her grandmother, Hamilton creates staggeringly colorful portraits and whimsical cityscapes. Luckily for us Portlanders, Hamilton has crocheted a prodigious landscape mural out of parachute cord. Funded in part by the Regional Arts & Culture Council and installed on September 24th, it now adorns the facade of the Slingshot Lounge on SE 56th and Foster (you can view a timelapse of the installation here).

Hamilton’s new mural contrasts depictions of construction cranes and condos with longstanding Foster businesses such as the Phoenix Pharmacy, I’ve Been Framed, and Bar Carlo. Materially, the mural represents a departure from Hamilton’s previous work: she typically crochets with soft yarn up-cycled from second-hand stores, yard sales, and friends. This mural, however, is constructed from thick, weather-treated parachute cord to withstand exposure to the elements for as long as possible. Thematically, the piece represents a return to Hamilton’s roots as a crochet artist. While her focus and best-known works are human portraits, her first foray into representational crochet work in 2006 was an image of a friend’s house and cityscape including Burnside Street and the iconic Portland skyscraper, Big Pink.

Jo Hamilton with her new mural
Jo Hamilton with her new mural at SE Foster Road. Photo credit: Kevin McConnell.

The Foster mural’s installation was orchestrated on a drizzly morning by an eclectic troupe of artists and musicians from the Portland community, all friends, colleagues or patrons of Hamilton’s. The installation crew included the prolific puppet designer and sculptor Michael Curry, of Michael Curry Design, Inc.; Curry’s wife, the textile designer and painter, Julie Hannegan; Dan Gluibizzi, an observant yet soft-spoken watercolorist and sculptor, who like Hamilton, is represented by the Russo Lee Gallery in NW Portland; and John Moen, a leading member of several rock bands including The Decembrists and Eyelids (Jo’s partner, Chris Slusarenko, is also a leading member of Eyelids). Using a cherry-picker, a wire frame was first bolted into the drywall of the bar’s South-eastern exterior to support the mural, which Hamilton had crocheted in three 10 foot sections. The sections were then secured to the frame using zip ties by Hamilton and Michael Curry.

By leaving a varicolored garland of untrimmed threads around all of her crochet pieces, Hamilton pushes back against the notion that an artwork must appear finished. “I’ve discovered that the idea of being finished is a myth,” Hamilton told me. “ “Being finished just happens when you decide to stop.” Standing below her monumental cityscape mural, I felt as if a gentle tug on any of the loose threads just out of reach above me would cause the piece to unravel into a colorful puddle on the sidewalk. But Hamilton’s pieces are tougher than they look––they have the structural integrity of a well-made rug.

Hamilton’s portraits are, like Chuck Close paintings, as abstract as they are realistic. A key difference between Hamilton’s work and Close’s is that her technique can be described as more organic. Whereas Close typically applies paint to a grid to produce a photographically realistic image, Hamilton works directly from photos of her subject without using a grid, template, or computer image. She starts by crocheting the sitter’s eyes and works outward. “Nothing is planned ahead,” she says. “I make it up as I go along.” Likewise, when she begins a cityscape project, she chooses a few landmarks to ground the piece in reality, sometimes referring to a sketch, but improvises the final composition. Crochet, she tells me, has taught her to thrive in synchrony with imperfection. The medium demands that she either feel satisfied with the results, or unravel the polychrome threads and start over, embracing a process of addition and subtraction.

Jo Hamilton with her new mural at SE Foster Road. Photo credit: Kevin McConnell

While many contemporary painters fashion richly layered and textured canvases which hardly qualify as two-dimensional, Hamilton’s knotted works are fundamentally sculptural. Each individual knot has the quality of a three-dimensional, pointillistic brush stroke, with its own form, grain, and contours. Although she hasn’t worked with other media in over a decade, Hamilton said that she wouldn’t be able to do the work she makes now if she hadn’t painted for 20 years first. Painting and drawing, she claims, taught her how to express the shades of light and color she sees in real life to an audience by creating compositions from yarn. “I see tones as colors,” Hamilton says. “So, rather than simply finding a lighter or darker shade of a particular color, I tend to use different color entirely, that does the same work tonally.”

One of the awe-inspiring features of Hamilton’s work is the amount of time, energy and concentration it takes her to produce a single piece, in spite of her mastery of her craft. Over 30 feet in length and five feet tall, her Foster mural is her largest piece to date, and took over four months working to complete. When using yarn, Hamilton says, she is able to work steadily for as long as 12 hours. But with the heavy parachute cord, her hands would begin to cramp after just five. As with many fine artists, the time most of her viewers will spend admiring one of Hamilton’s pieces is drastically incommensurate with the hours of labor she actually invests in her work. In 2012, she created a 30 second stop motion video documenting her portrait-making process and uploaded it to the streaming platform Vimeo. It went viral, receiving over 150,000 views, and was reposted by The Huffington Post. The video’s popularity boosted her online presence. She began finding images of her work on Pinterest, and received requests for interviews from international periodicals based in Turkey and Eastern Russia.

detail of Jo Hamilton's mural
Jo Hamilton, SE Foster Road mural detail. Photo credit: Kevin McConnell

After graduating with a B.A. in Fine Art from the Glasgow School of Fine Art in 1993, Hamilton moved to Portland, Oregon in 1996, where she began working in the restaurant industry. In her first series of crocheted portraits, she used her coworkers as subjects. This project instilled in her the belief that fine art portraiture alters how the public views people who don’t receive much recognition from society. Over the course of her 23 years in Portland, Hamilton has deepened her connection with the city and its different communities through her portraiture and landscape works, and by volunteering on a weekly basis at organizations like OutsideIn (which provides drug addiction treatment to young houseless people) and Our House of Portland (a residential HIV/AIDS care facility). She has subsequently produced portrait series based on mugshots of people processed through the Multnomah County Jail, residents at Our House of Portland, and women she views as matriarchs in her community.

Hamilton’s portraits ask their viewers to reimagine specific demographics in their community who might otherwise remain invisible. Similarly, the Foster mural asks Portland’s ever growing population to reimagine the relationship it would like to have with the city’s roots. Troubled by the construction boom, displacement, and gentrification, Hamilton hopes to draw attention to the widening socio-economic and cultural gap between old and new Portland in her parachute cord cityscape. She hopes it will start conversations that slow our rapid descent towards a less human landscape and help us make decisions about our city’s future that we can be proud of.

Sebastian Zinn has a B.A. in Comparative Literature with an allied field in Art History from Reed College. Since graduating in the Spring of 2018, he has been working as a freelance writer and editor covering a diverse range of topics, including economics, medicine, food, music, literature, film, fashion, and visual and performance art.

NEA: $1.2 million in Oregon grants

The National Endowment for the Arts delivers 17 grants in Oregon as part of an $80 million round of awards nationally

The National Endowment for the Arts today announced its latest round of grants, more than $80 million across all 50 states, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and four U.S. jurisdictions. Oregon’s share is $1,219,200 among 17 groups and agencies – more than half to the Oregon Arts Commission, which then makes further grants throughout the state. Funding ranges from hiring a folklorist at the High Desert Museum in Bend to developing a new tribal arts and culture plan in Coos Bay to creating a new work at Eugene Ballet.

The complete Oregon list:

High Desert Museum, Bend:

$45,000 to support a folklorist position at the High Desert Museum.

Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians, Coos Bay:

$50,000 to support the development of an arts and culture master plan to establish guidelines for public art and architecture that will celebrate sites of historical significance in Coos Bay, Oregon.


2018: A roller-coaster arts ride

Baby 2019's raring to get rolling. But first, a stroll down memory lane with Old Man 2018 and his slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Well, that was the year that was, wasn’t it? Old Man 2018 limps out of the limelight with a thousand scars, a thousand accomplishments, and a whole lot of who-knows-what. The new kid on the block, Baby 2019, arrives fit and sassy, eager to get rolling and make her mark. She’s got big plans, and the ballgame’s hers to win, lose, or draw.

New kid on the block: 2019 rolls into the picture, fit and sassy and ready to start fresh. (Claude Monet, “Jean Monet on His Hobby Horse,” 1872, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.)

On the Oregon arts and cultural scene, 2018 entered the game with similar high hopes and then handled a lot of unexpected disruption, holding his ground and even making a few gains even as his hair grew thin and gray. He can retire with his head held high, if he’s not too busy shaking it from side to side over the things he’s seen.