Regional Arts and Culture Council

Looking for light, packing a punch

Fertile Ground 2021: In the brief but powerful "Livin' in the Light," opera singer Onry seeks a space for a Black man to breathe

One morning last June, the opera singer and multi-hyphenate artist Onry could not get out of bed. Amidst the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, Onry says, “I, like so many other African Americans, had a moment. I was afraid, both for my life and for what the world would think of me and view me.” This impasse, Onry recalls, led him to the realization that “I was living in the truth of others versus living in the light of myself.” 


Livin’ in the Light is the title of Onry’s film, which premieres on Saturday, Feb. 6, as part of Fertile Ground’s 2021 online festival of new works. Directed by Hannah Hefner, the short film is a stunning musical journey of self-actualization. It opens on Onry in a cloistered world, which seems to be constructed from dark pink cloths—rays of sunlight are trying to break through. Soon the scene shifts to the outdoors. “A river, a giant field, a forest,” Hefner says, “Each has these particular heavy and beautiful and romantic physical qualities.”

Onry moves through these spaces as if in search of an unknown destination. We see him running his hands through the grass, pausing to admire wildflowers, sprinting through the woods. A chorus sings background to Onry’s solo, (My soul never burned so damn bright / I wanna be livin’ in the light). Eventually, Onry returns to the same closed space from the beginning, but now he’s changed. He looks directly into the camera. He inhales and exhales, his breaths deep and certain. 


Another one bites the dust

The monument to Harvey Whitefield Scott is the latest statue to fall in Portland. How did we end up with it in the first place and should we keep it?

When I heard that the sculpture of Harvey Whitefield Scott was pulled down from its pedestal sometime on the morning of October 20th, I couldn’t help but give a small cheer. Unlike with the topplings of Abraham Lincoln or Theodore Roosevelt a few weeks ago, no one has taken credit for taking Scott down. Whoever it was gets some extra flair points for not only pulling the sculpture down from its pedestal but also removing an arm. The photo from The Oregonian of the dismembered arm discarded against the fence is a nice touch.

Dismembered arm from Harvey Whitefield Scott sculpture on Mt. Tabor on October 20. Image from the Oregonian.

A few weeks ago, I argued that the city needs to keep its historical sculptures, not in prominent places but still visible somewhere so that the history they represent isn’t glossed over or conveniently forgotten. It’s good to change our minds but important to acknowledge the past, even (or especially) if we’d rather not. It’s disingenuous to pretend that the errors never existed. Public art can serve as a medium for confession of the past as well as a proclamation of current values.

I still believe that, but I want to offer a caveat: it’s naive to think we’re going to keep every sculpture, and we certainly don’t have to keep every sculpture intact and “as is.” Who or what the sculpture represents matters, but so do the circumstances of its making. It should be a case-by-case decision and in this case, I’m advocating for Harvey Whitefield Scott to go.


After the statues come down

What to do with monuments that celebrate people and stories we'd rather forget?

On October 5, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation announced the Monuments Project, a $250 million commitment to overhaul public art in the United States over the course of the next five years. The project promises to “transform the way our country’s histories are told in public spaces and ensure that future generations inherit a commemorative landscape that venerates and reflects the vast, rich complexity of the American story.”

There are three categories of grants associated with the project: (1) to fund new works; (2) to contextualize existing works through “installations, research, and education” and; (3) to “relocate existing monuments or memorials.”

The first category will likely garner the most excitement: The possibility of that kind of funding for new public artworks that could tell underrepresented stories is almost dizzying. It could be a much-needed chance to showcase new artists, new populations, new voices. The other two categories don’t have the gravitational pull of the first. If the work is already here, it is probably already known, and there’s probably something wrong with it. It may be problematic in any number of capacities—subject, voice, intention, location, etc.. Wouldn’t it be better to move on and create new fanfare, the kind of enthusiasm that only something shiny and new can generate? Not so fast.

The second two categories are less immediately appealing, but I would argue as important, if not more important, to the larger project of public art. This is especially true since the Mellon Project is an initiative that is supposed to happen in the next five years. Removing works is a first step, but removal must be followed by relocation and contextualization. 

Portland is facing its own public art reckoning. On Sunday, October 11th, protestors toppled statues of Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln (in addition to damaging the Oregon Historical Society) as part of the “Indigenous Peoples Day of Rage” on the eve of Columbus Day (still a federally observed holiday). Defacing or damaging public art has always gone hand-in-hand with putting it up in the first place. It happened in the city-states of ancient Mesopotamia and continues to happen today. The visual impact of a former leader face-down on the pavement hasn’t lessened over the past 5000 years. 

The 1928 Abraham Lincoln sculpture at Southwest Main and Madison was toppled on October 11, 2020. Photo credit: Brittany Peterson.

The response to defacement has been far more varied and depends on the relationship between the protestors and the guardians of public art. When the people who put the sculptures up are vanquished, conquered, otherwise removed – the question is less urgent. But what happens when the people who put the sculptures up are still around and still “in power” but have had a change of heart? What happens then?


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


Warp, weft, in between and beyond

Martha Daghlian reports on the Textile Connections Symposium “Textiles & Culture: Past, Present, and Future”

As Portland Textile Month wrapped up its second year, the Textile Connections Symposium made its debut on October 26th and 27th 2019. The Symposium was a weekend-long gathering held at Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) that consisted of artist lectures and discussions on Saturday and a “makers’ marketplace” on Sunday all of which aimed to spark critical conversation and networking amongst a broad range of artists and craftspeople in the metro area. The Symposium was independently produced by a team of dedicated volunteers with support from Columbia FiberArts Guild, PNCA, Oregon Community Foundation, Portland Textile Month, and Regional Arts and Culture Council. The inaugural theme of “Textiles & Culture: Past, Present, and Future” was an apt focus for an art medium that spans generations and cultures, albeit not always continuously or comfortably. 

I attended the speakers’ day with two companions from the fiber/textile arts community. We  encountered a diverse group with a shared interest in developing community and finding ways for fiber art to assert its relevance into the twenty-first century. Nearly a dozen artists spoke about their work to an enthusiastic audience, reflecting both on the craft legacies they had inherited and on their individual efforts to innovate and bring their practices forward aesthetically and conceptually. This tension between respect for the past and anticipation of the future provoked much open-ended and considerate discussion regarding the complex relationships between art, craft, identity, sustainability, and pedagogy that proved the Symposium’s success in forging connections and inspiring critical engagement within the fiber arts community.