Vanport Mosaic

Reckoning, and walking, with Portland’s past

In the 1960s Kent Ford helped found the city's Black Panther Party. Now he leads walking tours of the Albina District, linking past and future.

“I can’t tell you where we are going,” Mr. Kent Ford proclaimed while walking down the streets of North Portland’s Albina District followed by an attentive tour group, “but I can tell you where we’ve been.” 

Mr. Ford, 77, moved into Portland’s Albina District in 1961, when it was the heart of Portland’s Black community. In the ’60s he was a founder of the city’s Black Panther Party. Now he serves as a link between Black Portland’s past, present, and future, keeping alive what’s happened and teaching new generations through his walking tours.

We don’t always get the chance to engage history in the more intimate sense. More often than not we go about acknowledging history’s constant knocking on our front doors by sitting in a classroom or reading books and news stories. 

Mr. Kent Ford, bringing the history home. Photo: Brandon Chadney

Sometimes, though, we are lucky enough to experience history in the more intimate way— to not just acknowledge it, but also to open our doors and invite it into our home. When we invite history in, often by visiting hallowed grounds or listening to someone share stories about surviving a historic time, we invite an emotional connection with the past, not just an intellectual one. 

Continues…

Connecting in a time of isolation

ArtsWatch Weekly: As the world turns, will real reality replace virtual reality? Plus: The mountain blows its top – this time, virtually.

EVEN AS OREGON BEGINS TO MOVE CAUTIOUSLY TOWARD REOPENING its social and commercial activities – today Gov. Kate Brown announced a loosening of restrictions in 28 of the state’s 36 counties, though not in the greater Portland metropolitan area – the new reality of social isolation remains with us. This holds true in the cultural world in particular: The reopening of theaters, concert halls, museums, and cultural centers is likely months in the future, and for many people the experience of the past two months has prompted a rethinking about the importance of art and what, in fact, “art” means.

In the Pacific Northwest in particular, art has long had a deeply rooted connection with the land itself, from the days of Indigenous stone paintings and carvings to the place-inspired work of contemporary artists and, presumably, the work of future artists grappling with the stark realities of environmental crisis and climate change. You can feel it even in the work of Oregon giants of abstract art, such as Lucinda Parker and the late Carl Morris and Mark Rothko, all of whose paintings are intellectual yet also deeply, unashamedly physical. At a time when the long lockdown and the world’s resulting switch to virtual reality have people yearning for a reconnection with real reality, the region’s stubborn insistence on connecting to the land seems suddenly to put it ahead of the game.
 

Aleksandra Apocalisse, “Grow” (2015). 11 x 14 inches. Watercolor and pen on paper. Image courtesy of the artist. 

Oregonians also have long been open to the idea of outsiderism, in a positive sense: Where you come from or who you trained with seem less important than what you do. And in a time of deep economic and structural insecurity the rigors of the academic and deep-pocket Wall Street pipelines don’t dominate the region’s artistic hierarchy the way they do in more heavily populated art centers. Here, if you Just Do It, as one local corporate juggernaut likes to put it, you stand a fair chance of being seen.

In Oregon, an artist might arrive from anywhere. That’s the case, for instance, with Aleksandra Apocalisse, who, as Shannon M. Lieberman writes for ArtsWatch in Celebrating connection in many forms, “started painting on a whim when she was 21.” Apocalisse’s interests, Lieberman continues, were both broad and focused: “After a series of unusual jobs, including farming, teaching children circus arts, and a stint as a camp science instructor, Apocalisse reached a turning point while interviewing for graduate programs in neuroscience. Unable to stop thinking about how she would balance the demands of graduate work with her desire to make art, Apocalisse realized that her hobby had become her passion–but could she turn it into a career?”

Yes, she could – and her route was not art school but the deeply populist, and popular, Portland Saturday Market, a grand communal gathering of all sorts of people with all sorts of interests. It was connecting at street level, taking art to the people in a way similar to the WPA art projects of the 1930s, except on an individual basis, not government-run. “It has been a good fit for Apocalisse, who thrives on talking to people,” Lieberman writes. “… In her explorations of connection, Aleksandra Apocalisse’s work does not call for change per se. Yet it powerfully implies that we all have tremendous power to forge the kinds of connections we want to see in the world.  Maybe we’re already making them. And if not, what are we waiting for?”

Bruce Conkle, “Quarantine,” 2020. Image courtesy of the artist.

More established Oregon artists are taking a turn in their work during the shutdown, too. As Martha Daghlian writes in Artist Bruce Conkle: Isolation as meditation time, Conkle has been doing a series of drawings inspired by the great turn of events taking place beneath our noses – or at least by the headlines and news feeds of a world turned upside down. At the same time, Conkle says, in a strange way the shutdown fits right in: “Artists in general thrive having a lot of time alone, to be inside their own head, so I think in a way we are getting through this house arrest a lot easier than people who constantly need external stimuli. The creative mental state is a type of meditation—one loses track of time, of place, and of self. I draw mandalas as meditations on a certain subject. After a few minutes (of drawing) you become unaware of the subject itself.”


WATCHING MOUNT ST. HELENS BLOW HER TOP


Lucinda Parker, “Magma opus,” July 1980. Mixed media on paper. Collection of Stephen McCarthy, L2019.69.1. Image courtesy Portland Art Museum

SPEAKING OF PHYSICAL REALITIES: Monday, May 18, will be the fortieth anniversary of the big blow that shook the Pacific Northwest to its foundations and sent clouds of ash from the Mount St. Helens eruption scurrying around the globe. And Volcano! Mount St. Helens in Art, the sprawling exhibition at the Portland Art Museum that opened with a bang in February and was packing ’em in until the museum’s forced shutdown in March, was scheduled to close on Sunday the 17th. The museum, of course, is already closed for an undetermined time. But you still stand a decent chance of seeing Volcano! in the flesh. “After much work with cooperative lenders, we can now confirm that we expect Volcano! to reopen when the museum does (whenever that may be),” museum spokesman Ian Gillingham said in an email exchange on Tuesday. “We expect it to run through sometime in January.”

Now you can get about as good a virtual experience of the exhibition as is possible. The museum staff has assembled and made available online a virtual tour of the exhibition, beginning in prehistory and continuing through early European American paintings, images of the explosion itself, and paintings and photographs from the aftermath. There are even a few examples of ceramics made of Mount St. Helens ash, which for several years formed the basis of a vibrant souvenir cottage industry.

This week’s edition of Willamette Week features a very good, lavishly illustrated guide to the exhibition, We Brought a Piece of Mount St. Helens to You, that’s well worth your time.

And at 3:30 p.m. Sunday – the day before the anniversary – museum curator Dawson Carr, who brought the exhibit to fruition, will host an online event, Mount St. Helens: A Landscape Across Time, with several guests discussing aspects of the show: Seattle artist Barbara Noah, whose excellent painting Tag III is featured in the exhibit; Nathan Roberts, an ecologist and interim director of cultural resources for the Cowlitz Indian Tribe; and director Ray Yurkewycz and science education manager Sonja Melander of the Mount St. Helens Institute.

Barbara Noah, “Tag III,” 1981. Oil on photolinen. Collection of the artist, Seattle, ©1981 Barbara Noah, for changes and additions to a Mount St. Helens image courtesy of USGS, L2019.93.1.


IN TOUCH: KEEPING A LINE ON WHAT’S ONLINE


Elizabeth Woody, part of May 20’s “Who Gets To Be an American?” online conversation in the Vanport Mosaic 2020 Virtual Festival. Photo courtesy Oregon Cultural Trust

IF YOU HAVE A KEYBOARD AND A CONNECTION (and if you’re reading this, you do) the world’s at your fingertips. All right, not the real world: These days it’s prety much all virtual, all the time. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of good stuff to plug into. Here’s just a sampler:

VANPORT MOSAIC 2020 VIRTUAL FESTIVAL. We wrote about this vigorous and positively provocative festival in last week’s ArtsWatch Weekly, and the online attractions just keep coming through May 30, the 72nd anniversary of the Memorial Day flood in 1948 that wiped the city of Vanport off the map, killing 15 people and leaving 17,500 homeless. Among the upcoming attractions (check the full schedule in the link above): taiko artist Michelle Fujii in conversation with Douglas Detrick on “the constant state of otherness,” Friday, May 15; a conversation with Sankar Raman of The Immigrant Story and writer Ramiza Koya about “becoming American,” Sunday, May 17; a Confluence Conversation among Patricia Whitefoot (Yakama Nation), former Oregon poet laureate Elizabeth Woody (Warm Springs) and Chuck Sams (Umatilla) about “who gets to be an American,” Wednesday, May 20.

THE TURN OF THE SCREW. The Beaverton-based Experience Theatre Project is offering an encore performance of its live-screened production of Jeffrey Hatcher’s two-actor adaptation of Henry James’s classic ghost story on Friday, May 16. The original screening on May 1 played to a stay-at-home audience of 7,000. You need to register to get your virtual seat; click on the link above.

BROADWAY ROSE AT HOME. The Tigard theater company, which is the metro area’s most prominent home for musical theater, is going virtual with its new series Midday Cabaret, at 1 p.m. every Wednesday. It’s just what it sounds like: livestreamed cabaret shows, hosted by Broadway Rose’s Dan Murphy and featuring stars from past company shows. Right now, performances by David Saffert and Benjamin Tissell are available, with more on the way.

MOMENTARY JOYS, WITH HENK PANDER AND BRUCE GUENTHER. Two lions of the Oregon art world – painter Pander and curator Guenther – talk in a webinar sponsored by the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education about how, in the museum’s words, “bad times can produce great art. Dadaism grew from the tragedy of the First World War; the Depression sparked a social realist movement and Jews created art in ghettos, concentration camps, and in hiding during the Second World War. … Momentary joys, if you will, that help us get through confinement.” Noon Wednesday, May 20, and you need to register: Once again, click on the link above.


ISOLATIONISTS ARE LOOKING FOR A FEW GOOD READS


Alison Dennis is executive director for Sitka Center for Art and Ecology near Otis.
Alison Dennis, executive director of the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, on the Oregon Coast, says in “I am Still here … it still is a time for singing” that she feels both more isolated and more connected than ever.

‘I AM STILL HERE … IT STILL IS A TIME FOR SINGING.’ In the latest in our “Oregon in Shutdown: Voices from the Front” series, Lori Tobias, ArtsWatch’s Oregon Coast columnist, talks with five key coastal arts figures about how the pandemic has changed what they do and think. It’s not all bad news.

MY APPETITES: ON EATING AND COPING MECHANISMS, CHILDHOOD AND SELF-CONTROL, CRITICISM, LOVE, CANCER, AND PANDEMICS. Jerry Saltz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic for New York Magazine who is married to Roberta Smith, art critic for The New York Times (imagine their conversations over coffee), writes a beautiful, searing, and sometimes heartbreaking personal essay about the accumulations of experience and realities we carry with us into the time of plague.

SAFE DISTANCE SOUNDS, PART 2: CHAMBER TERROIR. “With live performances temporarily out of the picture, I’ve been fulfilling my jones for homegrown sounds by listening to recent releases from Oregon-based or -born musicians that caught my ear,” Brett Campbell writes. This compilation, which features ambient and other contemporary sounds (including Kenji Bunch’s fresh score for Eugene Ballet’s The Snow Queen) follows his first Safe Distance Sounds, a roundup of recent Oregon jazz recordings.

INTERVIEW IN A TIME OF SEQUESTRATION. Alone with his camera and his keyboard, photographer and frequent ArtsWatch contributor K.B. Dixon resorts to desperate measures: He interviews himself. His resulting essay in Q&A form (which is illustrated with several of his portraits of Portland arts figures) is both illuminating and amusing. Think the mysteries of shadows, and native soil, and “that much revered Southern snake-charmer, William Faulkner.” 

WHAT SHAKESPEARE ACTUALLY DID DURING THE PLAGUE. Daniel Pollack-Pelzner, who teaches at Linfield College and is an occasional ArtsWatch contributor, manages two difficult tasks with aplomb in this short humor piece for The New Yorker: He makes light of Shakespeare and of the Plague Times that Shakespeare lived through, and makes us laugh at both. “Day 13: You’ve been wearing the same doublet and hose for two weeks.” 

OZZIE GONZÁLEZ: STAGING A RACE. The theaters have shut down for the duration. But Portland actor González has moved onto a much bigger stage, as a serious candidate to become mayor of Portland. Bobby Bermea talks with him about why he’s running, what his goals for the city are, and how the world of theater and the arts is good preparation for politics.

MUSEUM CURATOR GRACE KOOK-ANDERSON: FIGURING IT OUT. Martha Daghlian talks with the Portland Art Museum’s curator of Northwest art about working from home, the economic impact of the pandemic, and how things are changing: “There’s a huge emphasis on the extreme local right now that I think is really interesting. … The DIY culture that is celebrated here is evident in many art spaces, and I see that reflected in the ways they are adapting to this situation.”


QUOTABLE (THE NEW BROADWAY VERSION)


Corey Brunish, the Broadway and Portland theater producer who we wrote about last week, was challenged online a few days ago to develop some ideas for updated musicals to fit our shutdown times. He came up with a few:


The Pajama Game All Day Long
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to 2021 
Into the Woods for a Walk
Bye Bye Income
Annie Get Your Face Mask
How To Succeed in Business by Washing Your Hands
HAIRcut

– Your turn. Create a Broadway Quotable of your own!


Continues…

A flood of memory, a mosaic of the future

ArtsWatch Weekly: The Vanport Mosaic Festival goes virtual, bringing the legacy of the great flood of 1948 into contemporary Portland

ON MEMORIAL DAY IN 1948 A RAILROAD BERM BURST in the lowlands just south of the Columbia River and north of Portland, sending a swiftly moving wall of water over the edge and inundating the city of Vanport, killing 15 people, leaving 17,500 homeless, and essentially wiping the city off the map. Vanport had been hastily constructed six years before to house workers and their families building warships in the Kaiser shipyards of Portland and Vancouver. At its height it had had a population of 40,000, making it the second-biggest city in Oregon at the time. In the decades since, the disaster has been forgotten by many, lost in the march of “progress” (Delta Park and the Portland International Speedway now sit where Vanport once thrived). For others it’s become an almost mythological touchstone, an emblem of what Portland and Oregon had been and what it would become, especially in its attitudes and actions about race. As Brett Campbell put it in his 2015 review of Rich Rubin’s play Cottonwood in the Flood, which debuted at an early Vanport Mosaic Festival and was set in Vanport in the 1940s, the city became, “along with Celilo Falls, Oregon’s Atlantis.” 

Henk Pander, “Vanport,” watercolor, 40 x 60 inches, from his series of large history paintings of the flood and its aftermath. Pander will be part of the Vanport Mosaic virtual festival in an online conversation, “Painting History,” with Chisao Hata and other artists who have depicted Vanport in their work. Image © Henk Pander 

Continues…

Living in a world of upside down

ArtsWatch Weekly: The pandemic is the puzzle. Adaptability is the key. Unlocking the cultural world's path to the future is the challenge.

SUDDENLY EVERYTHING’S TOPSY TURVY, and it’s seeming more and more like a mistake to think that things are going to get back to “normal” even after the health threat has ended, whenever that might happen. In the cultural world, the economic effect of the coronavirus shutdown is going to be hard on everyone and catastrophic for some. And by “everyone” I mean not just arts groups themselves but also the artists and staffers who’ve made their livings working for them, and the funders who keep them going, and the audiences who may understandably be reluctant to flock back to theaters and concert halls and museums as if social distancing were just some crazy blip that’s done and gone. Some groups, even if they do everything “right,” aren’t going to survive.
 
Barry Johnson, ArtsWatch’s executive editor, has started writing a column he calls “Starting Over,” which is about exactly those issues. How do we start over? How do we reinvent? What do we return to, and what do we move beyond? In his most recent “Starting Over,” Masks and democracy, he talks about some of the political failures that have made things worse in the United States than they needed to be, and reports on his conversation with the veteran arts consultant George Thorn, who suggests that the sort of creative, step-by-step problem-solving artists engage in every day might be a model for the society as a whole. In an earlier column, Point to point, Johnson talked with Portland Center Stage at the Armory’s Cynthia Fuhrman about practical adaptability. 

******


Friderike Heuer, “The Strikers,” montage, from her series “Fluchtgedanken,” 2020. In her visual essay “Fluchtgedanken: Thoughts of Escape,” Heuer writes about manipulating images of paintings by the mid-20th century painter George Tooker, and how her adaptation of his work is a response to such disturbing issues of the Covid-19 crisis as the return of eugenics to public discussion and practice: “Took us what, only 75 years to get around to it again? What are expendable lives? The old? The diseased? The incarcerated? The poor?”

******

ADAPTABILITY IS GOING TO BE CRUCIAL, and in a lot of cases, also not sufficient. Because the situation will be different for everyone, which means that while there may be smart overall strategies, they’ll have to be adapted to specific situations. And the ground keeps shifting.

Continues…

Painting Vanport into the picture

The Vanport Mosaic Festival and artist Henk Pander delve deeply into the ripple effects of a 1948 disaster that destroyed an Oregon city

Seventy-one years ago next Thursday, on May 30, 1948, a railroad berm on the Columbia River gave way and the waters swept in, wiping out the city of Vanport in an overwhelming flood, killing at least 15 people and leaving roughly 17,500 homeless. It was an epic disaster, destroying what during its boom years had been Oregon’s second-largest city, built during World War II to house workers in the Portland and Vancouver Kaiser shipyards and their families. And in an almost completely white state, forty percent of its population had been African American.

For the past four years, the Vanport Mosaic Festival has been commemorating the short and fascinating life of the city that was washed away, and its continuing influence on the shaping of Portland. This year’s festival continues through June 5, with events ranging from self-guided walking tours and narrated bus tours of the former Vanport site (it stretches across what’s now Delta Park and other areas) to oral history documentaries about everyday life in Vanport, screenings of documentaries about the murder by white supremacists of Ethiopian immigrant Mulugeta Seraw 30 years ago and the MAX Train killings by a white supremacist two years ago, the performance Gambatte: An American Legacy, and more.

Henk Pander, The Call (Vanport interior before the flood), 2019, watercolor, 40 x 60 inches

And for the second straight year, artist Henk Pander will have a major show at Cerimon House of paintings about the Vanport Flood. Building Memories: Recent Watercolors, which opens Friday and continues through June 2, follows last year’s War Memories, Liberty Ships and the Climate Refugees of Vanport, much of which later traveled to the Newport Visual Arts Center on the Oregon Coast.

Continues…

‘From Maxville to Vanport’: redressing erasure through music

Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble project revives the stories of Oregon towns where African Americans created community in an otherwise unfriendly state

The story of African Americans in Oregon has too often been a tale of erasure. From the frequently unacknowledged racist origins of the state’s long legal exclusion of black immigration, to obliteration of neighborhoods and displacement of communities of color, to stifling of voices of protest, stories of African American Oregonians that don’t fit the dominant culture’s whitewashed utopian image have been suppressed, ignored, or forgotten.

As more Oregonians — and Americans in general — belatedly recognize the stubborn persistence of our legacy of racial injustice, calls for change grow louder. Yet it’s hard to move forward without knowing where you’ve been. And Oregon’s African American history contains stories of inspiration as well as intolerance. “Things have changed, but history is not erased by change,” wrote Zadie Smith, “and the examples of the past still hold out new possibilities for all of us.”

PJCE performing with Kalimah Abioto’s short film ‘Water’ in ‘From Maxville to Vanport.’ Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

From Maxville to Vanport resists Oregon’s racist erasure through music, stories and film. Premiered last spring and returning Thursday to Corvallis and Sunday to Portland, Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble’s production tells the story of two now-vanished Oregon communities with significant African American populations whose legacy still resounds today.

It’s the culmination of an extended collaborative process involving a team of Oregon artists and historical organizations that began with producer Douglas Detrick, executive director of PJCE, and Portland singer Marilyn Keller, a Jazz Society of Oregon Hall of Fame member who became what Detrick called “the face and voice of this project.”

“Having performed old time blues and jazz from the ancestors,” as lead singer in Black Swan Classic Jazz Band, Keller insisted that “it had to be a project that spoke directly to my African American heritage.”

Vanished Towns

Built in 1923, Maxville, a railroad logging town near Wallowa that operated until the early 1930s, included 50 or so African Americans and their families. Vanport, hastily created in 1942 to house workers who came to Portland to build warships, numbered at its peak 40,000 inhabitants, making it Oregon’s second largest city, according to the Vanport Mosaic project. (Read Bobby Bermea’s ArtsWatch feature about the flood and the project.) The city was wiped out in the notorious 1948 Memorial Day flood, drowning or displacing thousands of African American residents.

PJCE performing with video of the Vanport flood.  Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

“Both were places of refuge and opportunity to Oregonians of color, immigrants, African Americans especially, all coming to a state where they were not very welcome otherwise,” Detrick said. “We wanted to explore creatively why these places played outsize roles in the state’s African American history.”

Continues…

Henk Pander brings Vanport to Newport

In his first show in Newport, the celebrated Portland painter reflects not only on the devastating 1948 flood, but also on his childhood, racism and war.

NEWPORT — When celebrated Portland artist Henk Pander opens his show here Friday, July 6, it will mark not only his first exhibit in this coastal town, but also the first time nearly all of the watercolors have been out of his studio.

Times of Our Lives: Selected Watercolors by Henk Pander will run from July 6 through Sept. 2 in the Runyan Gallery at the Newport Visual Arts Center. The show, presented by the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts, will feature large-scale watercolors and works from Pander’s recent series, War Memories, Liberty Ships and the Climate Refugees of Vanport.

“Buildings Are Floating” is among Henk Pander’s large scale watercolors on the theme of the Vanport flood.

Pander said he painted the watercolors for the Vanport Mosaic project, which commemorates the city north of Portland that was wiped out on Memorial Day 1948, when a dike broke, flooding the town in less than an hour and displacing 40,000 people. Many of the residents worked in the shipyards and included African Americans who were not welcome in Portland.

The Vanport watercolors were shown briefly this spring as part of the Vanport Mosaic Festival in Portland, Pander noted, but never in a gallery. His previous work on Vanport felt dated, he said.

Continues…