AS YOU MIGHT HAVE NOTICED, this week’s ArtsWatch Weekly is a day late (although not, I hope, a dollar short). Usually I start plotting out the column at the beginning of the week, try to get a little writing done on Tuesday and Wednesday, then finish it on Thursday. But this Thursday, of course, was Thanksgiving Day, and quite likely just like you, I was otherwise engaged in the kitchen and at the table, and had been for a couple of days beforehand. This may be the strangest year in our collective memory, and for many of us the oddest of Thanksgivings – what seems the core of the holiday, the gathering together, is precisely what we couldn’t do – and yet, despite the pandemic and teetering economy and social unrest and volatile politics, there was thanking to be done.
When I think about the holidays I think partly of the gifts the past has to offer the present and future: not the stultifying or outmoded aspects of tradition, but the liberating ones. What is good? How do we build on it? This sifting and measuring is intimately involved in the constant reshaping of our cultural and artistic lives: What do we appreciate in the past and present, and carry forward with us into the future?
Some artists embody in their work all three tenses, and looking through what’s happening in Portland’s galleries I note with pleasure and thanks that two of them have exhibitions on view. Both exhibits end on Saturday, so time’s running short, but you can also see the works through the links below.
George Johanson, it seems hard to believe, is 92 years old now, and still creating paintings and prints that matter, and that over the decades have played an oversized role in defining visual art on the Upper Left Coast. Born in Seattle and drawn for a few years in the 1950s to New York, he’s been for the most part a Portlander since he was 17 and came to town to attend the Museum Art School (now Pacific Northwest College of Art). In a lifetime of teaching at the art school and making his own art he’s embedded himself deeply in Oregon’s art scene, becoming one of its pillars, and somehow connected all over the place: Almost twenty years ago he published a fascinating book of drawings called Equivalents, which consisted of portraits of eighty Oregon artists, each made during a single hour-long sitting: He was looking less for accuracy of detail, although he’s always had a fine hand, than an impression of personality. His newest show, George Johanson – Rising Waters and Quasi Portraits: New Paintings, closes Saturday at Augen Gallery.
Fay Jones, eight years younger than Johanson, has had a similar impact on Seattle’s art scene, and has been a familiar presence for many decades in Oregon galleries and museums, too. Her paintings are vital, playful, illustrative, almost cartoony yet with surprising emotional depth and a sense of the theatrical: They can contain, at the same time, a sense of lurking danger and an expression of joy. Her newest Portland show, Fay Jones: New Work, ends Saturday at Russo Lee Gallery.
But what’s tradition without the new? It’s the role of the old to pass things down to the young – their knowledge and skills, and eventually control. Art requires discipline and skill, which need to be learned, but art is also a universal human impulse, and new artists will use the art that’s been to create the art that will be. In Storytelling without words, Lori Tobias writes about sitting in on a Zoom artmaking session through the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology with a group of second-graders from Nestucca Valley Elementary School on the Oregon Coast. The project was centered on the Plains cultures practice of “winter counts” – the visual recording of significant events through the year – and the students’ art, Tobias discovered, didn’t shy from the turmoil of the world around them. The creative impulse begins early, and runs deep. Consider the drawing of one student, Maci M., from an area that had been heavily impacted by forest fires, at a time rife with metaphorical fires, too: “I made two worlds,” she said. “Half of the world is on fire; half is the same as the actual world.”
MORE THAN A TRANSACTION: A WAY OF LIFE
THANKSGIVING, ARRIVING AS IT DOES ON THE TAIL END OF AUTUMN and before the sleep of winter, seems a natural time for harvesting and reflecting, and for appreciating the possibilities of ritual and tradition. There’s something universal to the impulse: We are not alone, we are connected, we are better together than apart. In this Year of Isolation, when so many of us are apart, at least physically, the implications seem to intensify. One of my own traditions – a small one, but one I cling to, not as a duty but as a small pleasure – is the making of the cranberry sauce, whichI wrote about a couple of years ago, and in so doing also noted this:
“Traditions, of course, cling to the past, but they can also shapeshift as the world spins forward. I remember first seeing, as an adult, Plymouth Rock, that magical storybook landmark of American childhoods, at least before this century, and discovering both how small the remaining rock is, weathered and winnowed and broken through the centuries, and how it’s fenced in for protection: an apt metaphor, or so it seemed, for the state of what the myth of it’s supposed to mean. I had long learned by then of the narrowness of the Pilgrims’ worldview, and the daunting future for the Wampanoag peoples who had met them and fed them and helped them through their first harsh winter, and of the continent-spanning truths of the matter in Edmund Wilson’s famously necessary Apologies to the Iroquois. And yet, there was – is – thanks. And it is central, or so it seems, to what we loosely call the cultural life, which somehow involves seeking out both the good and the true, however good or bad a truth may be, and then finding the sweet spot in that often uneasy balance. Thankfulness is not so much about a day as it is about a way of living, a way of approaching life’s often harsh and thorny mysteries.”
THE MYSTERY AND GRACE OF GIVING comes forth eloquently in The art of giving, large and small, ArtsWatch Executive Director Laura Grimes’s essay from a year ago. In it she writes, among other things, about the artist Sara Siestreem’s approach to keeping alive the traditions of weaving and the mutual giving and taking that goes into handing things down:
“What does it mean ‘to give’? It’s all about a balance in the universe, but it’s not simply to balance out ‘to get,’ and certainly not ‘to take.’ But what does it mean to give in a sense that achieves an equilibrium? In a lecture in Coos Bay on a sunny afternoon, Sara Siestreem, Hanis Coos, explained how she obtained natural materials to create traditional Native weavings. When she extracted a plant, she left an offering in the soil. … In all its glorious beauty, that act of giving, of giving back, should seem so simple. But it’s much more than that. … It’s about having a conversation. It’s an exchange, if you will, but it’s even more than that. It’s a relationship. A bond. A matter of trust. And so it begins and continues every step of the way. A respectful nod. When Siestreem harvests plants, she talks to them, telling them her plans and all she hopes for them. How important they are. She handles them, imbues them with her energy, and they hold that and give back. It’s an exchange. And she leaves an offering. A salmonberry, perhaps.”
‘CREATING SOMETHING OUT OF NOTHING,’ ABUNDANTLY
TOP 10 THINGS I LEARNED ABOUT CHIP MILLER. Valarie Smith talked for ArtsWatch with Chip Miller, Portland Center Stage at The Armory’s associate artistic director, about what brought him to Portland (it was an invitation from Artistic Director Marissa Wolf, with whom he’d worked in Kansas City), how he caught the theater bug, the challenges of reinventing theater in a time of pandemic (“we are making something new and we are making it very, very fast”), the importance of addressing racism inside and outside of the theater, and more. It’s a free-flowing, wide-ranging interview, and it just so happens to break down into ten talking points.
JOSIE SEID’S LETTER TO AMERICA, WRITTEN IN SAND
THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC HAS THROWN THE PERFORMING ARTS FOR A LOOP, for the most part keeping shows off of stages (there have been a few exceptions, and during the summer a few successful outdoor performances; but it’s late November now and the weather’s changed) and forcing artists either to be idle or to create alternative ways of presenting their craft. For musicians, that’s meant a lot of recordings, some with videos, some not, and some unusual methods of singing or playing together from a distance. For actors and dancers, it’s meant videotaped shows, solo performances online, radio-style dramas, even Zoom theater, taking advantage of the virtual technology of the day.
For the Portland actor and writer Josie Seid, it’s meant entering the future through a doorway from the past. Her short video Forget Me Not America, she writes, “was born of a request by a friend to create something for her Black history program at work when I was 19. Consider that. I was 19 years old when it occurred to me that people of African descent were being left out of the narrative of those who had built this country and changed it for the better.” Seid’s resulting poem, which she’s added to over the years (she calls it “a living poem”), addresses what’s been left out through short sharp allusions to key moments and people: “It is a journey that travels through pain and strength, frustration and hope, as it crafts a map of the African American experience in this country.”
At about six and a half minutes Forget Me Not America is a compelling piece, adding sight and sound and movement to the words. Released through Artists Repertory Theatre, it takes advantage of some top talent: Seid and actor Vin Shambry reciting the poem; Sharath Patel designing the sound; Shawn Lee directing with Seid; and sand artist Katie Bredemeier, with Seid, creating a brilliantly shifting, constantly moving flow of visual images responding to the words. What do artists do? What they need to, as situations change.
Some other virtual performances to watch for:
- THE PORTLAND BALLET’S VIDEO VAULT. For years one of Portland’s more charming Thanksgiving Weekend traditions has been this ballet school’s performances, along with the Portland State University Symphony, at PSU’s Lincoln Performance Hall – often, but not always, of The Enchanted Toyshop, a seasonal story ballet in the Nutcracker vein. This year the live performances are off, but TPB has opened its considerable video vault for free viewings of performances past.
- CHRISTMAS WITH THE CRAWFORDS. Triangle Productions, which a while back did an actual onstage show (the solo play My Buddy Bill), is back in virtual land with this year’s version of the 1940s radio Christmas special from Heck, courtesy of green screen filming-in-isolation. Join Joan Crawford, Hedda Hopper, Ethel Merman, Mae West, Carmen Miranda, Judy Garland, and Gloria Swanson as the claws come out and the tinsel comes tumbling down.
- SHORTCUTS. Portland Playhouse’s apprentice company, which has sprinkled some excellent performers into the city’s theater scene over the years, is in the midst of a series of short videos written, produced and performed by company members. Next up, beginning today, is Pageant Project, by Max Tapogna (who’s also a contributor to ArtsWatch), a comedy about four college seniors, scattered across the country because of the pandemic, trying to complete a final English project before graduating – and the deadline’s only hours away.
DON LATARSKI AND THE ART OF THE WILD
CHANNELING OREGON SOUNDS AND SIGHTS. Don Latarski, Gary Ferrington writes, is “an institution in Oregon music”: a musician who’s worked with Mason Williams, the late blues master Paul deLay, Bobby McFerrin, the Eugene Symphony Orchestra and many others; a recently retired music professor from the University of Oregon who’s written 18 books about guitar techniques; a recording artist whose newest album Wind Water Wing: Nature Voices of Oregon “blends the sounds of Oregon’s birds, frogs, flowing streams, and other environmental sources with the musical drone of his unique wind and water guitars.” For Latarski discovery lies in stripping away the excess sounds of contemporary life and immersing himself in what can be heard when you listen to nature itself. In the past several years he’s expanded his investigation of the natural world into photography, which has led to creating some astonishing visual images, too.
- THE SPIRIT OF RADIO. ArtsWatch’s Matthew Neil Andrews, while trucking out of town, sings the praises of All Classical radio, an Oregon stalwart that serves as a lifeline to music lovers across the state – and, thanks to the internet, around the world. It’s not just the old stuff, but the consistent engagement with Oregon’s music community. Andrews calls All Classical “keepers of the invisible fire,” and praises its commissioning of new works by the likes of Damien Geter and S. Renee Mitchell.
A YEAR, AND A LIFE, IN THE PARK
BRITT BLOCK: PAINTINGS ABOUT PRESENCE. David Bates writes about A year at Grenfell Park, Yamhill County artist Britt Block’s exhibition at the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg. (The center is closed, and may or may not reopen Dec. 3, depending on whether the state extends its current pandemic freeze on public gatherings.) “My initial impulse was to explore the act of painting with pastels in an intensive way over time: making one or more paintings each month for a year,” Bates quotes Block. “In a way, the content began as unimportant to me, except that I knew I wanted to paint what I loved – the landscape.” But over the course of a year – and as she lived through “the terminal diagnosis and hospice journey of my husband of 25 years” – the project became something else: “I discovered that although my medium appeared to be pastel, I was actually expressing through the porous medium of my life.” A Year in Grenfell Park became a visual journal of a very personal journey, written not just in watercolor but also in the centuries-old organizational technique of the grid method, which Leonardo da Vinci used in his paintings.
IN MEMORY OF CHORAL MASTER BRUCE BROWNE
OREGON MUSIC LOVERS, AND ALL OF US AT ARTSWATCH, are saddened to learn that Bruce Browne, a legend in choral-music circles, has died. The Portland choir Resonance Ensemble, with which he collaborated for a 2012 concert, called him “a legend in the choral field,” and it was no exaggeration. Among many other things, Browne directed the Portland Symphonic Choir, founded Choral Cross Ties, co-founded Male Ensemble Northwest, and led the highly regarded choral studies and voice programs at Portland State University. Dr. Browne also wrote detailed, erudite musical reviews for Oregon ArtsWatch, often in collaboration with his wife, Daryl Browne. Just a sampler: Here he is on last year’s William Byrd Festival, on Philip Glass and Franz Kafka in Portland Opera’s In the Penal Colony, and on the Oregon Symphony’s performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 and Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins. Watch ArtsWatch for more on Bruce Browne and his storied career.
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