Seattle Opera Pagliacci

The inauguration & the art of words

ArtsWatch Weekly: A young poet and a steady voice highlight the clarity of ritual and the art of governance.


THE WEEK’S BIG NEWS – ITS DOMINATING NEWS – WAS WEDNESDAY’S INAUGURATION of Joseph R. Biden, Jr., as the nation’s 46th president and Kamala Harris as the first woman and the first person of color to be vice president. In this most extraordinary of elections, in which its clear loser refused until the last moment to accept that he had lost, and in which only two weeks ago a mob urged on by the election’s loser stormed and ransacked the Capitol Building, the simple clarity of a ritual carried out in safety and celebration was cause for national reassurance. The presence in the nation’s capital of 25,000 soldiers at the ready to quell  any further violence – five people died as a result of the domestic-terrorist surge on January 6 – might have had a great deal to do with the peaceful passage of the day. Yet there also was a sense that something had truly turned, that in spite of the fierce differences and enmities that remain in a divided nation, rationality, good intentions, and a commitment to fact would be the new starting points for the national conversation. And the art of words, spoken with purpose and logic and a sense of common possibility, lay somewhere near the foundation of it all.  

Amanda Gorman, the nation’s First Youth Poet Laureate, at Wednesday’s Inauguration ceremony.

THE YOUNG POET AMANDA GORMAN, delivering her inauguration poem The Hill We Climb (full text here), laid out an aspirational vision:

When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
… Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken
but simply unfinished
… We will not march back to what was
but move to what shall be
… We will rebuild, reconcile and recover
and every known nook of our nation and
every corner called our country,
our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid …


“When I am on stage, I feel electric,” Gorman told CBS This Morning. “I feel like I could breathe fire … like I am summoning the energy not only of myself but of my ancestors.” She added: “Poetry is a weapon. It is an instrument of social change … poetry is one of the most political arts out there because it demands that you rupture and destabilize the language in which you’re working …. Inherently, you are pushing against the status quo. And so for me, it’s always existed in that tradition of truth-telling.”

THE POWER OF WORDS, which make up, with music, the foundation of the arts, was on emphatic display at the inauguration ceremony, and the contrast between Biden’s clear plainspokenness and his predecessor’s bellicose and demeaning language couldn’t have been more potent. Abraham Lincoln, with little doubt the greatest literary figure among our presidents, popularized the phrase “the better angels of our nature” in his 1861 inaugural address (Ronald C. White Jr. wrote a fascinating essay about the 1861 speech for National Public Radio in 2011), and Biden, in his own inaugural address, made passing mention of that literary invocation of the good. But most of all the 46th president appealed to calm clean reason: nothing fancy, just words as extensions of himself, and as simple signals of the nation’s problems and its aspirations. 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and fellow Civil Rights leaders, with the iconic “We Shall Overcome” banner.

AND WHAT OF THE MARRIAGE OF MUSIC AND POLITICS? Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez delivered the goods at the inauguration on the traditional patriotic theme songs. But music can, and sometimes does, dig deeper to the core of things, in the ways that Gorman meant when she talked about poetry as an instrument of social change. Robert A. Caro, the brilliant biographer of Robert Moses, who reshaped cities in his own image, and of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who in many ways reshaped the United States of America, is in the midst of the fifth and final volume of his series of LBJ books, which have taken up almost a half-century of his life. The final volume of his LBJ biographies, which like his Moses book The Power Broker are really about the nature of political power in America, takes up LBJ’s years in the White House in the 1960s and his legacy, which is as sharply divided as the nation itself is now: on the one hand, LBJ the political force behind the passage of landmark civil rights and voting rights legislation and the architect of the Great Society, his massive extension of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms; on the other, the president who escalated the nation’s push into the moral and tactical disaster of the Vietnam War. 

In his brief and highly readable recent book Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing, Caro writes about the importance for historians of using literary devices to shape their stories. He also, in the chapter Two Songs, writes about the importance of music as a goad and rallying point in a decade that redefined America at least as much as the Trump years did. The first of two key songs that in Caro’s view reflected and influenced the great social movements of the time is the quasi-hymn We Shall Overcome, which became the anthem of the civil rights movement. The second, a thinly veiled metaphor of LBJ & Company leading the nation into disaster in Vietnam despite all of the evidence crying out to just turn back, is Waist Deep in the Big Muddy. Sometimes power arrives in sixteen bars and just the right lyrics.


Pius Cheng of Eugene is one of 646 Oregon artists receiving between $1,000 and $5,000 each in artist relief grants through the Oregon Arts Commission.  

 ONE OF THE HIGHLIGHTS OF INAUGURATION DAY was the new president’s blunt appraisal of the pandemic crisis, which has been consistently downplayed by the federal government for the past year, and his vow to face it head-on. Among its many other costs, the virus has had a disastrous economic effect on art and artists and cultural institutions. Along those lines, a few fresh stories:


Seattle Opera Pagliacci

WHAT A BIDEN PRESIDENCY MEANS FOR THE ARTS. At Forbes, Jonathan Wolff declares that “the arts have been devastated” by the pandemic but holds out hope that the Biden administration is much more attuned to the economic and cultural benefits of the arts than the previous administration, and will be much more friendly toward arts funding, including aid for individual artists who’ve lost their livelihoods.

IN OREGON, ECONOMIC AID FOR 646 ARTISTS. Artists, like many other workers, have taken severe economic hits in the past year. For some, partial help is on the way: 646 Oregon artists across disciplines have been awarded a combined $1.25 million in relief grants to help cover their losses. The relief fund was created by the Oregon Arts Commission in partnership with Oregon Community Foundation and the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation. In all, 1,158 eligible applications reporting more than $18 million in revenue loss were received. See the complete county-by-county list of awardees here.

ACT LIKE IT’S THE DEPRESSION AGAIN. Joshua Kosman, the San Francisco Chronicle’s music critic, argues that the arts in the United States, which are reeling from coronavirus shutdowns, are part of the nation’s critical infrastructure and should get a Works Progress Administration-style federal boost: “Today, as during the Depression, government support for the arts is a must.”

NEW HOUSING & THEATER FOR ALBERTA DISTRICT. Bike Portland’s Jonathan Maus reported Wednesday that Albina Vision Trust “has taken a major step toward the dream of restoring a historic Portland neighborhood,” partnering with developers Edlen & Company to build affordable housing and a theater in the Lower Albina District, once the center of a thriving Black neighborhood. The theater would serve as an anchor and “recognition of both the cultural history of the district and of our aspirations for its future as a district truly for the people,” AVT Executive Director Winta Yohannes said.

CONCERT FOR “A NEW OREGON.” In a pinch, artists come together to help. Today – at 6 p.m. Pacific time, Thursday, Jan. 21 – performers including Brutis “Bigg B” Biaz, Calina Lawrence, Kunu Bearchum, Tahirah Memory, Neo Vecci (of Rebel Wise), Thunderstorm Artis, Yowan-Swickt, and Louie Pitt Jr., plus speakers including Sen. Jeff Merkley, Jamie McLeod Skinner, Carina Miller, James Parker, Akasha Lawrence Spence, Pat O’Haran, Oregon state Rep. Tawna Sanchez, O’Nesha Cochran-Dumas and The Decemberists will present a virtual concert/event to support the Black Resilience Fund and the Chúush Fund, which helps alleviate the clean-water crisis on the Warm Springs Reservation. Click the link above for ticket details.


Composer Michael Harrison at the keyboard. 

“ONE DAY IN THE EARLY 1980s,” Brett Campbell writes, “Michael Harrison noticed that his piano sounded out of tune. There was nothing wrong with the instrument, the University of Oregon music student soon realized. It was his ears that had changed. That realization set Harrison on a 30-year path that would lead him to become one of the most respected composers of his generation—lauded not just by major critics, who admire his innovations in tuning, but also by everyday listeners enchanted by his music’s ravishing beauty.” So begins a fascinating tale that starts in Eugene, where Harrison and his family moved when he was 6, and continues, most recently, with a new album of his music performed by the innovative vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth. 


Seattle Opera Pagliacci


“Preparing” (October 2019) captures cleaning steel barrels used for temporary storage of wine or short fermentations. Photo: Adrian Chitty

PHOTOGRAPHING THE CRAFT AND GRIT OF WINEMAKING. “A couple of years ago,” David Bates writes, “A to Z Wineworks received an email from someone named Adrian Chitty, who was having a ‘family adventure’ in Bali and wanted to talk about embedding himself in the Newberg-based winery as part of an artistic residency. The proposal, according to Deb Hatcher, one of the winery’s four founders, ‘seemed incredibly suspicious.'” Turns out, it was on the up and up – and Chitty spent the past two years at the Newberg winery, “working various jobs and shooting thousands of photographs depicting every stage of the winemaking process,” even through wildfires and the pandemic. Now a portfolio of almost three dozen of Chitty’s winery photographs is on view through Feb. 28 at Newberg’s Chehalem Cultural Center. 

In describing “Treading” (October 2019), Chitty writes, “The hands gripping the rim show that this is precarious work, and the submerged feet among the grapes tell us what is going on. It is an intimate portrait of small-batch winemaking.”


Phil #5, 2021. Photo: K.B. Dixon

THINGS THAT GO BUMP IN THE LIGHT. Pseudoscience and other far-fetched beliefs have been having a field day in America over the past few years, and Portland writer and photographer K.B. Dixon understands. He introduces us to the many sides of Phil, a fellow who’s been hanging around his office for some time now, quietly embodying a crackpot theory of the mind. “He is, for all his insinuations to the contrary, an inanimate object,” Dixon explains. “A phrenological head made of stone and resin, he is one of those iffy bits of bric-a-bracery that occasionally make it into my office and stay. He is both a piece of comic commentary on pseudoscience and the symbolic embodiment of a portrait photographer’s dream—a subject whose character is literally written on his face.”


Arinze Kene and Rachel Brosnahan star in “I’m Your Woman.” Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios 

STREAMERS: CINEMATIC PLEASURES FOR YOUR ENJOYMENT. All this home time, and a million things available to watch on our screens. Which to pick? What to do? In his newest Streamers column, ArtsWatch’s Marc Mohan suggests a few likely candidates, from a couple of good films with “Woman” in their titles to a look back on a disaster with Peter Sellers, a documentary on race and oppression and the life of writer Frantz Fanon, and an under-appreciated Joan Crawford classic from 1952.



CMNW Summer Festival SB FIXED #1, TP, Top

Katia Kyte, “Salmon Roses and Lilies”, oil, 12″ by 12″, at the Newport Visual Arts Center.

FLOWER POWER. What is so rare as a day in June? How about a day in January surrounded by flowers? Somehow it seems the season calls for a little celebration of beauty, even unseasonally. Lincoln County artists Victoria Biedron and Katia Kyte, who share “a great pleasure in the subject of flowers,” talk with ArtsWatch’s Lori Tobias about their exhibition Flower Girls, at the Newport Visual Arts Center on the Oregon Coast. Originally set to open on Jan. 16, because of Covid restrictions its opening has been set back tentatively to this Saturday, the 23rd, and it’s scheduled to stay through March 20. In the meantime, several of their paintings are available to see online. Why flowers, Tobias asks Biedron? “They’re joyful, beautiful, fragrant; they’ll brighten any day or studio. You can always paint flowers. Even in the winter, you can get them at the grocery store.” 

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."


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