A dance critic walks into an art show. A man and his dog travel the byroads of America. A pop song sinks into a writer’s soul. A jazz pianist walks into the wilderness. A play about a baby strikes a theater reviewer close to home. On the southern Oregon coast, artists make huge sculptures from the detritus that chokes the sea.
We run a lot of stories on a lot of subjects at Oregon ArtsWatch – more than 500 in 2017 alone – and a few stand out simply as stories that want to be told. Put together a good writer and a good subject and chances are you’ll get a memorable tale. Here are a dozen such stories from 2017.
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A look back at a dozen stories from 2017 you won’t want to miss:
We’re all mad here … so let’s party
Jan. 31: “What do you do with your existential frustration? If you boil it down into its purest form, you get either despair or rage—which then has to be dealt with. But if you chill it out and mix in some humor, you end up with absurdity. And that can be played with! O Frabjous Day!” A.L. Adams got down in the existential trenches with Shaking the Tree’s We’re All Mad Here, a piece performed and largely conceived by Matthew Kerrigan in homage to the great absurdist Lewis Carroll. “Any drug-addled dodo could dream up a different world, but that wasn’t the crux of Carroll’s vision. Like his forebears Aesop and Chaucer and Jonathan ‘Gulliver’ Swift, Carroll was a satirist as well as a fabulist.”
Rodin and the shape of dance
Feb. 19: “There are many ways to look at art, all kinds of art, depending on your experience, your history, your knowledge, your point of view and your passions. Personally, and professionally, I am always interested in the links between dance and visual art, which are many and varied and not always obvious.” Dance critic Martha Ullman West took a tour through the Portland Art Museum’s exhibition Rodin: The Human Experience with dancer Gregg Bielemeier, who danced around some of the sculptures, and museum docent/former dancer Carol Shults, who knew the pieces inside out. It was an exhilarating foray into the ways that the artistic impulse leaps across disciplines.
A Road Dog barks his tale
Feb. 21: Portland’s “Angry Filmmaker,” Kelley Baker, and his chocolate lab Moses took to the road Travels With Charlie-style, doing workshops, meeting with students and fellow filmmakers, and getting to know America from the byroads. Then, as Bob Hicks wrote, Baker wrote a book about it: “Road Dog covers several national tours that Baker and Moses undertook, usually twice a year, from North to South to East to West in a tripped-up minivan. It covers, usually, hundreds of miles a day, broken up by ‘incidents’ with Texas and Idaho and Iowa state troopers and snooty film professors who’ve never made a film. It drops in on nights of drinking and swapping stories with lawyers from the Southern Poverty Law Center beside Hank Williams’ grave, and meetings with friendly bikers and pickup drivers and helpful long-haul truckers. It is dotted with Motel 6es and Walmart parking lots (‘a series of campgrounds with stores attached that stretch across the United States’) and adventures with a giant Jesus in the Ozarks and an antiseptic Prayer Tower in Tulsa.”
James Baldwin: Fighting white supremacy
Feb. 25: “James Baldwin’s great project, as I might derive it from Raoul Peck’s documentary I Am Not Your Negro, was to try to understand the African American experience,” Barry Johnson wrote when Peck’s documentary film came out. “That involved some specific questions: why the catastrophe of slavery fell on black people in America; what it did to them psychologically; how the culture of white supremacy that it bred continues to oppress them; how they might cope constructively with this history and this present, and how things might change.” Going beyond the film, Johnson found a keen historical and economic backbone to the great writer’s analyses: “White supremacy was part of the bargain the masters of capitalism made with poor whites: stick with us and we’ll guarantee that you will at least be positioned above black people. Capitalism doesn’t keep its promises, of course, and to be poor and white is no picnic, but by now the culture of white supremacy infects every corner of the larger American culture, and its proponents occupy important places in the Trump administration. It’s an insane proposition, but more important, it has made white people ‘moral monsters,’ in Baldwin’s words, and made the lives of black people something resembling ‘hell,’ in (W.E.B.) Du Bois’s.”
Beyond the Sea, awash in La Mer
March 17: “Bobby Darin’s album That’s All was released in 1959 when I was five years old,” Stephen Rutledge wrote in a remarkable personal essay. “After the Original Broadway Cast album of My Fair Lady, it was my favorite LP during my pre-Beatles grade school years. That’s All opens with Darin’s famous version of ‘Mack The Knife.’ But the second track always stopped me dead and filled me with a wistfulness that I could barely grasp as a kid. That song was titled ‘Beyond The Sea,’ and although it was a swingin’ tune, it somehow broke my young heart, which was a brand new sensation. It frightened me as well. I loved it.” The song – in both Darin’s rendition and its original French version, Charles Trenet’s ‘La Mer’, has stuck with him through thick and thin, in good times and very bad, even death-defying ones: A song can have powers almost impossible to comprehend.
The Contact Zone: Galeria Taller in Matanzas, Cuba
March 6: “In March of 2016, President Obama lifted restrictions on travel to Cuba by individuals for ‘people to people’ educational trips,” Samuel Eisen-Myers wrote. “I quickly started planning a way to take advantage of this sudden crack in the wall separating us from the island and its people. … After a week in Havana, my path finally emerged from a series of chance encounters with Cuban artists and their friends—I was going to Galeria Taller, an artists workshop in Matanzas, a city of around 150,000 on the north coast of the island, less than 60 miles from Havana.” What he found there was a thriving, open community, making art and greeting people in its own fascinating ways.
What’s jazz got to do with it?
April 10: Lynn Darroch went into the woods with Portland pianist Darrell Grant as Grant and friends performed amid the trees in the Elliott State Forest on the southern Oregon coast – 82,500 acres of protected land that the State Land Board, tasked with raising money from it for Oregon schools, was set to sell off. Darroch wrote: “Grant wanted to find out if art can influence that decision.” He had other reasons, too, as he told Darroch: “As a person of color … I want the Land Board to know that this is my forest too … as much my legacy to future generations of Oregonians as anyone’s. And, as much as Oregon’s underserved children deserve a quality education, they also deserve to retain their rights to their forests.” Did the concert make a difference? Jazz or no jazz, the land-sale plan hit a snag, and what had seemed a done deal unraveled: In July, state legislators voted to block the sale.
Lou Harrison at 100
May 13: A hundred years ago in May, ArtsWatch’s Brett Campbell wrote, “one of America’s greatest and most influential composers was born in Portland.” Then Campbell, co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick, explained what made Harrison great, from his early marriage of Western classical and Asian musical forms to his politically and environmentally charged compositions, and how his native city was celebrating his centenary: “Harrison’s percussion concerts with John Cage in 1930s San Francisco shook up the American classical music establishment, heralding the arrival of the West Coast avant-garde and introducing percussion music to the classical repertoire, even presaging the advent of DIY rock music; unlike classical ensembles then, they formed their own bands, made their own instruments, played their own music.”
Sam Shepard’s Magic Time
Aug. 3: “Motorcycles would vroom into the massive parking lot at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco, a former Army facility being transformed into an arts complex,” Misha Berson wrote. “And if I looked out of the right window from my warehouse office, I’d see Sam Shepard roaring into the parking lot alongside John Lion, the artistic head of the Magic Theatre.” It was the late 1970s, and “Sam was so cool he could’ve been an extra from the iconic hipster film Easy Rider.” But he was in the process of becoming perhaps the crucial American playwright of his generation, and Berson was there to see it happen. After Shepard died at age 73 on July 27, Berson remembered, and wrote.
Lungs: She’s having a baby
Aug. 8: “Saturday night we’re driving over the Fremont Bridge, wedged into the tensing shoulder-to-shoulder traffic that is now everyday for Portlanders,” Christa McIntyre wrote. “We’ve left an hour before showtime, and it’s just enough. I get a sinking feeling in my gut as we puzzle through the chaos of cars. We can’t see the West Hills, and on the right a large plume of smoke gathers and pipes into the atmosphere from the direction of St. Johns. Another fire bellows on the Willamette River Superfund site. The river has skim paths between the liquid and the pollution top. It’s like the puddles you jumped in with your Wellies as a kid, marveling at the rainbow hues dancing between the breaks you make, not knowing the colorful patterns come from car oil.” McIntyre and her partner were heading for CoHo Theatre to see Lungs, Duncan Macmillan’s play about the anxieties of a couple facing the prospect of parenthood at a not-so-young age. McIntyre could relate. As things turned out, this one was personal.
The Washed Ashore Project: Saving the seas with art
Sept. 3: “Last month, as my wife and I entered Oregon on a cross-country journey, we wandered into what initially looked to be an unassuming art gallery in a little southern Oregon coast town,” David Goldstein wrote. “Huge sculptures filled the space. We looked at them closely — and suddenly realized that each was made from thousands of pieces of trash. We had stumbled upon the Washed Ashore Project gallery in Old Town Bandon-by-the-Sea.” Bandon artist Angela Haseltine Pozzi, he learned, had assembled an ambitious project to take plastics and other detritus that were choking the ocean and turn them into community art. “More than half the world’s sea turtles have eaten plastic, and partly as a result, almost all of their species are threatened or endangered,” Goldstein wrote. “Other sea animals become ensnared in discarded fishing line, six-pack can holders, and other debris — more than 300 billion pounds of it, clogging Earth’s oceans and killing its creatures.” Washed Ashore is one small way to draw attention to that vital fact.
Perry Johnson’s shining light
Nov. 16: “Eugene artist Perry Johnson has a gift,” Rachael Carnes wrote. “His work is inquisitive and multidimensional, at once rooted in a folk art tradition while branching out towards something more visceral and visionary. Employing color, shape and text, Johnson’s pieces are composed, developed and hauntingly autobiographical. When I first meet Johnson, he’s in the art studio at the Oregon Supported Living Program’s Arts and Culture Program, an old brick building on Lincoln Street by the train tracks where Johnson accesses free art classes every day the studio’s open. He’s working on a drawing of a photo from a magazine, of a snake wrapped around a man’s neck. ‘Python,’ Johnson tells me, pointing to the animal.” Carnes spun the fascinating tale of an outsider artist who overcame steep odds and now has his work on view at the Portland Art Museum.