Blake Shell

Profiles & Conversations 2017

From poets to painters to dancers to actors to musicians, 21 tales from ArtsWatch on the people who make the art and why they do it

Art is a whole lot of things, but at its core it’s about people, and how they see life, and how they make a life, and how they get along or struggle with the mysteries of existence. That includes, of course, the artists themselves, whose stories and skills are central to the premise. In 2017 ArtsWatch’s writers have sat down with a lot of artists – painters, actors, dancers and choreographers, poets, music-makers – and listened as they spun out their tales.

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Here are 21 stories from 2017 about Oregon artists and artists who’ve come here to do their work:



Erik Skinner. Photo: Michael Shay

Eric Skinner’s happy landing

Jan. 18: “On the afternoon that Snowpocalypse struck Portland, Eric Skinner walked into the lobby at BodyVox Dance Center after a morning in the studio and settled easily onto one of the long couches in the corner. As always he looked trim and taut: small but strong and tough, with a body fat index down somewhere around absolute zero. If anyone looks like a dancer, Skinner does. Even in repose he seems all about movement: you get the sense he might spring up suddenly like a Jumping Jack on those long lean muscles and bounce somewhere, anywhere, just for the sake of bouncing.” In January, after 30 years on Portland stages, Skinner was getting ready to retire from BodyVox – but not from dance, he told Bob Hicks.



Les Watanabe in ‘Sojourn’ by Donald McKayle, Inner City Repertory Company. Photographed by Martha Swope in New York. 1972. Photo courtesy of Les Watanabe

Les Watanabe on Alvin Ailey, Lar Lubovich, Donald McKayle and his life in dance

Jan. 20: In a wide-ranging Q&A interview, Jamuna Chiarini hears a lot of modern-dance history from Watanabe, who was in the thick of it and now teaches at Western Oregon University:

“During Alvin Ailey’s CBS rehearsals, Lar Lubovitch was teaching in the next studio. I ran into him at the drinking fountain. While living in L.A., I had read articles about him in Dance Magazine. So while he was stooped over drinking, I exclaimed, ‘Lar Lubovitch! I’ve read all about you!’

“At that point he stood up facing me wiping his mouth and looking incredulous like, ‘Who is this guy?’ I then asked, ‘Do you ever have auditions? I would love to dance with you.’

“’Are you dancing now?’ he asked.

“’Yes, with Alvin Ailey next door, but it is only for five weeks.’

“’Where do you take class?’ Lar asked. ‘At Maggie Black’s,’ I answered. ‘Good. Let’s meet at her first class. Then you can rush back to rehearsal. See you next week.’”


Blake Shell arrived in Portland about nine years ago. Her background included an M.F.A. in Photography from Savannah College of Art and Design and work as gallery curator/director at the University of Arizona. She soon became director of the Archer Gallery at Clark College (2009-2012) and then succeeded founding director Terri Hopkins at The Art Gym in 2013. She is now the new Executive Director at Disjecta (, one of the most adventurous art spaces in Portland.

This conversation occurred in April 12, on her second day at Disjecta.

You are the Executive Director. What do you see as your job, and what do you have other people doing?

I’ll be overseeing the team and all aspects of the organization. I’m really in a place of thinking about strategic moves forward, the growth of the organization and working with the board to increase fundraising that can increase programming support for artists and all the things I’ve been interested in—as well as just making sure that things are happening in a strong way. There’s a great staff here already.

“Oh Time Your Gilded Pages,” Disjecta, curated by curator-in-residence Michele Fiedler, artists Adriana Minoliti and Bobbi Woods/Photos by Mario Gallucci

The organization already has awesome programming. It already has things like the Curator-in-Residence program, which is really interesting—bringing a curator in to create an entire season of programs every year. We are currently in the sixth season of bringing in different curatorial voices from outside of the region to interact with artists and the arts community. The seventh season will start in the fall.

To bring programming here and to share information out to other areas about what’s happening here is a really important thing for any arts community, but particularly at this point in Portland’s history. Portland and Oregon artists are engaged in a national and international way.


Considering the Art Gym’s abstractions

At Marylhurst, curator Blake Shell has gathered 10 artists who work in the abstract for a colorful group show

One of the dominant art doctrines during the Renaissance argued that art was “an allegory of the mind of God,” an imitation of a hidden reality, a form of revelation. Culture critic and historian Raymond Williams teased out this one (along with three other aesthetic philosophies) in “The Long Revolution,” and it seems especially pertinent to abstract art, some of which has a specific spiritual connection, after all, as early abstractionist Wassily Kandinsky made clear.

Approaching the ten artists and 32 artworks in the Marylhurst Art Gym’s “and from the distance one might never imagine that it is alive” with the idea of the hidden made visible in mind leads to some happily perplexing moments.

'and from this distance one might never imagine that it is alive,' (left to right) Grant Hottle, Ron Graff, and Amy Bernstein, 2015. Courtesy of The Art Gym. Amy Bernstein's "Flesh of My Flesh" is at the far right.

‘and from this distance one might never imagine that it is alive,’ (left to right) Grant Hottle, Ron Graff, and Amy Bernstein, 2015. Courtesy of The Art Gym. Amy Bernstein’s “Flesh of My Flesh” is at the far right.

For example, Amy Bernstein’s “Flesh of My Flesh” gathers a set of small splashes, ribbons, and shapes of thick oil paint on a gleaming white canvas. How should we interpret those individual gestures and the painting as a whole? What hidden reality does it reveal? Something about the nature of pure paint, its elements, perhaps, the attraction of color—bright blue, red, purple striated with white—deployed in various small splotches? Or the mind of the painter who deployed them in just this way, which seems random but is not? Is this the way God creates, and what would the implications of THAT be?

Blake Shell, the exhibit’s curator and Art Gym director, picked out a set of four of Pat Boas’s Sumi ink on paper pieces, gradations of gray, pale to nearly opaque, layer upon layer, curves and lines, diagonals, verticals and horizontals. The hidden reality might be that the universe conceals as it reveals; or, that the number of veils between us and reality is countless. Of course, if Shell had picked a different four pieces from the same set, called “Unalphabetic,” which overlay the Sumi ink with a riot of bright colors, shapes and lines in gouache and watercolor, then the thinking might be entirely different.

and from this distance one might never imagine that it is alive, (left to right) Michelle Ross, Grant Hottle, and Ron Graff, 2015. Courtesy of The Art Gym

and from this distance one might never imagine that it is alive, (left to right) Michelle Ross, Grant Hottle, and Ron Graff, 2015. Courtesy of The Art Gym

My point isn’t to argue that art IS an allegory of the mind of God. Another doctrine that replaced the Renaissance attempts to square the aesthetic ideas of Aristotle, Plato and Christianity, gradually gained strength, according to Raymond’s account: Nature is God’s creation; art is man’s. He quotes the poet Tasso: “There are two creators: God and the Poet.” I suppose a poet would say that?

No, my point is simply to observe that if we’re going to get anything out of “and from the distance one might never imagine that it is alive,” an exhibition of abstract work, it will involve some interpretation on our part after we’ve spent some time observing the art. In that speculation, anything goes, from thoughts about the divine mind (or its absence) to a sudden, non-biblical revelation about a color combination that might work in the kitchen.


Year-end indulgence

This arts writer’s version of a sculptor’s requisite bed piece

I have a number of reasons I don’t like to do year-end reviews or best-ofs; or rather, I have written them in the past, shouldn’t have, and would avoid doing so if I could kick the overriding need to reflect and make an accounting that comes with December.

The Art Center in Corvallis

The Arts Center in Corvallis

First of all, my art viewing, like my arts writing, is a some time thing, which makes me considerably less than an authority. I’m mostly a stay-at-home guy who hangs out in my low-residency (formerly referred to as my dungeon) basement working on other projects and occasionally scanning Facebook for updates from other artists, writers and friends in general. That said, I guess I do look at a lot of art because I follow links. (I suppose if I was a serious info junkie I’d hang out on Twitter instead, but social media = social contract and who has the time?) What I don’t do often, but should, is make the trip to larger cities within fifteen to seventy miles of my home to look. I know I’m missing a lot of worthy, non-virtual exhibits. For instance, there’s always Ditch Projects in Springfield, and Disjecta has considerably improved their programming over the years, as has Corvallis’ The Arts Center. I do regret not getting to these and many other venues more frequently.

Secondly, I want to find it prudent to avoid superlatives, which a summary “grading” of the previous year’s events surely implies. While this may make me a poor (reluctant) critic, admittedly, I have my favorite artists and have opinions about what galleries show consistently good work or are not afraid to push the envelope, but there’s this little voice in my head that asks “Who am I to make such pronouncements?” (See above paragraph.) It has the faint odor of boosterism, self or otherwise, which oddly enough becomes exclusionary. (As my mother says, “Don’t interrupt your work if it speaks for itself.”) To my mind this can quickly become the drugged teat from which malcontents suckle their spew. I’ve seen it happen. The hunger. The horror. The hunger.


Sorting through the records at the Oregon Arts Commission, Blake Shell to the Art Gym

Public records on the firing of Christine D'Arcy leave basic questions unanswered, Blake Shell succeeds Terri Hopkins at The Art Gym

When you do a public records sift, you can find out some interesting stuff, which is what The Oregonian’s David Stabler did with the firing of Christine D’Arcy as executive director of the Oregon Cultural Trust and the Oregon Arts Commission, where she’d been for 19 years. His story is well worth a read, especially if you’re interested in the emails leading up to the firing and D’Arcy’s 2010 performance report.

Those documents hint at the case against D’Arcy (dissatisfaction with her leadership in the arts community and management style), without proving any of them—they are simply assertions. And the story makes it clear that there’s another way to interpret her performance, though those are simply counter-assertions.

So, if you are trying to evaluate whether it was time to replace D’Arcy or not, those emails and counter-quotes don’t help that much. Which isn’t that surprising. It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, for a journalist to figure out the performance level of a manager in a bureaucracy, especially one without clear metrics for success. The reason is simple: some people will like the manager, some people won’t, and political and/or personal considerations are often involved in those judgments, anyway. Often, there are legal ramifications to talking about personnel matters, so bosses and employees don’t or can’t talk about them. Sometimes it’s just a matter of civility: So far, none of the principals in this matter has attacked another in public.

Did D’Arcy do anything “bad”? No. Was her firing illegal somehow? No. Do people disagree with the decision? Of course. Would it be worthwhile to go over the past 19 years of her service at the arts commission to attempt to figure out what she did “right” or “wrong,” the opportunities to move the arts forward in the state that she seized or missed? I would love it if someone did! The hours involved and impasses the analyst would encounter are both gigantic.

Going forward, though, I think it’s a reasonable expectation for the Trust and Arts Commission boards, in consultation with the governor’s office, to talk openly about what the role and expectations for the executive director are, and for that matter, what those expectations are for the boards themselves. And I’d love to see a clear statement from Governor Kitzhaber, who just announced that he’s running for a fourth term as governor, about what he thinks the role of the ARTS are in the state and what he thinks a reasonable arts funding level should be. Stay tuned and we may even have some more suggestions later this week.


Blake Shell will replace Terri Hopkins as the new leader of The Art Gym

Blake Shell will replace Terri Hopkins as the new leader of The Art Gym

One of the toughest acts to follow in the arts community is Terri Hopkins, who steps down as director and curator of The Art Gym at Marylhurst University in January. Hopkins founded The Art Gym, and she’s made it a vital player in the arts world here. (I wrote about her resignation and a larger “challenge” endowment grant for the position going forward back in August.)

Marylhurst has announced that Blake Shell will replace Hopkins at The Art Gym, and add the new Belluschi Pavilion to the portfolio. She begins next week, December 16, though Hopkins will be around to help with the transition through mid-January, according to the press release.

Shell was the director of the Archer Gallery at Clark College from 2009 to 2012, and now works as project manager for the Stroemple Art Collection in Portland. She’s also been a curatorial assistant for the Hoffman Gallery at Lewis & Clark College.

Hopkins was part of the effort to find her own successor, and I asked her about Shell. “Blake Shell is an energetic, creative and skilled curator,” she said. “Several years ago, the shows she organized for the Archer Gallery at Clark College in Vancouver drew my attention and led to my belief that when the time came, there were amazing young curators ready to take The Art Gym into the future. I am very pleased to pass the baton to Blake and am excited to see her take on the contemporary art of our region.”

Which sounds like a very good endorsement indeed.

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