paul sutinen

The ArtsWatch year in Visual Arts

This year the arts fought back by finding space for everyone and creating spiky work that reminded us where we are

We live in the best of times—at least measured by the profusion of visual arts in Portland and the state. The number of artists and the places they have found and created have both continued to grow. The thin infrastructure of existing institutions and galleries hasn’t been able to keep up, and so 2017 found us in the middle of a boomlet of new alternative organizations, cooperatives, groups and galleries. Many of these had a social and/or political bent to them, which makes perfect sense in this year of political tumult. The best form of resistance, both to the short-term national political condition and to the long-term drift away from democracy, is to develop new ways and platforms to share art-making, which itself can be a call to reflection and an appeal to shared experience and values. We will get out of this together, and when we do, we want to bring everyone with us.

As I wandered through the ArtsWatch visual arts stories of 2017, I was struck by two things. The first was that our resources were entirely insufficient to keep up with all that was going on. The second? The stories that our arts writers—all freelancers—created in response to what they encountered still managed to sketch an outline, an abstract, of what was going on. Hannah Krafcik, Paul Maziar and Nim Wunnan wrote about new galleries, new organizations and new artists showing in alternative locations. Paul Sutinen produced a series of interviews with some of our most decorated artists. Bob Hicks wrote compelling stories about the Portland Art Museum’s programming and the reimagining of the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education in its new Pearl District digs. And we had several one-shot reports—about an artist collective in Cuba, art made from the detritus washed ashore in Bandon, Oregon, and the back-and-forth between a model-photographer and the painter recreating her on canvas.

If you scroll through our visual arts category, you can find these and lots of other posts, most of them longer-form, all of them committed to grappling with art, artists and the culture in which they operate. The list that follows isn’t my peculiar assessment of the “best” visual arts stories of 2017. It just illustrates what I’ve been talking about, in one way or another.


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.

We’ve been able to tell their stories because of support from you and people like you. Oregon ArtsWatch is a nonprofit cultural journalism organization, and your gifts help pay for the stories we produce. It’s easy to become a member and make a donation. Just click on the “donate today” button below:

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.’”


Interview: A conversation with Lucinda Parker

The Portland painter talks about her career as a primarily abstract painter and her latest, Cubist-inspired work

Lucinda Parker has been a painter in Portland for almost 50 years. She studied painting in the heyday of Abstract Expressionism at the Museum Art School (now Pacific Northwest College of Art). After becoming known for paintings with big bold gestures, in recent years she has allowed figurative imagery into her work.

She has a selection of what she thinks of as cubistic paintings of Mt. Hood scenes at Russo Lee Gallery through December 2.

When did you decide that you wanted to be an artist?

A long, long time ago.


Lee Kelly just turned 85. Through June into mid-July he is showing new work at Elizabeth Leach Gallery. Over a career of almost 60 years Kelly has completed dozens of public and private sculpture commissions. He has major works on the Portland Transit Mall and the Rose Garden in Washington Park. He lives and works on what was a dairy farm in Oregon City; the barn is now a shop/studio. What was pastureland 50 years ago is now reforested and populated with Kelly’s sculpture.

You grew up in Idaho. Did you go to high school there?

No. I came out here.

Where did you go to high school?

Roosevelt, but I went back there and did ranch work in the summer.

Why? Because you couldn’t find work in Portland?

I loved the idea of horses and doing all that.

Lee Kelly in his studio/shop. Winter Garden at Muktinath in process at left. Small
maquette for the sculpture at right in the background.

So now you got a sculpture farm next to horses. When you were at Roosevelt High School did you do any art there?

I tried to, but I got crossways with the teachers.


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.


News & Notes passes on the Rothko Bridge

Naming the new Willamette River bridge after Mark Rothko isn't such a good idea

The Rothko Bridge.

I must admit, it has a certain ring, though in my imagination it isn’t so much a “structure” as an atmospheric blur of color that couldn’t support a pedestrian or a bike, let alone a light rail train or a bus.

But Jeff Jahn is proposing to name the new cable-stayed bridge over the Willamette River the Rothko Bridge as a serious matter. His argument as I understand it is that the name would both recognize a great artist (who lived in the city from ages 10 to 18 and then for short periods a little later) and also all the other great artists who have moved to the city, and might also help us overcome a deep-seated psychological issue: “Portland has a hard time acknowledging greatness.”

Wow: All that from naming a bridge! I propose that we rename ALL our bridges to get similar benefits out of them.

Mark Rothko, "Untitled", 1957/Courtesy Portland Art Museum

Mark Rothko, “Untitled”, 1957/Courtesy Portland Art Museum

Artist and spoilsport Paul Sutinen does a tidy job of demolishing Jahn’s argument, though. He points out that Portland and Rothko were mutually indifferent to each other while Rothko was alive, and that attempting to “claim” Rothko now is several decades late.

“Jahn says that “Portland has a hard time acknowledging highly ambitious people.” I don’t quite understand what Jahn means by acknowledging in this regard. For me this whole thing still smacks of “grabbing at the coattails of someone who became a great artist.” Our ancestors (he left 92 years ago) had damn little to do with the success of Mark Rothko. This bridge naming thing remains something like getting one’s picture taken with a celebrity so you can claim a connection.”

Given our predilection for offering standing ovations at the end of performances of various sorts, I don’t understand the acknowledging highly ambitious people (or greatness) part, either. Sometimes I think we’ll give you a standing ovation if you just manage to stay upright the whole time.

medium_medium_wave bridge

Now, I happen to think this bridge is not good enough to name after Rothko in the first place. It’s an off-the-shelf bridge with near copies around the world. In some circumstances, these bridges are perfect—especially in hilly terrain, where their peaks and angles fit right in, or on rivers with very aggressive modernist buildings on either bank. This particular site and this particular use suggest a more modest-looking bridge, like the one proposed by original bridge designer Miguel Rosales, much to the chagrin of TriMet. Rosales and his “wave bridge” were dismissed and an architect hired who would give the agency what it wanted from the beginning, a cable-stayed bridge, one advantage of which is lower cost variability.

I wrote about all of this several times back in 2009 while I was at The Oregonian (here’s my final take), and now the design decision is all water under the…oh, please! I’ve been waiting to see what it would look like once it was built, since during the design phase, TriMet never built a scale model of the bridge and its landing points on either side of the Willamette. Now that we’re starting to see the magnitude of those towers and the splay of the cable, I’m afraid I just might have been right about that bridge, although The Oregonian keeps trying to make it “iconic.” It’s not, of course. It says absolutely nothing about Portland (as Rosales best design would have) and everything about cost certainty. In its own way, it’s about as bad as the Marquam Bridge.

So, I wouldn’t name it after Rothko, especially if Rothko was deeply associated with Portland. But our relationship with him has been difficult when it hasn’t been non-existent (another topic I’ve written about, when the Portland Art Museum put together a retrospective of his work). If I were naming something after Rothko, maybe it would be a sculpture garden, a plaza outside the art school at PSU, something like that.

What I DO appreciate about Jahn’s proposal? Naming something after an artist. Let’s say the new bridge wasn’t such a Godzilla on the Willamette (the title of my last post on the matter in 2009). Who among the city’s artists should we consider naming it after? In general, my rule would be: An artist who spent a significant portion of a significant career in the state. If we were determined to go with a visual artist, I would choose CS Price, probably, though my personal favorite would be the Carl and Hilda Morris Bridge. And frankly, a dozen more artists from their time would make me happy—Mike Russo and Sally Haley, Louis Bunce, the Runquist Brothers, Amanda Snyder, Jack McCarty, Charles Heaney, etc. But maybe we should go literary and honor poet William Stafford (whose centenary is coming up) and his wife Dorothy, who just passed away? Or Ursula K. Le Guin, which would mean she could come to the bridge dedication and say something smart and funny!

For this particular bridge at his particular time, I’m stumped. I’m attracted to Cheapside Bridge, though there’s no marketplace on either bank. The opera center and OMSI are nearby on the east bank, so maybe that suggests something? The Aria Bridge? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll know it when I hear it.

Visual Arts: Wryly wrought

Paul Sutinen's Captiva Meditations at Nine Gallery

Late in 2012, Paul Sutinen spent a month at the Robert Rauschenberg Residency in Captiva, Florida. During that time he completed two related series of small paintings, and started a blog. (The blog continues here.) Both the blog and paintings crystallize what Sutinen has done and thought about for quite some time. Which means they are both thought-provokingly serious and dryly funny, all to unmask the processes and objectives of art itself.

Sutinen is exhibiting the first series of paintings, “Captiva Meditations,” at Nine Gallery this month. The fifteen, 12” x 12” clayboard panels of acrylics, ink and graphite are all done in black, white and gray. They follow another exhibition last April at Nine Gallery of the second series from the residency, his “Captiva Suite,” consisting of twelve 16” x 20” panels done with acrylics and in color. Had I seen the latter in a timely manner, meaning with more than a few days left in the show, I would have written about it at the time. However, to now examine the black and white series (a classification of convenience, just as it is for that type of photography, and unobjectionable as long as gray is recognized as the midrange) without including the color work would provide an incomplete assessment.

Paul Sutinen, Constellation of Drawings (Memory)

Paul Sutinen, Constellation of Drawings (Memory)

Paul Sutinen, Memories

Paul Sutinen, Memories

We should also look at precursors, namely his “Constellation of Drawings (Memory)” from 1990, which hangs at Oregon Health & Science University, and a mural, “Memories 1990-2011,” painted in 2011 as part of a group show at the Hoffman Gallery at Lewis & Clark College, both in Portland. We see similar shapes that have echoed over the years in Sutinen’s painting, and although the work has become progressively less structured, the process has become more refined.


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