Link: Bartow carves a notch in D.C.

By Bob Hicks

Not too long ago I visited Oregon artist Rick Bartow at his Newport studio and got the lowdown on his latest big project: a pair of 20-foot-tall pole carvings, depicting Raven and Grandmother Bear, that will be installed September 21st outside the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall, just about a block from the White House. Public commissions don’t come a lot more public than this.

Twin poles in the process: Next stop, National Mall. Photo: Laura Grimes
Photo: Laura Grimes

On Friday night I published an essay about it, In the studio: Rick Bartow carves a spot on the National Mall, at Oregon ArtsWatch. Bartow talked about teamwork, community, the value of rolling with the punches, what engineering’s got to do with it, why the carvings are NOT totem poles, and a lot of other stuff. For good measure, he and his folk/blues band, Rick Bartow and the Back Seat Drivers, provided the soundtrack for a Newport Saturday Night.

An excerpt from the essay:

The project’s gone remarkably well, if you discount the numerous design changes, the struggles to align art with engineering for the permanent installation, the steep learning curve, and the occasional flareup of vision problems from Bartow’s unexpected stroke about a year and a half ago. Originally each pole was to feature a big glass disc – sun on one, moon on the other – designed by Bartow’s partner, glass artist Nancy Blair. That changed when Corning Glass scientists looked the plans over and declared that at some point the constant stress of sun, rain and wind would cause the discs to burst. Government engineers, not surprisingly, blanched at the prospect of glass showering over tourists on the mall below.

Generation Nexus: How CAN we fund the skills our future leaders will need?

By Trisha Pancio Mead

Self-confidence. Poise. Complex pattern recognition. Spatial relationships. Symmetry and paradox. Good design. Leadership. Collaborative, deadline-driven, results-oriented cooperative achievement. Proportion. Scale. Balance. Discipline. Persuasiveness. Empathy. And yes, innovation.

Are these values and skill sets that we want instilled in the next generation? The generation, let’s remember, that will ultimately be responsible for running the organizations, government entities and private businesses that are the backbone of Portland’s economy?

Science meets art: Woman teaching Euclidean geometry in 14th century painting. 1309 - 1316, France;The British LibraryOr, let’s get even more pragmatic here: What percentage of our future workforce would we like to see have a high school diploma? And is it worth $35 a year to ensure that, not only do more of Portland’s students graduate, they also graduate with self-confidence, discipline, empathy and the capacity for innovation?

Because, in its simplest terms, the funding mechanism proposed by the Creative Advocacy Network is designed to do exactly that: restore arts and music instruction and increase access to arts related experiences throughout Portland. On Saturday The Oregonian’s editorial board dismissed the proposal, arguing that art and music “are low priorities.” Oregon Arts Watch founder and editor Barry Johnson quickly filed this rebuttal, and Niel DePonte –  Oregon Symphony percussionist, music director of Oregon Ballet Theatre, Grammy nominee, founder/president of Metro Arts, Inc. – followed with this rebuttal printed in The Oregonian’s opinion section.

Why, in spite of The Oregonian’s objections, is this initiative crucial?

Continue reading Generation Nexus: How CAN we fund the skills our future leaders will need?

Mary don’t you weep, don’t you mourn

Photo: Pak HanPhoto: Pak Han

By Martha Ullman West

I’ve been spending a lot of time at Conduit since I moved to Portland’s South Park blocks – also known as the city’s “cultural district” – a month ago, happily walking a few blocks to see Top Shake Dance; the studio’s 17th anniversary benefit, where it was lovely to see some excerpts of Mary Oslund’s work; and, most recently, Thursday night’s opening of Bay Area choreographer Randee Paufve’s So I Married Abraham Lincoln …, subtitled A Dance about the Life of Mary Todd Lincoln and the American First Lady.

It’s a lovely piece, containing all the attributes of a really good novel: it makes you laugh and makes you cry and makes you think.  Paufve, no stranger to Portland – she’s danced with Mary Oslund and Gregg Bielemeier and performed her own work here as well – has incorporated spoken text, a score that includes classical, folk and rock music, some of which the dancers sing, and her own space-devouring movement vocabulary into one of the best pieces of dance theater I’ve seen in many a moon.

Continue reading Mary don’t you weep, don’t you mourn

Links: Solo shows and Arthur Kopit’s sin

Portland’s 33rd annual Drammy theater awards are tonight at the Crystal Ballroom, and to get you into the mood I’ve posted a couple of recent theater pieces on Oregon Arts Watch.

akopitThe most recent is How Arthur Kopit led me to wrack and ruin, a headline that grievously overstates the distinguished playwright’s culpability. An excerpt:

And then I signed up for a speech class, which was being offered through the theater department instead of the English department, and I met a girl who was, as she declared a little breathlessly, an actress, and as one thing led to another I found myself hanging out with the cast and crew of the show she was working on: yes, Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad. And the people were frankly kind of nuts but also smart and a lot of fun.

The other is A crowd of singular sensations, a look at Portland’s sudden scramble of one-person shows, including The Centering and How Small a Thought. An excerpt:

For people who believe, as I do, that the heart of theater beats in the spaces between the performers, solo shows present a conundrum: with only one performer, where’s the vital mystery in the middle? A good solo show – and both The Centering and Hull’s piece are good ones – neatly bypasses the problem by taking the magic space directly to the audience, which becomes the “other” performer in the play. It’s really not much different from a soliloquy in a Shakespeare play, in which the character isolates himself from the “reality” of the stage and takes his case directly to the audience.

Photo: Arthur Kopit, dangerous man.

A poem to catch a writing breeze

Sharp-shinned hawks, chromolithograph, 1908, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, United States Department of Agriculture Yearbook/Wikimedia CommonsBy Laura Grimes

I’ve been blog quiet much too long. I can’t explain these things, but just accept them. My writer brain has languished. I’ve seen glimpses of it, fragments, but capturing a cohesive sense has been a struggle.

For me, poetry often serves as a toddling way back to recovery, a voice for the broken. Not broken as in destroyed, or sad, though sometimes that can be the case, too, but in this instance, I consider it more a voice for the misshapen. It’s a bunch of puzzle pieces that need realigning. Again, I don’t question these things, I’m just grateful.

I thought I lost my poetry touch a few years ago. I never realized it was leaving, it just wasn’t there anymore and it took me a while to notice it was gone, but by then it was too late. So I’m surprised now by its sudden return, unannounced and unbidden, like a shadowed figure seeking shelter from a storm who shows up wet on my doorstep smelling of the natural order of things. Irresistible, really. But why?

Continue reading A poem to catch a writing breeze

R.I.P.: Doc Watson, American original

The inimitable Doc Watson died today at age 89. He was an American original, partly by being a true American traditionalist. I love his music and my idea, at least, of who he was. I wrote the following piece on him for The Oregonian, where it ran on June 1, 1997. I’d change a few things if I were writing it today, but it’s still worth a look if you knew Doc’s music, or if you didn’t but wish you had:

By Bob Hicks

On Father’s Day, the deep past visits Portland. And maybe, as popular music seeks a way out of its morass of superstardom, the future will too. Because try as we might to pretend it never happened, the past is part of us, and it shapes what we will be.

docwatsonThank goodness Doc Watson is helping to carry it.

American music rarely sounds better than when Watson plays it. His easy-gliding voice is as fresh and sweet as the first bite of a mountain apple, and he is very likely the finest, most influential flat-top guitarist of his era.

He is, in short, a legend. But as far as popular musical consciousness goes, he is also, like the grand tradition of American optimism that he represents, in danger of fading away.

Semiretired since his son and partner Merle died in a tractor accident in 1985, Watson is about to make his first Portland appearance in eight years. On June 15, two days after opening this year’s Britt Festivals in Jacksonville, he’ll play a barbecue picnic at Oaks Amusement Park. And he will carry on his aging and unassuming shoulders the strength and possibilities of time itself.

At 74, Watson is a bridge back to the sounds and ideals from which we sprang: Irish-Scottish folk ballads, African-American field songs, Delta blues, mountain-fiddling tunes from Saturday-night dances and back-porch gatherings, age-old lullabies, church songs, Civil War stories, railroad songs, even Tin Pan Alley tunes and rockabilly.

Good music comes from someplace, and Watson’s is redolent of community — of people who share experiences, outlooks, territories. The specific someplace most important in the forming of his music is the Southern hill country that produced scratch farmers, cotton pickers, coal miners and string bands.

Continue reading R.I.P.: Doc Watson, American original

Link: Dancing down the mountain

By Bob Hicks

A long time ago Portland dancer and choreographer Jim McGinn worked deep inside the mine shafts running into the mountain near Leadville, Colorado. It was hard and dangerous work, claustrophobic and stultifying. He never forgot.

jamb-photo-3-top-to-bottom-chase-hamilton-dana-detweiler-credit-lauriel-schumanSo he made a dance about it. His contemporary troupe TopShakeDance has been performing it at Conduit, and has two shows left: Friday and Saturday, May 24-25, 8 o’clock each night. I saw the show on Thursday night and posted this story, Jambin’ underground: TopShakeDance digs deep, on Oregon ArtsWatch.

An excerpt:

I spent the evening, for the most part, simply feeling the interplay between performers and sound, concentrating on the essential musicality of dance, which often comes with stories attached but at its deepest level doesn’t really need them, because, like music, dance is essentially unexplainable. Only afterwards did I read the program notes and discover the story that inspired McGinn. In a way that was a good way to go, because it gave me two experiences: the first, essentially emotional and existential; the second, reflective and intellectual. Put ’em together and you get a sense of how the human animal works.

Chase Hamilton and Dana Detweiler in “Jamb.” Photo: Lauriel Schuman

Link: A theatrical theory on theories

By Bob Hicks

Today I posted Theater: Hard Times for big theories on Oregon ArtsWatch _ a little theorizing on the failure of theories, as expressed by Voltaire in Candide (as adapted in the Leonard Bernstein musical at Portland Opera) and Charles Dickens in Hard Times (as adapted by playwright Stephen Jeffreys and performed at CoHo Theatre).

Camille Cettina in "Hard Times." Photo: Gary NormanThe grand theorizers tried by their creators and found wanting are the libertine Dr. Pangloss in Candide and the earnest schoolmaster Thomas Gradgrind in Hard Times. You might find their viewpoints familiar.

A couple of excerpts:


“You can’t walk around the art world, let alone the culture at large, without bumping into a theory or twelve. Essential to science, where they’re part of a continuing process of discovery, they tend to harden into dogma in the cultural, political and religious realms. In art circles people sometimes forget that theories work best when they explain what’s happening in art, not when they try to drive how it’s being made. And when applied rigorously to something as unpredictable and emotional as human beings, theories can create havoc. Ask B.F. Skinner’s kids. Ask Dickens and Voltaire.”


“Gradgrind may be something of a fool, but he’s no Pangloss, adopting a handy theory as an excuse for libertinism. Gradgrind’s public-spirited and wants to be generous: he just gets it wrong. He begins with the Utilitarian tenet that society’s main goal is “the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people,“ a not unreasonable response to the industrial revolution that created a few big winners and a multitude of losers (sound familiar?) as it wrenched Europe away from its agrarian roots, and extends it to a belief that reason, and reason alone, will improve the average person’s lot.”

Inset: Camille Cettina in “Hard Times.” Photo: Gary Norman.

Link: movies and dance, BFF

Jonathan Krebs (top) and Jamey Hampton. Photo courtesy BodyVox.

By Bob Hicks

The other day I posted this essay, BodyVox cuts to the Hollywood chase, on Oregon ArtsWatch. It’s about BodyVox dance’s cannily amusing ode to the movies, The Cutting Room, which continues through May 19. In the piece, I dive into the pool where film, dance and music swim around in existential, essentially nonverbal waters, and I try not to sink. An excerpt:

What The Cutting Room achieves is to distill the essence of movie storytelling without weighting it down with any actual story. And it has fun doing it. Its a situational comedy, a comedy of mood and ritual trappings. “Stella!” a voice cries; or, “I’ll have what she’s having”; or “I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I’m afraid that’s something I cannot allow to happen”; and we all know what the scene is and where, in Hollywood dreamland, we are. It’s as comfortable and comforting as reciting The Lord’s Prayer.

Photo courtesy BodyVox: Jonathan Krebs (top) and Jamey Hampton.

Link: Peter Pan town, all grown up?

By Bob Hicks

Portland, a city at last? It’s just possible that Peter Pan is growing up.

storm_505t25xscLast weekend I saw three plays – the premiere of The Storm in the Barn at Oregon Children’s Theatre; Next to Normal at Artists Rep; and The Bridge, an adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, at Cerimon House. The experience led to this post, What if we woke up and found we’re a city?, on Oregon Arts Watch.

In the post, I discover myself wandering amid “an unruly flowering of culture, often in surprising places.” An excerpt:

“It’s easy to poke fun at it, Portlandia-style. And in the not-so-grand Portland tradition it’s still being done on a broken shoestring. To be clear: Portland isn’t New York or Chicago or Los Angeles, despite a lot of hopeful hype. For one thing, those cities actually put their money where their mouths are. Plus, they’re simply bigger, and size does make a difference. Yet there’s little denying: In spite of ourselves, we’re in the midst of a cultural revolution. And the seeds are blowing all over the place.

“Simple fact: It’s impossible for any one person to keep up with all the theater happening in town. Can’t be done. That alone suggests the end of township and the beginning of city status: Cities are places that are too big to be known. In a real city, no matter how well you know it, you’re always also a stranger. And that can be exciting.”


Photo by Owen Carey: Jack Clevenger in “The Storm in the Barn”

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