Tag Archives: Fifty Two Pieces

Comings and goings, farewells and hellos

Odin, slayer of the Frost Giant, riding Sleipnir. 18th C. Icelandic, Danish Royal Library/Wikimedia Commons

Three days before Christmas and a day past Winter Solstice, our lives are a crazy mixup of anticipation and loss. The longest night has given way to the rebirth of light. Summer’s a bare blip beyond the horizon, but we’ve turned the corner. Old Father Time is creaking toward New Year’s Eve, when that perky bouncing baby takes over with all the foolish optimism of inexperience. Christmas presents? Yup, we’re looking forward to ’em. Midwinter indeed, but hope is on the rise.

It’s a season for goodbyes and hellos and reinventions, and as we say a few farewells we suspect the people involved are like the seasons: This is a passage to something invigorated and refreshed.


Fifty-two Pieces, one of Art Scatter’s favorite blogs, is about to enter its fifty-second week, and for its authors, Amy and LaValle, that will mean an ending and a beginning. They started their blog on Jan. 1, 2009, with the express intent of continuing it for fifty-two weeks and then letting a good thing go.

Each week this year they’ve chosen a single artist in the collections of the Portland Art Museum and explored his or her life and work in all sorts of fascinating ways. We’ve enjoyed the journey immensely, and now it’s almost over. We can hardly wait to see what comes next. God Jol.


Father Christmas riding a goat; origin unknown. Wikimedia CommonsOur good friend Barry Johnson, the original Scatterer, who had the idea for this blog and brought it into being before parting amicably to pursue his own arts column and Portland Arts Watch blog for The Oregonian, has come to another parting. Friday, Dec. 18, was his final day with The Oregonian: He took one of the buyouts that have become business as usual in the newspaper racket, following Mr. Scatter’s example from two years ago. Time to reboot, Barry said in his final column. Out with the old. In with new ideas.

Some of the newest ideas he’s packing with him. We welcome Barry with open arms into the outside world, where we’re sure he’s going to have a key role in reinventing arts journalism for the post-print universe. Have your people call Mr. Scatter’s people, Barry. We’ll do coffee. (Lunch, in the post-paycheck economy, is a rarer commodity, but hey, we might spring for that, too.)


As newspapers continue their freefall toward what every sane observer hopes will be a soft landing spot of shrunken but lively equilibrium, a lot of other former colleagues from The Oregonian have accepted their walking papers, too. Informed opinion has it that the 30-plus in the newsroom who accepted the latest buyout aren’t enough, and next time around, for the first time, it’ll be layoffs — maybe as early as February. Oh, yes. It’s midwinter, all right.

A few from the class of late ’09 (there was a spring class, too; Mrs. Scatter got her diploma then) I don’t know, or barely know, or in a few cases, such as photographer Olivia Bucks, don’t really know except through their often exemplary work.

Let me mention a few I have known and admired and enjoyed as colleagues. As the song says, the best is yet to come:

Inara Verzemnieks, a wonderful storyteller whose stories are only going to get bigger and better. We swapped ideas and talked about writing. I even learned how to spell her name without looking it up.

John Foyston, a terrific feature writer and a good amateur painter who was a bracing antidote to journalism by Ivy League degree. Not many newspapermen are also experienced motorcycle mechanics. Fortunately he’ll continue writing his yeasty beer column for the O.

Don Colburn, a damn fine poet; Jonathan Brinkman, who knows how to make business writing lively and engaging; Abby Haight, a model of journalistic flexibility; Gordon Oliver, quiet competence and all-around good sense incarnate.

Ralph Wells, an articulate gentleman and former cab driver (and husband of Carol Wells, a freelance theater critic who’s brought some sparkle to the O).

Copy editors Jan Jackson and Pat Harrison, who on many occasions quietly saved me from myself. Copy editor Ann Ereline, an Estonian who gave me good advice about visiting there 10 years ago. And copy editor and old friend Ed Hunt, who was at the O and its late sister the Oregon Journal even before I was, and who helped me through a post-merger crisis when a long-departed editor was gunning for me. Ed’s advice was stunningly simple and practical: Go over his head.

Photo guy Mike Davis, who fought for visual storytelling.

John Hamlin, who moved from news and design (he was once a managing editor) into the strange new world of computerization and ably helped the rest of us do the things we needed to do.

The brain drain in the newspaper industry has been swift and barely fathomable. While a few nitwits in the blogosphere celebrate this, it’s creating a crisis for the great American experiment in representative democracy.

But the days are getting longer. A whiff of hope is in the air. Some of these people will be finding solutions to the newsgathering crisis. All of them will move into fresh new lives. It’s cold, but it’s also kind of exhilarating.

Goodbye and hello, my friends. And thanks.



  • Top: Illustration from an 18th century Icelandic manuscript of Odin riding his steed Sleipnir after defeating Ymir, the Ice Giant. In the midst of darkness, let there be light. Danish Royal Library/Wikimedia Commons
  • Inset: Father Christmas riding a goat; origin unknown. Wikimedia Commons.

On mendacity, Earl Blumenauer and the free Web

Burl Ives as Big Daddy and Paul Newman as Brick, from the trailer for the 1958 film version of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Wikimedia Commons

“What’s that smell in this room? Didn’t you notice it, Brick? Didn’t you notice the powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity in this room?”

That’s Big Daddy stating the unfortunate obvious in Tennessee Williams’ great American play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and although we all know Big Daddy had some pretty serious problems of his own, being mendacious about the widespread rot of mendacity was not among them.

More and more, American politics has become a particularly noxious form of theater: Mr. Scatter commented on the subject a while back when Joe Wilson, an obscure congressman from South Carolina, gained momentary celebrity by shouting “You lie!” at Barack Obama as the president was addressing Congress on health care reform. In that post, we traced a little of the history of a form of American theater that has in its time been literally a blood sport. (And also a curious concocter of doublespeak: Mendacifiers cry “Mendacity!” to reframe the public perception of truth.)

So this morning’s recommended reading comes from Earl Blumenauer on the opionion page of The Oregonian, where the Democratic congressman from Portland talks about the craziness of the “Death Panels” he most emphatically did not create and how his uncontroversial proposal for the health-reform package was twisted into an utter fabrication in an attempt to scare voters witless with visions of the Big Government Swamp Monster sucking out grandma’s brains.

Blumenauer’s proposal was for insurance coverage for discussions with a doctor about end-of-life care decisions. In the hands of the Tea Party crowd and their congressional enablers, that quickly morphed into government “death panels” deciding who would live and who would die — a particularly cynical, yet frustratingly effective, Big Lie. And it was notable for one scary fact: The charge was ludicrous and ridiculously easy to refute, yet people believed it anyway.

It’s old hat to compare the making of legislation to the making of sausage, and what we’re watching as health care reform winds slowly through Congress is a classic view of the sausage factory. It’s about compromises, a little bit of pork (naturally), political tradeoffs, industry pressure, vote-counting, and all those messy aspects of the process you’d rather not think about when you’re slathering mustard on your frank.

But what Blumenauer is talking about is different. It’s the hijacking of the entire discussion for the purposes of a rank power play — an attempt to bypass, and so destroy, the rational discussion and implementation of governmental process. It’s the anarchy of a new Monkey Wrench Gang.

Blumenauer speaks remarkably candidly for a man familiar with the artful evasion that has become the default language of elected officialdom, which relies for its continuance on its ability to offend as few people as possible and seem to stand in many corners at once. The congressman lays a good share of blame for the “death panel” debacle on the mass media, and I’m inclined to agree with him. When you breathlessly cover the wrestling match without emphasizing that the fight is rigged, you are legitimizing the illegitimate and further shredding the rags of your own reputation. What if the mendacifiers gave a press conference and nobody came?


And what if information was free? It’s a state that poet, academic and prodigious blogger Kenneth Goldsmith, in a post titled If It Doesn’t Exist on the Internet, It Doesn’t Exist, proposes is already beginning to happen. A provocative read, and many thanks to LaValle of Fifty-two Pieces, an inveterate devourer of the virtual library commons, for passing it along.

On the same front but more locally, a new group called We Make the Media is organizing a potentially exciting new home for online journalism in Portland, possibly with a nonprofit funding base.

As our mainstream news sources crumble, the need for new organizing engines for information becomes more crucial. Among We Make the Media’s organizers: Ron Buel, founding editor and publisher of Willamette Week; original Scatterer Barry Johnson; Jay Hutchins, vice president of news at Oregon Public Broadcasting.

The group will hold an all-day conference from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. this Saturday, November 21, at the University of Oregon’s Turnbull Center, 70 N.W.  Couch St. in Portland. Check the Web site for registration and details. As the song says, this could be the start of something big.


Photo: Burl Ives as Big Daddy and Paul Newman as Brick, from the trailer for the 1958 movie version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday morning hot links: Get ’em fresh here

John de Andrea, The Dying Gaul. Portland Art Museum.One of Art Scatter’s favorite blogs is Fifty Two Pieces, on which the erudite Amy and LaValle write about specific works at the Portland Art Museum and then let their minds wander into those strange and fascinating places that great art tends to nudge active minds. The blog is called Fifty Two Pieces because its authors declared from the get-go that they would write for one year only.

Time’s running short, so get your fresh links while they’re still hot off the grill. Amy and LaValle began their excellent adventure on New Year’s Day 2009 with a consideration of John De Andrea‘s fabulous hyperrealist sculpture The Dying Gaul.

Chaim Soutine, The Little Pastry Chef. Portland Art Museum.Their latest consideration is another of my favorites at the museum, Chaim Soutine‘s charming, red-and-orange-soaked painting (it reminds me of cinnamon) The Little Pastry Chef. It’s inspired, among other things, this delicious musing on Fifty Two Pieces:

According to the encyclopedia of gastronomy, Larousse Gastronomique, as early as the Neolithic Age, prehistoric man made foods based on honey, fruits, seeds, and maple or birch syrup. It’s thought that Mediterranean baklava and filo are the original pastries, made in Assyria on special occasions and for the rich. Medieval crusaders to the Middle East brought the recipes for these sweet treats back with them upon their return to Europe. Over the next century, according to FoodTimeline.org, French and Italian Renaissance chefs perfected puff pastry to an art form, adapting these original recipes to create Napoleons, brioche, éclairs and cream puffs.”

Today the blog considers the similarities between The Little Pastry Chef and Morris GravesPortrait of Bill Cumming, which hangs nearby. Soutine and Graves aren’t names you’d ordinarily through together in the same beret, but there you go: Art loves strange hatfellows.

LaValle, by the way, has been gadding about Berlin lately, and recording her impressions on her own blog, Two to Europe. She’ll be back. In the meantime, Amy’s holding the fort just fine.

A few other things we’ve enjoyed reading lately:

  • Grant Butler’s interview with James E. McWilliams, author of the new book Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, in the FoodDay section of The Oregonian. Butler and McWilliams bring some welcome nuance to the whole question of eating locally (McWilliams suggests not making it a religion) and raise the issue of feeding a hungry world, not just our little agriculturally blessed corner of it. The story brings up the work of Norman Borlaug, the “green revolution” pioneer who died this month at 95 (his New York Times obituary is here) and whom Art Scatter wrote about last year in a long piece that began with Leo Tolstoy.
  • Stephen Holden’s review in the New York Times of the “vaudevillian spark plug” Jason Graae’s new cabaret act. Holden’s running series of pieces on New York’s cabaret scene and its link to the Great American Songbook is a pure pleasure. Graae is apparently a mischievous sort, and Holden reports straight-faced on his closing number Slasher Medley: “It was a surefire piece of special material that stitched together revised quotes from Broadway standards: ‘Gray skies are going to clear up/Carve up a happy face’; ‘If ever I would cleave you, I’d start around the elbow.’ My favorite: ‘When you walk through a storm, hold a head up high.’
  • Jon Michael Varese’s impassioned argument in The Guardian (via Arts & Letters Daily), Why Are We Still reading Dickens? The old Victorian cliff-hanger specialist has had his critical ups and downs, but no matter what the fashion of the moment, he keeps hanging on — and we keep hanging on to him. For extremely good reason, Varese argues. Dickens, he concludes, is “shining a light on who I am during the best and worst of times.”

Wednesday hot links: Get yer fresh dogs on Rye!

All right, so Mr. Scatter’s been doing this no-meat thing long enough now that veggie franks have actually started to taste good.

At least, if they’re slathered with enough mustard/relish/barbecue sauce/onions/sauerkraut/melted cheese.

And, no, no-meat doesn’t mean no fish or shellfish, or even the very occasional chicken thigh, or (once in a couple of blue moons) a blessed slice of crisp bacon.

Yes, I embrace the vegetable kingdom. No, I’m not fanatic.

Still, most of my links these days are of the virtual variety, a few of which I freely share with you:


To Move, To Breathe, To Speak. Michele Russo, 1960PNCA at 100: Two good pieces on the new exhibit at the Portland Art Museum celebrating a century of the Pacific Northwest College of Art, which began life as the Museum Art School. A few quibbles, a lot of insights and an impressive parade of names from Oregonian arts writers D.K. Row, here, and Barry Johnson, here. Read ’em both and you’ll want to rush right down to see the show yourself. I haven’t yet. I will soon. And if your reflexes are slow, don’t worry: The exhibit stays up until Sept. 13.


LOUISE NEVELSON, OUT OF THE BOX: One of the liveliest, best-written arts blogs in town is Fifty Two Pieces, a site that takes as its starting point artists and artworks in the collection of the Portland Art Museum and follows them wherever its muse travels. Right now the site is concentrating on the great and formidable Louise Nevelson, she of the black boxes. Dig back a few posts and you’ll find a series on Portland sculptor Lee Kelly. You should know this site!


CULTURE JOCK DRIVES TO SEATTLE: … and sees the sights along the way. For anyone who makes that dreary I-5 drive semi-regularly (and don’t a lot of us?) CJ’s tongue-in-cheek record of his recent trip is priceless. Which means you can’t buy it with your Master Card. But you can read it free, here.


HOLDEN CAULFIELD, WON’T YOU PLEASE STAY HOME: For a 90-year-old recluse, J.D. Salinger is a pretty darned public cantankerous cuss. He’s made such a fetish of his desire for privacy and his insistence that his artistic creations are inviolable that by now he’s better known for his churlishness than for the 58-year-old novel, The Catcher in the Rye, that made us aware of his existence in the first place.

rye_catcherMr. Salinger does know the legal profession, and in pursuit of his vaunted rights has made liberal use of it over the years. The New York Times reports here that now he’s suing over copyright infringement — “a ripoff pure and simple,” as his lawyers put it — by the 33-year-old Swedish author of a book titled 60 years Later: Coming Through the Rye.

Now, I’m all for copyright laws and the right of artists to protect their creations. But Salinger has a pretty weird idea of what’s his and what’s out there in the ether to be grabbed and reinterpreted. In Salinger’s mind, John Donne got it wrong: One man is an island entire of itself. Donne, at least, seemed to intuit that life, and art, are about borrowing and sharing and rethinking and creating something new from something old. Salinger thinks they’re immovable ice statues, frozen in time.

According to the Times, Fredrik Colting, the author of 60 Years Later (which revisits Holden Caulfield as an old man of 76), says his novel is a “comment on the uneasy relationship between his imagined version of Mr. Salinger and the Holden Caulfield character: ‘In order to regain control over his own life, which is drawing to a close, “Mr. Salinger” tries repeatedly to kill off Mr. C by various means: a runaway truck; falling construction debris; a lunatic woman with a knife; suicide by drowning and suicide by pills.’

Sounds like Mr. Colting’s caught the contemporary point: Salinger himself is at the center of the Caulfield universe, and putting him there explicitly is a sufficient reinterpretation of and commentary on the original to qualify it as a discrete work.

I do wish, however, that Colting’s defense weren’t sprinkled with this sort of academic obfuscation: “In additional written declarations, Martha Woodmansee, a professor of English at Case Western Reserve University, writes that Mr. Colting’s novel is a work of ‘meta-commentary’ and ‘is thus a complex work, more complex than’ Mr. Salinger’s novel.”


I have a toothache. Leave me alone.

Or I’ll sue.