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Eugene Weekly : Culture : 02.03.05

Visual Arts:

Two Artists

Painters of personal experience at Maude Kerns

Visual Arts:

Graffed up

Can Eugene make space for graffiti's messages?


Stunning Storytelling

The Drawer Boy is theater at its finest.


Fire and Ice

Exploring the Pacific Crest Trail in winter.


Grift for Vino

The dance of sales go on.



Two Artists

Painters of personal experience at Maude Kerns


In From Experience, the current Maude Kerns Art Center exhibit curated by Tina Schrager, artists Ronald Hall and Duane Johnson express the raw emotion of intensely felt personal experience infused with the strength of social commentary.

After Turner's Revolt, oil painting on wood by Ronald Hall

Hall's bold painting and collage work renews the tradition of American expressionism. Between the two world wars, American expressionists (sometimes called Social Realists) produced a tremendous body of socially conscious expressionist works. Outsiders to the mainstream, many were born in urban ghettoes. Whether children of recent European and Asian immigrants or African Americans, theirs was an expressionism firmly rooted in American experience rather than derived from European models.

"The area where I grew up was a predominantly African American neighborhood and a dangerous neighborhood, high in crime and drug-infested," Hall said. Born in Pittsburgh, Hall now lives in Seattle. "It's had a big impact on my paintings."

In the autobiographical Irrational Breakdown, the artist is shown in profile, screaming, his flesh red, raw, naked, a gun pointed at his head. A smaller, suited version of the artist hangs from a rope around his neck. Two digitally distorted self-portraits are collaged above a couch. Complementary colors contribute clashing intensity; slashing strokes add directional tension. Yet none of these effects is overdone. They add an odd minimalism to the scene: an almost empty stage save for pain.

"One day our house was raided by the police," Hall said. "I had guns pointed to my head." Hall said he didn't realize what the painting was about until he was almost done with it: "It was not pre-planned as most of my paintings are," he observed.

Some of Hall's paintings recall African American history. In Who Needs Reparations, a group of African Americans from various eras stand with painful expressions, collaged hens and donkeys a symbol of their treatment as slaves. Collaged texts and documents bear witness, including an ad for a public auction of slaves and a poem by pioneering journalist, author and poet Frances E.W. Harper. Ray Duncan's poem addresses the "pale poets" in these lines: "you deal with finer feelings,/ very subtle — an autumn leaf/ hanging from a tree — I see a body!"

After the Turner Revolt integrates the Nat Turner rebellion of 1831, America's largest and most successful slave rebellion, into a contemporary setting. The past is still reverberating in the life of the young African American standing anguished in the painting's foreground next to his own disembodied outline, while ghostly Ku Klux Klan riders cross the horizon, and severed heads line the curb — the price for insurrection.

"Although most of the subjects in my art are race-related," Hall said, "I think they're also issues most people can relate to. I also believe there are historical facts in my paintings that are important for our children to see. For instance, After the Turner Revolt can provoke a conversation about the slavery revolts that occurred."

Hall attended a magnet school, majored in fashion design from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and now works full-time as a computer artist for video games. Three years ago, he felt the need to go back to painting. "In the beginning," Hall explained, "I was only painting for myself. I was afraid to show the work because it's so expressive. Now I've found there are people who enjoy the brutal honesty of the work, and that motivates me to keep being as honest as I can."

Hall's intensity is compelling, especially when he deals with his own felt experience. His directness of expression and sense of immediacy point to a most promising debut for a young artist.

The other artist in the show is Duane Johnson, a Texas printmaker and painter with an MFA from Louisiana State University. Johnson said he similarly drew on his own experience for his mixed-media Bully Series.

To explore the connection between bully, victim and onlooker, Johnson combines collaged black-and-white photographic portraits, hand-writing and cartoon-like drawings depicting acts of bullying with their social causes and consequences. Johnson's large-format canvases are generally divided into two panels, one for an array of photographic portraits forming a grid pattern, the other a drawing often sketched over a checkered pattern achieved through collage. The hand-written texts perform a double function. As messages meant to be read, the texts are integral to the subject of bullying, but the words also play a formal, aesthetic role by providing texture and rhythm.

Part of the appeal of Johnson's work lies in the felicitous proportions and layout of the variously sized images and drawings that make up each piece. His drawings are expressive, but they tend to rely on the conventions and vocabulary of cartoons to communicate. At times, as in A Bully's Life, rather than sharing a personal experience, they appear to illustrate views about bullies and bullying so widely held as to have become cliché.

The issue of bullying is a widespread social problem and everyone has a particular relation to it. Come to the MKAC and explore your own.



Graffed up

Can Eugene make space for graffiti's messages?


Waiting for trains to cross while driving sucks. They're loud, stinky, and they take a long time, which keeps me from being where I need to be. My only consolation during the wait is that instead of watching rusty, old dilapidated stock cars pass by, I get treated to a magnificent traveling art gallery. With cutting edge themes and styles, the artwork on some of these trains rivals anything you might find in a museum or on an art walk.

Graffiti is a tough subject, and everyone seems to have an opinion. On one side is the blatant, evident destruction of public property; on the other, the potential to turn any chunk of forgotten wall space into art. It's a thin line, and the responsibility for maintaining an open dialogue about it rests on the community's shoulders.

Some local business owners welcome the opportunity to employ graffiti artists to bless their buildings. The WOW Hall, Le Petit Bakery, Primal Body piercing, High Priestess, Shoe-a-Holic, and Mos Faded barber shop all display hip hop inspired murals.

Gilbert Knowlton, owner of Factory Fabrics, houses a city-sponsored graffiti mural and legal wall on the side of his business where kids are allowed to paint as they please, as a deterrent to defacing other public property around town. "These artists were able to take an ugly old warehouse building and make it more beautiful," Knowlton said.

During the mid- to late 1990s, Eugene had a few legal walls around town through the Art Wall Project. One important spot was the 2nd and Monroe wall, one of the largest of its kind in the Northwest. Local graffiti artists like Frustr8, Taz Roc and Kauz paved the way by hosting events at the wall, including music and visiting artists. As more people came out with cans of paint, the demand for space became huge, which resulted in congestion and conflict as blank spots dwindled. Instead of giving each other props, artists got angry when their pieces were drawn over. Due to heavy traffic, noise complaints and police intervention, every legal wall in Eugene has closed since then.

Graffiti allows little opportunity for assimilation. Like hip hop, it refuses to be incorporated into the system it was built to fight against. This causes great tension within a culture where "keepin' it real" is so important. In the eyes of a purist, any attempt to legitimize the art by throwing it in a gallery or on a commissioned wall becomes a "sellout" maneuver. Hip hop can be very particular, but sometimes growing into your shoes as an artistic human being is more important than being a rebel for a day. By definition graffitti is illegal, which fuels much of the intensity of the movement. Sometimes things need to be taken further to evolve.

Historically, graffiti has always been one of the quickest, cheapest and most obvious ways to make a public statement. From the ghettos of L.A. to Warsaw, from Brooklyn to the Gaza Strip, graffiti reflects civil unrest and political tension. And frequently, graffiti has seemed like the only outlet for marginalized, disenfranchised youth to creatively express themselves in a world that has never really been good at listening.

Graffiti artists bear a unique responsibility to convey subversive, in-your-face, culturally relevant messages, especially when a public wall is the canvas. The potential for real community enrichment is there for the taking. With communication and positive networking with local businesses, Eugene can become a much more colorful place.


Stunning Storytelling

The Drawer Boy is theater at its finest.


Sometimes it's the simplest stories that engage us the most. Michael Healey's The Drawer Boy is one such story. More than an amusing representation of city boy meets Green Acres, the Willamette Repertory Theatre's production is a tale about love, loss and an intimate friendship rarely seen between men.

The play is based on a 1972 project conducted by a group of Toronto-based actors. They lived and labored in an Ontario farming community and collected stories from the people they encountered. According to Director Kirk Boyd, Drawer Boy was the most-produced play in the country the last few years.

It's 1972 and elderly friends Morgan and Angus have shared a secluded life of ritual and routine on their farm for many years. Morgan does most of the demanding work while tending to the needs of Angus, who suffers from short- and long-term memory loss — the result of a head injury sustained during WWII.

All that changes when Miles, an enthusiastic young actor and playwright from the city arrives. Researching farm life for his theater group, Miles hopes to collect fodder for use on the stage. What he doesn't anticipate is becoming a part of the drama he seeks.

The action takes place in a simple, folksy kitchen with a door leading out to a front porch. Farm sounds including cows mooing, chickens clucking and Miles' vocal struggles with the tractor and hay baler emanate from behind the stage. A breathtakingly realistic backdrop of cloud-filled sky reflects subtle changes in light and depth as dawn turns to dusk on the farm.

At first, Morgan isn't thrilled about the interruption in their lives. But he makes the best of it with a touch of wry humor, toying with the young thespian via heartbreaking stories about the plight of farm cows and through a litany of sham chores such as washing individual pieces of gravel and shoveling manure in the barn with a table fork.

Boyd has assembled a truly inspired cast for this quality production. Wesley Bishop puts in a powerful performance as Morgan, encapsulating the essence of the rural farmer. A proud and protective man, he hides his emotions behind a tough veneer, while exposing his sensitivity through storytelling.

Achilles Massahos is adorably childlike as the impaired Angus. Because Angus only remembers now, Massahos uses his wonderful range of facial expressions and body movements to express Angus' rollercoaster of emotions. His ability to make us laugh at one moment then tug at our heartstrings the next is stunning.

Cameron Carlisle holds his own as Miles, nailing the earnest, yet carefree tie-dyed spirit of his character. Through his interactions with Morgan and Angus, he reveals a sense of both the actor acting and the real person within.

As he adjusts to farm life, Miles discovers that interactions with Angus are difficult at best. Because Angus cannot remember from one day to the next, Miles must reintroduce himself each day. He quickly discovers that questioning Angus about his lost memories pushes him completely over the edge.

One evening, Miles overhears the two men talking on the porch. "Tell it," says Angus. Recited like a favorite poem from one who has delivered it many times over, Morgan tells Angus a story about two friends, the farmer and the drawer boy (pronounced draw-er, because the boy likes to draw); and two girls, one tall and the other taller. He tells of counting stars and talking all night; two houses together, but separate; a double wedding; and a tragic loss.

Against Morgan's wishes, Miles turns his story into a play. Seeing himself and Morgan portrayed onstage lights a spark in Angus. As he begins to regain his memory, the layers of hidden deception, secrets and truth slowly unfold.

Despite the play's confusing name, Willamette Rep's production of The Drawer Boy is tender, moving, and funny — richly woven storytelling at its finest. This truly exceptional production runs until Feb. 13 at the Hult Center's Soreng Theater.




Fire and Ice

Exploring the Pacific Crest Trail in winter.


To the casual observer, the ancient forests that blanket the Cascades can seem timeless and unchanging. In reality, they are dynamic and violent landscapes. Since the last ice age, the forests of the Cascades have been re-shaped by forest fires. Often fires burn hot, killing most of the trees in vast swaths of forest, beginning the process of forest succession that may not end for another 500 or even a thousand years until the next fire roars through the mountains. Other forest fires burn quite frequently, clearing away brush and leaving large trees intact.

Fire-killed snags in the B and B Fire

The process of forest rebirth has been demonized by none other than the U.S. Forest Service, which has spent millions of the taxpayers' dollars over the past 50 years trying to convince the public that forest fires are a death knell for wildlife (and that logging is somehow good for critters). They even kidnapped an innocent bear from the wild to serve as an unwilling spokesman for their campaign.

Don't believe the hype. People don't make their homes out of live trees, and most wildlife doesn't either. Fire-killed snags are a combination diner and hotel for hundreds of species. And a burned forest — far from being a devastated moonscape — has a stark beauty all its own.

One of the best ways to see it for yourself is a ski trip along the Pacific Crest Trail through the B and B Fire, which burned almost 100,000 acres just east of the Cascade Crest in the summer of 2003.

To get there, drive Highway 126 east of Springfield, staying to the east at junctions near the top of the mountain, following the signs for Bend and Sisters. About 32 miles northeast of McKenzie Bridge, look for Benson Sno Park on the left at the top of Santiam Pass (it's about a 75-mile drive from Springfield). Park in the large parking lot and find a ski trail to the east of the innertubing hill. This trail parallels Highway 126-20 for about a quarter of a mile before hitting a snowed-under logging spur. If you can't find the trail from the snow park, simply walk up the highway for a quarter of mile and take a left at the sign for the Pacific Crest Trail).

A quarter of a mile up the road is the trailhead for the Pacific Crest Trail and the boundary of the Mount Jefferson Wilderness. The PCT is NOT flagged or signed for winter travel. The trail typically gets enough use that you can navigate by others' ski tracks. Cross-country travel is easy and rewarding, too. But do not venture off the marked trail unless you have a map and a compass and know how to use them.

The PCT will take you all the way to Canada if you have the time, but skiing a couple miles north and back is far enough to get a good sense of the burn — thousands of ghostly burned trees, the bark scorched black and the exposed wood bleached silver.

A quarter mile up the PCT you'll come to an intersection; the right hand turn will take you to Square Lake, 2.2 miles to the east. Staying to the left, ski another 1.2 miles to a trail intersection that takes you to Santiam Lake. Stay right here, and the trail begins to climb to the top of a ridge. The first good views — of Three-Fingered Jack to the north, Black Butte to the east and the Three Sisters to the south — is at the top of the ridge, about three and a half miles from the trailhead.

On clear days you can see the full extent of the fire, which was contained a year and four months ago after burning for more than a month. To the east the Deschutes National Forest is planning a massive "salvage" timber sale that will strip-mine the recovering forest of valuable habitat as well as nutrients to re-grow the next generation of forest.

Experienced backcountry skiers should contemplate the fantastic multi-day traverse around Three Fingered Jack, or a shorter cross-country loop back to Square Lake. No one should go anywhere near the Mount Jefferson wilderness in the winter without plenty of water, warm clothes, food, flashlight, map, compass and other essentials.

The B and B Fire along the crest of the Cascades is a spot you'll want to come back to every year, to check in with a forest born in fire.    




Grift for Vino

The dance of sales go on.


Gray, soggy day, I'm glad to see it. Been too warm, too dry. This ain't California, don't want it to be or become. Scares me when winter never comes, when rhodies bloom too early. Climate change has made the world too weird — freak storms, drought where there should be monsoons, floods where river beds usually run arid arroyos, melting icecaps, freezing orange groves. I yearn for days of deep-soaking rains and roiling, muddy rivers.

Leonard Cohen tunes me up with gravel voice "Tower of Song": "My friends are gone/ My hair is gray/ I ache in the places where I used to play/ And I'm crazy for love/ But I'm not comin' on/Just payin' my rent ev'ryday/ In the Tower of Song." Everybody's just payin' their rent, and gotta get paid first, even in wineworld.

Sadly, wine is a grift, a hustle, like any other — used cars, RVs, soybeans, oil, politics, war. In the winebiz, as in all biz, the order of march is sales, moving product, brand identity, the daily jazz of putting juice in shopping carts. And that's OK. I like business, the hard-driving beat of production to meet needs and desires. I even like sales, essential jive that hooks up producer to consumer.

When I was a kid in Rabat, Morocco, my mom used to lease me out to American and French wives for a day's shopping in the medina, the Arab open marketplace in the old part of the city. My job was not only to translate between three languages, but to play the game with the vendors: Guy quotes a price for a beautifully crafted leather purse, I come back at less than half his number, he goes into apologetic lament about his family's needs, I scoff and drop the price even further, he screams robbery .... We danced this dance, sang our lyrics of that ancient song, 'til all left happy. I felt the love; so did the vendors, thought the towhead 10-year-old kid might have the potential to grow up civilized. Instead, I returned to the U.S., where the game is still adolescent-crude, hard-edged with lies and lust.

But I still do my part in wine sales. My work is to suss out good wines, values reachable by most EW readers, fronting for simple pleasures.

But I do this for love, which is where wine really begins. Which brings us to Valentine's Day, also supposed to be about love, even though too often expressions of our love come with price tags still dangling — and checked carefully.

Lotta wines these days are corporate, labels just shelf facings for megabiz giants like Seagrams or LVM, lightyears from family farms and passions for fruit; and many of the wines are made by formula, stamped out like canned tuna for focus group tastes. For example, one huge producer of Australian wines might online his blends from South Seattle, never leave home, move a zillion cases of cheap schlock. And rafts of guck make biz hard for mom-and-pop ops whose wines have distinctive style and some honest tang of places where grapes were grown. Ah, well, we gripe, just the way of the world.

But if I'm gonna grift for vino, I'm goin' heart first, then home. Lucky, we scored on this month's sleuthing, some simple beauties suitable for love feasts in the month of love.

Reyneke 2001 Reserve: This lovely hails from the Stellenbosch region of South Africa, from folks who farm grapes with high regard for the land and also for the native people; they have joined with others to support programs that'll create winebiz for black Africans. So not only have they conscience for land and folk, their wine is delish, a rich, dark blend, mainly shiraz (syrah) with a mellowing dash of merlot and a pinch of cabernet sauvignon, resulting in complex flavors of black fruits, cherries, spice and pepper.

Abacela Vineyards and Winery in Roseburg is coming on strong as its vines reach early adolescence. These folks bring passion into their growing and their winemaking, and Abacela 2001 Vintner's Blend ($16) is a distinctly made wine, using 14 varieties to create a rich, medium-bodied red, juicy with flavors of red and black fruit and a snappy tingle of pepper. I like all their wines, especially their tempranillo, but I think their blend has potential to become a defined style if they can achieve consistency over years. For now, this works just fine.

Really, nothing says love like a fine sparkling wine. Even takes love to make; decent sparklers are expensive every step of the way, including winemaking, bottle, cork, cage and label. To produce a fine example and sell it at accessible prices is just a little short of self-sacrifice. Lately, Argyle Winery in Dundee has seen their brut move to join the top of every winemag's list of America's best sparklers. Argyle 1998 Brut Willamette Valley ($15) is flat-out off the hook in this price range; a blend of 85 percent chardonnay/ 15 percent pinot noir, the wine is bright and crisp, with fine bubbles, but the dash of pinot lends a yummy roundness to the flavor. Goes with virtually any food, but do not over-chill; around 50 degrees would be about right.

Thazit, all the hustle I've got in me in this cold world. And it comes to you free and straight from Eros. Now, please, send some lovely rain.