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Arts & Life


Weekend Wrap: Betty Feves & Portland Playhouse

"Six Figures," by Betty Feves, date unknown. Raku on wooden base.

Dan Kvitka / Collection of Feves Family

We could talk about so many interesting things this week, if we wanted and had time. Israeli choreographer Yasmeen Godder’s comedy of the absurd danced through Lincoln Hall, for example, and as the comedy of the absurd can do, it grew progressively dark and even grotesque. Fake internal organs and the waltz together in the same dance!

And the Portland Opera staged and recorded for commercial release the Philip Glass opera, Galileo Galilei. That one continues this week, and it got me thinking about the clashes between science and religion in our own time. The best, most sinuous parts involved the science experiments, and if you’re a Glass fan at all, you probably have your tickets already. If you don’t you could be out of luck: I’ve heard tickets are scarce in general, though a few might still remain for Tuesday night.

So, that’s what I won’t be writing about, but then I just did… funny how that works.

Betty Feves, Museum of Contemporary Craft: My colleague at Oregon ArtsWatch, Bob Hicks, has already written beautifully about this retrospective, Generations: Betty Feves, which honors the art, craft and life of the early modern ceramist, so you may want to hop there for much more than I have time for here.

Betty Feves in her studio, c. 1972

Collection of Feves Family

Feves (1918-1985) is a legendary Oregon artist at this point — a woman in a man’s world (sculpture), a modernist-educated artist in a culture often befuddled by new art, remote even from Portland, the state’s arts center, which was barely a blip on the national radar, if it registered at all. Still, she became a dynamic national force in ceramic art, an important advocate for art education in the state and the linchpin of cultural life in her own area, where she also taught violin along with art, kindling the desire to make art wherever she found it.

The exhibition itself, curated by Namita Gupta Wiggers, is beautiful. The first floor is light and airy, with plenty of room for some of Feves’ larger standing sculptures. Some of those are recognizably figures, though more in the form of gestures than full-bodied figures, attenuated or hollowed out, incomplete as figures but all there as art. And some are the slab sculptures she experimented with — cliffs of fired clay that have the texture and color of eastern Oregon, and if you sink deeply enough into reverie, maybe the smell as well.

As you would expect her drawing touch was adept, too, and Wiggers mixes drawing and sculpture together with great effect. Don’t pass over the chance to page through Feves’ sketchbook, preserved electronically and mounted on the wall. Great stuff.

Upstairs, things get a little denser to show the range of Feves’ activities, which also included bowls and pots and platters of various shapes and sizes. These demonstrate her active experimentation with glazes and clay bodies and firing techniques. A video shows one of her bonfire firings: She arranges some pots on a grate and builds a fire around them, using grass and brush and… is that dried dung? Yes, I think so. A sweet set of these pots is right behind the video, so you can see the results.

Dan Kvitka / Collection of Feves Family

As interesting as I find Feves’ work and artmaking process, I’m even more impressed by the community building she did. If you have an extra minute or two, listen to the recorded interviews with people whose lives she affected, including one with the very great Oregon painter James Lavadour. Feves lived the ideal of service, these suggest, which is a force of nature all by itself.

In the Red and Brown Water, Portland Playhouse: The last time we talked about Portland Playhouse, the little Northeast Portland theater company was winning its City Council appeal of a zoning ruling that would have evicted it from its home in a church on Northeast Prescott Street. I’m still angry that the City put the company through this expensive and time-consuming exercise, which I got into a bit on ArtsWatch.

Anyway, the company’s homecoming play is by the young, celebrated playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, the first part of a trilogy (the company opens the rest of it on April 19) that mixes life in a Louisiana project with Yoruban myths in an intense, highly theatrical and plain-spoken though poetic theater experience.

Tarell Alvin McCraney

Greg Funnell / Courtesy of the McCarter Theatre

The play starts out simply enough as a story about Oya, a young woman with a budding running career, who turns the heads of the boys and is on the verge of winning a track scholarship when her mother gets very sick and escape to the “outside” world becomes impossible. That turns Oya’s life in on itself, into her own love melodramas along with those of her neighbors.

But something is tugging at this story, pulling it beyond the day-to-day, making the stakes seem bigger than life, turning its open sensuality into, yes, something mythic. The play, directed by Victor Mack, pulses along rhythmically and musically, and pretty soon I started to feel as though I was in the middle of a folk tale (the audience is very close to the action in the church), which is a vote for the actors in this ensemble play, especially Ramona Lisa as Oya, Brian Demar Jones as Elegba and Damian Thompson as Shango.

I liked the simplicity of the set and the way the audience on opening night leaned forward as the play progressed. Something strange was going to happen, transformative even, but it wasn’t necessarily going to be all sweetness and light.

In the Red and Brown Water was an excellent way for Portland Playhouse to return to its home base (it had staged plays in the World Trade Center downtown and Imago in Southeast while the appeal was amounted), the community restored.

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