Monday, March 30, 2020

Forgotten Stories: Northwest Public Art of the 1930s

Forgotten Stories: Northwest Public Art of the 1930s
Reviewed by Alec Clayton

Note: Publication of this review did not happen as planned because of the corona virus pandemic.

Morris Graves, The Church at Index

Forgotten Stories: Northwest Public Art of the 1930s is an exhibition of mostly unknown but historically important art created under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington during the Great Depression. Curator Margaret Bullock spent decades pulling together this exhibition which fills two of the largest galleries in Tacoma Art Museum with paintings, prints, sculptures, and murals pulled from the walls of schools, libraries and post offices. Also included are little-known early works by more well-known artists such as Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves and photographer Minor White.
During the Roosevelt presidency hundreds of artists were employed by the WPA. They created thousands of works of art even in the sparsely populated and remote Northwest, many of which have since been lost or are located in small, out-of-the way towns where few people see them, and those who do don’t know their significance. TAM’s exhibition uncovers and re-introduces to the public hundreds of these forgotten works.
“TAM is fortunate to be able to exhibit a number of works that have not been seen since their creation and also to borrow several large-scale murals that normally never leave their permanent locations in schools and post offices,” Bullock said.
The large murals were painted on canvas and glued to walls in public buildings and have been carefully removed and installed in the museum for this exhibition. Most of these works are from what is generally thought of as American scene paintings, which glorify working people and small town-life. Typical is Jacob Elshin’s “Miners at Work,” a 5-by-12-foot mural in the Renton, Washington Post Office. It depicts miners hard at work mining coal in a dark and dirty mine shaft. Like so many figures in American scene paintings, the figures appear anonymous, seen from the back or in profile. They appear rounded as in bas relief. The painting is somber and dark and quietly salutes cooperative work.
Also somber is Kenneth Callahan’s, “Dock Scene from the mural cycle Men Who Work the Ships,” depicting men at work on what looks more like girders of buildings than ship building. Like Elshin’s miners, these workers are rounded figures with some bulbous areas of clothing that bear little relation to reality. This painting is a far cry from the energetic and spiritual abstract paintings Callahan became famous for later, other than the angular structure of the beams, which lends dynamism to the composition.
Another artist in the show who later became famous is Morris Graves with his 1934 oil on canvas, “Church at Index.” It is a strong painting of a small-town church with a bridge in the foreground and odd gridwork in the sky. With hints at abstraction, this painting is a harbinger of Graves’s later work.
Aimee Gorham, Solomon, wood marquetry
Aimee Gorham made many large-scale decorative panels in wood marquetry for seven schools in Portland, Oregon. The one in this show on loan from Portland Art Museum is called “Solomon.” It is a flattened, icon-like figure of the wise man rendered in an Egyptian style with a strong ray of light angling in from top right and many subtle variations of wood tone and grain.
Dora Erickson, Dakota Hotel
The most eerily haunting painting in the exhibition is Dora Erickson’s oil on canvas “Dakota Hotel,” picturing a strange isolated hotel on an empty prairie with five lonely figures sitting on a makeshift wooden porch. The sickly green building against a star-filled night sky gives the image an otherworldly appearance.
The many works of art in this exhibition epitomize an historic era and an approach to art making that played an important role in American art in the first half of the 20th century.
Forgotten Stories: Northwest Public Art of the 1930s continues through Aug. 16.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Review: “A Chorus Line”

By Alec Clayton
Note: This review was supposed to be published in The News Tribune, but since all area theaters have been shut down due to the coronavirus it will not be. 

You might remember the 1985 movie of A Chorus Line” with Michael Douglas as Zach the director. You might have seen it on Broadway in the 1970s. Chances are you’ve forgotten just how good it was. Tacoma Little Theatre is now giving local audiences a chance to remember.
A Chorus Line” is rarely performed by community theaters for the simple reason that it is too hard to do. It requires a large cast of beautiful young people (and one middle aged man) who can sing, dance and act with knock-’em-dead skill and an incredibly talented director and choreographer. TLT’s Eric Clausell is more than up to the challenge as both director and choreographer. Add to that a fabulous set by Blake R. York and lighting by Niclas Olson, and you’ve got a show worthy of another Broadway revival.
The set is an empty stage with a back wall of mirrors that rotate to become a black wall and another set of mirrors that are brought onstage to create five stunning reflections of Whitney Shafer in the most marvelous dance performance of the night.
It’s a chorus cattle call with a stage crowded with dancers – some veterans and others starry-eyed wannabees – filling every inch of the stage while auditioning for a part in the chorus. But the director, Zach (Michael O’Hara) demands more. He wants them to open up about their personal lives, which they reluctantly do in sometimes tortured speeches and in song and dance.
Sheila (Heather Malroy), a jaded Broadway veteran who acts like she’s bored with the whole thing, reveals a sad childhood in which ballet was her only escape. She sings the haunting “At the Ballet” and is joined by Bebe (Lisa Kelly) and Maggie (Cynthia Ryan) who also used dance as an escape from a sad childhood.
A couple of the men come out as gay at a time when coming out was much riskier than it is today and when internalized homophobia was common.
Val (Melanie Gladstone) talks about how despite being a great dancer she could never get cast because she was flat chested and, in her estimation, ugly. So she had reconstructive surgery and became successful. Her tale leads to the hilarious and sassy song-and-dance number “Dance:Ten; Looks: Three” about her beautifully augmented body parts.
Cassie (Shafer), whose star shone briefly on Broadway and then in Hollywood can no longer get cast in anything and is reduced to begging for a job in the chorus, and in one of the more poignant and dramatic scenes in the play it is revealed that she and Zach have a troubled past together, which sheds light on why he is more demanding of her than of any of the others in the audition. The scene with Zach and Cassie arguing about their relationship while incongruously everyone else sings and dances behind them is a bit sappy and unrealistic, but it leads to Shafer’s wonderful solo dance.
Finally, Zach asks of all the hopefuls why they want to be in the chorus and speaking for them all, Diana (Keola Holt) sings the spellbinding “What I Did for Love” with a voice that is wonderfully clear and bell-like.
The entire cast is outstanding, each standing out as an individual while fitting in with the chorus, and their interaction in movement, song and speech is like pieces of an intricate moving jigsaw puzzle. This is a production that should not be missed. It is recommended for ages 12 and older and has flashing light effects, adult language and sexual suggestiveness.

Tacoma Little Theatre, 210 North I St., Tacoma,


It is with a heavy heart that Tacoma Little Theatre is cancelling our shows through April 23, 2020.  Based upon recommendations from the government, regional sources, and our board of directors, it is in the best interest for the health and safety of patrons, artists, staff, volunteers, students, and all who come through our doors, that all public performances and classes will be cancelled.
If you had purchased a ticket to A Chorus Line you will be contacted by the box office staff within the next few days.  We will offer you the following ticketing options:
  • A voucher to be used for any mainstage production through June of 2021
  • You may generously choose to offer your ticket expense as a tax-deductible donation to TLT
  • One bright light in our day is that we are actively working with our production team to see if we can remount A Chorus Line after this crisis has passed.

Monday, March 9, 2020

The Wolves at Lakewood Playhouse

A season of fierce women’s soccer

By Alec Clayton
Published in the Weekly Volcano
Ensemble cast of "The Wolves". Photo credit: Tim Johnston
Despite being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize three years ago, Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves is not well known, which is probably why more than half the seats at Lakewood Playhouse were empty opening night. That’s also why community theaters are reluctant to try new or little-known plays, and that’s a crying shame. They should be rewarded, not shunned.

The Wolves is a uniquely structured play. Lakewood Playhouse’s production takes place on an almost empty stage ― the only set being artificial turf on the floor and a curtain at the back that serves as a soccer goal. It is the story of a season of a high school girls’ indoor soccer team, and it takes place on a series of Saturday practice sessions as the girls talk about life, love, war, sex, soccer and each other while getting ready for the next day’s game. As groups of people do in real life, they talk over each other with often multiple conversations going at once, and their talk happens while doing stretching exercises and kicking soccer balls and running around (in this case off stage, stage right, out into the lobby and back in stage left). Keeping up with the various conversations and story lines is challenging to the audience since there are multiple, overlapping stories and not everything they say is easy to hear. Pay close attention. But if you miss a few words here and there, you’ll still be caught up in the action.

The first practice session opens with one of the girls talking about the Khmer Rouge and their murder of millions of people. Most of the team know nothing about the Khmer Rouge. Another girl uses the word “retarded” and the team captain (Andreya Pro) says “Don’t say the ‘R’ word.” And yet another girl makes a snide comment about pregnancy and the others get upset because, as it is soon revealed, one of the girls may have had an abortion. The goalkeeper suffers from anxiety and keeps running off the field to vomit. A new girl joins the team, and there is mystery about where she came from and why she plays so much better than the others. And there is talk about wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is modern life as it is lived and talked about by teenage girls, and it is as uncompromisingly realistic as a play can get.

The Wolves is a true ensemble piece, with no stars and every actor but for a soccer mom (Elain Weaver) who shows up only in one pivotal scene. The girls do not even have names, but are listed in the program only by the numbers on their uniforms. They are, in addition to Pro: Taylor Greig, Alyssa Gries, Kaydance Rowden, Jasmine Smith, Courtney Rainer, Penelope Venturini, Mia Emma Uhl, Sierra “Max” Margullis. All but Pro, a college graduate who has performed with Tacoma Arts Live and Shakespeare Northwest, are students in high school or college who have had relatively little stage experience other than school performances, but each and every one act like professionals. They come together as a team, and each actor plays her character as a unique person with distinct character traits. The key is you can’t see them acting, not a one of them. They are simply girls being girls, talking about the things girls talk about while going through their paces on the soccer field. Through this process, they reveal a story that includes a lot of humor and coming-of-age angst and ultimately tragedy which they rise above due to their mutual support and strength of character.

Every audience member who is a parent of a teenage girl, or who has ever been a high school girl or has known high school girls will recognize these fierce warriors, The Wolves.
Congratulations to Lakewood Playhouse, to Director Indeah Harris and this outstanding all-female cast for a job well done in presenting this play.

It is not recommended for young children. Tough subjects are discussed in language typical of the characters portrayed.

The Wolves, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through March 22, $27.00, $243.00 Military and seniors, $21.00 students and educators, pay what you can March 5, Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd. Lakewood, 253.588.0042,

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Susan Christian’s art at Harlequin

"Slipping Between" monoprint with accidental shoptowel, 24" x 20", 1998
I’ll let you in on a little secret. I like Susan Christian a lot, and I have since first meeting her in 1988 or ’89, but I have not always liked her art. In the early days of our acquaintance, what I saw of her work was primarily variations on a scene of a single mountain viewed from a distance across water. Just as Cezanne exhausted his view of Mont Sainte-Victoire, Susan exhausted her view of this mountain overlooking the Salish Sea.

installation view, photo by Alec Clayton

"Tripartite Oyster Bay," pastel 48" x 18" 2001, photo by Susan Christian
Now, 30 years later, she is showing some of those same pictures in the lobby of the State Theater in conjunction with their performance of The Highest Tide, the play from the Jim Lynch novel adapted for the stage by Jane Jones. And now I really love those pictures. The pictures haven’t changed; my ability to see them has. Back then, I thought them rather bland; now I see that they are deceptively simple―refreshingly and boldly reductive, painted with a sure touch and depicting mystery, majesty and barely contained energy.

New painting, "The Highest Tide," acrylic on canvas, approx. 86" x 38", photo by Susan Christian
In the many prints in the lobby, the mountain hovers just as Mt. Rainier sometimes appears to hover above the clouds. It stands at the horizon. It floats on the water or rises from the water.

They are not all of the same mountain. There’s one mono print called “Reading Your Dreams” that looks like a snow drift with a couple of mountain-peak-shaped black lines and a blue sky filled with large white dots―an abstract interpretation of the excitement of wind and cold while skiing or snowboarding (possibly, up to the viewer to interpret).

Opening reception, photo by Lynette Charters Serembe
There are two larger pictures in the box office. “Tripartite Oyster Bay” is a pastel depicting the deep blue waters of Puget Sound as seen from either a deck or a pier overlooking the sound with a mountain range in the distance. Susan lives on the water, and the scene is probably from her home. The picture is divided by a central light section that breaks the composition into three roughly equal sections with the pier jutting out at harsh angles. The blue of the water is rich and glowing, and in the section on the left looks like windowpanes between each section of the railing. It is a beautiful and sparkling painting.

The other painting in the box office is a large work in acrylic on canvas that was done specifically for this show. In a vast field of dark and stormy blue a small group of jagged red, orange and lighter blue marks create a concentrated explosion of something like lightning on the water. This is the power and the majesty of Puget Sound made palpable in abstract painting.

Although all but one of the artworks in this show were done more than three decades ago and about 20 years before Lynch’s book was published, they are the absolute perfect illustrations for the book and play.

Susan Christian will give a talk in the lobby following the Sunday matinee March 15. Free to everyone.

When the box office is open, noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and prior to performances, 1:30-2 p.m. Sunday and 7-7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through March 21
State Theater, 202 4th Ave East, Olympia, WA 98501
Art exhibit free. Performance $36, senior, military $34, student, youth under 25 $20