Museum Responds to the Proposed NEA, NEH, and IMLS cuts

The Portland Art Museum joins museums and cultural institutions across the country in opposition to the proposed elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). The arts are essential to our shared humanity and provide unparalleled opportunities for reflection, creative expression, and most importantly, connection to each other.

Art impacts people of all ages and from all backgrounds, and the Museum provides the space and resources that make that impact felt even more deeply—from focused programs for children and people living with dementia, to tours for visitors who are blind or partially sighted, and lectures for all. Our education and public programs inspire as well as offer tools that turn art into powerful lessons on history and empathy. School field trip tours open up new horizons to students and give them a broader sense of their place in the world. Each new exhibition and program offers a new opportunity to form lasting community partnerships that further extend the impact that the Museum is able to make.

The NEA, NEH, and IMLS have been vital partners in our ability to serve our community—locally and nationally. Funding has supported increased access to the Native American and Northwest art collections, as well as Northwest Film Center education and exhibition programs, among many other projects. The NEA’s crucial indemnity program for exhibitions and loans of artwork has made it possible to present many masterworks in Portland. Additionally, through the Oregon Arts Commission, the NEA provides operating support to the Museum.

The support that the Museum and other local and regional organizations have received from the NEA, NEH, and IMLS has helped to shape the dynamic cultural and civic environment that we hold dear. The Portland Art Museum strongly urges Congress to continue funding these agencies, whose work sustains our quality of life and provides real economic value across the country. Our experiences with art create a shared sense of community, nationality, and ultimately humanity—something more important now than ever.

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Portland Art Museum

The Power of the Flower

Sara Krajewski, The Robert and Mercedes Eichholz Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

Flowers mark the turning of the seasons; cut and arranged in a vase they accompany the occasions of life. Poets ascribe symbolic meaning to the rose, daisy, and lily. What about the orchid? The showy flair of the Phalaenopsis is now found everywhere from decorating corporate offices to the florist’s shelves of big-box retail stores. The once exceptional and exotic plant has become a symbol for the homogenizing effects of global trade, as it is shipped around the world to adorn a variety of domains. In an extraordinary appearance, Two Orchids by renowned artist Isa Genzken rises outside the Portland Art Museum, white blooms balanced on stems measuring three stories tall. Rendered in cast aluminum and stainless steel, the outsized flowers have the scale of a monument; but as a monument it is a complicated one.

Genzken has often employed mass-produced products in recent years: toys, souvenirs, plastic flowers, fast fashion items, and many other things that are available cheaply, large quantities, and circulating widely. Assembled into tableaux or installations, her sculptures speak to the web of detrimental effects bound to our contemporary consumer culture and our throwaway mentality. Genzken’s choice of readymade materials cast light on what the artist calls the language of mass production: “I’m not only interested in what they portray, but rather in the formal aspect of how they are made. And they come from all over the world: one component is from Taiwan, the next comes from Mexico and the third from somewhere completely different.” (Isa Genzken, Alex Farquharson) From this perspective Two Orchids reveals a sinister side to the gross availability of both the actual botanical specimen and plastic replicas of it.

The recurring appearance of flowers in Genzken’s work also invites an appreciation for the sentimental value and pure visual pleasure they induce. The artist utterly transforms the delicate plant by radically enlarging it and casting it in aluminum; she solidifies the fragility of the ephemeral bloom in a scale that exhilarates and astounds in its apparent permanence. On a fundamental level, flowers represent the natural world in contrast to Genzken’s reaction to the built environment. Throughout her career Genzken has explored the verticality and weightiness of architecture, calling attention to its dominating influence over experience of the urban landscape. Several works fight against this phenomenon. In the late 1980s, Genzken proposed public art works of giant flowers that were never realized. In a sculpture series from the late 1990s called Fuck the Bauhaus, Genzken attached a photo of a single long stem flower to a blocky skyscraper form, metaphorically dematerializing the façade. She commented stirringly that that the Bauhaus school of architects, led by Mies van der Rohe whose international-style buildings have shaped modern cities, should be denounced for its formalism that “disdained the beauty of flowers.”

Installed previously in a plaza at the edge of New York City’s Central Park, Two Orchids stood in a state of limbo between the park’s trees in one direction and the skyline of New York in the other. Now in Portland, the work animates a corner of the Museum’s red brick architecture on a site previously occupied by a large chestnut tree felled several years ago. Perhaps true to the ubiquitous plant it was modeled after, the sculpture adapts to its context and conjures up new associations for those who experience it in this location.

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Portland Art Museum

Remixing Rodin’s Sculpture

In support of the exhibition Rodin: The Human Experience, Rodin Remix is a hands-on space that encourages visitors to explore and create figures based on the artists’ own process of reusing old fragments in new works. It also puts a modern spin on Rodin’s method of mass production by showcasing pieces printed on 3D printers.

Fragments and Recycling

Rodin recycled cast offs, fragments of plaster casts that had already been made, by recombining them into new sculptures. For example, Rodin knew that a different pair of legs would change a sculpture’s expression. In Rodin Remix visitors can create their own dramatic sculptures from 3D printed and magnetized Rodin figures, to get a taste of the artist’s use of fragments.

We partnered with the Portland 3D Printing Lab to produce 3D prints, which are made by extruding molten plastic into thin layers. As the layers add up, they build a 3D form. Prints were made from free online STL files under the Creative Commons license, and from scans of the Rodins in the show. Those files can now be found on the exhibition page.

Sizing Up and Down

Rodin would sculpt a model in clay, then pass it to his assistants. They rendered the work again in marble or bronze, sizing it up or down according to Rodin’s and his patron’s wishes. Rodin’s assistants made hundreds of casts of the same model, all official Rodins, in a sort of artistic mass-production. Smaller bronzes, produced in large quantities, were more affordable. These relatively inexpensive bronzes widened the range of people who could purchase a Rodin, earning the sculptor more money and popularity.

Just as Rodin mass-produced bronze casts of the same sculpture in multiple sizes and media, the Portland 3D Printing Lab made many 3D prints of Rodin sculptures, experimenting with size and color. 3D printing can easily mass-produce objects, echoing Rodin’s earlier mass-production. The Portland 3D Printing Lab created numerous prints of Fallen Caryatid with Stone in Rodin Remix, to juxtapose the expressive qualities of the same sculpture when it is 6” high and bright orange instead of 10” high and black.

All of the 3D prints in Rodin Remix provide a tactile experience of Rodin’s forms, one you would not be able to have with the bronzes. Visitors are also encouraged to Instagram a photo of their creation in front of a backdrop of Rodin’s studio, which shows the plaster fragments he used. Each Monday during the run of the show, a visitor’s photograph appears on the @portlandartmuseum Instagram, with the tag #rodinremix. Come to the museum to experience Rodin’s art in a new way, build a sculpture, and Instagram your creation!

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Portland Art Museum

Remixing Rodin’s Sculpture (Part Two)

Our local partner organization, the Portland 3D Printing Lab, contributed this post.

The Portland Art Museum worked with the Portland 3D Printing Lab to create 3D printed plastic Rodin sculptures for Rodin Remix, the hands-on space that supports the exhibition Rodin: The Human Experience. The goal of Rodin Remix was the subject of the last post; this one will describe the work that went into producing just under 30 3D prints of Rodin’s sculptures.


I’m Shashi Jain, Organizer of the Portland 3D Printing Lab, a community of around 1100 “Layer Geeks” who love 3D printing and its many applications. We were asked by the Portland Art Museum to 3D print versions of Rodin’s sculptures for Rodin: The Human Experience, so that patrons could interact with the artist’s forms. The project has three pieces:

  1. 3D models of 3 of Rodin’s male figures, which can be posed or reassembled into your own piece (Instagram gallery here).
  2. 3D scans of 10 pieces from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Collections, available here.
  3. 3D printed replicas of 15 Rodin pieces.

Over thirty volunteers stepped up. Here’s what it was like in their own words.

3D Models by Maz and Attero

Maz and Attero | www.mazandattero.xyz

We designed the posable Rodin figures. The trickiest part was figuring out the posing mechanism. It had to be fun, while balancing durability, ease of use, and safety. We initially thought of Lego studs or ball joints, but settled on a combination of magnets and washers.

The 18-hour design process went like this:

  1. We took the 3D model files (STLs) of Rodin’s sculptures and converted them with Autodesk ReMake into Object/CAD files that can be easily manipulated.
  2. We scaled all the models to a similar size with Autodesk Fusion 360, so that attaching parts from one sculpture to another would have the right proportions.
  3. We cut the scaled models into interchangeable sections called fragments.
  4. Next, cavities were added for magnets in the limb/head fragments and for metal washers in the torsos. We included enough space to fit the metal/magnets, plus the glue to hold them in.
  5. Last, we output the fragment models to STLs that could be easily printed by volunteers.

Maz and Attero enjoyed the opportunity to participate in the problem solving and 3D design of another amazing community 3D printing project.

3D Scanning by Adam McGee, Portland 3D LLC

Adam McGee |  Portland 3D LLC |  www.PDXDDD.com

For this job, I used an iPad equipped with the Structure Sensor from Occipital Labs. Together, they form a powerful 3D camera system that can record the shape and look/feel of almost anything. At the museum, I used an app called Structure Scanner to record each piece at all angles. It was tough to get fine details without touching the statues. I had to be careful to minimize “artifacts” – unwanted scans of display cases, tools, and people. I used Autodesk Meshmixer to fill holes in the scans, clean out artifacts, and size the models.

I invite you to have fun with the scanned models; 3D print them for yourself or a friend so you too can be a part of the maker movement.

3D Printing by Portland 3D Printing Lab

Matt Liepold | Designer and Social Media | www.pdx3dplab.co

RodinRemix is the second “crowdprinting” project done by our group. We had to distribute 29 pieces for printing – 23 replicas of Rodin sculptures, 3 remixable figures, and 3 backups for spare parts. In total, we printed 56 pieces over 620 3D printer hours, and using 25kg of plastic (locally sourced at Proto-Pasta) over three months.

We used a spreadsheet to coordinate printing and to collect statistics. Maz and Attero would load files onto a shared drive, then we’d add links in the spreadsheet. Volunteers would add their name by the file based on their print capabilities (size, color, finish). This way, no one would duplicate prints and we could track the statues easily.


After many hours printing, designing, scanning, and organizing, members of the Portland 3D Printing Lab made the Rodin Remix project a reality, for which the Portland Art Museum is very grateful. Visitors enjoy the hands-on interaction with Rodin’s sculptural forms and the opportunity to make their own sculpture by mixing and matching the magnetic Rodin fragments. For more information about the Portland 3D Printing Lab and their future projects, visit their website www.pdx3dplab.co.

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Portland Art Museum

Just announced: Animating Life: The Art, Science, and Wonder of LAIKA

The announcement of Animating Life: The Art, Science, and Wonder of LAIKA earlier this week drew praise from the press, and excitement from Museum members, LAIKA fans, and animation enthusiasts. The exhibition is a groundbreaking view behind-the-curtain into the visionary artistry and technology of the globally renowned animation studio.

“Computer animation has upended Hollywood, but a group of independent filmmakers in Oregon still make their movies by hand.” –The Oregonian

“Featuring photography, video clips and physical artwork from Laika’s four Oscar-nominated feature films — Coraline, ParaNorman, Boxtrolls and Kubo and the Two Strings — the exhibit promises to immerse visitors in Laika’s creative process by exploring the company’s production design, sets, props, puppets, and costumes.” –Portland Business Journal

“It was probably in 2009 that we did a small installation of figures from the Coraline movie and over the years we’ve been talking about how to pull this together for a longer exhibition,” Ferriso tells WW.” –The Willamette Week

“It’s been another good year for Laika, what with more Academy Awards nominations. Now people can learn more about the Hillsboro animation studio in an upcoming documentary and museum exhibit.” –Portland Tribune

“LAIKA Teams with Portland Art Museum for Major Retrospective.” –Animation World Network

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Portland Art Museum

Pictures at an Exhibition: A Musician’s Search for the Sound of Identity

This post contributed by Darrell Grant.

When I received the invitation from PDX Jazz and the Portland Art Museum to present a concert in honor of International Jazz Day, I knew immediately that I wanted to tie the performance closely to the Constructing Identity exhibit. This expansive exhibition is a powerful lens through which to view over a century of African-American formation, exploration, and reinvention of identity—much of it in the face of dehumanizing racism and oppression. I was particularly interested to explore the ways that the work and narratives of the exhibit artists intersected with those of 20th century jazz artists—to find commonalities between the musical and the visual.

It was daunting trying to choose from among the bounty of historic painting, sculpture, printmaking, tapestry, and collage in the exhibit, not to mention the hundreds of notable jazz composers I might pair them with. However, over the course of several visits to the exhibit, a program began to take shape. I started with pieces that spoke to me personally.  There were several whose subject matter, imagery, symbolism, or stylistic approach “struck a chord.” Then I went through the exhibit and read all the captions accompanying the works. As I began to settle on a subset of artists to explore, I took to the Internet to research their histories and related work.

I am a layman when it comes to art history. Perhaps for that reason I thoroughly enjoyed this process of discovery around both the iconic artists and contemporary practitioners. I found the range of cultural backgrounds and influences fascinating. I was interested in the differences in formal training and the extensive travel that many of them undertook that enriched their educations and their practices. I have read many similar things in the biographies of jazz artists. Not surprisingly, many of the visual artists were products of major urban art scenes in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago, cities that were also centers of jazz musical innovation. I was intrigued to read about the influence of artist collectives and informal groups or “schools” on the development of individual artists’ practices. These too, had parallels in jazz, including the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago and the Black Artists Group (BAG) in St. Louis. It was also interesting to note how many of these artists reacted to, and participated in historic cultural moments such as The Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights Movement in similar ways to their jazz counterparts.

Once I selected my composers, then I got to pursue the most enjoyable part of the process: identifying jazz compositions that might resonate with specific visual art. In this process I was aided by the fact that music and visual art share a wide swath of descriptive language. These range from stylistic categorizations like impressionism and abstraction, to descriptions of mood like “bright” and “dark.” In fact, the very idea of color as a musical characteristic reflects our penchant for describing music in visual terms. Similarly, we talk about the “balance” of a composition or a painting, the “contour” of a drawn or melodic line. In describing visual art we also hear references to elements of jazz like improvisation and rhythm, as well as vernacular terms like “soulful, “bluesy, and “jazzy” as a way of getting closer to the essence of the work.  I tried to use this common language as a way of listening and seeing, in order to discover what the music and the art might have in common.

The musical selections in the “Sound of Identity” range from classics of the jazz repertoire to contemporary works. Likewise, the composers include icons like Ellington, Monk, and Mary Lou Williams, to contemporary jazz artists like Terence Blanchard and Marcus Shelby. Like the exhibit’s visual artists, their works express multi-faceted identities and artistic visions that are shaped by the many “hats” they wear—as performers, composers, teachers, mentors, leaders, activists, learners, and collaborators. They come from a range of ethnic, cultural, and class backgrounds, and create from a myriad of influences, personal narratives, and artistic points of view. Some deal in abstract subject matter and seek to explode established forms. Some take programmatic approaches and create aural “landscapes” of sound. Others highlight the vernacular, or even the overtly political in their work. What is universal is their quest to be seen as individuals, to have their unique stories and perspectives represented, and to make space within the culture for a larger range of experiences, ideas, and expressions. One of the historic challenges of African-American artists is that of straddling the line between high art and vernacular/popular culture. Historically we have striven to expand the perception of our work idiom to embrace both.

At the core of Constructing Identity is the assertion that “African-American art is American art.” The artistic voices of our community are, and always have been, intrinsic to the construction of American identity. The exhibit also encourages viewers to move past simplified racial constructs of “black” and “white” to see these artists for their singular contributions within the framework of American culture. Studying the exhibit and creating this concert gave me a deeper appreciation for the diversity of African-American narratives and the myriad cultural and personal identities that are so often overlooked in discussions around race. This “Sound of Identity” concert program is an attempt to connect to the cultural expressions and experiences that inspired generations of visual artists and musicians, as well as to highlight the quest for individual identity that we all pursue within the larger communities to which we belong.

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Portland Art Museum

In Memoriam – Melvin “Pete” Mark Jr.

It is with great sadness that the Portland Art Museum notes the passing of dedicated leader and loyal supporter Melvin “Pete” Mark Jr.  Pete and his late wife Mary began their exceptional commitment to and investment in the city and its people more than six decades ago.  Pete and Mary visited Portland on their honeymoon in 1951, and they instantly knew they wanted to build a career and raise a family here.

Pete and Mary were involved with the Museum for more than 30 years, as members, trustees, and Ella Hirsch Society Members.  Pete served on the Board of Trustees for over 27 years and as chair from 1990 to 1996.  He and Mary were honored in 2008 as Life Trustees, the Board’s most distinguished recognition.  Pete was active in all aspects of leadership at the Museum, contributing his time and talent on the Executive, Finance Operations, and two Director Search Committees of the Board.

Along with fellow Life Trustees Arlene and the late Harold Schnitzer, Pete and Mary were the most generous supporters in the one hundred and twenty-five year history of the Museum, contributing over $ 10 million to the institution.  Their leadership and capital support were central to numerous capital projects, most notably in his chairing the campaign to support the North Wing expansion and renovation of the former Masonic Temple, which now bears the family name—The Mark Building.  Their name also adorns the second floor gallery in the main building’s north galleries in recognition of their support in the 1990s.  In addition, their generosity helped underwrite nearly every special exhibition during their tenure as trustees, including Rembrandt and The Golden Age of Dutch Art: Treasures from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (2007), and the recent, widely celebrated Rodin: The Human Experience—Selections from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Collections (2017).  Pete and Mary were also important collectors of art, and their gifts to the Museum include significant works, such as Paul Gauguin’s Vue d’un jardin, Rouen (1884), Gustave Courbet’s Pommes, poires et raisins (ca. 1871/1873), and Severin Roesen’s Still Life of Flowers and Fruit (1870-1872).

Pete and Mary’s extraordinary dedication to the Museum and the city are evidenced every day as visitors experience art in the galleries and community groups gather in the Mark Building’s historic ballrooms.

We have lost a remarkable friend to our community, and to my family and me.  Pete Mark’s leadership and commitment to making the Museum a better place for the city he treasured, however, will always be remembered through the institution that he loved so dearly.

—Brian Ferriso, The Marilyn H. and  Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr. Director and Chief Curator

 

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Portland Art Museum

Support Education at the Museum

Join us for our Spring Annual Appeal campaign in support of the public programming that surrounds each of our exhibitions. Exhibitions at the Portland Art Museum are enhanced by a wide assortment of educational activities, lectures, tours, community partnerships, and interactive media projects. Each year we reach 60,000 students, families, and community-members through our educational programming—nearly double the national average for museums.

And we want to do more! We are thrilled to announce that an incredible supporter of the Portland Art Museum and our education programs – the Maybelle Clark Macdonald Fund – has offered us a generous matching gift of $ 25,000! All gifts between $ 150 and $ 1,000 will be matched, doubling the impact and helping the Portland Art Museum continue to serve as a vital educational and cultural resource for our entire region, now and for future generations.

Donate Now

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Portland Art Museum

Constructing Identity & Community

Featuring 100 inspiring works of art from more than 80 artists, Constructing Identity: Petrucci Family Foundation Collection of African American Art has been meaningful journey of learning, dialogue, and connection for so many here in our Portland community. Not only have we gained a greater awareness of black artists who have been largely overlooked and ignored due to systemic racism and discrimination, but we have proudly celebrated the voices and creative expression of Portland’s communities of color.

Participants in the Upstanders Festival

During Constructing Identity, the Portland Art Museum has partnered with artists, musicians, local arts organizations, community organizers, schools, teachers, and students to host more than 40 education programs.  From artist talks, lectures, panel discussions, and community dialogues to poetry, jazz, art-making, school tours, student performances, and a one-day social justice festival, these diverse programs are at the heart of a shift toward being a more relevant, responsive, and inclusive museum.  We were inspired by brave and brilliant artists such as Barbara Bullock, Arvie Smith, and Mickalene Thomas; the jazz compositions of local legend Darrell Grant; the passionate, uncompromising poetry of Morgan Parker; and the tireless spirit of community organizer and activist Teressa Raiford.

In conjunction with this exhibition, the Museum also launched a new community-centered education initiative in partnership the Museum of Impact called The Art Is Ours. The Museum of Impact is the world’s first mobile social justice museum, actively working with audiences to see themselves as active citizens and transforming museum spaces into a forum for people to create a more just, connected, and compassionate world sparked by the arts. Its founding director, Monica Montgomery, writes: “The Art Is Ours means a tipping point is at hand, where African Americans have agency in our representation and as cultural institutions work to ensure that we are seen, valued, and respected in every facet. To understand The Art Is Ours is to crack open the intersections of our lived experience as people of color, laying our heritage bare for all to see.”

Through The Art Is Ours initiative, we worked together to create a gallery in the exhibition that displayed creative responses from more than 20 local artists of color, including Ayele Ford, Israel David, Hector Hernandez, Ameya Okamoto, Ellen Bjork, Aubren Schneider, and a group of students from Rosemary Anderson High School, among others. Also through this initiative, artist Sharita Towne brought together a kaleidoscope conversation in the galleries one evening that generated 200 questions in response to the exhibition, which have since been documented in a small publication.

Art is Ours gallery

Another key part of The Art Is Ours partnership has been a collaboration with Don’t Shoot Portland, a civil rights and social justice activism group based in Portland.  The Portland Art Museum began working with members of Don’t Shoot Portland back in August 2016 when the Museum was the site for a Social Justice Community Art Project marking the 2-year anniversary of the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.  Members of this group worked with the Museum of Impact in May to host the Portland’s first Upstanders Festival here at the Portland Art Museum—a day-long event celebrating art, activism, and positive community change.  This event occurred the day following the horrific attack on the Max train here in Portland, opening the museum up as a place for people to come together as a community and to engage with the arts in ways that celebrate difference and build empathy, dialogue, and understanding.

According to artist Karina Puente, whose papel picado work “Cut Deep” was exhibited as part of the museum’s Upstanders Festival—programs like these “give the Portland community a place to heal, see themselves in the work, and advance as leaders in a conversation we all need to have.”

I am so proud to have worked in support of this exhibition and its education programs along with the powerful relationships that we have built and that will continue to grow as we head into the future.  Exhibitions, programs, and partnerships like these help us, as a museum, to work toward being more socially responsible, acting upon the inequalities within and outside our city as well as contributing to a more just, equitable, and connected community.

Special thanks to collector Jim Petrucci and his family, guest curator Berrisford Boothe, and to our partnering organizations: Museum of Impact, Don’t Shoot Portland, Portland Public Schools, PDX Jazz, Portland State University, Multnomah County Library, Pacific Northwest College of Art, Marylhurst University, Portland Trail Blazers, and The Portland Observer, The Skanner News; and everyone here in our community and on the museum’s team who helped make this exhibition and its programs such a meaningful and memorable experience.  And thank you to the nearly 100,000 people who came to see this exhibition and participate in our programming!

-Mike Murawski, Director of Education & Public Programs

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Portland Art Museum

Pictures at an Exhibition: A Musician’s Search for the Sound of Identity

This post contributed by Darrell Grant.

When I received the invitation from PDX Jazz and the Portland Art Museum to present a concert in honor of International Jazz Day, I knew immediately that I wanted to tie the performance closely to the Constructing Identity exhibit. This expansive exhibition is a powerful lens through which to view over a century of African-American formation, exploration, and reinvention of identity—much of it in the face of dehumanizing racism and oppression. I was particularly interested to explore the ways that the work and narratives of the exhibit artists intersected with those of 20th century jazz artists—to find commonalities between the musical and the visual.

It was daunting trying to choose from among the bounty of historic painting, sculpture, printmaking, tapestry, and collage in the exhibit, not to mention the hundreds of notable jazz composers I might pair them with. However, over the course of several visits to the exhibit, a program began to take shape. I started with pieces that spoke to me personally.  There were several whose subject matter, imagery, symbolism, or stylistic approach “struck a chord.” Then I went through the exhibit and read all the captions accompanying the works. As I began to settle on a subset of artists to explore, I took to the Internet to research their histories and related work.

I am a layman when it comes to art history. Perhaps for that reason I thoroughly enjoyed this process of discovery around both the iconic artists and contemporary practitioners. I found the range of cultural backgrounds and influences fascinating. I was interested in the differences in formal training and the extensive travel that many of them undertook that enriched their educations and their practices. I have read many similar things in the biographies of jazz artists. Not surprisingly, many of the visual artists were products of major urban art scenes in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago, cities that were also centers of jazz musical innovation. I was intrigued to read about the influence of artist collectives and informal groups or “schools” on the development of individual artists’ practices. These too, had parallels in jazz, including the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago and the Black Artists Group (BAG) in St. Louis. It was also interesting to note how many of these artists reacted to, and participated in historic cultural moments such as The Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights Movement in similar ways to their jazz counterparts.

Once I selected my composers, then I got to pursue the most enjoyable part of the process: identifying jazz compositions that might resonate with specific visual art. In this process I was aided by the fact that music and visual art share a wide swath of descriptive language. These range from stylistic categorizations like impressionism and abstraction, to descriptions of mood like “bright” and “dark.” In fact, the very idea of color as a musical characteristic reflects our penchant for describing music in visual terms. Similarly, we talk about the “balance” of a composition or a painting, the “contour” of a drawn or melodic line. In describing visual art we also hear references to elements of jazz like improvisation and rhythm, as well as vernacular terms like “soulful, “bluesy, and “jazzy” as a way of getting closer to the essence of the work.  I tried to use this common language as a way of listening and seeing, in order to discover what the music and the art might have in common.

The musical selections in the “Sound of Identity” range from classics of the jazz repertoire to contemporary works. Likewise, the composers include icons like Ellington, Monk, and Mary Lou Williams, to contemporary jazz artists like Terence Blanchard and Marcus Shelby. Like the exhibit’s visual artists, their works express multi-faceted identities and artistic visions that are shaped by the many “hats” they wear—as performers, composers, teachers, mentors, leaders, activists, learners, and collaborators. They come from a range of ethnic, cultural, and class backgrounds, and create from a myriad of influences, personal narratives, and artistic points of view. Some deal in abstract subject matter and seek to explode established forms. Some take programmatic approaches and create aural “landscapes” of sound. Others highlight the vernacular, or even the overtly political in their work. What is universal is their quest to be seen as individuals, to have their unique stories and perspectives represented, and to make space within the culture for a larger range of experiences, ideas, and expressions. One of the historic challenges of African-American artists is that of straddling the line between high art and vernacular/popular culture. Historically we have striven to expand the perception of our work idiom to embrace both.

At the core of Constructing Identity is the assertion that “African-American art is American art.” The artistic voices of our community are, and always have been, intrinsic to the construction of American identity. The exhibit also encourages viewers to move past simplified racial constructs of “black” and “white” to see these artists for their singular contributions within the framework of American culture. Studying the exhibit and creating this concert gave me a deeper appreciation for the diversity of African-American narratives and the myriad cultural and personal identities that are so often overlooked in discussions around race. This “Sound of Identity” concert program is an attempt to connect to the cultural expressions and experiences that inspired generations of visual artists and musicians, as well as to highlight the quest for individual identity that we all pursue within the larger communities to which we belong.

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