Year in Review

The Best Oregon-Made Culture of 2020

From street art to stage sweat, these were the year’s most essential pieces.

By Conner Reed and Fiona McCann December 5, 2020 Published in the Winter 2020/2021 issue of Portland Monthly

How to select the best of a year that was not, for many reasons, the best? Turns out even in this fresh hell, people made, displayed, and performed beautiful, tender, political, insert-applicable-adjectives art. From a traveling cow to poetry-framed portraits, here are a few things you might actually want to take away from 2020.

The Great Offshore Grounds by Vanessa Veselka


Vanessa Veselka’s The Great Offshore Grounds and Lee van der Voo’s As the World Burns

A woman fishing in Alaska becomes a participant in an offshore drilling protest. A young activist watches a forest disappearing under water in his hometown of Fairbanks. One is fictional, one is not. Both were introduced to us by Portland authors in two of the best local books of 2020. In Vanessa Veselka’s ranging and clear-eyed novel The Great Offshore Grounds, three siblings—the reluctant protester among them—move through America in search of selfhood and survival in a heroes’ journey through broken landscapes and human experience. And Lee van der Voo’s As the World Burns is a detailed and heart-rending account of a lawsuit filed by 21 young people against the US government for violating their right to a stable climate, each plaintiff’s story a rallying cry for all of us, including that of 19-year-old Nathan from Fairbanks, who lives among climate change deniers even as the trees around them are swallowed by water. —FM

Subashini Ganesan and Yashaswini Raghuram in Listening to Silence at New Expressive Works


Listening to Silence at New Expressive Works

Subashini Ganesan, Portland’s Creative Laureate (appointed by late city commissioner Nick Fish), has been studying silence for decades. In February, she synthesized material she first encountered as an undergraduate—verses from the Rigveda about the void, musings on silence from Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti—into an exhilarating hourlong bit of choreography, performed at her small Southeast Portland studio beside collaborator Yashaswini Raghuram. Recalling it now is almost painful: remember sitting with friends and strangers, marveling at the precision of the human body and the mind’s ability to refine it? —CR


First Cow (pictured above)

This one wasn’t even close. Kelly Reichardt’s gossamer fable about friendship, industry, and America’s emergent brutality—set in 1820 Oregon—is the crowning achievement of an exceptional career. She and cowriter Jon Raymond balance tone like Olympians: funny one moment, tense the next, constantly toggling between threat and tenderness while the dormant force simmers in the background. It’s political but not preachy, literary without being dense. A small miracle from one of the giants of the American cinema, who (lucky for us) has chosen Oregon as her muse. —CR

Best Wishes by Maita


Best Wishes by Maita

Not to pull a “they should be bigger,” but Maita’s crunchy, intelligent debut has all the hallmarks of a contemporary indie rock classic: brainy structures, a juxtaposition of the gentle and the abrasive, tongue-in-cheek track titles like “Someone’s Lost Their Goddamn Wallet.” The noirish “Japanese Waitress” and epic opener “A Beast” are highlights, but all of Best Wishes plays like a seasoned entry in a storied catalog. Good news for anyone it hooks: they’ve already dropped a grungy follow up single. —CR

Linda Hayden and Chris Ramiriez in Sweat at Profile Theatre


Sweat at Profile Theatre

Profile’s January production of the Pulitzer-winning Lynn Nottage play was a testament to the power of speaking plainly. The set, by Peter Ksander, was perfect: a Pennsylvania bar whose existence you bought. The costumes, by Alex Pletcher, were spot-on early-aughts period, Big Dog and all. Pepper in a uniformly excellent ensemble and you come out with a pretty perfect version of Nottage’s script, whose exploration of the ’08 financial crash and racial fissures in an industrial town netted her points for portending Trump ... and whose sting has only intensified. —CR

Intisar Abioto’s Babe-Sis, Aunts Tnn, Miss W, Miss Choomby ... & In Our Company


Intisar Abioto’s BabeSis, Aunts Tenn, Miss W, Miss Choomby ... & In Our Company

The most talked-about vis-art in Portland this year used the city itself as a gallery. Painted on boarded-up stores, city streets, and walls, protest art centered on the Black Lives Matter movement met its audience where they were. In August, five large black and white photographs appeared on a wall at Southeast Grand and Ash, framed by poetry from Black women: National Book Award winner Nikki Finney and Portlander Samiya Bashir. The images, by local photographer Intisar Abioto, includes photographs of her own family members—among them her mother, sister, and activist aunts—forming a stirring visual representation of lineage and protest that, in the artist’s own words, “fans out worlds of change.” —FM

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