Next week the 25th Reed Arts Week (RAW) will take place. Over the course of the last quarter-century the festival has established itself as a venue for esteemed artists and as a unique opportunity for students to create and curate.
Reed Arts Week began in 1990 as Reed Arts Weekend, an annual festival organized by members of the faculty, led by Professor of Music David Schiff (1980—). Before the Gray Fund was established, the campus had very few organized events bringing students, faculty, and staff together. “In terms of what we now expect to be going on on campus, there was nothing,” says Schiff. In a mailed pamphlet from 1990, Schiff and Visiting Assistant Professor of English Maeera Shreiber (1987-92) wrote: “In the late 1950s and early 1960s Reed was host to an annual arts festival that brought leading representatives in dance, music, visual arts, and literature to the campus. This month Reed proudly revives that tradition with Reed Arts Weekend, a festival celebrating artists on the cutting edge.”
German Professor Kaspar Locher (1950-88), who also instituted the Summer Creative Scholarships that now bear his name, previously organized a festival that featured one or two performances, followed by an artists’ ball. Schiff built upon a similar framework, bringing in artists of interest that might not have otherwise come to Portland. “The project was conceived and inspired by a number of faculty members who met last spring to discuss the status of the arts at Reed,” says Schiff artists from those first few weekends included the New Klezmer Trio, Elliott Sharp, and Wayne Horvitz; as Schiff says, “it wasn’t pop music back then.”
The first few Reed Arts Weekends also featured workshops where the visiting artists could interact with students. “Not all the performers were good at it, but it was good to provide the students with a little time,” says Schiff. The festival remained largely faculty-driven for the first few years and received strong financial backing from the College, who allocated $15,000 for the first RAW. It took place over two days, Friday and Saturday, but quickly grew to a three-day festival the following year. In a letter to the Faculty following the 1991 RAW, Schiff and Shreiber wrote: “As we anticipated, the second RAW turned an experiment into a worthy tradition. We hope its future is now assured—and we have already begun to plan for next year.”
“It was exciting in the beginning,” says Schiff, but due to the sheer amount of work it takes to put such an event together, the faculty realized that for it to continue to grow within the shifting desires of the campus, the student body was going to have to take the reins. “Putting on something like RAW takes a lot of time and energy,” says Schiff, “you need people that want to do it and view it as a mission.”
Excluding RAW, there exist few venues for the presentation of student work on campus, something that was equally evident at the advent of the festival. The space now occupied by the KRRC was being used as a venue for showing student artwork, and there were a few groups on campus who were interested in bringing art to the fore. The most enigmatic group around the time of RAW’s inception was Guerrilla Theatre of the Absurd, organized by Igor Vamos ’90 (currently of the Yes Men), that performed ‘culture jamming’ demonstrations around Portland. In their most famous act, 24 people in suits ate red, white, and blue dyed mashed potatoes and then drank ipecac outside a campaign fundraiser, proceeding to vomit what had become of the red, white, and blue potatoes.
Vamos was a central figure in the first RAW in 1990. “It was so chaotic and wonderful,” says Stephanie Snyder ’91, Curator and Director of the Cooley Gallery. “I don’t know if there was a big music performance that weekend, but I know what my friends and I did.”
“Igor’s vision was to create this spectacle of creation and destruction,” says Snyder. As Vamos drove around the front lawn in a pickup truck painted like a beast, paintballers equipped with different colored paintballs took aim at a massive canvas, attempting to paint a replica of a nude historical tableau vivant portrayed by students on an adjacent stage.
“I, at this time, was a ghost,” says Snyder. “We [the ghosts] wore these old thrift store wedding dresses and we ran around doing different things. I had this huge plastic tub of gunpowder. I was walking around the front lawn, where everybody was, and I was pouring the gunpowder out in these shapes and then lighting it.”
“My memory is that, Igor being the very open troublemaker in the best sense that he
is just wanted people to get together and do what they wanted to do in a very Dionysian way,” says Snyder. “I can tell you that all of the things that go with Renn Fayre were flowing freely around that weekend and it was chaos—with my wedding gown and gunpowder and the naked tableau.”
The 1993 RAW was the first run primarily by students, with Schiff crediting strong early involvement from the Student Activities Office for the ease of the transition. The early themes had yet to acquire the open-ended, free-form versatility that this year’s theme of “Daemon” exemplifies. The they included “Latino/Latina Art” (possibly a byproduct of Schiff being able to bring a top-notch Mexican band made up of Sociology PhDs from San Francisco), “Women in the Arts” (which was colloquially dubbed “Really Awesome Women” to fit the RAW acronym), and “American Folk Art.” By the time of the 1995 RAW—themed “Asian American Artists”—the festival had grown into a five-day affair, although it would continue to be called Reed Arts Weekend into the early aughts.
In 1998, following slightly less constrictive themes of “Fashion and Art” and “Technology,” RAW Coordinator Sarah Hamill ’00, now an Assistant Professor of Art History at Oberlin, conceived the theme of “Boundaries/Borders/Intersections.” The accompanying catalog was the first that appears to have not been thrown together in Microsoft Word over the course of a weekend and printed on a desktop inkjet, and taking on the feel of a professional publication. Contained within was a short introduction to the week’s events, which included the following exposition on the theme: “Perhaps out of cowardice, perhaps for strength, we keep borders intact. Others we seek to move beyond: to see how green the grass really is, or to be happier, more equal, more different, more ourselves.” This type of much more abstract concept allows artists freedom to do what they want with their creative endeavor while also giving them just enough constraint to bring all of their projects together.
Themes throughout the 2000s carried on this tradition, with “Artifacts” in 2002, “Ego” in 2006 ( featuring a catalog inspired by The National Enquirer), and the politically-charged “Sub Prime” in 2009.
The first RAW had yet to achieve the thematic unity it has today, but even then, Snyder and others of those involved attempted to make it a cohesive whole. “I was involved in bringing a sculptor, Hugh Pocock, up from San Francisco,” says Snyder. Given the unofficial theme of destruction, the artist had a performative installation in Vollum Lounge in which he “worked with glass and objects that might not shatter that glass,” says Snyder.
While the performance fit well with the other projects that were going on that weekend, the type of structure now in place to bring about thematic unity had yet to fully develop. “Now the RAW Coordinators give such careful consideration to what’s happening in contemporary art and think beyond the culture of the art space and the museum to think about how the art spaces can live in a really interesting way,” says Snyder. “It’s an opportunity for students to curate, which was just not a word we would have used back then.”
Many of the recent RAW Coordinators have worked at the Cooley Gallery, and Snyder has been closely involved with the event over the last six years as an advisor. “My role is one of helper,” she says. “RAW is really for students, by students, I have been honored to help with RAW.”
Elizabeth Bidart ’12 curated the 2010 Reed Arts Week. “It’s a lived experience,” she says. “As a kid doing this, it was like ‘how am I supposed to figure all of this out?’ You’re really doing everything; you’re curating, you’re producing, you’re making the catalog.” Her catalog, a tarot card deck is particularly striking. “All the different departments in a museum come together into a few people.”
In a similar way, RAW creates a confluence of the arts, allowing students across a range of departments to come together in a unified effort to make the week happen. It is an impressive display of the range of skills and styles that exist across majors and a testament to the determination of the students to demonstrate their learning outside the classroom.