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Vanessa Renwick Talks: Why Portland?

April 7th, 2013 by Anne Richardson · No Comments · Interviews, Oregon director

Oregon Movies, A to Z presents Raw, Raucous and Sublime: 33 1/3 Years Of  Vanessa Renwick, An Oregon Department Of Kickass Retrospective, a great chance to see Vanessa Renwick’s lifetime of work on the big screen at the Hollywood Theatre. April 25 & 26, 7:30 PM. The long awaited DVD compilation North South East West: All Around The Map With Vanessa Renwick will be on sale. Filmmaker in attendance.

Anne: How did you get started as a filmmaker?

Vanessa: I remember my mother taking me to the German movie house in Chicago when I was super young, like 4 or something. There was a movie about some musician going deaf, and even though I didn’t know German, I remember being really affected by it. That’s my earliest glimmer. Bambi, Little Big Man along the way, further down the line. Then I sold tickets at an art house theater, and got turned on to Fassbinder. I was a goner.

By this time I had already shot some Super 8, as my sister’s boyfriend gave me his Super 8 camera when I went on a high school trip to Germany. Later a friend gave me his Super 8 to use when I took off hitchhiking. Outside forces forcing Super 8 cameras into my hands while traveling. I used to joke that I had been stolen from a gypsy family and I had turned to filmmaking to make up for lost travel time.

Anne: Did you do still photography, or painting, before you made films?

Vanessa: I drew, I took photos, but neither much. What I did all the time non stop was write. I was a writer and still am.

Anne: You were already a filmmaker and an art school drop out when you arrived in Portland.

Vanessa: I don’t consider myself a drop out. I knew I was going to take some classes and then leave. I never ever had a desire for a degree. That just seemed like a boring waste of time and money to me. I had to get out and hitchhike and make films.

Anne: What year was this?

Vanessa: I came in 1981 when I was hitchhiking around, spent two months here, and left. Then came back in 1989.

Anne:  I am struck by how collaborative you are. Was this a gradual evolution, or did you always make this choice, from the beginning of your career?

Vanessa: Having grown up in a very musical family, I developed an ear. I listen to a lot of music and a lot of my friends are musicians. I seem to have a knack to know which musician would be good for which film I am working on. Most of them have never scored films before. I have a bunch of film ideas waiting for the right musician, and also a bunch of musicians that I want to work with, waiting for the right film idea. It is most important to have the right musician for the piece.

Anne: What makes a collaboration work for you?

Vanessa: As far as working with musicians, I just hand them the finished picture edit and let them go do their amazingness. I am pretty hands off. So, what works? Knowing which musician will do the right piece for the film I am making and then letting them do what they do. No micromanaging on my part.

Anne: I came to your first retrospective, in 1998, at 5th Avenue Cinema. Standing room only, and the energy was intense. Tons of fans! Was there ever a time in your career when your work did not have an audience?

Vanessa: Before moving to Portland, I was shooting footage and writing and not bothering with showing the work. In Portland, Matt McCormick somehow found me, and I started furiously producing work for his bimonthly Peripheral Produce shows. It was great to be in a small community making experimental work and showing it frequently. Miranda July was here, and I was shooting her films for her, and shooting some stuff for her performances and Big Miss Movieola project. So I was seeing a lot of work by other makers through Big Miss Movieola as well.

Anne: Were you looking for a city where you could grow as an artist? What made Portland a match for you?

Vanessa: Getting a job at Powells right off the bat was great. I met so many great people who worked there. Kathy Molly was doing the paper Snipehunt, and I luckily was invited into that fold. I wrote a column entitled Beaver State, and also drove Kathy up and down the coast 4 times a year to deliver the paper to other cities. The XRAY Cafe was happening, The Blue Gallery, a lot of great places and good people making things happen. And there were often shows with film, music, reading, performance art all together, feeding off each other.

Anne:  I’m going to list Portland institutions to which you have made signal contributions. You helped grow the Small Press/Journals section at Powells and started the Dew Claw Small Press reading series there. With Brian Borello you created the Zoo Bomb public art sculpture. You were PICA’s first in house videographer, the DP for Miranda July’s Portland films, and a member of the core group of Matt McCormick’s Peripheral Produce, which became the PDX Film Festival. You taught at NWFC, and are those your photographs of the Lovejoy columns on a recent RACC publication?

Vanessa: Do you mean the public art brochure that the columns are on the cover of and the zoobomb is on the back? Not my photos, but I was responsible for getting those columns up, as a developer, John Carroll, saw my video installation in the PDX Contemporary Art Window Project. I had footage of the massive effort made by RIGGA and others to save the Lovejoy columns, mixed in with footage from Drugstore Cowboy, where they are running around under the Lovejoy ramp. Mr. Carroll didn’t know the columns had been saved, and he then decided to put some of them up in a courtyard of a building he was just getting ready to build. It is exciting right now, as the Greek community is creating  a Tom Stefopoulos (the artist who painted the columns) case in their Greek Musuem on Glisan. I am excited to say that my Lovejoy video will be finished this year with the new momentum happening there. It is a bittersweet story though. That is the reason I stopped working on it for awhile. Sometimes you just can’t go on, maybe your feelings are too wound up in disappointment, or something, and you need a break.

Anne: Basically, you were everywhere! There’s yet another Portland institution you interacted with  - but I don’t know exactly what your relationship was. What about Portland Community Access?

Vanessa: Portland Cable Access…I broke down my film purism and went there to learn video, since I was broke, and it was cheap and close to my house. I was one of the many at the time who used their equipment, but did not have a TV or cable, so did not watch it. We created content, but then never watched it on TV. I was   grateful for its existence, and met some good people there. Like P. C. Perry, from Flying Focus Video Collective, which I worked with for a while.

Anne: The digital revolution has permanently altered the landscape of American film. You were ahead of the curve on this. You always self funded and self distributed. What has it been like for you to see this transformation taking place around you?

Vanessa: I am happy I learned how to shoot on film. I think it taught me to really think before I shoot, since it was so very expensive. I also had the good fortune to learn to shoot and edit silent film first, before learning sound. Something one doesn’t learn with video. I feel that learning about the importance of the image, of making a silent film that works, was really important for me. Still, to this day, all my films now, the ones with no talking, I edit silently. Then I give the cut picture to the musician to score. I love to edit in silence first. I don’t listen to any music at all. SILENCE. To see the rhythm of the images alone as I edit. The picture story is solid before the sound is added.

Anne: Finding work life balance is tricky for artists, and tricky for artists who are parents. Separate from the discipline of finding time for everything, did you find that the work of raising two young humans informed any of your preoccupations as an artist?

Vanessa: It is probably the other way around, to start. Filming my friend have her home birth definitely had an effect on me. First birth I saw, it was only 3 hours long, so I probably had the idea, oh yeah, I can do that. Once my children, Damek and Montana, were here, I just continued living my life, but probably had more fun as well, since they were a lot of fun. They also helped me with my work, editing with me, schlepping equipment, doing voice overs, giving me their opinions. As far as influences or preoccupations, I don’t think they did that, only in terms of I do give them the last word if I am conflicted on an edit. I really trust them and value their opinions.

Anne: You are about to release a new DVD compilation of your work, North South East West: All Over The Map With Vanessa Renwick. Is this the first time your work has been available on DVD?

Vanessa: A few of my films have been on other compilations, as well as a split DVD with Greta Snider that Other Cinema put out. But those were only a few films. There are 22 films on this DVD as well as 4 more in the extras, and also some documentation of video installations I have made. It is a roller coaster ride thru the years.

Anne: Any particular favorites on North South East West?

Vanessa: I really like Satan’s Holiday. I thought I had lost all copies of it, but found one at the last minute while making the DVD. It is a portrait of Nyarlathotep Diabolus Rex, a local satanic painter at a time when Portland was much smaller.

The Portland Meadows piece, I just finished it, so it is kind of brand spanking new.

Portrait #2 Trojan. Sam Coomes did the best score ever, and Eric Edwards…such great cinematography. And I like seeing the nuclear cooling tower there, in the film, as now it is gone, and as I am very aware of its absence as I drive by it on Highway 30.

Same thing with the House of Sound. Very aware of its absence.

Worse is really raw, with horrible production values, but I love the content. Abortion protestor and pro choice ladies play off each other, twisting your brain around a bit.

I’ve literally seen Britton, South Dakota hundreds of times, but each time i see something new in it. I don’t know how that is even possible!

Anne: Thank you, Vanessa. See you April 25 & 26 at Raw, Raucous and Sublime: 33 1/3 Years Of  Vanessa Renwick, An Oregon Department Of Kickass Retrospective at the Hollywood Theatre.


What: Raw, Raucous and Sublime: 33 1/3 Years Of  Vanessa Renwick, An Oregon Department Of Kickass Retrospective

Where: Hollywood Theatre, 4122 NE Sandy Blvd, Portland, OR (503) 281 -4215

When: April 25 & 26, 7:30 PM.

Plus: Filmmaker in attendance!

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/events/513729408679513/

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