Bitesize Slices of History

Last summer I started doing a little research. Knowing that we’d be saying goodbye to the C.E. Elementary School building that has been home to ACMA since it opened in 1992, I began poking into closets, searching old files, and combing the collective memory of the alumni and staff who had been on campus in years gone by. My hope was to find a few stories worth telling, tales that captured a bit of what it was like both in the years when Arts & Communication was young, and even farther back, reaching into history to know a little more about the school as it was closer to its opening in 1949.

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Along the way I met some incredible people, heard stories that touched my heart (and more than a few that made me laugh aloud), and came to an even greater appreciation of our little school.

Each week from August until June I posted a slice of the history online, and since a couple of folks asked to see the whole shooting match, I collect it here.

Bitesize Slices of History from ACMA

If you’ve got a rainy evening or long summer afternoon and feel like hearing a few tales from Center Street, the PDF provides -in roughly chronological order- some stories that hint at the magic that is ACMA.

Far from a complete chronology, these snapshots offer a taste of what was happening on campus from 1949-2019, a glimpse of the world gone by. Out there in our community and beyond are more stories, scores more, that would make you cry, make you smile, and make you shake your head as you whispered “I can’t believe it” even though you could.

This is ACMA, after all, where anything can happen, and might already have.

The Doors

The End

In just a couple of weeks we’ll be walking out the door of ACMA, down the stairway beneath the circular portico, and away from a building that won’t exist when we begin school in the fall. It’s a weird feeling, knowing that this building we love won’t be standing by the start of school next year, and that makes it an emotional time for lots of us who have called the C.E. Mason Elementary School building home, some for decades. And…

It’s going to be okay. We know that the heart of our school isn’t in the walls (that would be asbestos and seventy year old plaster). The real ACMA is in the people who fill the school, kids and adults, and the history of creative souls who have called our school home over the years.

Riders on the Storm

Amid this emotional maelstrom, we spent some time this year honoring that history, and the results have been fabulous, including a fun alumni night in February, slide shows at lunch, and some fantastic documentaries by our film students.

In addition, we’re working to bring some of the distinctive ACMA wainscoting with us to serve as the front of the circulation desk in the library and the reception desk in the main office of the new campus, we’ve captured the murals that can’t be moved in photographs that will fill our temporary campus in the fall, and we have a deal with the movers that they’ll save all the painted doors on campus for us, which we’ll use as an installation art show in the fall of 2021.

And as we listened to students, staff, and alumni, we got to thinking, is there a way we could each take part of our school with us?

People are Strange

Those of us who know and love our school know that the exquisite strangeness of ACMA is something marvelous. Unconventional, creative, wildly iconoclastic, our school embraces looking at things divergently, and at their best the results can be fantastic.

That perspective led a few of us to start kicking around other ideas for how we might keep the spirit of C.E. Mason alive, and someone thought…

Hello, I Love You

We love our old building, and hate to see it go, and while we know we can’t save every corner, what if we kept that door of memory open by having something we could save, a little piece of at least, something to hold, something to take with us.

We looked around at what that something, or those somethings might be. Knowing that we have a talented group of stagecrafters, we headed out to the scene shop and ran an idea past some saw wielding techs.

Break on Through

We have these doors, we told them, robust, solid, and installed in the 1940s. What if we took a few of the doors that haven’t been made into canvases for our artists off their hinges and chopped them into cubes of ACMA that we could stamp and give away?

The students smiled and nodded to each other. “We could do that.”

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…and so I have two boxes of ACMA in my office.

Some pieces of ACMA were given out at our ACMA Spectacular, others will go to 2019 graduates, still others will find their way onto desks and bookshelves, atop coffee tables and into dorm rooms, little reminders of a school we love.

Paper Dresses, Organized Chaos, and a Prayer

As the 2000s became the 2010s ACMA continued to evolve as an arts school. Students pursued traditional pathways like painting, drawing, dance, and theatre, and pushed the boundaries of art in ways as creative and diverse as the students themselves.

IMG_5082One example of this exuberant innovation came when an unusual fashion show took to the main stage of the PAC: Paper Dresses.

Gail Heymann, who taught the book arts class behind the show, remembered groups led by seniors collaborating on designing and creating a “creative fashion made of paper.” They worked together to choose materials, much from the stacks and stacks “hoarded” in the back storage room. Then, using sheet music, recycled material, and patterned paper, they became fashion designers.

Dance instructors worked with the models on their runway struts, an audience of students filled the PAC, and with the jazz band playing behind them, paper dresses took to the stage.

Look at photos of the event and you’ll be inspired by the whimsy and artistry of the student designers. The dresses, vests, and hats are all made from paper, soaring expressions of creativity.

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The models look like they’re having a good time too.

As one graduate put it: “I always felt a little like a wizard, and when I came to ACMA I found my Hogwarts.”

Screen Shot 2019-05-17 at 7.20.04 AMDumbledore to that Hogwarts for thirteen years was Michael Johnson, who cared for  deeply about the arts and his student artists. In the spirit of ACMA, he answered the request of his graduates in 2014 with a song.

A student accompanied Mr. Johnson on piano when during the commencement ceremony the principal picked up a microphone and sang The Prayer, a song made popular by Celine Dion.

His voice filled the performing arts center with care and paternal affection as he sang:

Just like every child
Needs to find a place,
Guide us with your grace
Give us faith so we’ll be safe”

ACMA has been, is, and will continue to be that place of safety and grace, passion and purpose, acceptance and celebration. Its magic is hard to pin down, but no less tangible than a paper dress or a song.

What is ACMA? Ask a dozen ACMA students and you’ll get thirteen answers. None, I’ll wager, are better than this summation by current ACMA freshman Eli Merritt. “In jazz, everything is about making chaos orderly, whether it’s learning to solo calmly at an incredibly slow tempo behind a singer or playing some lick at lightning fast speeds. I believe that can be used to represent ACMA as a whole. We’re chaotic, but our chaos is the most organized thing about most of us. And that’s true for all of our art forms. Here at ACMA, we are more than just the artists, we are the art. We are more than individuals, we are a family.”

A Surreal and Welcome Luxury

Look back at the newspaper articles chronicling the opening of ACMA’s Performing Arts Center and you’ll find a sense of wonder and appreciation.

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The Oregonian reported on the PAC’s opening back in 2010, quoting ACMA Senior Nathan Avakian, who said: “For most of the ACMA students, it’s slightly overwhelming. It gives us something to work up to. When you walk in and you see the space — and it’s gigantic compared to what we’ve been working in — it makes you to want to do work that has that same size impact.”

That gigantic ambition to create has continued at ACMA for almost a decade.

But the journey to completion started much earlier, with a groundbreaking ceremony under the March sun where students talked about the excitement and anticipation that went along with such an impressive building. Until the late 2000s “new construction” at ACMA meant portables or 1958’s Quonset Hut; the PAC would be a huge step forward in the life of our little school.

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Brian Bertram, who has directed plays in both the PAC and Quonset Hut, described the Performing Arts Center as “a grand palace, filled with bells and whistles, begging us to play to our hearts’ content. We have our large proscenium auditorium, microphones, and high-tech lighting instruments (that can be programmed to move on their own!), a truly pre-professional space where students can learn how the larger theatres in the “real world” operate.” And… he added, “for a more intimate experience, students can be seen acting and teching in the Blue Box, a black box theatre that (for a piece of nostalgia) still runs with the light board from our cafeteria stage days!”

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The PAC has seen performances and art shows large and small, with Art is My Voice taking over the foyer gallery every spring, scores of Senior Capstones, dance shows, musicals, plays, and concerts. It’s in the PAC that we have movie nights, open mic nights, storytelling, and huge collaborations like this year’s ACMA Spectacular.

During the school day it also serves as a place where we come together as a student body for assemblies, to hear guest artists, and gather in those times we need to be together. The red interior was aptly described by former principal Michael Johnson as the color of a heart.

Info Night

As ACMA’s Savant newspaper said in 2010: “With velvety red interior, harmonious acoustics, and plush folding chairs, stepping inside the new Performing Arts Center strikes any student as a surreal and welcome luxury.”

…the heart of our campus.

Theatre is Beautiful

IMG_0096Remnants of memory still fill the walls of the storage area behind the cafeteria, words from across the years looking down on piles of plywood sets and platforms, scraps of faux brick, wooden boxes, swinging stage doors, and even a wooden shield or two. This was once “backstage,” though there wasn’t actually a connecting door that actors could open, when the stage at ACMA was the south end of the Quonset Hut. This was before the Performing Arts Center opened on campus in 2010 and it saw the genesis of theatre at ACMA.

“There wasn’t a shell or cyclorama to hide the wooden backstage structure” recalls Linda Bloom, who taught theatre and tech in that airplane hanger. “One year there was a technical theatre class. The first order of business was to paint the backstage area black. We also painted the stage black. Lots of black paint, many hours, several coats. It was starting to look like a real theatre space.”

Those early shows were adventures in ingenuity for clever directors, flexible performers, and Herculean stage managers. “Dressing Rooms? There were two locker rooms behind the stage area,” explained Linda Bloom. “The custodial staff used one for excess supplies/furniture. The other was for props and costumes, in bad need of organizing. Tech theatre began to hang costumes and label the prop boxes. Casts preferred to change in the school restrooms. This meant the building had to be opened during any type of performance because there were no self-contained restrooms in the food court facility, proper makeup lights were non-existent. The cast put on makeup and dressed in the restrooms, while the audience was also using them.” She laughed at the memory, grief softened by time gone by, and then described the ACMA production of Bullshot Drummond, a crime farce “with about three thousand props, each used barely once.”

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Those long tables of hats, and books, and coffee cups, stretched out in the “prop room,” which Linda explained “was also considered the ‘green room’ where the actors hung when they weren’t on stage. Of course they couldn’t hear the  show, and that meant they couldn’t hear their cues, so frequent visits to the backstage happened often, so as not to miss an entrance.”

Screen Shot 2019-04-10 at 9.03.03 AMACMA’s first musical was in that almost real looking space, The Apple Tree, in 2009. Brian Bertram remembers that “it sat roughly eighty people in very uncomfortable chairs. The ‘dressing rooms’ were on either side of the stage, and some overflow in the portables. Nevertheless, we had a two person live band (keyboards by Jodie DeHaven, all other instruments by Alex Milstead). The refrigerators that always had to stay plugged in would kick on in the middle of every performance, and they were SO loud! Performances always smelled like chicken nuggets, and we had little control over the heat. Rehearsals took place all over the school in any found space with a piano.”

That willingness and ability to stand by the old axiom the show must go on was just something ACMA theatre did. Our kids owned “our makeshift stage with pride, confidence, and a love of theatre that transcends the space,” remembers Brian Bertram, “making it a magical place, filled with passion and excitement.”

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The Apple Tree wasn’t the only show with that passion and excitement. Jon Albertson recalled a production of Much Ado About Nothing set as a 1960s Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon beach picture. The war was replaced by a surf contest, and he played the friar while his son played Leonato. “My most vivid memory is completely spacing my lines during the wedding scene,” he told me “and my son leaned over and cued me.”

Performers working together made the space work, sometimes magically.

From Gossip to Kahlo’s View, jazz concerts, dance shows, The Good Doctor, and Antigone, ACMA thespians, musicians, dancers, and other performers made the stage their own.

Even after those programs left the Quonset Hut, whispers of memory remain.

IMG_0102They can be heard with a visit into the rooms behind what was the stage today. On the walls, messages from theatre students (addressed to theatre students) talk about love, appreciation, and the importance of taking risks and making art.

Students who performed in this unique venue could tell you a thing or two about making creative magic.

IMG_1218Ovid’s Metamorphosis, for example, when Director David Sikking and his crew built a giant pond to serve as the stage. Actors were barefoot, and moved over and around the water as part of the show.

…and when they knew it was coming to an end as a performance space, creativity had one last surprise. For ACMA’s production of Alice in Wonderland, theatre techs cut trapdoors in the stage, knowing this was the final show. Fanciful, fabulous, and freeing, the “cafegymnatorium” had one final run to offer the performers.

No matter the space, the creativity that artists bring to their surroundings can be inspiring. As the back of a weathered metal door tucked in the back of what is now a storage room tells anyone willing to listen: “Theatre is Beautiful.”

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Savants

Screen Shot 2019-04-04 at 1.58.13 PMIt only makes sense that an unconventional school would have an unconventional newspaper. The ACMA Savant, a print staple on campus in the 2000s, began with the mission:

Savant is a student-organized, student-written youth zine. We of the Savant staff believe that school journalism belongs to the students and that school news should be reported by the students. We also believe that each art pathway at our school should be represented in the paper as equals to the best of our ability. We, the Savant staff, pledge to work hard, dig deep, and most importantly, to represent our unique, amazing school to its fullest extent.”

Screen Shot 2019-04-04 at 1.58.43 PMYou can find many Savants catalogued online, and inside these issues you’ll find a window into the world of Arts & Communication Magnet Academy as quirky and opinionated, playful and iconoclastic, funny and heartfelt as the students who populated the school.

A sampling of articles shows ACMA Thespians volunteering at West Tualatin Valley Elementary School, sharing their love of performance with kids who saw them as stars; movie reviews, including advice on what to rent at the video store; and even a nice feature on Mr. Bertram’s wedding. What school puts in a feature on a teacher’s wedding? ACMA.

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Screen Shot 2019-04-04 at 1.57.55 PMCensorship looms large in several of the issues, discussions about the censoring of Capstones, of student art, even of Savant articles. One issue includes a funny mea culpa about Savant editors scratching out “one simple line,” an error in proofreading, as they explained it, that this many years later sparks curiosity as it prompts a smile.

Horoscopes, editorial cartoons, features on student bands, Savants throughout the years capture the spirit of ACMA, and a huge part of that spirit: art.

From drawings to photographs, poetry, stories, and articles about performances, Savants show ACMA students doing what they love, celebrating an unconventional school with an unconventional publication. So very ACMA.

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Quonset Hut

Delightful is his feigned disbelief.

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For an art school to create professional grade painting, drawing, dance, music, theater, sculpture, writing, and film in a building closed as an elementary school in 1974 is astounding to begin with. Dancers working in portables, musicians too, two programs that would seem to require bigger, better, and more specialized spaces, and not just making due, but making beautiful art should have jaws dropping. That filmmakers can produce polished products from a trailer, or that art studios housed in what were once elementary school classrooms can be the launching pad of stellar sculpture and fine art should inspire disbelief, legitimate disbelief, at least from anyone not familiar with Arts & Communication Magnet Academy. And yet…

For any of us who work here, who have gone to school at ACMA, or who are the families of ACMA artists (of any kind) making it work with what we have has been a part of our artistic life as long as the school has been around. When the students decided ACMA needed a gallery, they built one. When the students recognized that they needed to make the school their own, they painted murals. And when the burgeoning dance and theatre programs found themselves without a performance space, they took to the Quonset Hut.

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Before the Performing Arts Center came to ACMA, students acted, danced, and made music on a stage in one of the most recognizable parts of campus, the round roofed building that has been, in its history on campus reaching back to 1958, an indoor play area, gym, and cafeteria.

Seeing productions on the main stage of the PAC today, it’s hard to imagine that this same high quality programing could ever take place in what looks like an airplane hanger, and yet…

IMG_0780In 2007, film teacher Corbin Supak played the role of a visitor to ACMA in 11th grader Megan Gould’s short film that embraced this dissonance. The PAC was less than two years away, which may have given these artists the piece of mind to poke fun at their “FOOD COURT / AUDITORIUM,” and poke fun they did.

The show begins with Mitchell, an earnest ACMA student, welcoming our visitor to a campus that should look familiar to alumni and current students alike. They peek into a converted classroom to see a tap class before heading outside to see “the performance space” for ACMA’s shows.

Screen Shot 2019-03-19 at 2.46.00 PMSpotting the Quonset Hut the guessing begins: Auto shop? Construction? Scene building shop?

“Where is the entrance?” our visitor asks, widening his arms to suggest a grand marquee. “It’s right there, next to the trash can,” deadpans our host. They go inside, past the “ACMA Breakfast Special” and into “the performers entrance?!?!” Not so much.

After noticing the “installation art piece” of a water cooler and some microwaves, our pair stop to listen to a rehearsal of the upcoming play. “Mime?” he asks. “No.”

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They notice cafeteria coolers, stacks of tables, and signs proclaiming ACMA an exceptional school. With a smile almost touching his lips, our host asserts: “This is legitimate theatre.”

This low key critique of the state of arts facilities at ACMA stands the test of time, and as we prepare to close up the C.E. Mason Elementary building that ACMA has called home for more than a quarter century, it’s fun to look back at the place we’ve made work for so long. As in the student film, any cheeky (feigned) disbelief (because we know that we’ve spun gold from straw for so long) is made easier knowing that a new space is on the horizon, a campus opening in the fall of 2021 designed to be an art school.

In three or four years will the current photography room, film room, and art studios be thought of as being as antiquated as the Quonset Hut? Maybe. I’ll wager that those of us who are able to spend time at both sites will have stories to tell that will make students new to ACMA widen their eyes.

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