ashland.news
June 13, 2024

Ashland: Where nature and culture come together

David R. Humphrey
Ashland Chamber of Commerce President Gary Blake, left, and David R. Humphrey, Ph.D., Director of the Oregon Center for the Arts at Southern Oregon University, at the chamber's annual dinner on Oct. 5. File photo by Bob Palermini
October 11, 2023

By supporting the arts, ‘we create spaces for creativity, dialogue and reflection,’ attracting visitors ‘to a vibrant and inclusive destination’

The following is the text of the keynote speech given at the Ashland Chamber of Commerce annual dinner on Oct. 5 at Ashland Hills Hotel.

By David R. Humphrey

As a young boy, I witnessed my father, a retired WWI submarine commander, take command of his own 27-foot sloop, navigating the waters off the west coast of Florida with the skill and precision of a seasoned captain. My father was normally a mild-mannered man except when he put to sea on his boat with me as his first mate; he then turned into Captain Blyth, shouting orders and using profanity when orders were not carried out to his liking. 

However, during the lulls in the day, when sailing was calm, my father recited poetry, and one of his cherished poems was “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: 

It was the schooner Hesperus,

That sailed the wintry sea;

And the skipper had taken his little daughter,

To bear him company.

Blue were her eyes as the fairy-flax,

Her cheeks like the dawn of day,

And her bosom white as the hawthorn buds,

That ope’ in the month of May.

The skipper he stood beside the helm,

His pipe was in his mouth,

And he watched how the veering flaw did blow

The smoke now West, now South.

Then up and spake an old Sailor,

Had sailed the Spanish Main,

“I pray thee, put into yonder port,

For I feel a hurricane.

Last night, the moon had a golden ring,

And tonight no moon we see!”

The skipper, he blew a whiff from his pipe,

And a scornful laugh laughed he.

If you know this poem, it doesn’t particularly end well for both the captain or his little fairy-flaxed daughter, which did not give me the greatest confidence in my dad’s command.

However, it was during those moments that I came to understand the profound connection between nature and art, a lesson he imparted through a cherished poem he repeatedly recited to me while sailing at sea. Even in his 80s, every word remained etched in his memory, a testament to the enduring power of both nature and art.

As a side note, I have to say that I must have listen to this poem at least 100 times or more, so it began to lose it poignancy after the 10th time. But it made him happy and if Capt. Blyth was happy, I was happy.

Today, I stand before you to celebrate the profound connection that exists between the natural world and the artistic expressions that emerge from it. 

As we thrive in the picturesque town of Ashland, surrounded by its lush landscapes and rich cultural heritage, we are presented with a living testament to the profound relationship between nature and artistic expression. Ashland, with its verdant forests, majestic mountains, and the melodic flow of Ashland Creek, embodies the very essence of nature’s beauty. Our town is a canvas upon which nature paints its most exquisite landscapes. The vivid colors of the changing seasons, the whispering leaves and the distant melodies of birdsong are all part of Ashland’s natural symphony. 

In many ways, Ashland’s embrace of nature parallels the spirit of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. This work, composed amidst the rolling hills and babbling brooks of the Austrian countryside, is a celebration of the serene coexistence between humanity and the natural world. Beethoven, through his music, invites us to reflect upon the magical dance of life in its purest form. 

Just as Beethoven translated nature’s voice into music, Ashland transforms it landscapes into a canvas for artistic endeavors. The renowned Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Oregon Cabaret Theatre, nestled amidst this natural splendor, are prime examples. Here, the human experience finds expression through the power of theater. The plays performed on these stages echo the timeless themes of nature, humanity and the interplay between the two. 

Let us not forget the local artists and craftspeople who draw inspiration from Ashland’s natural bounty. Their creations, in the form of sculptures, murals, and ceramics, serve as a bridge between the tangible and intangible, capturing the essence of nature in every brushstroke and sculpted form which can be found in our public art, our galleries or the Schneider Museum of Art.

The campus of Southern Oregon University is a park devoted to intellectual pursuit but also it is a place where arts and nature abound through the offerings of its Oregon Center for the Arts, including Chamber Music Concerts or the Tutunov Piano Series or the Oregon Fringe Festival.

I know that was a shameless plug for SOU.

Moreover, music itself finds a home in Ashland’s heart. The town resonates with the harmonious strains of various genres, from the classical symphonies of the Rogue Valley Symphony or the choral ecstasy of Southern Oregon Repertory Singers to Southern Oregon University’s Jazz Ensemble heard in Lithia Park

But let’s not forget that this land holds a cherished significance not only for us but also as the ancestral homelands of the Shasta, Takelma, and Latgawa peoples, who lived here since time immemorial and who wove art and nature into a cultural tapestry. 

By recognizing and respecting their enduring connection to the land, they not only honor their ancestors but also contribute to a more harmonious relationship with nature. This effort is not only significant for the tribes themselves but also enriches the broader spirit of the community as a whole. It is a testament to the resilience and commitment to these communities to ensure that their heritage remains alive and thriving for generations to come.

Ashland, Oregon is a living testament to the symbiotic relationship between nature and culture. It is a place where the lines between human expression and the natural world blur, creating an atmosphere of profound beauty and inspiration. But you all know this already.

Now comes the crux of this speech, so be prepared and don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Supporting the arts in Ashland, particularly its public art, is a crucial endeavor. The arts not only enhance the natural beauty of our town but also allow for artistic expression and commercial enterprise to thrive. This, in turn, helps shape the cultural identity of our area and enriches our lives. By championing the arts, we create spaces for creativity, dialogue and reflection, drawing many more visitors to a vibrant and inclusive destination. It’s inspiring to see individuals like yourselves advocating for the importance of the arts in Ashland. Our efforts are bound to have a positive and lasting impact.

Reflecting on my father and the lesson he taught me to combine art and nature, I leave you these final words. 

Pull the jib and crank the mainsail, a gale is approaching. Damn it David, did you not hear what I just said? This relates to my earlier Capt. Blyth reference.

These words carry a sense of urgency and determination. They invoke a call to action. I call upon you not only embrace the abundance of arts in our community but to allow them to thrive and flourish in our beautiful, natural surroundings. 

David Humphrey, Ph.D., is director of the new School of Arts & Communication at Southern Oregon University, as well as director of the Oregon Center for the Arts at SOU. He has served in leadership and consulting roles at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Metropolitan Opera, the National Endowment for the Arts, New York City Opera, the Corcoran Museum of Art, Museum of Performance and Design, the California Center for the Arts in Escondido and the Washington Bach Consort.

Picture of Jim

Jim


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