Resurrecting Utopia

Contemporary Music, Literature, and Art from the Oregon Territory

In the spring, I’m presenting a series of performances at Richard Hugo House in Seattle addressing the idea of utopia as reflected in Northwest Art. In March, writer Rebecca Brown will collaborate with visual artist Nancy Kiefer to look at the Northwest Mystic Painters. In April, the series will look at the communal experiments of the 1960s, and in May, Rich Jensen a writer and musician who has been involved in a number of utopian enterprises, will collaborate with Phil Elverum, a musician from Anacortes who has recorded music as The Microphones and Mount Eerie.


Although west coast art includes too many conversations to simplify into one classification, all of the art has evolved in a recently settled region. In the west, in this no place, everything is new. In this vacancy, a statement of meaning such as a novel or painting or recording suggests a proposition: this is how life in the West might be lived. Art in the Northwest cannot help but be utopian.

While Thomas More’s 1516 work Utopia, meaning “no place” in Latin, was not the first work of its nature, it is from his work that the genre of utopia became self-conscious. A utopian work is both criticism and manifesto. The utopian work also questions the terms of a society’s self representation. In a naturalistic style things are intended to be represented as they are. Skykomish has problem with muddy streets because in 1870, Skykomish had a problems with muddy streets. However in an allegory, Skykomish may represent an earthly place and therefore has earthly problems, such as deep, sticky pockets of black, sucking mud in its streets. Allegorical work has an internal logic independent of the natural world. Allegorical works encompass a number of artistic methods, including surrealism, satire and utopian. Utopian work as a no place offers a vision of how the world might exist. Utopian work, then, is a model or map, a commentary on the world in which it is created.

However, the genre of utopia isn’t merely a critical response, but has the aim of restoring society to an Edenic state. The inhabitants of a utopia are restored to their whole, essential and natural selves. In growing up, we often feel before puberty sets in a sense of wholeness and oneness with the world. As puberty progresses and more adult expectations accumulate, the golden age of childhood gives way to the more fractured and confusing world of adulthood. Restoration of naivety and wholeness lies at the root of Utopia.

Much of our regional art seeks to restore its audience to the Golden Age. Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey, The Honey in the Horn by H.L. Davis, Housekeeping by Marilynn Robinson confront the possibility of creating paradise in the relatively blank slate of the Pacific Northwest. The attempt to unite both conscious and subconscious worlds lies at the heart of Northwest painters such Emily Carr and Guy Anderson. Northwest music, too, has gone hand-in-hand with utopia. K Records founded in the early 1980s by Calvin Johnson offered the proposition that culture does not need to depend on outside validation. In Indian Summer, Johnson sang, “Croquet and Baked Alaskas / We’ll come back for Indian Summer.” My hope is that this series will shed light on the impulse behind utopian art.

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