Art, Nudity, and Radicals: three takes on the Oregon Country Fair

A few weeks ago, I spent a week working at the Oregon Country Fair. For those who are unfamiliar: The fair is a huge crafts and music festival, sort of a combination of Seattle’s Folklife and Bumbershoot, but held in a gorgeous riverfront woodland just west of Eugene, and with much better food and hordes of variety performers, marching bands, and amateur theatricals.

The fair still holds some of the Prankster vibe of its founding; it has roots in a 1969 Eugene school fundraiser by Ken Kesey and friends. (One of my favorite recurring lines from Seattle’s Fremont Players, who first produce their annual Christmas Panto show at the fair, is a regular reference to “all the feral hippie children.”) And most famously, the fair is actually two fairs. The first is the day fair, for the paying public, running through the day until the last public guests are swept out in the early evening. Then the second fair starts for the staff, vendors, and entertainers. It’s one part night-market and one part twinkle-lit fairyland, with musicians playing around fire pits in parties that extend until dawn.

The day fair is a great, sprawling affair, crowds of families from across Oregon and the Northwest, faces painted and fairy wings resplendent, dashing off to the next musical performance or dawdling in front of a pottery booth.

And the night fair is magical: walking the paths at night, the food booths open late and lit by gas lanterns and battery-powered LED fairy lights, crowds wandering through the dark as in a fantastic night market. Or walking to one’s fair job in the morning before the doors open, after a breakfast of oatmeal and crisp cut cherries and peaches, all of the booths slowly setting up in their weathered niches beneath the trees, the proprietors looking for all the world like denizens of the Shire.

The night fair is a busker’s paradise: coming upon Seattle’s angry troubadour Jim Page at his annual Sunday night storefront concert, or waking up in one’s tent at three in the morning to the unmistakable strains of Jason Webley’s accordion from a bonfire somewhere through the trees.

The fair is a surprisingly important phenomenon, if only for the complexity of the culture that surrounds the event and the history it has developed; in some cases adults end up working at booths founded by their grandparents. Three comments came to mind from this year’s fair, insights for me about art education, nudity, and bad public discourse.


For the past few years, I’ve worked at the fair’s Public Art Booth. It’s a little station of creativity amid the swirling day crowds, run by a stalwart crew come down from Seattle and set in a tree-shaded island just inside the fair’s main entrance. Passers-by, both children and adults, stop at the booth to make something. It’s a great location in the center of the fair, a perfect vantage point for watching the passing parade—sometimes it’s an actual parade; a marching band comes though a couple of times each day, led by the great Fyodor Karamazov from Seattle, a founding member of the Flying Karamazov Brothers. And there’s a good music stage and a 24-hour cheesecake stand just across the way.

The art booth usually has three or four work areas: this year there was one for working with scraps of leather, stamping and sewing and cutting and fastening; one for working with pieces of rubber cut from dead bicycle tires; one for working with felt and feathers; and one for making mechanical puppets and shadow puppets cut from paper, with a dark little shadow puppet theater in the back. People make earrings, headbands, crowns, pins, belts, wallets and purses, plaques, wristbands, anklets, puppets of course, and more.

At first glance, it seems more of a craft booth than an art booth; isn’t leather work all about craft? I look at it this way: craft is mostly about skill. Sure, a lot of creativity is involved, but craft done well is about developing skills to the max. Art, on the other hand, has many components, but one of the most key is self-discovery, and that’s what is going on here.

A child drags her parents into the booth. She gets deeply into making a little bracelet, and when she comes up for air finds her parents also entranced, immersed in their own projects. A woman rediscovers her art roots, spending most of the fair hours at the booth, making leather plaques honoring her late grandparents, themselves lifelong craftspeople. A small girl discovers that she can indeed make a little mermaid puppet. A group of women create memorials as a way of thinking about breast cancer. A boy works with his father to make the simplest of adornments: a piece of rubber tubing cut to a half-inch length with gold gem affixed to it: voila! A ring. The boy walks around the booth, proudly showing his treasure to anyone who will look. A man hugs me and shakes my hand and shows me his shirt, into which he has sewn in a simple abstract design. I did not get a chance to ask him what the design meant to him, but it was obviously important.

Watching these people, one can sense a deep hunger for creative outlet, not necessarily classes (though those are critical, especially for children), but just the opportunity to stop in, sit down, and make something, for free. There’s a ready satisfaction in people figuring things out (“oh, I can fasten it that way!”) and growing for it.

It goes to today’s STEM/STEAM debate. Educational reformers are in love with the idea of focusing on STEM, science, technology, engineering, and math, as the proper preparation for 21st century life. Others say “not so fast.” The arts (STEAM) need to be in there somewhere as well; otherwise, we will have technicians, engineers, and programmers with little preparation for developing their own creativity, their own self-discovery, even if it’s simply learning to validate that intuitive problem solving, “I can fasten it that way!”


There’s nothing like taking a hot shower outdoors, before the heat of a summer day, the early morning sunlight poking through a lush tree canopy overhead. And there’s nothing quite like doing so with a couple hundred of one’s neighbors.

I’ve only been to a few public baths here and there, but I’m guessing that the Ritz at the Oregon Country Fair may be one of the most beautiful public baths in the world. It’s one huge room, open to the sky and the trees, with cedar walls covered with Salish images, rows of showers, two saunas, and a fire pit situated just below a stage where music is performed late into the night and sometimes early in the morning.

Open nearly 24 hours each day for roughly six days each year—and odd hours in the days before and after the fair, for the work crews—the production of the bathhouse experience each summer is a remarkable feat, with water delivered in tank trucks and heated in a huge wood-fed boiler, and with an intense attention to keeping the place clean and the water hot. As you climb the ramp to the entrance, burly men are heaving cordwood into a huge furnace like the firemen in an old steam locomotive.

The experience of the hot water and the morning chill and the fresh air is exhilarating, as is just the experience of a hundred naked bodies wandering around, stepping into a shower, leaving the sauna in a heat-induced daze, or even simply brushing one’s teeth. All of those bodies have me thinking:

It’s pretty easy to see in a public bath, even more so than on a beach, that we are as snowflakes; not one of us has the same body as anyone else. We have tall bodies and short bodies, fat and slender, square and round, bodies shaped like tubes and bodies shaped like spindles. Some have skin as taut as a greyhound’s or a dolphin’s, while others are wrinkled like the surface of an elephant’s ear. And what’s remarkable, contrary to what television and the swimsuit spreads would have us believe, Venuses and Adonises are pretty rare. That’s not to say that healthy people are rare, but that a man of solid physique turns out to have an oddly long torso or a burgeoning belly or unusually angular shoulders, and can’t quite match Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man. Or a woman may show a simple blemish, a flaw that would be airbrushed out of a fashion photo.

But it is those flaws that also make us human. It is that variety, the unexpected curves or unexpectedly short legs, our sags and scars and spreads that ultimately make us beautiful.

The first time I went into the Ritz a few years ago, it occurred to me that I have seen a remarkable number of the people I know naked. Seeing Seattle friends at the Ritz, having the odd encounter on the streets of Black Rock City, experiences in sweat lodges over years, attending various figure drawing classes, watching the hordes of painted naked cyclists at each summer’s Solstice Parade in Seattle, and the seemingly requisite undressing sequence at so many On the Boards performances, I would guess that I have seen hundreds of people I know without clothes. Which I think is pretty wonderful. When I was growing up, such encounters would have been unimaginable, except perhaps among the strange and shadowy world of nudists that one would hear about in popular culture. But this is not about living a philosophy of the value of nudism. Rather, it’s about people living well and free in their bodies, taking pride in just being alive, and perhaps coming to know their own beauty, no matter what their shape.


This last one is less about the fair itself and more about the simple experience of going to an event and watching it become a catalog of errors, a case of how not to put on an event. It becomes an exercise in absurdity, and if one has any passion for the focus of the event, an exercise in frustration.

The event in this case: for the past few years, Bernadine Dohrn and Robert Ayers have been featured at the fair as part of a series of discussions and presentations on politics and social issues. I’d never heard them speak and was curious to do so; both were members of the Weather Underground, a group of radical activists in the 1960s beset with the fantasy that they would be able to stop the Vietnam war and bring about social justice through violent revolution.

Years later, they had become respected academics and progressive American voices, with Ayers as a noted authority on education reform. And of course they became famous as right wing attack points in the 2008 election; they’d been sometime acquaintances of Barack Obama in Chicago.

Unfortunately, at the fair event they didn’t say a whole lot, at least not in the 40 minutes I was able to stay before I had to get back to my fair job. Ayers had a few brief comments about the power of framing in mass media, as in describing “the sixties” as an artificial media construct rather than a real thing. But the event conspired against them, including an introductory speaker who rambled on and on and on and could perhaps have used a nudge in the ribs as the rest of us sat in the heat, waiting for the main attraction. There was a poorly designed venue, where the urge for shade forced the audience to the bleachers in the back, far way from the stage—along with putting the guests on a stage at all, further separating them from the audience, with which they were supposed to have a colloquy. And then there was the tried and true—and generally foolish—device of having one microphone on a stand for audience participation, so that the audience must line up to have their say.

That microphone configuration is all too common at public discussions. It tends to have three effects: It sets up a dynamic of supplication, like the common folk lining up to make their case before the prince. Because it requires standing in line—in the heat in this case—that configuration also tends to select for the frustrated and the zealots, the usual suspects. Anyone with a little more reticence tends to not get up and speak. And finally, because the act of speaking does require standing in line, those who do get to the microphone tend to spew out their comments like speeches, “and another thing….” They become reluctant to give up the hard-fought microphone. Mildly desperate speeches are, after all, speech, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but they’re not conducive to good conversation.

The whole session felt gray and tired. That was especially driven home to me when I went back out into the crowds, and not 50 yards from the entrance to the discussion venue saw a group of young people clustered around a charismatic young man with a broad, compelling smile. He was maybe six foot four inches tall, brown-skinned, and very handsome. He wore black basketball shorts and a black leather harness around his shoulders that revealed a strong physique. He carried a clipboard and was doing voter registration with the surrounding youths. His shoulder bag identified him as a member of Oregon Bus. In Seattle, the sister group Washington Bus is exemplary in terms of youth organizing, democracy building, and social justice work. The Bus network has extended across the West to Washington, Oregon, Colorado, and Montana.

Talking with the man for five minutes gave me more hope for the future than anything that was said in the Ayres/Dohrn session. I’m not one of those who suggests that the next generations will save us. I’ve heard that before with other generations, and it hasn’t quite worked out. But the fellow did have a beautiful energy, one that’s worth developing.

Ayers apparently had a small epiphany at this year’s fair. But for me, any insights from his session were in short supply.

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3 Responses to Art, Nudity, and Radicals: three takes on the Oregon Country Fair

  1. Jiyce says:

    Loved your view–it’s always positive. Makes me wonder why I’ve never gone, but inspires me to make it happen next year.


  2. Sylvia says:

    Thanks, John. I write you from Blythe, AZ, on my way to B-school. Enjoy BRC if you’re going this year!


  3. M says:

    I enjoyed reading this john, it’s been qued up on my iPad ever so long. Haven’t been to the faire in years. Glad it seems to still pack the same punch. Adria goes to burning man tomorrow. I stay home to watch the daughter. I don’t need to go again. Adria never has had the chance. I’d go to country faire again, if I could stay for the night.


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