A love of the arts and Eugene: A profile of Vicki Harkovitch

By Ted Shorack

It’s 6:40 p.m. on a Tuesday in Eugene, Oregon, and Vicki Harkovitch has to settle down a group of about 20 young boys and girls. They’re sitting on the playground blacktop of Edison Elementary in South Eugene. Some of their parents watch from lawn chairs. The kids sit on towels or blankets and their book bags and folders are scattered all around. The sheets of paper next to them rise with each passing breeze. It may be July, but the sun has been hiding most of the day, and rain showered the streets earlier. Harkovitch has a lot to get done before 9 p.m.


Harkovitch is the artistic director of a local community theater group: The Roving Park Players. The children—along with a few adults—will be acting in an adaptation of the “Wizard of Oz” on August 11th. The group practices 3 times a week and will add one or two rehearsals as the first performance draws closer, and then every night the week of opening night.

Before they start rehearsal on this particular night, Harkovitch leaves a young actress in charge to go over line changes while she jogs over to her cottage-style home just kitty-corner from the school playground. She has forgotten the boom box that plays music for their scenes. Props may stay the same for a play, but the stage routinely changes for the Roving Park Players. The organization has no theater to practice in. It is affectionately called by Harkovitch an “itinerant theater company,” and the actors and actresses will be performing in different parks around Eugene and nearby Springfield.

These late nights and rehearsals all began about four years ago. “It was one of those sitting around the living room kind of things,” Harkovitch says about getting the idea for the organization. Her co-director, or “co-banana” as she likes to call the title, is Lisa Shea-Blanchard. The two of them had worked with other theater groups in town but decided they wanted to branch out on their own. The two of them never really envisioned themselves having an actual theater to perform in. They thought: “It would be cool if we could travel around and go to places in Eugene and Springfield where people wouldn’t ordinarily buy a ticket and go sit in a theater,” Harkovitch says. The theater company now puts on four productions a year with eight performances of each. The company takes people who have never acted before and people who have not acted for a long time as well as really experienced people. Some productions might have an all-adult cast, while others are made up of children over the age of nine.

Harkovitch grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska, and doesn’t recall many theatrical opportunities in her hometown. When she was born, the now U.S. state was still just a territory. In a portrait of Harkovitch’s family, she remembers them standing in their Easter outfits on an unpaved muddy street that their house was on. It must have looked like a frontier house in the middle of nowhere.

Oregon was a different world for Harkovitch when she started college in Corvallis at Oregon State University in 1972. “Moving down here was a revelation to me,” she says. During her first term, she took a trip down to Eugene to visit a friend. “I visited her and fell in love with Eugene and the school,” she says. It was an easy and quick decision for her because she was in the wrong city and at the wrong college. After her first term at OSU, she transferred to the U of O. While attending school, she met her husband John and went on to receive a master’s degree in art history from the university.

After school was over, Harkovitch and her husband moved to North Carolina in order for John to complete his medical education. They were brought back to the northwest to Seattle for John to begin his residency. Afterwards, it wasn’t long before they moved back to Eugene. “I always seem to end up back here,” Harkovitch says. She’s been in and out of the city since college but can’t see herself living anywhere else. Her children were born here. This is where she wanted to raise a family.

Alligator for "Peter Pan"

Harkovitch is a lover of the arts and a true believer. Art is a basic human impulse, a basic human need, she says. It makes a world of difference. When Harkovitch and Shea-Blanchard envisioned the Roving Park Players, they thought of it as a way for anyone to get involved with theater, whether technically, performance wise or as an audience member. She says that the experience has been gratifying and the theater company has gotten a really great response from people. During their first season, Harkovitch recalls she received a note from a homeless person apologizing for being unable to donate, but praising the group for the fine show they had put on and the ability to watch it for free. “Whoa, that’s why we’re doing this,” Harkovitch says she thought at that moment.

But it’s never been easy for Harkovitch and the theater company. They’ve had to work out some kinks over the years, most notably their sound system that they have to lug around to different parks. They just received an Oregon Cultural Trust grant worth $800 to upgrade their sound system, but at one time it consisted of 6 to 8 boom boxes that all had to be tuned to the same channel. The mixer was run off of a car battery. Harkovitch laughs at how one time, during the first season, an actor responsible for the sound system forgot to charge the car battery. The play was Peter Pan. “So he went to get the battery out of his truck and so Captain Hook was out there—he was playing Captain Hook—was out there pulling batteries out of cars,” she says.


Harkovitch is a busy woman, but at 58 shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. She is planning out possible productions for next year’s fifth season already. She adapts written work—such as Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey” for next year—so that it flows nicely in a play format. The living room and dining room of her house are lined with overflowing bookshelves. On desks are stacks of paper with lines she needs to distribute. In the cozy second story of her house, she has costumes piling up from previous productions and ones ready for future use. It is hard work. There’s a lot to consider.

On Tuesday night’s playground rehearsal, Harkovitch has a stack of papers in hand that she flips through to check lines and upcoming scenes. The children giggle when they mess up and Harkovitch chuckles now and again with them. When a scene is over and she smiles to say “good job,” you can tell she loves what she does.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Cold Country with a Hot Sun: One Woman’s Experience in Morocco

By Clare Hancock

Melissa and her husband, Cory. Melissa is wearing a jalaba dress from Morocco. Photo: Clare Hancock

Melissa had just stepped through the entryway of her host family’s house when she spotted a package in the corner where she kept her things. Her head was spinning from a morning of rigorous language lessons in a dialect of Berber that was ancient enough to lack a written form. Her stomach was griping and moaning about the level of saffron, cumin and pepper it had to digest. Her muscles ached. Her soul was weary. And while Melissa enjoyed interacting with Moroccan locals, she found it difficult to remember the myriad social conventions during conversations. Overwhelmed by all that she was expected to learn in such a short time, Melissa couldn’t help but feel that she had failed as a Peace Corps volunteer before she had even started.

Without hesitation, Melissa tore open the package that her family in Eugene, Ore., had sent her. American treats she had been secretly craving were nestled inside. Melissa pulled an item from the box, a bag of Dove chocolates. She peeled the aluminum from the square of chocolate. The sound of metallic crinkling filled the room. She popped the morsel into her mouth and let is slowly melt on her tongue. She looked down to read the “promise” that Dove had unfailingly printed.

“Failure is only the opportunity to begin again and do better.”

 .         .          .          .          .          .          .          .

Melissa VanSteenwyk, 26, was born in a small town in Idaho where she spent her younger years. When she was in first grade, her family moved to Ore., where they eventually settled in Eugene. “Eugene is home,” Melissa said. As a child, Melissa enjoyed basketball, working with animals, playing outside and climbing trees which never failed to make her mother nervous. Melissa attended Eugene’s International High School where she loved all her classes, especially photography, art and sculpture, and the environment was respectful and accepting of all backgrounds. Melissa earned a bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science where she met, Cory VanSteenwyk, her husband-to-be. Throughout her childhood, Melissa’s family shared their home with exchange students from around the world. The students’ vibrant upbringings taught Melissa not to fear other cultures but to accept and learn from them.

 The Peace Corps

The Peace Corps offered something that Melissa had always wanted: an opportunity to help people in a significant way. She also wanted to experience a culture completely different from her own. She wanted to see how American’s were viewed through foreign eyes. “I felt blessed that Cory and I hadn’t started a family yet so we were free to do an experience such as Peace Corps,” Melissa said as she described how she had hoped to see a different perspective on life and for an adventure beyond anything she had imagined. That is exactly what she got in 2009 when she and Cory left for Morocco.

.         .        .         .          .          .          .          .

If anything took Melissa by surprise on her arrival to Morocco, it was the diversity of landscapes and cultures. “The cold country with the hot sun,” was a favorite saying among locals, Melissa said. Instead of scorching sand dunes and palm trees, the first town Melissa and Cory stayed in was surrounded by lush green vegetation as well as lakes and rivers. “There are sand dunes and hot deserts,” Melissa said, “But they aren’t Morocco’s only landscapes.

While the Berber people originally inhabited the country, Arabs dominate much of the land. Islamic religion and customs are strong in most villages and cities; however, cultures from other parts of the world have left their impressions as well.

The first four months in Morocco were spent in a small village where all six Peace Corps volunteers underwent training. From daily language lessons, to learning how to maneuver ground-level “squatting” toilets with the substitution of a water bucket for toilet paper, to growing accustomed to the cuisine and learning how to communicate with locals without unintentionally offending them, training was grueling to say the least. Volunteers learned how to shop for food and how to identify spices. They were taught how to eat meals which took place on the ground around a large tray of several hand-made dishes including flat bread and cucumber salad. A portion of meat, the size of a fist, would be placed in the middle of the tray and was expected to feed 10 people. “It takes about two months for the body to adjust to a new environment. All the volunteers were in a state of misery in the beginning but after a few weeks, we began to feel acclimated,” said Melissa.

After training was over and Melissa and Cory were still working on their new language, which took a full year before they had a firm grasp on it, the couple was transferred 10 hours away to a small town called Ikniouen. Built in a high-desert valley where snow falls on surrounding mountains and foliage is scarce, Ikniouen is home to nearly 400 people. Melissa immediately set to work on her main project, teaching locals basic hygiene. Her lessons included themes like the importance of using soap and how often to use it, and how to brush one’s teeth.

An unexpected obstacle arose soon after Melissa started lecturing at the community’s school: her American accent distracted the young students so much they couldn’t pay attention to what she was saying. She quickly learned that in order to educate the youth about hygiene, she would have to give the teachers the information and help them give the lectures. Melissa made her point through other means including visual aids. She drew pictures of a healthy smile with straight, white, strong teeth and a picture of an unhealthy smile with chipped, worn, rotten teeth.

While Cory had his hands full with his projects that incorporated building a fully-functional community bathroom and organizing a sanitation system that moved trash to a location away from farm land and water sources, Melissa continued to work with Ikniouen’s youth. She thought up new ways to get them excited about staying clean and keeping themselves healthy.

Melissa in the middle of the three hours it took to do laundry. Photo: Cory VanSteenwyk

Melissa also held classes on women’s health in the women’s center. She worked side by side with the women of the village, helping them with daily chores such as sifting through wheat, hand-washing laundry, milking goats and cooking meals. “A big part of living there is simply living,” Melissa said before describing the number of hours that went into collecting kindling for cooking dinner and the intricate process of baking bread which took the majority of a day.

Melissa did her best to educate the adults as well. A popular drink among locals was tea of which the majority was sugar. (The average 40-year-old town member had been rendered toothless.) Melissa did what she could to teach them that large amounts of sugar lead to unhealthy dental hygiene and eventually diabetes and heart disease. Unfortunately, Melissa found that teaching adults was harder than teaching children. “The hardest aspect of my job was learning not to expect people to change,” Melissa said; she had wanted so much for the community to be healthy and was frustrated with their unwillingness to change. In times of frustration, Melissa had to tell herself that her presence was enough to inspire many of the community members to change their ways and that her example would cause them to reflect on their detrimental habits.

Ikniouen had one clinic and was staffed by one or two nurses at a time. Doctors would travel in and out of the community but they were few and far between. If someone had to go to the hospital, they would need to travel at least two days and spend half their monthly income to get to a hospital. Once there, it was possible that a nurse or doctor couldn’t even see them. “Morocco’s healthcare is free but there is corruption,” Melissa said. Something that Melissa hopes to see change in her lifetime is that healthcare will truly become available for anyone who needs it. “I would like for the people that are told they have healthcare to actually get it without having to bribe a nurse or a doctor with money they could have used for food or warm clothing.”

Saying Goodbye

“I feel that being accepted into a community was a really good accomplishment,” Melissa said after being asked which goals she felt she had achieved during her time in Morocco. She felt that she learned what being part of a community truly meant. “If someone else’s kids were misbehaving, you were expected to reprimand them. If someone ran out of food, you were expected to share your meals with them and vice-versa,” she said. While Melissa and Cory spent the first few months with a host family in Ikniouen, they eventually purchased their own small house to live in. Even though they were no longer living with their host family, they remained very close to them. Melissa recalled the father of the host family saying to her on her last day, “You are like my daughter. I will cry when you leave.”

.          .          .          .          .          .          .          .

During the two years they spent in Morocco, Melissa and Cory were able to complete the goals they had set for themselves. If given more time in Morocco, Melissa would have liked to learn the Arabic language which would have helped with the fluidity of accomplishing more projects. She also would have liked to have worked with the youth more and started more programs designed for them to learn about the importance of good hygiene.

Melissa’s experience with the Peace Corps and Morocco has inspired her to go to nursing school which she feels will benefit those she comes into contact. “There were many times in Morocco when someone would come up to me asking what to do about their health problems. I hated not being able to help them,” she said.

Melissa and Cory will be moving to Colorado where Cory will pursue a degree in Physical Therapy and Melissa will begin her nursing program. After she completes her nursing degree, Melissa wants to travel to underserved countries and do whatever she can to help give them what they need. The Peace Corps gave Melissa the experience and confidence she needed to travel elsewhere and to face new territories with an open and accepting mind.

Even though she dreams of traveling to foreign countries, Melissa says that one of her goals is to help whoever she can, wherever she can, even if it is simply smiling to passersby on the road in the hopes that she may have brightened their day.

Posted in Amazon | Leave a comment

A painter’s craft, Tilke Elkins and the art of creation

The forest awaits.

Imagine getting to know a piece of the forest. Not just standing on a trail and admiring the view, but rather immersing yourself in the wilderness around you. Make the effort to get down on hands and knees and inspect this world, taking it in from every angle. Brush your fingers along the bark and branches; feel the shape and intricacies of a stone; hold your head close over the water to see the details of a streambed.

This is what painter Tilke Elkins does. Why does she do it? And why does she return to the same spot again and again, examining it from all variety of perspectives?

This is simply her unique process of creating a painting.

In an interview she describes how, from the beginning of a her work through to the final brushstroke, “every stage has significant cohesions of meaning…not in the part of the work that can be seen, but in what can be felt.”

Ultimately, she wants the process to speak for itself. “Whatever feels the most resonant, I go with it; I respond.” She say how she focuses on “melding conscious observation with intuition- but measuring, to a certain degree.”

Tilke Elkins in The Voyeur Art Gallery

Elkins stands next to her artwork that is hung on the wall in the airy Voyeur Gallery. She is lit by the late afternoon sunshine creeping in through an open door that leads out to Blair Street. An audience is crowded in the small space. They are listening to Elkins speak about the various abstract paintings that fill the surrounding, clean white walls. Long strips of hung fabric, dyed in light earth-tones, flutter in the soft breeze that moves through the gallery.

Now a Eugene local -though native to Montreal- Elkins is the artist of focus this month at the gallery. Here, she is presenting her first professional art showing.

As a part of the Voyeur’s monthly Artist Talk, which is open to the public, Elkins describes the process of her work, of following the inspiration that leads to the yet-unknown outcome that will become a finished painting.

She explains that when she is making a new piece of art, she doesn’t approach her work with any idea of a final product; there is no prior vision. Rather, she places intense and engaged focus on finding a place in the outdoors that attracts her for a certain reason. When she finds a place, she studies it intricately in her uncommonly hands-on manner. And then she paints it.

Some of Elkins' work.

In the gallery, a week after the artist talk, Elkins describes in her interview how, in seeking motivation for her work, she is particularly attracted by what she calls “a place that feels human on an abstract level.” She goes on to say how “familiarity and mystery in the same moment [is something that] really draws me.” This idea of a human feeling could mean something like the form of a face in a rock, she says, or a tree with human-like features; but it also could mean some human artifact, something architectural or even an object some person may have lost or discarded as trash.

“In the wild we look for human shapes in non-human surroundings to connect to that space,” Elkins believes that it is unrealistic for us to pretend the two worlds, those of human and nature, are not connected.  Rather, she thinks that we have chosen to change the nature of our wilderness. And what we need is to find a balance, to integrate with nature and to accept what that integration looks like.

Such integration she speaks of is often depicted in her paintings.

The largest painting in the room nearly covers the entire wall at the back of the gallery. At first look, one sees the base of a large tree and the undergrowth that crowds below it. Light green leaves contrast against darker shades of reddish purple and blues and greens that make up the forest floor. Elkins looks at her audience that has repositioned to view the piece. “Does anyone see the shoes?” she asks. Only one or two people nod. The rest search the painting delving into it with their eyes. Then she slowly points out one sandal after another; they blend in so extraordinarily well to their surroundings that they themselves have become part of the landscape.

Among others, this is one example Elkins uses to show the constant presence of humans in an area that is otherwise categorized as a strictly natural space. But the line between natural and unnatural can be a difficult one to draw.  The connection between what humans term natural versus the unnatural presence that is civilized humankind, is something that Elkins explores deeply in her artwork.

In fact, her opinion of the word natural is that it is too broad of a word to really have certain meaning, particularly when mankind is so apt to remove itself from the word.

Elkins remembers always feeling at home in the wilderness. As an only child, she was given the opportunity and freedom to become very independent. She would seek solace in the fields and forests on family vacations to their house in the rural Vermont countryside. Even in Montreal she discovered she could easily immerse herself in the abundance of urban wilderness that the city offered.

When asked in the interview how she became introduced to art, she speaks of the artistic influences of her parents- her mother, a writer and father, a poet. Elkins recalls how her mother would take her to art museums and how, even at a young age, she recalls being captivated by the works of Dali, Picasso and other legendary artists.

At the age of twelve she recalls realizing how much power there was in the act of drawing: that she could create something new on the paper that only existed there and nowhere else.

Elkins' color palate.

Throughout her life, Elkins has experienced synesthesia, a condition in which her mind places certain emotions, or specific associations, with a particular color. This sensitivity to color she describes as “a language we ‘re not even aware of being fluent in.”

But despite this quality of perception, Elkins spent the majority of her youth believing that she could never become an artist. While it was something that was important to her, she said that she didn’t “have the right to be an artist.” She believed that since she could not measure with her eye, the way artists did, and create an accurate replication of an image on the page, it was simply something she could never achieve.

It wasn’t until college that her printmaking professor, David Bonbeck, made her feel like he saw something really legitimate in her work, something that was of artist quality. This is what finally gave her the confidence to apply to Bennington to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree, which has led her to where she is now, a painter with a gallery show.

Elkins also is in the process of beginning an art school, where she will teach classes focused on “exploring and understanding color, and preparing pigments and other art supplies from found and natural sources.” This fall will mark the school’s initiation.

An older woman slowly enters the gallery, assisted by a younger girl. Elkins excuses herself briefly from the interview to join them. She and the woman speak about the different pigments in the paintings Elkins has used in her work. The two share a keen interest in the art of using natural pigments in their art. Earth, berries and even soaked black beans are some of the sources from which the colors are derived to make her own paints. For Elkins, it is a way for her to avoid synthetics materials in her work.

As the old woman walks up to her work, her quiet, labored speech had to be translated by her assistant, “It reminds me of dandelions,” she said in reference to the bright yellow the artist had achieved in one painting. To this Elkins replied, “That is such a compliment, I love dandelions.”

In fact, one may have no trouble imagining Elkins examining a dandelion- along with all the other kinds of flowers, grasses and insects she might come across in a field- as she makes her way slowly along, on hands and knees, in search of the next inspiration that may appear.

For more information, visit Tilke Elkins' website. Click photo for link.

Photos by: S. Hollis

Posted in Whiteaker | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

For the love of the art

Mo Bowen in front of her beloved gallery

The old Victorian house was built in 1921. Shutters that had long sheltered it from the wind and rain sagged off their hinges. It had been abandoned for years and now smelled heavily of mold and decay. An old red Chevy pickup sat behind the house rust spots spattered the bed and fenders. The headliner was in good condition but the rest of the truck’s interior had seen better days. An old garage filled with rusting tools and water damaged-boxes of Life magazines sits east of the house. Its foundation peeks out from the ground from years of rain eroding at soft soil surrounding it.

This fantasy would be heaven for Mo Bowen. The artist and owner of The Voyeur gallery infuses time and timelessness in all of her work. The Molaroids, her version of polaroid photographs, are often made with older cameras or toy cameras. Her gallery has a row of Dianas, Holgas, Seagulls, and other assorted medium format cameras displayed on top of an exhibition wall. She also uses color slide film and is one of the few artists to explore scanography.

“The process is a conversation of time,” Bowen says. The conversation of old equipment and old places is what drives her to create her art. There is an element of the disappearing -film photography may never depart completely but is in serious decline- and many buildings are finding themselves abandoned in an economy of foreclosures. Bowen is tuned to the process of decay, “I need to photograph these scenes, it’s necessary to photograph the disappearing America.”

In recent times Bowen has been drawn to scanography. It is a process like collage in which layers of imagery and objects are arranged on a scanner bed then scanned into a computer. They do not necessarily differ from her photographs dramatically. The subjects have not changed much, objects of the discarded, even some of her moloroids make it into the finished product. The relationship has changed with the use of new technology. Some of the conversation of time now includes the modern.

Bowen was born and raised in Chicago. She attended the Dominican University just outside Chicago. She spent time in Chicago’s abandon lots full of tall grass and rusting junk. She first started shooting these settings with an old Pentax 35mm camera. In time it would lead her to study art in College. She doubled majored and earned her BA in Psychology and BFA in Photography.

After college she moved to the Eastern Sierras in California. The visit was short lived though, and Bowen found herself in Eugene, Oregon roughly a year later. Oddly enough, she was apprenticing to be a machinist. She still made photographs but found herself limited by the spaces she had access to show her work. Coffee shops were the only ones willing to show the work of emerging local artists. It was for this reason that Bowen opened her own gallery, The Voyeur, in May of 2010 in Eugene’s Whiteaker neighborhood.

Bowen shows local artists, whether Eugene natives or transplant from other places. They are often emerging artists that she gives an opportunity for their first solo show. She makes a point of pushing the artists. She shows, “Any one who is up to the challenge.” While the gallery is small, artists preparing for their first solo show might find the space intimidating. “I want to fill the space with good work,” Bowen explains about her policy. It shows too. The latest exhibition, A Silvery Ushering, literally filled the gallery to the brim. The artist Tilke Elkins noted during her talk that she made extra work and brought pigment samples so she could fill the gallery. Artwork even wrapped around and behind the gallery counter.

Artist interaction is a unique part of an experience at The Voyeur. Many institutions hold artist talks or lectures but few require their artists to teach a workshop and even fewer request critique during exhibition openings. Not only is it different, it is successful. The gallery will be holding a second artist talk of a similar nature on July 19th.

The community has had a great fortune of dialogue with and within The Voyeur but Bowen feels there is still a lot to be done to improve the art scene within Eugene. “The level of sophistication and support isn’t here,” she says. “There just isn’t the education anymore, the space for classes isn’t there.” She makes a point of pulling people in just for a conversation not to sell them work. Bowen has made a conscious effort to dispel the myth of the white walls and make them less intimidating to the average Eugene resident. There is hope though as she finds more and more Eugene residents in her gallery. She says,”[I have seen recently] a lot of familiar faces, hundreds.” The increased attendance could mean a bright future for the small gallery.

Her success is unusual in an town where two main commercial galleries, La Follette and Fenario, and a major non-profit gallery, DIVA, had to close doors. Still other have downsized staff significantly in recent history. The Register-Guard, the local Eugene paper, released an article at the end of 2010 detailing the decline of art institutions.

Maybe it is The Voyeur’s small size and Bowen’s hard work alone that keeps the gallery alive but the business model does break the trend of the standard commercial gallery. The attempt to reach a wider audience and share some common ground with average people may be what keeps the gallery running. Even price points are considerably lower than average. This could be entirely due to inexperience of her artists but with fresh-out-of-graduate-school artists selling paintings in the tens of thousands it is more plausible that the art is priced to sell to the broader community.

If you are ever in the Whiteaker be sure to stop by 547 Blair Ave. There across from the Pizza Research Institute and next to Olivejuice is the little gallery. In some ways it resembles its name as it peeks out onto the street among bigger businesses. It is a part of Mo Bowen; part of a vision she has for Eugene’s art scene and she will be there to tell you a thing or two about art.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Southern Gal with an Ice Cream Dream

Credit: redwagoncreamery.com

Emily Phillips just poured Reisling into a batch of fresh strawberry sorbet.

Not much has changed in the last 28 years since she began selling her mom’s homemade ice cream out of her shiny red wagon.  There may not have been any Reisling involved but each batch was made with the freshest ingredients available and with love straight from her kitchen in North Carolina.  The then 5-year-old dreamed of making it beyond her neighborhood customer base and saving up enough piggy bank money to start her own ice cream business.

Today, with a degree from The Indiana University of Pennsylvania Academy of Culinary Arts and 11 years of restaurant experience, Phillips can proudly call herself owner of Red Wagon Creamery, an ice cream truck located in Eugene, Oregon.  It’s her sense of childlike wonder that has led to some of her most popular ice cream creations like smoked salted caramel and Saturday morning, a flavor her husband and business manager, Stuart, created by soaking Fruity Pebbles in milk and using it as a base for their ice cream.  Red Wagon Creamery only use the freshest local and organic ingredients to make their ice cream, including chocolate and vanilla from Eugene’s own Euphoria Chocolate Company and Singing Dog Vanilla.

A customer tries the Saturday morning flavor

It sounds fun, but ice cream is a serious business.  In this economy, starting up a business can be risky.  However, selling this delicious dessert appears to be a recession proof business for the ambitious couple.  According to Emily, “People want to eat ice cream when they’re happy and when they’re depressed.  Plus, it’s an affordable indulgence.”  A single scoop is $2.75, a double scoop is $4, and pints are $7.25.

Together, this married couple knows how to churn out a successful line of creamy and decadent ice cream.  Separately, the two couldn’t be more different. Emily grew up in a military family, moving all over the U.S. as well as overseas to South Korea.  Stuart spent his childhood in Mississippi and attended Ole Miss.  While Emily was attending culinary school and perfecting her craft, Stuart studied and practiced law and even became a Russian linguist for the Army.

What do a chef who dreams of ice cream and a Southern lawyer have in common?  The Internet.  The two came together thanks to the world of online dating.  Both Emily’s father and sister met their significant others through the Internet, leading Emily to try it out a few years ago.  She kept the family tradition alive and the two married last November.  Although ice cream wasn’t the main dessert served at their wedding, they did celebrate with a zombie-covered cake.

Emily and Stuart take a break to pose for the camera

With Stuart’s daughter joining the new ice cream loving family, the now 10-year-old has a great palette when it comes to distinguishing flavors.  She recently tried a savory batch of ice cream called delta breakfast, which is made with buttered grits and candied maple bacon.  Stuart proudly says, “She took one bite without knowing anything about it and yells ‘Is that bacon?’”

Red Wagon Creamery flavors

Until recently, Emily was a manager at one of the local Bagel Spheres in town and Stuart worked as a project manager for an IT company.  Together, they assessed their finances and took a chance to start a company that was really, as Emily says, “just an idea.”  She realized it was more than that after almost forgetting to drop off the bagel shop’s daily deposit more than once.  Daydreaming of ice cream flavors on her drive to the bank started to take precedence and she knew it was time to make a major change.

Luckily, Stuart’s background as a lawyer came in handy when it was time to secure a license and fill out the paperwork needed to start a business (and gain his title as “marketing dude”).  The next step?  Finding a space to test out batches of ice cream and create their now five signature flavors including vanilla, sweet cream, heart of chocolate, frozen goat (coffee), and smoked salted caramel.  Thankfully, the newlyweds found a commercial kitchen space to rent out in West Eugene.  Because they only make 4 gallons of ice cream a day, they have a precise schedule of which flavors to make on certain days. Once a flavor is created, it goes into a walk-in freezer, along with the rest of the stock. When it’s time to load up the red wagon for business, the containers are transferred, guaranteeing their customers the freshest scoops of ice cream and sorbet.

Red Wagon Creamery has always been a dream of Emily’s but it’s also been a great way for the couple to spend time together as a family.  Of course, there are always pros and cons to working with your other half.  “Stuart needs clear directions. I keep forgetting he doesn’t come from a food service background.  I’ve realized that what’s obvious for me may not be obvious for him,” Emily says.

Stuart adds, “I’ll wake up and realize I didn’t buy all the chocolate we need for the week.”

“That’s when you realize how important inventory sheets are,” she replies.

The laid back entrepreneurs are happy to put on their Red Wagon t-shirts, and for Stuart, his latest favorite hat, in order to brighten up someone’s day.  Seeing their customers’ reactions is what makes it all worthwhile, they say.  After trying the flavorful smoked salted caramel, one man just kept chanting “sh*t” over and over again.  “That’s all he could get out!” Stuart says.

A happy customer tips Stuart while Emily scoops up his order

The little girl from the South sure has come a long way since pulling her little red wagon down the street.  Her thoughts on making ice cream are still the same: use the best, local, and most organic ingredients available (well, minus the Fruity Pebbles) and always test out a flavor, no matter how crazy it is.  The 5-year-old girl who was once making ice cream with her mom, is now trucking throughout Eugene with her husband, in hopes of establishing the best artisan ice cream company out there.  The ultimate goal of having a Red Wagon Creamery store and selling pints in grocery stores seems like a reality more and more every day.

Emily busy selling ice cream at a Summer in the City event, downtown Eugene

To learn more about Red Wagon Creamery (like where they’ll be stationed in the neighborhood or to see pictures of who eats their yummy ice cream) check out their website.  You can also officially “like” them on their Red Wagon Creamery Facebook page and see what others have to say:

Already craving a pint?  Try their delivery service option for $9/pint by calling 541-337-0780.

Don't forget to dress up your scoop with these interesting toppings!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Presiding over fire: Cornerstone Glass’ Joe O’Connell

Joe O’Connell: Dean of Flame


O'Connell playing with fire.

The glass tube stays rotating constantly, the hands twisting it playing a malevolent game of chicken with the fire. It started out as a clear tube filled with brightly colored sand, but the mundane tube begins to take shape through the leaping flame, and now the man guiding the transformation raises the red-hot tube to blow into one end, causing the opposite side to bubble out. It is a delicate dance and seemingly the ultimate infusion of violence and splendor.

“Glass is all about keeping balance, staying even,” Joe O’Connell says, 31, the 2400 °F glass swimming through his hands. “You can’t have too much tension on one side, it isn’t healthy for the glass.” Or life for that matter. But inside the Cornerstone Glass studio located at Second and VanBuren, perhaps the only thing that is consistently tense is the unfinished glass product.

Inside Cornerstone Glass.

The giant space is the first thing that you notice; then the wide array of colors explode in the cones of the eye like crack-cocaine for the optic nervous center— aqua, lavender, seafoam, yellow, boom! They hit you like hypnotically hued children’s bubbles, dancing through the store.

The colored rods at Cornerstone Glass

The missing contingent of outward crazy is tangible, if only for what it is lacking: the lack of crazy hair, the lack of the distinctly local underarm fragrance (Intoxication by Eugene), the stark lack of anything resembling a counterculture in the very front. But then you see signs, one by one. That glass pirate ship in the corner? It turns into a water pipe and took nearly three blowers and nearly two weeks to shape. The wine glasses? Those are also water pipes, just of a variety that is trained to multitask. The five-feet long swordfish suspended from the ceiling? That extravagant chordate was blown by the same crew, one that Joe O’Connell has played no small part in developing.

A piece on display at the studio. Glass blown by PB.

O’Connell, who was born in Oceanside, CA, before moving to Houston and finally to Oregon, is a clean-cut, well dressed shop owner. “I got into blowing glass when I was young, because I was surrounded by it all the time. I just wanted to get involved, and by the time I was 14, I was watching them do this all the time,” O’Connell says, owner and C.O.O. of Cornerstone Glass Campus Store, as well as being a sales director and manager-type for Cornerstone Glass. But the subject of official titles makes him a bit uncomfortable, and he seems like he doesn’t want to discount even the smallest contribution from anyone else in his trade, regardless of personal accolade.

Joe O'Connell making the glass look like rubber.

Because his original trade is not scrap booking, and it is not like other innocuous hobbies where longevity is expected. Glass begins its transformation from raw materials (mostly sand and other rock) at around 2400 °F. To put that in perspective, that is like playing with an entity slightly hotter than liquid magma. But instead of simply moving it around, O’Connell is blowing into the branding-iron hot materials AND poking and prodding the liquid glass. This is precisely why he said that he has only been blowing for 13 years.

“I was 18 before they first let me get on the torch,” he says. “But that was for my safety. I had been around most of my life, it was always something I wanted to do, and once I was of age they couldn’t keep me out of the workshop.”

Now that dream has materialized in the form of the two outlets, the studio and the new  retail outlet on East 13th Ave. and Ferry Street.

Cornerstone Glass’ studio location is a pantheon of glass blowers in Eugene, acting as a sort of bad-ass beauty salon for blowers in the idea that they individually rent their work stations, but those stations happen to be outfitted with metal hoods, piping hot kilns, oxygen, propane and other combustible yet entrancing objects. O’Connell’s station has a stark lack of sketches like other blowers, he isn’t really a pen-to-paper kind of artist, but it is kept in the kind of meticulous disorder that you would expect an artist who specializes in materials that can burn and maim. The jumping flames and exaggerated tools add an industrial, mad-scientist vibe the building.

On his station lie glass rods of all colors, hollow glass tubes, a couple pairs of Oakley glasses equipped with didymium lenses, a vice system out of Frankenstein and a tool box usually seen at a construction site.

Everything in the studio is handcrafted within third-degree burn range of 20-inch flames, so O’Connell lives seven hours a day or so hovering above these arm length blasts of fire, because that is what keeps the glass malleable. He says the glass is carefully rotated all the time. “Gravity is super huge,” O’Connell says. “If you stop spinning it’ll just fall straight down.”

So that brings the checklist of things to use and remember to: protective Didymium glasses (to prevent eye damage from the solar flare of the intense flame), pedal-operated gas-bound hoses, a cornucopia of glass rods, all different shapes, sizes, thickness and colors, and a litany of new and old products, thrown around the workplace like lost toys. But for the intense list of materials, O’Connell is just a laid-back, upbeat guy who genuinely doesn’t like drama.

The swordfish.

“We rent out studio space in our downtown spot,” O’Connell says. “But we also host events, provide blowers with distribution access and work on collaborations and solo projects. Like that…” He is pointing to the insanely ornate swordfish skeleton hanging from the ceiling in the campus store. The swordfish is suspended like the centerpiece to the royal ball of Jack Skellington, but it is an appropriate centerpiece for O’Connell’s self-proclaimed “baby.” The store is now a showcase for all the taxing time spent down blowing glass, and provides a nice local outlet for the wares that the blowers have so meticulously crafted. “I have been dreaming of this store for 10 years now,” he says. “Now I have it, which is pretty sweet.”

And there are sacrifices to be made, and O’Connell brings a slightly skewed meaning to ‘bringing the work home with him’ because he lives above the campus store, which means some long hours and a work schedule that literally stares at you while you slumber.

He says he usually arrives at the downtown location at around 8 a.m. every morning, a strict schedule for a date with fire, and begins a grueling shift until around three in the afternoon. He then heads over to his house/store/Bat Cave from three until close. So, for those of you playing the home game, O’Connell spends nearly 50 hours a week blowing glass, and then he goes to work for another 50 a week after that. And on top of all that, he says he hasn’t taken a day off since the BCS National Championship game, meaning he has been working strong for just over six months. It does help that he gets to sell his friends wares though. “I like blowing all day and then coming into the store to relax,” he said. “When I’m in here it is like my cave. It is the opposite of the studio. It’s my dream you know? It’s kind of inspiring.”

When O’Connell talks about the process of blowing glass he describes each little bit in detail, “This is called a frit. It’s just a hard piece of glass, always a color,” he says. “But when we melt it down, it turns into something totally different.” He is showing me a tempered glass bowl, about 14 inches in diameter, that is blue all the way around, sandblasted on the outside with white, dime-sized spots covering the surface. The edge has a little spout for added versatility, and the colors swirl in an enamoring cyclonic fashion.

When he talks, he speaks slowly and takes care in his choice of words. It may just be from years of the federally required cryptic sales code and narrow-minded public scorn for his chosen profession, or it could just be that he is a very thoughtful individual, but either way, he is a captivating speaker, even if his voice is slightly quiet. “I can’t wait to expand,” he said, staring off out of the giant windows that create the entire façade of the storefront. “I have the space and I think I can generate the product.” With that, he begins walking around the fluorescently lit cabinets and the lonely t-shirt racks, behind another counter and finally draws back a curtain.

“I have a whole floor waiting to go,” he said, pointing to a giant, but empty, showroom. “It’s just a matter of when. But then again, isn’t it always a matter of when?” With all of the work being done down at the studio, however, the when may actually be a tangible time frame.

Proving the flame is his pal.

Back in the studio the following day, O’Connell disappears again, this time to bring back a clear glass tube filled with tiny colored frits. He turns on his flame, throws on his Men In Black glasses, and starts operating the pedal like a skilled driver works a clutch in traffic, in and out, in and out. Timing is half the battle. The glass tube starts in the kiln at around 1,000 °F, or roughly five times the boiling point of water, just to prep it. Glass cools rapidly, so O’Connell breezes through the studio, acutely aware of all his supplies. He talks as he twists. “When I first came here in 1999, there were only three of us and no metal hoods,” he says. “We now have one of the best spots in town.”

The glass is now a glowing, molten-red worm, writhing in the leaping flame while O’Connell pokes, prods, tears and blows into it. The heat from the station is palpable, even from a safe distance, yet O’Connell moves his hands around the flames like a skilled snake handler, knowing every inch of the glass he is working on because it has become the burned into the back of his hands; the flame now a piping hot extension of the consistently baited appendage: that part is hot, that part isn’t, that part is soft enough to cut, that part isn’t. He confidently presides over his glass like the Dean of Flames, and keeps twisting the tube in his hands. Twist, twist, twist, cool, twist, twist, twist, blow, the delicate dance being performed like a ballerina dancing to AC/DC. Behind him, at another station a glass tube hits the ground and presumably shatters, but he doesn’t notice. He’s too focused, too wired in.

To see a slideshow of Joe and other Cornerstone Glass shots click here.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Bob Hart: Beyond the Museum

Last November, visitors to the 75th anniversary program at the University of Oregon’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History in Eugene were promised a historical surprise. While the museum’s director stood at the podium, long dead Oregon geologist Dr. Thomas Condon came flying out a side door with a bag in hand, handed the director his hat and spattered off a story about how he had just came from the coast.

Hart–who was acting as Dr. Thomas Condon (for who a hall was named after on the University of Oregon campus)–then walked around talking to guests. He was a living exhibit; much like the character Robin Williams played in Night at the Museum.

To keep him out of trouble, Hart says he was assigned a geologist to help answer questions, “I think I didn’t get in any trouble about the geological knowledge of the time. My assistant was able to answer questions I couldn’t.”

For the program, Hart, who normally has a trimmed beard, had to grow his facial hair out. In addition, he worked with a member of a local theater, and read about Condon. The program took months to prepare for. Hart says, “If I did all the programs I liked to, I’d never be doing my job.”

As an executive director of a museum, Hart says he stays pretty busy. Currently, the museum is looking at moving downtown, which he says would provide more space and better foot traffic than the museum’s current location at the fairgrounds. For the museum’s small staff of 9, this would be a hard move, especially because the museum would need to stay open during the move, says Hart.

Hart’s interest for museums started young. Growing up in New Jersey, Hart’s first field trips were to the American Museum of Natural History and Hayden Planetarium. Hart says “Early on, somebody told me that you had to look carefully in the dioramas, because the curators always stuck something in there that was special but it wasn’t the main thing that was in there…so, I was always running around looking for the other thing in the exhibit.” Among others, these two places are places Hart would like to see again.

Before becoming a museum director, Hart earned a master’s degree. He graduated from the United States Air Force Academy in 1969 before going to graduate school for the first time. He attended Washington State University thinking that he was going to be “the world’s greatest archeologist.”

It was here that Hart met his wife, sitting behind her in an anthropology class. She was at the tail end of her program and he was just starting. Hart says, “I probably made the smartest decision I’ve ever made and I decided to pursue her rather than the degree.”

Hart eventually went back to school pursuing a master’s degree in American history. After several jobs he was hired by the New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum in Las Cruces, New Mexico, which was new at the time.  The fourth person hired, he was the most senior curator at the museum when he moved to Oregon. Hart moved because he was offered the executive director position at the Lane County Historical Museum. Additionally, Hart moved because he and his wife thought that the education system would benefit their two daughters, though he says that it was a “terrible time to move an eighth grader. She said we ruined her life.” Both daughters are now in college and Hart is about to complete his eighth year at the Lane County Historical Museum.

Impersonating historical figures is something that’s relatively new to Hart. He added it to his resume in 2009 when a friend asked him to play Joe Meek a trapper, mountain-man and the first sheriff in Oregon. Hart acquiesced, accompanying his friend–who played Meek’s friend, Robert Newell–to the sesquicentennial. Then he created a program by himself, which he preformed at the Oregon Historical Society.

Recently, Hart impersonated Meek again. This time it was at the National Trappers Association’s western regional convention held in late June. “I just trimmed my beard on June 25 because on June 24, I looked like Santa Claus. Out of my perimeter vision I could see my beard,” says Hart.

But Hart says he enjoyed playing Condon the most and would like to play him more in the future. Hart becomes animated when talking about playing Condon. As he tells of the evening of the 75th anniversary program, his speech speeds up, his smile seems permanent and his arms start flying in illustration, “I handed my hat to Jon [the museum director]…and my bag and just said, ‘You know, I’m just back from–I think I said Florence–and I have some exciting news and then I pulled out some fossil and started talking about it.'”Click below to hear audio: 

Posted in Jefferson Westside | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment