Three artists explore their relationships with the world in three different mediums and critiques.

All photos courtesy of Loma Smith Photography

Art can be many things–beautiful, provocative, innovative; it can transcend mediums; and in the case of the July/August cohort, it can also serve as a source of social commentary.

One thing about Pine Meadow Ranch Center for Arts & Agriculture (PMRCAA) that many creators who are fortunate enough to participate in the Artist-in-Residence Program will tell you is that the work they’ve completed upon the close of their time at PMRCAA differs from the original plan they had–in short, they had to pivot. This is important, because PMRCAA is open to discussing and meeting an artist’s new needs; it is this level of flexibility that allows each cohort of artists to make their ‘breakthroughs’–whatever that word ends up meaning to them and their work.

There is much that makes a Pine Meadow Ranch Residency unique and special, with one of the most prominent traits being the fact that although each cohort is combined of different artists from different walks of life, often practicing different artistic disciplines, no matter how similar or dissimilar they may be, they all end up walking away sharing a common thread. In the case of M.D. Schaffer, Dr. Evan Kassof, and Slinko that thread would be how they use their art to dissect and critique the world around them–telling powerful stories in the process.

The Playwright

“I’m a playwright by trade and I like [to speak about the] Americana mindset and the American Dream as […] a philosophy throughout the United States and then throughout history–[…] challenging the notions of […] how beautiful America is, but also challenging the horrors of America,” M.D. Schaffer recounts of his work. Though he may be focusing on his plays and musicals at the moment of publication, Schaffer is multitalented within the performing arts, also holding credits as writer, choreographer, librettist, and lyricist.

For him, the time spent in Sisters, Oregon seemed to be not only a getaway from his usual artistic surroundings, but an opportunity to create a shift in his creative mindset. Schaffer is quick to describe how driving into the region is as much of a physical change as it is a mental one. Seeing stars, glimpses of the Milky Way, and both domesticated livestock and wild animals was a far cry from the gritty, urban setting of New York and a visual cue to begin soaking up the atmosphere of the region and developing his next project–a piece that will reflect a portion of life on a pig farm.

When listening to Schaffer discuss his work, it’s easy to get lost in the almost melodic quality of his everyday speaking voice–gentle, yet authoritative, and confident in his work. This same trait is what empowered him to ask the Pine Meadow Ranch Team if he could speak with local pig farmers and theater companies, not strictly to make connections, but to bring authenticity to his newest work.

He expresses gratitude for PMR allowing him to stay true to his vision, and being willing to make the introductions he felt would be most relevant to the long-term success of his project. Schaffer notes how crucial it is that individuals who choose to support you believe in your artistic vision, and appreciates how willing Ana [Varas  – Arts Projects Coordinator] and Kathy [Deggendorfer – Founder & Trustee] were to offer him access to the tools and resources he most needed–even if it wasn’t always clear how he would incorporate the experience or information into his final product.

“I think the number one thing that has been a takeaway [from this experience], and definitely, for this project is […] accessing different worlds and different experiences. I’ve been realizing […] the average big city person would not have the opportunity to experience these small town things, or going out to […] harvest farms [and learning about raising and harvesting meat.]”

Although Schaffer is reluctant to reveal too much of the play, saying only that it involves pig farming, African-American history, and slavery, it’s clear that he earnestly approached his opportunity to understand the very real aspects of the world he’s about to create for the stage, and that the subject matter has the potential to be both powerful and allegorical on several levels. His skill and respect for the hardships and humanity of the communities he discusses within his work are sure to imbue his latest piece with as much heart as it will inspire conversation.

The Maestro

At the risk of stereotyping or generalizing, Dr. Evan Kassof is one of those curious artists who is incredibly learned and talented across several fields–not just in art, but in life. Though he, “wouldn’t call [himself] a cellist,” he can competently play the cello; he is not merely a composer of instrumental scores and operas, he is a maestro to boot; and, did you happen to know that he’s also a community organizer and physicist who holds patents?

For all his talents, Kassof is remarkably down to Earth as he munches on homemade bread and walks through his experience at PMR. “I used to be a physicist and so I [read and write] a lot of my music in Excel. I notate it like […] normal classical music is notated, but it comes out of spreadsheets.”

Despite the fact that Kassof is quick to acknowledge how his composition of instrumentals and operas often have a deeply symbiotic relationship with one another, he gives credit to the fact that the final product will be the effort of an ensemble––not just the cast and orchestra who will perform the piece, but the audience who will engage with the show. It’s an appropriate thought process for a ‘sound artist’ who is as much interested in the world around him as he is with the way people interact with it.

Both the natural world and the Pine Meadow Ranch Team would be prominently featured within his research and his work. He tells the story of how he traversed the ranch to speak with the Staff, and credits them with allowing him to record the sounds of ‘their story’ as they went about their workday. The Team also supported him in some of his more experimental endeavors. Kassof discusses how he essentially built an oversized wind instrument out of irrigation pipe with a speaker attached to it to “…see what would happen.” This experiment would serve as part of his larger work involving the series of sound recordings he made around the ranch and assembled into ‘dinner music’ to accompany a meal graciously curated with the assistance of local caterer Rebecca Sokol. His eyes light up from behind his eyewear as he discusses the process of creating such a unique soundtrack.

“For each course, each movement, I would play different recorded sounds that I’ve made going around the ranch and then I edit them into a backing track that [is] kind of narratively focused; […] salad music for instance, it starts with the sound of […] the creek, and then it’s the sound of the pump, and then the sound of the sprinklers, and then they kind of dissolve into this beautiful wash and then it’s the sound of like the knife chopping the salad at the end, right? And over that I did improvised cello.”

In a more serious and somber moment, Kassof also reflects on his experience as an organizer, and the power of music–noting how some days, the literal ‘pep in your step’ can be the catalyst that helps a group keep going when they’re battling both harsh treatment and harsh weather. He draws a comparison to how composing and organizing are a lot like being a logistics manager, which at times can separate him from the impact his efforts inevitably achieve–reflected in his statement that, “I think I sometimes forget how [powerful] communication through music can be as far as emotional connection.”

The Visual Artist

Slinko is as fascinating on an individual level as she is on an artistic level; though she draws, sculpts, and produces videos, it is the medium of bread that she cannot put down at the moment. The core subject of her series “Economy of Means,” Slinko reveals multiple layers of the value of bread–“the staff of life.” Keen on wordplay, the double entendres of ‘the world of bread’ reveal themselves, such as ‘dough’ being both uncooked bread and currency; and ‘breaking bread,‘ as the communal act of sharing food and paying someone a portion of money.

It’s almost no surprise that Slinko is able to reflect the world of capitalism through her ‘world of bread.’ From the hierarchy of bread to printing this ‘edible currency’ on paper, she used her time at PMRCAA to explore not only the intricacies of the finished product, but the process of creating it–encouraging one to consider the bigger picture of how bread grows from field to finished loaf, the role of farmers and subsidies, and the cost of a humble product that we couldn’t imagine our lives without.

Part of Slinko’s sojourn at PMRCAA involved exploring as much of the bread production process as she could. “I was looking for a place that would allow me to learn more about production of bread, because I had made work based on bread as a political and cultural symbol, [but] realized that [I] didn’t know anything about bread as [an] agricultural product.”

She takes a moment to note how sculpture, with its expensive equipment, must be extremely precise, much like the medium of baking within the culinary arts. “I [have a lot of respect for] bakers––more than I was prepared to grasp. The full investment of energy, and precision, and its embodied knowledge.”

It’s not just her way of looking at bread as a symbol that’s fascinating, Slinko brings her eye to the production end as well, as she recounts the opportunity she had to witness grain be harvested from a field, and shadow a baker to ascertain, “[the literal] physical choreography [a] baker performs, apart from just the finished result,” and she is of course correct––there is much movement involved in creating bread. As she discusses her research, she touches upon the fact that movements, in the sense of revolutions, have been made in the name of bread when people could no longer do without having access to this bare minimum of daily sustenance and had to fight for change, and like a flaky pastry, her work reveals yet another dual meaning, of ‘societal change’ and ‘coin change’ and how the lack of the latter can prompt the former.

She is quick to thank the Pine Meadow Ranch Team for facilitating the introductions and opportunities that would allow her to do a deep dive into the world of bread production at Sisters Bakery, The Barn in Sisters, Madras Farms, International School of Bakery with Marda Stoliar, and Maupin Farms. From grain to getting her hands dirty during a bread making course, Slinko recognizes the privilege of being able to do literal hands-on research while engaging with bread professionals, asking questions, and enjoying unparalleled support in her quest to tell a visual story about what it means to grow, harvest, and produce a product that humankind has been dependent upon for thousands of years.

Recipe for Success

Given that the cohort consists of three artists spanning multiple mediums, it makes sense to think like Slinko for a moment and consider the parallels. Each of the artists in question went to Pine Meadow Ranch not only to work on their projects, but to nurture them––to seek out and harvest the ingredients that would allow them to make the breakthroughs or unnoticed connections that would allow them to make the projects to the next level.

For Schaffer, that meant collecting human experiences; for Kassof, sounds; and for Slinko, information. They each had their own way of sourcing their ingredients and will mix them in unique ways as well. Yet one thing is for certain, whatever the end product may be, if it’s anything like their past work, it’s sure to leave us wanting more.

Published On: September 6th, 2023 / Categories: Pine Meadow Ranch, Pine Meadow Ranch Programs /