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Quills & Queues: Art is long, life is short

“Ars longa, vita brevis.”

— Hippocrates

This column will be my final piece for the Ashland Daily Tidings. After four years of writing for the paper both as a political commentator and as a theater, fine art and music reviewer, the time has come for me to move away from the Rogue Valley to pursue my options in a larger city. Being too old for a midlife crisis, I can only hope that whatever forces are driving this decision are doing so with their instincts intact.

To steal a lengthy quote from one of my favorite contrarians, the great movie critic Pauline Kael: “I regard criticism as an art, and if in this country and in this age it is practiced with honesty, it is no more remunerative than the work of an avant-garde film artist. My dear anonymous letter writers, if you think it is so easy to be a critic, so difficult to be a poet or a painter or film experimenter, may I suggest you try both? You may discover why there are so few critics, so many poets.”

That quote has long been a go-to for me as I have navigated the responsibilities of living and working as a critic for a small-town newspaper, where someone may take offense to a bad review of their friend or relative and confront me on the street, which has happened more than once. It takes more than a little bit of Kevlar around the ticker to be a creative person who is critiquing other creative people. The feeling is peculiar, conflicting, and it doesn’t get any easier over time.

As George Bernard Shaw once said, “a drama critic is a man (sic) who leaves no turn unstoned.” That is not quite fair, because it implies a hostile bias. I have loved each and every opportunity to come to a production in our little valley, regardless of what the results of that opportunity may have entailed. There have been sublime moments — “The River Bride” at Oregon Shakespeare Festival being perhaps the best of all, in retrospect — and not so sublime ones, such as an email signed by a 12-year-old actor assailing my “heart of stone” following a review of a particularly tepid production of “Mary Poppins” in which she was participating.

The political columns were met with more enthusiasm, which I would attribute less to my own skills as a writer and more to the happy circumstance of an audience that shares similar legislative priorities to my own. The deep blue island that is Ashland — despite being surrounded on all sides by hats and precincts that are odiously red — was always receptive to columns that promoted gun control, challenged racism, or spoke out on the rights of women and the LGBT (TQQIAAP) community. I was on deck for the racist attack on OSF’s stellar Christiana Clark by a local xenophobe, and for the battle between a local bookstore and the festival that became an open debate on how far free speech should go when that speech offends people, and especially people from an historically disenfranchised minority.

The dynamic tension between the outspoken and political population of Ashland and the complex and compelling theater being produced on the stage at the city’s most lucrative establishment has always made for a fascinating experience. For so pastoral a town, we are remarkably vigorous in our civic engagement, and hold strong and vocal opinions when it comes to our beliefs.

I will miss the opportunity I have had to utilize this platform as a way of adding my voice to a forceful debate on the direction of art and culture in this beautiful borough. But life does go on, and we must continue to find our way to unpathed waters and undreamed shores. I have loved my time here on the page with all of you. I bid you a very fond farewell.

Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.

Jeffrey Gillespie