The Lead Up: Celluloid Signal Combine

Image from the website The Portland That Was

In 2010, Anne Richardson presented the project “The Portland That Was” at the conference “Reimagining the Archive” at UCLA. The project was a public history/ public art project by the group Celluloid Signal Combine which combined film, video, an interactive website and free live outdoor screenings. It was created for the 2006 Time Based Arts Festival in Portland, Oregon. The original website is still functional.

Celluloid Signal Combine consisted of four people: Dennis Nyback, Mack McFarland, Damon Eckhoff and Anne Richardson. Independent film archivist Dennis Nyback and artist Mack McFarland created thirteen videos based on fourteen films selected by Nyback. Anne Richardson matched each video with a specific site in Portland. Damon Eckhoff created the interactive website which housed the videos. In addition to the website, the project included four live screenings, including one for which the audience traveled on foot from site to site, to see selected archival 16mm films screened against the walls of buildings or sites with which they had some historic connection.

The lead up, Part II: Kim’s VIdeo, NYC

Image by Americasroof – Own work, CC BY 3.0.

Founded in 2007, the Institute sprang to life in Kim’s Video in New York when Anne Richardson was paging through a book about R. Crumb. She came to a footnote stating that one of Crumb’s major influences, the Donald Duck comic book artist Carl Barks, came from Oregon, her home state. She knew Homer Davenport and Mel Blanc were Oregonians, as were Will Vinton and Matt Groening. How any others were there? She asked fellow Oregonian-turned-New Yorker David Chelsea, himself a cartoonist, about this and he told her about Basil Wolverton. She began collecting other names, eventually contacting animation historian John Canemaker to get his thoughts. Canemaker immediately added two more to the growing list: Pinto Colvig and Marc Davis. After Dennis Nyback and Anne Richardson returned to Portland from New York, they founded the Institute to explore this neglected aspect of Oregon history.

A short history of the Oregon Cartoon Institute

The first OCI logo, showing Marylhurst University, where the co-founders taught briefly.

Co-founder Anne Richardson created a document in which she detailed the story of the Oregon Cartoon Institute. Here is the original text.

“Dennis Nyback and I started Oregon Cartoon Institute in 2007 by inviting Oregon artists to educate audiences about the “who, what, where, when” of Oregon film, animation, and print cartooning history. As we did this, the artists kept volunteering answers to questions we didn’t ask. They kept telling us about the people who first identified their talent, encouraged their ambition, and supported their quest for technical mastery and artistic independence. I began to map this network of support chronologically, and what I learned transformed my understanding of the city in which I live.

I learned there are very concrete reasons behind our regional strength. Oregon was quick out of the gate creating innovative, nationally recognized arts education programs: PAM’s Museum Art School opened in 1909, UO’s AAA in 1914. We were likewise ahead of the curve supporting independent film: American Lifeograph, a full fledged film studio, opened on SE Yamhill in 1910. Right from the beginning, at the very dawn of cinema, we made independent features, shorts, documentaries, and animation. Before most cities had either an art museum or a film industry, we had both. In the extraordinary group of filmmakers which includes Will Vinton, Jim Blashfield, Bill Plympton, Joan Gratz, Gus Van Sant, and Matt Groening, these two threads of early influence come together. Vinton wins an Oscar in 1975, Plympton is Oscar nominated in 1987, Blashfield wins a Cannes Golden Lion in 1989, Groening wins his first Emmy in 1990, Gratz wins an Oscar in 1993, and Van Sant is Oscar nominated in 1998. All are entrepreneurs. Vinton, Blashfield, and Gratz founded studios; Plympton, Groening, and Van Sant founded production companies. Portland’s early investment in arts education and support for independent film paid off. We prepared these artists for success.

Our regional strength, the writer-director-producer, is so distinctive it shows up before this group existed, in two artists educated at UO: James Ivory and James Blue. Both were Oscar nominated. Thanks to the artists who collaborated with OCI, I now understand the way UO’s AAA, James Ivory’s alma mater, contributed directly to the strengths of the art & art history departments at PSU, Bill Plympton’s alma mater. I understand the way the interrelationship between these two universities fits into Oregon’s overall history of innovative arts education. Slowly but surely, OCI has pieced together a map of Oregon film history that makes sense. The artists themselves are responsible for this deepened understanding. They redirected my attention away from their individual achievements and toward the network of support from which they emerged. With their help, a pattern emerged, and Oregon’s previously inexplicable track record of film, animation and print cartooning excellence began to fit into a specifically regional, and completely logical, context.

I heard the stories from artists, not institutions. I believe stories are easily lost in institutions. When NWFC’s Thomas Phillipson brought together a group of Oregon film history stakeholders to discuss the problem of archiving Oregon film, he asked visiting expert Steve Seid, head of Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, for his opinion. Seid said “It doesn’t matter if you keep the films if you don’t keep the stories”. OCI keeps the stories. Besides the stories which illuminate arts education and independent film, the warp and the weft, so to speak, of our regional film history, there are stories of individual lightning strikes of inspiration. For James Ivory, it was meeting a local architect who had worked in Hollywood designing sets. For Bill Plympton, it was seeing Homer Groening’s short art films. For Matt Groening, it was watching guest speaker Mel Blanc unite a high school auditorium in laughter. How can we responsibly structure opportunities for the next generation to experience these same lightning strikes? How can we continue to build on existing strengths?

When I first heard Steve Seid recommend keeping stories, I did not know the archive he directed in Berkeley was founded by a Portlander. That story had been lost. I only learned later that Sheldon Renan wrote the 1970 NEA initiative responsible for the creation of a network of regional film centers. NWFC is one of them. When Matt Groening came to speak at UNDERGROUND USA, OCI’s 2016 symposium, he asked to be introduced to Sheldon Renan.

Through largely donated gifts of time, talent, and intelligence, Oregon’s most distinguished artists have laid the groundwork for a deeper, more scholarly understanding of the national importance of our regional film, animation, and print cartooning history. Thanks to their work, and the support of Kinsman Foundation, Miller Foundation, and the institutions which partnered with us, Oregon Cartoon Institute can now begin moving beyond the “who, what, where, when” questions, and open up the question “why”. A list of the first years illustrates a wide spectrum of public events.”

The Oregon Cartoon Institute becomes a non-profit

The OCI logo, designed by Bill Plympton in 2021. Copyright Oregon Cartoon Project.

The organization used the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission as its first fiscal sponsor. In 2016, the OCI looked into becoming an incorporated non-profit organization in Oregon). At this point, it appears that Tiffany Conklin, Tomas Valladares and Galen Malcom were approached to be board members. The eventual incorporation as non-profit took place in 2017, with board members Ben Truwe, Carl Abbot and Ed Hillerns signing, and Kohel Haver serving as contact person. At the organizing meeting Carl Abbot was elected president, Ed Hillern was elected secretary/ treasurer. Anne Richardson was designated the OCI’s registered agent.

The bylaws state that the OCI will not have any members. It is also determined that the board consist of three to ten directors, with new directors to be elected for two-year terms, and terms to be staggered to ensure continuity.

The Oregon Cartoon Institute becomes the Oregon Cartoon Project

In 2020, OCI co-founder Anne Richardson passed away from cancer. Since then, the board of directors has embarked on a re-envisioning process of the OCI. Anne’s sister Katherine Bruna Richardson was elected new president and treasurer, Ellen Thomas became secretary, Sebastian Heiduschke was appointed head of web development and of the move-to-print initiative. Sheldon Renan, Laura Berg and Kira Lesley were the other three directors. The OCI mailing address moved from Portland to Corvallis.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2021 annual conference with the title “The Power of the Pen” was postponed and eventually cancelled. The conference committee, consisting of Ellen Thomas, Sheldon Renan and Sebastian Heiduschke, had originally booked Oregon State University’s Portland Center as venue, and invited graphic journalist Sarah Mirk to be the keynote speaker.

Before her passing, Anne had deleted the websites of the Oregon Cartoon Institute and of Oregon Movies, A to Z (an OCI project). The board decided to prioritize the rebuilding of a web presence and to fund a “move-to-print” initiative with the task to publish previous OCI events in print form and as digital humanities projects. One of the first steps was the commissioning of a new animated logo by Bill Plympton.

Over the following months, a lengthy process of taking stock of the Institute followed. The board is still working on the re-envisioning of the organization. As a first step, the board voted on and approved the new name, Oregon Cartoon Project, along with the tag line “Oregon Cartoons & Cartooning. Past, Present, Future” in February 2022. The Oregon Cartoon Project created an advisory board after director Sheldon Renan stepped down, and asked him to become the inaugural chair, which he accepted. 

The organization joined the Oregon Historical Society as a non-profit organizational member in early 2022 to support the research for the Oregon Cartoon Project’s first print publications, slated for 2026. A number of projects organized by our soon-to-be announced artist in residence are planned for 2022.