In the summer of 2015, Wes Hurd was in a melancholy place.
“My mom and dad had passed away, and artistically, I wanted to work on some fresh territory,” says the visual artist.
Hurd decided to challenge himself with a series of large, abstract paintings, each with the same size — 51 by 47 inches — and a unifying palette of black, white and gray.
“Through these works, which are process-oriented, I was working through grief and sadness,” Hurd says. “I’d finished five paintings and was pretty happy with them. Then the shooting happened.”
On Oct. 1, 2015, a gunman opened fire inside a Snyder Hall writing class on the Umpqua Community College campus, killing nine people and wounding another eight before turning the gun on himself.
“The last two paintings in the series are a direct response to the shooting,” Hurd says.
Composer and musician Eliot Grasso was also moved to reflect on the events that unfolded that day, too close to home.
“I first saw Wes’s paintings online and they inspired me to create solo flute sketches in reaction,” Grasso says. “But to see the paintings in person — the texture, depth, the shadows — we met and we both thought, ‘What can we do?’”
Grasso, who plays the uilleann pipes — like an Irish bagpipe — and Hurd began an artistic collaboration, together seeking to explore and interpret the intertwining emotional rivulets of tragedy and hope.
This weekend at the Hult Center, the pair presents The Odyssey of These Days, featuring a visual-art installation by Hurd, presented with Grasso’s composition, played by Dréos — a quintet featuring uilleann pipes, violin and Hardanger fiddle, vielle à roué, cello and double bass.
“I think of art as a social language, a special voice, that we call on to speak to each other and to ourselves when ordinary language doesn’t carry the import and gravity of what we want to say,” Hurd says.
We may turn to art as a lantern to light our way through senselessness.
“There are three parts to the narrative,” Grasso says. “Part one is the impact, the news and what it does to someone. Part two is the struggling — an ongoing mental fog — like your mind is slammed around in your head; it just exhausts you.”
Grasso’s second movement vibrates with piercing violin repetitions, “an ostinato to represent the mind spinning,” he says.
“Finally, part three is like a resignation — graveside, in the rain, umbrella out, watching a real person lowered into the earth. It’s a state of recognition and acknowledgment,” Grasso says.
For the performances on March 3 and 4, the program in the Hult Center’s Studio will begin at 6 pm with an opportunity to experience the visual art, freestanding on steel frames, in a nave-like half-circle in the space.
At 7 pm, Grasso and the musicians will play, followed by a narrative talk by Hurd and Grasso, as well as a chance for Q&A.
The artists say the performance cost about $17,000 to produce. Grasso received some funding for the project through the Oregon Arts Commission and Hurd has support from companies like GloryBee and Andersen Construction, which fabricated and donated the collapsible steel frames on which the canvases are displayed.
In Hurd’s downtown studio, the 10 paintings unfold in close harmony with Grasso’s music. Even in this informal setting, the music and visual art combine to create an arresting emotional effect. Hurd works with texture, often drawing out rhythm, shape and form using natural materials instead of brushes.
Themes flow throughout the paintings, which have a lustrous feel like a late fall day in the Southern Willamette Valley, when muted sky and wood smoke and fog comingle. Though it can’t be seen, we know the sun is just behind the cold and gray.
Hurd’s progression of paintings invites inquiry; matched by Grasso’s music, the pair’s accomplishment speaks with a voice that transcends time.
One painting, Document, the eighth in the series, features a ribbon of lead running vertically and nine dots, each blackened and dark but filled with real gold.
“They’re not bullet holes,” Hurd says. “They’re intended to be the fact of a life.”
Limited tickets for the 7 pm Friday, March 3, opening of The Odyssey of These Days at the Hult Center are $55; general admission tickets for 7 pm Saturday, March 4, are $15. Tickets available at hultcenter.org. Doors open at 6 pm both nights.