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Speakers at the 2019 Portland Creative Conference alternatively nudge and cajole the audience into following their passion and creating something lasting.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Comic writers Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnick share stories during the Portland Creative Conference. She's a feminist, he's her husband.

The 2019 Portland Creative Conference had a strong through-line of telling creative people how to get it done.

There was an urgency to each of the seven speeches. The message was not so much how to think, imagine or wonder, but how to create work while making a living. This was perhaps precipitated by the increase in distractions for the e-lancer in the work from home era, in particular, the distractions of social media.

At one point, a young woman in the audience asked for advice from distinguished theater producer Ken Davenport. She said she wanted to be an artist, but didn't know what to do. On further (gentle) questioning, he elicited that she didn't even have a chosen medium: film, painting, writing … she had barely anything under her belt. Davenport's talk had been about how he gets things done.

When he wanted to create a Broadway-themed board game, he began by Googling, "How to create a board game."

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Broadway producer Ken Davenport talked about 'serving the ball' as a way to start any creative project during the Portland Creative Conference.

One tip he gave was to try to get press on another page of the newspaper from which you would typically be found. So a new play could be in the business pages, such as when he crowdfunded a revival of Godspell. For a show about initial sexual experiences called "My First Time" he made it into the news pages by offering to let virgins in for free, but having them pass a casual lie detector test while in line. (He also began saving a lot of time in his twenties by sending his laundry out, and later hiring a house cleaner.)

Davenport created a hit musical, The Awesome 80s Prom, without a script or a venue, but that he instinctively did one thing right. In tennis terms, he served the ball. And "serve the ball" is his golden piece of advice to all creative people, experienced or pure wannabees. Do something. Take that first step. Put something out there. In his case, it was run a print ad in Backstage looking for actors who wanted to be in an improvised musical about a high school prom. "My skill is getting people in a room," he said.

He told the woman in the audience to start painting at once, and see how it went. He told her to eliminate the arts she wasn't passionate about until she found one she was.

It was a basic piece of advice, but basic was a theme.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Wieden + Kennedy's Susan Hoffman takes a question during the Portland Creative Conference. Johnson said sounding like yourself is considered a creative's greatest asset at the ad agency.


Susan Hoffman, Global Creative Director and employee number 8 at local ad agency Wieden + Kennedy, gave a greatest hits presentation of Nike ads. Some were from the agency's recent politically correct phase, which uses female empowerment and giving voiceto minorities to sell shoes and tracksuits. Some were a history lesson for youngsters, such as the one that used the Beatles' "Revolution" song with Yoko Ono's permission, but not that f the other band members, over a series of athletic highlights. "A music video not an ad," it was called at the time.

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN  - Wieden + Kennedy's Susan Hoffman expounded on the wisdom of agency founder Dan Wieden during the Portland Creative Conference.

If grainy ads and double-spaced saws from Dan Wieden seem nostalgic now, Hoffman did say something that was easy to take away: the agency's creative side thrives developing people's creative voices, leading to work that has a wild mix of styles and viewpoints.

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Wieden + Kennedy's Susan Hoffman expounded on the wisdom of agency founder Dan Wieden during the Portland Creative Conference.

The Colonel Sanders/KFC and Old Spice ads are a freewheeling collection of memes and gags that don't need to go anywhere. In an undated video, David Kennedy, looking uncombed but compos mentis, said the people in the agency come together instinctively to collaborate on creating something bigger than themselves, just as a worm comes out of slime mold.

Johnson also tossed out a few agency rules:

1. The work comes first

2. Chaos is part of the creative process and

3. Focus on the truth, making people feel something and come to their own conclusions.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Comic writers Matt Fraction and Kelly Sue DeConnile share stories during the Portland Creative Conference.

Kraken up

Comics writer Kelly Sue DeConnick (PRETTY DEADLY, Carol Danvers' rebranding as Captain Marvel) was in conversation with her husband, Matt Fraction. They revealed they met on the Warren Ellis online forum (dedicated to the author of Transmetropolitan, Stormwatch, and The Authority) in an era before always-on social media. De Connick said she and some colleagues keep a 300-name spreadsheet of female freelancers in the comics business. It contains links to their email addresses and portfolios. They share it every six months as a way of helping women compete for work in a male-centric comics industry.

Courage and time are her touchstones. "You can't make more time, but you can make more courage," she said. DeConnick also revealed that she has a Kraken sea monster tattoo up her back, and that 11-year-old girls universally love the ending of the Marvel movie she worked on, because the hero tells her adversary she won't battle him on his terms, but on hers.

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Ruth Carter talked about making futuristic tribal costumes for the Marvel movie Black Panther during the Portland Creative Conference. Speakers at the Gerding Theater worked around the set of In The Heights, the current musical showing there.

Black Panther

Costume designer Ruth Carter, who won an Oscar for her work on superhero movie Black Panther, worked in theater and the Santa Fe opera long before she hit Hollywood.

Her first movie was Spike Lee's "School Daze" (1988). Carter described how she took looks from real African tribes scattered across the continent, to dress the tribes in the fictional Wakanda. She talked about improvising — using a place mat from Pier 1 Imports as a headdress — and being uncompromising. The cost of the prototype of the Dora Milaje costume was $350,000, she explained, because everyone had to get paid. If the beadwork or leatherwork was wrong, it was scrapped, and they started again. Even after the first one, they came in at $100,000 each. She revealed her favorite designer is Alexander McQueen, and that, "When you hire strong people, it makes you stronger, but there has to be one decision-maker. You have to stay true to your voice."

When she started on Black Panther, she was shown samples that were too much like the Lion King, and she had to tell them, 'This is not the Lion King.'

"I got a pit in my stomach," Carter said. "I felt very tearful and anxious that this is not it. I had to be confident with what I knew what was right and needed to start over again. I learned a valuable lesson about listening to myself."

One audience member asked how she dealt with the "passive progressive," people, meaning superficially woke white people.

She said that although she started with Spike Lee, she worked with "many filmmakers who were not just of color," including such jobs as the pilot for Seinfeld. "I didn't want to see myself as this black girl in Hollywood. I just wanted to do great work. I wanted to ignore any kind of side-eyes. I didn't feel those things that sometimes we use as barriers to excellence. I just wanted to do good work. And eventually, it just kept following me."

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - For each speaker Tim May of Xplane drew what he heard using a Wacom tablet during the Portland Creative Conference.

Times Square

Jeff Gomez, whose Starlight Runner company works in the field of transmedia, helping turn stories into multimedia products, revealed that he had been a hustler in Times Square in his early 20s. Perhaps even more shocking, the day he woke up in an abandoned tenement with a guy who had just died of a drug overdose, he was carrying a copy of JRR Tolkien's "The Two Towers" in his back pocket. The complexity of the story and characters in The Lord of the Rings has always stayed with him. "I took Middle Earth apart to understand it," said Gomez. "I found desire, the building block of the story."

As a child, he had either Asperger's Syndrome or ADHD, and when a teacher made him stand in the corner for rocking, it was as though his mind went through the corner of the room into what he called liminal space — a terrifying outer space feeling that he could only control by filling with stories. He had successes, such as developing the back story to the card game Magic the Gathering (he just imported his Dungeons and Dragons campaigns from his youth) and working in 2005 with Johnny Depp on "Pirates of the Caribbean." Depp told Gomez the studio hated his attempts at playing Jack Sparrow until he saw himself in the mirror and found Sparrow "balancing between the twin voids of nobility and savagery."

Gomez's presentation was emotionally raw, and technically raw too: His photos were often low resolution and his text scattered down the right side like a poem you could read in advance of him saying the words. But his message was one of radical individuality.

"Your audience doesn't have to be everyone, just the people who feel you." He announced that his company is now branching out into the life coaching business, and will take on individual clients looking to understand and craft their own narrative.

Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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