Randall Vemer was just 22 when he became principal viola and soloist of the Oregon Symphony Orchestra in 1976, a role he would retain for the next 20 years. During this time, he also played principal alto at the Portland Opera and performed with many of the world’s most renowned ballet companies, including Joffrey, Ballet West and the Royal Canadian Ballet, among others.
It’s subtle, but those who come to see Vemer’s exhibit at Christ’s Episcopal Church, 536 W. North St., and have played in pointe shoes before will recognize Vemer’s authenticity in a painting in particular: the subject is a cellist, but in the background, a ballet dancer – and next to the painting, a haiku by Christina Chin: “Dream voices, how they move, the scent of rosin. Backstage at nearly every ballet performance is a box of crushed rosin rock, which dancers will crush further with the toes of their shoes to minimize the risk of slipping on stage.
This painting, hung on a wall of the Episcopal Church of Christ from Sunday to Thursday, accessible to the public between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., is entitled “Swan Lake”. Not only is the subject matter deeply personal in general – an ode to Vemer’s past as an orchestral staple, in one of the most celebrated ballets of all time – but so is the main subject. Vemer does not just paint the instruments he knows so well, but his models are real musicians from his personal network of friends and colleagues.
“All these musicians, they are not models – they are real professional musicians from all over the world that I know or have contacted [with]“Vemer said Thursday. “She’s a Russian solo violinist from Ukraine,” he added, pointing to a painting titled simply “Irine.”
It’s bittersweet, of course. Vemer came to love painting, but it was not his first passion. Although he is now able to perform again, thanks to numerous medical interventions and mirror therapy, a diagnosis of focal dystonia abruptly ended his professional music career in 1995.
“Tragedy struck,” he said. “I had focal dystonia, that horrible neurological thing that happens to musicians. It killed my career, killed my passion, my income, my self-esteem, everything. Boom, it’s over.
So, for the next decade, Vemer played in a new realm – the early days of the Internet – as a computer programmer. It ended up serving as a gateway to the visual arts, from screen to canvas.
“Web design… to do that, you have to do graphic art design, right?” he explained. “So I did a lot of graphic art, and then painting was sort of an outgrowth of that. Rather than creating in pixels, I created with the brush.
It has become a lifeline. Vemer soon realized that while mastering a new art requires the same level of discipline, practice, and commitment to technique—a lot of “blood, sweat, and tears”—it was at least a place of familiarity. After all, these are the same ingredients that made him a musician in his old chapter. He could do that.
“I’ve taken many painting classes at colleges, community colleges, universities,” he said. “But it was mostly about studying with individuals – teachers and mentors – and reading and, I hate to say it, YouTube videos! Renaissance egg tempera painting and stuff like that.
Yet Vemer never lost sight of his music, even and especially in his paintings. This is why his exhibition “MusArt” is a multimedia experience: each painting is not only accompanied by a haiku by Chin, but also by a QR code which, once opened, takes the viewer to a musical score involving the instrument represented in the table.
This is why the opening of the exhibition, on Thursday evening, included a mini concert. That’s why Vemer’s biography – and his paintings – includes a short film, with an original score by Kira Zeeman Rugan, available for free on YouTube, which has won first place at film festivals from Berlin to Tokyo, St. Petersburg, Paris and Los Angeles.
This is why, when Vemer chose to paint Rugan, she is depicted gesturing towards a dramatic sunset as if seeing music – amid the “wild cosmos sunset”, as Chin wrote in his accompanying haiku.