Randall Vemer was just 22 years old when he became the principal viola and soloist of the Oregon Symphony in 1976, a role he would keep for the next 20 years. During that time, he also played principal viola for the Portland Opera and performed with several 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 see Vemer’s exhibit at the Christ Episcopal Church, 536 W. North St., and have ever performed in Pointe shoes will recognize Vemer’s authenticity in one painting in particular: the subject is a cello player, but in the background is a ballet dancer — and alongside the painting is a haiku by Christina Chin: “Dream voices, how they move, the scent of rosin.” In the wings of nearly every ballet performance is a box of crushed rosin rock, which dancers will crush further with the points of their shoes so as to minimize the chance of slipping on stage.
That painting, hung on a wall of the Christ Episcopal Church from Sunday through Thursday, available for public viewing between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., is titled “Swan Lake.” Not only is the subject matter deeply personal in general — an ode to Vemer’s past as an orchestra staple, in one of the most famous ballets of all time — but the primary subject is, as well. Vemer doesn’t just paint the instruments he’s come to know so well, but his models are real musicians from his personal network of friends and colleagues.
“All of these musicians, they’re not models — these are genuine professional musicians from around the world that I either know or made contact [with],” Vemer said Thursday. “She is a Russian solo violinist from Ukraine,” he added, gesturing toward a painting titled simply, “Irine.”
It’s bittersweet, of course. Vemer has come to love painting, but it’s not his first passion. Although he’s now able to play again, thanks to no small amount of medical intervention and mirror therapy, a focal dystonia diagnosis abruptly ended his professional music career in 1995.
“Tragedy hit,” he said. “I had focal dystonia, this horrible neurological thing that affects musicians. It killed my career, killed my passion, my income, my self worth, everything. Boom, ended.”
So for the next decade or so, Vemer played in a new realm — the early days of the internet — as a computer programmer. It ended up serving as a gateway to visual arts, from the screen to the canvas.
“Web design … to do that, you have to do graphic art design, right?” he explained. “So I did a lot of graphic arts, and then the painting sort of was an outgrowth of that. Rather than creating in pixels, I created with the paintbrush.”
It became a lifesaver. 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” — that was at least a place of familiarity. After all, it was those same ingredients that made him a musician in his former chapter. He could do that.
“I took a lot of painting classes from colleges, community colleges, university,” he said. “But mostly it was study with individuals — teachers and mentors — and reading and, I hate to say, YouTube videos! Egg tempera painting in the Renaissance and stuff like that.”
Still, Vemer’s never lost sight of his music, even and especially in his paintings. That’s why his “MusArt” exhibit is a multimedia experience: accompanying each painting is not only one of Chin’s haikus but also a QR code that, when opened, takes viewers to a musical score involving the instrument featured in the painting.
It’s why the exhibit’s opening, on Thursday evening, featured a mini concert. It’s why Vemer’s biography — and paintings — comprises a short film, with an original score by Kira Zeeman Rugan, available for free on YouTube that has won first-place accolades in film festivals from Berlin to Tokyo to St. Petersburg to Paris to LA.
It’s why when Vemer chose to paint Rugan, she’s depicted gesturing toward a dramatic sunset as if seeing music — among the “wild cosmos sunset,” as Chin wrote in her accompanying haiku.