Indian painting: past as prologue

Maryhill Museum's "American Indian Painting: Twentieth-Century Masters" captures a transition in time

The Maryhill Museum of Art, that beguiling concrete-castle oddity sitting high on a desert cliff about 110 miles east of Portland on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge, is a seasonal pleasure in the Pacific Northwest. And this is the season. Isolated and subject to bitter winter weather, it operates from mid-March through mid-November, and picks up visitors briskly as the warm summer months approach.

Its collections are an eccentric and shrewdly varied crazy quilt, from Rodin sculptures to Eastern Orthodox icons, American Realist paintings, dazzling carved chess sets, film clips and posters of the celebrated bohemian dancer Loïe Fuller, French fashion theatrical tableaux from immediately after World War II, and ornate furniture designed by Marie, queen of Romania, who, along with dancer Fuller and San Francisco socialite Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, helped establish the museum in the grand home of their friend Sam Hill. Hill, a genuine Northwest character on whose vast unrealized estate the museum stands, was a visionary builder of roads and public landmarks, including the nearby Stonehenge replica, which movingly commemorates soldiers from the area who were killed in World War I, and the Peace Arch, which links the United States and Canada at Blaine, Washington, and Surrey, British Columbia. He abandoned his never-lived-in castle above the Columbia when his dreams of establishing a Quaker farming community on his 5,300 acres there crumbled.

Allan C. Houser (Chiricahua Apache, 1914-1994), "Bufflo Hunt," 1952, gouache on illustration board, 17.25 x 26.5 inches.

Allan C. Houser (Chiricahua Apache, 1914-1994), “Bufflo Hunt,” 1952, gouache on illustration board, 17.25 x 26.5 inches.

The Rodins get a lot of the attention, but in many ways Maryhill’s small but significant collection of traditional Native American implements, clothing, and artwork is at least as important an attraction. The collection’s strength is work from the surrounding Plateau region, but it also includes fine pieces from the Arctic to the Eastern Woodlands and territories between, and the museum often augments its permanent collections with temporary exhibitions of traditional and contemporary work.

That makes Maryhill a fitting place to host the modest yet intriguing current show American Indian Painting: Twentieth-Century Masters, which continues through July 15. Twentieth-Century Masters and two small supporting exhibits offer the museum’s visitors an excellent opportunity to consider the history and shifting status of Indians in America – a tale that all too often is considered a story of the past, but which is very much alive and still being created.

Drawn from the collection of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, the exhibit includes watercolors, tempera, and other works by transitional painters from the Plains and Southwest, mostly from the 1930s through the early ’70s. The word “Masters” in the title is a stretch, but sounds better than “Transitional Figures,” which these painters largely were. The show’s Plains artists in particular link the tradition of 19th and early 20th century ledger art – brisk, active images of hunting, battle, and other subjects drawn or painted on sheets of lined accounting ledger books, and themselves transitions from earlier traditional painting on buffalo and other hides – and the sophisticated variety of contemporary Native American art.

The story told in Twentieth-Century Masters is partly a tale of the shifting tides of assimilation and “otherness,” and white expectations for Indian art. From the beginning of contact white and Indian cultures traded goods and ideas – the great give-and-take of Pendleton design and the enthusiastic adoption by Indian artisans of Eastern European manufactured beads are just two small results of the process. The artists in this exhibit were responding partly to romanticized ideas about Indian life and culture, as Maryhill curator Steven L. Grafe writes in his essay for the exhibit: “At both the University of Oklahoma and the Santa Fe Indian School, romantically inclined educators had encouraged young Indian artists to find and preserve the primitive and the unspoiled, and to remain untaught. They encouraged their students to produce works that they believed looked uniquely ‘Indian.’ Lakota artist Oscar Howe (1915-1983) responded to this regimen in 1958, when he wrote, ‘There is much more to Indian Art, than pretty, stylized pictures … Are we to be held back forever with one phase of Indian painting, with no right for individualism, dictated to as the Indian always has been, put on reservations and treated like a child, and only The White Man knows what is best for him?’”

Archie Blackowl (Southern Cheyenne, 1911-1992), "Love Call," c. 1970, tempera on mat board, 19.5 x 14.5 inches.

Archie Blackowl (Southern Cheyenne, 1911-1992), “Love Call,” c. 1970, tempera on mat board, 19.5 x 14.5 inches.

There is, in fact, considerable variety of approach in the show’s paintings, from the vigorous, muscular action of Chiricahua Apache painter Allan C. Hauser’s 1952 gouache Buffalo Hunt and Navajo artist Quincy Tahoma’s mane-flying 1952 watercolor Three Wild Horses to the stylized, flat geometrics of Southern Cheyenne artist Archie Blackowl’s 1970 tempera painting Love Call, which plops a pair of traditional human figures on a vibrantly reduced field of color. Navajo artist Harrison Begay’s sweet domestic scene Navajo Maidens, c. 1970, and his 1952 watercolor The Weavers are nicely rendered, deceptively simple illustrations. Cree artist Acee Blue Eagle’s c. 1950s Woman and Deer shows a delicate approach to line reminiscent of 18th and 19th century Asian Indian paintings. Other paintings – including Cherokee/Potawatomi artist Franklin Gritts’s c. 1938 Cherokee Corn Stalk Shoot, with a pair of contestants waiting their turns as a third leans his back into bow-pulling position, and Muscogee Creek/Seminole artist Fred Beaver’s clean-lined and formally energetic 1974 gouache Creek Stomp Dance – portray rituals of tribal life.

A few pieces in Twentieth-Century Masters break free from the illustrative mold, remaining figurative but in a much more stylized and leaning-to-abstract way. Chippewa artist Patrick DesJarlait’s boldly contoured 1970 painting The Catch, depicting a man and woman stringing newly caught fish for drying, has a modern muralistic feel, like a Diego Rivera, although it’s only 25 inches wide (which nevertheless makes it one of the larger pieces in this intimately scaled show). A pair of New Mexico paintings – the c. 1950 Eagles and Rabbit (Symbols Used on Altars), by Joe Hilario Herrera of Cochiti Pueblo, and the 1970 Symbols of the Southwest, by Anthony Edward “Tony” Da of San Ildefonso Pueblo – are excitingly stylized and geometric, blending traditional patterns with modern abstract approaches to space. Compared with the show’s more traditionally pictorial pieces, they’ve come a long way, indeed.

Patrick DesJarlait (Chippewa, 1921-1973), "The Catch," 1970, tempera on paper, 19.75 x 25 inches.

Patrick DesJarlait (Chippewa, 1921-1973), “The Catch,” 1970, tempera on paper, 19.75 x 25 inches.

The story of American Indian Painting remains largely a rural, reservation tale, a depiction of the lives and legends of a people essentially apart. That was not entirely true then, of course, and is less true now. As reality tends to be, the actual story is much more complex. Drive out of Portland to Maryhill and you’re driving into Indian country. But you’re driving out of Indian country, too. More than two-thirds of Native Americans now live in urban areas, including about 30,000 in the Portland metropolitan area and another 9,000 across the river in Clark County, Washington. Of Oregon’s not quite 4 million people, about 102,000 identify themselves as fully or partly native – more than the populations of boom towns Hillsboro or Bend.

Still, as you roll out of the wet side and toward the desert, it seems more like Indian country, or at least the Indian country of the American popular imagination that so many of the paintings in Twentieth-Century Masters reflect: wide and dry, with undulating hills and big open spaces. And it’s still there. Go a little farther east and you get to Pendleton and the Umatilla reservation; a little south and you enter the massive Warm Springs reservation; a little north and you’re in Yakama territory. Just a whistle downriver to the west – you can see the spot from Maryhill – you’ll have passed Celilo, where in 1957 the backwaters from the newly opened The Dalles Dam flooded Celilo Falls, which had been a fertile fishing ground and major meeting and trading place for the people of the Columbia for as much as 15,000 years. Here is where you get into the Plateau region, a vast territory beginning on the eastern shank of the Cascades and stretching from British Columbia to Northern California, on east to Idaho and Montana.

Anthony Edward "Tony" Da (San Ildefonso Pueblo, 1940-2008), "Symbols of the Southwest," 1970, tempera on paper, 19.5 x 14.75 inches.

Anthony Edward “Tony” Da (San Ildefonso Pueblo, 1940-2008), “Symbols of the Southwest,” 1970, tempera on paper, 19.5 x 14.75 inches.

Some great traditional art, from basketry to beading, is still being made in these long stretches of land. But in the 21st century its creators are aware that it is traditional, and they are far from untouched by modern life. Native American artists in the Pacific Northwest today are also artists in the world at large. As comfortable with European art history and the trends of the contemporary art world as they are with the patterns and traditions of their tribal affiliations, artists such as Wendy Red Star, James Lavadour, Sara Siestreem, Joe Fedderson, Lillian Pitt, Rick Bartow (whose major retrospective Things You Know But Cannot Explain continues through August 8 at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene), Gail Tremblay, and Marie Watt are creating sophisticated work that’s among the region’s most exciting and challenging. Their art can be conceptual and abstract or pictorial or decorative at once, drawing from traditional themes but reinterpreting them in light of contemporary methods and cultural realities.

The artists in Twentieth-Century Masters helped pave the way. Grafe concludes his essay on the exhibition with this: “A new generation of painters brought rapid change and in 1971, in his Indian Painters and White Patrons, J.J. Brody observed that ‘easel painting was a White art medium; it was given to the Indians; and the result for fifty years was meek acceptance. Now the Indians have taken it … The taking has resulted in a vital, expressive, sometimes un-pretty, sometimes polemical, and always stylistically varied art. The forms might be quite un-Indian but they merely reflect radical changes in the purpose of Indian art.’”


Raven Skyriver (American, b. 1982), Tyee, 2014, off-hand sculpted glass, 19” x 5” x 32”; Photo by KP Studios.

Raven Skyriver (American, b. 1982), Tyee, 2014, off-hand sculpted glass, 19” x 5” x 32”; Photo by KP Studios.

Another, smaller, special exhibition at Maryhill, Tlingit artist Raven Skyriver’s Submerge, indicates one of the many directions that contemporary Native American artists have taken. Skyriver, still in his mid-30s, grew up on Lopez Island, one of the more sparsely populated of the larger San Juan Islands in Puget Sound. He turned early and easily to glass-blowing, a form that combines art and craft, ancient technique and contemporary ideas. He studied in Venice, the center of European glass art, then moved on to the American epicenter of the Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, Washington, and began working with modern master William Morris, where he learned the techniques of sculptured glass. Much of what he does now is sculpted sea creatures: octopus, frog, sea otter, whale, salmon, halibut, trout. The pieces in this small show, all of fish, have a sleek serenity and a kind of dulled surface sheen that is a quiet counterpoint to Chihuly exuberance. There’s a dignity to these forms: each is encased in a glass vitrine in a hallway of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Gorge canyon. They seem natural here, floating in their own element. Submerge continues through the season, until November 15.


F.A. Young (American, 1862–1922), Warm Springs Indian Women on Horseback, 1902; Collection of Maryhill Museum of Art

F.A. Young (American, 1862–1922), Warm Springs Indian Women on Horseback, 1902; Collection of Maryhill Museum of Art

A third special exhibition, also up through November 15, continues the museum’s ongoing interest in the history and art of its surrounding territory. Native Peoples of The Dalles Region, which lines a hallway leading to the museum’s education area and café, consists of photographs of tribal members in nearby Wasco County, Oregon, taken in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many are in the Edward Curtis tradition, though taken by local photographers; a few are less obviously posed. Some subjects are in ceremonial dress. The images are historically fascinating, and raise some of the questions that the paintings in Twentieth-Century Masters also do: to what extent are they images of the people as they wanted to be seen, and to what extent are they the result of a romanticizing white eye? The answer isn’t clear, and probably isn’t simple. Yet, they represent a people who are invisible to much of mainstream American society. And being seen is an important step.


These three interlinked exhibits are easy to take in on a single visit, and still have time for the Rodins or the chess sets or whatever else strikes your fancy. Despite its new-wing expansion in 2012, the museum doesn’t have a lot of space for temporary exhibitions, and it takes some ingenuity to present them well. In this case, their placement encourages a little wandering, which in almost any museum is its own reward. Executive Director Colleen Schafroth says that long-range plans include moving the permanent American Indian collection to the top floor and moving the Theatre de la Mode fashion exhibit to the current Native American space in the rotunda down the hall from the Rodins. That’ll put the Native American collection close to the main gallery for temporary shows.

Plaza, Mary and Bruce Stevenson Wing, with original museum building behind. On the hills are some of the windmills that help support Maryhill financially. Foreground: Alisa Looney (Portland, Ore.), "Roll & Play," 2007, powder-coated and flame cut mild steel, 36" x 75" x 48". Gift of the North Star Foundation, 2008.06.001. Photography Scott Thompson

Plaza, Mary and Bruce Stevenson Wing, with original museum building behind. On the hills are some of the windmills that help support Maryhill financially. Foreground: Alisa Looney (Portland, Ore.), “Roll & Play,” 2007, powder-coated and flame cut mild steel, 36″ x 75″ x 48″. Gift of the North Star Foundation, 2008.06.001. Photography Scott Thompson

Any shifting at Maryhill is done on a tight budget. The museum has an annual operating budget of about $1.2-$1.3 million, and covers about 70 percent of it from earnings, including leasing of its large land holdings for ranching and wind-farming. The rest comes from donations and grants. As with any cultural organization, running Maryhill is a matter of delicate and strategic balances, working lean and getting the most from what’s available.

The museum’s isolation is both an asset and a drawback, and part of the challenge is making it more asset than drawback. For urban visitors, a great deal of the pleasure of a trip to Maryhill is the trip itself. It’s a comfortable spin though dramatically changing countryside, with dozens of possible side excursions and longcuts. I like to cut off of I-84 at the little town of Mosier, just east of Hood River, for instance, and take the winding old highway through the hills into The Dalles, where I can get back onto the freeway again. Sometimes I jog north of Maryhill, past the farm town of Goldendale, to the forestside St. John the Forerunner Greek Orthodox Monastery, where I can step into the nun-operated bakery and shop and wander the aisles looking at reliquaries and personal icons for sale, check out the CDs for the latest from the excllent Portland choir Cappella Romana and other masters of old religious music, and pick up a quick Greek lunch or a few pastries to go. Maryhill is a popular day-trip destination for urbanites, especially from the Portland area, but people tend to go once a year. Closer communities are much smaller, and even though the area is developing a bigger cultural touring base (the large Maryhill Winery, with its series of popular concerts by the Gorge, is just up the road), the tourism economy is still in its infancy, and there’s a lot of mileage between cultural destinations.

The museum’s 2012 expansion did a great job of easing the building’s overstuffed-attic feel, but it didn’t add a huge amount of gallery space, and more gallery space might allow for more temporary exhibits, which could create more frequent visits, the way the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, for instance, attracts repeat visitors through its rotating productions. Might a small new building on the museum’s expansive grounds, dedicated perhaps to revolving temporary exhibitions of contemporary Northwest art, Indian and otherwise, someday boost traffic to Maryhill and help make it a more regular destination for urban travelers? The numbers, of course, would have to crunch, and as far as I know, no such plan is on the table: just keeping things going is challenging enough.

Then again, Sam Hill always thought big. And the east end of the Gorge is bound to become a more thriving destination. Can Maryhill anticipate the future in smart, active ways, and slice itself a bigger piece of the cultural pie? Can culture, itself, help counteract the economic isolation of the rural Northwest as jobs and money flow to the cities? Tune in next decade.


Read more from Bob Hicks >>

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