Nature, art, and activism on the Oregon Trail

Signal Fire alumni consider Oregon's colonial past and ecological present at PNCA

By STEPHANIE LITTLEBIRD

Unwalking the West is a group exhibition at the Center for Contemporary Art and Culture at the Pacific Northwest College of Art showcasing Signal Fire alumni who completed the Unwalking the West wilderness program in 2016. The artists retraced segments of the Oregon Trail in reverse to examine the lingering legacies of colonialism and consider present ecological challenges.

Signal Fire started in 2008 when activist Amy Harwood joined artist Ryan Pierce in a collaborative effort to unite their two communities. The intention of this partnership was to foster appreciation for the natural world by connecting artists to the wilderness and advocating for the protection of open spaces.

Ten years later, the program leads trips year-round for artists who want to deepen their relationship to nature and learn about equitable access to public lands. Additionally, the program provides opportunities for artists and creative activists to engage with the environment directly through unique and immersive residencies.

Emmy Lingscheit, Remediators (2018)

Upon entering the exhibition at PNCA, one is confronted by large-scale relief prints depicting Pleurotus ostreatus, commonly known as the oyster mushroom. Artist Emmy Lingscheit’s work is delicately carved and visually striking in its balance of light and dark. Her mark making is intentional and beautifully exalts the anatomy of this humble organism.

The mushrooms appear larger than life and give the viewer a sense of how much ecological weight these tiny fungi actually carry. Mushrooms are a staple of Pacific Northwest cuisine. Oregon Chanterelles are coveted by foodies the world over but they also perform an integral role in maintaining a healthy ecology. Most fungi form symbiotic relationships with surrounding plants and trees, sharing nutrients and clearing toxins from the soil. Lingscheit’s prints depict these unique rhizome root systems that mushrooms form underground, known as mycelium. Oregon is home to the largest known network of mycelium on earth, 10 square kilometers of the northeastern Blue Mountain range. Through her work, Lingscheit reveals the symbiotic relationship between humans and their environment to examine the intricate, yet unseen ties that join us to the land.

Egyptian American artist, activist and educator Sarah Farahat recently completed work on the new memorial at Portland’s Hollywood Transit Center. Her contribution to Unwalking the West is a collection of vibrant plant studies Farahat created while planning the twenty-six-foot mural commissioned by TriMet. The memorial and her preparatory studies commemorate the lives of those lost in May 2017, when three men defended a young woman against a racist attacker on a Max train. Farahat’s work in this exhibition offers the viewer a moment of visual rest and reminds us of how comforting nature’s beauty can be in difficult times.

Installed on the wall opposite to Farahat’s work is a collection of photographs by Garrick Imatani, taken as part of his collaboration with Oregon’s Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. The subject of Imatani’s work centers around Tomanowas (t̓əmánəwas), the largest meteorite ever found in North America. Also known as the Willamette Valley Meteorite, it was brought to the Pacific Northwest via glacial shifts over 15,000 years ago. Originally found in what is now West Linn, it remains sacred to Oregon tribes.

Settlers became aware of the meteorite because of its tribal significance and in 1902 Tomanowas was secretly moved and sold for $26,000 ($744,976* adjusted for inflation) by a local named Ellis Hughes. Shortly after it was sold, the meteorite appeared in New York’s Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition and was eventually purchased by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where it remains on permanent display.

Garrick Imatani, The Weight of Representation (2017)

Tribal leaders fought for many years to return Tomanowas to Oregon but were unsuccessful. In 2001, following over 100 years of separation, the tribes and museum reached an agreement allowing private tribal access once a year. Artist Imatani accompanied the tribe during their yearly ceremonial visit and documented the meteorite using 3D technology. Imatani’s intention was to create a digital model of Tomanowas and replicate it with alternative materials.

The result of Imatani’s efforts is a full-scale foam replica of Tomanowas shown here with Grand Ronde tribal members. Imatani cleverly employs historical context to highlight the role natural objects come to play in political battles. For a recent example, look no further than December 2017 when President Trump reduced federal protections for Utah’s prized Grand Staircase and Bear Ears monuments, despite public outcry. These monuments are considered sacred sites by the original tribes of Utah and many important archeological discoveries were made there. Sadly, in August of 2018, the Bureau of Land Management voted to sell-off parts of both monuments to private entities.

The inclusion of indigenous stories and history is a central components of the exhibition. It goes without saying that land is at the heart of America’s bloody colonial past and those expansionist ideologies continue to inform our culture today. It is the land that sustains the entirety of indigenous life; nutritionally, spiritually and socially speaking. Therefore, understanding and protecting the land becomes inherent to survival. In tribal culture, nature is considered a place of learning and discovery, of comfort and nourishment. Preserved natural spaces are important to indigenous people because it is widely understood that the earth must be healthy in order to produce thriving inhabitants.

It is worth noting that the works featured in this exhibition do not romanticize nature, nor do they reduce it to empiricism. Each viewer can engage with the works in a different way, activating their own connections to the land. The collection has a certain harmony in its arrangement, curated holistically to give equal space for reflection and contemplation. Similar to Signal Fire’s wilderness program––we are encouraged to stop and consider our relationship to nature personally, socially and environmentally.

Unwalking the West was curated by Ka’ila Farrell-Smith, a contemporary Klamath Modoc visual artist and activist. Even before she received her MFA, Ka’ila was a respected voice in Portland’s contemporary Indigenous art community. Now, as Co-director of Signal Fire, Farrell-Smith is helping to infuse the program with more indigenous voices. One can only assume her star will continue to rise within the art and activist communities. As a budding curator, Unwalking the West is a testament to Farrell-Smith’s creative vision and ability to unite people in a common cause.

Unwalking the West is currently on view until October 20th, 2018 at the Center for Contemporary Art & Culture, housed in the beautifully restored, historic 511 building. A closing celebration featuring Leaf Litter Release #7 and a reading will be held from 6-8pm on October 20th.

Stephanie Littlebird is an indigenous artist, writer, and maker based in Portland.She graduated from PNCA in 2016.

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