Renee Couture: A trailer with a view

Sabina Poole's series of studio visits to artists around the state starts with Peel's Renee Couture

“I’m very much tied to my property; my life ebbs and flows with the seasons.”Renee Couture, Oregon artist living in Peel.

Peel, Oregon. It’s near a place called No Fog. No kidding.

Peel is a bit of a drive eastward from Roseburg, past the only place in the world where rivers collide, the Colliding Rivers of the Little River and the North Umpqua, and down the road from the recession-knocked about town of Glide, (population about 1700 in 2010—it seemed less when I drove through). Miles and miles of human-planted forest spanning mountain upon mountain are visible from the road: Despite the lack of old growth, the forests still hold up the sky out here.

Real work is done in these parts: As in days gone by, burly men wear suspenders over plaid flannel shirted-shoulders and have work-worn, oil and dirt stained hands. Here, for summer fun, the teenagers throw themselves off the cliff into the emerald cold of the Colliding Rivers, much to the stunned Instagram-delight of tourist passersby. On a drive through Glide, rivers rumble right next to the roadside and thundering logging trucks lurk around the next corner.

 Renee Couture looks up at her artist studio “trailer” situated on acreage in the central Southern Oregon region./Sabina Poole

Renee Couture looks up at her artist studio “trailer” situated on acreage in the central Southern Oregon region./Sabina Poole

I arrived at my motel around 5 pm and find that my room key had been left under the doormat of my room’s front entry (motel staff had left me a voicemail). I drove up to Renee Couture’s homestead property around dinnertime. She was outside cooking in well-seasoned cast iron pans on a stove and kitchen she had set up beneath a breezeway connected to a cabin-like home. She told me she loves to cook—and even more so if she’s cooking food she has grown in her garden. A couple of big, fuzzy dogs provided a cacophony of canine sounds while Renee and I got acquainted.

[Editor’s Note: Sabina Poole visited 70 artist studios last summer to illustrate a new book published by The Ford Family Foundation with the University of Oregon, Connective Conversations: Inside Oregon Art, 2011-2014, due out in October. You can read her introduction to this series here. She will publish a new installment each week at ArtsWatch. Stay tuned!]

Renee explained the outside kitchen was necessary in the heat of summer; and she proceeded to saute homegrown vegetables—it smelled delicious, both home-cozy and wilderness camp-like. Once dinner was made, but with her husband yet to arrive to join us, we took a tour of the property. The big attraction was her studio—which she had informed me was in a “trailer.” By tour, I should clarify, it was more of a hillside hike.

Traversing the significant vegetable garden and piles of stacked firewood (the Coutures are quite self-sufficient, growing most of their own food in a vast hillside vegetable garden, and chopping and storing wood to warm their home in winter), we finally arrived at “the trailer.” Actually, it was more permanent and comfortable than maybe that sounds. The trailer sat beneath a shed-like, post-and-beam structure with a corrugated metal roof and awnings poised for instant shade and solar panels. Once inside, it was apparent this studio-on-wheels had been painstakingly and lovingly remodeled with wood-framed windows, beautiful cork flooring, a wood stove, and exceptional insulation. Her work and artist implements hung on the walls.

Renee explained to me the need for the insulation and the wood stove: It’s blisteringly hot in summer, bitterly cold in winter. But she makes the trek up the mountain to her workspace, year ‘round, holding her earthenware coffee cup brimming black, maybe stopping to pick vegetables or water the garden, her dogs following her.

Renee moved to Oregon from Phoenix, Arizona, though she is originally from the Midwest (Wisconsin and Iowa). She made the move to Oregon for love—following “the boy” she later married. They had met as Peace Corps volunteers in Bolivia—which I learned later entailed a whole host of other wild adventures, but that’s for another story. Renee, surveying the land around her and gazing off to the forested mountains across the valley, commented, “Growing up, I always thought I would live in a large city.” While she loves visiting urban areas, she said, she “couldn’t imagine living in one” primarily because she doesn’t like traffic or finding a place to park.

When we walked back down the hill to our waiting dinner, Renee’s husband was pouring us chilled Chardonnay in sparkling crystal goblets, treasures handed down from Renee’s grandmother that seemed wildly elegant in the these surroundings. A creek next to our outdoor dining table gurgled away adding ambiance to our dinner (the couple’s source of water, they told me, comes from the creek). The dogs, finally tired of barking, curled up on the deck and slept. Renee and her husband told me about his work in the forestry service, their long walks on the area’s isolated logging roads, discovering the land and what it can (and can’t) provide for them, and how Renee gathers inspiration and ideas for her work from the forest and wilderness environment around her.

We cleared up the dinner things, washed the dishes and talked about the “big city.” Talk of Portland (which for the purposes of our discussion was referred to as “the big city”) led to stories about First Thursday trips and comparisons between city and country, where Renee had nowhere to wear the fur coat, a vintage heirloom that had been her grandmother’s, she lamented. In Peel, there was no reason to wear it.

Renee working inside her studio space./Sabina Poole

Renee working inside her studio space./Sabina Poole

The experience living, observing and surviving here comes across in the work Renee makes. From the cross-section log-rubbings done on her long, logging road walks (the finished works hang on her trailer walls) to the wax-and-paint coated ribbons hung to dry in the hot summer sun to a piece such as Labor Day’s Labor 2010 (“I planted seeds in my garden, covering them with the paper mulch. Soon I will nourish my body with the food that grows through the drawings…”), Renee’s work communicates the relationship she has with this part of Oregon and her life here.

I got the feeling she was incredibly happy living in this remote area of Oregon, cooking her garden-grown vegetables in her outdoor kitchen, exploring the logging roads and forests for inspiration, and making the walk to her studio. As Renee says, “I’m very much tied to my property; my life ebbs and flows with the seasons.” And while Peel might not be a place where Renee finds she wears her fur coat very often, it’s clearly the place she finds her muse.

[Click the image for the full-size photograph.]

Read more about Renee Couture and other Oregon artists in Connective Conversations, due out October 2015.

Connective Conversations | Inside Oregon Art is part of The Ford Family Foundation’s seven-pronged Visual Arts program launched in 2010 to honor the interests in the visual arts by the late Mrs. Hallie Ford, a co-founder of the Foundation. Principal goals of the overall program are to help enhance the quality of artistic endeavor and body of work by Oregon’s most promising visual artists and to improve Oregon’s visual arts ecology by making strategic investments in Oregon visual arts institutions. Some program components the Foundation directs; others, it elects to work with regionally-based institutions such as it has done in partnering with the University of Oregon with the first four years of the Curator and Critic Tours and Lecture series. Such collaborations are invaluable in maximizing the delivery and impact of the program components for which the Foundation is most grateful.

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