From Portland to Enterprise you drive past Hood River, right on through The Dalles, watch the landscape change from lush Northwest Columbia River Gorge to the leveled plains of Central Oregon. Wind your way past Pendleton, too, and into Enterprise. What you will notice most are the mountains, the Wallowas.
[Writer’s Note: The Ford Family Foundation and University of Oregon Connective Conversations Inside Oregon Art photography project took place over a the course of a year. Inevitably, the lives and locations of the artists involved were going to change. That’s what happened with ceramic artist Ryan LaBar, whom I met in 2014 in his Eastern Oregon studio.]
I arrived in the late afternoon. Right as the mountains were beginning to surrender to a late summer sunset. By the time night arrived, the sky had become an inky black peppered with flakes of gold. I could imagine a life here, forever. But, I was not in Enterprise to enjoy the nocturnal sky nor fantasize about daring relocations, I was here to meet artist, Ryan LaBar.
About Connective Conversations: In the summer of 2014, I began my travels around Oregon to photograph the artists who had received studio visits from the curators and critics of the Connective Conversations | Inside Oregon Art 2011-2014, The Ford Family Foundation and the University of Oregon School of Architecture and Allied Arts Curator and Critic Tours and Lectures program for the years since the program’s inauguration in 2011. I travel light, only one camera, no lighting equipment, one lens. My goal is to show these artists in their environment—authentic, uncontrived, at ease. Learn about the project, Connective Conversations Inside Oregon Art 2011-2014 and the release of the book October 2015 at this year’s Oregon Arts Summit.
LaBar works with clay, and his creations are something to behold—large or small they twist, contort, tangle, and intertwine in ceramic layers glazed and fired to produce works of intricate complexity. LaBar, for this visit, was the reigning executive director of the LH Project and invited me to come to the studio (the home of the LH Project and utilized by both LaBar and several artists-in-residence) and then to tour the grounds.
LaBar’s studio is housed in a red barn, surrounded by grassy fields, an oblivious grazing deer, a trickling creek, and, it is hot. The dry summer heat doesn’t seem stifling, instead it feels slightly forceful, a bit tempestuous as to inspire. The studio is bathed in the summer sun, windows letting in light, inviting brightness to wash over the throwing areas, shifting and shadowing over surfaces, shelves, and furniture. The space is teeming with his work—and a large screen TV (perfect for those lonely, long nights in the studio, LaBar commented). As the sun snooped in through windows here and there restlessly reflecting and playing with the patterns and cutouts in his ceramics, LaBar made himself comfortable in his studio chair.
My gaze and my camera wandered around the neat, clean and organized place. Shelves held drying ceramics, kilns stood outside under weather-sheltering overhangs, rows of five-gallon plastic buckets filled with glazes ready to be mixed with an electric paddle bit balanced within a bucket.
LaBar proudly showed me the various kilns; and handing me protective glasses, invited me to put down the camera and peer into the small round hole of the studio’s largest, raging hot baking master. Pulling out the little blaze and light-blocking plug, and stooping over to look into the firey depths, heat pouring out of even this small hole with unexpected intensity, LaBar demonstrated how to check temperature, how to look for signs of ceramics ready to remove, and showed just how incredibly powerful this firing contraption really was.
As he prepared a new batch of clay, making it malleable and evenly smooth, LaBar talked about the dark, cold, desolate winters in Eastern Oregon, the isolation of the studio and how that contributed to his prodigious productivity level. He also confided a desire for more human contact and his dream of having a family—-which he didn’t think he had much of a chance of finding in a remote Eastern Oregon town. Still, he had a charming rascally way of revealing a real, deep love of this remote region. Comments kept slipping into the conversation about the beauty of the mountains, the glow of the sunlight, the warmth his ceramics got from the afternoon sun, and the materials and equipment in the studio that made it feel like home. After all, he was here, and had been for several years. And he looked incredibly happy.
LaBar continued the tour of the studio. Throwing the sensual earthen clay on the studio wheel came next; then, when the desired shape was attained—in this case, a convex vessel—LaBar picked up an exacto knife to cut intricate designs and patterns into the piece. Taking me outside, he demonstrated how, at times, he will let a piece cure slightly to a firm drying point out in the Eastern Oregon summer sun—simply by placing it outside the barn-studio door and letting it bask in the warm light.
The artist dipped and dunked clay pieces into his buckets of waiting glazes that would produce colors reminiscent of the earth tones of Eastern Oregon’s Painted Hills—cobalts, ochres, siennas. The glazes were pale versions of the colors of the earth and sky—whitewash-looking liquids waiting to be liberated by the fire and heat of the kiln. And, then while pieces lay in the sun, and baked in the kiln out back, LaBar showed me the storage container he keeps in the field behind the studio that houses his projects and serves as a place to prepare pieces to be shipped around the world.
It was time for us to make our way to the LH Project. The LH Project is a short 20 minute drive away into nearby Joseph, Oregon. Tucked away under the shelter of a cathedral forest and bordering on land that stretches into a view of the Seven Devils mountain range, LH Project is a mecca of kilns, cabins and gallery space, all designed and built in styles found around the world, a ceramicist’s nirvana.
The LH Project’s owner-founder Jacob Haßlacher talked about the gallery space, the exhibitions, the residencies and the work. LaBar got involved with the LH Project in 2009 and by 2010 he was appointed the program director.
LH Project was a fascinating place and made all the more intriguing by the remote location. But what was truly engaging was LaBar’s dedication to the work and his productivity, in both locations. At the studio, he was focused, intent, in full creating mode, enthusiastically showing his space and his work. At the LH Project, LaBar was equally enthusiastic—talking about and showing other artists’ work, explaining their use of the kilns.
Gazing out across the valley at the barely visible distant jagged edge of Seven Devil’s mountain range chiseled against the sky, the mysteries of Hell’s Canyon only a vague concept in the distance, and the beginning of Idaho just beyond view, the location of LaBar’s studio and the LH Project brought a singular quality to both places. Here was tremendous work being done by remarkable artists, isolated yet more connected to a greater global perspective than most of us where kilns and techniques exemplified an array and collaboration of international methods both modern and historic. As I drove away, it was with a sense of melancholy. The beauty I left behind, the quiet, remote, dedication of an artist’s retreat was extraordinarily captivating.
UPDATE: It wasn’t until September 2015 that I heard from Ryan LaBar again. While the update he gave me was, indeed, foreshadowed in our conversations at the Enterprise studio, it was nevertheless, a bit sobering:
“Since we last met, I have moved permanently to Portland. I spent the summer at Oregon College of Art and Craft and am heading to China for two months come the 16th. I was invited by the porcelain capital, Jingdezhen, to help inaugurate a new studio/museum complex. I will return to Portland mid-November, 2015. I hope to find a permanent studio by then; currently my studio and work are held captive in a shipping container on the edge of town.”
In my mind I will always associate LaBar with the farthest reaches of the Connective Conversations program and imagine those studios and the hot summer sun.