Story and Photographs by FRIDERIKE HEUER
“History is who we are and why we are the way we are.” – David McCullough, American historian (1933- 2022)
I’M CURIOUS: How many of you have ever visited the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum in Stevenson, Washington? It’s a mere 50 minutes from Portland, and the drive takes you through beautiful scenery ending up at a multiple-acre piece of land adjacent to Skamania Lodge, alongside a small lake dotted with islands and views of the Columbia River and the mountains as backdrop. A compact, modern building made of glass and concrete overlooks the property, with some large wood carvings and a collection of historical tools and machinery outside, and multiple exhibitions dedicated to the history of the region displayed on the inside.
I had never known the museum existed, much less visited there, until recent changes at the institution brought it onto my radar. That might have simply been my ignorance — wouldn’t be the first time — or it might have had to do with lack of outreach or appealing programming. That is in the process of changing now, under a new executive director, Louise Palermo, who is very much engaged in putting this hidden jewel onto the map beyond its familiar supporters and viewership of longtime residents of the Gorge. (And a heads-up: A new website, reflecting changes, is in the process of being installed and will be up in a few days. Information about location, opening hours and directions have, of course, not changed.)
The building houses numerous collections across two floors, conveying the history of the land and the people, from First Nations to the modern settlement, forestry, and industrialization of the region. A small theater shows documentary films, some exploring the geology of the Gorge. There are a few quilts exhibited, and there is an unexpected, one might say quirky, collection of thousands upon thousands of rosaries, spiking my curiosity over how some of these, donated by famous people — Lawrence Welk; Al Smith, the first Catholic to run for the office of president, in 1928; one donated in memory of Robert Kennedy, who had left it in a small church in Bavaria; one donated in memory of Dag Hammerskjold, secretary general of the United Nations from 1953 to 1961; one donated by President John F. Kennedy — ended up in cupboards in the Gorge.
You enter the museum through two rooms of exhibits describing the ways of life and fates of the tribal populations of the region.
Much needs to be done, I suggest, to bring this collection, and particularly the explanatory signage, up to date. Some of the language obscures the consequences of settler colonialism. Pretty much the rest of the museum is teaching us about how the settlers lived and thrived and changed the land, including the rationale for building dams and their fateful consequences.
The Grand Gallery focuses on the way wood was harvested and processed from the surrounding forests down to the mills, much to the delight of visiting school classes who get to see moving and noisy machinery, once you lure them away from the stuffed mountain lion overseeing it all,
or unexpected signs of Big Foot in the corners.
To my delight as well: I had no clue about the complex processes involved and was fascinated by the traditional steam engine, the Corliss, providing power needed to run sawmills. Harvesting of fish is shown by juxtaposing mechanical methods, a fish wheel, and Native American techniques, represented by the model of a native dip netter, at a water feature. This alone would be an interesting starting point for a conversation about extraction and preservation, particularly if there were youth programs that would seed not just a love of history but an understanding of each person’s possible role as a steward of the resources of the Gorge.
There is also a gift shop that carries arts and craft by local providers, in addition to the usual fare. A small gallery offers the opportunity for changing exhibitions: The current one, Women Artists of the Gorge, was the reason for my recent visit to the place.
“If you don’t know history, it’s as if you were born yesterday. If you were born yesterday then any leader can tell you anything.” – Howard Zinn, American historian (1924-2010)
I DON’T KNOW if these things existed in the U.S., but in my German childhood one of the highlights was the trips to the country fair or the green grocer, where you could plunk down your 10 Pfennig and receive a tiny paper packet stuffed with miniature toys, colored puffed rice, and small candies. It was called a Wundertüte, a “wonder packet,” full of surprises. (Of course, it was also a way to assure that young kids got used to return customer consumerism, given the inclusion of collectibles, cards or toys.)
The current exhibition, Women Artists of the Gorge, brought the analogy to mind. Here is a collection of incredibly varied works hung in a small space, with many of them delectable and some eliciting, well, wonder. Shout-out to Jen Smith, who artistically hung a show that ranged across so many dimensions and type of media in this tight space: paintings, prints, photography, collage, macrame, and woven tapestries. And a shout-out to the folks at the White Salmon Valley Community Library and the White Salmon Arts Council, Ruth Shafer and Kristi Strasen respectively, who had originally conceptualized an exhibition of regional women artists in honor of Women’s History month, from which a subset followed the invitation to show their work at the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center. Shout-out, too, to the staff who kept the daily visitors happy and helped with the pragmatics of mounting the exhibition. The loudest shout out of them all, of course, goes to the artists:
Julie Beeler, Jillian Brown, Janet Essley, Sally Gilchrist, Daiva Harris, Kristine Pollard, Autumn Quigley, Jacqueline Moreau, Cathleen Rehfeld, Ana Rugani, Jen Smith, Kristie Strasen, Cyndi Strid, Kelly Turso, and Jodi Wright.
Their work teaches us history in different, more personalized ways, through love of place and depictions of its beauty up to warnings about the needs for environmental protection and inclusion and conflict resolution.
I obviously cannot review every one of the works, so know that my selections are based on personal interest or curiosity, and not at all linked to the quality of the work. As a photographer, I was drawn to one of the photographs on exhibit that anchored the entire show for me in its depiction of female family members capturing a moment of laughter and joy. For many decades, San Francisco-born Jacqueline Moreau‘s work has documented the lives of Native American peoples along the Columbia River and their fight to secure the rights afforded to them by a provision in the 1855 (Confederate Tribes of Warm Springs) treaty. The intimacy of this photograph is evidence of how integrated a photographer can become with a subject if respect, empathy, and shared values overcome outsider status, enabling new forms of community.
As someone who has worked on documentary film projects about the fossil fuel industry, I was moved by the portrait of an Alaskan native whose land, heritage, and fate are intrinsically connected to the future of drilling and pipelines and the havoc they can wreak. Janet Essley, a muralist, teaching artist and activist for justice, used dabbed motor oil on paper for the portraits in her series Endangered Species (2004), which features people across the world (Columbian, Indonesian and Tajikestani natives among them) whose lives are touched by oil extraction and production.
Two depictions of wildlife caught my attention — Autumn Quigley‘s for the wit and thoughtfulness that went into the collage, which seamlessly combined spring’s trilliums and fall’s seed pods and fallen leaves; and Jen Smith‘s for the obvious concern over how shared space can be made a reality for creatures that are still truly wild. Ever-encroaching human construction is a true threat to habitats, at the same time that we are in such dire need to provide more housing for ever-growing populations.
Autum Quigley, “Windfall.”
Last but not least were tapestries that impressed with motion (the strong Gorge winds, swaying the grasses and echoing the waves of the river, were palpable in the one depicted below),
and coloration, the subtle and beautiful gradations of which could not be fully captured under the light conditions.
(I got a better shot at the intricate color play when I visited Strasen in her studio to learn more about the origins of this communal exhibition that she originally co-mounted. Let me share the beauty.)
Sometimes I learned interesting backstories that helped to appreciate a work even more. Driven by her passion for mycology, the science of mushrooms, Julie Beeler, together with some collaborators, created a Mushroom Color Atlas, which “is a resource and reference for everyone curious about mushrooms and the beautiful and subtle colors derived from dyeing with mushrooms.” People around the world can use this on-line resource, learning and experimenting with it, being drawn into a growing interest for our natural environment. Beeler also teaches in person in various workshops around the nation, and lectures at scientific conferences. The best part: not knowing ANY of this would make no difference for the appreciation of the sheer beauty of her pieces. Well, for this viewer, in any case.
I PHOTOGRAPHED THE SHOW when it had been hung on the day before opening night, and so worked in an empty room bereft of people. Yet a sense of community was palpable, since the accumulated works truly seemed representative of so many different artists, stages of experience, and cross section of interests. By all reports that experience of community was present in squares during the opening reception, with a lot of people attending, fortified by wine generously provided by Domaine Pouillon, and interested in getting to know each other.
In some ways that seems to me an important part of the mission that this museum, under new leadership, could adopt: providing a commons, a platform where people with shared interests or concerns can meet, mingle, learn, and exchange ideas. One of the definitions of commons is “natural resources that groups of people (communities, user groups) manage for individual and collective benefit.” Here it could simply be the offer of a cultural space, shared by the the many of us.
Artists play an important role in this endeavor. Knowing history is surely something that most people see as important. Yet we live in a time of increasing restrictions on teaching history, at all or in specific ways, depending on who you ask or in which state you live. Teaching the history of a place — here, the Columbia Gorge — cannot come from a single source, however richly endowed with objects and artifacts to support a particular claim. It has to be provided with the help of different perspectives, and who better equipped than visual artists to relate something in nondidactic, vivid, personal ways that might register much more easily than dry facts or official story lines? I am not implying that the artists in this show intentionally set out to convey insights about history. But the cumulative power of much of the work suggests something about what it means to live in the Gorge, be exposed to both its beauty and its hurt, its past and its present, its nature and culture that needs stewardship and protection.
If the museum opens a commons, inviting and presenting diverse voices easily found in the rich tapestry of the Gorge population, during fun events or serious shows, it will establish its place on the map in no time, and be an invaluable resource for all of us.
Women Artists of the Gorge
- June 17-Sept. 5, 2023
- 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily
- Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum
- 990 S.W. Rock Creek Drive
- Stevenson, Washington