A visual-arts bright spot in COVID summer

Chehalem Cultural Center galleries showcase work by the late Michael Gibbons, Kerri Evonuk, and Sara Siestreem

In Yamhill County, for a few more days, visual art enthusiasts have an opportunity to see a sprawling collection of paintings by Michael Gibbons, the self-described “poet with a paintbrush” who died July 2 at his Toledo home, the result of complications from a stroke suffered in 2006. The exhibit fills two galleries in the Chehalem Cultural Center that are large enough to easily accommodate our new normal of six feet from others. The exhibition runs through Friday.

The Yaquina Exhibit: A Painted Voice for a Sacred Landscape, curated by the center’s director of arts programs, Carissa Burkett, showcases paintings inspired by vistas from the Oregon Coast around Newport. When considering Newport, most Oregonians probably think of Yaquina Bay and civilization’s stamp immediately around it: the Oregon Coast Aquarium, the restaurants, shops, and docks along the waterfront, the bridge. We forget an ecological fact: Yaquina Bay is merely the lowest elevation of a 250-square-mile basin that stretches up and away into the hills and out of view. As the show’s notes point out, the watershed encompasses breathtaking geographic and biological diversity and is home to bears, Coho salmon, cougars, beaver, eagles, and other wildlife.

"Doyle Thorne's Ditch" by Michael Gibbons (oil, 1987)
“Doyle Thorne’s Ditch” by Michael Gibbons (oil, 1987)

Gibbons packed his paints, brushes, and easel into this area beyond the bay, producing over three decades the more than 45 plein air oil paintings that compose the show.

“When en plein air,” the notes say, Gibbons “comes to a place that feels right to him, then he’ll pause, find a bush he can hang onto and grab a branch. ‘How would you like to be seen?’ he’ll ask. You can almost hear the chorus of the different trees. It’s a sense. You don’t hear words, per se. The language is right there. It’s a living being.”

The exhibit features a series of drawings Gibbons created in preparation for The Mighty Oak, depicting a Heritage Tree at the Oregon Gardens. It allows the viewer to see and truly appreciate the extraordinary amount of work — rehearsal, one might say — that can go into a piece before the artist ever picks up a brush.

THE CHEHALEM CULTURAL CENTER IN NEWBERG remains one of Yamhill County’s bright spots in our COVID-19 summer. The center is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday just north of the Newberg Public Library (which is also open) and is following the state’s Phase 2 guidelines. Last week I exchanged notes with Burkett, and it’s encouraging to learn that the rest of the year’s exhibitions are still on the calendar — so long as the center is able to remain open.

"Rose's Wedding" by Kerri Evonuk (mixed media, 11 by 14 inches, 2020)
“Rose’s Wedding” by Kerri Evonuk (mixed media, 11 by 14 inches, 2020)

Along with Gibbons’ exhibition, you’ll find in the Founder’s Gallery at the rear of the building Kerri Evonuk’s Creative Houses and the Sprouting of New Ideas, also curated by Burkett. These mixed media pieces — sculpture and a few using canvas — reflect a “desire to build or sprout new ideas,” according to the artist. “It is a celebration of the creative desire for growth and development for tranquility with nature, architecture, and the figure’s past and present.” The exhibit runs through Aug. 29.

Out in the Grand Lobby and Mezzanine is an exhibit one can only wish was as expansive (in terms of the number of pieces) as the artist’s thoughtful, accompanying notes. CACHE NINE: the hope material (how to feel not scared in a pandemic) is by Sara Siestreem (Hanis Coos), a Portland artist who teaches at Portland State University and is represented by Augen Gallery in Portland. The baskets, hangings, and paintings on display are few, but Siestreem’s notes are arguably the most important aspect in terms of educating the public about Indigenous art — not so much about the technique behind it as the mindfulness behind its creation and the political content. She teaches weaving to the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians, and writes of that program:

To share this awakening with the mainstream I exhibit each year’s cache of natural materials in public spaces. This is an occupation of public land, an overt political act. To gather and possess these plants is an exercise of sovereign rights, a legal provision for Indigenous people of this land mass to continue to practice our cultural and spiritual birthright. Each plant represents a different relationship I initiate and maintain with Federal, State, and private landowners.

More importantly, every very single section of this cache represents lifelong relationships I have with the places I gather and the plants themselves. From an Indigenous world view, plants, animals, and elements are equals, we are relatives. It is forbidden to take anything without permission, compensation, follow-through on promises made, and within the boundaries of sustainability. That means I must establish and gain permission from the land and plant itself. I cannot do that in one day, it takes years. I must visit these places and plants again and again before I can gather them. 

At the top of the notes, the artist acknowledges the occupational nature of the center itself.

The Chehalem Cultural Center is showing basketry by Sara Siestreem (Hanis Coos). The artist writes that she gathered and prepared all the materials for this Coos ceremonital cooking basket, which she calls “taxai loʔloʔ t'see məʰkməʰk kwansəm” (huckleberry pie forever).
“Taxai loʔloʔ t’see məʰkməʰk kwansəm” (huckleberry pie forever), Coos ceremonial cooking basket, by Sara Siestreem (Hanis Coos)

Newberg, Oregon, lies within the traditional homelands of the Tualatin Kalapuya Peoples who were relocated to the Grand Ronde Reservation under the Kalapuya etc., 1855, ratified treaty (also known as the Willamette Valley Treaty, 1855).  Today, these Tribes are a part of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. The Grand Ronde people continue to maintain a connection to their ancestral homelands and maintain their traditional cultural practices.

Siestreem is a master artist from the Umpqua River Valley on the South Coast. She comes from a family of professional artists and educators. She graduated Phi Kappa Phi with a BS from Portland State University in 2005 and earned her MFA with distinction from Pratt Institute in 2007. She describes her studio work as multi-disciplinary, and while her primary language is painting, she also works in photography, printmaking, drawing, sculpture, video, and (obviously) traditional Indigenous weaving.

CACHE NINE will be on display through Sept. 19.

FINALLY, THE CHEHALEM CENTER OFFERS yet another online exhibition. Because the Willamette Valley Lavender Festival and Plein Air Paint Out were among this summer’s COVID-19 casualties, the center issued an open call for artists to submit to the  2020 Plein Air Pandemic Paint Out — the first (and hopefully last) such event. Burkett curated submissions into an online exhibit that features work by nearly 50 artists. A Zoom reception for the artists will be from 5 to 7 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 1. RSVPs required. 

DEPARTMENT OF SAD NEWS: Yamhill County has had its first pandemic-era art gallery casualty, Mick and Holli Wagner’s McMinnville Center for the Arts. The couple announced on Facebook in late June a heartbreaking farewell after just a year in business.

“We were poised for success, and then we closed its doors in the same week of our anniversary,” Holli wrote. “A pandemic hit, the unknown. We did our part to keep people safe, we trained people on using Zoom…. We sold a little art on the web and did curbside pickup, kept in touch with our guests and artists, we kept our doors closed.”

But MECA was more than a gallery; it was always intended to be, and was, an event-centric business. For 2020, the Wagners had some wonderful stuff lined up: a Fire Writers event for local students to read their work, live music, open mics, artist talks, classes, poetry, and book readings.

Until suddenly, none of that was possible.

“After pouring all of our heart, time, and money into the gallery, we realize that the business model in the current climate is not possible,” Holli continued. “Our hearts break to have to share this with you, and it comes after many conversations both with thought of innovation and financial creativity. MECA cannot survive without events. It was the business model that events would support the art.

“This has been very a very hard decision, and our hearts are broken.”

Wagner told me the plan is for the website to remain up so the public can track down MECA’s participating artists who have their own websites and support them that way if they wish.

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.

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