On a warm Friday evening in May about 50 people gathered at an old Carnegie Library building above the Columbia Gorge and climbed the steps to the entrance of what is now The Dalles Art Center.
Mostly locals from The Dalles and Oregon’s surrounding Wasco County, they were here to wander amid a showing of mostly abstract paintings and drawings and then sit down for a gallery talk to learn a bit about the unlikely story of the man who made them. William Gary Harvey was a farmer and fence-builder and craftsman and loner and mostly life-long resident of Wasco County whose decades-long devotion to making art was utterly unknown to all but a very small number of friends – and even they were surprised to learn, after his death, how many artworks he’d stashed away, apparently with little to no interest in having them seen by anyone else.
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It was enough for him to have made them, it seems; to have followed through on a compulsion to create. Harvey made his art quietly, for himself, and it was all he needed. Now, for the first time, what he created was available for the world to see.
“We were both Wasco County farm boys,” said Tim McClure, Harvey’s longtime friend and the show’s curator, who discovered Harvey’s horde of artwork while going through his property after Harvey’s death, at age 78, in 2021. Both McClure and Harvey’s friend and neighbor Lee Weinstein, who was also instrumental in bringing the show into being, knew that Harvey sometimes made pictures – McClure had seen the half-dozen or so that Harvey kept in his little cabin – but both were astounded to learn of the extent of his artwork. “I just kept stumbling over pieces day by day over a couple of months’ time,” McClure said.
What the art center’s Friday evening visitors saw amid the handsome, tall-ceilinged interior of the old 1910 library building was an assembling of more than 60 works, some small and some relatively large, some signed and dated and some not, some carefully mounted and some clinging to their backings like furtive interlopers contemplating a getaway. A small number of pieces in the exhibit are miniature sculptures, roughly yet cannily crafted from things you might find hanging around a farm: spikes, rocks, wood.
The pictures are done in oils and watercolors and charcoal and pencil, on surfaces ranging from plywood to canvas to particleboard to paper bag, and quite a few are stretched on wooden window frames. Gary (for the most part he didn’t use the “William” part of his name) was a handyman, and when he had the itch to make a picture he used what was handy. A few of the works in the show are displayed on Harvey’s oversized, rough-cut, handmade easel, whose wood looks as if it’s been ripped from the side and beams of a barn.
Left: An untitled 2014 painting on a flattened shopping bag. Right: Small sculpture with spike. Photos: Laura Grimes
Harvey’s paintings and drawings could be both coarse and complex, free-ranging and yet structured, with curves and angles and bursts of expression and a sense of ordered abandon. A few have recognizable shapes – a stylized fish, for instance, or a series of remarkable drawings of fiercely scribbled eyes, which seem like preparations for an equally fierce and remarkable and abstracted self-portrait. McClure compares Gary’s art to that of the 20th century Northwest School artists whose work Harvey studied and admired: Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan, Carl Morris, Mark Tobey, and especially Guy Anderson.
PERHAPS AS SURPRISING AS THE “UNDISCOVERED ART” in the Gary Harvey exhibit is that the show is here, in The Dalles Art Center, at all. In an important way it makes utter sense. Harvey was a local artist – so local that he’d lived in Wasco County almost his entire life – and what better place than the community art center in the county’s central town to showcase his work?
But as recently as March, The Dalles Art Center was in a fight for its life. Beset by financial problems stemming largely from Covid pandemic shutdowns and the resulting recession, the center began an emergency fund-raising campaign to allow it to keep its doors open. The fund squeeze at the center, which is more than 60 years old, is far from over. But enough has been brought in to keep things running and be able to make plans for the future.
The financial instability is hardly isolated to The Dalles. Arts and cultural groups across Oregon and the nation, from giant organizations such as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to small-town music groups and community theater companies, have felt the disruptive effects of the pandemic. Some groups have folded. Many, perhaps most, are suffering from loss of income and audiences. Hardly any group is in the pink.
Money was so tight in March that the art center’s board laid off its executive director, Scott Stephenson, who was soon replaced on an interim, volunteer basis by Sally Johnson. Stephenson had approved and helped plan the Harvey exhibit, and stayed around to help hang the paintings and drawings in the show, and to be at its opening on May 4. On the following Friday, the day of the gallery talk at the Harvey exhibit, the board announced that Johnson would be the new permanent executive director. A graduate in visual arts and literature from Bennington College who’s also earned an MBA in sustainable business from Presidio Graduate School, she has a corporate background as an executive at the outdoor clothing and equipment giant REI in Seattle, and in the nonprofit world at Oxbow Farm & Conservation Center, in Carnation, Wash. And she’s a graduate of a development training program through the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. “We were lucky to have Sally living in our community with the leadership skills to help us paint a resilient future,” board chairwoman Pam Westland said.
When the pandemic hit, Johnson said, “this place basically shut down. Its main fundraising event didn’t happen.” Coming out of the shutdowns, everything was uncertain: “I think it’s a minor miracle that they made it through the pandemic.”
With both an artistic and a strong business background – “I like to know where the money is” — Johnson is looking for creative ideas and practical solutions. “It’s a rare thing when you realize, ‘I’m in the right place, at the right time,” she said. She’s looking at developing a three- to five-year plan to stabilize and build up the center, including rebuilding a six-month reserve fund. With fundraising still active, Johnson said, “we are at 68 percent of our total annual fundraising goals and at 73 percent of our grant support goal.”
And the community has begun to respond. When the crisis hit, the small board committed several thousand dollars, which was matched by the local branch of First Interstate Bank. Grants from the Oregon Community Foundation, the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation, and the Oregon Arts Commission were crucial. And community members committed to making regular donations that so far amount to about $3,300 a month. “This is approximately 50 to 60 people giving between $10 and $200 per month on an ongoing basis,” Johnson said. “This commitment of monthly support was a game-changer in the confidence of the board to consider running programs in 2023.”
Indeed, community – a sense of why this place, this way – is central to her concept of what the art center can be. And for her, the idea of community takes in more than the center itself, although the center can be an expression of the community at large. She’s familiarized herself with who lives here, how they live, the urban/rural blend, the mix of cultures, what’s traditional, what’s changing, and how a robust art center can fit in. “Wasco County schools over the last decade cut arts programs,” she noted. With after-school programs, exhibitions of student work, and other programs, she added, “this place can play a role in that.”
And the center’s role, like the city’s and county’s, is evolving. Lee Weinstein, Harvey’s friend and a new board member of the center, moved to Wasco County 19 years ago, buying 80 acres south of The Dalles. He has background as a Nike executive; as a partner in his own public relations firm, Weinstein PR, which he and his wife, Melinda, sold two years ago; and as a former board member of the Maryhill Museum of Art, farther east on the Washington side of the Columbia Gorge. His relationship with The Dalles Art Center traces back to his early days in the county: The center had a big art auction, he recalled, and he and Melinda bought several pieces for their new house.
“It’s taking off,” he said of The Dalles. “Lot of younger people here, people in their 30s, because they can afford it.” That new energy, he believes, can only be good for the art center. And Johnson, he said, understands that: She’s making relationships with donors and thinking long-range. “The more you can thank your donors …,” he said, letting the thought trail off to its obvious conclusion, then added: “To get the community, you need to be the community.”
Being the community is no accident. Over the past several years the art center has tried to reflect the whole population of the community, showing works that range from group exhibits by Columbia Gorge artists to contemporary printmaking in Oaxaca, art about the relationships between humans and animals, contemporary Native art from Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts on the Umatilla Reservation, and the Other lens, a show of photographs of migrant life in Wasco County by Ernesto Méndez, a documentary filmmaker and photographer from Mexico City who spent two seasons working in the cherry harvest in the Columbia Gorge and whose best friend, Johnson noted, has been picking crops in the area for 20 years.
WHO WAS GARY HARVEY, Wasco County’s secret self-taught artist? The works in his exhibition at the art center, which continues through June 3, give one answer. His friends McClure and Weinstein offered a little more when they were interviewed by Johnson at their gallery talk. In the process they also gave a little flavor of the varieties of life in the town and county.
McClure is a track coach at the local high school and also a farmer, a fisherman who’s traveled far and wide in pursuit of his passion, and a photographer. For a while he ran a frame shop in The Dalles: “I framed Picassos, all sorts of things.”
In 2009 he hired Harvey to build some fences on his property, and Harvey, who’d heard that McClure had spent time fishing on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Siberia, was fascinated: He wanted to hear all about it. While the fence took shape, the talk flowed. “In about an hour,” McClure recalled, “we became friends for life.”
Harvey – whose family, some of whom were at the gallery talk, could trace its roots in the county back to 1860 — was curious, and insistent, McClure and Weinstein agreed, and although he rarely went far from home he was widely read on all sorts of topics. “He had an insatiable curiosity,” McClure said. “He was interested in everything.” He didn’t watch TV or bother with the Internet, Weinstein added, but “he was an extremely well-read person. He loved loved loved reading.” Weinstein would give him his daily copies of The New York Times when he and Melinda were finished with them; often Harvey would return clippings of specific stories with his own detailed annotations.
Both McClure and Weinstein knew that Harvey sometimes made pictures, but for a long time they didn’t realize how important making art was to him. Harvey might have been something of a hermit, Weinstein noted, but “he was generous: He would bring us things; tomatoes, zucchini. He was a very good gardener.”
And he might not have traveled often or far, but when he did it meant something. He spent a little time in Tacoma, where he went to community college. And as a young man he went for a while to college at the University of Hawaii to study biology, McClure said, but got in a motorcycle accident and returned home to recuperate. He couldn’t go back to Hawaii, McClure said, and left a girlfriend there who he never forgot. Nor did he ever marry. For a time, McClure said, Harvey lived in Wyoming: “I think that was a formative time in his life. He appears to have started painting in Wyoming, in the early ’70s.”
A pair of abstract paintings by Gary Harvey. Photos: Laura Grimes
McClure also passed along some of Harvey’s thoughts about his art and the art world in general, a few of which wound up on information boards in the exhibit. The temptation is to define artists such as Harvey as “naïve” or “outsider” or “self-taught,” but such labels are almost always simplistic: The creative impulse, after all, is broad and generous and not confined to art schools. In fact, Harvey devoured art books and art history and thought about art obsessively, and the things he had to say about art, on those rare occasions when he spoke of it, were both open and sophisticated.
On his process, he said: “It just starts. I don’t have anything preconceived. I see something and I just draw it. … The thing about art is that it expresses something that can’t be expressed in an other way. … It just is. … The good paintings, the best ones, they just come, and I am so grateful for the fact that that can be expressed in that way. Very simple terms.”
And on his preference for abstraction: “I feel that by perhaps the late 15th century, all the questions that could be asked about mankind’s psyche had been pretty much explored, and the only way to go from there is to ask of all future events, what our purpose for being on the earth is, and now I don’t see that there’s any way that you can explore that question without evolving into an abstraction of that question. Our mind has probably chewed over and worked over and explored all of the possibilities that mankind can bring himself to ask of our future.”
THE DALLES ART CENTER stands solidly and invitingly on a corner of Fourth Street, near the center of downtown, which runs along the one-way grids of Second and Third streets. The art center’s old Carnegie Library building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is just below the equally stately county courthouse, on the lower slope of a hill that eventually rises to the orchards and wheatfields and cattle ranches and timberlands that long have provided much of the county’s economic lifeblood.
In a stretch of Oregon that also relies to an extent on a tourism economy, the art center isn’t the only cultural attraction in the vicinity. Among its near neighbors are the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and Museum, the Fort Dalles Museum and Anderson Homestead, the Wonderworks Children’s Museum of the Gorge, and, remarkably, the National Neon Sign Museum, which illuminates an old Elks Lodge building near the center of town. The town is also home to Klindt’s Booksellers, Oregon’s oldest bookstore, and the main campus of Columbia Gorge Community College, which sits on the hill overlooking town.
Below the art center, stretched east/west for some distance just above the Columbia River, are the shops and restaurants and generous sprinkling of handsome historic houses that give the city of about 16,000 its rough-cut charm. The Dalles, 75 miles east of Portland and 22 miles east of Hood River, was an important stop on the Oregon Trail. Its American roots stretch back to the early and mid-19th century. Its human history is far deeper: Celilo Falls, for 10,000 years or more a major fishing and trading spot for Indigenous tribes, sat a dozen miles east of what is now The Dalles. The construction and opening in 1957 of The Dalles Dam, which interrupts the river at the east end of town, flooded the falls and irrevocably altered the culture of the land.
The art center itself is something of an oasis, surrounded by small but nicely tended grounds that offer little shaded havens with benches for sitting and relaxing. Particularly on its main upper floor, where the gallery and adjacent shop and display area dominate the space, high ceilings, tall sturdy wooden posts and a large amount of unpainted wooden trim provide a sense of comfort and pleasing permanence. A large fireplace and mantel underscore the feeling of measured warmth, and the exhibition area accommodates the more than 60 works in the Harvey show with ease.
A few steps away is the large shop and sales space, which includes a few books and other ordinary museum-shop items but is given over largely to the display of works by artists from The Dalles and the surrounding area: paintings, ceramics, sculptures, and more. This part of the center acts as a gallery: All of the artworks are for sale, providing a good commercial outlet for local artists. And for the artists, the split is generous compared to most commercial galleries’: The artists get 70 percent of the sales price, gallery manager Kris V. Dombroski said, and the art center keeps 30 percent. “In 2022 the center gave $60,000 back to artists,” Johnson noted. “We are proud of this support to artists and are mindful that we have a $42,000 annual cost to merely keep the doors open.”
Downstairs, on the ground level, the building is divided into more workmanlike spaces, with two large rooms and some smaller spaces. The biggest room is cleared out and set up for hands-on classes, some for adults and a lot for schoolkids. The second large room is mostly used for storage; Johnson would like to find a way to clear it out and find storage somewhere else so she could open the room to more community uses. Among the things stored are old scrapbooks with photographs of the center’s early days, when a series of open-air painting classes led by an artist named Percy Manser appears to have set the whole thing in motion. “Some views of THE PERCY MANSER CLASS in 1955 from which The Dalles Art Association got its start,” hand-scrawled lettering heads one page of snapshots.
The commitment to learning and doing and bringing the community into the center remains. The center is preparing for student summer camps, and will have after-school classes and workshops when school begins again in the fall. And, even with its own financial difficulties, the center tries to make it easy for children to attend. In 2022, Johnson said, “90 percent of students who attended Summer Camp were on scholarship and the majority of those were full scholarships. We want to welcome every student who wants to learn and engage with art and have to balance this with building financial support so that the center can offer these programs. If we ran the camps at full cost, we would recognize $16,000 in revenue. Instead, scholarships make up the cost for us. This year, we still need $10,000 to support our estimated scholarship needs.”
“A committed community can thrive together,” Johnson declared. The Dalles and its surrounding countryside, she believes, occupy a pivotal cultural and geographical junction between urban and rural Oregon, and that position is an opportunity to cross, and perhaps heal, divides: “This little art center between Eastern Oregon and Western Oregon is a place we can come to and talk about things we love.”
And if one of the things you love is learning the story of a hidden artist who lived in your midst for years with hardly anyone knowing anything about his true passion … well, thank the heavens for a place like The Dalles Art Center.
The Dalles Art Center
- Where: 220 East Fourth Street, The Dalles
- Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays (open hours are expected to expand in June)
- Exhibition: “Gary William Harvey: Paintings, Drawings & Sculptures,” through June 3
Wonderful, engaging review of local art and history.
Thank you so much for this article. TDAC is a must-stop when we visit Dufur & The Dalles at least twice a year. For a small urban gallery it “punches above its weight” in quality and quantity of exhibitions and events. And Kris V. is a treasure with a delightful of her own, “Maybe I Drew This For You.” We are happy to be TDAC members and supporters from Portland.
What a beautifully written article. I am going to head out there today! The Dalles has a special place in my heart and its been some time since I have been there.