“…Make sure the spirits of these lands are respected and treated with goodwill.
The land is a being who remembers everything.
You will have to answer to your children, and their children, and theirs—
The red shimmer of remembering will compel you up the night to walk the perimeter of truth for understanding….”
– Joy Harjo, Excerpt from Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings (2015)
Story and photographs by FRIDERIKE HEUER
Joy Harjo, a Muscogee Creek Nation member and 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States, urged us in a recent collection of poems, Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, to assess our place in the world, to mind our obligations derived from history, and to fulfill our duty to “speak in the language of justice.”
Celilo, Never Silenced, the remarkable inaugural art exhibition at the newly opened Patricia Reser Center for the Arts in Beaverton, provides memory aides that will help us to “walk the perimeter of truth,” as Harjo phrases it, perhaps the first step in the direction of justice.
What was Celilo? Who were the people displaced by a U.S. governmental decision to dam up a river that provided existential, spiritual and cultural essentials at Celilo Falls, where salmon fishing and concomitant trade meetings for the Pacific Northwest tribes happened since time immemorial? As I wrote before in Oregon ArtsWatch, the fates of salmon and the Northwest tribes were intertwined and received an immeasurable blow when The Dalles Dam was constructed in 1957. The dam inundated the upstream Celilo Falls and Celilo village, the largest trading center for salmon, with scant compensation for the loss. Subpar housing was built only for a few permanent residents of the village who were displaced, ignoring all those tribal members who lived on reservations but regularly came to Celilo to fish and trade. It took until 2005 to start building the promised structures, and no serious reparations have been paid for the immense loss of livelihoods that depend on salmon fishing.
I have no idea how many people in Oregon, if approached on the street, would know this history or be aware of its implications. I wager that for most of us there will be few associations, negative or positive. For Pacific Northwest tribes, on the other hand, it was a rupture, endangering fish and river health alike, increasing conflict over ever scarcer resources, and ignoring the spiritual importance of salmon to tribal culture as much as the fact that food security was endangered, with less protein available.
The Reser exhibition provides an educational starting point for a conversation about Native American losses and the conflict surrounding broken promises, undermined treaties, and the consequences for tribal members in the present and not just some hazy past. That said, the show is also a marvel in the way it collects and displays a wide range of artworks across diverse media, thoughtfully curated by gallery coordinator Karen De Benedetti and showcasing the resilience and power of contemporary tribal artists.
De Benedetti knows to give the work room to breathe instead of overstuffing the walls, has a keen eye, and is willing to take risks with selections that vary across styles and accessibility – and all that in a part-time position, which makes the results all the more impressive. Trained as an artist and with a wide repertoire of experiences across educational and exhibitory settings, including positions at two previous art centers started from scratch, she knows the ropes. At the Reser, she’s compiled a set of works that introduce us to a significant number and variety of current Native American artists, one more interesting than the next.
Fused and blown glass, ceramics, painting, linocut prints, sculpture, photography, archival footage, poetry – smartly arranged, all telling a story, from different perspectives, about a river, a place, a sacred fishing ground and displaced nations, rising in resilience with memory intact and now translated into art. The “perimeter of truth” of which Harjo speaks was really laid out across these walls.
Amply represented is Lillian Pitt’s intricate work. A member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs/ Wasco/ Yakama, she and the late Rick Bartow, who was an enrolled member of the Mad River Band of Wiyot Indians, and whose work is also included, probably have the highest name recognition.
Another familiar name is Joe Feddersen, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation (Okanagan and Arrow Lakes). His sculptures exhibit an almost clinical serenity I so often associate with good blown glass, letting us perceive light through reflection and cast shadow, belying the insane skill required to produce such quiet elegance.
There is archival photography capturing the history, and contemporary photography by regular ArtsWatch contributor Joe Cantrell (Cherokee, raised in Cherokee County, Oklahoma), who also contributed a driftwood sculpture.
WHEN YOU EXIT THE GALLERY toward the main entrance hall, you step into a large space marked by wood, glass, steel, and concrete with a motion-sensitive public sculpture of a dandelion shedding its seeds. Brian Libby, my colleague at OregonArtsWatch, wrote here about the history, architecture, and philanthropy of Patricia Reser regarding the building.
The Reser Center has at its core a state-of-the-art theatre that has multi-purpose use and, come June, will be presenting Portland Chamber Orchestra’s production of a large-scale work by Nancy Ives, Celilo Falls: We Were There. The chamber-music piece will be accompanied by text and storytelling by Ed Edmo (Shoshone-Bannock) and projected photographic images by Joe Cantrell (Cherokee) which explores the geologic and human history of Celilo Falls.
It never ceases to amaze me how a single individual with a vision, means, and generosity can set great things in motion.
When you walk upstairs you enter a space with a small gallery for emerging artists, which is as light-filled, with giant windows, as the first-floor space that abuts the street. On all levels, the outside is invited in, an openness toward and desire to merge with the community – which is by all reports what the new arts center is all about. Chris Ayzoukian, the Reser’s director, wants to celebrate the different cultures in the community and provide a platform that gives diverse artists a voice with this performing arts center. The building, which makes the inside visible wherever possible, reflects that goal. At the same time, the neighborhood is reflected in the glass of several of the gallery works, including one by Jonnel Covault, also new to me.
Covault’s linocuts capture the landscape in precise and elegant ways, walking a shifting line between abstract patterns and the occasional hyper-representation, often discovered only when you look closely.
WALKING AROUND THE RESER, art gallery and building alike, I was thinking back to my last visit to The Whitney for the Biennial in 2019. If you imagine a portion of the New York City’s museum for contemporary art, condensed to an elongated miniature block and plopped down in Beaverton, you might find some similarities.
Yes, a different world, a different league, but comparable in a shared thematic focus on inclusion of diverse constituencies. Both institutions are partly trying to use art to help us understand, in light of a sometimes violent history, who we and who others are, and who we want to be. All of which includes an acknowledgement that there is often a separation between co-existing cultures, driven on one side by anything from racism to ignorance to fleeting guilt-tinged hesitancy to engage in conversation, met potentially by historically justified distrust and desire for inward protection on the other side.
I had written about the Whitney’s approach in 2019 here: “And this is where the power of the exhibition kicks in: demonstrating the brutal division between those of us who are clueless about what many of the artworks imply, and those who get it in the blink of an eye, being familiar with the expressed contents via the reality of one’s daily existence. We might share the same space, in world and museum alike, but we surely do not share a language or the experiences eventually captured by that language when it relates to race, gender, disability, and access.”
I tried to explore a possible bridging between worlds by photographing NYC street-art found in Harlem and Bushwick, the East Village and Williamsburg, communal expressions of the issues at the center of the museum pieces, a call and response between cultures.
This year’s Biennial at the Whitney, opening in April, is titled Quiet as It’s Kept, addressing our desire to look away from the harm we cause or have experienced, keep it secret and silent, no matter how much trauma ensued. The current Reser exhibition proudly defies keeping it quiet. Like all good art and education, it raises questions, sometimes uncomfortably so, and provides a toolbox so that we ourselves can explore potential answers. In this context it is helpful that there is support through organizations that have a history of engaging in dialogue.
One of those partners is the Confluence Project. The community-based nonprofit presents Indigenous voices to connect to the ecology, history, and culture of the Columbia River System. Besides educational programs – here and here are some about Celilo – there are art landscapes that link present and past, open to be explored by all. One of my favorites is easily reached in the Sandy River Delta. Maya Lin’s bird blind, at Thousand Acres Park, was constructed with black locust, an invasive species to the Northwest. Its use after removal from the landscape underlines the commitment to sustainability. The wooden slats tell the names and current status of 134 species Lewis and Clark noted on their westward journey. As Harjo suggests, the land might be a being that remembers everything. This land art helps us to remember as well.
The Max station is a stone’s throw away from the Reser, and outside seating is available around the arts center to take a break and enjoy spring temperatures, public art, and a bit of reclaimed duck pond. The Westside is lucky to have a new, important destination. Really, we all are.
ARTISTS TALKS ARE COMING UP. More inclusive exhibitions are being planned. Go check it out!
- Saturday, April 30, 2 p.m.: Artist talk with Joe Cantrell, Ed Edmo & Nancy Ives
- Saturday, May 14: Artist talk with Analee Fuentes & Richard Rowland
- Saturday May 22: Artist talk with Lillian Pitt, Sara Siestreem, Greg Archuleta and Greg Robinson
- More details to come: www.thereser.org
Celilo, Never Silenced
- What: Inaugural gallery exhibit, Reser Center
- When: Through June 5, 2022
- Gallery hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays
- Where: Patricia Reser Center for the Arts, 12625 SW Crescent St., Beaverton, OR 97005