STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRIDERIKE HEUER
HOW DO YOU TELL A STORY that is not necessarily your own? How do you draw a landscape that did not always belong to you? How do you document reality without appropriating someone else’s history? These questions pose themselves to any artist, anthropologist, historian who is aware of the limitations of their own perspectives.
These kinds of of questions also arise for me when constructing profiles of people who I find interesting, whose work I admire, whose politics I likely share, and who I get to talk to only once.
Case in point is today’s portrait of one of the artists chosen for Maryhill Museum’s Exquisite Gorge project: printmaker and muralist Roger Peet, who I met last Saturday during a public woodblock carving session at the Goldendale Public Library, a few miles north of the museum on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge. He is one of 11 artists who in collaboration with community partners are carving woodblocks filled with ideas about individual sections of the Columbia River. All of the blocks will be aligned and printed by a steam roller at the museum on August 24.
THE EXQUISITE GORGE PROJECT
“…a collaborative printmaking project featuring 11 artists working with communities along a 220-mile stretch of the Columbia River from the Willamette River confluence to the Snake River confluence to create a massive 66-foot steamrolled print. The unique project takes inspiration from the Surrealist art practice known as exquisite corpse. In the most well-known exquisite corpse drawing game, participants took turns creating sections of a body on a piece of paper folded to hide each successive contribution. When unfolded, the whole body is revealed. In the case of The Exquisite Gorge Project, the Columbia River will become the ‘body’ that unifies the collaboration between artists and communities, revealing a flowing 66-foot work that tells 10 conceptual stories of the Columbia River and its people.”
– Louise Palermo, Curator of Education at Maryhill Museum
During our short conversation before the public portion of the event, I was quickly convinced that the artist is someone who would ask himself the questions outlined above. His section of the river ranges from the Deschutes River to the John Day River, including The Dalles Dam, one of four dams built along this stretch of the Columbia between the 1930s and 1970s that displaced Native American communities and wiped out traditional fishing grounds. We ended up in no time discussing the historical, political and environmental implications of that structure as well as other effects of human interference with nature.
Yet we also talked about whose story this truly is, embedded in the context of all other assaults on Native American rights, and how one cannot usurp that telling.
PEET IS A RESERVED MAN, by temperament probably more so than by the stereotypical gauge of nationality (he hails from Great Britain and arrived here in the late ’80s.) No self-promotion from his end, despite a pretty insane list of accomplishments, from exhibitions to publications to awards, and a range of interests that spans a political universe. Just check the link to his CV on his website, which exhibits a sly sense of humor as well. I warn you, though, that you might be left, as I, forever wondering what differentiates his proclaimed interest in “civilized bad ideas” from uncivilized ones. …
A major focus of his work is the Endangered Species Mural Project associated with the Center for Biological Diversity. He created more than 16 larger-than-life paintings of at-risk animals and plants indigenous to communities across the United States, often collaborating with local artists and scientists. Murals depict flying squirrels in Asheville, North Carolina; a jaguar in Tucson, Arizona; monarch butterflies in Minneapolis, Minnesota; white fringeless orchids in Berea, Kentucky; cuckoos in L.A.; all bearing witness to the fragility of our environment.
(You can read more about it here. Published this January in the National Wildlife Federation magazine, the article is called Art of the Possible. I wonder if the staff author was familiar with the original source of that quote, Otto von Bismarck, the stern, conservative Prussian chancellor of the German empire from 1871 to 1890. In its entirety it reads, “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.” I wager von Bismarck and Peet would not have formed a mutual admiration society. I certainly believe Peet would not likely settle for the next best. But then again, all I can do is infer, claiming no privileged access to his story.
During our conversation I could not help but think of another lover of nature, Lage Wernstedt, the famous surveyor of the North Cascades in Washington state in the early part of the 20th Century. He mapped both the Mt. Baker National Forest and the Okanagan National Forest, and inventively named a range of mountains, coming up with Mt. Despair, Mt. Fury, Mt. Terror, Mt. Challenger, Inspiration Peak, and last but not least, Mt. Triumph. (Not that he climbed many of them, by all reports. Stellar photographer, though.)
Well, I don’t know about terror, but the remaining attitudes seemed to smolder under the smooth Peet surface, except that nature was allotted the part of triumph when eventually “calling a day of reckoning in response to our abuse,” to quote the artist.
I surely documented inspiration, the will to bear witness with his art to the parts of the story that belong to all of us: just look at the design on the Baltic birch wood block that alerts us to what we have diminished and what we have already lost. The big horn sheep and fish have been greatly reduced in numbers. (This year’s salmon runs alone were so reduced that they barely filled tribal sustenance needs, much less the commercial quota, due to, it is presumed, overheated water in the Pacific spawning grounds.) The California condor in the design has long absconded our regions, and the Columbia River Tiger Beetle has gone the way of the sandbars that were its home – submerged by the human alteration of the landscape for industrial interests, be they (now defunct) aluminum plants or commercial barge traffic.
Inklings of challenge, fury or despair all but vanished with the onset of the carving sessions, and what emerged was a gentle, attentive mentor who guided young and old participants alike with passionate explanations and much practical advice.
The Goldendale Community Library courtyard was the perfect setting to allow patrons to participate. A historic Carnegie library, it serves as much as a community center as a library, supporting local arts and artists, according to library manager Erin Krake, who gave a warm introduction to the afternoon’s proceedings.
Soon people of all ages carved merrily along, none with more concentration than Joseph Bookmyer who turned 6 years old that very day, and whose Dad was happy to have him enjoy this event.
I LEFT WITH A RESTORED SENSE OF HOPE that this kind of educational project put on by Maryhill Museum and enhanced by the curators’ pick of engaged, thoughtful, and conservation-oriented artists will have an impact. Each mind reached, each perception sharpened, any one consciousness shaped by those who bear witness, will eventually make a difference.
In Roger Peet’s own way of telling the story:
This is Part 2 in a series of stories and photographs by Friderike Heuer, published on Oregon ArtsWatch in collaboration with Heuer and her web site YDP – Your Daily Picture. It is also published on YDP, on Tuesday, June 18, 2019.
- Exquisite Gorge 1: Getting Started. Introduction to the project, and meeting with artist and master printmaker Jane Pagliarulo of Portland’s Atelier Meridian.