Exquisite Gorge 3: The Listener

Roots music, laughter, an osprey snaring a computer mouse: In Part 3 of Maryhill's river-art project, Neal Harrington imprints on The Dalles.

STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRIDERIKE HEUER

How does an artist decide which questions to raise and which, if any, answers to provide? How does an educator reach an audience and communicate innovative ideas hoping to stir up responses that foster curiosity and open or change minds?

Neal Harrington, printmaker, musician, associate professor of art and gallery director at Arkansas Tech University

I wondered about this when meeting Neal Harrington, the third of the printmakers to be portrayed for Maryhill Museum’s Exquisite Gorge project: To recap, he, too, 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


Neal Harrington and Louise Palermo, Curator of Education at Maryhill Museum

I visited with Harrington at the Farmers’ Market in The Dalles last Saturday where he, together with folks from his project community partner, The Dalles Art Center, made it possible for the public to catch a first glimpse of his woodblock. He is both an educator and an artist, dual roles that can complement each other but might also compete with conflicting goals or resource allocation. He is also a musician in a band named Black Sabbatical. No wonder I was hooked.

With an MFA from Wichita State University, and as a tenured faculty member at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville, Ark., Harrington exhibits several of the hallmarks that make, in my mind, for a great teacher.

He has an easy way with jokes (Hey, kiddos, let me grab your attention…)

He is deadly passionate when it comes to conveying substance. (Think, folks, think!)

And, importantly, he knows how to listen. (Tell me again?)

The last one matters enormously – it allows you to gauge the status quo of those who want or need to learn, and to respond at the appropriate level, easing their load or equipping them with challenges. (Mind you, my criteria are derived from a small sample, but then again, how many great teachers do you encounter in your lifetime?)

Visitors at the booth engaging with Lou Palermo, left, and J.Scott Stephenson, Executive Director of The Dalles Art Center.

Member of The Dalles Art Center helping with the booth.

Harrington certainly listened to the community feedback in his conversations at The Dalles Art Center and elsewhere about what people wanted to see in his representation of Section Five of the Gorge: Rowena to Browns Island. “Don’t just focus on the usual, the cherries, the grapes, the wheat barges, include what matters for the future!”

Part of the future arrived in The Dalles in 2006 when Google opened its first data center, joined last year by a second one, providing direly needed employment opportunities. The company has invested $1.8 billion in its facilities and has been a generous neighbor:

In its own words: “Since 2008, we have awarded nearly $2.5 million in grants that impact Wasco County and more than $10 million in grants to Oregon nonprofits and schools in areas that we’re passionate about, including science and technology education, carbon reduction, and access to the internet.”

Detail from the Exquisite Gorge Woodcut

Harrington listened and came up with a wildly imaginative design that married the past to the future, leaving us grinning in the present: Columbia River Gorge fauna and flora are represented within an arrangement that echoes old canned salmon-tin labels, with one of the ospreys ubiquitous to the region at the center of the block, taking off with a mouse in its talons: a computer mouse that is connected to a mother board.

Detail from Exquisite Gorge Woodcut

Once you get over the surprise and amusement, you can go on to appreciate the intricate nature of the intertwining parts, the respect for both history and nature, the sheer richness of the drawing. It is a sight to behold.

Exquisite Gorge Woodcut

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As an educator you should listen to others. As an artist you have to listen to yourself, often ignoring extraneous demands or Zeitgeist pressures. It helps when the inner voice is deeply rooted in preoccupations or beliefs that shape your view of the world and are longing to be externalized. Harrington’s passions were built on exposure to Greek mythology and American Roots music.

What is it about small town boys and girls and Greek mythology? I envision Rapid City, S.D., where Harrington grew up, not exactly as a teeming cultural hotspot. Forgive my stereotyping; it was encouraged by a look at the city’s website, where next to Mt. Rushmore a cement dinosaur park and a reptile garden were announced as the main attractions. The same somewhat small-town, isolated location was true for the men who really brought Hellenism with all of its facets to renewed prominence in the West many centuries ago, in faraway Germany: Johann Joachim Winckelmann and Heinrich Schliemann. I have written about them here and here respectively. It was true for me, too, growing up in a middle-of-nowhere German village after WW II and for several of my philhellenic artist friends across the globe.

My theory (again with small sample bias) is that Greek mythology delivered the equivalent of what Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter, or, in the gaming and cinematic realm, the Legend of Zelda or the entire Marvel enterprise currently provide: fully structured universes with a set of characters, a set of rules, daring breaking of rules, magical powers, and importantly, unhappy endings, all of which allow you to escape, to adopt a different cultural identity, and to engage in downward comparison. (Hey, you might be bored to death, but at least you didn’t have to roll that boulder up a mountain or have your liver pecked for all eternity…. ) Of course, that German preoccupation with tragedy, and the associated emergence of German idealism, did not end well: Cultural historians like Fritz Stern argued that it paved the way for the success of fascism. A story for another day. But, oh, how mythology can be harvested for printmaking!

Pandora – Woodcut, 42″ x 48″, 2013 

Harrington listens. He listens to music that is another font of inspiration for his art. Growing up with friends whose names were James Poor Thunder, Lawrence Ironcloud and Tammy Little Bear, he was early on exposed to different perspectives of the American Dream. American Roots music clearly provides a narrative that Harrington’s art picks up and renews. Series like his Bootlegger Ballads or Hard Travelin Man are testimony to my point.

Possession Day Blues
Woodcut with India Ink Washes, 24″ x 24″, 2015

He listens to his 13-year-old daughter who cannot live without once seeing Ariana Grande live in concert, and chauffeurs her for that trip which turns from three to seven hours in the car, being held up by recent floods in the Midwest. He listens to and comforts his young son whose mom is Chinese, coming home from school perplexed that his classmates mistake him for a Mexican and nudge him to speak Spanish – apparently that particular Arkansas slice of the world is divided into Whites and Hispanics only.

Carving the Exquisite Gorge wood cut

And then he listens to Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and preferably Todd Snider (born in Beaverton, Oregon, no less, and for me a new discovery.)

Finding inspiration, sorting out questions and answers.

He listens. We should look.


This is Part 3 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 PictureIt is also published on YDP, on Monday, June 24, 2019.

  • Exquisite Gorge 2: The Witness. Printmaker and muralist Roger Peet conductsa community woodblock-carving session in the courtyard of the Gioldendale Public Library.

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