STORY AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRIDERIKE HEUER
/ˈbelˌweT͟Hər / noun
- the leading sheep of a flock, with a bell on its neck.
- an indicator or predictor of something.
– Oxford English Dictionary
Two years ago I had the opportunity of portraying numerous artists of a project called Exquisite Gorge, offered by the Maryhill Museum of Art. Eleven print makers, in collaboration with community partners, carved an original artwork, each for an assigned section of the Columbia River, all of which were ultimately connected in a two-dimensional, 66-foot-long representation on the grounds of the museum. Each artwork portrayed a section of the river itself and linked to the next section, forming an “Exquisite Corpse.”
We are now entering the second iteration of this artistic adventure, Exquisite Gorge II, which will exhibit the skills and creativity of 13 fiber artists whose works will align the very same sections of the Columbia River as last time. I will follow the creation of these three-dimensional art works closely, and also portray the community partners involved in multiple aspects of the project, including opportunities to inspire and educate about fiber arts. The culminating event will be on Saturday, August 6, 2022 at Maryhill Museum of Art, a little more than 100 miles east of Portland on a cliff overlooking the Columbia Gorge from the Washington side of the river, where each free-standing “exquisite corpse” section will be brought together to reveal the continuous sculpture formed by upright three-dimensional frames.
In some ways this first essay is the bellwether, then, an indicator of what’s going to be happening across the next many months. The word “bellwether,” however, was mostly chosen because it relates to sheep (wethers are castrated rams, to be precise, who were leading the flock while fitted with bells to allow shepherds to locate the sheep across a distance.) The phrase also points to those who establish a trend, and we will discuss that as well. How’s all this related to art? Well, the fiber for many fiber art projects has to come from somewhere, and in some cases the source is, you guessed it, sheep.
THE EXQUISITE GORGE PROJECT II
“…a collaborative fiber arts project featuring 13 artists working with communities along a 220-mile stretch of the Columbia River from the Willamette River confluence to the Snake River confluence. The project, again initiated by Maryhill Museum of Art and following the original one by printmakers in 2019, 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 II, 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.”
Artists and Community Partners:
- Section One: Oregon Society of Artists–Artist: Lynn Deal
- Section Two: Lewis & Clark College–Artist: Amanda Triplett
- Section Three: Columbia Center for the Arts, The History Museum of Hood River County and Arts in Education of the Gorge–Artist: Chloë Hight
- Section Four: White Salmon Arts Council and Fort Vancouver Regional Library–Artist: Xavier Griffith
- Section Five: The Dalles Arts Center and The Dalles-Wasco County Library–Artists: Francisco and Laura Bautista
- Section Six: The Fort Vancouver Regional Library at Goldendale Community Library–Artist: Carolyn Hazel Drake
- Section Seven: The American-Romanian Cultural Society and Maryhill Museum of Art–Artist: Magda Nica
- Section Eight: Desert Fiber Arts–Artist: Ophir El-Boher
- Section Nine: The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation–Artist: Jessica Lavadour
- Section Ten: ArtWalla–Artist: Kristy Kún
- Frontispiece: Tammy Jo Wilson and Owen Premore
“To mortal men the gods allot woes which cannot be foreseen.”
― Apollonius of Rhodes, Jason and the Golden Fleece (The Argonautica)
I loved the 3,000-year-old Greek tale of Jason and the Golden Fleece as a child. I mean, heroes, adventure, boat trips, flying sheep, dragons, magic, revenge: What’s not to love? Jason’s first wife, Medea, I guess; Who’d love a woman who kills her own children? Then again, she was betrayed by him after she had helped him acquire the golden fleece that secured him a throne. I would also likely not have loved the fact that the story described, certainly by the time Apollonius composed it in the 3rd century B.C., the Hellenistic colonization of the lands around the Black sea. I had, of course, no clue about such things in the late 1950s.
The pre-history of the myth is much older. Excavations of the 1920s and ’30s in central Turkey uncovered Indo-European tablets from a Hittite civilization dating to the 14th century B.C. One of these has an account of a story similar to that of Jason and Medea. Fleece played a considerable role as a symbol of prosperity; Hittite clans from the Bronze Age hung them to renew royal power. For the ancient Etruscans, a gold-colored fleece was a prophecy of future prosperity for the clan. (Ref.)
Sheep have claimed symbolic roles beyond their fleece, of course. Egyptian deities were depicted with rams’ heads. Christian symbolism had a field day with innocent lambs led to slaughter, shepherds guarding their flocks; sheep are the most cited animals in the Bible, with more than 500 mentions. Composers such as Bach, Händel, Britten, to name just a few, integrated biblical verses about them into their music. Poets would pick up the symbolism, most memorably in William Blake’s Lamb. Novelists would hone in on the image of the Black Sheep, one of the earliest in 1842 by Honoré de Balzac. The tale of two brothers competing for inheritance, of power and cruelty of life, certainly has parallels to the old Greek myths. (It turns out, by the way, that wool that has black strands in it can only be sold for a fraction of the price of white wool, because it makes even dye lots much more difficult to achieve.)
And who could forget the invisible sheep in a box in The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novella that pointed to the sheep’s possible role in uprooting the horrible seeds of fascism, represented by Baobab trees? Or one of the funniest science fiction novels of all time, Connie Willis’s The Bellwether, which perfectly captures both the way that fads are generated and the way that science progresses by stumbling into lucky breaks?
Let’s look at the real thing, though, not just the symbolic use.
The gods certainly allot a share of unpredictable woes to sheep farming, a complex enterprise. The animals provide meat (lamb and mutton), wool and pelts for textiles (here’s where the art project comes in!), and milk from the emerging dairy sheep industry. Sheep farming has been an industry in steady decline in this country, from a record high of 56 million head in 1942 to 5.17 million head as of January 1, 2021, according to USDA statistics.
There are multiple reasons for this downward slope: higher feed and energy costs, land disputes and fencing, losses to predators and/or disease, a consolidation of the sheep-packing industry, and competition with cheaper products imported from other nations. Add to that the facts that conservationists are often in conflict with sheep farmers for areas critical to each group, and that wool in clothing has been replaced to a large extent by synthetic fibers. Meat consumption has declined as well, from an average per-person consumption of 4.5 pounds annually in the 1960s to just 1.17 pounds in 2020. Climate change is also having a potential effect on sheep farming, with the epic drought showing effects. Range sheep operations rely on grazing on native pasture lands, some of which are increasingly regulated and permit-dependent due to endangered species protection. Clearly, it is an uphill battle. One, it turns out, that some young people, reconnecting to the land, are willing to fight.
Meet Merrit and Pierre Monnat who started a sheep farm in 2014 near Goldendale, Wash.
M+P Ranches has grown from fewer than 10 coarse-wooled sheep to almost 300 fine-wooled Targhee and Rambouillet ewes, and grown in size to about 320 acres. The sheep move from pasture to pasture, grazing on dry sagebrush country, perennial grassland, and alfalfa fields throughout Klickitat County during the warmer months. In winter they are grazing further east and are fed hay provided locally, to ensure that the ewes produce enough milk for the lambs that start to be birthed in February.
Originally from Texas, Merrit moved to the Pacific Northwest for internships on farms, and ended up working on Vashon Island, Wash., where she met her husband. Pierre, growing up in Seattle, spent many childhood summers on a relative’s farm in Wisconsin. Later he got involved in vegetable farming in Washington, and was ready for farming on his own when he and Merrit got together. They built the business, quite literally, by hand: the barns, the service buildings, the fences.
The Monnats live in a farmhouse that is more than 100 years old, reached by dirt road. Their products – meat and wool – are distributed locally through farming co-ops, and in direct sales from their website. In addition, they have horses, and have built a greenhouse that adds produce to their list of products, which are appreciated by restaurants that insist on farm-to-table quality.
It is a work-intense and relatively isolated life, with little time for anything else. It took multiple years to find a foothold in the community, although by now the couple feels integrated and appreciates the advice handed down from older farmers. The farm work is augmented by shearing services that Pierre offers with a mobile trailer, a labor that requires intense skill, focus, and concentration to avoid harming the livestock. If you hire yourself out to do this you are also dependent on the owners doing the right thing _ not feeding the sheep on the day of the procedure and keeping distractions such as dogs away from the livestock. It can be nerve-wracking. It will be fascinating to watch Pierre do a shearing demonstration in front of a live audience at Maryhill Museum during the exhibit opening in August.
In a state that mirrors the national trends, Washington sheep farming has seen a reckoning since the 1950s. By 2019 most of the state’s farm flocks consisted of 24 or fewer sheep being raised at diversified, family-owned farms, with only one last big range operation still featuring a flock of about 5,000 head. (A terrific historical overview of the issues can be found here.) The aging of farmers and their retirement without successors is a serious problem. Primary producers over 65 now outnumber farmers under 35 by more than 6 to 1.
But perhaps ranchers like the Monnats are the bellwethers for a younger generation of people willing to explore something new without the traditional ways of easing into an established family business. Young farmers pursuing the fleece – white, not golden. Not exactly Jason and Medea, but defying the gods nonetheless, with intense work, passion and determination, not the dark arts.
They are part of a movement that contributes to the growth of the local food movement and could preserve mid-sized farms in the country. They are more likely than the general farming population to grow organically, limit pesticide and fertilizer use, diversify their crops or animals, and be deeply involved in their local food systems via community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs and farmers markets. (Ref.) And in our case, they connect to local individuals and organizations focused on art, whether they are providing wool for artisanal processing or education for projects like the Exquisite Gorge II. Let them be bellwethers, by all means!
Rams are kept in the barn for the winter.
And in the building next to the barn the new renters arrived, Margo Cilker and her husband, who is a cowboy. Cilker has her first album out to rave reviews, including one on Oregon Arts Watch. Here is one of her songs, That River, from the album Pohorylle.
Exquisite Gorge II
- Maryhill Museum of Art’s multiple-artist project weaving together communities along a 220-mile stretch of the Columbia River between its confluences with the Willamette and Snake rivers will unfold over many months, culminating with an unveiling of the entire finished project at the museum on August 6, 2022.
- Like the first Exquisite Gorge, which in 2019 covered the same territory and process to create a 66-foot-long print, Exquisite Gorge II is directed by Louise Palermo, Maryhill’s curator of education.
- Writer and photographer Friderike Heuer will follow the progress of Exquisite Gorge II in a series of photo essays for ArtsWatch and her own website, www.heuermontage.com.
- Heuer also wrote a series of stories with photos about the 2019 project, which you can access on ArtsWatch. The final story in that series – Exquisite Gorge 11: It’s a print! – also includes links to the series’ previous stories.
- This story was originally published at heuermontage.com on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, under the title The Bellwether.