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Fertile ground: Pendleton Center for the Arts

Access and opportunity are at the heart of the mission of Pendleton Center for the Arts. The mission is especially fitting given that the center's brick-and-mortar location was originally a Carnegie library.

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This is the second of a three-part Cultural Hub series on the arts institutions in the area of Pendleton. The first article focused on Tamástslikt Cultural Institute. Look for the third part of the series, a visit to Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts, later this year. If you happen to be in Pendleton, stop by Great Pacific: an informal linchpin of the arts community in the town that often has live music and makes a great pizza. And if you want a soundtrack to your travels, here are some of the songs made by students at Rock & Roll Camp 2023.

Pendleton Arts Center in the former building of the Umatilla County Library, photo by Georgina Ruff

“Do I need to bring an instrument? No. Do I need to know how to play an instrument? No. What if I play the saxophone? That’s fine. What if I don’t want to play an instrument? That’s fine. Just show up.” Camp director Addison Sculberg describes the conversations he has with students interested in Rock & Roll Camp. Above all, getting to respond “It’s free” to the question “How much does it cost?” brings the biggest smile to his face.

Rock & Roll Camp is one of the many programs offered by the Pendleton Center for the Arts (PCA). The attitude of access – “just show up” – is both “rock and roll” and emblematic of the Center’s philosophy, just show up and we will make it work for you. Except in some cases, you don’t even have to show up, the PCA will come to you. More on that in a moment.



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The Pendleton Center for the Arts is the fertile soil for the arts ecology of Pendleton Oregon. There’s no legitimate way to write about Pendleton and the surrounding area without mentioning the indomitable landscape – just as there doesn’t seem to be a way to talk about the arts in Pendleton without some connection to the Pendleton Center for the Arts. And just as it’s impossible to separate the plateau soil from its complex ecological web, the PCA is woven into the Pendleton community in a myriad of ways.

The succinct PCA mission statement, which begins with an appropriately formal sentence about opportunity, gets quickly to the finer point: “we are proud to provide the facility, the expertise, and the encouragement.” In the case of Rock & Roll Camp, these provisions include the instruments, drum sticks, guitar picks, instructors, and the funding for it all.

Front door of the Pendleton Art Center, photo by Georgina Ruff

According to retired Camp Founder J.D. Smith, Rock & Roll Camp is one of the greatest successes of the Pendleton Center for the Arts. He should know – he was the grant writer who found the funding and, with collaborator Peter Walters, started the camp in 2006. For one week each summer, 18 years and counting, kids between the ages of 13-18 have “just showed up” to connect with rock & rollers from near and far. 

Sponsor

Portland Center Stage at the Armory Quixote Nuevo Portland Oregon

Sculberg, who began as a student in the camp’s first year, is now in his seventh year leading the camp, organizing the classes, the tech, the instruments, the lunches, the spaces, the shows, and the instructors to create 5 days of what he describes as “unconditional support” for students. His emphasis is on tuning in to the needs of the students, whether that’s learning how to play a chord, mix a track, or just having time to connect and chill. Sculberg recognizes that sometimes “just sitting is the most rock ‘n’ roll thing you can do,” and the program holds space for that.

Rock & Roll Camp could be its own article (and it has been, here and here to start), but in the context of the Pendleton Center for the Arts, it’s a great example of how members of different communities – students from Pendleton and beyond, Pendleton residents, musicians from as far away as New Mexico, arts and culture workers – are connected and supported by the PCA. I keep returning to the idea of the fertile soil, which must itself be fed in order to function within the ecosystem,

J.D. Smith didn’t just help create Rock & Roll Camp, he spent 23 years writing grants to create the PCA, literally beginning with the structure: writing grants to renovate the historic building that the PCA now calls home. His drive to make the arts present, accessible, and “less intimidating” led the Center to name the Art/Activity/Education Room after him. In a tone of muffled pride, Smith described this as “a bit embarrassing.” He would rather be remembered for his efforts to provide free programming, which he believes aligns with the original intention of the PCA building as a Carnegie Library.

“All the Pencils” in the J.D. Smith Art Room, photo by Georgina Ruff

 ***

Between 1901 and 1915, industrialist Andrew Carnegie funded grants to construct 31 public library buildings in Oregon. Carnegie was a millionaire capitalist who was determined to repay what he considered to be his debt to society. In 1889s The Gospel of Wealth, Carnegie wrote “the man [sic] who dies thus rich dies disgraced.” By the time of his death in 1919, he had gifted $350 million (approx. $6.1 billion in today’s money) to educational, cultural, and diplomatic causes. Carnegie libraries were gifts of structure, specifically for the building. Communities were required to demonstrate need and means: provide a suitable site, establish a publicly funded library budget, purchase books. Beginning in 1911 recipients received a pamphlet from James Bertram, Carnegie’s secretary, with 6 sample floorplans and the advice that smaller libraries were to be “pland [sic] so that one librarian can oversee the entire library from a central position.” Additionally, Betram stipulated comfortable reading spaces and a lecture room and recommended two story structures with large windows and space for future expansion. The myth that Carnegie’s name was required on the exterior of the libraries he endowed remains to this day, leading some to believe that Carnegie’s philanthropy was an act of narcissism.[1] In reality, Carnegie was a complicated person whose generous grants endowed 2,509 libraries worldwide, 1,679 of them in the United States by the time of his death.

Umatilla County Library in Pendleton, Oregon in 1925, photo courtesy of OregonEncyclopedia.org and the Oregon Historical Society

Writing for Good Housekeeping in 1921, Anne Shannon Monroe celebrated the women of the Library Board and the reach of the Umatilla County Library system’s circulation. More than 20,000 books, distributed “…from the central library, from fourteen branch libraries, and from fifty-eight rural schools situated anywhere from five to seventy-five miles from Pendleton,” were available to the residents of Umatilla County.[2] Early librarians worked hard to raise community engagement with the library: knocking on doors and extending personal invitations to residents, holding “library evenings” for those who worked days, and publicizing newly acquired books in the local newspaper. [3]

Roberta Lavadour, Executive Director of the PCA, has a similar philosophy concerning the mission of the PCA. Standing in the permanent display that includes a timeline of the Pendleton building and a panel that honors the librarians, Lavadour describes the institution as “…having mojo in the community from the beginning.” That magical energy stems from both leadership and community. The first Umatilla County Librarian, Sabra L. Nason, was described as “possessing initiative and energy;” gathering research and writing to Carnegie directly to request a system of library buildings. Today, Lavadour is, according to artist Don Gray, a “dynamic guiding hand.” Her connections with artists and collectors bring big names and ideas to the PCA gallery in addition to programs that reach deep into the Pendleton area community.

Sponsor

Portland Center Stage at the Armory Quixote Nuevo Portland Oregon

The Pendleton Center for the Arts, much like the circulation of the Umatilla County Library, is not constrained by geographical site. Under Lavadour’s direction, and during the depths of the Covid lockdown, the PCA offered online classes in mask-making, weekly email newsletters, and a series of “Creativity Breaks” for kids. “ArtZOOM!” offers PCA programs to any requesting institution, with materials sent ahead of time, and PCA staff providing real-time instruction via Zoom to a variety of audiences including school children and elder-care facilities. These days, it’s more common for the staff to travel to local libraries to hold programs in person – when I visited, the next destination was the Helix (pop. 193) library, where PCA was offering a zine workshop.

At the bricks and mortar location of the PCA, entrance is always free and so are many of the classes. The galleries host shows from local artists and national names. When I visited, the western-themed prints of Judith Baumann, master printmaker at Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts, were hung with those of Marwin Begaye, Kristin Sarette, and Michael Sonnichsen, three internationally known printmakers that Baumann chose for accompaniment. Since June, the Eastern Oregonian Gallery has shown the massive vessels of Judd Koehn, and is now exhibiting the works of Leonardo Drew, on loan from the collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and his Family Foundation.

In addition to the formal upstairs gallery and regionally focused Lorenzen Gallery, the PCA is also currently hosting the traveling display case of D. E. May, a reclusive Salem artist who sadly passed on in 2019, before he could see the realization of his peripatetic “rock hound” cabinet. Inside, May’s assemblage sculptures reflect in the glass shelves, giving symmetry to combinations of found materials. The work is a community art project that originated with PDX Contemporary Art in Portland, with the intention of bringing May’s work to rural areas of the state. At the PCA, the ladies of the 1913 Pendleton Library Board oversee the case from their photo on the wall.

D.E. May’s Rock Hound Cabinet with photograph of Umatilla County librarians and a viewer, photo courtesy of Roberta Lavadour and the Pendleton Center for the Arts

The Library moved to a new building in 1996, in large part due to maintenance and accessibility issues with the old Carnegie structure. Recognizing the potential of the space, the Arts Council of Pendleton raised $1.8 million for its renovation and evolved into the Pendleton Center for the Arts which opened in 2001. The Council had been an official arts organization in the area since 1974, although it had existed unofficially for some years before that. This organic growth of the Council into a brick and mortar center continued the imperative of supporting the arts and community that is evident in the codified mission of the PCA: to “provide opportunities for creative expression and community connection.”

Artist James Lavadour, who grew up both on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation and in Pendleton, relates that local artist Betty Feves was the “ringleader” of the original Arts Council. Feves has also been described as a pioneer, a maverick, and an advocate, and is well-known for her modernist ceramics. Feves and council members including Roberta Jones, Amy Bedford, and Lorie Baxter began a series of Artist Advocacy Grants in the 1980s which provided early-career local artists with a year of financial support. 

Eastern Oregonian Gallery at Pendleton Center for the Arts, photo by Georgina Ruff

Lavadour was the second recipient of an Artist Advocacy grant from the Pendleton Arts Council. The grant provided cost of living funding for a year while he focused on his practice. At the end of the year, each grant donor received an original work from Lavadour, in addition to an invitation to his capstone exhibition. Today, Lavadour’s work is in many collections, including those of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the National Museum of the American Indian. And he still donates a piece to the PCA benefit auction each year. 

PCA committee member and exhibiting artist since the Center’s opening, Don Gray describes the Artist Advocacy grant that he received around 1990 as an “invaluable” act of solidarity. Deep in what he describes as a period of “exploration and experimentation,” his work was moving away from his earlier realist style which alienated some galleries and collectors. Today, Gray’s abstract works are often seen in Northwest Galleries, and Gray serves on the exhibit committee of the PCA and has taught several workshops at the Center.

Sponsor

Portland Area Theatre Alliance Fertile Ground Portland Oregon

After the library relocated in 1996, the Carnegie Building stood vacant. Today, the renovated and accessible building is alive, as people come and go for classes, to attend events in rental spaces, to visit the art galleries. Board member Valerie Fouquette remembers sitting “just over there” in the back of the library, listening to classical music through headphones. That space is now part of the gift shop – where artists of all ages from the community sell their work, some of which was made at the PCA. Multiple people mention that it’s the “best place to shop for the Holidays.”

One of the hottest artists sold through the shop is Hiroko Cannon, who had her first show 20 years ago in the space for emerging artists known as the Lorenzen Gallery. Cannon describes the support that she received from the PCA staff as both touching and helpful. Cannon also received an Artist Advocacy Grant which connected her with Steve Clark at Cracked Melon Editions, which resulted in “beautiful reproductions” of her work that are more visible and accessible. In January 2023, Cannon’s work was shown upstairs, in the East Oregonian Gallery at the PCA, where her remarkably detailed birds gracefully made the walls into a menagerie.

While visual art is a draw for some (see what I did there?) and Rock & Roll Camp blasts through the Center every August, many come to the PCA for the First Draft Writer’s Series, a long running program that brings authors and poets to read their work. Since 2013, third Thursdays bring a diverse group of established and up-and-coming writers to the Community Room of the PCA: Ursula K. Le Guin read here, so did Elizabeth Woody, Penelope Scambly Schott, Alex Kuo, and many others. The guest presentation is complemented by open-mic readings, 3-5 minutes of time for anyone to share their original writing. Since Covid pushed the world into Zoom, the First Draft is now a hybrid event, with attendance possible in-person or via a Zoom link. In October, Portland area author and songwriter Willy Vlautin will take the mic.

“Arts and artists are uniquely equipped to help at this messy moment,” Roberta Lavadour explains as we walk through the Alice Fossatti Ceramic Studio.[4] We are talking about the post-Covid recovery of the PCA, politics, and of course, art. The PCA is intentionally a “model of acceptance and inclusion;” I noticed a sign earlier that details the “4 requirements for Consent” and in preparation for my visit, I read Lavadour’s “Note About Pronouns” that is appended to the Center’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Statement. There was a week, Lavadour proudly relates, in which the Center hosted a PFLAG event, a chamber music recital, a grunge rock show, and a conservative church meeting. Diverse indeed, especially considering that the population of Pendleton is about 17,000 (1/37th the size of Portland).

Varied programming and using ALL the space are constant goals of the Pendleton Center for the Arts. During Covid, the Center innovated, offering quarantine “Dinner Dates” for two in front of the fireplace in the Eastern Oregonian Gallery and isolated tech spaces for participants in the Zoom version of Rock & Roll Camp who might not have internet access. As Covid cautions wane, hopefully the monthly Contra Dancing will return to the Bamboo Room that overlooks the Umatilla River and the transformation of a storage room into Maker Space for 13-18 years will be completed. The J. D. Smith Art Room is ready and neatly stocked with supplies for the wide array of crafts and art classes that the Center offers for all ages and the ceramic kilns are being fired regularly. The Center serves over 600 people each month and is ready to host more.

Fireplace Room in the Pendleton Center for the Arts shop, photo by Georgina Ruff

Gray describes the Pendleton Center for the Arts as filling a “critical cultural and educational role in a part of the state that would otherwise be underserved.” Yes, it does. And, the PCA fills that role robustly – working from within the community with camps and classes and exhibitions of local art, and by bringing outside arts, authors, and musicians into the old Carnegie Library in a way that updates it more than any architectural renovation.  

J. D. Smith’s belief in making the arts “accessible for regular human beings” is ingrained in the programming of the Center, through free offerings and their attunement to the needs and interests of the community. Just like the complex ecology of the high plateau soil, the PCA is integral to the Pendleton community, which it supports and enlivens.

Sponsor

Metropolitan Youth Symphony Music Concert Rooted Newmark Theatre Portland Oregon


[1]  Theodore Jones, Carnegie Libraries Across America. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1995. 49.

[2] Anne Shannon Monroe, “When Women Will,” Good Housekeeping 73.5 (November 1921). 109.

[3] Joanne E. Passet. Cultural Crusaders: Women Librarians of the American West 1900-1917. Albuquerque NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1994. 114.

[4] Alice Fossatti (1914-2016) was a ceramic artist who studied with Betty Feves. She made and sold work in Pendleton, worked for 23 years as a kindergarten teacher, and was a fixture in the Pendleton community.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Georgina Ruff is an art historian of modern and contemporary art and technology. Her interests in the conservation of obsolescing media and immersive installations have led her on explorations of 60's era light shows, Bauhaus illuminations, histories of fluorescent light bulbs, and contemporary spatial politics of object-less art works. Georgina earned her PhD in Art History from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2020.

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