The narrative-painting exhibit Understanding Ourselves cleared out of the Chehalem Cultural Center over the weekend, but it was there when I visited a few weeks ago to see another exhibit, Kairos: Eco Print Series by Lisa Brinkman, around the corner in the Central Gallery.
Any one of the paintings from either exhibit would have seemed wildly out of place had it been moved into the other, yet having them under the same roof illustrated the range of tools an artist has to tell a story, even when it’s not immediately obvious that a story is being told.
Brinkman’s contact prints are deliberately yet instinctively crafted using the stuff of nature — plants, leaves, flowers — “cooked” into raw silk, then adorned with layers of acrylic, oil paints, and cold-wax translucent glazes. They tell — perhaps “suggest” or “hint at” is the way to characterize it — stories through the use of symbols, which are drawn from nature: a dove, a crow, a serpent, or a butterfly; the sun or moon. But mythological figures also are present — Pegasus and Sophia, the spirit of female wisdom.
Because many familiar symbols date back millennia, it is unfathomably rich territory. As the feminist literary historian Barbara Walker remarks in The Woman’s Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects, symbols that we’ve come to associate with orthodox religion may have “evolved from very different contexts in the prepatriarchal past.”
Indeed, the title of the show, which runs through April 30, also dates back millennia. Brinkman explains in the show’s notes that what the Greeks called “Kairos” is a moment “opportune and ripe for change.” We are living in such a time, she writes, where “we are experiencing a collective rite of passage descending daily into unfolding global crises of mythic proportions. The Coronavirus pandemic, outrage towards … racial inequities, social and environmental injustices, climate catastrophe — all while the pulse of life hangs in the balance. My latest eco-printed paintings are a collaboration of life with Nature. With them, I wish to inspire, a remembering of our relationship with Gaia — humanity, the plant and animal world, all nested together, within the Cosmos.”
Rather than try to explain the “how” of that collaboration with nature, you can see it for yourself in a helpful video Brinkman makes available on her website. It’s a labor-intensive process infused with an element of chaos, “a state where you really don’t know what is going to occur,” she said. “It loosens some of my control, so I have to respond to the process.” The resulting images are an earthy mix of abstraction, symbolism, and collage that resonate on multiple levels.
“Symbols are like that,” she said. “They almost have a life not only for me or when I see it at another time, but also for the observer. They’ll make their own story out of it. It’ll remind them of something. That’s the beauty of image and art.”
Brinkman’s artistic roots go back to Chicago. One of four daughters, her father was an advertising executive in the Mad Men era. “I always knew I wanted to be an artist,” she said. “Growing up, we’d go to the Chicago Art Institute museum and look at art. My father’s first cat was Pablo Picasso. Art was very much valued in our family, my dad would always be doing storyboards, coming up with concepts for commercials and ads, so there was a lot of creativity in my childhood.”
She graduated from high school early and found her way to Portland, her father’s hometown, where she attended Portland State University and studied art at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. Studying the history of women artists and encountering work by Judy Chicago and others deepened her interest in a feminist perspective. That, along with a lifelong interest, shared with her mother, in mythology and astrology, has inspired Brinkman’s work over the years, as has her connection with the Earth. Coming of age during the rise of environmental activism, Brinkman participated in direct political action against the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant just before marrying her husband, whom she met in college.
Given the cosmic dots she’s connected in thinking about history, myth, symbol, and ecology, I was curious to know, as I’ve been with all artists since March 2020, how Brinkman has dealt with the past year, what’s on her mind, and what she’s been doing. As it turns out, she’s been doing art.
“I think one thing with the pandemic is that it’s forced all of us to pull back and do things in different ways,” she said. “But you know, I’m an introvert by nature, so I like time alone to think about my dreams. It’s given me more of a chance to pay attention to them, and also have more time for this active imagination, to meditate on what it is. In some ways, it affords a lot more quiet time, and I’ve found it beneficial. Some people, I think, get crazy if they can’t get out, but I think I’ve done pretty well in terms of utilizing the time and being in the studio.”
All of the works in Kairos, along with smaller prints of each, are for sale at the Chehalem Cultural Center, which is open noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. For more information, call 503-487-6883. You can also hear Brinkman discuss each piece during the Zoom reception, which is available on YouTube.