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Madras’ Art Adventure Gallery is art central for Jefferson County

Since 1986, the all-volunteer gallery has worked to exchange ideas and opportunities for artists in all mediums and cultures.

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Art Adventure Gallery is housed in a former restaurant on northbound U.S. Highway 97 in downtown Madras. Photo by: D. “Bing” Bingham
Art Adventure Gallery is housed in a former restaurant on northbound U.S. Highway 97 in downtown Madras. Photo by: D. “Bing” Bingham

On a cold and wet high desert night, Art Adventure Gallery’s newest board member, Jana Charl, jumps in her Jeep and dodges potholes of legendary proportions as she hurries along the muddy road from her uncle’s ranch to a meeting in Madras.

When Charl left her Los Angeles home in 2017 for her uncle’s Jefferson County ranch, she thought of it as a retreat from the lifestyle and commercial art she used to support herself. She wanted a change in her circumstances, space to seek more international residencies, and a chance to do her art for herself. She assumed she’d eventually make her way to the Portland art scene.


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She never made it.

“I came to Oregon for the quality of life and was a bit surprised to find it” in Madras, she said. “Everyone was so welcoming.”

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Her first show at the gallery was a feminist exhibition with female forms that exaggerate curves. It wasn’t art that typically conservative Jefferson County had seen before.

“Everyone was just curious, that’s what I loved about the show,” she said. “The difference in showing here is that people aren’t inhibited in asking questions. I love that.”

She sold a painting during the show, and realized, “I can sell art here.”

Art Adventure Gallery is “art central” in Jefferson County, one of Oregon’s most ethnically diverse regions. Official census figures vary slightly, but in the region the gallery serves, including some of southern Wasco County, the population is about equal thirds Native American, Hispanic, and non-Hispanic white.

That was part of the attraction for Portland ex-pat and gallery Director Coralee Popp. “There was such cultural diversity and the things that could happen in a small community were amazing to me,” she said. For example, “I remember when they built the present library and the community lined up in the street and passed books, one by one, to get them to the new building.”

Madras, with a population a shade higher than 8,000, is a small (think: Little Brother of Central Oregon communities) working-class town in an agricultural community. The three-block-long downtown area, including the Art Adventure Gallery, straddles U.S. Highway 26.

Coralee Popp (left), director of Art Adventure Gallery, and Jana Charl, the newest member of the gallery’s board, each found an unexpected artistic home in Madras. Popp created the mosaic horse, “Rocinante,” when she was studying at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland and brought it with her to Madras in a horse trailer. Photo by: D. “Bing” Bingham
Coralee Popp (left), director of Art Adventure Gallery, and Jana Charl, the newest member of the gallery’s board, each found an unexpected artistic home in Madras. Popp created the mosaic horse, “Rocinante,” when she was studying at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland and brought it with her to Madras in a horse trailer. Photo by: D. “Bing” Bingham

With 76 members, Art Adventure Gallery is entirely volunteer driven, including the director, and works to exchange ideas and art opportunities among cultures over the entire northern Central Oregon region. Its non-juried shows are open to any art medium, including painting, sculpture, ceramics, photography, and the literary arts.

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“This gallery is awesome,” said Natalie Kirk, former curator for The Museum at Warm Springs and director for Tananáwit, a collective of Native American artists. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for the whole community.”

Housed in a former restaurant, Art Adventure Gallery opened in 1986. Marjean Whitehouse, then mayor of Madras, hatched the idea and enlisted the aid of four determined women from the local art world: Camille Green, Terry Black, Alice Brown, and Sharon Dodge, who became known around town as “three colors in a car.”

The April opening of the annual All Jefferson County show draws a hometown crowd. Photo by: D. “Bing” Bingham
The April opening of the annual All Jefferson County show draws a hometown crowd. Photo by: D. “Bing” Bingham

“More exposure to art was something the community needed,” said Green, a visual artist. “I figured it was part of my purpose,” adding, “I knew how to do art; I had no idea I’d be able to run an art gallery.”

The Jefferson County Arts Association, along with Art Adventure Gallery, was born and continues to this day due to community support.

Not long after it opened, the gallery began hosting field trips by local grade school children and started the popular All Jefferson County show, which this year runs through May.

As statewide shows came and went, the gallery’s focus remained on local talent.

In the early 2000s, Jefferson County artist and author Lynn Miller organized an internationally attended auction of horse-drawn equipment that began in Sisters and later moved to the Jefferson County fairgrounds in Madras. To support the auction and his magazine, Small Farmer’s Journal, he regularly displayed his artwork at the gallery.

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“I’ve shown my work at high-end galleries up and down the West Coast,” Miller said, “but this gallery is one of my favorites. There’s nothing like showing your work to a hometown crowd.”

Emerging Native American photographer Edward Heath, who has a one-man show running through May 27 at The Museum at Warm Springs, said he got his first public exposure at the gallery’s All Jefferson County show. For him, “it was a little unexpected and pretty exciting.”

Like galleries nationwide, Art Adventure has had to cope with changes brought about by the pandemic. Revenues dropped and attendance was low, even once mandates eased. What had worked was no longer effective.

The board’s response was, once again, to reach out to the community. They asked Charl to join the board and requested she apply her digital and marketing expertise to the situation.

The All Jefferson County show includes a series of busts by Coralee Popp, and paintings by (from top left) ,,,,,, Photo by: D. “Bing” Bingham
The All Jefferson County show includes a series of busts by Coralee Popp, and paintings by Stephanie Cissna (bottom left) and Mary Stellar, both of Madras. Photo by: D. “Bing” Bingham

Another sign of shifting patterns comes from the extended art community.

Throughout the years, the Hispanic population of Jefferson County has been reluctant to display art at the gallery. Ask the gallery’s old-time board members why, and some shake their head and others say, “I just don’t know, maybe it’s cultural?”

But like much else after the pandemic, the long cultural dry spell is about to lift.

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In July, the Milagro Latino Artist Fund will display work at the gallery by Portland artist Hampton Rodriguez.

The show comes with the board’s fervent hope that the local Hispanic population will be inspired to display their work. Perhaps, this along with other changes will pave the way for Madras’ Art Adventure Gallery into the future.

Time — and community volunteers who support Jefferson County art — will tell.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

D. "Bing" Bingham worked as a freelance writer, photographer and public radio producer for 25 years specializing in Central and Eastern Oregon. These days, he's a blogger...dustydogcafe.com...author of two books with a third on the way and a budding poet. He and his wife live deep in the northern Central Oregon desert on a small ranch with three very dusty stock dogs.

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6 Responses

  1. Terrific story by one of central Oregon’s top reporters. The gallery is a treasure, not only for Madras, but the entire state. Along with the talented locals, some of the most highly regarded artists in Oregon have shown there, including Manuel Izquierdo, Jack McLarty, Eunice Parsons and many, many others. A show of work by the late George Johanson will be featured this fall. A truly amazing place operated by a dedicated group of volunteers. Bravo Art Adventure.

  2. I’m looking forward to a visit to
    Madras’ Art Adventure Gallery.
    How long will Coralee’s horse mosaic “Rocinante” be displayed”?

    1. Rocinante has been with the gallery as long as I have, which is over 30 years. He’s for sale, but pretty much a permanent fixture.

  3. So great that OR Artswatch reaches out and brings to light for an urban public the gems that exist around the state. Art Adventure presents quality shows to Jefferson County and the quality of Central Oregon to its visitors. Kudos to Coralee, the volunteer, the member artists and Board for their perseverance and fidelity to this enduring commitment and vision.

  4. This is a wonderful article which highlights the talent, both artistically and organizationally, that Art Adventure highlights. Thanks to Coralee and her board’s persistence, this fine cultural institution has persevered over the decades to showcase art. It is the jewel of Jefferson County. Thank you, Coralee, Board members, and volunteers for bringing innovative and interesting art to Madras!!

  5. What a nice article about a terrific place. I was pleased to show both quilts and work on paper in 2013 and was pleased to show my work in central Oregon. Coralee is a positive force in this state’s art world.

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