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.
OREGON CULTURAL HUBS: An occasional series
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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.
“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.
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.
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.