Notes from Eastern Oregon: Art centers keep culture alive

Former Carnegie libraries in Pendleton, La Grande and Baker City house collections ranging from rocks to Lee Marvin's yellow-striped pants.

A road trip to Eastern Oregon late this summer opened my eyes to an error of provincialism on my part. I had regarded Newberg’s Chehalem Cultural Center as being somehow unique for a small community. Granted, it is one of the largest nonprofit facilities of its kind in Oregon outside of Portland, but it is hardly the only instance of an old building being repurposed to keep arts and culture alive in a small town.

A trip that took us up the Columbia Gorge and into Pendleton, though La Grande, and finally into Baker City yielded a few journalistic snapshots.

The entrance of the Carnegie library that houses the Pendleton Arts Center was designed to resemble the Pazzi Chapel at the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence, Italy. Randy Gundlach’s horse statue lends a western touch. Photo by: David Bates
The entrance of the Carnegie library that houses the Pendleton Center for the Arts was designed to resemble the Pazzi Chapel at the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence, Italy. Randy Gundlach’s horse statue lends a western touch. Photo by: David Bates

The Pendleton Center for the Arts is perched on a hill on the northwest corner of downtown next to the Umatilla River. Like the other art centers we visited in Eastern Oregon, the Pendleton center is a remodeled Carnegie library, this one designed by Portland architect Folger Johnson (1882-1970) and built in 1916 in the style of Italian Renaissance Revival. The entrance was designed to resemble the Pazzi Chapel at the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence, Italy. Near the front steps is an equestrian statue titled Sisters in Spirit by Randy Gundlach, dedicated in October 2004.

On the day I was there, the photographic work of David Webber, an artist/professor from Oklahoma, occupied the main gallery. Trees, gates, fences, sidewalks, and exterior walls were the primary motifs featured in the 15 prints, blown up to enormous size. According to the program, Webber’s “photos confuse the boundaries of their reference and challenge the viewers’ perception of what they are seeing. Superimposing images through layering, he pushes them to varying degrees of density by creating simple composites, fields of color and meshed textures.”

While this particular exhibit is no longer there, you can now visit The Small Works Invitational, on display through Sept. 28. It features work by 14 regional artists, with the only qualifying criterion being that the work measures no more than 12 inches in any direction.  

The nonprofit Art Center East in La Grande coordinates arts programs for rural schools and communities in 10 Oregon counties. The group operates out of a former Carnegie library. Photo by: David Bates
The nonprofit Art Center East in La Grande coordinates arts programs for rural schools and communities in 10 Oregon counties. The group operates out of a former Carnegie library. Photo by: David Bates

An hour’s drive across the hazy-yellow Blue Mountains, we discovered Art Center East in La Grande, where programs manager Deb Chandler gave me a tour. She was keen to emphasize what an essential resource the center is in the region. “It’s really an important part of the community,” she said. In the most recent fiscal year, she noted, the center hosted 25,000 visitors and students. There are plans to make the building friendlier for visitors with disabilities.

Like the Pendleton center, this wide building was a Carnegie library. The city owns the structure, but the center is run by the nonprofit Art Center East, which dates back to 1977. For more than 40 years, the group has coordinated arts programs in rural schools and communities in a 10-county service area that includes Baker, Gilliam, Grant, Harney, Malheur, Morrow, Umatilla, Union, Wallowa, and Wheeler counties. One of the two spacious galleries on the building’s first floor was exhibiting work from Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts. Chandler and Sarah West, community outreach coordinator, ran me through an impressive list of past and future programs and projects, including readings and writers’ workshops sponsored by Fishtrap.

Both Arts Center East and the Pendleton center have craft studios and offer classes, concerts, exhibits, and workshops year-round. If you’re planning a trip that way, check out their websites before heading out. 

In Baker City, circumstances granted us only a few minutes at the Crossroads Carnegie Art Center, but we had considerably more time at the Baker Heritage Museum a few blocks away. One could easily spend hours wandering through this cavernous, 33,000-square-foot facility.

The Baker Heritage Museum’s “Paint Your Wagon” exhibit includes a scale-model replica of tthe fictional gold-mining town No Name City. Photo by: David Bates
The Baker Heritage Museum’s “Paint Your Wagon” exhibit includes a scale-model replica of tthe fictional gold-mining town No Name City. Photo by: David Bates

The highlight for me, oddly enough, was related to a film I’ve never seen: the 1969 musical Western Paint Your Wagon. Production of the film brought Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, Jean Seberg, and a large cast and crew to Baker City in the summer and fall of 1968.

The town depicted in the movie was built about an hour or so away, but Baker City for six months was home base for the film. Although it flopped at the box office (1969 was more of a Wild Bunch type of year) the locals are proud to take ownership of it. At the exhibit’s entrance stands the old movie projector that was used to screen the film at the local theater when it was released.

The museum gives considerable space to the film, with photographs, posters, props, and even a costume: the yellow-striped pants Lee Marvin wore for the shoot. But the centerpiece is unquestionably a sprawling scale-model replica of the fictional gold-mining town where the action takes place: No Name City. The film’s merits notwithstanding, the detailed replica is an extraordinary piece of art in its own right, meticulously constructed at a cost of $72,000. My photo hardly does it justice; it must be seen in person.

Rockhounds who aren’t already aware should know about the center’s extraordinary lapidary collection, “one of the finest in the western United States,” according to the museum. The claim is easy to believe, given the volume of the two formerly private collections that were donated to the museum. The Cavin-Warfel Collection was the result of a 45-year hobby enjoyed by two Baker City sisters beginning in the 1930s. The entire 18-ton collection was donated to the museum in 1983. Meanwhile, the Wyatt Family Collection features 2,000 pieces, also the product of several decades of collecting: agate, picture jasper, and cabochons. I’m not a geology aficionado, but this permanent exhibit is impressive.  

Displays in the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center tell the story of the pioneers who crossed the country to settle in Oregon. Photo: Wikipedia Commons
Displays in the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center tell the story of the pioneers who crossed the country to settle in Oregon. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Time and space prohibit a detailed report, but suffice to say that the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center a few miles outside Baker City is worthy of another article entirely. One could easily spend several hours absorbing it all. Walking through the main indoor exhibit, I found myself filled with awe at what the Oregon pioneers did against such enormous odds, and sorrow as well, for the indigenous communities for whom the settlers’ arrival spelled a social cataclysm most of us can scarcely imagine. 

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ARTS JOURNAL: Finished reading Whitley Strieber’s climate change sci-fi thriller Nature’s End: The Consequences of the Twentieth Century, which was published in 1986 and gets our current predicament more or less right. Watched Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God a couple of times, the second while listening to the director on the commentary track. Discovered an artist by way of the New York Times Magazine on Sunday: indie musician Angel Olsen. Based on listening to the albums Burn Your Fire for No Witness and Phases, along with a preview single, All Mirrors, I’m looking forward to her new album, due out in October. Finally, the week’s Arts Fail: Got rained out of an Oregon Symphony Zoo Concert on Saturday night.  

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