STORY and PHOTOGRAPHS by FRIDERIKE HEUER
“…and we will remain here as long as we can see ourselves in the stars.”
– Minnesota Poet Laureate Gwen Westerman, from her poem We Come From the Stars.
IMAGINE coming into a room filled with certain vibes: feeling peaceful, enjoying the flow, feeling grounded, dressed up to party, enjoying the rain, feeling the happiest ever, preparing for a calm rest, ready to unwind, feeling the brightness of the day, blending in, feeling proud of your people, feeling regal, filling the sky with stars. I don’t know about you, but these emotions, expressed in the titles of Lillian Pitt‘s newest exhibition, elicited a sense of joy in me, as well as a smidgen of envy, when I walked among them and the sculptures they were attached to. How can we tap the source of such serenity?
A collection of Pitt’s work is on display at the Bush Barn Art Center in Salem. It is an assembly of masks, carved wooden figures, ceramic and cast-glass sculptures, shimmering with color, wit and reflections echoing the positive effect of their titles. The exhibition The Art of Lillian Pitt: Past and Present is on view until October 29, 2023, with an artist talk scheduled for Saturday, September 30. It is more than worthwhile to visit, if only for the reason that Pitt announced it to be her last public showing. I could not envision a more beautiful way to bow out.
Much has been written about the artist (Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs/ Wasco/ Yakama), born on the Warm Springs Reservation in 1943 and living in Portland for the last 60 years, so much that it is hard not to sound repetitive. She is the recipient of multiple arts awards and part of many, many public and private collections nationally and in Canada. I happily refer to detailed accounts in an Artswatch interview with Dmae Lo Roberts from 2021 and a short documentary video by Jacob Pander from last year. My title lines were borrowed from something Pitt said in that video when asked about her approach to art as well as life.
What I want to focus on, rather than repeating facts about her evolution as an artist, is the double role she has powerfully used to enrich all of us: that of a member of her own Native American community who reminds the world of both the history and the contemporary presence of tribal life, art and achievements; and that of an artist who brings beauty and new knowledge to the rest of us who are exposed to her works inside or outside, wherever we happen to encounter them. Works that teach and produce wonder at the same time.
Here are a few examples of public art projects that I happen to encounter on my walks, or when taking the Max train (admittedly before the pandemic). They introduce both familiar and not so familiar imagery to us passing by; clues of a history that has not necessarily been frequently taught. At the Rosa Parks TriMet station, depictions of baskets, pictographs, petroglyphs and salmon remind us of the tribal modes of existence in the Pacific Northwest.
If you live in Northeast Portland you have likely encountered the Mammook Tokatee Housing around Northeast 42nd Avenue, which offers surprises around every corner.
If you walk along the Southwest Portland waterfront, the River Guardian greets you regardless of the weather – but in full brightness, when the sun hits just right during mid-morning, she sends out these luminous rays that feel like a life force.
And last but not least, at the plaza in Hillsboro multiple basalt boulders reveal their secrets with differing degrees of ease – 30 petroglyphs have been carved by Pitt in an installation called Riverbed. It is a timely reminder that the city is located on Tualatin Kalapuya (Atfalati) land. These are just a few of the many examples that can be found. In general, Pitt’s public art works weave themselves into our daily lives, making us conscious of with whom we share a space, and how a long-lasting culture that predates us by ten thousands of years and its artifacts or religious objects teaches us about the history of the region and its inhabitants.
IN CONTRAST to the large configurations discoverable across the city, the exhibition at the Bush Barn Art Center has many smaller objects, among them Pitt’s traditional Raku-fired masks,
and the familiar presence of She Who Watches.
There are also numerous wood carvings, adorned at times with whimsical details. I must admit I was partial to these for idiosyncratic reasons. One of my childhood pleasures was to be allowed to open my grandmother’s sewing box and take out a can with buttons, often large and unusual, playing with them and arranging them to my liking. Multiple buttons can be found on Pitt’s work as well, making my fingers itch ….
Star persons? I learned from Pitt’s introduction that different tribes had origin stories about the Star People, who helped generate agricultural skills and introduced the most important food groups, according to the Navajo People’s legends; the Sioux used stories of the Star and Cloud people to instill hope among suffering, with animal ancestors coming down from the stars to guide the way home.
These Star People stories have now found instantiations in the star people capturing color and light. Here are some of my favorite instances:
I could not help but wonder if these were companions during mental preparation for retirement, an artist’s recital to herself that a life so full as hers deserved a rest, unwinding, happiness. And that that would unfold. I cannot imagine for a second, though, that a creative mind like Pitt’s would ever slow down, much less shut down. Maybe the public exposition of her work, but not the ideas themselves. After all, she is a storyteller in the grand tradition of her people, full of experience, wisdom, knowledge to be shared. And storytellers need to tell their stories.
Of course, this is the pleading voice of the audience, here, who doesn’t want to let go of opportunities to explore the legends. To hold the beauty; a beauty, in my book, most emotionally conveyed in Pitt’s ceramic work:
Resilient, flexible, forgiving: attributes of the clay that she shapes into testimonials to Native American history. Attributes that shaped her into one of our most important sources of artistic expression inseparable of that history.
Dear Lillian Pitt, could we respectfully ask you to please postpone retirement a little longer?
Here is the full poem about what the Star People brought (the title translates “We Come From the Stars”):
Wicaŋhpi Heciya Taŋhaŋ Uŋhipi
in our universe
came from according to astrophysicists who
only recently discovered the cosmological constant causing
of our universe.
Our creation story tells us we came from the stars to this place Bdote
where the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers converge,
our journey along the Wanaġi Caŋku,
in our universe,
that stargazers later called the Milky Way now disappearing
in the excessive glow of a million million urban uplights.
The original inhabitants of this place,
of our universe,
we are Wicaŋhpi Oyate, People
and will remain here as long as
we can see ourselves
in the stars.
— Gwen Westerman (Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota Oyate/ Cherokee)
- When: Through Oct. 29, 2023
- Where: Bush Barn Art Center + Annex, Bush’s Pasture Park, 600 Mission St. S.E., Salem
- Hours: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, noon-5 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays
This essay was originally published on YDP – Your Daily Picture on September 27, 2023.