All Classical Radio James Depreist

Roll, Columbia, roll: At Maryhill Museum, the river is a unifier and an artistic bridge

At the clifftop museum overlooking the Columbia Gorge, two new exhibitions follow the river's flow for 300 miles to create art of the land, water, and Northwest cultures.

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Erik Sandgren, "Wallula to the Sea" (polyptych), 2023, acrylic on panel, 48” x 96” (48” x 24” each). Photo: Laura Grimes
Erik Sandgren, “Wallula to the Sea” (polyptych), 2023, acrylic on panel, 48” x 96” (48” x 24” each). Photo: Laura Grimes

Stand in front of Erik Sandgren’s four-panel, eight-foot wide landscape Wallula to the Sea at the Maryhill Museum of Art and it’s almost as if you’re standing on the museum’s plaza on the edge of a high cliff, looking out over the grand sweep of the Columbia River Gorge.

Well, not exactly. For one thing, the scene’s from a different section of the river’s long expanse. And Sandgren’s quartet of paintings is painterly, with crisp lines and bright acrylic swirls and a pronounced sense of human invention: not so much a photorealist capturing of the landscape as a leap of the artistic imagination into a vivid space inspired by but not dictated by the land.


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On a brisk and sunny/cloudy day in early April, with the wind bristling through the Gorge just enough to make you conscious of keeping your feet well-planted on the ground, the concrete sentinel that is the Maryhill Museum stood high on its cliffside about 100 miles east of Portland almost like a natural outcropping of rock, another part of a sweeping landscape of dry and rolling hills plunging toward the river below.

Looking over the Columbia River Gorge and the Oregon hills beyond from the grounds of the Maryhill Museum of Art, on the Washington side of the river. Photo: Laura Grimes
Looking over the Columbia River Gorge and the Oregon hills beyond from the grounds of the Maryhill Museum of Art, on the Washington side of the river. Photo: Laura Grimes

If ever a museum seemed an inevitable part of its physical space, Maryhill is it. And Sandgren’s painting and the other works in the twin temporary exhibitions The Columbia River: Wallula to the Sea and King Salmon: Contemporary Relief Prints speak resoundingly to that sense of place.

Yes, Maryhill has all sorts of works from far-flung places: its collection of Rodin sculptures; its array of international chess sets; Théâtre de la Mode, its fascinating collection of one-third life-sized mannequin displays featuring the haute couture fashions that helped revive the French fashion industry after World War II; handsome wooden furniture designed by Marie, Queen of Romania; a distinctive collection of Orthodox icon paintings; a small collection devoted to the legendary modern dancer Loïe Fuller (who donated most of the Rodin pieces in the museum’s collection), and more.

A street scene of French fashion mannequins in the Maryhill collection "Théâtre de la Mode." Photo: Laura Grimes
A street scene of French fashion mannequins in the Maryhill collection “Théâtre de la Mode.” Photo: Laura Grimes

 But even isolated places have multiple tentacles to the outside world, and several of those collections have strong localized connections. Fuller and Queen Marie, a niece of England’s Queen Victoria, were friends of Sam Hill, the entrepreneur and road builder who bought 5,300 acres along the Columbia River in 1907 with the intention of creating a Quaker farming community.

That utopian plan didn’t pan out. But eventually Hill’s woman friends (Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, wife of a San Francisco sugar magnate and a woman with many connections, some of which helped her gain the Théâtre de la Mode collection for Maryhill, was a third important friend and influence) persuaded Hill to transform the concrete home he’d had built above the Gorge into a museum, which finally opened in 1940. Similarly, the museum’s nearby replica of Stonehenge overlooking the Gorge is both local and international: It’s designed after the famous Neolithic site on England’s Salisbury Plain, but Hill had it built as a memorial for the 14 soldiers from Klickitat County, Wash., where the museum sits, who were killed during World War I.

An array of Plateau basketry from the museum's "Indigenous Peoples of North America" collection. Photo: Laura Grimes
An array of Plateau basketry from the museum’s “Indigenous Peoples of North America” collection. Photo: Laura Grimes

Both The Columbia River: Wallula to the Sea and King Salmon: Contemporary Relief Prints plant the museum firmly in the geology and cultures of its place along the Columbia River. So does its expansive permanent collection of Indigenous art, a large part of which is devoted to basketry and beadwork from the Columbia River Plateau.

“The Columbia River: Wallula to the Sea”

John Fery, "Columbia River," ca. 1925, oil on board, 39.5 x 20 inches. Collection of Maryhill Museum of Art; gift of the Washington Good Roads Association.
John Fery, “Columbia River,” ca. 1925, oil on board, 39.5 x 20 inches. Collection of Maryhill Museum of Art; gift of the Washington Good Roads Association.

Wallula to the Sea takes up a large part of the museum’s top floor and features the art of Sandgren and another Portland painter, Thomas Jefferson Kitts, amply supported by the work of many other artists current and past. The exhibit includes about 70 paintings and photographs (and one beautifully carved wood panel) of the life and land along the 300-mile stretch from Wallula Gap, near the confluence of the Columbia and Walla Walla rivers in southeastern Washington, and the Columbia’s western end at Astoria, Oregon, where its waters tumble into the Pacific Ocean.

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“It kind of morphed,” Steven L. Grafe, Maryhill’s curator since 2009 and the organizer of both new exhibitions, said of Wallula to the Sea. “Originally the upstairs show was going to be all historic, but that was a rabbit hole.”

The morphing, as things turned out, was a good thing: The free interplay of historical and contemporary artworks underscores the region’s movement through both time and space, and the ways in which it’s both changed and stayed the same. All art museums are in a way also history museums, even the ones that call themselves “modern” or “contemporary”: They reflect the cultures and beliefs of the times that created the art they display, and the ways in which our understandings of historical life and events shift and redefine themselves.

The river's consequence travels inland to the farmlands fed by its waters, too. Erik Sandgren, "The Dinosaurs of Dufur," 2020, acrylic on panel.
The river’s consequence travels inland to the farmlands fed by its waters, too. Erik Sandgren, “The Dinosaurs of Dufur,” 2020, acrylic on panel.

So we see in this exhibition, for instance, scenes of the once free-flowing river and scenes of the river tamed since the construction of its series of massive hydroelectric dams brought electrical power to farms and towns and cities even as it permanently altered Indigenous ways of life that had held sway for millennia. It’s the same place, but very different – and so is the art.

Many of Sandgren’s and Kitts’s artworks are recent, created just last year. That’s because of a certain flexibility and trust between the artists and the curator, who gave Kitts and Sandgren an unusual amount of freedom to create what they wished. “We were able to get grant money to just, have them go paint,” Grafe said.

And so they did, up and down the river’s expanse. It’s a strength of the exhibition that its two featured artists are stylistically very different: Both concerned with the land and the river and their people, but Sandgren an extrapolizer and reconfigurator of what he sees and Kitts more of a Romantic-influenced realist. The variety of their work opens up the exhibition to the differing styles and approaches of its many other contributors, creating a kind of patchwork effect of many visions – a single place energized by multiple minds and eyes.

John Mix Stanley, "Old Fort Walla Walla," 1853/1857, lithographers Sarony, Major & Knapp.
John Mix Stanley, “Old Fort Walla Walla,” 1853/1857, lithographers Sarony, Major & Knapp.

Wallula to the Sea tumbles back as far as 1853 and the artist John Mix Stanley’s lithograph Old Fort Walla Walla, which looks back to a scene of an Indigenous encampment outside the fort and forward to a radically altered future: Stanley’s lithograph is a plate from Isaac Ingalls Stevens’sNarrative and Final Report of Explorations for a Route for a Pacific Railroad, Near the Forty-Seventh Parallel of North Latitude, from St. Paul to Puget Sound.”

Left: Benjamin A. Gifford, “Natives Spearing Salmon on the Columbia River,” 1901, courtesy Benjamin A. Gifford Photographs, Oregon State University Archives, Corvallis. Right: Greg Robinson (Chinook Nation), Carved panel (Coyote narrative), 2023, yellow cedar, 23 x 32 inches.

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The exhibit includes photographs from 1901 and 1902 by Benjamin A. Gifford of Native fishermen spearing salmon on the Columbia and of a man viewing the important Indigenous fishing and gathering site of Celilo Falls, decades before it was obliterated by the rush of waters rising and backing up after completion of The Dalles Dam in 1957. Another form of water disaster viewed in retrospect, Chinook Nation artist Greg A. Robinson’s 2023 panel Journey, carved from yellow cedar with mother of pearl, depicts a stranded canoe in a traditional Coyote tale in which the trickster alters the flow of the Columbia River, much to the distress of its human population.

Left: Erik Sandgren, "Wind Boarders at the Hatchery," 2023, acrylic on panel. Right: Thomas Jefferson Kitts, "Yakama Dipping for Steelhead, Klickitat River," 2023, oil on panel.

Left: Erik Sandgren, “Wind Boarders at the Hatchery,” 2023, acrylic on panel. Right: Thomas Jefferson Kitts, “Yakama Dipping for Steelhead, Klickitat River,” 2023, oil on panel.

Kitts’s 2023 painting Yakama Dipping for Steelhead, Klickitat River and Sandgren’s 2023 acrylic Wind Boarders at the Hatchery create a nice juxtaposition of ancient and contemporary uses of the river – one for sustenance, one for recreation. And The Dalles by Night and Blustery Day, a pair of small recent oil paintings on panel by Melanie Thompson that are infused with deep color or clouded light, speak to contemporary life along the river.

Thomas Jefferson Kitts, "Playing Around the Wreck of the Peter Iredale, Warrenton, OR," 2023, oil on linen panel.
Thomas Jefferson Kitts, “Playing Around the Wreck of the Peter Iredale, Warrenton, OR,” 2023, oil on linen panel.

Another of Kitts’s 2023 paintings, Playing Around the Wreck of the Peter Iredale, Warrenton, OR, follows the river to its far western juncture and a scene of kids frolicking on the beach around the skeletal remains of the ship that famously ran aground in 1906 during a heavy wind and fog and was abandoned on the Clatsop Spit, four miles south of the mouth of the Columbia. On the river, one both remembers and forgets about the disasters of the past, which become repurposed and part of an ever-evolving story.

“King Salmon: Contemporary Relief Prints”

Richard C. Harrington, "Our Rivers Are Paved," 2020, hand-pulled woodblock print, Edition 19/100.
Richard C. Harrington, “Our Rivers Are Paved,” 2020, hand-pulled woodblock print, Edition 19/100.

The more compact companion exhibition King Salmon, in a side gallery on the museum’s main floor, consists of a healthy handful of contemporary woodcuts and linocuts added to the museum’s collections in the past 10 years, and they make for a good matching set. The labor- and craft-intensive medium of the print matches the museum’s down-to-earth personality well, and there is plenty of pleasure to be found in these admirable combinations of art and craft. Once again, the artworks are centered on the river and the fish and their impact on the everyday lives of the people of the Columbia watershed.

Charlotte Van Zant-King, "Chinook at Celilo Falls," 2012, linoleum block print and watercolor, Edition: 21/100.
Charlotte Van Zant-King, “Chinook at Celilo Falls,” 2012, linoleum block print and watercolor, Edition: 21/100.

It’s good to see a linoleum block print by the late and missed Dennis Cunningham, of Beacon Rock on the Columbia’s north shore about 30 miles west of Vancouver, Wash., and Charlotte Van Zant-King’s Chinook at Celilo Falls, with a beautifully colored fish leaping against the waves and a pair of net fishermen in the background. A large woodblock print by Richard C. Harrington of a salmon, the bottom of the print emblazoned with the words “Our Rivers Are Paved with the Dams of Our Good Intentions,” serves as a lament for the environmental and cultural loss of the free-flowing rivers.

Dennis Cunningham, "'B' Is for Beacon," ca. 1995, linoleum block print, Edition: AP
Dennis Cunningham, “‘B’ Is for Beacon,” ca. 1995, linoleum block print, Edition: AP

Looking toward Maryhill’s future

The paired exhibits The Columbia River: Wallula to the Sea and King Salmon: Contemporary Relief Prints, and the museum’s permanent Indigenous art collection, support a core truth about the Columbia River and its gorge: They have for centuries been not a divide but a unifying force, attracting and helping to develop a culture of people on both sides of the river, which is a common source of sustenance, transportation, and patterns of life.

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Two recent large Maryhill Museum projects underscored the river’s unifying effect: 2019’s “Exquisite Gorge,” bringing together artists and townspeople from both sides of the river to create a 66-foot-long print of life along the river; and 2021’s followup “Exquisite Gorge II,” which did the same with fabric artists. Friderike Heuer followed both projects with series of stories for ArtsWatch, here and here.

Phil Kooser, "The Rhythms of Celilo," ca. 1990, opaque watercolor on board. Courtesy of Yakima Valley Museum, Yakima, Wash.
Phil Kooser, “The Rhythms of Celilo,” ca. 1990, opaque watercolor on board. Courtesy of Yakima Valley Museum, Yakima, Wash.

Geologically and humanly speaking, the political line drawn down the center of the river to separate the states of Washington and Oregon is artificial, although it has multiple consequences, both legal and financial.

Amy Behrens, who took over as Maryhill’s executive director last August, replacing Colleen Schafroth, who retired after 37 years at the museum, is well aware of the distinction. The museum is on the north bank of the Columbia, not far from the town of Goldendale, Wash., and yet a healthy percentage of its visitors come from the other side of the river in Oregon.

Indeed, Behrens will be spending this Saturday evening, April 20, in Portland at the Oregon Historical Society, meeting and greeting friends and supporters of Maryhill who live in greater Portland. Such visitations to individuals and potential donors are important to the museum’s continued stability and growth: As a Washington state museum, Maryhill isn’t eligible for funding from the State of Oregon, even though many of the people who use the museum are Oregonians. Some foundations also stick to their own side of the border when making funding decisions; others are more geographically embracing.

Behrens arrived at Maryhill from southern California, where she had been executive director of Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens in San Clemente. While there she was credited with more than doubling membership in four years, tripling cultural programs to almost 150 a year, increasing the annual operating budget by almost $500,000, and guiding the center through Covid disruptions and the challenge of a major landslide.

Those skills are core to Maryhill’s future as well. As with arts and cultural institutions across the nation, Covid shutdowns had a major effect at Maryhill, too, Behrens said, affecting admissions, “and that affected the cash flow.” During the tight times some staff jobs were combined, and repairs that weren’t necessary for safety had to be delayed. The museum’s café, which had been shut down during the hard Covid years, reopened last year.

Her task, she said, is bringing long-term financial stability to the museum, and “getting people excited about it again.” Things are looking up across the museum world, she added: “It looks like maybe two-thirds of museums have now recovered to pre-pandemic attendance. But it’s harder in rural areas.”

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The museum’s endowment stands at a little over $2.25 million, and “we have that as a fallback,” Behrens said. But she hopes to build stronger support, partly by deepening education relationships with schools in the region and strengthening relationships with people who live on both sides of the Gorge. “Our contributions are still strong,” she said. “People have been generous. That’s really good to see.”

Reagan Boysen's acrylic on canvas "Solar Eclipse" was named Best of Show at Maryhill's 2024 "Teachers As Artists" exhibit. Boysen teaches at Twin Falls Middle School, North Bend, Wash. Principal: Jeff D’Ambrosio.
Aubrey Park, “SHE DID: Go to therapy, Say no, Sign the papers, Speak up, Rest, Take up space, Book the trip to Italy, Choose people who chose her, Stop over-functioning,” in Maryhill’s 2024 “Teachers As Artists” exhibit. Acrylic on canvas, 72” x 48”

“We are starting that rebound process,” and need to accelerate it, she said. She and the museum have a good base to build on, she noted: She’s met a lot of people in her few months at Maryhill, and “it’s really interesting how many people have a Maryhill connection,” often from education programs. The museum’s popular annual “Teachers As Artists” exhibition, which showcases work by art teachers in Oregon and Washington, closes April 17, and the museum’s education space is almost always busy: “This is our gallery that has the most turnover.” Portraits Across Borders, a show of visual and language arts by students at Goldendale High School in Washington and Crook County Middle School in Prineville, Oregon, will open June 1 and run through July 31.

Another event that’ll have the museum hopping is its annual Pacific Northwest Plein Air show April 28-May 27. The enthusiasm works two ways: For a few days beforehand about 40 artists will be busily creating paintings in the open air in the Gorge. Then they’ll bring their works to the museum, and visitors can buy them off the wall and take them home immediately.

Strengthening such connections, Behrens believes, is a path to the future: “What I think about a lot is, establishing a pattern” – getting people, and kids, to visit regularly rather than making it a once-a-year thing.

Tweaking the collections

A view into Maryhill's Indigenous art collection, with a quotation from Navajo/Warm Springs/Wasco/Yakama writer Elizabeth Woody, a former Oregon poet laureate. Photo: Laura Grimes
A view into Maryhill’s Indigenous art collection, with a quotation from Navajo/Warm Springs/Wasco/Yakama writer Elizabeth Woody, a former Oregon poet laureate. Photo: Laura Grimes

Any smart museum is constantly assessing what it has, what it needs, how to build on its strengths or fill gaps, and how it should be presenting its works. Lately, Grafe has been thinking about fashion and costuming — an area of collecting by the museum that covers a lot of territory.

There are the popular French fashion displays of Théâtre de la Mode, of course. But the museum also has much more: Romanian and other Balkan folk costumes thanks to the Queen Marie connection; some fine examples of beaded and other Native American dress; high-fashion period hats and miniature dresses from French designers and an Idaho department store collection. Grafe would like to expand the museum’s collection of Mexican and Central American textiles, and sees it as a way of connecting with Maryhill’s home territory. “About 26 percent of our local population is Hispanic,” he noted.

Left: Carved and painted wood mask, unknown Yup’ik artist, western Alaska, 1970s. Right: Fancy gut parka, St. Lawrence Island Yup’ik maker, early 20th century. Seal or walrus intestines, auklet crests, seal fur, cormorant feathers, sinews, thread. Photos: Laura Grimes

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Grafe and Behrens both are also interested in expanding the museum’s showings of work by contemporary Indigenous artists. Wandering through the museum’s Indigenous People of North America galleries, some changes are already evident. A new gut parka from western Alaska has replaced an older one that had deteriorated, for instance: It’s an example of both fine costuming and practical craftsmanship.

Perhaps most noticeable is the brighter, more inviting canvas-banner column decorations in the Indigenous galleries. “We took photo details of objects that are on display in the gallery and blew them up to make the room look a little less austere,” Grafe said. They replace old black & white reproductions of Edward S. Curtis photos, which also haven’t worn well with the growing realization that Curtis posed his Indigenous subjects in costuming of his choosing, not what they themselves would wear. (In 2016 the Portland Art Museum showed a fascinating exhibition, Contemporary Native Photographers and the Edward Curtis Legacy, that explored the growing dissatisfaction with his work.) Maryhill’s new banners are improvements both visually — they lighten the galleries — and culturally.

What comes next? “Next winter,” Grafe noted, “I hope to install a video monitor in there so that we can showcase the faces and voices of living artists.”

***

Maryhill Museum of Art 2024

  • Season: March 15-Nov. 15
  • Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily
  • Where: 35 Maryhill Museum of Art Drive, Goldendale, Wash, overlooking the Columbia River Gorge about 100 miles east of Portland
  • Seasonal exhibit: “The Columbia River: Wallula to the Sea,” through Nov. 15
  • Seasonal exhibit: “King Salmon: Contemporary Relief Prints,” through Nov. 15
  • Seasonal exhibit: “Pacific Northwest Plein Air,” April 28-May 27
  • Permanent exhibits: Explore here
  • Ticket information: See here
  • Museum website: maryhillmuseum.org

The museum viewed from the north. Photo courtesy Maryhill Museum of Art.
The museum viewed from the north. Photo courtesy Maryhill Museum of Art.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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