Oregon journalist and photographer Bob Keefer tells the following story in an essay for the exhibition at Umpqua Valley Arts that he co-curated with Tiffany Hokanson. It’s a better introduction to the exhibition than anything I could come up with, so here it is:
A couple decades ago, when I was just getting my feet under me as a newspaper arts writer at The Register-Guard, the Portland Art Museum put on the Oregon Biennial, an exhibit showing the best work from around the state. Or so it was billed.
I headed for Portland. After viewing the Biennial, I had a question: Why did all the best artists in the state apparently live in Portland? OK, a very few lived in Eugene and Salem, and there might have been a retired university art professor living on the coast. But where were all the working artists from Bandon and Burns and Baker City? Weren’t there any artists in Cottage Grove and Roseburg? How about Astoria? Frenchglen?
There are artists in those and many more tiny towns and unincorporated communities around Oregon, but distance and geography is such that their work is perhaps less likely to appear in the slick gallery spaces of Portland and other cities.
So Keefer and Hokanson, a printmaker and sculptor based in Roseburg, teamed up to bring Rural to Umpqua Valley Arts in that city. It is an ambitious show featuring nearly a hundred pieces in the Hallie Brown Ford Gallery, a smaller gallery and the long corridor that spans nearly the length of the building. Rural runs through Aug. 19.
Roseburg, a city of little more than 23,000 people, is one of the largest towns whose artists have work in the show. Seventeen Rural artists call Roseburg home, and the rest are from all over Oregon: Blue River, Florence, Oakland, Glide, Elmira, Cottage Grove, Cheshire, Scappoose, Lorane, Cove, Lostine, Myrtle Creek, Tillamook, Oregon City, Coos Bay, Selma, La Grande, Athens, Coquille, and many others. Oregon City is represented, but that’s about as large as it gets.
The show’s mission is made clear in the notes:
During this time of unimaginable and rapid change when the URBAN | RURAL differences are highlighted in political rhetoric and policies, artwork created in Oregon’s rural areas offers the possibility of connecting with those parts of Oregon considered remote and removed. We look to bridge urban and rural differences for greater understanding.
The exhibition is a mix of visual art, sculpture, pottery, woodwork, fabric arts, and other media. Aside from a watercolor of a T-shirt-clad man going to work on a log with a chainsaw, the barnyard-themed collection in the smaller Red Door Gallery across the hall, and several other pieces, there really is little to suggest an obvious regionalist “terroir” to be found here. This is not “cowboy art.”
Landscapes and scenes of nature abound, but they don’t all announce “Eastern Oregon!” A dandelion, for example, can just as easily be found along a curb in Portland as anywhere else in the state, but photographer Katie Royce of Cottage Grove takes one as her subject in what Hokanson terms an artistic mission that encourages one “to pause, admire, and soak in the extraordinary.”
Along those same lines, “extraordinary” seems the right word for a large oil painting by North Bend artist Becky Eddy Phillips. Her Incanto has as its central image a dead tree with its gnarled root system exposed, with a field of more dead trees in the background. One might conclude this is a burned forest, except the wood is a ghostly green, giving the entire scene a fantastical quality. It might easily be an illustration for a tale with wizards, elves, and gnomes.
There are also Janet Geib Pretti’s delightfully weird bronze and wood figures seated on a bench, hand-in-hand, and Ashley Cluver’s “Proper” Marks painting that depicts the marks left by a brassiere on a woman’s body.
The question of whether art produced in “parts of Oregon considered remote and removed” (by the rest of us who are squeezed into larger cities) represents a unique vision made possible only by physically occupying those spaces is a complicated one. Keefer replies with a nuance that is informed by his familiarity with both urban and rural Oregon. Even last weekend, he was traveling in Eastern Oregon.
“I agree to a large degree about the frequent cheap pretensions of regionalism,” he told me. “When we think of rural art, we naturally slide into easy clichés — pioneer father and mother, Deliverance-style banjo plucking, homespun crafts, and so on. This, at best, is the Disney version of the urban/rural divide.
“That said, I think there is a distinct difference between the world views of — and the visual art produced by — urbanites and rural people in the U.S. and in Oregon. I spend a lot of time in Eastern Oregon and fully understand the skepticism felt by residents of Harney County when university-educated urban experts show up and tell them how to manage their land and resources, and what kind of art they should enjoy. One example of the difference: It’s harder to grasp the larger issues of looming environmental disaster when you look out daily on an uninterrupted and unsullied horizon.”
If there’s any theme or intentionality to be found in the show, Hokanson touches on one that seems appropriate. “Through their work, these artists ask us to slow down and look closer,” she writes in the show notes.
“What I hope you see here is in the details,” she says. “It is the slowing down of time. Walk, don’t run through this show. Put down your cell phone. Look closely, unmediated. Experience this work through the tool marks, the surface texture and the materiality. Listen for it. Wait for it … something is here for you. You just have to listen.”
Keefer adds: “Perhaps ‘rural art’ means not only art that is produced by people living in rural areas, but art that makes sense in a world of rural values. That’s a good deal more nuanced than defining it simply by subject matter.”
The essays by Hokanson and Keefer are absolutely essential reading, and the latter is candid in his piece about acknowledging the show’s few shortcomings, which perhaps could be addressed in future exhibitions of this kind, which he’d like to see. There is little Indigenous art, for example, and for the most part it “doesn’t show much of a social conscience.”
Regardless of the subject matter or themes — either intended or perceived — it is an absorbing show the visitor should plan on spending the better part of an hour with. You will, as I did, find yourself drifting back to certain pieces. Selma’s Charles Churchill has a cool mixed-media assemblage, Count Zero, that resembles a large book opened to reveal a liminal zone of wood and metal that is vaguely mechanical and geometric, yet old and chaotic. Karen Glassman of Roseburg has a stunning acrylic, Umpqua Hills: Archie Creek Wildfire Series. It’s small, only 12 by 12 inches, but draws you into the boldly colored dreamscape like a portal. From Athens there’s an arresting mezzotint print titled Deforestation by Vanessa Jo Bahr that tackles its subject by arranging the imagery — tree roots, fungi, ferns and a moose skull — in more or less symmetrical fashion. And it’s virtually impossible not to find yourself planted momentarily next to the show’s formidable first prize winner, a 96-inch-tall wood-and-lacquer sculpture by John Richey of Cove.
Keefer said he’d like to see a repeat, and given the high level of interest by artists around Oregon (more than 800 works were submitted) that seems doable. Perhaps a traveling show that hits galleries all over the state? Umpqua Valley Arts speaks of building bridges between urban and rural, so hopefully this is just the start of a larger, uniquely Oregon, project.