Nine days before the June 7 grand opening of The Elisabeth Jones Art Center on the Pearl District’s western stretch, a kind of controlled chaos is in the air. The racket of a power drill ricochets off the high ceilings of this sprawling post-industrial space as Hugh Russell, an artist and the center’s house carpenter, screws sheetrock into wooden frames against a wall that will soon be hung with artworks. Shae Uisna, the new center’s assistant director, sits in a folding chair with a notebook in her hands, a phone in her lap, and a list of things to get done.
Two large fabric sculptures, made from remnants of tents used at the Dakota Access oil-pipeline standoff near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation that spreads across several counties in North and South Dakota, hang from the ceiling of the art center’s main gallery like soft-sided pyramids or upside-down tipis. A giant section of old-growth fir log, a good ton’s worth of tight-grained wood destined to be hewn into a canoe, sits on a frame of 4x4s by the wide garage doors that open to the sidewalk in front of Northwest 14th Avenue. Across the street a giant hole-in-the-ground construction site is swiftly filling in and rising, extending the bustling neighborhood’s urban infill and insulating the art center from the streak of Interstate 405 beyond 15th Avenue a block west.
John Teply, the art center’s director and guiding force, emerges from the door to a spacious gallery/workspace called The Project Room, wincing just a bit from a sore toe that had blown up with a giant blister somewhere along the 12 miles he walked during North Portland’s recent St. Johns Parade, for which he was this year’s chair. Teply is a longtime working artist himself, and his hands and sleeves are spattered with a rainbow of paint, bright evidence of the “working” part of “working artist.”
Teply and his crew are in the midst of a double deadline: getting ready to open a major show, The Condor and the Eagle: Moving Forward After Standing Rock, and opening the brand new Elisabeth Jones Art Center itself. As hectic as things appear on the surface, both projects seem to be moving along nicely, with a huge amount of progress since my first walkthrough of the space three weeks before. There’s still a lot of maneuvering to do to get the plane on the ground, but the tires are lowered and the runway’s in sight.
Teply begins to walk around the 4,000-square-foot center, which is named for San Francisco Bay Area writer and philanthropist Elisabeth Jones, a longtime friend of Teply and financial contributor to the Portland venture. He points things out: the soft sculptures, the fir log, a cascade of water trickling down a stretch of polyurethane tacked to a wall, creating a shimmer as images from the Standing Rock encampment are projected on the plastic above a pool on the floor. A mock-scale billboard stands mid-gallery, maybe eight feet tall, like one that would sit at the side of a miniature highway on any of a thousand lonesome stretches of the West. He moves to one of the hanging pyramids, by Cherokee/Creek/Osage artist Yatika Starr Fields, and bends down, peering upward into the small hole at the bottom. “He says you can see a lot looking inside, too,” Teply comments. “Go ahead. Take a look.”
The art center’s web site succinctly describes the crucial idea behind The Condor and the Eagle: “The questions we are asking are, ‘What has happened since Standing Rock? How have things changed? How do we move forward?’” That inquiry fits ideally with a lot of what Teply and the Elisabeth Jones center aim to do: make a home for art that is socially engaged, attuned to environmental issues, active and participatory, and aesthetically well-made.
And the questions are potent. The Dakota Access Pipeline, designed to carry oil 1,172 miles from the controversial Bakken oil fields in North Dakota beneath the Missouri and Mississippi rivers to southern Illinois, sparked dissent as soon as it was proposed. Tribal members and environmentalists protested that it ran perilously close to the reservation’s water supplies (it had been routed away from the city of Bismark, N.D., for a similar reason) and burial grounds. In April 2016 the Sacred Stone Camp was set up for protesters, who began to pour in from across the country and the world. Eventually the Obama administration blocked the easement to run the pipeline below the Missouri River. But pipeline advocates were strong and adamant, and had plenty of official backing. At various times armed and sometimes riot-geared soldiers and police were deployed against protesters; at one crucial point private security squads used pepper spray and attack dogs against protesters as pipeline workers bulldozed a two-mile-long swath through land thought to contain burial sites and ancient artifacts. When President Trump took office he almost immediately reversed the Obama administration’s ban. National Guard and police evicted the remaining protesters, and oil began to flow through the completed Dakota pipeline on May 17, 2017. Fears of major spills remain strong. The Keystone Pipeline, a major link of which Trump revived on the same day he revived the Dakota Access line, has had far more accidents than projected, including a 210,000 gallon spill in South Dakota in November 2017 – enough to give 15,000 cars a 14-gallon fill-up.
“This is a national show,” Teply says of The Condor and the Eagle, and it is, with a broad cross-section of prominent Native American artists from across the country, many of whom spent time at the Standing Rock encampment. Chase Iron Eyes, director of the Lakota People’s Law Project, also will be at the June 7 opening to speak. How did Teply gather all of these artists together? “I knew some,” he says, “and then they talked to people they knew, too.”
The 16 participating artists, several of whom have been or will be in Portland, include the multidisciplinary Cheyenne/Arapaho artist and Venice Biennale veteran Edgar Heap of Birds; Cannupa Hanska Luger, who was born on the Standing Rock reservation and produced the mirrored shields that helped protect activists on the front lines; clay and multidisciplinary artist Nora Naranjo Morse, from New Mexico’s Santa Clara Pueblo-Tewa, who built the small-scale billboard; and Onandaga carver and paddler Hickory Edwards, who will be in Portland to turn the exhibition’s fir log into a canoe.
Inside The Project Room another key aspect of the opening exhibitions is unfolding. The space is scattered with several paintings-in-process, each based on comments submitted by artists who spent time at Standing Rock. Each represents a story, a response, an observation, a starting point, and each story is being turned into a work of art. One artist starts each painting, then moves on. A succession of others follows, as many as 10, each in turn altering the work until “authorship” no longer matters – it’s a group process, a kind of slow-motion performance art in paint, a creative collaboration echoing the ways that groups and social movements begin, grow, evolve. “You will discover I have projects in which my traditional drawings and paintings are worked on in collaboration with others: puzzled, torn apart, painted out – then repainted, often in public performance,” Teply notes on his web site.
At the moment three artists are reworking paintings in The Project Room. Two young painters, Gates Callanan and Rachel Stone, are working on a trio of long narrow paintings with clouds, sunflowers, and women’s figures. The group process – painting over someone else’s work, only to have someone else paint over yours in turn – is just fine, Callanan comments, because you know beforehand that’s what’s going to happen. In a way it takes some pressure off. Another artist, Joanne Kollman, is moving with her brushes between a couple of paintings. What does she think about the whole group thing? She laughs a little. She spent years as a commercial illustrator, she says; she’s used to having lots of fingers in the pie.
A few steps away a small painting of a bird, a Streaked Horned Lark, is sitting on an easel. The bird engages Teply not simply as a model for an artwork but as a representative of something being lost – its natural grassland habitat, to development and the spread of urbanism. The Streaked Horned Lark was listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened in 2013, when an estimated 2,000 were all that remained in the world, with the largest concentrations at airports. Teply would like more bird paintings at the art center, maybe a different one every month, to keep the issue fresh: “I mean. A world without these creatures? We had them, and now we won’t? Breaks my heart.”
In a small side office, art center associate Zachary Rossman is sitting behind a folding table looking at a large computer screen, smoothly moving from site to site. He calls up the home page of artist Naranjo Morse, whose small-scale billboard is standing in the main gallery, and shows pictures of the real things splayed across the vast empty stretches of the West, incursions on incursions. In one, on traditionally tribal Arizona desert land broken by the tall smokestacks of a coal power plant, a large billboard spells out what you’re seeing:
Arizona Public Service Co.
Cholla Power Plant
Next to it, standing a little higher, with large painted traditional Southwest figures to the left side and big type on the right, is Naranjo Morse’s response:
“She mentions our show on her web site, too,” Rossman points out. “That’s really nice.” Indeed, The Condor and the Eagle is displayed prominently on Morse’s home page.
Teply heads upstairs from The Project Room to a large loft that he once thought would become his office but now suspects will be mostly a storage room. It holds a lot of overflow already, including a guitar case and construction supplies. Several paintings from the center’s recent plein air painting project in St. Johns lean against two walls. The Elisabeth Jones center gave ten artists (among them Kollman, one of the artists busily painting below) $200 each to paint open-air pictures of specific trees in the St. Johns neighborhood that they believe are susceptible to being taken down to make way for future development projects.
What seem like traditional landscape paintings are also part of the Elisabeth Jones commitment to socially and environmentally active art. Another crew of artists will go out again in August to paint the same trees, and perhaps more crews after them. “It’s about caring for specific trees,” Teply says. “So you have to keep people thinking about those specific trees.” A second part of the project, he adds, is interaction with the trees’ owners or others who might play a role in their fate: “You agree to send two postcards and make one phone call.”
As The Condor and the Eagle nears its opening, other plans and projects are everywhere. Teply wants to revive a project he’d begun in California in the 1990s to have artists create paintings from every mile of the West Coast, from the Mexican to the Canadian borders. And the ongoing project A World Without Ice considers the plight of polar bears as climate change warms the poles and significantly alters their environment. He pulls out a large painting of a polar bear, by the Portland featured artist Mark Larson, that’s leaning in a hallway. It’ll be on display in a small showing of Larson’s work at the center’s opening. (“With the Arctic melting at an alarming rate,” Larson notes on his web site about Ice Ice Maybe, another of his polar bear paintings, “I imagined a polar bear roaming into the nearest town, looking for ice at a convenience store.”) Another polar bear painting, part of the collaborative project in The Project Room, will be on view for six weeks. Then it’ll be painted over, its disappearance standing as a metaphor for the disappearance of the polar bear. “We’ll be destroying something that’s quite beautiful,” Teply says. “But it’s just a painting, after all.” So it will exist only in reproductions? “And memory,” Uisna swiftly adds.
The polar bear project is similar to another experiment in social/environmental artmaking, Wingspread, that Teply spearheaded in California’s Santa Cruz County in the 1980s. He created a large outdoor painting, roughly 20 x 30 feet, and then had a bulldozer raze it as onlookers watched, aghast. “This was at about the time that one of Van Gogh’s paintings was sold for a quadrillion dollars,” he says wryly. “And if anyone had done anything to that painting there would’ve been an outcry. But land, and its habitat …” He lets the thought trail off and sink in. “If you do activist work you’re used to a lot of unhappy endings,” he continues. “But this had a happy ending. The land is a state park now.”
Planning, provisionality, and public impact seem near the heart of the Elisabeth Jones enterprise – a belief that art is an action, a group agreement, a social intermingling with the world surrounding it. Teply points to the example of the artist Christo, who with his late partner and wife Jeanne-Claude created large-scale environmental artworks ranging from Running Fence across California’s Sonoma and Marin counties to the wrapping of the Reichstag in Berlin. “One of the things about Christo is all the talking he had to do to get his projects made,” Teply says. “There’s something very creative about that. I think he found that people were willing to be engaged. The critical part of it is that it has to be a community project.” He pauses for his core aesthetic impulse to catch up, then adds, about his goals for the Elisabeth Jones: “And it also has to be something that I can put in the gallery.”
FOUR DAYS LATER, on Saturday, June 2, with just five days until Thursday’s opening, I drop by the Elisabeth Jones Art Center again. Hickory Edwards, the Onandaga woodworker from central New York, has been in town since Friday to transform the giant fir log into a dugout canoe. He’s a compact, friendly, muscular man wearing a glove on one hand for ax-swinging, and already he’s discovered a difference between the heavy, tight-grained Douglas fir of the Pacific Northwest and the lighter, more malleable Eastern woodlands poplar that he’s used to carving: On his first day in Portland he broke off part of his ax blade, embedding it in the block. Usually he does everything manually; because of time constraints he’s used power tools to rough out this canoe’s basic curve.
Edwards started paddling the rivers and streams of the Northeast ten years or more ago, and soon he began wondering how people used to build their canoes. No one seemed to know, so he started figuring it out for himself. He’s helping revive an ancient art, he figures, at least in contemporary terms. Before birch bark, he says – in the Americas, across Europe, anywhere people traveled river routes – dugouts were how people got around.
Edwards made several trips to Standing Rock, and constructed the famous signpost that stood in the encampment until the bitter end, when troops moved in on protesters and, as he recalls, “were shooting at us.” He and the signpost, which is now in the collection of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., both made it out.
“ ‘When some people would come to the camp,’” Edwards told the Smithsonian Magazine, “ ‘they’d look around in awe. Where did all these people come from?’ The answer, he says, was simple. ‘We came from everywhere. All around the world, all four corners of the earth.’ Speaking on the humble post he planted in the dirt of Standing Rock, whose myriad of custom signs now perfectly embodies his point, Edwards stresses that the symbol is not his alone to claim. ‘This belongs to everybody,’ he says. ‘I just gave everybody a vessel to express themselves.’”
Meanwhile, in the Elisabeth Jones Art Center’s entryway, Ricardo Caté is sitting in a corner mixing paints and working on a couple of small paintings to take with him to a powwow in Beaverton later in the day. He’s been painting large bright cartoon panels on the center’s white walls, quick punchy political jokes that have made him famous as America’s most widely followed Native American cartoonist. His panel Without Reservations runs six days a week in the Santa Fe New Mexican, and is eagerly awaited by native and non-native readers alike: the paper’s editors say it’s the most popular comic they print. Caté’s humor often comes with a sting. “The dominant culture is everywhere,” he told Les Daly in an interview for the magazine El Palacio. “It’s not really negative, it is just a formidable foe. The dominant culture just reminds me that there is this force that I have to adapt to and make my way through while remaining myself.”
Caté spent four months off and on at the Standing Rock protests, taking supplies and doing whatever needed to be done: “Chopped wood. Chopped onions.” He taught art and history at the Standing Rock school – “this makeshift school out there. It was very nice. And I got to learn some Lakota. That was good.”
What happened at Standing Rock, he says, didn’t die when the protests ended: “We all went back to our respective tribes with what we’d learned.” Nor did the battle end when the Dakota pipeline project went through. “Things happen in our own backyard. There’s fracking on my reservation now,” Caté says, referring to the environmentally controversial process of extracting oil and gas from shale by hydraulically fracturing the rock with massive streams of high-pressure water, sand, and chemicals. “They’re trying to bring fracking.”
In a way, he adds, Standing Rock was crucial: “We took a stand and we had the backing of the world! It was just amazing how that happened. We may have lost the battle but we haven’t lost the war. We just keep on fighting.”
Caté, and the Elisabeth Jones Art Center, are on a roll. Opening day is just around the bend.
Elisabeth Jones Art Center
Grand opening reception
- 5-8 p.m. Thursday, June 7
- 516 N.W. 14th Ave., Portland
- Chase Iron Eyes, director of the Lakota People’s Law Project, will speak at 8 p.m.