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The Oregon Story: Art and the land

Barbara Sellers-Young's book "Artists Activating Sustainability: The Oregon Story" tells a tale of the state's artists as leaders in environmental awareness.


An eagle fabricated out of plastic and other detritus gathered from the ocean and beaches. Photo courtesy Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea.

“OREGON: THE LAND OF EDEN,” declares the header over a subsection of Barbara Sellers-Young’s introduction to her book Artists Activating Sustainability: The Oregon Story. Ah, but which Eden? And which story? The story of a garden in perfect balance with nature? Or the story of a garden despoiled, to the point that its human despoilers must be banished if it is to regain its harmony?

Neither, as it turns out. Rather, something precariously between: the story of a paradise lost, or threatened, and of the struggle to find a sustainable sweet spot between exploitation of the land and living within its natural rhythms. And Oregon’s artists, Sellers-Young argues, are playing a vital role in finding the balance.

Sellers-Young, who grew up outside Grants Pass surrounded by farms leading to timberland, eventually left Oregon for an academic career focused on dance and theater, in classrooms and deanships at institutions including York University in Toronto and the University of California, Davis. Upon retiring she moved back to Oregon, and began to think long and hard about how we use and abuse the land.

Might Oregon be a model for getting things right? As enthusiastic as she can be about the nature-oriented work of Oregon artists in places ranging from Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts to Sitka Center for Art and Ecology to Astoria’s FisherPoets scene and even the Oregon Country Fair, Sellers-Young is hardly wearing rose-tinted glasses.

She begins her story by recounting the February day in 2020 that “brought a convoy of trucks driving through the streets of Salem and around Oregon’s capital building honking their horns” in a protest organized by the group Timber Unity, representing “foresters, loggers, ranchers, truckers, miners, fishermen and farmers” opposed to environmental legislation that could threaten their livelihoods. And yet: In September of the same year, she continues, “a wind storm swept through Oregon’s drought-ridden forests along the western Cascade Range downing trees and power lines and setting off the worst fires in Oregon’s history. The fires killed at least 10 people, burned more than 1,000,000 acres and destroyed hundreds of homes.”

If this was Eden, it was an Eden on fire. Yet the cultural and political divide persists. To a great degree it is a split, she emphasizes, between rural people who live from the land and the state’s urban dwellers, who consume goods as they push for stricter environmental measures in the face of heightened concern over climate change. People in rural areas resent urbanites’ political clout and ability to shape laws determining what rural Oregonians can and can’t do. Urban voters and environmentalists see rural forces as roadblocks to necessary environmental reforms.


Portland Playhouse A Christmas Carol Portland Oregon

Can the split be healed? Sellers-Young takes inspiration from the successive governorships of Republican Tom McCall and Democrat Robert Straub between 1967 and 1979, when they led state government through a wave of environmental reforms. What they began, she believes, can be and is being built upon—and artists are part of it all, if not in making public policy, in altering perceptions of what’s desirable and possible.

So we meet, in these pages, people such as Angela Hazeltine Pozzi, who established Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea, in Bandon. The ocean waters and the Bandon beaches were choked with plastic and other flotsam, parts of the vast islands of plastics fouling the ocean waters globally and killing essential life forms. What could be done? Well, she decided, you could gather the plastic, sort it, and turn it into art: large-scale statues of turtles or polar bears or octopus. As David Goldstein wrote in a 2017 story for ArtsWatch, and Lori Tobias wrote a year ago about a Washed Ashore project in Lincoln City, the project combines education and art, creating beauty and changing people’s perceptions as it helps clean the beaches. And the idea has spread to other places, as have the plastic statues themselves, which have been commissioned by zoos, aquariums, and museums.

Sellers-Young introduces a lot of other people and programs, too, some of them well-known and some happy surprises. There is pianist Hunter Noack, whose “In a Landscape” concerts roam Oregon and other parts of the West in a variety of open and wilderness spaces; and the murals in the eastern Oregon town of Vale, first stop in Oregon on the Oregon Trail.

We learn of the legacy, in the far eastern Oregon city of Ontario, of the Japanese dancer Kanriye Fujima, born in 1924 near Hiroshima, moving to Portland in 1956, and to Ontario in 1959 after marrying Ontario resident Minoru Fujita. Ontario had a good-sized Japanese American population of mostly agricultural workers, and Kanriye began teaching dance, eventually in Ontario, Spokane, and Portland. Her influence was perhaps environmental in a broader sense, opening minds and creating friendships following the anti-Japanese sentiments and internment camps during World War II, and the longer history of deeply rooted anti-Asian bias in Oregon, as R. Gregory Nokes detailed in his book Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon, which investigates the slaughter of as many as 34 Chinese gold miners in 1887 and its decades-long coverup.

Landscape near Crow’s Shadow Institute of Arts. Photo: Joe Cantrell

One of the great perplexities of life in the Pacific Northwest is the competing vision of the land as a source of life and as a resource to be harvested. Many people struggle to balance the two: how to honor and protect a place while also taking from it? Sellers-Young writes about the painter and printmaker James Lavadour, Walla Walla, who cofounded Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts on the Umatilla Indian Reservation near Pendleton. Lavadour’s art straddles the geological and the abstract, aiming for the sensory effect of the land he knows so deeply and an awareness of its immensity and power, Sellers-Young suggests: He “activates our imaginations and asks us to contemplate the ecological history of the landscape and by extension our embodied relationship to it and ultimately what it means to sustain it.”

We learn of programs including Sanctuary Stage, in the mid-Willamette Valley, which helps “micro-communities” of ethnic, religious, gender, or other affinity create plays that give them their own voice; and of the fusion of scientific and artistic exploration at Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, on the north coast; and the coming-together of artistry, sustainability, and landscape architecture in Salem’s Lord & Schryver Conservancy and gardens. Sellers-Young writes extensively about the significant environmental art focus under director John Teply of Portland’s Elisabeth Jones Arts Center, which has recently changed leadership and renamed itself Parallax Arts Center, maintaining emphases on social justice and environmental protection; Teply continues his environmentally focused projects at his own atelier.

The open gardens at Lord & Schryver Conservancy, across from Bush’s Pasture Park in Salem. Photo courtesy Lord & Schryver Conservancy.

Sellers-Young has done an admirable job of research, and her writing voice is clear and engaging. She covers the state region by region, and begins each section with a brief description of its region’s distinguishing geological traits, to set the story firmly in the state’s water and land. Her publisher, the academic house Anthem Press, is lax in proofreading, but the tales that unfold overcome that.


Portland Playhouse A Christmas Carol Portland Oregon

In the end, the title Artists Activating Sustainability gets it right. Oregon’s artists aren’t (most of them) politicians or business leaders; they can’t rewrite laws or change corporate policies. They can, and many do, base their art in notions of environmental awareness and sensitivity to the perils and challenges to the land and how it is used or abused.

A deep sense of the land and, even in abstract work, the ever-presence of the physical world is key to the work of a great many artists in Oregon, and across the West, providing a thoroughly contemporary earthiness to much of the work created here. In most cases the work that Sellers-Young cites isn’t didactic, it’s simply rooted in an exploration of the natural world and its cultural implications. There are many others not mentioned or mentioned briefly in Artists Activating Sustainability who travel a similar road: visual artists Michael Brophy, Matthew Dennison, and the late Dennis Cunningham; composer Nancy Ives, whose Celilo Falls: We Were There is based on the cultural and environmental changes cause by the flooding of the falls on the Columbia River; fabric artist Bonnie Meltzer and many others involved in “soft” sculpture, weaving, quilting, or Indigenous basketry; the region’s robust craft-art scene, including the large pottery group gathered around the East Creek Art Camp’s anagama kiln.

By focusing on such matters of the earth, artists keep the issues in the forefront of the public conversation, helping to create a broader sensitivity to both the realities and the possibilities for change. Art doesn’t legislate. But it can prompt the conversation, and even shift the ways we think and feel. If that’s the Oregon story, it’s not a bad tale at all.

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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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