Where earth meets sky

Clairissa and Colby Stephens' multimedia exhibit at Chehalem Cultural Center explores horizon lines

This is the late spring lull before Yamhill County’s summer stage productions come to life. The Aquilon Music Festival is still a month away, though the wise would do well to buy tickets now. Tickets are also on sale for the 8th annual Wildwood MusicFest on the beautiful Roshambo ArtFarm in Willamina, like Aquilon, also set for July. A crew started working on the set for The Graduate at Gallery Theater in McMinnville last weekend. We’re still awaiting the final schedule for music downtown in the plaza, and Willamette Shakespeare’s As You Like It, set for August, feels like forever away.

If you’re in quieter, more contemplative mood, here’s a show for you: Stratifying the Unknown, an exhibition and installation by the husband-wife team of Clairissa and Colby Stephens. You’ll find it occupying the Parrish Gallery of the Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg through June 28. I visited it last week and encountered a Portland TV crew preparing a feature on the place.

Stratifying the Unknown explores “the ways horizon lines shape our understanding of place and space and one’s location within it,” according to the exhibition notes. It’s a collaborative effort by artists who obviously understand what neuroscience and psychology tell us about architecture: that our physical environment, the very space we occupy, affects how we see, think, and feel about the world.

“When Earth Becomes Sky 360° ” by Colby Stephens (photograph on watercolor paper)

The Stephens did a lot of their thinking about 520 miles southeast of Newberg, in the Black Rock Desert — the supposed setting for the 1955 John Sturges thriller Bad Day at Black Rock. (The film actually was shot in California in a “town” that was built for the movie.) The couple was living in Reno in 2011, which gave them an opportunity to explore a physical space completely different from the Willamette Valley, where wooded hills, farmland, and subdivisions mark the outer limits of our field of vision.

I always hedge when I start talking about a visual art exhibit — why use words to describe what you must simply see? What’s remarkable about the Stephens’ exhibit is the sheer variety of media they used to create these images. In the nearly two dozen pieces (possibly more, depending on how one counts) the viewer will find oil on panels, photos on watercolor paper, silverpoint, graphite, playa clay and salt, watercolor and silver leaf on paper, and so on.

The pieces I kept returning to were two astonishing photographs, both by Colby and mounted on watercolor paper, titled When Earth Becomes Sky. The sky in each is partially filled with blues so dark they’re nearly black: literally, storms on the horizon. Though each also includes a wash of white-gray that marks another kind of storm one finds in the desert: a dust storm. Here are the notes:

“Stormy weather changes our understanding of space as the horizon can become indistinguishable from the sky,” Colby writes. “In the Summer Lake image, a dust storm obscures the horizon and the earth begins to look like clouds. In the Black Rock Desert image, the deep blue rain clouds combine with the mountains, and the transition between sky and earth is more fluid than defined. What happens when the boundary is obscured? Where does earth end and the sky begin? How is our sense of space and distance impacted by the definition of a horizon line?”

“Crystal Peak Horizon Line 360° ” is composed of 144 pieces of quartz hanging from the ceiling. Photo courtesy: Clairissa Stephens

The single largest horizon line in the exhibit stretches across it. Crystal Peak Horizon Line 360° is depicted by 144 meticulously threaded pieces of quartz that hang from the ceiling. It’s for sale for an undisclosed price. It’s difficult to imagine what type of space (other than a gallery) it would suitably occupy, at least in a home. Who knows? Perhaps we’ll see it reappear in one of Yamhill County’s tasting rooms, where the experience is as much about the presentation as it is the wine.

ARTS JOURNAL: Embarking on the fifth and final book of Rick Riordan’s first Percy Jackson series. I’ve advised our 10-year-old that upon completion, he is welcome to continue Riordan’s exploration of mythological worlds, but that for our nightly storytime, we’ll be moving on to other authors and topics. It’s interesting to me — and a little sad — that for so many children today, this is the introduction to Greek mythology that seizes the imagination. For me, it was W.H.D. Rouse and Edith Hamilton. I’ve left copies of both in his room. It’s all about planting seeds, I suppose.

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.

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