In 2020, the High Desert Museum officially adopted the Waterston Desert Writing Prize, which honors creative nonfiction that illustrates artistic excellence, sensitivity to place and desert literacy. Inspired by author and poet Ellen Waterston’s love of the High Desert, the Prize strengthens and supports the literary arts and humanities through recognition of excellence in nonfiction writing about desert landscapes, community interaction with Prize winners and associated programs.
The Museum has a long history with the Prize, having hosted the award ceremony since its inception in 2014. The Museum and the Prize are a natural fit; both emphasize the uniqueness of desert regions, highlight the arts that explore and define them, and create conversations about contemporary issues. Adoption of the Prize enables us to further our mission and expand our support of the arts.
It was part of founder Donald M. Kerr’s vision that the Museum should be a platform for dialogue. Reading and writing can lend insights into other perspectives—and help us understand and articulate our own. A single, beautifully crafted line can link us to each other and the landscape. In this way, literature fosters empathy and connection. “Every year we have the honor of experiencing new perspectives on desert landscapes,” said Ellen Waterston. “Writers participate from all over the country and our vision of what a desert is continues to grow.”
The literary arts are an avenue for discovery of the landscape and our place within it. To write with originality about deserts demands and inspires close examination of place—deepening appreciation for landscapes often overlooked. Such work has never felt more important; sagebrush steppe is one of the most imperiled ecosystems in North America. Ursula Le Guin’s meditative poems on Steens Mountain country (in the book Out Here) offer a new lens on an ancient place. Since encountering them, I have been unable to visit the desert without noticing the “rising brightness of the rock,” movement and color previously missed.
Through our interdisciplinary work, the Museum explores the interconnection of people and place. Nature writing is evolving in exciting and necessary ways, as people gain—or regain—awareness of our connection to, and impact on, the world around us. Increasingly, writers include humans in the narrative. Writer Lydia Peele suggests nature writing, “rather than being pastoral or descriptive or simply a natural history essay, has got to be couched in stories…where we as humans are present. Not only as observers, but as intrinsic elements…we’ve got to reconnect ourselves to our environment and fellow species in every way we can.” Peele implies that writing can assist in remaking this vital connection.
Many previous winners of the Prize have demonstrated such a holistic approach. The 2020 winner was Hannah Hindley for Thin Blue Line, one in a collection of stories that explore the Sonoran Desert’s disappearing waterways, the fish that used to call them home and the efforts to help restore depleted tributaries with city effluent. “It’s a strange story of ghost rivers, dead fish and resilience in the heart of urban spaces in the desert,” stated Hindley.
We are excited to start this new chapter of the Waterston Desert Writing Prize and honored to continue its inspiring work. In 2021, the Prize will recognize one writer with a $2,500 award, a residency at PLAYA at Summer Lake and a reading and reception. We are now accepting submissions.
The Waterston Student Essay Competition is also open! We invite young writers from Crook, Deschutes, Harney, Jefferson and Lake counties to submit nonfiction prose essays exploring desert landscapes. Learn more about the student prize.
Submissions for the 2021 Waterston Desert Writing Prize will be accepted through May 1, 2021.
Beavers—members of the family Castoridae—have existed in North America for around 40 million years. It could be argued that the modern North American beaver, Castor canadensis, and its ancestors have had a more profound influence on the physical and cultural landscape of this continent than any other non-human mammal. While it may have a reputation for flooding roads and downing ornamental trees, there is so much more to the beaver. The High Desert Museum’s original exhibition and public art project Dam It! Beavers and Us explores our long and evolving relationship with this oft-overlooked yet valuable animal.
Beavers have been integral to many Indigenous cultures, such as the Blackfeet Nation, for millennia. But the arrival of Euro-American settlers and pressure from the fur trade saw populations plummet. Humans extensively trapped them for their fur, meat, castoreum—an oily secretion from castor sacs used by beaver to mark territory and still occasionally by humans as a flavoring—and other parts. By the late 1800s, they neared extinction. However, due to changing fashion trends, regulations and the rodent’s own resilience, numbers are rebounding.
Today, beavers are gaining greater recognition for their value alive, as ecosystem engineers. There are many ways to coexist with this humble herbivore—and even more reasons why we might want to. Colonies improve water quality, reduce erosion and help other wildlife and plants thrive. Countless species, including humans, benefit from their ponds and wetlands. People have long been drawn to the fertile green meadows that result from beaver activity.
These mammals also mitigate some impacts of climate change. They hydrate the landscape—of great importance in the dry High Desert region. An average beaver dam in the Columbia River Basin can store 1.1 million gallons of water per pond! Their habitats store carbon and serve as vital refugia from wildfires. They also support threatened species, such as steelhead trout.
In Dam It! Beavers and Us, we playfully explore the past, present and future of this remarkable rodent and its interconnection with humans. This keystone species has whittled its way into the hearts of people from all walks of life—ranchers, ecologists, artists and architects. Many have dedicated themselves to the return of the beaver. Visit the exhibition to discover why so many now see the beaver more as a partner than a pest. Meet the extinct, bear-sized beaver, Castoroides ohioensis, and learn why beavers once were parachuted in wooden boxes into Idaho wilderness.
Additionally, the Museum will install several four-foot-tall beaver sculptures in public spaces. A different artist will paint each fiberglass sculpture in their own, unique style. Project artists include Sweet Pea Cole, Ellen Taylor, Jess Volk and Andries Fourie. Be ready to spot some new, vibrant art around Central Oregon!
We might think of self-care, the practice of taking care of one’s health and well-being, and the industry that has developed around it as a relatively new concept, but people have been hawking self-care goods for decades. At the turn of the twentieth century, these potions and contraptions made big promises, many of which seem dangerous or at the very least laughable today.
Take a look at these seven surprising self-care products from 1902.
1. Dr. Rose’s Arsenic Complexion Wafers
A pale complexion was desirable for a young lady of the early 1900s. Large sun hats and parasols were used to achieve the look of preserved skin, but for an expedited process, you might turn to a self-care product like this. “Perfectly harmless, when used in accordance with our directions,” the advertisement reads. The wafers undoubtedly did cause paleness… among other conditions.
2. Wrinkle Eradicator
“This convenient little article will remove wrinkles from around the eyes and nose and any part of the face,” so long as you don’t mind the process. This suction cup “invigorates” the skin back to health.
3. The Princess Bust Developer
Resembling a standard toilet plunger, this product promised: “a symmetrically rounded bosom full and perfect.” You “will be surprised, delighted, and happy over the result of one week’s use” is guaranteed. And for those wishing to properly display the latest in women’s fashion, it seems a small price to try such a contraption. Especially, since a full refund is “guaranteed” if you are not fully satisfied.
4. Vapor Bath Cabinets
Not unlike the modern sauna, with the surprising difference being a ventilated hole for one’s head, “vapor baths are great for blood and skin diseases.” There didn’t seem to be an ailment that the vapor bath couldn’t fix: “scrofula, eczema, salt rheum, hives, pimples, ulcers, boils, carbuncles, barber’s itch, oily skin, poor complexion, the common cold, …” the list goes on and on. With an alcohol stove, vaporizer, four-walled rubber-lined cabinet, and $5.95 one could have a cure for just about anything.
5. The Toilet Mask
A facial mask meant for “the removal of freckles, liver spots, and other facial blemishes” doesn’t seem so surprising at first. This mask, however, isn’t comprised of soothing botanicals and extracts. Rather, it’s an “acid cured” mask, made of transparent rubber, that promises to turn the skin soft and velvety.
6. Electric Insoles
Poor circulation? Cold feet? This product offers just what you need… an electric current. “A mild pleasant current is produced along the soles of the feet, which stimulates the blood and keeps it circulating constantly.” What is a little discomfort with the promise of health, right?
7. Giant Power Heidelberg Electric Belt
And if you don’t think the electric insoles are “shocking” this belt might do the trick. A cure for all “diseases, disorders, and weaknesses peculiar to men.” This product claims that the user will experience more benefits in one week of use than six months of going to the doctor.
All products advertised from the Sears, Roebuck and Company Catalogue from 1902. Sears, Roebuck and Company. “Catalogue No. 112.” Catalogue No. 112. : Sears, Roebuck and Company : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Sears, Roebuck & Co., Chicago, archive.org/details/catalogueno11200sear/page/n9/mode/2up. Accessed 30 Apr. 2020.
One of the most common questions we get from visitors is about how the creatures, from river otters to desert tortoises, came to be in our care. And every day, I spend time with a small, new resident that came to us last summer, a Western painted turtle with a very interesting story.
A good Samaritan found her in Woodburn with a screw in her shell and fishing line cutting into her neck. She was rightfully turned in to the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (ODFW) for recovery. ODFW speculates that she was being kept as someone’s pet because of the screw. Most likely her owners inserted the screw so they could tether her outside. She escaped anyway and then got caught up in the discarded fishing line.
After the rescue and rehabilitation, ODFW contacted us to see if we could provide her with a home. We had the perfect spot in our Desertarium.
We have four Western painted turtles in the collection. All can be found in the Desertarium’s turtle exhibit. The species is found across North America, with the Western painted turtle being one of four subspecies. They are commonly found in the Willamette Valley in Oregon. However, they are still found throughout the Cascades, even on the east side in our neck of the woods.
Oregon’s native turtle species are protected, and it is illegal to remove one from the wild to keep as a pet. Unaware of this fact, many who stumble on a Western painted turtle in the wild are tempted to take it home. There are a few exotic turtle species in Oregon that are illegal to possess, the most well-known being the red-eared slider. It’s now invasive in Oregon thanks to the exotic pet trade. The message here would be to always do thorough research when deciding whether to acquire an exotic pet because they are not always legal. They often require care that is beyond what the average person can provide. Even if you find yourself out over your skis, so to speak, it is illegal to release pets into the wild.
Now that the turtle has a happier ending at the High Desert Museum, why is she non-releasable? This turtle cannot go back into the wild for a few reasons. First, ODFW biologists do not know where she came from. If she wasn’t originally part of a population of turtles, introducing her could potentially have adverse impacts. Oregon turtle populations are fragmented due to the disappearance of habitat continuity caused by human development and habitat degradation. Because of this, introducing outside DNA can potentially create offspring that are not well-suited for that particular area.
Because of the fragmentation of wild populations, introducing an individual to a new population could also spread disease that is found in one area to another. It is important to note that in the state of Oregon it is illegal to release wildlife that has been under human care for longer than 72 hours.
Discarded fishing line and other refuse — pack it in and pack it out. It is that simple. Discarded fishing line, hooks, lures, plastic bags, balloons, Styrofoam — all of it has the potential to harm wildlife. This turtle could have died if not found and given help.
We’ve been very happy with her progress. She is frequently seen floating at the surface of the exhibit where she can check out the activity in the gallery. She is also spotted basking with the other two females of the same species. Her wound from the fishing line is completely healed, but she will have her screw hole for some time. In the short time she’s been with us, she’s become an amazing ambassador for her species, sharing with visitors the importance of conservation and responsibility.
If you visit the Museum this summer, you’ll get the opportunity to explore the original exhibit Desert Reflections: Water Shapes the West. The dynamic, multifaceted exhibition weaves together science, history, art and contemporary issues in its examination of the role of water in the region’s past, present and future.
In addition to the discussion of the complexities of water management, Desert Reflections connects visitors to its significance through visual art, music and spoken word performances. The High Desert Museum commissioned artwork from four Pacific Northwest artists for the exhibition. The project began with field trips into the desert with experts in order to spark discussion and inspiration for the pieces.
One of the four artists on the journey is Eugene’s art collective Harmonic Laboratory. The group created two installations for the exhibition. These are their stories.
Garden of Earthly Delights
When you enter the Spirit of the West Gallery, the main location of Desert Reflections, walk to the back of the room and you’ll find the haunting video triptych Garden of Earthly Delights. Three large flat screen televisions are arranged in a horizontal row, each displaying discrete black-and-white videos.
Garden of Earthly Delights depicts a loss of innocence, making deliberate reference to Hieronymus Bosch’s iconic triptych by the same title, created in the late 15th century. The original imagery reflects biblical scenes read from left to right; Eden, the Judgment, and Hell. Bosch’s triptych stands as a warning against the devastating outcome of irresponsibility and self-interest. The imagery used in the Harmonic Laboratory video version follows the same basic narrative, but is more political in nature, representing the tension between two bodies of diverse backgrounds engaged in a negotiation over water as a scarce and precious resource.
Observing the panels from left to right, the first screen situates an Indigenous woman emerging from a pristine river surrounded by a lush forest. The center panel zooms in on the two central figures’ hands pouring water back and forth between clear vessels. In the final screen a white male collapses onto the dry, cracked surface of a High Desert wasteland.
Garden of Earthly Delights uses two natural High Desert settings representing either an abundance of water or an extreme lack thereof. The protagonists reflect the socio-political tension between two groups in conflict over water rights: the Native peoples who have inhabited the area since time immemorial as riparian civilizations with deeply ancestral and spiritual ties to the water supply, and the white settlers who have journeyed west over the past two centuries to establish their homes and industries. This is a cautionary tale of the ultimate price of exploitation.
Floating above one’s head more than 8 feet from the ground, Awash creates an array of sonic and visual movement. The piece runs 32’ along the Museum hallway, and the viewer walks underneath a 120-speaker network. As sound moves across the speakers, the installation physically moves up and down in one large sinusoidal wave via Dacron string connected to a large rotating disc. The disc connects to 20 rows of speakers, translating rotary motion into smooth vertical movement.
Awash depicts the life, color and environment of the High Desert in a network of sound and moving parts. The kinetic sound sculpture emanates sonic shades of the High Desert while simultaneously flowing as a connected sinusoidal wave spanning 32 feet. The work hovers above the viewers’ heads and envelops them in sight and sound.
The soundscape in Awash has three types of audio: wind, water and color. For these three archetypal sounds, there are two audio modes. These modes either immerse the listener or move sound across the 32-foot structure. To help situate the listener within the High Desert, the piece amplifies field recordings of High Desert wind and Oregon waterways. The outside is brought inside, and across the length of the speaker array, viewers are enveloped in sounds that move above, through and around them. For sounds of color, a recording of a Skinner church organ, played by slowly adding keys and organ stops, creates lush, harmonic textures. These textural colors evoke the richness of the High Desert, a place that is shaped by multiple forces interacting in complex ways.
Unpacking the technical and mechanical design of Awash parallels understanding the symbiotic and complex forces at play in the water cycle of the High Desert. Ten electrical boards rest atop the structure, driving how sounds move. The boards are synchronously timed to trigger spatialized sounds across the structure. Standing underneath, one can hear and feel how natural forces move around us –– sounds of water and wind flow uninterrupted –– absorbed only by what is present within the space. The energy of sound is acoustically absorbed by bodies and materials in the museum, akin to the way that natural resources are consumed and absorbed within an ecosystem.
Sound waves propagate throughout the space and undulating kinetic motion immerse the viewer. Light shimmers off tessellating shapes hanging midair, evoking an environment teeming with life and motion. Like scales from fish or rings of a tree, the piece marks the shape of a body inside a living ecosystem. Awash is made up of small pieces; yet, the individual components connect to form a mass that has weight.
Awash mirrors the distribution of energy within an ecosystem. In the High Desert, floodplains provide an energy buffer that supports the productivity and sustainability of life, in particular fish populations. The kinetic sound sculpture disperses sound energy across 120 3-watt speakers. As sound moves over longitudinal and lateral planes, the space becomes “awash” with varying frequencies and amplitudes. No one speaker is loud enough to cut through the ambient noise of the environment, but together, the distributed energy of the speaker network moves sound as large, vibrational waves across the constructed landscape of the Museum.
The sweet scent of apples baking wafts through the cabin’s open door. Smoke rises slowly from the chimney against the clear blue sky. Inside, Emily pokes and prods the fire in the stove, willing its flames to life with anticipation of a perfectly baked pie. Wooden floorboards creak as she takes the few steps across the room to the door. She peers out, and a smile spreads across her face as she spies her little sister, Sophia, tromping around on stilts, stirring up dust and causing the chickens to cluck noisily.
Just then, Mrs. Miller emerges from the root cellar where she’s just taken a bounty of potatoes harvested from the garden. She wipes her hands on her apron and her brow with her sleeve and looks around. She takes a moment to survey her family ranch, quietly contemplating the list of chores needing to be tended to on this brisk fall day. Mrs. Miller smiles at Emily, her son’s wife, before heading off toward the chicken coop to collect the day’s eggs.
Life on the 1904 homestead can be demanding, yet it’s also fulfilling and punctuated with laughter and love. The Millers had humble beginnings, but they feel rich in land, land where the family’s cattle graze, tended to each day by Mr. Miller and his son, Emily’s husband.
The characters who bring the Miller Family Ranch to life for High Desert Museum visitors are each created with an attention to detail that enables them to completely immerse themselves in the historical world they are living in. Creating and successfully portraying a first-person character means presenting the persona as though from the past and without context to the present.
“You really have to get to know the person,” explained Linda Evans, the Museum’s curator of living history who portrays Mrs. Miller. Getting to know someone who never really existed, however, is much different than getting to know someone you can actually talk to. It takes months of research and is an ongoing journey of discovery.
While Mrs. Miller is a fictional character, she is based on the lives of two very real women with very different perspectives and experiences as homesteaders in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Linda dedicated herself to learning as much about each of them as she could, studying diary entries and letters written back and forth with family back East. Through their own words, the two women lent emotional insight into what it meant to face the trials and triumphs of everyday life, working to survive and prosper in the Old West.
Blending two women into one and adding in bits of her own personality allowed Linda to create a rich, full character that she’s able to connect with and comfortably portray to a wide-ranging audience. “Living history is an educational tool, and people learn best when they’re relaxed,” Linda said. “Being entertained puts people at ease. When I’m comfortable, and the visitor is comfortable, a sense of play emerges and then the interactive experience unfolds naturally.”
To add depth to any living history character there has to be a genuine sense of place. This involves much more than merely setting a stage, however. It’s important that Mrs. Miller understand the world she’s living in and how it impacts her life personally — to familiarize herself with topics such as politics, geography, agriculture and industry.
“Much of my character has been created based on the questions visitors ask,” Linda explained. “I established a foundation for Mrs. Miller so that the rest is second nature; I can respond to my audience and provide the interactive experience that they will appreciate being a part of. If it’s entertaining, if it’s fun, if there’s emotion behind it, that is what they will remember.”
Often, the questions visitors ask require characters to have a personal timeline complete with important historical dates and dates marking personal milestones such as marriage and the birth of children or events such as moving to a new location. Mrs. Miller, who was born in 1845, traveled west with her family on the Oregon Trail when she was just 10 years old. She grew up near Salem and later fell in love with Mr. Miller. Together they moved to Central Oregon in 1881, pursuing the promise of free land. They established their homestead and ranch in 1882.
Creating a timeline such as this provides a sense of place in the world and a personal history and perspective. The characters at the ranch work to get to know one another. They explore their emotional connections in order to determine historical relationships within the context of the setting. Living history interpreter Emily Agan, who plays Mrs. Miller’s daughter-in-law at the ranch, developed a playful bond with teen volunteer, Sophia, lending a natural connection that helped define their characters’ relationship. The two saw themselves as sisters, which fit not only the ranch’s timeline, but also the storyline at play.
Once a character has been created and developed, a sense of purpose needs to be determined. Not only is it important to decide why a character is at the Miller Family Ranch, but knowing what the character’s main role at the ranch is ensures authenticity of the entire scene and experience. Emily found that baking was a natural development for her character. Her pies often entice visitors of all ages to step inside the family cabin. “It’s not about me or my character,” Emily said. “It’s about the ranch. There is an outward focus on our visitors, on what they know, and what they want to know.”
Not wanting to wait with idle hands for her pie to be ready, Emily grabs a broom and begins to sweep the cabin’s porch. Across the way, Sophia leans her stilts against a large ponderosa pine and joins Mrs. Miller at the chicken coop. They collect eggs that they will boil and pickle, ensuring they’ll last the long winter ahead.
Mrs. Miller has a broad smile on her face when, at last, she settles into the wooden rocking chair just outside the cabin door. Sophia settles on the porch next to her. Inside, Emily dishes up three pieces of warm apple pie, a welcome end to a long day on the ranch.
As I sat on my deck with a hot cup of coffee this morning, admiring the golds and reds taking over the backyard landscape, I found myself both entertained and intrigued by the squirrels scampering from shrub to shrub and tree to tree. I knew they were getting ready for winter, but I’d never given much thought to their ability to find their way around. I looked down at my phone, pondering the red line looping messily around the map neatly displayed on the screen. The tracking app allowed me to see exactly where I’d been during a hike the evening before, and it would enable me to go back along the exact path if I had a need to do so. The squirrels have no such map, I thought. Or do they?
Animal navigation has piqued the interest of scientists across many disciplines — from physics to neuroscience — for decades. Navigation is, after all, essential for all animals’ survival, including humans’. Today we have a wide range of technologically advanced tools that direct us how to get from place to place, whether we’re walking, driving or even flying. But, what if we didn’t?
As part of a University Air Squadron about 10 years ago, Louise Shirley was training to be a pilot when she and fellow members of her squadron had an opportunity to fly above the Amazon jungle. There, they witnessed a local tribe navigating the land with perfect precision without instruments. As she considered the contrast of the tribe’s ways to the panel of information displayed within the Grob Tutor, a small fixed-wing airplane, Louise was inspired and her interest in natural navigation was sparked.
Her interest in the subject came to fruition over the past year. As Donald M. Kerr curator of natural history at the High Desert Museum, Louise dedicated herself to researching animal navigation and migration, talking to scientists from around the world and developing an interactive exhibit for the Museum’s visitors.
“The navigational feats performed by wildlife — whether as part of their daily, local activities or long-distance migrations — are arguably some of the natural world’s most awe-inspiring phenomena,” Louise said. “The tiny rufous hummingbird, for example, deftly finds its way from wintering grounds in Mexico and the southern United States to its breeding grounds in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.”
But it’s not just the long-distance migratory species that need to find their way, Louise explained. It’s also the chickadee that needs to cache its seeds and recover them later. It’s the wolf that roams its territory. It’s the dung beetle that needs to quickly roll its fresh dung ball home to feed its family.
The resulting exhibition, Animal Journeys: Navigating in Nature, investigates the internal mechanisms and biological forms of maps and compasses used by animals to find their way in the world and explores the techniques scientists are implementing to unravel these mysterious phenomena. It also shares insight into human impact on animals’ ability to navigate — such as how light pollution can obscure the night sky and completely disorient birds and other species — and offers ideas for effective conservation. And reflecting back on Louise’s initial inspiration, the exhibit examines how humans can read the landscape to navigate solely with natural cues.
While there have been many major breakthroughs in scientific understanding — such as the discovery that dung beetles use the Milky Way for orientation in order to move in a straight line — much is still unknown.
“It’s an incredible experience exploring the research and findings of scientists worldwide; so much is still being discovered. This is truly cutting-edge science,” Louise said.
Like many scientific studies, the implications of understanding natural navigation are far-reaching. The answers hold potential for medical advancement, Louise said. For example, brain mapping of species such as bats and rats can lead to a deeper understanding of the brain’s spatial mapping, which in turn could lend insight into human dementia.
“My hope is that visitors come away from Animal Journeys in awe of the natural world and its intricacies, and with an understanding and appreciation of the value of science,” Louise said.
With the last dregs of coffee cold in my cup, the squirrels still busy with their coming and going, I resolved to skip tracking my next hike with my phone, inspired to use the landscape and the endless natural cues to find my way, to embark on my own animal journey. During your next visit to the High Desert Museum, be sure to spend some time exploring Animal Journeys: Navigating in Nature. Hopefully you, too, will be inspired.
The exhibition runs through July 14, 2019 and is made possible with support from The Bulletin, Horizon Broadcasting Group and the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation.
Ben Pease, winner of the Curator’s Choice Award at the High Desert Museum’s 2018 Art in the West exhibition for his work “Keeper of the People,” explores the history and the future of Native American heritage through mixed-media art. Born on the Crow Indian Reservation in 1989, Pease grew up in southeastern Montana with roots in both the Crow and Northern Cheyenne nations. As a young, contemporary Indigenous artist, Pease’s work is well known for its unique and culturally relevant style. Find him online at benpeasevisions.com.
When did you know you wanted to be an artist, and what inspired you to take that path?
I’ve always been an artistic person. I suppose I get my creativity from my family and our history, quite literally our DNA — we’re not too far removed from a life of creation, creating beautiful things for daily use, for ceremonial use. Growing up on the reservation the art programs were sparse and almost nonexistent. When I was a kid, my mother decided to bring me to the Charlie Russell Art Week in Great Falls, Montana. I came into this place and it was total culture shock because I had never seen such amazingly made jewelry, such amazing Western wear, such big hats! It was this whole other world, and when I walked into the booth of another Crow artist — Kevin Red Star — and saw him painting … I thought, he’s from where I’m from, the same place, and I figured if he could do it, I could do it. That’s where it started.
Do you consider yourself a storyteller and an educator as much as you do an artist?
It always comes down to am I a Native artist, am I an artist, or am I a creative. And I think the latter because it’s so much more than just being an artist, just an educator or just a storyteller because you have to be creative in all the words you choose, in all the things that you share with other people.
Where do your ideas for your paintings come from, where do you find your inspiration?
I get my inspiration from my culture, our history, from relationships between different entities whether that’s a tribal entity or a U.S. government entity or even other nations around the world. When I begin a work, I don’t really sketch it out. I just sort of start and things come to me. I begin with the substrate, the canvas, and I use historical paper items — money, signage, antique ledger papers, antique newspapers, vintage comic books — as a cultural reference point, linking to some idea or some thought I’m having, because I’m always thinking and things just move from my head into my work.
Do all of your pieces relate to your Native American heritage?
Yes they do. I’m trying to figure out my own place in the world and to figure out where I am going, and not just me, but me as we — as a people, our communities and our tribal nations, and as a family with my beautiful, amazing wife and our two sons.
Would you say that there’s a theme that runs through all of your work?
I practice with a lot of other Native American artists — we call ourselves Indigenous creatives — and we see many non-native or non-indigenous people doing Native American artwork and making a killing at it, selling pieces for thousands and even millions of dollars. And really, that’s who we are. We’re the ones from the culture. So that’s where I’m coming from, we want to be that true, authentic voice and to come into the Western art world with an accurate perspective.
Why do you collage various paper items into your art, and how do you find and choose those items?
One word on a piece of newspaper, or a certain year on a thousand-dollar water bond from Montana, something like that will spark my interest. If I have an idea, it’s just in my head. I take my subject matter and my objectivity from my knowledge, from what I’ve learned from my culture and my family. And that’s really where it comes from. It’s not written down anywhere, it’s part of our oral history and part of the histories that the non-natives, the newcomers, have written down for us. A lot these paper items I’ll find at antique stores, or on ebay, and I have collectors who provide me with a lot of items. I do a lot of research, a lot of asking. Many of my family members are elders of the tribes, so I do a lot of finding information that way. I find a lot of my photographic references online in archives from various institutions — museums and universities. I have to do hunting on many sides, and that’s almost half of the job.
Are the pieces you collage into your work just symbolic or is there also a visual aspect to their inclusion?
For quite some time now I’ve been telling people that I am not in the game just to paint a pretty picture or in the game for aesthetics. I am coming with an open heart and open eye. I know that there is a constructed dichotomy of viewpoints and I want to try to understand both sides, and many other sides. I try to be subtle with my messages. I try not make people too uncomfortable, but I want to ask questions that people aren’t asking. Sometimes I do that and let people know and be very forward, and sometimes it’s on a piece of paper I put on the back of a painting and nobody will ever see it or even know it’s there.
Who would you consider your audience and what do you aim to say to them through your art?
Everybody. But, I do understand that not everybody knows our history so I am working to provide the history. I think if somebody wants to know more about my artwork they almost have to be in the room with me because it doesn’t always spell out what I want it to. My collectors always tell me that every single day they see something new and catch a new connection in one of my paintings which they didn’t see before. That’s what I want people to work for, I want them to think about what things mean from the past and for the future. My painting is not just for Natives, it’s not just for white people, it’s for everybody.
Congratulations on your Curator’s Choice Award. What inspired “Keeper of the People,” and what does it represent?
It’s part of my Indigenous Madonna series. It features a young Crow woman and really talks about the Crows’ belief of women as being the most holy beings, the most sacred beings, the closest to creation. If you have a strong need or a strong prayer, if you’re really in a hard time, you’re supposed to give your prayer and your thoughts to a woman so she can pray for you. Because she can give life, she is sacred. The halo in the painting represents that women are holy, but is also speaking toward cultural appropriation, to ask who sets those boundaries and why and is culture exclusive.
How do you know when a painting is done?
The common line that almost any artist will say is that a work is never done. For me, I’ve just recently figured out that every painting I’m working on is neither finished nor good enough. So I think about it like that, when a piece doesn’t seem like it’s up to my standards, I move on to the next one. I decide I need to try something else. Artists get creativity block so changing your mode of acceleration is important when that wall comes. Then all the art shows come up and I realize I need to put these pieces in, so I varnish them and put them in the show. That’s how I finish them.
Hadley Rampton, winner of the Jury’s Choice Award at the High Desert Museum’s 2018 Art in the West exhibition for her work “Vista,” blends her love of the outdoors with her passion for art through plein air painting. Born in Salt Lake City in 1975, Rampton grew up exploring the Utah wilderness and the Teton/Yellowstone area, a place she has always loved and continues to wander today, along with her trusty Border Collie, Phoebe, who plays while the artist paints. Find her online at hadleyrampton.com
When did you know you wanted to be an artist and what influenced that path?
I’m one of those who can’t remember when I wasn’t creating art — drawing or painting. As a little girl I loved creating art, mostly drawing. When I was 9, seeing this interest of mine, my mother put me in art classes outside of regular school — at the Visual Art Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah. With that, I was able to begin oil painting and figure drawing by the time I was 12, and I just loved working with more professional and advanced media. I loved it so much so I would just do it. It made me happy. And I was always interested in drawing accurately, drawing from life. I would actually be jealous of those kids who were drawing more from imagination. Even though I could draw more accurately, I was jealous because I didn’t have quite the imagination that they did.
Where do you find your ideas and inspiration for your pieces?
I love being outside. For me it’s these two loves and being able to combine these two things. I definitely do the majority of my work outside. It can get difficult, but I love the feeling of the elements around me, it energizes me. Maybe that is why my colors tend to be a bit more intense, and also my brush strokes and with my palette knife … I tend to just put down the color and then the next color and not labor over it too much. Being outside, because the light is changing and everything is moving and there’s all this energy around me, I can’t fuss over things. Being outside also allows me to really focus. Up in the mountains by myself, out in nature, that’s it. I’m there. I’m painting. I’m not doing anything else. There is nothing else to distract me.
Do each of your pieces represent specific places or landscapes?
I love to explore. If I wasn’t an artist I would be an explorer. Most of the places I paint I have been to many times, they’re places around where I live — mainly in the Northern Utah mountain ranges, Southern Utah, the Tetons and into Idaho, but I’ve never been south of Utah painting. When I am in a new place, I’m not sure what I’ll be painting. I just head out and look for things that really strike me. I love to venture into new territory, but also to revisit old territory and look at it in different ways and maybe from a different angle or with a different perspective.
I’ve come to love painting aspen trees. I have taken a bit more of a still life approach in a way because I am really thinking of the subtleties of composition and placement on the canvas. It’s a different thing than when I paint a distant landscape … the way the trunk curves, especially in the white, the shadows, the various colors that emerge, I emphasize those. I investigate that on much more of an intense level.
With the more distant landscape pieces, the location becomes more relevant. I always paint from life, but I am not too worried about making my paintings look exactly as the scene looks. I love letting what I’m feeling play a role, and because I work quickly there is a lot of gesture in the work, so things aren’t exact and that’s okay. In some ways, I hope that by working that way the feeling of the place comes through even more, much like a gesture drawing of a person — it may not be anatomically accurate, but it can convey the personality and the feeling of that person.
Do you still paint people?
For the longest time that is what I loved most. Through college I painted and drew the human figure quite a lot. Now I’ll go to a coffee shop and I’ll sketch the people as they’re moving, again carrying on with that immediacy and going with the gesture. When I travel overseas and take my watercolors, I paint street scenes and the people … just as I’m wandering, the scenes that I come upon. It’s like how I work here — just exploring and coming upon something that captures my desire to paint. It’s a different subject when I’m traveling overseas, but it’s that same sort of philosophy.
Do you consider yourself a historian, capturing time through your art?
I love history, and I think that’s especially true with the painting during the travels I do overseas. Where I go, what I see … I am generally always thinking about history and wanting to learn more by being there. With my paintings, especially of street scenes, I am really drawn to wear and tear where you can feel the history and the passage of time rather than everything being perfect. It’s also culture that I love to capture. At one point I had the privilege of being in Istanbul, and talk about history! I was able to paint these mosques and the Hagia Sophia, and the fun of it was there’d be a woman in a full burka and another woman in complete Western dress — shorts and a tank top. That’s the culture of Istanbul, they have this incredible history and then they have the whole Muslim component and then it’s also modern. I love capturing things like that, that tell, through visual means, a story, that tells so much about the place.
What are some of the most unique or noteworthy places you’ve been able to capture with your paintbrush?
It’s actually hard for me to rank places because even the places that I’ve gone that aren’t that far off the map have been incredible. I tend to be drawn to wandering and coming upon things. So even in a place that is more familiar, such as Paris, I find little moments that might be surprising. And the same is true for landscapes. I’ve painted iconic places like the Tetons, but then also have had the opportunity to venture down into the back areas that are not as known.
Do you always work with the same color palette?
My palette is very limited, so I do a lot of mixing. I have a blue, a version of red, a brown, a yellow and a white, no black, and from there I mix. Through the seasons, the color palette of the painting changes even though I’m working with the same paint colors. Then of course it varies from when I’m working in southern Utah in the redrock desert versus more northern alpine environment. So I do respond to the colors around me in real life, but sometimes it’s much more vibrant than what it really is, and other times it’s accurate to what it is. When I’m painting, I’m not really thinking about it, it’s just happening.
Congratulations on your Jury’s Choice Award for this year’s Art in the West exhibition. What inspired “Vista,” what does the piece represent and what was the process of creation? “Vista” — that piece is painted in the Park City area near Salt Lake in a spot I had not painted before. I had felt like doing something with a bit more distance. It was the beginning or middle of March so there was still some snow in the upper mountains, but there was also the wonderful warm hues that emerge when the snow melts. I found it while driving in the area — I just pulled over and it felt right so I set things up. With that one, I returned to the same place at the same time of day for several hours over a period of several days. It has a stylized, abstract feel to it. As I painted, I began loving the patterns and colors that were emerging. It was such a different piece. When that happens, when I paint a piece that is so different, just like anything at first, I’m not sure how I feel about it. But with this one, I came to really love it!
How has your art evolved?
For many years it was me yearning to draw accurately, but then ironically by the time I got to college I was inspired by the loose manner in which I saw others painting and drawing. I wanted to be more emotional, to let it go so that what happens happens. That is where I am now, and it is much more fun for me to be loose and let the emotion enter.
How do you know when you’re finished with a piece?
It’s hard to explain, but when it’s done it’s done. It’s a feeling, that last stroke, and I step back and just know.
This spring, one cloudy May day, we watched flames creep across the floor of part of the Museum’s ponderosa pine forest. For a long time, we had been carefully planning for this prescribed burn of a portion of our acreage. The fire, though low intensity, still left a somewhat dramatic sight for our visitors the next day.
While some understood what we’d done and why, others came with questions. Some were curious, a few concerned. Why would we set the beautiful forest on fire, leaving the ground blackened and stumps smoldering? In short, for the health of the forest and the safety of the Museum and our community. It’s called a prescribed burn for this very reason.
Flames belong in the forest, an ecosystem that has evolved to withstand, and benefit from, the heat. Historically, low-intensity wildfires would burn through a ponderosa forest every five to 20 years. This would help to clear out shrubs, saplings and some of the pine needles and other litter lying beneath the trees. Larger trees would remain intact, their thick bark serving as a shield. The heat would open ponderosa cones and enable them to release seeds, continuing the natural cycle.
For centuries, people have suppressed wildfires in the West. Fuels have built up on the forest floor, and shrubs and trees have grown into unnaturally thick stands, depriving certain wildlife and plants of the habitat they need to thrive. When lightning or human actions start fires, as they inevitably do, they therefore often burn unnaturally hot and can inflict substantial ecological damage. A high-intensity wildfire would also threaten the Museum, our artifacts and the wildlife in our care. The damage that an out-of-control wildfire could cause is eye-watering — much more so than the smoke from our prescribed burn.
We are grateful to the U.S. Forest Service for partnering with us to plan and implement our burn. The process began with removing shrubs and small trees, reducing the fuels that had built up. We checked for ground-nesting birds before we mowed.
Some visitors have wondered aloud whether we could have just mowed the forest and left it at that. A low-intensity burn offers some unique effects, however. It increases the availability of nutrients, encouraging native plants to thrive. Fires can also create snags, which provide food and habitat for woodpeckers, bats and others. Only a portion of the property was mowed and burned, increasing the diversity of habitat types for the benefit of a wide range of species.
Over the years, we have been seeing fewer raptors and ground-nesting birds on the property. Both trends might be due to the density of vegetation and forest debris. More ground squirrels and other small mammals are able to stay safe under thick cover. Ground-nesters, such as quail, then face pressure from ground squirrels, for whom bird eggs make a tasty meal.
The burn has created a more diverse habitat, with some bitterbrush remaining, but also more open areas. As a result, hawks should now enjoy improved hunting success, which in turn will help to keep the rodent population in check.
Forest managers always weigh potential benefits against the actual and potential costs of a prescribed burn. In this case, the benefits dwarfed any negatives and we were excited to return fire to the forest. The result should be a revitalized and resilient ecosystem that supports an abundance of native plants and wildlife.
This burn also provided a fantastic opportunity to connect our community to the importance of forest restoration. Together with the U.S Forest Service, we took photos before and after the burn in specific locations, and will continue to do so for years to come. In doing so, we will capture the restoration process and communicate the important role of fire to our visitors. We also took measurements of the fuels on the ground, so that we can calculate the percentage of fuels that the burn successfully removed.
In addition, we have renovated our fire trail, Fire in the Forest, with additional signs along the loop to further explain the role of fire in ponderosa pine ecosystems. Have a look next time you visit the Museum! And watch, too, for the incredible regeneration that will happen in our forest over the next few months and years. We are already seeing small signs of new life.