A Conversation with Artist April Coppini

The High Desert Museum exhibit The Beauty of Wild Things: Charcoal Drawings by April Coppini is open through June 23, 2019. Coppini’s deep love and respect for the natural world is evident in her large, lifelike drawings of wildlife, from mule deer and foxes to butterflies and bumble bees. The artist hails from a wooded suburb in Rochester, New York but has called Portland home for almost 25 years. Coppini joined us at the Museum in March not long after her exhibit’s opening to speak about her art, life and inspiration. The conversation continues here.

In your new exhibit at the High Desert Museum, your gestural charcoal drawings almost appear to move on paper. Is that an intended element of your artwork?

Only in that I’m trying to capture or convey something of the life of the subject as I draw. So it’s not foremost in my mind as I draw but more of a result of the process, thinking about movement and the life of an animal. And I’m always excited when I step back and the drawing has that feeling of moving, and always slightly disappointed if it appears lifeless and still to me! It’s like a surprise.

Mule Deer Fawn

Living and creating in a city such as Portland, do you ever feel disconnected from the wildlife which you draw? Where do you go to escape the growing city?

I do feel disconnected at times, but I’m lucky enough to rent a house with about a quarter acre which, of course, is overgrown and unkempt from a busy life with kids. So wild things are attracted to the yard. We have chickens, so raccoons like us and coyotes run down our street. A couple of weeks ago a hawk swooped down in the yard about 15 feet from me, grabbed one of our hens (Fern) and dropped her a few seconds later, probably because she was too heavy!

We also live really close to Whitaker Ponds and that’s a favorite place for us. But I miss deer and rabbits and quiet, dark nights where you can see so many stars. So, we go to Astoria or Seaside or Pacific City every few months. We also hike in the Gorge or take the dog to the Sandy or Columbia. We’ve taken family trips to Bend, Cove Palisades and the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho. One day I hope to get a little cabin somewhere.

Do you ever draw subjects other than wildlife?

Plants! Flowers, people (in my sketchbook), domestic animals, motorcycles for my son.

In your Instagram feed, you shared the honor that comes from displaying your work at the Museum at the same time that we were hosting Rick Bartow: Things You Know But Cannot Explain. What kind of inspiration does the renowned Native artist bring to your work?

Rick’s work speaks to me on a spirit level, like the lines between humans and animals and species blur, and there is spirit, story. And it’s his story but all of our story, too. So, I’m filled with awe and wonder when I visit his work. The colors have an indescribable emotional impact. I feel forces beyond us. So those are things I hope for in my own work, that it might reach people in such a deep way, although differently. His work is also a reminder to play, to enjoy working. I sometimes get too intense and tight, and I’d love to work in color more!

When you spoke with visitors at the Museum in March, you shared that during your art school years, it was all about abstract art. Representational art was frowned upon. Did you work with abstract art at that time or have you always held firm to representational art? How did you buck that trend, so to speak?

The work that was favored at that time was conceptual, so more installations and concept/process over making work that fit into outsider’s view of what is “good” and saleable and fits on your living room wall above the couch. Although that time was challenging for me, I did work in video and installation, and somewhat abstractly even though I always went back to representational work, kind of like it’s my language. Ultimately, that experience made me think bigger, and more universally, and when I began to work when I was out of school I think it helped me experiment and think about the bigger, wider possible impacts of my work on the world. But I always fall back to figurative work because I am enthralled with living things. That’s how I want to spend my time. That’s what I’m curious about.

Arctic Bumble Bee

You have a love and respect for pollinators, specifically the bumble bee. How has your reverence for the many species of bumble bees evolved?

Originally, it was my late partner, Andy, who shortly after we met, told me about honeybees dying and colony collapse disorder. That sparked a series of drawings of bees, and as I started to search for reference photos, I began to see how many different bee species there were. It blew me away. I began to see them more out in the yard and I’d try to wrap my brain around the job they do and how some bees have a buzz that is the specific frequency to release the pollen of a particular flower or it won’t release otherwise. I got to know which bumble bees were native to the Pacific Northwest and also back East where I grew up and which ones were red-listed and declining, which ones haven’t been seen in years. I connected with the people at Xerces Society (which happens to be in Portland), an international invertebrate conservation organization. Now I follow their work and donate a portion of my sales from bee drawings to them. I also upload photos of the bumble bees I see to Bumble Bee Watch and iNaturalist to help their research. Entomologist E.O.Wilson says we all need to become amateur naturalists to stop the rapid extinction of species that is happening now, and I feel this is true.

Have you ever found any subject too difficult or elusive to draw?

I was commissioned once to draw New Zealand’s extinct Huia birds. Even though I printed out a ton of references, I just couldn’t get a feel for them. The last confirmed sighting was in 1907, so there aren’t good photos of them alive. I also have this gut feeling that the life force of a creature is out there, and I can feel it, drum it up when I’m drawing. Sounds kind of silly maybe, but who knows, right?!

How do you know a drawing is finished?

Pretty much when I feel like I’m about to ruin it! I’ve definitely overdrawn some things! And sometimes a drawing just clicks at a certain point and you know.

Find April online at aprilcoppini.com.

Behind the Feather Duster

By Hand Through Memory

Sometimes, spring cleaning sneaks up on you, even when it’s snowing outside. This past weekend, the chore began as a quick vacuum to make the layer of cracker crumbs from the 4-year-old disappear. With the dark corners underneath furniture and behind curtains, however, my simple task became an all-day chore.

At the High Desert Museum, our collections volunteers do some spring cleaning of their own. Recently, both Spirit of the West and By Hand Through Memory, permanent exhibits, were briefly closed for an annual cleaning. Open since 1988, Spirit of the West offers a journey through the High Desert in the 19th century, including a Northern Paiute shelter and Hudson’s Bay Company fort. By Hand Through Memory, which opened in 1999, focuses on the Columbia Plateau Indian Nations. These two exhibits house hundreds of artifacts and objects, seen by thousands of visitors every year. To preserve the integrity of every single object, they must be cleaned, dusted and vacuumed.

Yet in exhibits with so many objects, where do you even begin cleaning? My house is one thing. An exhibition is quite another.

As I began quietly poking around the brightened exhibits, I was greeted by a small group of people doing their dizzying chore with immense pride. The spring cleaning is organized and guided by Museum curatorial staff. They are assisted by a group of dedicated, knowledgeable volunteers, many of whom have done this year after year. Darla, one of the collections volunteers, shared with me that the project is a huge part of their stewardship, the great care and ownership they take in the High Desert Museum.

The very first thing they do is remove all of the woolen and fur objects and props. They are packed neatly in labeled plastic bags and put in the freezer for forty-eight hours. Wait, a freezer? In order to destroy any moths that may be attempting to call it home, the object goes into an industrial-size freezer not meant to store employee lunches. Yes, even the taxidermy beaver makes the freezer his den for two days.

Once the woolens and furs and still-life critters are tucked away, the real cleaning begins, the kind of cleaning that happens with vacuums, brooms, feather dusters and soft rags. Just past Silver City in Spirit of the West is a cattle rancher’s settlement, with a wagon and cooking gear across the path from the bunkhouse filled with tack, every piece of equipment one might need to saddle and ride a horse. Each piece of riding headgear is gingerly removed from its hook and slowly cleaned with a soft cloth. The 100-year-old tack is returned to its place, creating the scene for visitors and making them feel like they’ve entered the bunkhouse of a real-life vaquero. No vaquero would let dust gather on his tack.

During my time chatting with the volunteers, I learned the difference between a prop and an object. A prop is something that a visitor might have physical access to, a wool blanket in Spirit of the West or pelt in By Hand Through Memory. Props are delicately stored in the freezer with the furs and woolens but do not require the same level of pristine handling as do the objects. Objects are protected behind glass or at a distance from the visitor and handled with the utmost care.

Once the cleaning of the scenes and objects is complete, the delicate focus returns to the woolens and furs. In Spirit of the West alone, there are seventy wool or fur objects. One might expect that every object is handled the same way, with cloth gloves as if in an episode of “Law & Order.” I learned from Darla that some gloves can pick up fibers from the furs. Thus, some objects require latex gloves and others require a clean hand. The small team working on the project knows without communicating which object requires which kind of glove. Clearly, this is a seasoned crew. One by one, the objects are laid out and cleaned with a low-powered vacuum. A small screen is placed in between the object and nozzle. The screen protects the object, keeping it from giving up too much fiber.

Closing off the popular permanent exhibits is done rarely. It’s done only for the most important of reasons, cleaning being one of them. The team works fast, with care and speed. Spirit of the West and By Hand Through Memory were each closed for five short winter days.

Both exhibits are back open to the public and looking as pristine as ever. Already, I can’t say the same for my carpet.

 

The Legacy of a Gift

By Heather Vihstadt, Director of Development

Volunteer Ann Aines

For nearly thirty years Ann and Phil Aines generously supported the High Desert Museum. According to their daughter, the importance of charitable giving was instilled by their parents. In fact, Ann’s father was also an early supporter of our work. Beyond sharing their treasure, Ann also gave of her time and talent as a loyal volunteer who contributed more than 4,000 hours. In 1997, she was named Volunteer of the Year and in 2010 she was inducted into the Volunteer Hall of Fame. She served in the wildlife department, working with raptors, and became affectionately known as the, “Bird Woman of Bend.”

Ann died in January of 2016 and Phil passed away approximately six months thereafter. Years prior, Ann and Phil had established a unitrust and named the High Desert Museum as a beneficiary, sharing a percentage of their estate. The Museum received approximately $150,000 to support the birds of prey. Little did Ann and Phil know what an incredible gift this would be to our institution and the lasting impact it would have.

The Museum cares for an array of birds, many of which partake in the wildly popular Sky Hunters and Raptors of the Desert Sky flight programs. Through these shows, wildlife experts educate thousands of people annually about various species’—their respective habitats, diets, unique physical traits and adaptions. The flight programs provide meaningful enrichment for our birds while simultaneously raising public awareness about critical conservation issues. Many visitors experience awe and wonder through these up-close interactions, inspiring them to help protect these magnificent creatures. One visitor commented: “The animal presentations are the best we’ve ever seen in any zoo or other museum!”

Some of the raptors are housed in a building called a mews. The current mews is the oldest structure on Museum property. It was originally designed to be a game bird pen that was later retrofitted. Thanks to legacy of Ann and Phil, we have the necessary funds to construct a new, state-of-the-art mews, that will greatly enhance the living quarters of our birds while providing much needed workspace for Museum staff. And the building is nearing completion! A contractor was hired to frame the building, but our Facilities and Exhibits staff have been working diligently on the interior finishing.

The new structure is much larger (the current mews houses six birds and the new one will house ten) with more spacious enclosures permitting the raptors both indoor and outdoor access with doorways large enough to accommodate various species’ wing spans. The interior includes fans to circulate air, radiant heat, clear plastic panels to provide natural light and ultraviolet lights set to timers (which impact molting and hormone production). There are smooth plastic interior walls, which are not only sanitary, but help to protect the feather condition of the birds. The exterior bars for outdoor living spaces have been constructed from six miles of steel conduit, which are also designed for bird safety. The larger building not only enables the Museum to provide the highest standard of care, but it may enable us to grow our collection of raptors. This long-held dream has now become reality thanks to the immense kindness of Ann and Phil Aines and for that we are forever grateful.

The Simpkins Conversation Continues

The exhibit Desert Mystic: The Paintings of John Simpkins opened at the High Desert Museum on October 27, 2018. The paintings reflect on the arid landscape and the wildlife surrounding his workspace in a schoolhouse in Andrews, Oregon. The exhibit opening was soon followed by a highly anticipated evening of conversation with Simpkins, filling the Museum’s Schnitzer Entrance Hall with more than 200 visitors eager to hear John discuss his artwork and life. The conversation continues here.

Painting in seclusion in the ghost town of Andrews, Oregon, how do you feel your artwork has evolved in the last seven years, being the town’s only human resident?

Painting is a life process. Living in the ghost town of Andrews, there are few distractions. I have learned to fully trust the intuitive guidance that leads me as I work, and I have released the constraints of time. Paintings evolve as days, weeks and months pass, eventually becoming something that is reflective of my observations, experiences and dreams. I have learned to trust what manifests as I paint. It evolves in each moment.

Some of your canvases are huge, larger than “Blood Moon” (9 feet x 10 feet) at the Museum. Do you find it takes more courage to approach a canvas the larger it is? Do you think it takes any courage to approach any canvas?

I have always been inspired by large canvases exhibited in museums and galleries. When I found myself here at this old one-room schoolhouse I felt it was time to explore this. What would it be like to paint on a canvas that was larger than me? Merriam-Webster defines courage as “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.” Perhaps it takes a bit of courage, but mostly it is a marvelous challenge! It becomes much more physical, climbing up and down a ladder to reach the high places or being on my knees to work on the lower parts. It is an adventure! There is no fear, only joy and wonder!

Deer Edward

Are there any creatures you’ve had contact with at and around the schoolhouse that you have not been able to paint? If so, what makes that creature different from the mule deer, cougar or badger?

Recently I have observed a group of bluebirds. They seem to be living inside the attic space of the old schoolhouse! They go in and out via a large hole made by a woodpecker and it is winter! There is snow! Yet there are five beautiful bluebirds here! There are magpies, so graphic in their black and white plumage! I may create something to do with this, we shall see. All creatures are marvelous and special to me.

When you spoke to the audience at the High Desert Museum in early November, you mentioned your morning espresso numerous times. It’s clearly an important part of your daily ritual. What kind of espresso do you drink?

It has indeed become a ritual of sorts! I like to sip my espresso from a small bowl, cradling the warmth in my hands. It brings many comforts! I use Organic II Espresso beans from THE BEAN organic coffee company purchased online via Amazon in 5-pound bags and brewed using a small stainless stovetop espresso maker made by Bialetti.

Looking to Steens Mountain every morning and having a front row seat for global climate change as the snow comes later and disappears earlier from the mountain top, are environmental issues taking a more prominent role in your work?

Yes. I am very concerned for our planet and all the precious lifeforms that have evolved here. Living alone with my dog, Ella, each day’s weather becomes the background for my work; I observe the changes and I feel a responsibility to share this in my work.

You document Andrews and the surrounding landscape with some amazing photos shared on Facebook. Have any of the photos inspired paintings? Or do you see your photos and paintings as separate work?

I do think of my photos and my paintings as separate work. It is a delightful challenge to capture the many moods of light and shadow, the weather and seasons of this place with my camera. Most of my photos are taken within the 2-acre parcel of land on which the old Andrews Schoolhouse and Teacherage are situated. My paintings are influenced by what I see and experience here, but I rarely use my photos as the basis for a painting.

Blood Moon

How do you know when you’re finished with a painting?

The paintings let me know when they are finished. There is a clear sense that a painting has no further need for me! I may go out to the old schoolhouse ready to begin work, sit and look at the painting and realize that there nothing left to do. It is complete.

Do you see yourself leaving Andrews? After seven years of seclusion, where do you see yourself living and working after this?

I am open to new adventures, though there is no immediate need or desire in me to leave this magical old schoolhouse! I sense there are more stories to tell here. Yet, admittedly there is also a desire in my spirit to perhaps one day return to the southern part of France, to Arles, to find a place to paint and to work there for a month or two.

Find John online at johnsimpkins.com.

Creating a Character

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.

An Inspiring Exhibition: Animal Journeys

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.

Can you find North?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.

Interactive solar system exploration.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.

The Emlen FunnelWhile 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.

Still Speaking: Edward Curtis’s Lens and Native Women’s Enduring Art

At the start of the 20th century, amid changes brought about by industrialization and the forced removal of American Indians to reservations, Edward S. Curtis undertook the enormous project of photographing Native people and recording ethnographic information from over 80 tribes across North America. The project took him over 30 years. It also came at significant personal cost, but it resulted in 20 bound volumes, over 2,000 photogravures and numerous recordings of Native languages, music and ceremonies. A small portion of that body of work is exhibited now at the High Desert Museum through January 20 in By Her Hand: Native American Women, Their Art, and the Photographs of Edward S. Curtis.

Over the decades, Curtis’s sepia-toned prints of Native people have shaped the ways that many non-Native people think about American Indians and the American West. Curtis’s legacy is a complicated one. He left us with thousands of photographs and recordings of Native people that otherwise would not exist. But he also brought the biases of his era to the project, photographing American Indians as a “vanishing race”—a stereotype that continues to negatively affect Native people’s lives. Countering this perspective, the exhibition features historical and contemporary works of art from the High Desert Museum’s permanent collection, highlighting the deep history and continued vibrancy of Indigenous people’s artist practices.

To broaden the story further and connect Curtis’s work to Native people’s lived experiences today, we asked three Native artists to comment on their art, its significance and the legacy of Edward Curtis. Pat Courtney Gold, a Wasq’u (Wasco) basket maker whose work is featured in the exhibition, commented that, “Art is part of my heritage. It is important for me and for Plateau people in general to see what we’re capable of reviving and the beauty of our heritage. Our heritage existed for thousands of years and speaks to us still.” Gold’s comments remind us of the importance of art as an expression of one’s identity and community and the significant role it can play in our lives.

By highlighting works of art created by Native women alongside Curtis’s prints, the exhibition celebrates Indigenous artistic traditions that have existed for centuries. They continue to thrive within Native communities today. It also reminds us not to look simply to Curtis but instead to look to the ways that Native people have and continue to express and portray themselves through their art.

A Steward of Energy

Chilly winds blow into the High Desert and many of us wonder how severe of a winter is about to arrive. Will it be another snowpocalypse? Will Mt. Bachelor diehards be praying for snow? Because of heating bills to come, many of us are looking at our own homes and wondering what we can do to be more energy efficient.

At the High Desert Museum, improving the energy efficiency of a building with sections that are almost 40 years old has long been a priority. In 2017, the Museum signed on to the Energy Trust of Oregon Strategic Energy Management Program. After a year of efforts big and small to improve energy usage around the property, the Museum saved 101,488 kWh. That translates into $10,149 in savings on electricity bills, well above our initial goal.

In recent months, our team has tackled numerous projects of varying sizes:
• New LED lights replaced older, inefficient T12 and T8 fluorescent lights.
• The Birds of Prey washer and dryer were replaced with more efficient units.
• Two refrigeration units and the ice maker were upgraded with Energy Star units.
• Motion light switches were added to mechanical, office and meeting areas.
• HVAC systems have been optimized.

In addition, in the first nine months of 2018, the Museum has saved 201,128 kWh. That’s over $20,000 in savings!

We’re planning for more work ahead. The High Desert Museum was the first commercial building in Oregon to install solar power, back in December 1994. It was done as a research opportunity through Mobil Solar Energy Corp and the University of Oregon.

Today, the panels are 23 years old. Therefore, University of Oregon staff will be returning in the coming months to hook the panels up to the internet in order to track production, among other things. We will all be able to see how our solar panels are functioning. If need be, necessary improvements will be made.

The High Desert Museum strives to be wise, responsible stewards of the generous resources given to us. We’ve made huge strides in our energy efficiency, but we will never consider this critical project complete. Most importantly, we remain committed to the Strategic Energy Management Program through 2018 and into the future.

The Treasure of a Feather

For many visitors, the Don Kerr Birds of Prey Center is one of the highlights of a day spent at the Museum. Raptors are not just an iconic part of the High Desert — they also have intangible value for cultures worldwide and throughout human history. The human connection to raptors is innate and universal. People everywhere are drawn to these powerful birds.

An important part of the Museum’s mission is to create a refuge for disabled raptors and provide the community with opportunities to enjoy them and learn about them up close. We do that with a collection of 30 non-releasable birds that participate in more than 1,000 public programs every year.

With that volume of education and outreach, raptor handlers quickly learn to anticipate the questions of a curious audience. Wildlife staff works tirelessly with our birds so they are comfortable with people getting close. Once close, people naturally want to touch. Being able to feel and hold something is a crucial component of an educational program. Touching has the potential to create powerful learning experiences. There’s a lot you can learn from holding a feather or talon, turning it in your hand, and feeling it in your fingers that would be imperceptible simply looking at a bird from across the room.

Unfortunately, raptors don’t enjoy being petted or touched. Instead we offer the chance to handle raptor feathers, talons and wings at our regular talks called Bird of Prey Encounter, during Kids’ Camps, in classrooms and during community-outreach programs. Inevitably, people ask if they can keep a feather to take home.

Human fascination with raptors and other birds has not always been reverent or respectful. In some cases, it has led to the exploitation and abuse of wild populations. Many species were once hunted for the commercial value of their feathers, a practice that peaked in the early 1900s. In an effort to halt the commercial trade in bird parts and stem the decline of wild populations, most bird species received protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918. This federal legislation prohibits the possession of bird parts including feathers, eggs and nests, and together with the Lacey Act — which prohibits trade in wildlife, fish and plants that have been illegally taken, possessed, transported or sold — eliminates any legal commercial trade in raptors.

Sadly, sometimes raptors are still killed for their feathers. Because bird parts can command high prices on the black market, it remains illegal for people to keep raptor feathers and for the Museum to give them to anyone without a special permit.

We work closely with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to maintain special permits so we can house live birds. This arrangement ensures that visitors have a place to enjoy raptors while learning about biology and conservation. We also have permits to salvage raptor parts for education so we can make sure the public has opportunities to feel how sharp a falcon’s talon is, the softness of an owl’s feather and how light birds’ bones can be.

On a live bird, feathers eventually wear out. Molting is the process by which birds lose old worn out feathers and replace them with new ones on an annual basis. With 30 live birds molting a full set of feathers every year, we have far more feathers than we would ever need for education. While we cannot allow visitors to take feathers home, we do not throw feathers away. One of behind-the-scenes ways the Museum supports raptor conservation is by making naturally molted feathers and excess salvaged bird parts available for use by Native American Tribal members. Raptors hold deep spiritual significance to most Native cultures. Tribal artisans and craftsman incorporate feathers into incredible works of art that clearly emphasize reverence and respect for the birds. Examples of these beautiful and historic objects are also exhibited at the Museum, illustrating the strong connection between wildlife, history and contemporary culture in the High Desert.

Every year in January the Museum’s wildlife staff prepares a report for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service detailing the use of every live bird and bird part in the collection, including feathers that are part of historical and cultural objects on display. In our By Hand Through Memory permanent exhibition alone there are more than 200 bald and golden eagle feathers on exhibit, each one meticulously identified and inventoried by dedicated collections volunteers. Each item is required by law to be made available to the public a minimum of 12 times per year or for 400 hours, a benchmark the Museum far exceeds by providing exhibitions and programs to the Central Oregon community and visitors 362 days a year.

Extra feathers and other items are carefully packaged and mailed off. Eagle feathers and parts go to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Eagle Repository in Colorado, and other feathers go to a Liberty Wildlife Non-Eagle Feather Repository in Arizona. These facilities ensure that raptor parts are legally sourced and distributed to Tribal members throughout the country for traditional use. We recently sent off a shipment containing two seasons worth of feather collection, totaling more than 2,500 feathers or more to the two repositories.

This is one small way the Museum works to conserve wild bird populations while simultaneously supporting the rich cultural traditions raptors have been a part of in the High Desert for thousands of years.

Birds of a Feather: The Afterlives of America’s Eagles

A Conversation with Artist Ben Pease

Crow/Northern Cheyenne artist Ben Pease
Crow/Northern Cheyenne artist Ben Pease considers himself an Indigenous creative, using creativity not just for art but also for education and storytelling.
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.

Ben Pease enjoys time with his two sons.
Ben Pease draws inspiration for his art from his native culture and his family — the Tribal Elders and his wife and their two sons.
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.

Ben Pease's piece, "Keeper of the People," has been awarded the Curator's Choice Award for the High Desert Museum's 2018 Art in the West exhibition.
Ben Pease’s piece, “Keeper of the People,” has been awarded the Curator’s Choice Award for the High Desert Museum’s 2018 Art in the West exhibition.
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.