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 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.