A New Wildlife Resident

One of the most common questions we get from visitors is about how the creatures, from river otters to desert tortoises, came to be in our care. And every day, I spend time with a small, new resident that came to us last summer, a Western painted turtle with a very interesting story.

A good Samaritan found her in Woodburn with a screw in her shell and fishing line cutting into her neck. She was rightfully turned in to the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (ODFW) for recovery. ODFW speculates that she was being kept as someone’s pet because of the screw. Most likely her owners inserted the screw so they could tether her outside. She escaped anyway and then got caught up in the discarded fishing line.

After the rescue and rehabilitation, ODFW contacted us to see if we could provide her with a home. We had the perfect spot in our Desertarium.

We have four Western painted turtles in the collection. All can be found in the Desertarium’s turtle exhibit. The species is found across North America, with the Western painted turtle being one of four subspecies. They are commonly found in the Willamette Valley in Oregon. However, they are still found throughout the Cascades, even on the east side in our neck of the woods.

Oregon’s native turtle species are protected, and it is illegal to remove one from the wild to keep as a pet. Unaware of this fact, many who stumble on a Western painted turtle in the wild are tempted to take it home. There are a few exotic turtle species in Oregon that are illegal to possess, the most well-known being the red-eared slider. It’s now invasive in Oregon thanks to the exotic pet trade. The message here would be to always do thorough research when deciding whether to acquire an exotic pet because they are not always legal. They often require care that is beyond what the average person can provide. Even if you find yourself out over your skis, so to speak, it is illegal to release pets into the wild.

Now that the turtle has a happier ending at the High Desert Museum, why is she non-releasable? This turtle cannot go back into the wild for a few reasons. First, ODFW biologists do not know where she came from. If she wasn’t originally part of a population of turtles, introducing her could potentially have adverse impacts. Oregon turtle populations are fragmented due to the disappearance of habitat continuity caused by human development and habitat degradation. Because of this, introducing outside DNA can potentially create offspring that are not well-suited for that particular area.

Because of the fragmentation of wild populations, introducing an individual to a new population could also spread disease that is found in one area to another. It is important to note that in the state of Oregon it is illegal to release wildlife that has been under human care for longer than 72 hours.

Discarded fishing line and other refuse — pack it in and pack it out. It is that simple. Discarded fishing line, hooks, lures, plastic bags, balloons, Styrofoam — all of it has the potential to harm wildlife. This turtle could have died if not found and given help.

We’ve been very happy with her progress. She is frequently seen floating at the surface of the exhibit where she can check out the activity in the gallery. She is also spotted basking with the other two females of the same species. Her wound from the fishing line is completely healed, but she will have her screw hole for some time. In the short time she’s been with us, she’s become an amazing ambassador for her species, sharing with visitors the importance of conservation and responsibility.

Resilience Through Art

Self Portrait by Takuichi Fujii

During World War II, the U.S. federal government incarcerated 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, about two-thirds of whom were United States citizens. The government used racist propaganda and fear-based arguments to justify their actions. For those who were incarcerated—imprisoned without charge—the experience was life-changing.

Sunflowers by Takuichi Fujii

Witness to Wartime: The Painted Diary of Takuichi Fujii examines this painful chapter of American history. Artist Takuichi Fujii was among those imprisoned, first at the Puyallup temporary detention camp on the Washington State Fairgrounds and then at Minidoka Relocation Center, where he lived with his family for over three years. During this time, he painted with oil and watercolors and sculpted. He also kept an illustrated diary. Nearly 400 pages in length, it chronicled his family’s forced removal from Seattle and concluded with the closing of Minidoka. Fujii’s illustrated diary as well as the other works he created illuminate the bleakness of everyday life in confinement as well as moments of beauty and hope. For some of those incarcerated, art served as a means of expression and survival. Fujii’s work makes apparent the resilience of those imprisoned.

After the war, Fujii and his family moved to Utah and then to Chicago as a part of the government’s resettlement program. He continued to paint, experimenting with abstraction. After his death in 1964, Fujii’s artwork from 1942 onward was kept in storage by his family until his grandson recognized its significance and began translating the diary.

This exhibition offers a rare opportunity to see the breadth of Fujii’s work, including his American realist paintings of the 1930s, his wartime paintings and drawings and his postwar abstract expressionist paintings. One historian has called Fujii’s illustrated diary “the most remarkable document created by a Japanese-American prisoner during the wartime incarceration.” It not only sheds light on the past but continues to resonate today.

 

 

Bringing Perspective to Oregon Encounters

A fourth grader works a crosscut saw at the High Desert Museum during Oregon Encounters, a program that shares about what the region was like in the 1840s.

From using a crosscut saw to building a wagon, the High Desert Museum’s popular annual social studies field trip brings Oregon’s history to life for fourth-grade students. For years, the Museum has hosted students from all over the state during a one-week period to explore history through living history characters, hands-on activities and other unique experiences. Known until recently as Frontier Days, this program had mostly told this history from the singular perspective of Anglo-Europeans.

In 2017, we received a grant from the Oregon Heritage Commission to transform this experience into an opportunity to increase student awareness of the diverse perspectives and cultures that make up Oregon’s history. However, we quickly discovered that this program redesign was not a simple process. It involved challenging questions and internal changes to our approach to education programs.

At the same time as the Oregon Heritage Commission grant, the Museum was invited to participate in the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services-funded Cultural Competency Learning Institute. This institute brings together museums from across the nation to advance diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion (DEAI) within their institutions. Through this institute, we learned the value of working internally to build board, staff and volunteer awareness of and investment in DEAI in conjunction with telling diverse stories through our programs. During this process, our Oregon Heritage Commission-funded redesign project served as a concrete example for increasing internal understanding of why telling diverse stories matters.

Behind the scenes at the shoot for the Letitia Carson video that was featured during the revised Oregon Encounters program.

In April 2019, our redesigned program, now called Oregon Encounters, included the stories of American Indians, African Americans, Native Hawaiians and Latinx populations. The response from teachers and students was overwhelmingly positive. One student commented: “In movies, it is always white settlers, but at Oregon Encounters, I learned that so much diversity is embedded in Oregon’s history.”

In addition, we are continuing to build on these experiences to re-examine other programs. For example, we recently received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to support Creating Together—a project that is bringing together Native experts to reinterpret our permanent exhibition on Plateau Indians. Alongside this project, we are launching a yearlong training series that will include speakers and group readings to expand staff awareness of Native perspectives. With a more culturally competent staff, we will be able to more meaningfully incorporate Native perspectives throughout our exhibitions and programs and not limit them to a single exhibition.

As museums and heritage centers diversify the stories we tell, it is equally important to build awareness and understanding within our institutions. Although this internal work is challenging and there are no road maps, it is essential to ensuring we move beyond one-time programs and meaningfully commit to DEAI.

 

Waves of Artwork from Harmonic Laboratory

If you visit the Museum this summer, you’ll get the opportunity to explore the original exhibit Desert Reflections: Water Shapes the West. The dynamic, multifaceted exhibition weaves together science, history, art and contemporary issues in its examination of the role of water in the region’s past, present and future.

In addition to the discussion of the complexities of water management, Desert Reflections connects visitors to its significance through visual art, music and spoken word performances. The High Desert Museum commissioned artwork from four Pacific Northwest artists for the exhibition. The project began with field trips into the desert with experts in order to spark discussion and inspiration for the pieces.

One of the four artists on the journey is Eugene’s art collective Harmonic Laboratory. The group created two installations for the exhibition. These are their stories.

Garden of Earthly Delights

When you enter the Spirit of the West Gallery, the main location of Desert Reflections, walk to the back of the room and you’ll find the haunting video triptych Garden of Earthly Delights. Three large flat screen televisions are arranged in a horizontal row, each displaying discrete black-and-white videos.

Garden of Earthly Delights depicts a loss of innocence, making deliberate reference to Hieronymus Bosch’s iconic triptych by the same title, created in the late 15th century. The original imagery reflects biblical scenes read from left to right; Eden, the Judgment, and Hell. Bosch’s triptych stands as a warning against the devastating outcome of irresponsibility and self-interest. The imagery used in the Harmonic Laboratory video version follows the same basic narrative, but is more political in nature, representing the tension between two bodies of diverse backgrounds engaged in a negotiation over water as a scarce and precious resource.

Observing the panels from left to right, the first screen situates an Indigenous woman emerging from a pristine river surrounded by a lush forest. The center panel zooms in on the two central figures’ hands pouring water back and forth between clear vessels. In the final screen a white male collapses onto the dry, cracked surface of a High Desert wasteland.

Garden of Earthly Delights uses two natural High Desert settings representing either an abundance of water or an extreme lack thereof. The protagonists reflect the socio-political tension between two groups in conflict over water rights: the Native peoples who have inhabited the area since time immemorial as riparian civilizations with deeply ancestral and spiritual ties to the water supply, and the white settlers who have journeyed west over the past two centuries to establish their homes and industries. This is a cautionary tale of the ultimate price of exploitation.

Awash

Floating above one’s head more than 8 feet from the ground, Awash creates an array of sonic and visual movement. The piece runs 32’ along the Museum hallway, and the viewer walks underneath a 120-speaker network. As sound moves across the speakers, the installation physically moves up and down in one large sinusoidal wave via Dacron string connected to a large rotating disc. The disc connects to 20 rows of speakers, translating rotary motion into smooth vertical movement.

Awash depicts the life, color and environment of the High Desert in a network of sound and moving parts. The kinetic sound sculpture emanates sonic shades of the High Desert while simultaneously flowing as a connected sinusoidal wave spanning 32 feet. The work hovers above the viewers’ heads and envelops them in sight and sound.

The soundscape in Awash has three types of audio: wind, water and color. For these three archetypal sounds, there are two audio modes. These modes either immerse the listener or move sound across the 32-foot structure. To help situate the listener within the High Desert, the piece amplifies field recordings of High Desert wind and Oregon waterways. The outside is brought inside, and across the length of the speaker array, viewers are enveloped in sounds that move above, through and around them. For sounds of color, a recording of a Skinner church organ, played by slowly adding keys and organ stops, creates lush, harmonic textures. These textural colors evoke the richness of the High Desert, a place that is shaped by multiple forces interacting in complex ways.

Unpacking the technical and mechanical design of Awash parallels understanding the symbiotic and complex forces at play in the water cycle of the High Desert. Ten electrical boards rest atop the structure, driving how sounds move. The boards are synchronously timed to trigger spatialized sounds across the structure. Standing underneath, one can hear and feel how natural forces move around us –– sounds of water and wind flow uninterrupted –– absorbed only by what is present within the space. The energy of sound is acoustically absorbed by bodies and materials in the museum, akin to the way that natural resources are consumed and absorbed within an ecosystem.

Sound waves propagate throughout the space and undulating kinetic motion immerse the viewer. Light shimmers off tessellating shapes hanging midair, evoking an environment teeming with life and motion. Like scales from fish or rings of a tree, the piece marks the shape of a body inside a living ecosystem. Awash is made up of small pieces; yet, the individual components connect to form a mass that has weight.

Awash mirrors the distribution of energy within an ecosystem. In the High Desert, floodplains provide an energy buffer that supports the productivity and sustainability of life, in particular fish populations. The kinetic sound sculpture disperses sound energy across 120 3-watt speakers. As sound moves over longitudinal and lateral planes, the space becomes “awash” with varying frequencies and amplitudes. No one speaker is loud enough to cut through the ambient noise of the environment, but together, the distributed energy of the speaker network moves sound as large, vibrational waves across the constructed landscape of the Museum.

Experience Desert Reflections: Water Shapes the West and let Harmonic Laboratory’s installations wash over you. Desert Reflections is on display through Sunday, September 29, 2019.

 

 

Repairing the Tipi

In 1999, the permanent exhibition By Hand Through Memory opened to the public, and greeting visitors outside the entrance stood a towering, tule mat tipi. For generations, Native people of the Columbia River Plateau built and continue to build such tipis using natural materials including tule and cattail — tule is a large bulrush that is abundant in marshy areas. Cattail is a tall, reed-like marsh plant with a dark brown, velvety cylindrical head of numerous tiny flowers.

The tipi at the Museum was made by James Selam and fellow Yakama family members Delsie Selam, Loretta White, Susan Brown, Howard Selam and Ernie Selam. It immediately became a treasured, iconic part of the Museum.

Over its nearly 20 years at the Museum, thousands of visitors have taken in its beauty. Yet two decades later, it needed attention. The creation and care for the tule mat tipi are deeply spiritual acts. Over three days in early May 2019, the tipi was thoughtfully dismantled and methodically cleaned and rebuilt by Clarice Paul of the Wanapum and Warm Springs Nations, her husband Lightening of the Yakama Nation and their son Little Lightening.

In tule tipi repair, Clarice removes the mats from the tipi, rolls them flat, sprays them with hot water and gently washes the mats with water and a washcloth. They are then dried upright with fans.

While the mats are drying, three tipi poles are left in place and secured as the others are taken down for cleaning and repair. The circumference of the tipi is reduced to strengthen the framework and fit it securely to the base of the exhibit. Clarice ties willow branches on the inside of the tipi in three places, adding more points to secure the mats. Starting at the bottom, the mats are then sewn back on. If new doors are needed, as was the case with the tule tipi at the Museum, peeled down cattail reeds are woven together to make a door.

Some interesting details about this and other tule mat tipis –

– The interior of the reed expands when the air is cold, tightening them together when it’s needed most to keep the tipi’s interior warm. In warmer months the interior of the reed contracts making more space between the reeds so air can flow more easily.

– The door traditionally is placed facing east to welcome the sun.

– Previously the bottom row had two layers of tule mats, depicting a winter tipi. Now there is only one layer of mats to depict a summer home.

– Tule tipis are used as a shelter and gathering place for meals.

We are forever grateful to Clarice, Lightening and Little Lightening Paul for repairing the tule mat tipi. The knowledge, thoughtfulness and care brought to this project means that the tipi will continue to stand tall and teach thousands more visitors about the Indigenous people of the Columbia River Plateau.

More about the Paul family –

Lightening and Clarice have been together for 24 years with two sons (ages 21 and 10) and one grandson. Lightening is a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Yakama Nation. Clarice is an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and grew up as a Wanapum member from Priest Rapids, Washington. Clarice is a master weaver teacher specializing in tule mat weaving at the Northwest Native American Basketweavers Association.

 

A special thank you goes out to High Desert Museum volunteer photographer Heather Duchow who captured a delicate and important process!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

By Kari Mauser

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.