Road Trip to Crow’s Shadow

It was rainy and cold the morning I went on my four-hour drive from Boise, the capital of Idaho, to the printmaking institute Crow’s Shadow on the Umatilla Reservation in Oregon. Clouds hung over the tops of the Blue Mountains and raindrops covered my windscreen with a sheet of Pacific Northwest rain. The radio was playing Mac Demarco’s Salad Days and the wipers weren’t doing their job well. 

By the time I left Interstate 84, the rain had stopped and the asphalt of the serpentine road gleamed in the sunlight. After what seemed an endless number of turns, an old-fashioned wooden sign at the roadside pointed to the St. Andrew Mission church and the neighboring printmaking institute. I had heard that Crow’s Shadow was located in a building provided by the mission.

Once there, Karl Davis, the recently appointed new executive director of Crow’s Shadow, welcomed me. We exchanged a few words and were soon on our way to the studio of James Lavadour, the artist and founder of the printmaking institute. The road to the studio led me once again through the amazing landscape of the American Northwest; these mountains and fir forests have inspired people like David Lynch, who spent most of his childhood in the region.

 

 

It comes as no surprise that Lavadour’s connection to nature plays a major role in his work. The painter’s studio is located on the reservation in one of the low-cost cookie-cutter houses that the federal government provided for Native Americans all over the country, but without any consideration of the local climate, meaning that in summertime the houses are extremely hot and in the winter they are difficult to keep warm. Lavadour seems to be content with the fact that his studio is located in an area where there is not a neighbor on the horizon. He welcomes me with a critical look that speaks volumes; the question of what brought me there wasn’t long in coming. We sat down in the studio filled with work in progress and the smell of oil paint, and he told me about his vision of Crow’s Shadow.

In the early 1990s it was difficult for artists with a tribal affiliation to get their work sold within the “high art” gallery circuits. Many Native American artists could only make a living by having teaching jobs at universities and academies. High art gallery owners assumed that there was no market for their work. An exception was the Sacred Circle Gallery in Seattle, which built up a reputation for selling art by Native Americans between 1981 and 2001, when its director Steve Charles left his job. Lavadour worked with Sacred Circle, but he also felt the need to establish a facility for artists on the reservation. In 1990 he enjoyed a year as research fellow at Rutgers University, where the idea of Crow’s Shadow took shape. His fascination for printmaking had been triggered during an earlier residency at Tamarind Institute in New Mexico. He was fascinated by the “encyclopedia of printmaking” and wanted to share it with other creative minds on the reservation. This place had to provide the reservation artists with the technology, a network and access to “money and collectors.” In short, he wanted a social economic initiative for Native Americans, and in 1992, managed to establish Crow’s Shadow as a non-profit organization. In support of his endeavor, the St. Andrews Mission provided the building, which Lavadour and his collaborators renovated with financial support from grants and donations from the community. Crow’s Shadow put an accent on involving the local youth by organizing programmers and workshops about printmaking.

Bridging the gap between indigenous creativity and contemporary art is one of Crow’s Shadow’s central aims. There are many different identities on the reservations throughout the states. Each reservation is a small island with its own communal culture and language. Crow’s Shadow represents the Umatilla community, but also functions as the nexus between the rural and the urban by inviting artists with (and as of late, also without) Native American affiliation. They are united by their feeling of having been connected to the land for thousands of years and of being responsible for the preservation of old cultures and languages. In Lavadour’s view, it is the idea of the “Indian country” with which they identify. He compares Native Americans to “an organ in the belly of society that has a certain function in the body that is the world.”

In his paintings, the structure of the reservation landscape is mirrored, their strong colors reminiscent of those I saw outside of his studio. To the painter, being a Native means perceiving “the world as free for the taking” and his paintings take a lot from the land. So much so that the common phrase “the land and I are one” seems transfigured in them. The geological phenomena of landscape such as hydrology, sedimentation and erosion inspire Lavadour’s experiments with the possibilities of paint—for him, making art is like the process of hunting and gathering.

Back at Crow’s Shadow, I checked out the collection of prints available for sale and on exhibition. Then Frank Janzen, the master printer who joined Crow’s Shadow in 2001, took me on a tour through the printing studio. To me, Frank represented what he would call “the uplifting power of art.” His job is to guide the resident artists through the possibilities of printing at Crow’s Shadow. I could not imagine a better-suited personality for this job.

Before making their prints, Frank gives each artist an introduction to the different printing techniques, which may take up to three months. Once they decide which technique suits their idea best, Janzen guides each artist through the process of selecting paper, color, format, etc. Then contracts—with the artists, their galleries and Crow’s Shadow—are drawn up to settle exactly who owns which of the produced prints. Then proofs are made. Over the years, the printmaking institute has amassed an impressive collection of prints by artists like Jim Denomie, James Luna, Jeffrey Gibson, Wendy Red Star, and Eva Lake.

At some point during our conversation, Frank recollected how he had picked up Jeffrey Gibson from the airport in Portland and brought him to Crow’s Shadow for a residency. Frank had asked, “so what do you think of what you see?” When they arrived at the institute, the artist answered, “It’s surreal.” For Lavadour and his collaborators, however, Crow’s Shadow is more of a dream coming true.