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Roll On, Columbia, Roll On

L&C artists, in collaboration with community partners, create a giant print that tells the stories of the Columbia River and its people.

Iris Riedel BA '19, Tammy Jo Wilson, visual arts and technology program manager, and Matt Joh...Iris Riedel BA '19, Tammy Jo Wilson, visual arts and technology program manager, and Matt Johnston, associate professor of art history, carve the final design into the woodblock. Credit: Robert Reynolds

Over the spring and summer, Lewis & Clark College—along with a variety of community partners—collaborated with the Maryhill Museum of Art in southern Washington on an unusual printmaking project.

Dubbed The Exquisite Gorge Project, the endeavor featured nearly a dozen artists working with communities along a 220-mile stretch of the Columbia River from the Willamette to the Snake River confluence.

The unique project was inspired by the surrealist art practice known as exquisite corpse. In the most well-known exquisite corpse drawing game, participants take turns creating sections of a body on a piece of paper folded to hide each successive contribution. When the paper is unfolded, the whole body is revealed.

In the case of The Exquisite Gorge Project, the Columbia River was the “body” that unified the collaboration between artists and communities, ultimately resulting in a flowing 66-foot print that tells 10 conceptual stories of the Columbia River and its people.

Each artist was assigned a stretch of the river and worked with input from community members to carve images on 4 x 6–foot wood panels. In late August, at an event on the Maryhill grounds, the completed panels were connected end-to-end. After the joined blocks were inked, a steamroller ran the length of a giant piece of paper to create one large continuous print, which was on display at the museum for most of September.

Each artist took a different approach to developing creative content by engaging with the local community. Matt Johnston, associate professor and department chair of art, and Tammy Jo Wilson, visual arts and technology manager, led the L&C effort. They worked alongside five students and recent graduates—Frankie Beilharz BA ’20, Shannon Drew BA ’20, Anna Kahler BA ’19, Iris Riedel BA ’19, and Aiden Turlington BA ’19.

The L&C artists were assigned an area of the Columbia that extends from just east of Portland to just west of Cascade Locks. The stretch of river encompasses much of the area affected by the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire, which is the focus of their print. After interviewing residents and geologists, as well as hiking the area and studying aerial photographs, the students chose to draw attention to the boundary between urban and wilderness areas, in both literal and metaphorical terms, as well as the cycle from fire-damaged forest to new growth.

“The students decided to create a collage out of photographs they had taken of undamaged and fire-damaged trees, matching textures with the features of a topographical map,” says Johnston. “This approach seemed promising as it also created a striking juxtaposition of abstract patterns, all formed from either harvested or untouched wood. We wanted viewers to reflect on the basic reality that the wilderness is not so distant as many urban residents consider it to be.”

In addition to the Maryhill Museum and Lewis & Clark, project partners included the Arts in Education of the Gorge, the Dalles– Wasco County Library, the Gorge Veterans Museum, the Dalles Art Center, Goldendale– Fort Vancouver Library System, Whitman College, and the White Salmon Arts Council.

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