“It was love at first touch,” Lillian Pitt recalls of the first time her hands met clay. That happenstance encounter with a potter’s wheel led Pitt down a path of creative exploration and collaboration that has taken her all over the world. At age 72, Pitt is recognized as one of the most highly regarded Native American sculptors and mixed-media artists in the Pacific Northwest. Her works appear in galleries from Maine to California, in public commissions like the River Guardian sculpture on the Southwest Portland waterfront, and as part of the ambitious Confluence Project along the Columbia River.
Growing up in Warm Springs, Pitt never thought of herself as an artist. “I never even thought of myself as having a brain,” she says. “In the late ’40s, things were really tough for Indians. We were very poor; prejudice was rampant.” But Pitt was always a free spirit, filled with positive energy. She left for Portland after high school, putting herself through beauty school. “It was great fun,” she recalls. “I found a diverse family, all of us learning how to create with our hands.” When back problems ended that career, Pitt enrolled at Mt. Hood Community College to find another.
Her search ended with the discovery of that potter’s wheel. “I became obsessed,” she remembers. “Life was magic. I couldn’t wait to get to the studio.” When the wheel proved too difficult for her back, she switched to hand-built clay. She learned about raku and other techniques from library books. “I didn’t even know what to create,” she says. She used some masks on the wall as inspiration, not learning until much later that they were Yup’ik, an Arctic tribe.
But her talent shone through. At an art show, Pitt had the good fortune to cross paths with famed Navajo artist R.C. Gorman. He not only asked to see Pitt’s work, he purchased two pieces — her very first sale.
Pitt soon was interacting with artists all over the country, and then the world. A visit to the American Southwest introduced her to acclaimed Maori sculptor and painter Darcy Nicholas. At his invitation, she journeyed to New Zealand, traveling the country and meeting other native artists. Then came trips to Fiji, the Marshall Islands, Japan. “It was an amazing education,” Pitt marvels. “These artists all had such strong ethics — so careful, so respectful of their culture and their land.
“My elders had taught me to focus on where I’m from,” she continues, “and there that lesson was, everywhere, with these indigenous people. It changed the way I looked at my own world and the way I approached the clay.”
While raised in Warm Springs, Pitt’s family is directly tied to the banks of the Columbia. “I’m Warm Springs, Wasco and Yakama,” she explains. “It’s a little convoluted. I call myself a river person.”
Both the high desert and the river worlds of Lillian Pitt seem inexorably intertwined in her work. Pine cones and river shells add textures to her clay masks. Her Welcome Gate, part of the Confluence Project, celebrates the Columbia’s role as a tribal trading center, with two cedar canoe panels and cast-glass sculptures of a woman’s face. “The designs became something I could never do with just my two hands,” Pitt explains. “They’re embodying the stories and the land of my people. A 12,000-year ancestry in the Columbia River Gorge is a major, major pull. I just didn’t know it until I was 35 years old.”
Artists and others she’s met are intertwined in her work too. She named a 2016 exhibition in the Museum at Warm Springs “Kindred Spirits” to honor the elders and artists who have mentored her along the way. “Collaborating with others is how these magical things happen,” acknowledges Pitt, speaking from her studio in Portland. “All of my friends help. I’m not a self-made person.”
But she most certainly is an artist.