Many artworks are carefully coddled — climate controlled, touched only with gloved hands, kept pristine and protected from the imprints of everyday life.
“Creations of Spirit,” the marquee exhibition of the year at the High Desert Museum in Bend, is different. Pieces commissioned from seven Indigenous artists of the Northwest come to the 1,900-square-foot Spirit of the West Gallery as living works of art, enriched by use in their communities. A woven basket arrives flecked with soil from the gathering of springtime roots; a tule-reed canoe comes with the smudges and scratches from a day on the lake. Together the collection carries a message understood in Plateau tribal communities: Art is at once ceremonial and utilitarian, filled with spirit in its creation and enhanced by its ongoing relationship to people and place.
“This way of creating is purposeful and interconnected,” explains Phil Cash Cash, whose carved flutes represent a style unique to the Plateau region where he was raised on the Umatilla Indian Reservation. “It’s not so much about art and the individual. It’s a deep creative process that renews a sense of belonging — a community belonging, a cultural belonging, an ancestral belonging, a world belonging. We’re drawing from something larger to activate our creativity and imbue it in objects we create.”
The concept of art as a creative life force makes for an immersive and highly engaging exhibition, says museum Executive Director Dana Whitelaw. “There’s personhood in these objects, which connects them to their community in new and interesting ways for our visitors,” she remarks. Alongside the works, visitors can also see video, audio and large projections that portray the objects in use in their Native communities and landscapes. Accompanying text is in the words of the artists themselves. “The exhibition is an active, vibrant way to experience the artistry of these works that are furthering these active, vibrant cultures,” adds Whitelaw.
Spotlight on Oregon Tribal Artists
The High Desert Museum is place-based, explains director of communications Heidi Hagemeier, telling the region’s story through art, cultures, history and the natural world. That’s why you might experience contemporary art, examine historic photographs and check out rowdy river otters all in a single visit.
For this new, original show — which runs from January 28 to October 1, 2023 — the museum commissioned seven highly accomplished and acclaimed Indigenous artists from across the Plateau, a broad region of the Intermountain West that extends from the Cascade Range to the Rocky Mountains. The museum also worked with Indigenous videographer LaRonn Katchía (Warm Springs, Wasco, Paiute) and Bend’s Wahoo Films.
Each artist, notes Whitelaw, is “creating these works filled with knowledge of the Plateau and the Indigenous worldview of the Plateau region.” In addition to the artists’ work, nine artifacts from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian are on loan and included in the “Creations of Spirit” exhibition.
The featured artists and their works on display include carved Plateau flutes by Phil Cash Cash (Cayuse, Nez Perce); a traditional gathering basket by Joe Feddersen (Colville); a tule-reed canoe and paddles by Jefferson Greene (Warm Springs); beaded regalia for ceremony and celebration by H’Klumaiyat Roberta Joy Kirk (Wasco, Warm Springs, Diné); contemporary woven baskets by Natalie Kirk (Warm Springs); a putlapa corn husk hat by Kelli Palmer (Wasco, Warm Springs); and an interactive piece that encourages visitors to experiment with geometric weaving and beading patterns by RYAN! Feddersen (Colville).
Continuing the Community Connection
Just as the featured artworks come to the museum as living objects imbued with history, they will continue to be part of their communities after the “Creations of Spirit” show concludes.
“Because this exhibition is so much about these works and their connection to community, we wanted to make sure that connection endured,” says Whitelaw. Pieces will become part of the High Desert Museum’s permanent collection but also will be available to their communities in perpetuity for educational and ceremonial uses. Kirk’s regalia, for example, will be worn by young tribal women for special events, and Greene’s canoe will be paddled by Native youth to teach and carry forward an important cultural tradition.
These kinds of loan programs are a growing trend in museums, notes Whitelaw, and “an opportunity for the High Desert Museum to connect with regional tribes in a more intentional and culturally responsive way.”
“Having access is profound,” says Cash Cash. “As these objects circulate through the community, they may revive certain practices and bring into being new forms of expression. They continue to have a life beyond the exhibition — carrying forth the spirit first expressed in their creation.”