My final report on our Oregon trip begins with the Museum at Warm Springs, on the eastern flank of the Cascades north of Bend. The Warm Springs Reservation is home to an Indian Confederation composed of the Warm Springs (originally the Walla Walla), the Paiute, and the Wasco tribes, which was formed by treaty in 1855. The museum invites you into its halls with rock walls and a stream, as if you were walking up a creek to its mountain origins and entering a sacred enclosure where the ancestors dwell in spirit and memory. And indeed, that is what you find, with artifacts from the long history and pre-history of the peoples of the “Big River” region in the Columbia highlands.
But we also found more in the contemporary work of Lillian Pitt, perhaps the most celebrated artist of the region. Drawing on her Warms Springs ancestors and traditions, she works in many media, including ceramics, glass, wood, and other natural materials. Through her masks, figures, and more abstract pieces we could get a feel for a long tradition that has also found its way into Sylvia’s art through her mosaic renderings of Tsagiglal (“She Who Watches”), a legendary petroglyph figure of the region. (It’s also spelled Tsagaglal,” we found out.) For once, I actually egged her on to purchase a lovely brooch of one of Lillian Pitts’ Tsagiglals cast in silver.
We then drove through the high plains east of Mt. Jefferson to Mt. Hood, wreathed, as usual, if swirling clouds, its spreading base thick with trees.
Timberline Lodge, high on the southeastern shoulder of Mt. Hood, testifies to a very different craft and artistic tradition. Mt. Hood, with its near active volcanic core, has long been a destination for skiers, climber, and hikers. The Lodge was built in 1936-37 as a Works Progress Administration project. The WPA employed thousands of workers, crafters and artists left penniless by the Great Depression. Since most of the funds for the project were devoted to wages for the 500 workers, the craftsmen used locally harvested and recycled materials to build the lodge. The land and lodge belong to the US Forest Service, which worked with the planners and architects as they sought to build something that would reflect the mountain’s topography as well as the cultural heritages of the area. The fulfillment of this vision was then transformed by the craftsmen into the rugged artistry in iron, stone, fiber, and wood that came to constitute the lodge. Since then, volunteers as well as the Forest Service and the family firm managing the lodge have devoted great attention to maintaining and restoring these components as faithfully as they can.
As a result, the massive lodge is a raw expression of the native talent, skill, and imagination of the workers themselves. What they labored in penury to envision and build is now, ironically, enjoyed by the affluent and those who make a pilgrimage to this testimony to the craft and artistry of “ordinary workmen.” The skiers now have a large facility across the parking lot to cater to their needs.
Built of local stone, the Lodge looms out of the parking lodge at over 6,000 feet as if it were a part of the mountain. It is open all year around, but the snow pack just above the Lodge testifies to the mantle that encases it much of the year.
Massive doors on wrought iron hinges frame openings to the vista across the range to Mt. Jefferson. Mosaics adorn a number of the walls, while 30-foot timbers frame in the space around the central chimney, with its four fireplaces opening onto the three floors encircling it. Some of the art pieces were carved on linoleum and highlighted with paints. Carved lintels depicting wildlife of the region and some of the pioneer history fill out the stairwells and span some of the larger doorways. Mountain lions fashioned in wood marquetry crouch on the wall of the main lobby. Large glass mosaics depicting Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe brighten the basement pub where the aroma of fresh pizza fills the air.
The andirons in the fireplaces were fashioned by hand out of old railroad rails. Rams head door knockers, lamp stands, chandeliers, gates, and decorative hinges manifest the craftsmanship of the workers throughout the building.
And, of course, there is wood, some of it reflecting the Arts and Crafts movement, some of it growing out of he artistry and necessity that shaped the construction of the Lodge. Newel posts made of telephone poles are topped off with carvings of wildlife. The main lobby employs the intricate joints and pins typical of this ancient craft to erect the central tower on hand-hewn columns of Ponderosa Pine.
The furniture also tends toward the massive, displaying the mark of adz, broadax, scorp, chisel, and scraper of pioneer workmanship. Side desks look like something Paul Bunyan could have used to write a note home on a cold winter night. Wherever possible, the craftsmen have adorned their work with carvings of animals, flowers, or abstract designs.
Fabrics were also a big part of the craft work. Rugs were hooked, curtains were woven, and spreads were appliquéd and sewn together. Many of the fabrics have had to be replaced, but care has been given to employing the same methods, colors, and fabrics. While the atmosphere is casual and relaxed, it is also clear that you are staying in a museum as much as in a ski lodge.
This union of usefulness and beauty is what artistic craft is all about. In John Ruskin’s words, “…the moment we make anything useful thoroughly, it is a law of nature that we shall be pleased with ourselves, and with the thing we have made; and become desirous therefore to adorn or complete it, in some dainty way, with finer art expressive of our pleasure.” Walking through the hallways and lobbies, not to mention the very room we stayed in, was to savor the way this work had lifted hearts and minds, even as it brought bread to the table for the workers of the thirties. When I see the so-called blighted areas of our country and come across a mural on the wall of an old warehouse, or a mailbox housed on a sculpture of bicycle parts and rebars, I know that the human spirit is at work, bringing something out of no thing, beauty and usefulness serving a life. We need to celebrate that more. It’s right under our noses…or hidden in the forests up on a mountain. Find it.