Skip to main content

Prominent Northwest artist reminisces on late-in-life learning curve

PORTLAND, Ore. - "I just sat there feeling really funky," said sculptor and
member of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs, Wasco and Paiute,
Lillian Pitt, remembering back 25 years before her art career took off. The
scene is the Oregon Native Business and Entrepreneur Network (ONABEN)
Trading at the River fall 2004 conference. Listening to Pitt is a
scattering of American Indian women interested in learning how to launch a
career in the arts. "There I was 36-years-old, ready to go back to school
and earn a degree in mental and human services. Somehow, though, I ended up
taking this ceramics class first. And after I figured out the potter's
wheel wasn't for me, I took my pounds of clay home on the bus since I
didn't drive at that time," Pitt said. Her turquoise blouse is of some
shiny, silky material that brings out the warm tones of her brown skin and
makes her dark eyes look like two pieces of polished jet. "I couldn't
decide what to make until I looked up at the walls where my partner and I
lived, and she had all these masks hanging there. So I went out to the
garage and made the homeliest mask you ever saw - the nose was really

But it was all uphill from there - or mostly. Pitt went on to make her
first seven masks and fire them raku style. They all turned out, and she
took some Polaroid snapshots of them. Then she went to see R.C. Gorman in
person at a Portland show he was doing. "I was in line to talk to him and
thinking 'oh, I'm nobody, what can I say?' Then I remembered my niece, Liz
Woody, was from the same village, so I introduced myself as her auntie."

Pitt goes on to tell how when Gorman asked her what she did, she didn't
want to tell him she was a student because she was "so old." So she told
him she was an artist. One thing led to another and after Gorman saw her
photos, he bought two of her masks. "He has been an amazing supportive
force behind my work," Pitt said. "Not only was he my first buyer, he got
me into galleries throughout the United States."

This first thing Pitt did was to learn to drive. "I was doing everything on
the bus," she said. "Taking my bisque work in to be fired 120 blocks on the
bus." Then in 1983 Pitt's mother gave her some money so she could build a
studio. Also during that period Pitt, a Portland resident, visited Warm
Springs to learn about her parents and grandparents. An afternoon spent
with elder Lucinda Smith changed Pitt's life. "She told me I'm from a
10,000 year history of living in the Columbia Gorge. It gave me such a
sense of power, knowing who I am," said Pitt. "I started using basket and
beaded designs on my masks. It was my way of honoring my culture. And plus,
I had the OK from my elders. It was really magic."

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Pitt moved from her early years to more recent ones. She talked of her
experiences with galleries, and even of her own unsuccessful attempt to run
her own gallery. "I had it for two years and lost all my money," said Pitt.
"But I learned how really, really hard it is to run your own business. And
now I help out the gallery owners I work with as much as I can because I
learned first hand what they go through."

The women in the crowd sit mesmerized. And well they should, because Pitt,
even as she concludes the story of her learning curve, begins to show
slides of her work. Images of masks that now sell for $1,200 to $3,000 each
depending on whether they are clay or bronze are thrown onto the screen in
magnificent color with glass trade beads and an array of feathers accenting
the offerings. Then come shots of her $45 pins that in the old days when
she needed money to pay her utility bills, Pitt let go for $12.50 each. And
installations of larger pieces of sculpture that she's done throughout the
Portland area in places like the city's convention center, Portland State
University and the Ainsworth green space.

The Heard Museum in Phoenix owns some of Pitt's work as well, and one of
her pieces depicting salmon drying on a rack is housed in the Washington
State Capitol. Pitt has traveled the world and met, among others, Maori
people from New Zealand. Most recently she received a commission for 22
masks from United Arab Emirates, where she will travel for the installation
in 2005.

Despite her success, Pitt's late beginnings keep her grounded. "When I was
in the Czech Republic all we ate was potatoes and cabbage because they had
no meat. And in Laos and Thailand they really have it tough. There was a
little old lady there, and she was so old. I bought all her things just so
she could go home and rest."

That's Lillian Pitt, deeply humanitarian with the sensitivity of a true
artist. She spends her time sharing her experiences with others without
backing away from the truth. But then that's how those who have a sense of
their power operate. Pitt knows who she is and where she's from. That's why
she titled her 1999 show at the Museum at Warm Springs: "Spirits Keep
Whistling Me Home."