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Warm Springs Native opens art gallery in Portland

PORTLAND, ORE. - Lillian Pitt's sculpture has gone monumental.

From clay masks and delicate silver jewelry, Pitt has now combined her love for ancient Wasco basket designs with steel and "rusty things" to come up with innovative 8-foot-tall, monumental sculptures.

Not only has she gone big, she's had to find a house to fit her new metal children.

Kindred Spirits Art Gallery is their new home in downtown Portland. At a gala opening in November, Pitt revealed her new sculptures as well as the clay masks for which she has become famous. The gallery opening also featured large sculptures by foundry owner Ken MacKintosh, Pitt's friend and collaborator.

The move to open her own gallery came as much of a surprise to Pitt as anybody. The size of her new works and the $15,000 to $20,000 price tags they command were a problem for most galleries, and Pitt didn't expect many to open their doors to her.

But a new gallery-type building was under construction in Portland just as Pitt was expanding. She fancied the space and knew it wouldn't last for long, so she jumped at the opportunity to rent it.

"Business-wise I imagine it should have been planned out a lot better," says Pitt. "But I'm an intuitive-type person and it seems sometimes like the universe wants you to go one way and you don't have that much time to think about it.

"Sometimes it works and sometimes it's just a really good lesson."

The Warm Springs Native says she has always lived life by the seat of her pants.

Originally trained as a hairdresser, Pitt worked in that profession for 20 years. But back problems and five major surgeries forced her to quit.

After going back to school and earning an associate degree in fine arts at Mount Hood Community College, Pitt decided social work was the direction to go. She was accepted into the mental health human services program, but fate intervened and set her on a new course.

"A friend was taking ceramics at college and she just looked like she was having way too much fun and I wasn't," she says. "And so I signed up too, and it was just love at first touch."

As "luck" would have it, during her first year studying ceramics Pitt approached R.C. Gorman, the famous Navajo painter, who was exhibiting at an art show. She showed him badly taken photos of her unfinished work. His response was instantaneous. He bought two of her very first pieces.

"I figured, 'Well, if R.C. Gorman likes my stuff it can't be too bad,'" she says. "Then he said I should show my work at the gallery where he was showing.

"I was already accepted into the undergraduate program in social work and when he said that I thought, 'Well, I'll give it a year.' And that's been 20 years ago."

Pitt is now known internationally for her Raku- and Anagama-fired ceramic masks and "Shadow Spirit" totem images based on traditional symbols and spirits of her Columbia River ancestors. Pitt also creates mixed media installations from natural materials which call in spirit energies and act as memorials to her ancestors, human, plant and animal.

One recurring image, "She Who Watches," is based on a Columbia River petroglyph which represents the last of the Woman chiefs before Coyote changed her into a rock to watch over her people and the Men chiefs who followed. This image is seen in mask form and in the faces of clay and silver jewelry pieces she makes.

Her new monumental sculptures are very modern, yet based on early petroglyph figures and images from Wasco root bags. The heads are triangular, often depicted with rays emanating from them. Then the ribs and the spiral belly button are emphasized. Pitt fashions the heads from clay, then creates the bodies out of long slices of differently shaped cardboard. She then takes the cardboard forms to foundry owner MacKintosh, who then cuts them out of steel with a plasma torch.

Pitt selects mild and cortin steel for their shiny yet rusty surfaces and often has MacKintosh blend in bronze touches on the statues. Very much her own creation yet very much a cooperative effort, they are still a surprise to her, she says.

"I can't just hardly believe that they are there and that my designs are based on my heritage," she says. "That just blows me over."

But the thing that matters most to Pitt, is the reception of her work by her tribe.

In 1990 when she won the Oregon Governor's Award for the Arts, the elders of the Warm Springs tribe came to the awards ceremony "by the busload."

"I was so moved by that, that the governor's award seemed quite small compared to that."

Her work has been exhibited extensively throughout the United States, New Zealand, Germany, the Czech Republic and Japan. She has been commissioned by numerous museums and organizations and is in several collections, including the University of Washington's Burke Museum, the Sapporo City Hall, Sapporo, Japan and the prestigious Heard Museum in Phoenix.

Her experiences traveling abroad have broadened her horizons. And she says meeting artists of other Indigenous cultures such as the Maori in New Zealand and the Aborigines in Australia really expanded her cultural identity as an Indian.

"I find the things they celebrate just so amazing. The sea waves or the fern spirals that they eat, just simple things. I see how much they revere them. Finding that commonality is just so wonderful."

It has also helped to realize that all Indigenous artists share the same struggle to be accepted into the European art market.

The Western world view that the past and the honoring of ancestors is simply folk art affects Native artists worldwide. She says she was shocked to see Maori art shows, which feature exquisite work, relegated to museums of ethnology instead of being displayed at regular art venues.

With her own gallery, Pitt intends to open her doors and exhibit friends' works alongside her own at intervals throughout the year ... kindred spirits all, they are always welcome.