PORTLAND, Ore. - Passion plus background generally makes for success.
That's the case with Bonnie Kahn's year-and-a-half old Wild West Gallery.
Strolling down Portland's upscale Northwest 23rd Street on a Thursday
evening when galleries across town hold open house, art aficionados can't
miss Kahn's establishment. Tiny white lights outline the windows, and a sea
of color and magical shapes shows from within. It's hard to get through the
door, though. Forty-something Kahn dressed in black with a righteous silver
concho belt hanging low on her waist attracts a hefty crowd. There's a
reason for that - Kahn has been around, and she's paid her dues. Portland
collectors know her reputation.
"My mom was with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, so a lot of my growing up
was with American Indians in the Pacific Northwest. Even though it wasn't
my own culture," Kahn said, "I always appreciated the tribes and loved the
art. Growing up with baskets around you and totem poles - objects of great
Eventually Kahn earned a bachelor's degree in Art Education at the
University of Oregon, taught school on the Makah Reservation for a year,
and then moved to Santa Fe where she discovered the world of building
private and corporate art collections.
Over the years Kahn has worked with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation,
built a corporate collection for Frank Purdue, a chicken baron on the East
coast, and most recently, over a decade, developed Portland philanthropist
Bob Pamplin Jr.'s multi-million dollar private museum focusing on the
trappings of American Indian horse culture. Kahn has also co-authored two
books. It wasn't all uphill of course, and she spent six years working at
another Portland gallery that specializes in Indian art. Finally, though,
in May 2003, Kahn opened her own doors.
"I'm just really happy about having the gallery," Kahn said. "Native
American art has always been my interest and my specialty is the Plains and
Plateau cultures. Since I've started the gallery, though, I've been
learning more about the Northwest Coast. And of course I carry pottery,
rugs and jewelry from the Southwest, too."
Kahn represents 10 different tribal groups, and she brings artists in
regularly so patrons can meet them and hear stories and see them work. For
example, Judy Bluehorse Skelton of the Nez Perce tribe gave a talk at
Bonnie Kahn's on healing herbs last fall. Bluehorse Skelton explained how
to make different types of teas for healing and also talked about the power
of the western red cedar. "When you don't know what to do, sit up against a
western red cedar," Bluehorse Skelton told a crowd of non-Indians,
"Knowledge will come your way, and you'll make the right decision."
Kahn doesn't limit herself to American Indian art, of course. "I'm
interested in all western art that focuses on culture and traditions that
need to be kept alive," said Kahn. "Bill Black, for example, who shows with
me. He learned horse hair braiding from a prisoner in Montana, so now they
are just two of a handful of people that keep that art going. I want to
She may be all over the cultural map, but Kahn's heart is with the tribes.
"I especially love American Indian humor. No matter how bad things get -
even in the absolute worst disastrous situations when things don't turn out
the way you wanted. Someone will crack a joke, and it helps me see that it
really did turn out just fine. It's the coyote spirit behind everything.
Just when you think you're doing so great, you trip yourself up in your own
ego," Kahn said. "Every time I've tried to do something else in my life, I
just get pulled back into the world of American Indians. I figure this is
where I'm supposed to be."
Her personal passion aside, Kahn is quite astute about what she sells. "I
think people are hungry for what we have to offer. It's the real deal. You
meet the artists and see the work. And we really try to keep the stories
with the pieces so that when people buy them, they know all about their
history," Kahn said.
She also explained that in the 20 years she's been in the field, she's sold
hand-crafted western art in both great and poor markets. "There are always
people that are willing to buy," Kahn said. "Even though, of course, a
gallery like ours can't depend just on the Portland market. We have a large
Web presence and are breaking into the European market where there is a lot
"The sky is the limit," Kahn said. "Really, quite frankly, people are lucky
to get these pieces because they are handmade. That takes time, and time is
money. I really want to underscore how important it is that the things we
sell are made by hand. Nothing at the Emporium can match it. When you're
buying something from this gallery, you're getting a piece from many
generations back. Knowledge that's been around for a long, long time. That
goes for western and Native American work."
Kahn also acknowledges that the American West has always held a special
place in people's imaginations. The idea that there's a second chance in
the West. That what comes from that region is produced by a people who know
how to make much out of little. And that in doing so they created and
continue to create works of art that reflect the wonderment of the arid
land between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. That's what
collectors expect at Bonnie Kahn's Wild West Gallery, and that's what they
To learn more about the gallery, visit www.bonniek.ahngallery.com.