You can find the Tin Pan Theater tucked away in an alley in downtown Bend, Oregon. If you didn’t know it was there, you could walk right past it.
This tiny theater only has 28 seats. You might not see the next Avengers movie there, but you will see some great movies. Indie films like The Nightingale, Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of my Voice, and Maiden. They also feature foreign films.
Get there early because seats fill up fast. You can enjoy some popcorn and drinks while you’re waiting–including some local brews.
This theater received good news recently. BendFilm purchased the property in May 2019. The BendFilm Festival takes place in October and films can be viewed at this theater and several other locations. This festival was recently recognized by MovieMaker Magazine as being one of the 25 coolest film festivals in the world.
As BendFilm Executive Director Todd Looby noted, “Anyone who has entered the Tin Pan Theater immediately falls in love with the space.”
Be sure to look at the artwork in the alley just across from the theater. Tin Pan Alley Art features a variety of techniques and media. Bend has some amazing art and culture tucked away in its nooks and crannies.
Catlow Cave artifacts, including sagebrush bark sandals, grass & bark baskets, and arrowheads & spearpoints, are displayed at the Harney County Historical Society Museum in Burns, Oregon. There are a couple pointed sticks that may be “knitting needles”, used to knit the sagebrush bark together.
These cave artifacts are between 9,000 to 10,000 years old. The Northern Paiute people lived in this region. There are several caves in the Catlow Valley cliffs. Petroglyphs adorn some of the rock faces.
This is a kinetic sound sculpture that’s part of an exhibit at the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon. The exhibit is called Desert Reflections: Water Shapes the West and it runs through September 29, 2019. This exhibit used the combined talents of scientists, historians, and artists.
When you play the video on this post, listen carefully to the music in the background. The sounds of High Desert water and wind were recorded. They were combined with the “color” of music played on a Skinner church organ.
As the artists at Harmonic Laboratory state, “This evokes the richness of the region, a place shaped by many forces interacting in a complex way.”
As you stand underneath the sculpture, the calming tones, continuous motion, and gentle breeze helps you feel some of the energy that’s such an important part of High Desert environments.
Have you ever stepped inside a time capsule and discovered a place frozen in time? You have the opportunity to visit such a place if you stop at the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site in John Day, Oregon. The small building, located two blocks north of Highway 26, was, at one time, bustling with activity. Kam Wah Chung, which translates to the “Golden Flower of Prosperity,” served as a dry goods store, herbalist shop, import business, house of worship, and boarding house. It also housed an informal library and post office.
A Tour Inside
As you step into the dimly lit interior of the building, you get a feel for what life was like decades ago.
Boxes and tins of everyday products line the shelves. Merchandise stocked at Kam Wah Chung appealed to both Chinese and American customers.
In the backroom, larger boxes of supplies fill the room.
The apothecary is amazing! Stacks of small neatly labeled boxes reach to the ceiling.
They used many herbs in the practice of Chinese medicine, but also more exotic things like lizard feet, bat wings, and bear parts. A small room across from the apothecary served as a place to treat patients.
You step through a low doorway to get into the kitchen. The table and wood stove look ready to serve a hot meal.
An early version of a refrigerator cabinet sits in a corner.
Religion was an important part of everyday life and small altars, with dried oranges and incense stick offerings, are tucked into various nooks.
Two sets of bunk beds are in the same room as the kitchen. Advertisements line the walls and undersides of the bunks, in case you might need to purchase a suit while staying there.
As you pass through another door, you’ll enter a private bedroom. You can’t go upstairs, but additional boarding and living quarters are located there.
History of Kam Wah Chung
The building was constructed in the 1860s as a trading post, and it was put under lease to the Kam Wah Chung Company in 1878. Ing Hay and Lung On, both originally from the Guangdong Province of China, formed a partnership and purchased the business in 1887. It served as a gathering place for Chinese immigrants who traveled to Oregon to work on railroad lines and in gold mines. In 1862, prospectors discovered gold in Canyon City, two miles south of John Day. In 1880, John Day was home to over 2,000 Chinese, the second largest Chinese community in Oregon and one of the largest in the U.S.
Partners in business – Ing Hay and Lung On
Ing Hay, also known as “Doc Hay,” practiced herbal medicine and pulsology. Doc Hay lost his sight, but he claimed he could use his sensitive hands to identify ailments based on a patient’s pulse. Western medicine was in its infancy at that time and anyone could claim to be a doctor. Nearly half of patients treated by “quack” doctors died from infection. Ing Hay served both Chinese and non-Chinese patients and was a well-respected healer throughout the region. He was considered a “municipal treasure” after he used his herbal remedies to prevent the spread of illness during the Influenza Epidemic of 1918.
Lung On, also known as “Leon,” was a well-educated man fluent in both English and Chinese. He used his charisma and many skills in his work as a merchant, labor contractor, mediator, and translator. After the gold rush, he turned to other endeavors. Lung On started a mail-order clothing company and also had one of the first car dealerships and service stations east of the Cascades. He also dabbled in real estate and horse racing. Lung On was a successful businessman and he willed his $90,000 estate to Ing Hay. Both men continued living in the Kam Wah Chung building for nearly 60 years and were considered valued members of the community.
The Chinese Exclusion Act
Though both had family in China, they never returned to their native country. One reason for this was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Increasing tensions between Chinese and resident laborers in a struggling economy led to a series of laws. The Act stated that Chinese could not become U.S. citizens or own land. Teachers, students, diplomats, and merchants were given limited rights, but weren’t always allowed back into the U.S. if they left the country. In John Day, Chinese could only live in a small neighborhood near Kam Wah Chung and it served as a refuge for them. More moved to John Day in 1885 when the Chinese neighborhood in Canyon City burned to the ground and they were not allowed to rebuild. It was a challenging environment for people of Chinese heritage and they felt safer living near each other.
Chinese could not own guns in Grant County so Ing Hay and Lung Ho kept meat cleavers at the ready to defend themselves. You can see evidence of how they were harassed by observing bullet holes in their metal-clad front door. The thin layer of metal didn’t stop any bullets, but it prevented fire from destroying the building.
Opening the Time Capsule
Lung On passed away in 1940 and Ing Hay moved to a Portland nursing home in 1948. He passed away in 1952 and his nephew sold the building to the city of John Day. Ing Hay wanted the building to serve as a Chinese history museum, but that request was forgotten. The Kam Wah Chung building remained locked until 1967. When the doors were opened, everything inside was largely intact. Over 30,000 artifacts have been cataloged. The apothecary contained hundreds of herbs, some of which no longer exist in the wild. One of Doc Hay’s medical books may have been compiled 300-500 years ago by one of the founders of Chinese medicine. If the book is an original, it would be one of the few copies known to still exist.
Visiting Kam Wah Chung
Kam Wah Chung was deeded to Oregon State Parks and Recreation in 1975 and leased to the city of John Day. It opened to the public in 1977. The state took over management of the site in 2004. The Friends of Kam Wah Chung help manage a small visitor center and store housed in a separate building.
Oregon State Parks and Recreation offers free 45-minute tours of the Kam Wah Chung site from May 1 to October 31. A guide must accompany visitors. The guides offer visitors a wealth of information and they obviously enjoy sharing their knowledge. Their talks are enhanced by informative recordings. The tours fill up fast so this year they are experimenting with making reservations in advance.
There are several exciting updates related to Kam Wah Chung. Plans are in the works for a larger visitor center that may include a “virtual reality” room that would simulate the interior of the building. Recent archaeological research at the site has revealed where the temple and other buildings may have once stood. In July, students can participate in an archaeology field school on the site as part of the Oregon Chinese Diaspora Project. Malheur National Forest, Southern Oregon Laboratory of Anthropology, and Kam Wah Chung are among those working on this project. The Discovery Channel is working on a documentary about Chinese traditional medicine and they have shot footage at Kam Wah Chung and several other locations. The program is expected to air in North America in the fall of 2019.
Visitors from around the world
This site is an important destination for those interested in history. It is the best known example of an historical Chinese mercantile and herb store in the United States. Chinese scholars have expressed great interest in Kam Wah Chung and they visit the site regularly. As news stories related to discoveries at the site have spread throughout China, it has become a destination for Chinese tourists. People from all over the world visit Kam Wah Chung.
There has been a significant increase in the number of visitors from the Netherlands. Locations near Kam Wah Chung were featured in the highly popular Dutch reality program “Wie is de Mol?” which translates as “Who is the Mole?”
I am fortunate that this site is only about two hours away from Bend, Oregon, where I live. It’s a trip well worth taking.
Here are a few interesting facts about Kam Wah Chung:
More than 90 unopened bottles of bourbon whiskey were found under the floorboards and in the walls, stashed there during the Prohibition. Today they are valued at around $10,000 each. Several bottles mysteriously disappeared during various renovations.
Ing Hay’s great-grandnephew, Robert M. Wah, MD, served as president of the American Medical Association in 2015. The call to work as a healer continues in this family.
$23,000 worth of uncashed checks were found under Ing Hay’s bed. They would be worth about $250,000 in today’s dollars. Some think he never cashed them because he knew his patients couldn’t afford to pay the bills.
To view a 2015 Emmy nominated documentary about Kam Wah Chung produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting, see Oregon Experience – Kam Wah Chung. The personal stories recounted by people who knew Ing Hay and Lung On helps to bring the history of this remarkable place to life.
This is a reprint of a June 2019 article in High Desert Voices, a newsletter by and for volunteers and staff at the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon. To see more issues of the newsletter, go here.
This interesting Double O Ranch sign is on part of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon. At one time this 17,000 acre ranch was privately owned by Bill Hanley. The U.S. Government purchased most of it in 1941 and added it to the refuge. The ranch was originally owned by Amos W. Riley and James A. Hardin. It was established in 1875 and was one of the first permanent pioneer settlements in Harney County.
This drum painting is part of the new Desert Reflections: Water Shapes the West exhibit at the High Desert Museum. The artist, Ka’ila Farrell-Smith, blends traditional indigenous art forms and contemporary installation art. The traditional concept of a drum is extended into a large rectangular form. Two “hitchhiker” rocks anchor it to the ground.
The sounds and views of this instrument change as it reacts to sunlight. The shadows of the sinew on the back move across the front as the sun moves across the sky. The sinew expands and contracts as temperatures change.
The painting on the front references the Long Lake abstract petroglyphs. It is an example of Great Basin Curvilinear, Rectilinear, and Representational rock art styles.
I liked the back of this work just as much as the front. Loved the lines!
Last weekend we attended an Asian New Year Celebration, and the performances we watched were spectacular! This event brought together performances of music, Tai Chi, Parkour, aerial silks, and lion dancing. A local restaurant provided samples of Asian cuisine. There was also a silent auction.
The Chinese New Year started on February 5th and it’s the Year of the Earth Pig. In other years the Pig is associated with Wood, Fire, Metal, or Water. The Pig occupies the last position of the Chinese Zodiac. It symbolizes “carefree fun, good fortune, and wealth” according to Your Chinese Astrology.
Performances at Asian New Year Celebration
The celebration featured the lion dance at the beginning and end of this event. The two lions of White Lotus Dragon and Lion Dancers danced to the pounding rhythms. Kids in the audience at this event loved when they got to follow the lions out of the auditorium at the end of the celebration. Be sure to watch the video at the end of this post for an up close look at a lion dancing in the audience.
Lion dances are a traditional dance in China and other Asian countries. They have been around for millennia. In the past, the dance was used to scare away evil spirits. But lion dances were also performed to bring joy, prosperity, and good fortune to events such as celebrating a new year. Dancers emulate the movements of lions in colorful costumes.
Oregon Tai Chi Wushu gave performances in large and small groups. They balanced the calm and graceful movements of the larger groups with the fast-paced action of smaller groups. One performance had a modern twist with dueling electric guitars. Watch that video below, near the end of this post. The local group includes participants of all ages, even those as young as four years old.
In the past, martial arts were essential for protection in times of war in China. As that need decreased, they recognized the lasting health benefits of this training. Tai Chi is referred to as “meditation in motion.”
Members of Abstract in Motion did a lighter-than-air performance of Parkour. Merriam-Webster defines Parkour as “the sport of traversing environmental obstacles by running, climbing, or leaping rapidly and efficiently.” This activity was developed in France in the 1980s. It’s kind of like the moves seen in The Matrix movies without the use of special effects. The performers leaped and flipped and moved in ways that made me wonder if they were mere mortals.
One of the most memorable performances for me at the Asian New Year Celebration was the Taiko drumming of the Portland Taiko group. This group “blends the tradition of Japanese taiko drumming with a sense of Asian American identity, creativity, and empowerment.” Watch the videos to see the sense of joy this group emulates.
Taiko percussion instruments were in use in Japan 2,000 years ago. It’s thought taiko drums were used in communication or religious rituals. They resemble instruments found in China and Korea and may have come to Japanese culture from as far away as India. The idea to play together in Kumi-daiko (a taiko ensemble) was created in the 1950s. Drums range in size from small snare drum-sized up to as large as a wine barrel.
Outside the auditorium, Silks Rising gave an aerial silks demonstration. A long piece of silky fabric hung from an open pyramid-shaped structure. A young girl climbed, spun, and dropped on the long piece of fabric in a kind of aerial ballet. I can see why these performances are called “aerial contortion.” Cirque du Soleil invented this art form in 1995.
Until next year’s Asian New Year Celebration…
This celebration packed a lot into two hours. Some performances
were slow, quiet, and graceful; others were fast, loud, and full of raw emotion.
There was something for everyone here. It’s the 12th year of the
Asian New Year Celebration—a fundraiser for Bend Senior High School’s Life Skills
Last June we happened to be in Tillamook, Oregon the day the new Tillamook Creamery visitor center opened.
They have 1.3 million visitors a year and the new 38,500 square foot facility is a welcome addition. The original visitor center opened in 1949. We visited that much smaller center years ago.
Yes, you can still watch them making delicious cheese and get samples, but there’s a lot more there now.
The new displays are interactive and informative.
I loved the layout of some of these displays. Crisp, bold, and bright. They are works of art.
Tillamook County Creamery Association creates the products you find in stores today. This co-op was formed in 1909 and there are almost 100 families in it now.
They have a big store with everything from clothing to specialty dairy products.
If that’s not enough, they also have a dining area with several options. You can get ice cream, yogurt with toppings, and a range of other choices. These include everything from tempura battered cheese curds (huh?) to mac and cheese, pizza, sandwiches, and a few breakfast items. I was pleasantly surprised to see the food at the center featured in a funny article in Food and Wine.
If you have the time, this is a stop worth making.
In The Story Who Came to Visit, I mentioned I would be doing an Open Mic event here in Bend. Yes, it does take a bit of courage to do something like that. Yesterday I read a short piece from the children’s book I wrote during NaNoWriMo. The audience was eager to hear the work of local writers.
I read a story about a bullied girl who finds her courage after talking with a magpie and a badger. They both have hidden weaknesses but found their inner strength. Nuǎn, the main character in the story, finds her strength just when she needs it most. A snow leopard that had attacked her and left her scarred is about to attack another child.
Here’s an excerpt from that scene:
Snow Leopard’s ears perked up, and
he turned towards her. “You again, Nuǎn?” He hissed and bared his
teeth. “Yeowrrr! I already marked you once. Stay out of my way.” Snow
Leopard struck out at her, scratching her arm with his long claws.
“You marked me again!” Nuǎn
held her hand over the wound. “The first time you marked me, it made me weak.
Nuǎn grabbed an ax in the yard
and swung it down, chopping off the end of Snow Leopard’s long tail. The big
cat yowled in pain and leapt over the fence.
“Now you are marked!” Nuǎn yelled at the leopard as it bounded away.
I have a lot more editing and revising to do, but my work in progress was well received by the audience. 🙂
The Tin Pan Alley Art “gallery” is located in a short alleyway in downtown Bend, Oregon. The alley features large pieces of art created with a variety of media. Some are 2-dimensional while others are more sculptural. Do you have a favorite among these wonderful pieces of art?
This collection is part of a public art initiative that supports local arts and culture. It takes our outdoor lifestyle into consideration. Another example of outdoor art is featured in many of Bend’s roundabouts.
This is The Visitor by artist Carol Sternkopf. This is a mixed media piece that combines photography, vinyl, paint, twigs, wood, metal, and salvaged home decor. Nature and animals were important in Carol’s childhood. She incorporates them into her art. She hopes viewers think about the “larger story within the magnificent blue owl’s eyes” in this piece.
Here’s a picture of the whole collection. We like to go to the Lone Pine Coffee Shop in this alley. It’s small, but it’s our favorite. The owner takes the craft of creating the best cup of coffee very seriously.
Metal and wood
This is Love Lost, Love Found by artist Bill Hoppe. This colorful metal work represents the artist’s interpretation of an 11th Century Indian manuscript. The many pieces of this sculpture were created by hundreds of community members. This was part of a community engagement goal set forth by the Central Oregon Metal Arts Guild.
This is Tomas’ Riddleby artist Judy Campbell. This piece is created from steel, wood, and lights. Judy was inspired by infinitely repeating patterns, or fractals. In this piece she sought to bring the “abstract concepts such as love, mystery, and infinity into the earthly plane.”
This isRide with Me by artist Jeff Remiker. The mountain culture, especially biking, is a big part of Bend. Jeff was inspired by a childhood love of bike riding. He incorporated wood and metal work into this rustic piece. Viewers can interact with this piece by putting things into the bike basket.
This is an untitled piece by artist Andrew Wachs. This piece was inspired by basalt rock formations that can be found throughout Central Oregon. The artwork represents a close-up perspective of a vertical overhang. Andrew works with metal and wood design in his studio, Weld Design Studio.
Photographs and paintings
This is Southwark by photographer/artist/adventure seeker Amy Castaño. This photograph of a bikeway in London captures some of the many textures and sights of the city. Amy looks for unique viewpoints, different angles, interesting parts of the ordinary, and the perfect radiant light.
This is A Parade of Strange Ideas by artist Phillip Newsom. This vivid painting represents a spontaneous procession of ideas “emerging from the unconscious and growing as multi-dimensional shapes in some back-alley of the mind.” Phillip’s work includes book & magazine illustrations, animal portraits, murals, landscapes, and graphic designs.
Last night we had a front row seat to watch the paddle parade go by on the Deschutes River in Bend, Oregon. This event has taken place for many years, rain or shine. It was kind of blustery weather last night but there were still a lot of people participating in the parade.
The event is hosted by Tumalo Creek Kayak and Canoe in the Old Mill district. Participants dress up their watercraft and themselves with colorful lights. The parade takes place from about 4:00 to 6:00 pm. After it’s over, everyone gets together for nice warm drinks.
Santa and a few of his elves were there to help spread good cheer. The flamingos towing the raft looked sort of tired.
The boats went a little past the Flag Bridge and then turned around.
The breezy conditions made it hard to paddle upstream but it was easy going back down.
Everyone looked like they were having a great time. There were a lot of people watching this year — more than I’ve seen before.
We watched part of the parade from inside a nice warm restaurant. It was a wonderful way to watch one of Bend’s special winter events. 🙂
Last month, The Darkness of Hills, The Lightness of Wings came to visit me for 25 days. Yes, that was a long visit. She spoke a little bit to me each day until she was 50,129 words long.
I started her as part of the NaNoWriMo challenge. That’s short for National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write 50,000 words in a month. It’s a commitment I wasn’t sure I could make, but I did it.
I knew I wanted the story to take place in the late 1800s and I wanted to include a Chinese girl who moves to Oregon to work with her grandfather. He’s a doctor and she knows how to make herbal cures. That’s all I knew when I started writing.
I found my inspirations to build a story from several sources.
To help create my main character, we visited the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site in John Day, Oregon. This amazing place was an apothecary in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It’s like a time capsule from the time period I wanted to focus on.
One of the medicines the main character uses is called Tiger Balm. This pain reliever, invented in China, has been around since 1870 and its scent is calming yet spicy. I have a jar of it and used it when I got in a terrible bicycle accident years ago. Its unique scent reminds me of healing.
If it’s a story written by me, of course it includes animals. I thought back to a ring-billed gull I nursed back to health at Malheur NWR. I was there for four weeks as part of a 12-week immersive ornithology class. The seagull in my story is the narrator; a first person secondary character narrator. Am I crazy? Here’s an excerpt:
“So who am I watching from above? I have wings but I’m no angel. In fact, I’m a seagull and what happened that day changed my life. Here is the story of dark hills and light wings. Yes, my wings are a part of this tale, but on that day they weren’t so light. This tale starts with me but it has been passed down beak by beak.”
There’s also a magpie character in my story and I thought I’d write about a magpie and another animal. I considered using a badger since they live near magpies in my high desert home. I did a little research and found out I had made the right choice.
Huān 獾 is the Chinese word for badger. It sounds just like huān 欢, The Chinese word for ‘joyous, happy, pleased’ according to Chinasage. Magpies in flight are often portrayed with badgers and this represents happiness both in heaven and on earth. A picture of a perched magpie represents a wish for future happiness. This was a happy coincidence for me that I tried to weave into the story.
We visited the Painted Hills, near John Day, for further inspiration. That setting added a touch of magic to my tale. The hills have a way of communicating with the main character in my story that only she can understand.
I used a little of this and that to build this story. The first draft is complete but the hard work of editing and rewriting has just begun. Lots of hours to go.
I signed up to read from my book for five minutes at an event in Bend, Oregon in January. Yesterday I worked on editing four pages to present to the public. How long could that take? Much longer than you might think! I’ll let you know how it goes in January. Stay tuned…
The Photographs of Edward S. Curtis in the By Her Hand Exhibit
This exhibition features portraits of Native women by photographer Edward S. Curtis from the collection of Christopher G. Cardozo. Curtis took the featured photographs over a 30-year period as part of a project to document Native American’s lifestyle and culture in a time of change. Curtis traveled across North America from 1900 to 1930 photographing over 80 tribes.
By Her Hand Exhibit of Edward S. Curtis Photos, High Desert Museum, Bend, Oregon
Edward S. Curtis worked out of a studio in Seattle, Washington and received financial support from J. P. Morgan. Curtis collected information about the lives of each tribe through photographs, writings, and audio recordings. With the help of Native translators, he assembled a 20-volume set titled The North American Indian. Curtis intended to publish 500 copies but due to a series of financial and personal setbacks, only about 272 were printed. Ninety percent of the original sets are owned by institutions, including the High Desert Museum.
Hupa Female Shaman – by Edward S. Curtis
The portraits in this exhibit have a beautiful yet haunting quality to them. The labor-intensive photogravure process Curtis used allowed him to create subtle variations in tone and focus. Curtis insisted on using only the highest quality materials and he experimented with a variety of techniques. In 2015 there was a city-wide celebration of Curtis’ work in Bend. Dawn Boone, of the A6 studio, gave a lecture on the photographs. She made an observation that one of the women portrayed seemed to be “softening back into the earth right before our eyes.”
On the Beach – Chinook by Edward S. Curtis
Native American author Louise Erdrich has an interesting perspective on the women represented in Edward S. Curtis’ photographs. She said, “Women’s work is celebrated in Curtis’ photographs–women grind corn, bake bread, make clay vessels, doctor each other, pick berries, haul wood and water, gather reeds, dig clams. These images of women working are among my favorites, for they are more practical then elegiac, yet entirely harmonious, and they are often the most sensual of Curtis’ works.”
While Curtis’ ambitious project documented the tribes, it was not without controversy. He often staged portraits. Sometimes he mixed up artifacts and traditions between tribes. He referred to Native Americans as a “vanishing race.” Native peoples were losing their rights and their lands but many did successfully adapt to Western society.
There was a revival of interest in Curtis’ work beginning in the 1970s. He was an exceptional photographer, and he documented many facets of Native American life that no longer exist. Museums across the country feature major exhibitions of his work. Original printings of The North American Indian bring extraordinary prices at auction.
Historical and Contemporary Art from the Museum’s Collection
This new exhibit also includes basketry, beadwork, and leatherwork created by Native Americans of the Columbia Plateau. Intricate beadwork adorns bags, a cradleboard, and clothing. There are examples of different styles of basketry in this exhibit. Featured contemporary Native artists include Pat Courtney Gold, Roberta Kirk, and Kelli Palmer. Kelli Palmer often designs baskets based on photographs from the past—including those of Edward S. Curtis.
By Her Hand Exhibit of Edward S. Curtis Photos, baskets, and beadwork, High Desert Museum, Bend, Oregon
Native American cultures passed techniques for creating basketry and beadwork down through generations. Many items were utilitarian, but the makers included symbols and patterns in artistic ways. Contemporary artists may include materials such as commercial string and yarn in traditional and newly created patterns.
By Her Hand Exhibit of Edward S. Curtis Photos, baskets, and beadwork, High Desert Museum, Bend, Oregon
In the early 20th century, Native people were forced to live on reservations. Many lost their language, ways of life, and skills such as basket making. Children were sent to boarding schools and weren’t allowed to learn things associated with their cultural identity. Columbia Plateau people have been working to bring back the knowledge of cultural traditions. As new generations learn the traditions and art forms of their ancestors, they will ensure the culture portrayed in Curtis’ photographs survives. Pat Courtney Gold notes that basket making is not only artistic; it is an expression of and central to the revitalization of her culture.
By Her Hand Exhibit of Edward S. Curtis Photos, baskets, and beadwork, High Desert Museum, Bend, Oregon
This exhibit will be on display at the High Desert Museum through January 20, 2019. For more about Edward S. Curtis, see a series of articles I wrote here.
This is a reprint of a November 2018 article in High Desert Voices, a newsletter by and for volunteers and staff at the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon. To see more issues of the newsletter, go here.
This summer a new big bold mural was added to the collection of outdoor art in the Old Mill District of Bend, Oregon. Yuya Negishi created this artwork. He was inspired by the mountains, colorful skies, and brilliant flowers of Central Oregon.
Did you notice that the dragon in this mural is breathing flowers instead of fire?
“Yuya Negishi is a Japanese visual artist based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His work combines his extensive background in the classical Japanese techniques of calligraphy and SUMI with Japanese pop culture images such as koi, dragons and Buddha’s. Yuya approaches his work in the spirit of play often exploring new ideas and mediums. He also teaches hands on workshops sharing his approaches to SUMI and Calligraphy.
Yuya was born in a small farming community in the mountains beyond Tokyo. Yuya draws artistic inspiration from the memories and sensations of growing up in the Japanese countryside, where he would roam “like a hidden Ninja” exploring the woods, temples and mountain tops of the breathtaking Gunma region.”
I saw these outdoor bonsai trees on the High Desert Garden Tour in Bend, Oregon this summer. I marveled at the artistry that went into sculpting these plants. Though I’ve seen bonsai trees in the past, I was pleasantly surprised to see tree species that grow locally sculpted into small replicas of full size trees. You can see why they are referred to as “living art.”
I am always amazed by the beautiful beadwork on display at the High Desert Museum where I volunteer. The carefully crafted pieces represent work by tribes of the Columbia Plateau in parts of modern-day Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.
Tribes represented include Umatilla, Wasco, Wishram, Paiute, Washo, Chehalis, Quinault, Nez Perce, Skokomish, Chinook, Tillamook, Yakima, Warm Springs, Haida, Salish, Yaqui, and others.
Doris Swayze Bounds Collection of Native American Artifacts
They are artifacts with an emphasis on “art.” However, Native Americans in the 1700’s and 1800’s did not make art for art’s sake. Beads embellished utilitarian pieces. Beads adorned items ranging from small handbags and knife cases, to deerskin clothing and footwear.
The High Desert Museum houses the Doris Swayze Bounds Collection of Native American Artifacts. Born in 1904 in Oklahoma, Doris Swayze Bounds later lived in Hermiston, Oregon, where she worked as a banker. She always appreciated Native American people and their culture. Many of the pieces in the collection were gifted to her by local Native Americans as a way of showing their respect and affection to her. The artifacts date from the 1870’s to the 1960’s. The collection has many pieces, but I focused on the beadwork in this post.
A brief history of beadwork in North America
In the early 1800’s, beads used in trading with native people were referred to as “pony” beads. Transported by pack animals, the beads were limited in availability and colors. The smaller “seed” beads became widely available after about 1850. These inexpensive beads were available in larger quantities and in a wider variety of colors.
White traders thought of the beads as cheap trinkets but to native peoples, they were highly prized. The beads were valued for their beauty and durability. They also freed up time that would have gone into crafting beads from bone, shells, and other materials. The beadwork became a status symbol and a source of pride in their culture.
Bead-working techniques vary and show ethnic membership. Colors and motifs represent different things to different tribes. If symbols are changed, such as being inverted or assembled in incorrect colors, they may show a hidden negative message. For example, an inverted American flag could have expressed displeasure with governmental policies.
Expressions of cultural pride
The beadwork is this collection is beautiful but some pieces were made during a dark chapter in American history. The hardships native peoples endured are difficult to imagine. Beadwork allowed them to express pride in their culture when they were being forced to give up their traditional ways of life. We are fortunate that some of their remarkable work has been preserved.
To view more of this collection and learn about Native American’s many accomplishments and challenges, visit the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon
Last summer I was out for an early morning walk and happened to see an artist at work painting a mural on a bridge. Sandy Klein was painting spring flowers and birds on this bridge of art in the Old Mill district of Bend, Oregon. The beautiful artwork sprinkled throughout Bend accentuates its natural beauty.
Ready to celebrate a new month by looking at some impressive art? If so, you might want to go to Bend, Oregon for the First Friday event. Every month select businesses keep their doors open late in support of the arts. Businesses in the downtown and Old Mill areas host artists while galleries feature the latest exhibits. This month Willow Lane Artist’s Creative Space joined First Friday for the first time.
Sip, snack, & see stuff
As you walk around the area, you can stop in to view the art and get free drinks and snacks at the participating businesses. Some also have live music. It’s a popular event so get there early. We went a couple nights ago and the cool temperatures helped make the crowds a little smaller.
You never know what you will find at this event. One summer night we saw a young boy standing on a street corner putting out some amazing music on his fiddle. Just around the corner from him, a craftsman displayed his handmade leather works. Just across the street from them, a couple guys strummed on their guitars as they sang. Many passerbys stopped to admire the work of these artisans.
Fossilized teeth that form a shape like a buzzsaw were found in the 1800’s but the type of creature they belonged to was not determined until 2013. A research team consisting of people with backgrounds in art, science, and digital technology solved the mystery. The whorl of teeth belonged to Helicoprion, the buzzsaw shark or whorl toothed shark. This exhibit brings the findings of that research to life through the artwork of Ray Troll and the sculptures of Gary Straub.
A massive sculpture of the huge head of a buzzsaw shark bursts through the wall outside of the exhibit at the High Desert Museum and there are additional sculptures and detailed images inside the gallery. A large sculpture of a buzzsaw shark hangs over your head as you enter the gallery. The walls are covered with murals of waves and members of the shark family. Large colorful paintings show the shark family tree and how buzzsaw sharks swimming in the deep may have looked. Glass cases enclose fossils of the odd-shaped whorl of teeth. Projections of that whorl spin across the floor. Framed drawings of buzzsaw sharks hang on the walls. An interactive model of a buzzsaw shark skull shows the action of those formidable-looking teeth. You can sit on a comfy couch (emblazoned with a whorl pattern) and watch a video about the now-extinct shark.
When I was at the exhibit, I heard a five-year old boy entering the gallery with his family remark, “Wow! Mommy look at that!” Yes, this is a dramatic exhibit that contains a lot of visual interest and fascinating information. The whorl pattern is repeated throughout the exhibit. The artist also had a little fun with the exhibit by hiding several representations of cheeseburgers in the displays. Can you find any of them in the gallery?
Scientific research and art intertwine
At first scientists could not figure out what the creature was that possessed the whorl of teeth or where exactly on the animal they were located. The 2013 research team, Team Helico, used CT scans and 3D digital modeling to figure out that it fit into the lower jaw of an ancient shark. Alaskan artist Ray Troll, has been obsessed with the buzzsaw shark for over 20 years and lent his expertise to the team at Idaho Museum of Natural History. Ray is a well-known natural history artist who has lectured at places such as Harvard and Yale. His work has appeared at the Smithsonian and is featured in the current High Desert Museum exhibit.
As part of their research, Team Helico tried to determine exactly how the buzzsaw shark’s jaw worked. It didn’t slice through the head of the shark because it was blocked by small “stops” on the jaw. The team thought it likely that it ate soft-bodied prey because there wasn’t much tooth wear. It probably grabbed and sliced its prey between its tooth whorl and upper jaw and then swallowed it down its gullet.
As more and more of the distinctive whorl-shaped fossils were found in the early 20th century, scientists delineated many as separate species. Leif Tepanila and Jesse Pruitt, of the Idaho Museum of Natural History, did further analysis on the fossils and figured out there were only three distinct buzzsaw sharks species.
The teeth themselves are unique among sharks. Unlike other sharks, they formed a whorl as they grew and were never shed. A mature shark could have 150 or more teeth. New teeth form in a “tooth pit” in the back of the mouth and push the whorl forward when they erupt. They switch from being baby teeth to adult teeth at around tooth number 85. No one knows why their jaw has this unusual form.
A team effort
We are always thankful for the work of our staff on setting up exhibits but this particular exhibit was a little different. The artist wanted lots of participation from staff and volunteers on the background work. Images were projected onto the walls and then painstakingly painted by numerous people at the Museum. If you were one of the people who worked on the display, be sure to go into the exhibit to see the final product. The people who participated in this project had a variety of skill levels and some were nervous about doing it “right.” Everyone should be proud of their work because it all came together into a wonderful looking exhibit!
I am reprinting this article I wrote for the October 2016 issue of High Desert Voices, a newsletter for volunteers and staff at the High Desert Museum. The exhibit will be at the Museum until April 23, 2017. NOTE: This exhibit is no longer at the Museum.
To see a fast-speed video of the installment of this exhibit, go here.
When you go outside into parts of the 135-acre property, you will be able to visit various exhibits. The Autzen Otter area is being renovated and won’t be open again until sometime in the spring of 2016. Be sure to stop by to see the entertaining otters once the exhibit reopens.
Keep going around the trail and make a brief stop at the wildlife viewing area. Here you might get a glimpse of woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, squirrels, and chipmunks. You might get lucky and spot a hawk or owl waiting to get a snack.
The Wind, Earth, and Fire Trail is nearby and it shows how fire plays an important role in forest development. Keep following the trail and stop into the Changing Forests exhibit to learn about forests in the area.
Next you will see the Miller Family Ranch. The buildings there are built to show what a farm in 1904 would have looked like. Peek inside the cabin to see how a family lived and watch interpreters demonstrate life in those times. There’s also a barn, corral, chicken coop, saw mill, and even an outhouse. The woven wood corral is practical but also a work of art. You may see horses, donkeys, and chickens at the ranch.
Continue on the trail and you will come to an overlook at a small pond. You’ll get a great look at the native Redband trout from there.
Keep walking on the trail and you’ll get to the Donald M. Kerr Birds of Prey Center. See the porcupines in their enclosure just outside the door? The Museum has bald and golden eagles, a turkey vulture, a barn owl, a great horned owl, and other birds in their collection. Most of the animals at the Museum were injured or kept as pets so they would not be able to make it in the wild.
Silver Sage Trading Store
Head back to the main building and be sure to stop at the Silver Sage Trading store. There are books, artwork, clothing, toys, and many other items related to the high desert and current exhibits at the Museum. You might be able to find a piece of unique jewelry or something kind of quirky like dog treats containing beer byproducts.
Near the store, there’s a Whose Home? area for young children to climb and play in. They can pretend they are a baby bird in a huge nest. There is also an outside play area called Dig, Crawl, Climb! Kids can pretend like they are a giant spider or some kind of burrowing creature hiding in a hole.
As you leave the building through the main entrance, be sure to look up. There is a metal sculpture of a sagebrush plant that shows just how big their root system really is. This icon of the Wild West has adapted to the harsh environment of the high desert. A visit to the High Desert Museum will teach you how plants and animals have adapted to the environment and how people, past and present, have learned to thrive there.
Chief and his staff – Apsaroke by Edward S. Curtis. 1905.
Images by Curtis are still being pushed out into the world. There are many inexpensive prints available. In the last presentation of the Curtis Fever series, Dr. Julia Dolan wondered what Edward S. Curtis would have thought of that. She wondered what the tribes thought about it as well. Though Curtis photographed native peoples because he thought they were vanishing, that idea was wrong since they still exist. An advertisement for a TV show showing a portrait of Curtis on a bed stand was shown. It was from a program called, “The New Normal”. Ironically, it has become the new normal to see pictures of Curtis and the photos he took all over the world thanks to the Internet.
A Taos girl by Edward S. Curtis. 1905.
His work has proven a useful record of North American tribal culture, language, and song that many have put to good use. Newer technologies, such as smartphones, have been used by modern day Native Americans to help them learn their language. Photographs by Curtis and his brother have been used by the tribes to identify ancestors and recreate ancient customs.
A Family Group – Noatak by Edward S. Curtis. 1929.
Dr. Dolan commented about the work of Edward S. Curtis as being “rich and wonderful, but also painful.” We cannot begin to imagine the pain the Native Americans were going through at the time of Curtis’ work. However, we are thankful that his art lives on and that so many of us are able to learn more about him and the people he portrayed.
Audience viewing In the Land of the Head-Hunters at the High Desert Museum
The events around Bend related to Curtis were well attended. It was difficult to find a parking space nearby! Many people seem to have a deep fascination with his work but also in learning more about him as a person. Author Timothy Egan admitted that when he first considered writing about Curtis that he thought of him as “Indiana Jones with a camera”. He found out that Edward S. Curtis was so much more. Though Curtis had a life of dramatic ups and downs, Egan thought he was able to achieve the goal of helping Native Americans “live forever”.
It was assumed that all of the Edward S. Curtis photogravure copper plates were lost or destroyed. It is a common practice to destroy the plates after the initial printing so no more prints can be made. However, many had been sold to the Charles E. Lauriat Company in Boston. In 1972, decades after Curtis had passed away; they were rediscovered in the Lauriat basement by photographer Karl Kernberger. Nineteen complete bound sets of The North American Indian, thousands of paper prints, the copper plates, unbound pages, and the original glass plate negatives were found. Once this collection was discovered, it passed through several hands. In 2005 the copper plates were purchased by Kenneth Zerbe. New prints have been made from the plates but they are not printed on the high quality Van Gelder paper favored by Curtis.
In recent times, Christopher Cardozo has launched a repatriation project to return some of Curtis’ works to Native American people. Of the people featured in Curtis’ works, we now know the names of 3,500 of them.
Three contemporary Native American photographers, and their responses to Edward S. Curtis’ work, will be the subject of an upcoming exhibit. The exhibit runs from February 6, 2016 to May 8, 2016 at the Portland Art Museum. Photographs from Zig Jackson, Wendy Red Star, and Will Wilson will be featured in the exhibit. Each artist responded in different ways to the Curtis photographs. Zig Jackson noted that people still “take” a photograph of Native Americans. He even pokes a little fun at this concept in one of his pictures entitled Indian Photographing Tourist Photographing Indian. Several volumes of The North American Indian will also be displayed in the upcoming exhibit. Digitized versions of Curtis’ original audio recordings of native language and song will be a part of the exhibit. The Museum is also trying to crowdsource a way for descendants of people featured in The North American Indian to be able to input information about themselves and their ancestors.
In the 2000 film, Coming to Light: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian, many present-day Native Americans were interviewed in regards to Curtis and his work. It has deeply affected modern day tribal members. Some treasure the images and recordings as reminders of their ancestors while others want references to that time to be over. One of the people interviewed about the images remarked that “the world came alive again when viewing them.” During that period in history Native Americans could be thrown in jail for wearing their traditional clothing, speaking their language, and practicing their rituals.
The film points out that the audio recordings that survive preserve the language and songs of the tribes. When Curtis played the recordings back to tribal members right after he recorded them, they were awestruck at hearing the sounds coming out of “the magic box”. Native Americans were forced into giving up their language and assimilating. As one tribal member said in the film, “if you don’t speak, you are lost.”
At first Curtis felt the Native Americans had to assimilate or they would be economically destroyed. As he continued to work on the project, he changed his way of thinking. He became more aware of the fragility of the native people and their way of life. Living in California in his later years, he heard how the Native Americans in that state in particular were mistreated. Some thought that he should have shown the struggle for life many Native Americans were going through but that was not the purpose of his project.
Modern dance costume – Pawnee by Edward S. Curtis. 1927.
There is controversy surrounding the work of Curtis. Some think the photos were staged and that they degraded and dehumanized the people into mere caricatures. Some think he dressed the people portrayed in a certain way; others say they actually dressed in the clothing they wished to be photographed in. Oftentimes they are portrayed wearing traditional clothing that had been outlawed for them to wear. In Geronimo’s case, he is pictured wrapped in an Army blanket because that is all the white man gave him.
There are inaccuracies in some of his films and still photos. Coming to Light points out that Curtis wanted to film the Navajos doing the Yébîchai ritual – a nine-day ceremony that combines religious and medical observances. It was not the time of year they normally did the dance but they made the masks as Curtis had requested. When they did the dance, they actually performed it backwards. Another instance of inaccuracies is in a photo of Crow warriors. There were no Crow warriors after 1876 and even when they were present, they did not ride horses or go out when there was snow on the ground as the photograph shows.
Yebichai Hogan – Navaho by Edward S. Curtis. 1904.
Curtis is accused of cutting out parts of pictures, such as a small alarm clock between the two people pictured in In a Piegan Lodge, but professional photographers commonly crop parts of their pictures out. An analysis of the photos showed that there was something in the photo that did not seem to belong only 4% of the time. In contrast, 40% of famed anthropologist Franz Boas’ photos contained things inconsistent with the subject matter.
Critics have pointed out the lack of the person’s name in many of the titles on the photographs. Some tribal members were very protective of their names and did not want to disclose them. The absence of names was done out of respect for the people photographed. Other tribes Curtis photographed, such as the Apsaroke, were less sensitive about their name being in the title. Curtis paid all of his subjects and offered them a cyanotype print of the photos. It was a collaborative, creative effort.
Apache girl by Edward S. Curtis. 1906.
Some have questioned why he did not focus on how poorly the tribes were being treated. He maintained that that was not the goal of this project but he did seem to take up their cause very late in his career. In 1923 he helped found the Indian Welfare League. This group of artists, museum curators, and lawyers formed to help find work and legal services for the tribes. They also became involved in getting citizenship for Native Americans. Curtis, however, was of two minds on this topic – he scorned Washington experts but also scolded the native people about not pitying themselves too much.
In 1914, Curtis’ film In the Land of the Head-Hunters, featuring the Kwakiutl tribe, was shown to theater audiences. He worked on the film with George Hunt who had been adopted by the tribe. Hunt had been indispensable when he had worked for anthropologist Franz Boaz. The Kwakiutl tribe is from Vancouver Island and they rely on salmon fishing for their way of life. However, Curtis had them pretend to hunt whale in the film. Creating the film had its hardships including an incident when Curtis was dropped off on an “island” that flooded with the incoming tides and left him waist-deep in water through the night.
The film shows a potlatch ceremony because Curtis thought filming it would be very dramatic. The Kwakiutl culture carved elaborate totem poles, canoes, and longhouse buildings. Tribal members wore full-body ceremonial garb made from wood, feathers, and skins that represented animals.
Group of winter dancers – Qagyuhl by Edward S. Curtis. 1914.
In the Land of the Head-Hunters is said to be the first ethnographic film. Nanook of the North came out later and the creator of that film analyzed Curtis’ work frame by frame before he started filming. Edward S. Curtis’ film consisted of 8,000 feet of film. It was the first film to feature a cast of Native Americans – instead of Italians dressed up in makeup and costumes. It was shot entirely on location and was the first film created in British Columbia. The musical score was composed by John J. Braham, who also did the score for Hiawatha. The film flew in the face of stereotypes people had at the time about Native Americans. Unlike other films that included Native Americans in the plot, this film did not focus on conflicts with whites.
The Kwakiutl tribe enjoyed being a part of the Curtis film. They made everything for the film – including buildings, canoes, and costumes. The tribe gave input into what should be included in the final film and what should be excluded. The story was meant to be a mythic tale about Native Americans before they came in contact with Europeans. It was almost like something out of Greek mythology. The potlatch and other ceremonies were banned in Canada in 1913 and enforcing those laws was at its peak when filming took place.
One of the reasons Curtis created the film was to help pay for the book project. At the time he was working on the film, he was compiling Volume 10. Edward S. Curtis had been interested in filmmaking as early as 1906. In the Land of the Head-Hunters cost $75,000 to $100,000 to make but it was a complete bust financially. It came out right as World War I was starting. There was a dispute with the distributor and it went to court but was never resolved. Curtis ended up selling the film for only $1,500.
Wedding party – Qagyuhl by Edward S. Curtis. 1914.
The finished film consisted of six reels of film and Curtis said that he had given a copy to the Museum of Natural History. The Museum had no record of the film being donated. Three badly damaged reels were found in a dumpster in 1947. UCLA had another partial copy. The film was painstakingly recreated but approximately one third of the original film was lost. The Getty Research Institute had incorrectly linked the musical score with another film but it was eventually reunited with the Curtis film.
Milestone Films produced a deluxe edition of the restored film in 2014, 100 years after the original film was created. It can be purchased from their website. This movie can be rented or purchased through Amazon Video and iTunes.
Edward S. Curtis had married Clara S. Phillips in 1892 and they had four children together. He was gone for long periods of time working on the book project. Due to his long absences and the financial drain on the business, Clara divorced him in 1916 and gained full custody of their children. He moved into the Rainier Club in Seattle and paid for room and board by taking portraits of its wealthy members. At the time of the divorce many negatives were lost because both Clara and Edward S. Curtis destroyed them rather than see the other person own them.
In the 1920’s Curtis worked briefly in the motion picture business. He worked on Tarzan movies and in 1923 worked on The Ten Commandments with director Cecil B. DeMille. After a few years in the business he went back to working on The North American Indian project, though on a much smaller scale. He took his daughter, Florence, with him into the field.
The dream crumbles
Though J.P. Morgan and his son, J.P. Morgan, Jr., financed half of the $1.5 million eventual publication costs, Curtis lost money to the point that he borrowed against his own copyrights. He ended up giving the remaining copies to Morgan. The copyrights were sold to the Charles E. Lauriat Company in 1935 for $1,000, plus a percentage of future royalties. A complete set was donated to the University of Oregon and this was Curtis’ own set that he had kept hidden from Morgan.
Duck-skin parkas, Nunivak by Edward S. Curtis. 1928.
Curtis ended up living the last 30 years of his life near his daughter, Beth Magnuson, in California. She financed a trip for her father so that he could document the Eskimo people. She also paid for an assistant named Stuart Eastwood. Beth went with him on this trip. They hit a bad storm almost immediately and ended up being stuck high and dry on a sandbar for two days. There is film footage showing them stuck on the sandbar. They went on to Nunivak Island and Curtis was impressed by the people there saying “he never knew a happier and more thoroughly honest and self-reliant people”. He said that he had “found a place where no missionary has worked.” Sadly, about ten years after his arrival, Swedish missionaries established themselves and destroyed much of the culture.
When he returned from his trip to the North, he was arrested for failure to pay alimony to his wife. He had to point out to the judge that he had no money since he had not been paid for the project. Curtis actually wept in front of the court upon disclosing his financial situation. The judge threw the case out.
When the Great Depression hit, there was little interest in an expensive publication such as his. In 1932 Curtis moved to Colorado and had a complete physical breakdown. He spent time with his son doing gold mining. He invented a device to extract gold dust, the Curtis Counter Current Concentrator. Curtis started to write about gold mining.
In 1948 Curtis was contacted by a retired librarian in Seattle named Harriet Leitch. The Seattle Historical Society wanted to know more about a partial set of The North American Indian that had been donated to them. Though there seemed to be little interest from the public about him in his last years, Harriet was able to record much of his life story from their correspondence.
Hupa jumping dance costume by Edward S. Curtis. 1923.
A legend passes away
Edward S. Curtis passed away in 1952 and is survived by his grandchild, Gary Curtis, and three great-grandchildren. Gary, age 88, lives on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. He plans to be around for at least three more years so that he can celebrate the 150th anniversary of Edward S. Curtis’ birth in 2018. Representatives from several institutions owning some of Curtis’ work recently met to discuss what they would like to show at the sesquicentennial event.
Curtis decided to make it his life mission to document the tribes of North America. He thought they were on the point of vanishing. At one point he went to the Smithsonian to ask for financing but they told him, “We have experts here; some have even been to Indian country”. They preferred to work with researchers with credentials from academia. The Smithsonian also told Curtis that the Native Americans had no religion and it is interesting to note that Curtis documented that everything done by the people featured in the books is done to a sacred and spiritual point.
Curtis approached financier and banker J.P Morgan about financing the project but was turned down at first. He pulled out some of his photos and Morgan was so impressed by them that he offered to finance him with an initial investment of $75,000. Morgan was particularly impressed by the photo of a girl entitled Mosa-Mohave.
Awaiting the return of the snake racers by Edward S. Curtis. 1921.
Curtis had an eye for excellent composition and he put a lot of time into understanding his subjects. He would wait patiently for facial features to settle and then photograph the “essence of soul”. President Theodore Roosevelt admired Curtis’ work and even hired him to photograph his daughter’s wedding. He also photographed Theodore Roosevelt and one of his friends said of the photograph, “It is more than a picture. It is the man himself.” Roosevelt, who thought of Curtis almost as if he were a member of his family, wrote the foreword for the Curtis books. He encouraged Curtis to pursue The North American Indian project.
Planning The North American Indian
According to the Curtis history, he and J. P. Morgan agreed on a plan to produce 20 volumes that would be sold on a subscription basis. Subscribers were forced to buy the entire set at a very high cost so the number of subscribers was limited. The cost was equivalent to the price of a large mansion. Though plans were originally made to print 500 copies, only 272 copies of Edward S. Curtis’s: The North American Indian were printed. In the early years of the project there were many subscribers but those numbers dwindled. The first volume was completed in 1907 and the last was published in 1930. When the stock market crashed in 1929, printing of the volumes was pretty much over.
Curtis felt trapped in a way. He had promised that he would complete the 20-volume set and felt duty-bound to deliver on that promise. Though there were slight changes in the techniques and prints over time, he wanted to be consistent with the appearance of the finished product. People had paid in advance for the volumes and they expected a certain level of quality. Work by other photographers of the times, such as Lewis Hine, focused on harsh realities but Curtis’ kept his original intent, composition, and production techniques. Though aesthetics had changed, The North American Indian did not reflect those changes.
A Blackfoot by Edward S. Curtis. 1926.
The toll he paid
Curtis’ quest to document the tribes severely impacted his personal life. He worked 15-17 hour days and had two mental breakdowns requiring hospitalization. The “short nights” featured in the title of Timothy Egan’s book refers to the fact the Curtis slept so little. He wrote six to eight letters per night asking for additional funding. Curtis even created a first-of-its-kind multimedia show, The Indian Picture Opera, in order to promote the books. The opera included hand-tinted lantern slides and an original score. Curtis crisscrossed the continent 130 times. At one point in time he worked with his brother, photographer Asahel Curtis, but Asahel was not credited for much of his work. They likely became estranged due to this and other incidents and never spoke to each other again.
Edward S. Curtis was born in Wisconsin in 1868. Two years before he was born, the Indian Wars were taking place. There were 200 battles in an eleven-year period. His father, Reverend Asahel “Johnson” Curtis, served in the military but was injured in the Civil War. He worked as a traveling pastor for a while until his health deteriorated. The Curtis family lived in abject poverty on a farm. Edward and his father moved to the Seattle area in Washington State and built a cabin near Port Orchard. Sadly, the reverend passed away on the day his wife moved there in 1887. These early life experiences affected the work of Edward S. Curtis.
Though Edward only completed sixth grade, his intelligence and drive helped him go on to become famous for documenting Native Americans at a time when many thought they should be eliminated. In the process, he used techniques in photography development and printing that brought his subjects to life. Of the 50,000 negatives that he made, only around 1,000 are known to still exist. He also made 10,000 sound recordings on wax cylinders documenting the language and songs of many of the tribes he encountered. About 800 of the cylinders still exist. His film on the Kwakiutl (now known as Kwakwaka’wakw) was the first to use actual tribal members.
Edward had an early interest in photography and built his own camera from salvaged parts at age 12. Curtis apprenticed with a photographer in Wisconsin when he was 17. When the family moved to Washington State, Curtis came up with $150 to pay for half of a photographic studio business owned by Rasmus Rothi. Six months later, he left that studio and began working with Thomas Guptill in a much larger space. His skill as a photographer, coupled with good looks and a charming personality, helped to make him very well-known and he was often sought out by the rich and famous.
Princess Angeline by Edward S. Curtis. 1899.
Recognition for his work
In 1896 he decided to photograph the daughter of Chief Sealth, known as Princess Angeline, who lived in a small shore side hut on the outskirts of Seattle. She made her living digging clams. Though the city was named after a Native American chief, Native Americans were not allowed within the city limits. Curtis offered to pay her a dollar for each photograph he took of her. This was the equivalent of a week’s wages. He entered three of the photos in a photography contest sponsored by the National Photographic Society. One of the photographs, Homeward, won the exhibition’s grand prize and a gold medal.
According to the Curtis history, he enjoyed mountain climbing and in 1898 happened to be on Mt. Rainier when six people were trapped there by a storm. The group included several influential members of society including George Bird Grinnell, National Audubon Society founder, and Clinton Hart Merriam, head of the U. S. Biological Survey and co-founder of the National Geographic Society. Curtis rescued the lost “tenderfoots.”
Homeward by Edward S. Curtis. 1898.
George Bird Grinnell had Curtis appointed as the official photographer of the 1899 E.H. Harriman Expedition to Alaska. The ship had so many experts representing various fields of study that it was essentially a floating university. John Muir, John Burroughs, and Gifford Pinchot were among the passengers.
A turning point
One of the turning points in Curtis’ life came in 1900 when Grinnell asked Curtis to photograph Blackfoot tribal members in Montana. Grinnell was known as being one of the most knowledgeable authorities on Native Americans in North America at the time. Curtis worked at photographing the Piegan people as they performed the Sundance ceremony. After that trip, he pulled money from the studio in Seattle to finance a trip to see the Hopi tribe. He ended up visiting the Hopi year after year and was eventually adopted by them and allowed to see parts of their snake dance.
The North American Indian books include many photographs and the larger size portfolios contain additional images. The images are never referred to in the text. Edward S. Curtis photo techniques sometimes involved waiting weeks to capture the right image. He was aware of the effect photographing from different angles would have on the subject matter. In some of the pictures he photographed subjects from low camera angles with the camera pointing upwards while in others he focused just below the axis of the eyes. The Old Klamath Woman portrait shows the eyes in sharp focus but the image softens out by the time you get to the cheekbones. As Dawn Boone of A6 observed, the woman pictured is “softening back into the earth right before our eyes.” There is a certain determination expressed in the faces of some of the people even though they had been living against a background of loss.
Curtis’ work was influenced by the Emersonian transcendentalist’s movement. In transcendentalism, the role of nature was considered to be very important. This is evident in the Chief-Klamath image that shows a figure looking out at Crater Lake. He is standing with his back to the camera next to a small stand of trees. His form echoes the shapes of the forest. Another photo, Quiet Waters- Yurock, shows a fisherman on a cliff side blending into the environment and nearly disappearing in the reflection in the water below.
Cañon de Chelly – Navaho by Edward S. Curtis. 1904.
The prints contained in the books are an intersection of photography and engraving. Curtis would frame the shot using a wooden box camera and he would view it through the lens upside down and backwards. The equipment Curtis used was large and heavy. At one point a mule carrying his equipment tumbled off the trail in the Grand Canyon. He spent 12 hours reconstructing his camera. He would usually make a quick cyanotype print to see if he was satisfied with the shot. If satisfied with the initial image, Curtis would then use the photogravure process to make the final print. A glass plate negative was used in the camera. An image would be photographically transferred to a copper plate through the use of a gelatin-coated light-sensitive tissue. The image would be etched into the plate with acid and then prints would be made from that plate. Curtis made some of the prints with a gold tone process in which gold was worked into the glass plates. That was his favorite method but the plates were very fragile. He, like Albert Stieglitz and other Pictorialists, preferred the more artistic photogravure process over other methods available. The influence of the Pictorialists can clearly be seen in Edward S. Curtis’ work.
Albert Stieglitz, a contemporary of Curtis’, was originally from New Jersey but did much of his work in New York City. He married artist Georgia O’Keefe in 1924. His office was close to an office Curtis sometimes used so they likely at least knew of each other.
Andres Cañon by Edward S. Curtis. 1924.
As handheld cameras for amateurs became widely available, Stieglitz became determined to prove that photography was as much an art form as painting and sculpture. In 1902 Stieglitz and several other photographers broke away from the Camera Club of New York, where he worked as editor of their Camera Notes publication, to form the Photo-Secession group. Stieglitz often made platinum prints because of the overall feel this process gave to the image. The pictures often included elements from nature seen through a soft haze. Subject matter was often posed in an idealized way as if in a painting. Deep sepia ink tones unified the images. Stieglitz selected specific papers for printing that showed “toothiness.” The lack of reality in the photographs may have been partly in response to current events such as the world war looming on the horizon. Stieglitz could be very opinionated and overbearing so other Pictorialists started their own groups in pursuit of more artistic freedom. Like Curtis and his work, Stieglitz ran out of money to produce Camera Notes as interest waned and he ended up with an overstock of the publication. By 1917, artists began moving away from the Pictorial movement towards more abstract forms.
Events and exhibits related to photographer Edward S. Curtis were located all over Bend in the months of September and October. Curtis documented Native American tribes living in many parts of North America in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Part of his work was featured in a 20-volume set of books and 20 separate large-format portfolios entitled Edward S. Curtis’s:The North American Indian. An estimated 10,000 people were featured in his work.
The idea for this citywide program began when a number of prints were offered to Atelier 6000 (A6) Studio & Gallery in Bend, OR to exhibit and sell on a commission basis. Three volumes of The North American Indian were donated by former gallery owners Steve and Sandra Miller.
This long article will cover most of the events and exhibits and will help you learn more about Edward S. Curtis. This is Part I and it sets the scene.
Curtis Exhibit at Atelier 6000 Studio and Gallery
Here is what was included in the citywide program:
There were 64 Curtis prints featured in the A6 Studio & Gallery. A6 was also given the opportunity to purchase a complete copy of the large-format Portfolio 13 from the Praeger collection. The prints were all for sale. Curated talks about Curtis were given once per week. A6 also offered activities related to the exhibit to the community.
A6 sponsored Edward S. Curtis expert Christopher Cardozo who gave a presentation at the Tower Theater that traced the history of Curtis and highlighted some of his work. Cardozo supplied additional prints from his extensive collection as a temporary loan, to be sold on commission.
The High Desert Museum (HDM) brought some of Curtis’ work out of their vault to display. The exhibit at HDM was small but powerful. The 20 volumes of The North American Indian were encased in a glass display box flanked by several prints. The books documented his encounters with 80 tribes in words and photographs. One of the books in the display was opened to a touching portrait of a Wishram child. Visitors may have recognized the portrait of Chief Joseph of the Nez Percé tribe displayed nearby. There were also prints representing the Apsaroke, Blackfoot, Cheyenne, and Piegan tribes in the display.
Chief Joseph-Nez Perce by Edward S. Curtis. 1903.
HDM showed the silent film Curtis created in 1914 about Native Americans living on Vancouver Island. It is entitled In the Land of the Head-Hunters.
An additional event was added at HDM that related to Curtis’ place in 20th century photography and how contemporary Native American photographers have responded to his photographs. Julia Dolan, Ph.D., Minor White Curator of Photography at Portland Art Museum was the speaker for this event.
A documentary film about Curtis, Coming to Light: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indian by Anne Makepeace was shown at the Tin Pan Theater and at A6 in Bend and was also shown in Madras.
Deschutes Public Library Foundation presented author Timothy Egan in a discussion about his book, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher – The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis.
Deschutes Public Library presented Justine Lowry, part-time Central Oregon Community College faculty for the Department of Fine Arts and Communication, as she explored contemporary responses to the work Curtis created.
Elizabeth Woody, member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, read some of her poetry related to her people and the natural world.
What makes Curtis so special that so many events and exhibits related to him took place in Bend? With the advent of the Internet, the images he created seem to appear fairly often but not everyone knows him by name. If you have looked at some of his portraits they have probably brought emotions to the surface that you weren’t expecting. The photos go beyond the usual portraits and capture a time and spirit lost to us now. His use of light, shadow, and composition brings his subjects to life. The expressions in the portraits range from bold and noble to young and vulnerable. Some of the pictures are of a more serious anthropological nature while others are pure art. While he was best known for his portraits, his scenic pictures and still lifes were also remarkable. His work later influenced well-known artists such as filmmaker, John Ford, and photographer, Ansel Adams.
Curtis may be best known as a photographer but he also was an accomplished printer, bookmaker, writer, ethnographer, and cinematographer. He hired writers, editors, anthropologists, translators, and other personnel along the way but always oversaw the work to ensure its quality. In order to cover the many facets of his work, A6 Studio & Gallery enlisted the help of several venues to showcase his work.