Old friends and collectors embrace her in warm welcomes, sharing admiration for her art now decorating the walls of White Lotus Gallery. For the first time, renowned Northwest Native artist Lillian Pitt has a solo show in Eugene.
Pitt’s dressed in her own handmade jewelry for the afternoon reception to open her show, Gifts From My Ancestors. Rays of light catch the dangle of her earrings with every movement. They’re rounded, each about the size of a quarter and cast in silver to emulate the face of “She Who Watches,” a petroglyph created 10,000 years ago by Pitt’s ancestors along the Columbia River.
Large, chunky rings bedeck her fingers, and on her right ring finger fits a silver crow’s head with its beak extending outward, all the way across to the adjoining finger. From her neck hangs a large silver pendant sculpted to exquisite detail, mirroring the head of a coyote.
Pitt is telling the story behind the carving of a family of small figures on her handmade silver bracelet. One figure is shown departing the group. The story is called “Crow Takes Leave of its Family.”
“Long ago, we could speak to animals, and they could speak to us,” Pitt says. “We could understand each other, but with many changes, and the new people coming, we couldn’t understand the animals anymore. So that’s why crow had to leave from its family.”
Known nationally and internationally, Pitt has created a large body of work over her career. A member of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Indians, she specifically identifies with Yakama, Warm Springs and Wasco decent. Her ancestors have lived along the Columbia River Gorge for more than 10,000 years, and her great-grandmother lived in the village of Wishxam, on the Washington side of the Gorge.
In all her work, Pitt is dedicated to telling the stories of her ancestors through art.
“It is a dream come true to bring her work to Eugene,” says Hue-Ping Lin, owner of White Lotus Gallery. “We feel quite honored to be led by an artist’s spirit and work.”
Pitt has won numerous awards and honors, including the 2007 Earle A. Chiles Award for Lifetime Achievement and the 1990 Governor’s Award from the Oregon Arts Commission.
Despite her numerous accolades, she has been described as someone who is incredibly humble and a pleasure to know and work with.
“She brings out the best in all of us,” says Jennifer Huang of White Lotus. “She really does feel like a grandmother because she is so approachable and kind.”
Pitt primarily works with clay and has loved that medium since picking it up for the first time 40 years ago. “It was love at first touch,” she says, when she took her first ceramics class at the age of 35 at Mt. Hood Community College.
Pitt’s work at White Lotus includes a wide range of mediums. The show includes clay sculptures, glass pieces, lead crystal sculptures, drypoint monoprints and mixed-media pieces using wood.
Almost all of her work incorporates bits of nature. “I can’t get away from nature. I let nature do the work and let the spirit of the very piece lead,” she says. “I want to make people happy with what I am doing.”
Four of her pieces are inspired by traditional woven bags or baskets called wápaas. Traditionally fashioned with cornhusks, wápaas can also be made with yarn, beginning with a strong base, weaving upward to create sturdy walls for the basket or bag to stand stiff.
Wápaas are used to harvest and gather roots in Pitts’ tribe. Instead of cornhusks or yarn, Pitt used clay to create her one-of-a-kind wápaas for this exhibit. Each bag includes traditional basket designs, such as a sturgeon design, and is adorned with crystal beads.
Pitt is also showcasing six fused- and blown-glass vessels. She made them in collaboration with a Seattle-based glass artist Dan Friday, a member of the Lummi Nation who has worked for the past 20 years with leading glass artists such as Dale Chihuly and Paul Marioni.
Much of her work is based on the “She Who Watches” petroglyph and pictograph along the Columbia River. Its Native name is “Tsagalal.”
It wasn’t until Pitt was in her 30s that an elder showed her the location of “She Who Watches” high above a bluff along the river. “‘She Who Watches’ watches over my great grandmother’s village on the Columbia River, and really gave me a sense of identity,” Pitt says.
It was important for Pitt that she received approval from the elders in her community to emulate art after the spirit of “She Who Watches.”
Despite creating a lifetime of work and selling many pieces of art, Pitt says it’s still hard to see some of her works go to new homes. In her collection at White Lotus, Pitt says one of the hardest pieces to depart from will be a group of wood-fired pieces.
“I love all of my pieces, but the hardest will be the anagama sculptures because these are one of a kind. They have been wood fired in a Japanese technique, and the fire brings out the beauty of the tree,” Pitt says. ν
Gifts From My Ancestors is at White Lotus Gallery, 767 Willamette Street, through Dec. 7.