This Season, Maryhill Museum Offers a Unique Perspective on the Columbia River

March 16, 2024 at 8:25 p.m.
Maryhill Museum's 2024 season opened on March 15 with special exhibitions, "The Columbia River: Wallula to the Sea" and "King Salmon" - photo courtesy
Maryhill Museum's 2024 season opened on March 15 with special exhibitions, "The Columbia River: Wallula to the Sea" and "King Salmon" - photo courtesy

Given its position on a hill high above the mighty Columbia River, it only seems fitting that the Maryhill Museum of Art's new exhibition is an exploration of the river itself.

Erik Sandgren (American, b. 1952), Wallula to the Sea (polyptych), 2023, acrylic on panel, 48” x 96” (48” x 24” each) 

Maryhill's 2024 season opened on March 15 with special exhibitions, The Columbia River: Wallula to the Sea and King Salmon. Wallula to the Sea celebrates the myriad ways in which humans have interacted with this vital waterway; it contains approximately 70 historic and contemporary paintings and photographs, along with select examples of regional culture by Indigenous artists. (NOTE: at the end of the article, view a series of paintings from this exhibition that represent locations along the Columbia River.) 

Along the 310-mile stretch of the Columbia River between the Wallula Gap and the Pacific Ocean, countless generations of people have depended on the river. Maryhill Museum introduces the exhibition with these words: "Few landscapes figure as prominently in the Pacific Northwest consciousness as does the Columbia River and the land along its shores. The waterway is heralded variously for its social, cultural, and historical importance, its economic value, and its visual qualities."

The special exhibition features works by two prominent Portland artists, Thomas Jefferson Kitts and Erik Sandgren. Kitts and Sandgren have worked closely with the museum to ensure that critical locations along the river are represented in the exhibition. The artists traveled to these locations and painted en plein air -- painting outdoors onsite at the critical locations -- creating both preliminary studies and finished works for display.

Thomas Jefferson Kitts

Thomas Jefferson Kitts painting on site

“I am a native Oregonian who learned how to paint landscapes along the Columbia River, as well as up and down the Cascade Range," says Kitts. "So focusing on this Maryhill exhibition turned out to be an emotional experience. After decades of exporting my work to other states and countries, and traveling the world for the past 15 years, it has been deeply gratifying to revisit many of my old haunts and subject matter – which makes this exhibition something of a coming home story for me.” On his website Kitts writes about his work: "When people view my work, I want them to see a painting, not a photograph. I want them to experience a surface made alive with color, texture, and the movement of my hand, yet also feel a connection to the reality that gave birth to the work." --Thomas Jefferson Kitts

Erik Sandren
Erik Sandgren painting on site

“It means a great deal to me as a painter to have been invited to create and contribute work for a show of this scope, with time for my on-site painting experiences to accumulate and resonate into additional work that reflects cultural and historical aspects of the Big River.” After his tenure as a one-person art department at Grays Harbor College, he has returned to Oregon to live and work fulltime. He followed in the footsteps of his father, Nelson Sandgren, who was a noted painter and Oregon State University art professor. His website tells us that after studying back east, in 1989, "Sandgren returned like a homing salmon, to the headwaters of his art and early life in the Pacific Northwest."  The Northwest mountains, trees and water, skies and people have inspired his feeling for location, myth and history. --Erik Sandgren
The Columbia River: Wallula to the Sea exhibition also includes Indigenous carving, twined basketry, and beadwork from the Middle Columbia River region. Key examples of pictorial beadwork with river scenes are being borrowed from collectors in Hood River and Texas. A commissioned Chinook-style carving that was created by Greg A. Robinson depicts a Coyote narrative about the river. Robinson lives in Vancouver, Washington and is a member of the Chinook Indian Nation. Through his work, Robinson revives, teaches and shares ancient Chinookan style art with people across the region.

The exploration in this special exhibition is especially relevant as we witness present-day tensions between the river as a commercial resource and as a traditional cultural resource; as a wildland to be conserved and a source of energy and sustenance to people across the region. While this exhibition examines these complex tensions on a regional scale, this is a dynamic that can be found globally. The museum's interpretive goal of the display is to provide the public with an opportunity to reflect on the many -- often competing -- facets of the river’s identity, and to visually chronicle some of the human behaviors that shape its daily life, both past and present.

Other 2024 Springtime Exhibitions

Bill Reiswig (American, b. 1966), Seven Spawning Salmon Species Swimming Salish Seas, 2017, woodblock print, edition: 29/67, 8” x 10”; Collection of Maryhill Museum of Art

King Salmon: Contemporary Relief Prints (permanent): King Salmon is a display of woodcuts and linocuts that have been added to the museum's permanent collection. The “king salmon” in the exhibit title refers at once to the Chinook salmon species and the place of salmon in the economies, cultural life, and leisure-time activities of local people.

Teachers As Artists: The Way I See It (March 15 - April 17). This is an annual juried exhibition that provides an opportunity for dedicated art educators in Washington and Oregon to showcase their talents.

Pacific Northwest Plein Air 2024 (April 27 - May 27). As the spring wildflowers bloom in the Columbia River Gorge, more than 40 artists take to the outdoors—including the museum grounds—to capture the beauty in the open air. Completed paintings from this annual event will be available to purchase at the museum’s M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust Education Center through May 27.

Permanent Collection: In addition to the special exhibitions, Maryhill Museum of Art's permanent collection features exhibitions of more than 80 works by Auguste Rodin – one of the largest collections in the United States – European and American paintings, furnishings, personal effects and art objects from the palaces of the Queen of Romania, Orthodox icons, and a display of more than 75 chess sets from around the world. Maryhill is also home to the renowned Théâtre de la Mode, featuring artist-designed sets and small-scale mannequins attired in haute couture fashions of post-World War II France. The museum’s Indigenous Peoples of North America Gallery includes works of Indigenous art from prehistoric to contemporary. The William and Catherine Dickson Sculpture Park is home to the museum’s collection of large-scale sculptures by well-known Northwest artists.

How to Visit 
Maryhill Museum of Art is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm, March 15 through November 15. The gardens and grounds, including the William and Catherine Dickson Sculpture Park, are open from 10 am to 5 pm daily March 15 to November 15 at no charge. The nearby Stonehenge Memorial is free to visitors from dawn to dusk daily year-round.

Maryhill Museum of Art overlooks the Columbia River on Washington’s SR 14, just west of US 97, 12 miles south of Goldendale, WA, 4 hours from Seattle. The museum is a scenic 45-minute drive from Hood River, Oregon and 2 hours from the Portland/Vancouver area.

For further information and tickets, visit
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The images below are from Maryhill Museum's new exhibition, The Columbia River: Wallula to the Sea 

John Mix Stanley (American, 1814–1872) and Sarony, Major & Knapp (American, active 1856–1867), Old Fort Walla Walla, Plate XLV, Narrative and Final Report of Explorations for a Route for a Pacific Railroad, Near the Forty-Seventh and Forty-Ninth Parallels, Vol. 12, Book 1, 1853/1857, Lithograph, 6” x 9” 


Erik Sandgren (American, b. 1952), Hat Rock, 2022, acrylic on panel, 11” x 14” 

Thomas Jefferson Kitts (American, b. 1961), Memaloose Viewpoint, 2023, oil on canvas, 23” x 36” 



Thomas Jefferson Kitts (American, b 1961), Yakama Dipnetting for Steelhead, Klickitat River, 2023, oil on panel, 18" x 14"



Thomas Jefferson Kitts (American, b. 1961), Sacred Rights, 2016, oil on canvas, 16” x 20”; Collection of Maryhill Museum of Art 


Erik Sandgren (American, b. 1952), Waterfall Visitors, 2000, acrylic on canvas, 40” x 30” 



William G. Hook (American, b. 1947), Crossing the Columbia, 2023, watercolor on gessoed panel, 12” x 12” 



Erik Sandgren (American, b. 1952), Mill Pilings at Knappton, 1993, watercolor on paper, 11” x 15” 


Erik Sandgren (American, b. 1952), Entrance to the Columbia: Aid to Navigation at Cape Disappointment, 2001, watercolor on paper, 15” x 22”

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This image, also seen at the top of the page, has four 48" by 24" panels which total 8 feet wide. The artist, Erik Sandgren, has been working with the vertical format of single panels for five or six years, especially with the Columbia River. Maryhill Museum's exhibition program describes the vertical panel approach like this: "The vertical format of each panel is a classically Asian form that compresses space and takes the eye on a roving journey of multiple vantage points."

Sandgren described his process for creating the panels and his serpentine representation of the Big River from Wallula Gap to the Pacific Ocean:
"One day I placed a couple of [the panels] together in my studio and realized I might extend them on either side to include the reach of this exhibition concept... From there, I worked them alternately for several months as stand along pieces and as interconnected compositions."
In response to a question about his process of creating the work, Sandgren added, "I liberated myself from most specific topography (except for the bracketing features of the Cayuse Sisters on the left and Saddle Mountain on the right, which allude to Native American origin stories) in order to get some FEEL for the winding, deep and vertiginous spaces of the middle gorge."

He added, "Growing out of my extended, on-site painting experiences along the Columbia, this is probably my most creative response to the challenges of evoking the topographic, cultural, historical and spatial flow of the Big River."
Here is an excerpt of Maryhill Museum's description of the piece:

"Along the way one encounters tiny markers of our industrial age—a telecommunications tower, a road, wind turbines, boats, a bridge, cannery and mill pilings—all dwarfed by the enormities of historical and geological time and distance. As one passes the Cascade Mountains and approaches the sea, verdant hills and swirling mists supplant the austere aridity of the interior Columbia Basin. The mists coalesce into glyph patterns that are unique to the Pacific Northwest: eyes with trailing forms. In the lower right-hand corner, at the water’s edge and surviving the incursions of industrial pilings, is an iconic wapato (Sagittaria latifolia), prized historic food source for the Columbia River’s Indigenous peoples."

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