Lillian Pitt, Warm Springs, Oregon
For 15,000 years ‘the big river’ to the North—Wimhal, Nch-i-Wana, Swah’net’qhuor Columbia—has sustained, supported, and inspired human societies. Distinguished Oregon artist Lillian Pitt, raised on the Warm Springs Reservation of which she is a tribal member, first and foremost considers herself a Big River person. But this identity is not because she has made Portland her home for the past 50 years; it is because her ancestors knew the Big River Region as their world, and simply, it was preeminent in their understanding of all things.
“My ancestors were traders and innovators. They traded goods and exchanged ideas with people from many Native traditions. I honor my ancestors by carrying on this tradition of exchanging goods and ideas through my art.”
Lillian was a hair stylist, making her living in a hair salon, long before she became a famous artist. She started a hairdressing business. But eventually, as many people who have the artistic inclination will do, Lillian took a class. She remembers one aspect of it quite clearly, “Once my hand touched the clay … I knew!” This calling merged with her sense of heritage, and that combination gradually but steadily developed. In time, it became a force of nature within the art world of the Pacific Northwest.
The second and third floors of the Portland Art Museum offer the finest collection of Native American Art in Oregon and represent one of the best collections in the United States. These works span both the North American continent and its history, from ancient times to current, which are reflected by some of the contemporary artists that have been included. The works of Lillian Pitt are displayed prominently at the entrance to the expansive collection.
The Museum at Warm Springs has held exhibitions honoring Lillian’s work and has her pieces displayed at the entrance to the Collections Room. The High Desert Museum is still another Oregon museum that houses her work. Outside of Oregon, Lillian’s art graces the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. and The Burke Museum in Seattle, which holds yet another nationally famously collection. The list of awards, shows, and exhibitions for Lillian’s career is over three pages long. Books have been written that include her works; books have been written about her works. Her place as the preeminent living Native American artist of Oregon is unquestionable.
These distinctions however, are somewhat limiting because they form a certain kind of perimeter around Lillian, creating a perception that her Native American roots and those artistic traditions are what enabled her to be so successful. While she does not shy away from those connections, a single opportunity to see Lillian’s pieces at a show, one chance to meet her, quickly discards the narrower perspective a person might hold regarding her ability as an artist.
Lillian has come to understand, incorporate, and master many of the concepts and techniques of contemporary Western art. Her range of mediums—glass, clay, metal, jewelry, printmaking, multi-media—establishes an exceptional breadth of skills for any artist. In short, Lillian’s dynamic artistic abilities demonstrate that she would have been a highly successful artist had she chosen Western World subjects and motifs. Her Honorary Doctorate from the University of Portland nine years ago exemplifies this high regard for her and her abilities.
“Everything I do, regardless of the medium, is directly related to honoring my ancestors and giving voice to the people, the environment, and the animals. It’s all about maintaining a link with tradition and about honoring the many contributions my ancestors have made to this world.”
Lillian has travelled far beyond the region of the Big River to New Zealand, Fiji, The Marshal Islands, and Japan. This came about for sharing, learning, and experiencing the tradition and art of their First Peoples. What she came to understand in these far off ‘worlds,’ more than anything else, was the sense of connection that she and they share, regarding their ancestral roots. Subsequently, these travels served to deepen her own sense of place and belonging to the The Big River, along the northern boundary of Oregon.
Lillian remained true to her ancestral heritage throughout her early and middle art career. The result of Lillian’s commitment to her identity has helped to raise the public’s awareness about the First Peoples of this region, while accomplishing it in a beautiful and contemporary manner. As a young artist in the 1970’s and 80’s, Native American Art had its place, but that place wasn’t nearly as popular or lucrative as it can be today. At the time, the art world was embracing a number of modernist movements that fairly excluded tradition. Art was trendier then; elegant and enduring could be brushed aside as being passé.
Lillian did not waiver; she stayed with what had shaped her even though transforming herself more simply into an artist could have allowed her to capitalize on her ability and what was fashionable to create in the moment. In short, she chose the most honorable yet more rigorous path. Now in her 70’s, she still walks it.