Community Connection: Karl Davis and Roberta Lavadour in Conversation with Susan Murrell
Rural life sometimes requires a bit of a drive for an art fix. One early July morning, I left my college town of La Grande, Oregon, and headed over the Blue Mountains to Pendleton to interview Roberta Lavadour, executive director of the Pendleton Center for the Arts (PCA), and Karl Davis, executive director of Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts (CSIA). Pendleton revels in its Old West reputation and is best known for its annual rodeo, yet in the midst of a region based in agricultural and ranching labor, these two organizations have succeeded in creating and supporting a vibrant arts community.
Roberta, Karl, and I met at PCA, which sits in the historic downtown next to the Umatilla River, to discuss the challenges of running arts organizations in a remote area. PCA follows a model similar to many regional art centers, offering classes, exhibitions, sales, and events, and it is widely respected for its community engagement. CSIA is located on the Umatilla Reservation and combines fine-art print publication with artist residencies and traditional Native arts programming, serving local residents as well as contemporary Indigenous artists from around the world.
Our conversation reminded me that in sparsely populated places like Eastern Oregon, success often lies in inviting everyone to the table, and while we may be geographically isolated, connection is vital. -SM
Susan Murrell: I thought I would start with an impression, since our focus is on being in a rural region: one nice surprise about living in a smaller town is that there’s a sense that you can’t write anybody off. Both of your organizations are incredibly diverse in terms of the people that come in the door, and also the people that support the organizations. And you’re not really limited to one demographic. How do you navigate this, and what about your background might have set you up for this?
Roberta Lavadour: Honestly, I think that the work I did as a server informs an awful lot of what I do day to day here. Because we have multiple layers of clients, constituents, customers. We’re serving the board and we’re serving the people walking in the door, and we’re serving our patrons that we’re fundraising for, and we’re serving the community at large, hopefully. I think you don’t do a job like this if you don’t have that helper gene, because it’s about serving people. I think that’s where organizations like Crow’s Shadow and the [Pendleton] Arts Center have been successful — in thinking of the job as serving the public, not as a clubhouse for a select group of people. That’s important. You want your base to be as broad as possible, and I think those skills come in handy.
SM: I like that analogy.
Karl Davis: I’ve never been a server [laughs] — but I worked in restaurants. It was my very first job, I washed dishes. I think my background, my own personal history, informs the kind of approach I take to serving a very socioeconomically and culturally diverse community. The way I was raised was to be as open and accepting of everyone as possible. Crow’s Shadow is really about serving a community that has eons of culture behind it. Knowing that, you listen first before you do anything, and also you respect that culture, being open to everyone and making sure that you’re there for the people that you serve. Like you say, you don’t know who that person is next to you, you don’t know their story. Never pre-judge anybody that comes to the door, and always be open to all of the experiences that are out there.
RL: I would say too that the ten years that I spent doing studio work really informs what I do. For instance, we never return anything to an artist that doesn’t have a note or collateral from the exhibit or things like that with it. There are things that you experience as an artist, such as getting your work back in a box, with nothing but the work. And you’re like, “Oh, okay, well I sent that out… You’re welcome, I guess.” It gives you perspective on how to support an artist. One of the things I really appreciate about running a community arts center, as opposed to a larger museum, is just seeing the transition for somebody who starts thinking of themself as an artist.
SM: Becomes a self-identified artist.
RL: In a larger institution, and in an urban area, people have to reach a certain benchmark before they interact with institutions. But here, somebody who just paints on pieces of wood he finds down at the river can walk in and we can put his works on sale in the craft gallery, because they’re super cool. I feel like in a rural community there’s more accessibility for people to really start at any point — maybe that’s just a stereotype. My stereotype is this with a larger institution, at least, you don’t just walk into the gallery.
SM: Right, we think of them more as gatekeepers. One thing that’s been fun for me, that doesn’t happen all the time, is that when you invited me to be a juror for one of your regional exhibitions, you warned me: “Susan, they’re going to come up to you afterwards and ask you why you didn’t choose their painting.” That terrified me! But I had the most interesting conversations — some of them awkward, some of them wonderful. This sense of ownership was part of the conversation. There wasn’t this big barrier between us, “Oooh, she’s the juror and she didn’t pick my work.” They want to know why! [laughs] And at Crow’s Shadow, being there for artist’s talks… I remember one time some of the students in the high-school program were showing their prints, they were jumping in on studio tours and saying, “We do this over there.” They belonged there and it was their studio and they were proud of the work that they had made in the afterschool program. Programmatically, there’s the art viewing, the sales, and the making spaces that you all have married so well, it just seems really active. Could you talk about that part of what you’re doing?
KD: Crow’s Shadow has a three-pronged approach, but it’s more about the activity that surrounds it. All the activities feed into our mission — education, social-economic opportunities. We have the studio with the artists in residence, they’re always professional artists, so they have experience in a studio, with artmaking as a career. And that can further their career through learning about printmaking, if they’ve never done it. Then we market the work and sell it, and they benefit that way. And we try to introduce them to the community, so an artist coming from outside of the region is connected to people here. And just the same with the students. You know, they’re making artwork for themselves, but they’re also learning about what it is to be an artist, and how to go from a sketch to a print, to putting that print on the wall, and selling the work and receiving payment for it. All the steps that are part of being a professional artist. You know, the satisfaction that I get from it is to see them get through that process, for them to get a glimpse of it and maybe take it further, later. And the traditional arts that we do, too — some of the teachers that we bring in have never taught a class before, and they get that experience. And maybe they take that onto something else. All three of those programs have currents in different aspects of professional artmaking, so they see it as a viable career.
RL: I think the role of sales in the transformation of somebody’s identity as an artist is so vital. The first time a stranger — you know, somebody who’s not your mom — buys your work, it is really the most powerful thing that can happen to you. Somebody who’s not already connected to you, connects with you just through that object. You know, we had a woman bring her plushies to the sales gallery the other day and another woman picked one of them up and just held it to her chest, and then she left and her husband came back in and said, “She has to have that.” And to see the look on the artist’s face, that was just like gold. I feel like that’s part of the advocacy work that we do, which is to show that “making art is work.” That selling work is an integral part of the ecosystem of art, and that building a client base, a customer base, for the artists is a big part of our job. Our patrons used to come in and drop a couple thousand dollars on a painting in a gallery, but you know, there aren’t very many of them left anymore, so how are we cultivating that audience? And sales are just such an important part. I don’t care if they make stickers, or if they make stuff in a gallery.
SM: When I was doing monotypes on Alberta Street in Portland, sometimes I would teach workshops and I sold more work to the people I tried to teach! You know, they realized, “Oh, she really knows how to manipulate these materials at a higher skill level than I do, I can’t just make my own in one afternoon in the print studio.” Art appreciation sometimes comes through trying to make something with your own hands, and developing patrons or collectors sometimes comes through their experience in the studio, I think.
RL: I used to be really snooty about “drink and draw,” “drink and paint” kind of things. And I’ve come around, because getting a brush in somebody’s hand — even if they’re all painting the same palm tree — is informative about applying paint to a canvas, what that feels like. It’s either a wonderful gateway for somebody, or, like you said, it’s, “Oh! This is a skill I do not possess.” You know? I think it’s all good.
SM: I’ve been thinking about how integral both of your buildings have been to your institutions. So I just thought you could talk about the building itself and how it was part of the origin story for your organization, and how it’s maybe been a hurdle or an asset.
RL: The building that we’re in was built in 1916 as a Carnegie library, and the Carnegie model was to have thirteen or so steps to the front door, to symbolize the ascent to enlightenment that books represented. So if you go to any Carnegie library, you’re going to see a big staircase.
SM: That’s not ADA.
RL: We also have an elevator! But if you grew up in a rural area, and have not spent time going into buildings that look like ours, it can be a real social barrier. To have to go up those steps before you’re at the door? I mean, you have to be committed. And it’s something that we try to work with, but we also really try to make sure that everybody that walks in the door — for example, the kids from the day-treatment mental health center that’s a couple blocks away, we really work to make sure they know they belong here, that this is for them. I’ll never forget it, we had a woman from the drug and alcohol treatment center who was helping us with maintenance one time, and she walked in for the first time and looked around the grand entryway, with its huge skylight…she looked around and she said, “I feel like this is too nice for me.” And I thought, “Wow, that is a perspective I never anticipated.” And I’ve never forgotten it, because I think we have to remember that a lot of people don’t grow up going into spaces like this, and I want our space to be aspirational, I want them to be able to go to SFMOMA and feel very comfortable walking in, because they feel like they belong there. We forget that so many people don’t feel that way.
SM: That’s such an interesting consideration, noticing the staircase itself. I hadn’t thought of that, but up and down the main street here, there aren’t any entryways like this building.
RL: Well, I feel like I’m a very confident, full-grown woman. But you know, inside you’re still that eighth grader with the cafeteria tray, and I run into that. I think I navigate the world in that way as well. So we try to be really sensitive about that.
SM: Has being a Carnegie library opened some doors in terms of grants and stuff?
RL: It opens the door in that this has always been a gathering place in the community. The first year they were open — we did research for the hundredth anniversary — they had like two hundred public meetings here. And we still open the space up for baby showers and weddings and all kinds of things like that. I would say that one of the proudest weeks we ever had, we had a guest from a conservative local church present a program about prepping for mass unrest—I mean, it was a little out there for me, but that’s fine—and then we had PFLAG do an event here, and then we had a chamber music quartet, and then we had a grunge rock band perform. That’s diversity to me, to have everybody feel like they have a home here, and they can feel comfortable here.
SM: Events are such a wonderful entryway into the visual arts, and you have a real emphasis on music and writing and community events. I think a lot of people probably come in the door for a concert, for a performance, and then wander over and see the gallery and go to the gift shop and realize those things are happening as well.
RL: Many years ago, when cultural non-profits first started getting charged property tax, there was a big shift among certain organizations who said, “OK, we don’t want to pay the property tax because it’s very expensive, so we won’t sell work, have a gift shop, or rent the space. We’ll just exhibit and be kind of an art center with a capital A.” They’re no longer in operation. Because you lose all the connection to the community.
KD: It’s the same for Crow’s Shadow, we’re in a very old building, originally built in the 1930s as a school for St. Andrew’s Catholic Mission out on the confederated tribal land of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. The building went through a cycle as a day school, and then it closed, and the tribes used it for administrative offices, and then it was used as other things, and then the artist James Lavadour [the founder of CSIA, formerly married to Roberta Lavadour] was using it as a painting studio, in one of the classrooms. It was a multi-use, multi-generational building, and when Crow’s Shadow began in those classrooms upstairs the chalkboards were still on the walls. One of our board members who grew up on the reservation tells me stories about roller-skating with the little metal-wheel roller-skates on the cement floor in the basement when it was a school. So there’s a community connection to the building itself. Our space now is filled with light and the art is part of that. But we do have to bring people in. It’s a very rural area, and —
SM: It’s super isolated.
KD: — it’s super isolated, and you have to know about Crow’s Shadow, it’s not something that you just happen into. So there’s that part that we have to overcome a little bit. But when they do arrive, and they walk in the door, there’s always the same response; “Oh my gosh!”
SM: It’s beautiful.
KD: “What is this space?” Once people know, then they tell their friends and bring more and more people in, which is great. We always have people saying, “Oh, I brought my friends from out of town and we knew we had to come up and see Crow’s Shadow.” Also, we do run into a little bit of this in the community, that we’re not a Catholic mission. [Editor’s note: Davis later clarified, “We are a tenant in a building on the mission but are not connected to or run by the Catholic diocese.”] And there’s also the Presbyterian Mission across the way, and the community members who went there don’t come to the Catholic Mission, because there’s a cultural divide in that way. So we do have to overcome some of that, just because of our location. But it is a gorgeous building, and now we have control of the whole building, the interior — over the last two years we rewrote the lease with the church.
SM: When I came with a colleague, he was surprised that not everybody was Indigenous. I feel like that’s another misconception, that it’s owned by the tribe.
KD: Our board of directors is primarily Native. We have a traditional arts coordinator, her name is Sequoia Connor, she’s a tribal member, and hopefully my replacement someday will be —
SM: And a lot of your teachers, too.
KD: The traditional arts programs are always led by Native people, and we do work primarily with Native artists in the studio. I mean, that’s our focus, Native and Indigenous artists. So we’re really focused on that as the community that we serve, contemporary Native artists.
SM: There are all these overlapping identities, and it’s like, “No, actually everybody lives here together, and this is — you know, there is a long continuum of history of people living on top of each other in the area.”
KD: There’s some very tragic history. When the reservation was first formed, there was a lot of ceded territory that was given away, and the territory was shrunk and shrunk again through legislation and other acts. So the reservation itself is populated by white and Native people, and other people. And then within those communities, it’s not homogenous. There are Native people not from CTUIR [the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation], there are people from elsewhere. So there’s a lot of diversity within that community. We work with so many people in so many different ways; through our staff, through the board, through the community that we serve, through the artists that we bring in to do residencies. Going back to the very beginning of this conversation, there are so many different people that we work with and you never know their backgrounds.
SM: This remote region defies expectations. You know, sometimes when people come in from afar they’re kind of surprised at what they see.
RL: But I find that it’s kind of a mixed bag. I can take umbrage at that. We’ve literally had people walk in, look around, and say, “This is so nice!” What did you expect, I was sitting on a hay bale? It really highlights the stereotypes of “rural.” A lot of the people here are very well-traveled. A lot of farmers are very educated. There’s huge socioeconomic divide, that’s why everything for kids thirteen to eighteen here is free, and we do a lot of free programming. But the comments that we get from people who are surprised to see our facility in a town like Pendleton! Pendleton is so iconic for cowboys and rodeo that I think sometimes it’s just kind of at odds that way. But also, I’ve literally had people ask me, “Are there sophisticated people here?” [laughter] And I have an internal monologue of, “Don’t say something smartass, don’t say something smartass.” You know? I think that by being involved in — and Karl is really good at that, too — being very involved in statewide, regional, national organizations and different types of things, they’re a great opportunity for us to be at the table and say, “Here’s what we’re doing and here’s what we do.”
SM: Here’s what’s really happening.
RL: And yeah, we have a free class for kids on Saturdays, and we also have Louise Bourgeois in the exhibit space.
KD: I don’t take umbrage when people are surprised by Crow’s Shadow because it is unique in its location, and what we do. We’re the only professional print studio on a Native American reservation in the US. So it doesn’t surprise me when people are surprised by what we have in Crow’s Shadow.
RL: See, you’re a better person though. [laughter]
KD: The work on the wall, it’s contemporary art, and there’s figurative work and there’s landscapes. And sometimes there’s abstract and out-there work. And people come in and they say — this is what bugs me — they say, “Where’s the Native work? Where’s the Native art?” And you’re like, “These are all Native artists.” They don’t see that a Native person could be making artwork that’s of today, that’s experimental. People sometimes have ideas about what Native art would be or should be. Native people aren’t monolithic, and not all Native people are going to be drawing teepees and feathers, although sometimes that makes its way into the work. That sometimes gets to me, but yeah, it’s another part of the educational aspect of it. I get the smartass thing. “Well and you know, all these people are Native and this is the work that they’re doing.”
RL: That’s one of the reasons why, for the open regional exhibits, we always have someone with an academic background to come and judge for us, because we want to give that perspective and help people elevate their work a little bit. Some of the most rewarding conversations I have are people saying, “Why did that win best of show?” And then to be able to say, “Well, here’s what I think.” But to me, the biggest win is when somebody walks in and says, “I don’t like that.” If you can trust your own reaction to something, and your own aesthetic and your own feeling about something, that is so much better than somebody coming in and saying, “What am I supposed to be seeing? What did the artist want me to think about?” I feel that having challenging work here is really, really important. To be able to bring in work like Iván Carmona and Justin L’Amie, and have people come in and expand their frame of reference a little bit is really valuable.
SM: That’s great. Is there anything else that you could say in terms of any stigmatization there might be about art made in remote regions? And what the assumptions or stereotypes are for this organization?
KD: There is an educational aspect to it when we’re outside the region, bringing Crow’s Shadow prints and work to broader communities and audiences. We try to do art fairs — we do an art fair in Portland and do one in New York, and hopefully one in Chicago. But telling people in those areas that we’re from rural Pendleton, they always say, “Where’s that?” You have to say, “Three hours east of Portland.” And they’re like, “Where’s Portland?” “In Oregon!” But then, at the same time, we work with artists from all over the world, some that they may have heard of: James Luna, Wendy Red Star, Kay Walkingstick. At some point, a light clicks on in their mind and you can see them realizing that we’re a tiny community with very local people making artwork with a broad reach, and we’re bringing artists from all over the country.
SM: I feel like your organizations, and perhaps the success of them, hinge on being rural and remote, but that doesn’t mean that you’re isolated or self-isolating. You’re networking with the broader arts community in so many ways, whether those people are on your board or you’re getting shows from other places. You’re not limiting yourself to just Pendleton, just showing work from here and finding your support from right here.
RL: I think one of the challenges for rural artists is that a lot of them work outside of the MFA model, residencies, a traditional academic track. One of the things we’re working on is a book project to document the artists here, because if they died tomorrow, their whole body of work would get dispersed to friends and family, and we would never know anything about them. I’m sure that’s true in urban areas as well. But we have people who have made really important contributions to the arts ecology. They’ve contributed to the gestalt of the area, and there’s a lack of documentation for those artists and their contributions and their bodies of work. And that’s something that systemically we need to address, probably across the board, but it’s particularly prevalent in rural areas.
KD: That was really eye-opening for me. I grew up in Portland, and when I came to Pendleton I had some weird stereotypes in my head about what culture and art was here. It didn’t take very long to learn — only a few months of me living here and seeing the incredible creativity that’s happening in the community. In an urban setting, artists tend to congregate near each other and in studio spaces that are affordable, and they cross-pollinate in some ways. It happens out here, too. Those studios might be a half-hour away from each other but they’re still cross-pollinating. We have whole networks of people and studios, making glasswork and pottery and painting, and their studios might as well be next to each other, because that’s how they deal with each other.
SM: And artists like to live in all sorts of places! In graduate school I was doing an internship at a gallery in New York and one of the directors actually said, “If she was really serious about her art practice, she would live in New York.” [laughs] And I cringed because I was like, “It’s really fun to be here, but I think I would just shrivel up and die.”
RL: I think about the legacy of somebody like Betty Feves, who taught art and music in Pendleton, and I love that she didn’t just bring the Suzuki method of violin instruction to Pendleton — she actually brought Mr. Suzuki to Pendleton! That was the level of service she expected from everybody else. Like Karl was saying, how artists connect and carry through that generosity. I mean, that’s Crow’s Shadow’s whole thing, being a conduit with the mainstream art world. You have an obligation to give back. This is the high standard. I think that’s one of the things that people are surprised at when they come out here, that the level of the work being done rivals anything produced in an urban area, and that is because of a few people who really set the stage back in the day. I can’t even imagine what Pendleton would be like if Betty Feves had just moved to New York and worked there. It would be a very, very different place.
SM: I was in a show at a small art center, and I had this big discussion about it with a friend, because she thought I was ghettoizing my art practice. I realized, she just thinks rural means bad. [laughs]
RL: Or low caliber.
SM: Low brow, or something. With Covid, do you have any challenges that you feel were specific to Pendleton?
RL: Yeah, sure. We tried to be a leader in terms of getting information out. I mean, as we are talking right now, we’re in a community with a thirty-nine percent vaccination rate and ten thousand people, ten blocks away, at a Toby Keith concert.
SM: Get out!
RL: We have tried to show how you can navigate a public health crisis in a reasonable way, and that that doesn’t have to suck the fun out of life. We’ve been strident about mask-wearing, about distancing, about ventilation, and we’ve really kept our nose to the grindstone and followed environmental engineers and epidemiologists to really feel like we’re passing on very informed information. But without apology. In a year and a half, I had only one person — who was a tourist from Missouri—give me grief. And we probably had forty people write or call or stop me on the street and thank us for taking that stance. I think that you can lead with kindness and information and not alienate people if you do it right, and that’s our goal. I don’t know if we always succeed, but you just can’t sit back and not make the effort.
KD: I feel like Crow’s Shadow was very lucky. For one, we’re so isolated in our location. I mean, unfortunately we did have to cancel events and couldn’t hold the same in-person things. But we didn’t have to argue with people. We never ran into anybody who gave us grief, and we were able to kind of maintain our own workflow. What we really did was follow CTUIR’s guidelines. They really stepped up and we just followed their lead in terms of social distancing and mask-wearing and all those things. But also, in their approach to community health, they were way more on top of it than the county. And so we on the reservation were like, we’re following reservation guidelines. And you know, they led in vaccines and they led in their command center. I felt really lucky in that, and privileged to be able to sit back a little bit and have the tribal government give us guidelines.
SM: Some of the first people in La Grande that got vaccinated work for the tribes, for river restoration and things like that. They just said, “anyone who interacts with our community,” and boom, they were vaccinated before even the K-12 teachers.
RL: Part of what allowed cultural organizations in our community to survive and work towards thriving is that foundations called and said, “We’re releasing this money and we realize you can’t do programming, so use it for heat and rent and lights and whatever you need to use it for. For staff money.” Foundations pitched in and gave additional funds, the state pitched in and gave additional funds. The artist relief program that the state of Oregon did was amazing, they gave cash directly to people who sell dyed t-shirts, people who make sandals up in Joseph. I read grants for the Arts Commission, we had like two hundred and ten applications. And it really drove home for people in decision-making positions that, “Wow, there’s a lot of economic activity that happens because of art-making.” You know? Hopefully that will be a legacy of this in a positive way.
SM: I hate to get on the silver-lining bandwagon in the midst of a tragedy, but it did make everybody think about what’s necessary. I’ve probably gone to more artist talks remotely, from southern Oregon to Brooklyn [laughs], it’s been fun that way.
KD: Yeah, that was really surprising to me. When we started doing our online events, we were getting people from outside the region, from all over the world. We had people Zooming in from London for one of our talks. That was really eye-opening and exciting, that we were able to bring that programming to a much broader audience and an audience that wanted to soak that up. And I want to go back to what you were saying, Roberta, about funding. Crow’s Shadow really did survive in a way that was very interesting: Funding opened up very early on and with the recognition that what we’re doing was important. That was very heartening to see, that funders and foundations understood what we were doing. You know, we go on a publication model where artists work in the studio, they incur costs, the sales will cover those costs, and then they receive proceeds from their sales. When the funding came in, we were able to say, “OK, publication costs be damned, we’re paying artists first.” But that was because the extra funding came in, and we were covering our normal operating costs. That was very lucky for us, and very beneficial to the artists that we’re working with.
SM: Do you think the granters are going to continue?
RL: Hopefully what it did is that it proved to funders what we’ve been saying for a long time, which is, “Gosh, maybe making us come up with program after program after program to chase dollars isn’t the best thing for the organization.” Maybe trusting the organization to use the money wisely, which is what they did in 2020 — maybe trusting us to provide great programming and do all this without having to thread this specific needle to get this dollar. Maybe that is a good, viable model.
KD: That’s my hope too, and I’ve been saying this for a very long time. Project money is needed, but it’s not how we keep the lights on. Programming money is understandable, but operation money is vital to what we do. And to keep all the programs running you need operation money, and not having that for so long and then it being available so readily for us is — yeah.
RL: I fantasize about winning the lottery and starting a foundation, and how I will decide where I give my money. I would probably veer toward really wanting to know, like, “Tell me about what you’re going to do and how this is going to expand access and diversity and equity.” I understand how foundations get to a model that places new initiatives ahead of artists, and I don’t begrudge them that. But I think a healthy balance is good for everybody.
KD: I agree.