ELLENSBURG — It had to be a dual exhibit, Central Washington University’s celebration of the Yakima River.
As the focus of art, literature or music, rivers are so loaded with meaning — both metaphorical and literal — that any attempt to address their cultural and inspirational meanings had to be multifaceted.
“Yakima River Diaries,” which opened Thursday at CWU’s Sarah Spurgeon Gallery, includes paintings, photography, sculpture and a fairly abstract installation piece.
“Voices of the River,” the accompanying exhibit at the CWU Museum of Culture and Environment, features poetry, educational displays about the Yakima River’s natural history and perspectives of the Native Americans whose lives and culture revolved in many ways around the river.
The idea was to collect a wide array of artistic perspectives, said CWU Art Department Chairman Gregg Schlanger, who curated the gallery half of the dual exhibit and contributed a sculpture to the museum half.
Because people’s experiences with the river are so personal and because the potential of river as metaphor — for the passage of time, for infinity, for division or transition — is so varied, he didn’t impose strict guidelines on the artists he selected for the show. As a result, there are some straightforward appreciations of the river and its wildlife from representational artists such as Justin Gibbens of Ellensburg and the late John Clymer, and there are more indirect pieces such as the water-plant-influenced ceramic work of Yakima artist Rachel Dorn and the installation “Farewell; Good Mourning” by visiting Washington State art professor Nickolus Meisel.
“In putting this show together with the 10 artists, I was thinking about how to use this space the best, around the idea of a river and it being a ‘diary,’” Schlanger said, touring the gallery the day before the show opened. “There are so many different connections.”
He delights in the idea that people drawn by Clymer — whose folksy Western art graced the Saturday Evening Post cover 80 times and who is celebrated at the John Clymer Museum of Art in downtown Ellensburg — might get their minds blown by Meisel’s “very contemporary installation,” which at first (and second, third and fourth) glance appears to be a haphazard collection of tarps, plastic caps, half-finished wall paintings and a canvas-covered row-boat tied together thematically by notions of passage and mourning and accompanied by a recorded loop of people whispering “row, row, row your boat.”
But he also relishes the other side of that coin, that including a traditional Western artist like Clymer is a bit of a poke at the oft-haughty and insular world of contemporary art.
“For those who have their eyes open, I was trying to look at the whole spectrum of it,” Schlanger said.
While it’s more literal-minded, the museum show, curated by museum Director Mark Auslander, is similarly wide-ranging. Schlanger’s water-sculpture, “Cle Elum Returns,” sits at the entrance, celebrating the history of sockeye salmon in the Yakima River and expressing hope for their return. Just past that, there’s a quote posted from Yakima Nation elder Virginia Beavert: “Children, look after the water and keep it clean. Water gives us life and takes care of our body.” There’s an interactive educational display just past that, that allows kids to connect various elements of the river’s ecosystem with string, forming a “web” that falls apart if any part of the ecosystem is disturbed.
“It encourages them to think about how different animals in an ecosystem are connected and how different living and nonliving entities are connected,” said Hope Amason, associate director of the museum.
The scientific and natural-history-driven focus of the exhibit does not preclude a philosophical examination of the river, though. The exhibit includes poems by the likes of CWU professor Terry Martin.
“From time immemorial, literature has always drawn on the imagery of the river,” Auslander said.
That sort of crossover — poetry in the museum exhibit, representational photography in the art exhibit — is appropriate for the subject matter. As Meisel, the artist who did the contemporary installation said, there are many crisscrossing themes when it comes to something like a river.
“I really enjoy when those connections happen,” he said.
• Pat Muir can be reached at 509-577-7693 or firstname.lastname@example.org.