Paintings by a local artist will find an international audience this summer in Venice, Italy.
The 55th Venice Biennale will feature a multi-panel painting by expressionist artist James Lavadour of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Arguably one of the most prestigious contemporary art exhibits in the world, the Biennale invites a combination of established and lesser known artists to create art specifically for the exhibition.
Lavadour isn’t one to forget his roots. Before his work is packed away and flown to Italy, he agreed to give locals a chance to view 9x12-foot work titled “Tiicham.” The grid of 15 landscapes will hang in the Pendleton Center for the Arts’ main gallery and be available for viewing April 2 from 5:30-7 p.m.
The location is apropos. The Pendleton arts community and Lavadour share a relationship that goes back a long way. In the mid-1980s, the Arts Council of Pendleton collected $1,000 from each of 20 art aficionados and presented it to Lavadour to allow him to focus on painting full-time for a year. He spent hundreds of hours painting in his St. Andrews School studio.
“I quit my job and jumped into painting full-time,” Lavadour said. “That gave me a foundation.”
One of the art council members at the time was Betty Feves, a ceramics artist, musician and community leader who Lavadour considered a mentor.
“She early on recognized me as an artist,” Lavadour said. “She gave me all kinds of opportunities to be seen in the community. She introduced me to people and encouraged them to buy my paintings.”
Feves, who died in 1985 just as Lavadour was taking orbit, likely would approve of the painter’s evolution over the years as he carved out his niche and encouraged other artists along the way. In 1992, Lavadour and Philip Cash Cash founded Crow’s Shadow Institute as a venue for Native American artists.
Lavadour, a self-taught artist who grew up on the Umatilla Indian Reservation, paints abstract landscapes. For him, painting is an organic process — from swirls and sweeps of his brush, his landscapes emerge, not the other way around. Starting with only the barest of structure, nature somehow surfaces, he said — water, gravity, sedimentation, erosion — but if it looks like a particular location, it’s your imagination.
“I don’t portray. I don’t depict. I don’t represent,” Lavadour said. “That’s not where I’m at as an artist.”
Lavadour uses bold colors and doesn’t limit himself to one painting at a time.
“I work on many paintings in a day,” he said. “I go from one to another to another. They come to various states of resolution.”
Jane Beebe, director of PDX Contemporary Art, recommended Lavadour for the Biennale. The gallery has represented the artist since 1996. Though Beebe has sold Lavadour’s paintings to buyers all across the country, she is eager for him to get international exposure.
“He’s such a brilliant painter,” Beebe said. “He seemed like a complete natural (for the Biennale). He’s ready and this is the next step.”
Lori Baxter, one of the arts council members who originally supported Lavadour, said the council modeled its 1985 sponsorship of the artist after a similar Portland advocacy program at the urging of Feves.
“It was her idea to mount this project especially for Jim,” she said.
Lavadour made the most of the year.
“He produced 76 pieces — a good collection he could go to galleries with,” Baxter said.
Baxter, as one who invested $1,000 in the artist, attended a party at the old Empire Gallery for the unveiling of Lavadour’s paintings. The 20 investors drew numbers and each selected a piece. The painting Baxter chose still hangs in her home, along with other later Lavadour pieces.
Lavadour will attend an artist’s reception scheduled at the arts center during the April 2 viewing. His work will be on display in Venice June 1 through November 24 in various venues.
Contact Kathy Aney at email@example.com or 541-966-0810.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.