Apr 21st, 2005 - 21:10:55
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Arts & Letters
It was on a fall evening that I went to Susan Applegate's house. At the bottom of the hill, past the screening line of wolfy open-grown firs, lay a tarmac serpent of a road. The back of the house looks to the more permanent, multi-dimensional thoroughfare: the creek from which the road out front takes its name.
|"Anasazi Dancer," painting by Susan Applegate, 1988|
Susan's spacious studio wisely faces creekwards and from its windows you can see certain trees that reappear later in some of the paintings upon her walls. We curled up in a couple of chairs near one these painted trees (a cedar, with branches that curve up dramatically to run parallel with the main trunk). Ronan, my four-year-old daughter, settled down before the fire with a collection of small plastic animals and dinosaurs; I had, if I was lucky, one hour. After a day at work and no dinner, my mind fluttered about, seeking an angle to light upon. Looking at Ronan, I decided to follow the flow of one of my interests, that being "origin stories."
LH: When did you first know you were going to be an artist?
SA: When I was in maybe the fourth grade. I didn't know if I was going to be an artist or not because I don't think I knew what an artist was, or that there was such a thing. But when my fourth grade teacher asked us to illustrate a story, it was the first time anyone had given me the idea that I could. Or that people did that. Of course I'd seen books with pictures but it never occurred to me that someone had drawn them. They just took me immediately to a magic place. But this great story I illustrated captivated my imagination - it made me feel so good! - because I was making something real. I was making the story more real.
LH: What was the story?
SA: All I can remember of it was that it was about a dark horse that ran over the hills in the night and the moonlight shone on its back. It was wonderful.
The other thing that started happening, too, when I got to be a fifth grader was that I would draw pictures and then put them in tree trunks. I drew pictures of a panther. I would pretend that I was it and drew pictures of it to make it more real and then I would put them in secret places in the forest. It was an attempt, of course, to gain that animal's power -- or what I imagined that animal's power to be. By the eighth grade I was making talismans. I made them out of reeds from down by the creek, and cotton from the cottonwood trees and maybe leaves, and once again I'd stash them in secret places. Places that I really liked -- crevices of rocks and so forth.
|"Salmon Cycle," painting by Susan Applegate, 1995|
About the same time I had this understanding, this insight, that the individual goes through all the stages of evolution that human beings have gone through: growing through primitivism into more sophisticated things, learning to walk upright, etc. And I could see that I was growing in the way that I experienced my own mind in the world.
That's a long answer to that simple question. But even then it didn't occur to me, really, to be an artist.
LH: You are pretty much living right at the place where you grew up. Not in the very same house, but upon the land that was your parents' property. Are there possibly still talismans stashed in the woods around here?
SA: They've probably been pretty well annihilated by now.
LH: But you pass the same places where you put them, and do you remember --
SA: There's one place in particular that I do. In fact just a couple years ago, in 2000, I found a rattlesnake in the wood storage space under my house. I was in the process of building the house then and I had a friend of mine, a carpenter, with me. We captured it and transported it to one of my favorite sites and let it loose. But that was an area where I had seen a rattlesnake with my grandma and that's why it had power for me. When I was with grandma, the snake didn't even move, because it had just eaten a mouse or something and it was all full and fat and lying there. Grandma didn't kill it, she just had me walk close to her and we walked around it. I always associate that particular rock that was there with that snake. Which was why I wanted to put the rattlesnake there, which is kind of an art act.
LH: I can't help it. We're going to have to digress from the topic of art. How did you catch the rattlesnake?
SA: Well, Bruce, my friend, had a bucket with a lid. So I held the bucket with a stick -- I wasn't holding it with my hands - but I was able to hold the bucket pretty solidly. And he got two sticks, and using them like large chopsticks, he grabbed the snake. It was spitting venom. Venom shot out of its teeth. Venom actually splattered on the wall, but we got it into the bucket and, wham!, put the lid on it. I can't remember if I put the lid on or Bruce, because both of us were pretty adrenalized. Then we put it in the back of his pickup and I rode with it back there. It was rattling every bit of the way. Then we put the bucket down and took the lid off and it just went on its way.
LH: I'm surprised that you weren't aware of people being artists, because my take on your illustrious family is that there were a number of artists of various sorts.
SA: Not really. The fact of the matter is that much of the attention that's been given to the artistic side of the family has been done since Shannon wrote the book.
LH: So until she did the research for Skookum you weren't really aware of that heritage?
SA: Not really. It was much more known that they were writers. Communicators in the oral and written tradition, but not so much visually. On my mom's side of the family, many of my aunts and uncles had a facility to draw and a good facility for imagination. But their love was poetry. So there was no one that really did art in my sphere of influence. Annie Applegate Kruse showed me paintings that she had done, but they were awfully primitive. She was quite a writer, though, here in Yoncalla.
And when I started at the University of Oregon I wanted to go into drama. But the first year of that was far too strange for me. I don't think I had enough of myself to really go into drama. You really have to have a strong sense of self. So then I switched to art education because that seemed practical. And of course my parents were very much pushing for me to do something practical. So that's what I graduated in. But I was not ready to teach. Not for twenty years.
During that twenty years I took some studio classes at the University, but mostly I just painted and drew. A really important partnership in my creative life has been my association with Shannon [Applegate, a second cousin]. We've been art buddies for several years and mutual support has been very important.
LH: Did you grow up together?
SA: No. I was twenty-six when I met her.
LH: Was that when you both started living at the Charles Applegate House?
SA: Yes. She left her husband and had two little kids when she came out here. I had come home that year to live with my parents because my brother had died. He was seventeen years old. He was killed in a car accident. And I came home because it was a horrible time for us all. I was teaching first and second grade, just regular school, on a provisional certificate that year, out in Umpqua. Shannon called and I went over to meet her and it's still not over.
|"Walt's Place," painting by Susan Applegate, 1997|
LH: And so you moved over there. That must have been hard. That stern old house with those drafty fireplaces.
SA: Right. It was not a warm house, and with little kids it was very hard. That's where I started the Rose Series. Then when Shannon started the book, that became a partnership project. Shannon did the book and I did the visual pieces. And that consumed several years of my creative time. After the book was published in 1986, I did a lot of other kinds of explorations. I did some public art. And I became involved in expressing the anger and frustration over the loss of good environment here in the Northwest. So I started expressing those feelings in my art.
Then I started doing what I call "rhythmic landscapes" and I don't know that I'm finished with that because I love the kind of stylized drama in painting.
I love doing public art pieces. Those kinds of projects fascinate me because it means coming up with symbols, with a solution that will communicate what the project's focus or thrust is. That's always a fun challenge to take on.
LH: Like the "History of the Emerald People's Utility District (EPUD)" triptych?
SA: Yes. That was designed for the space in the EPUD boardroom. What they wanted was something that told about the history and purpose, the drive behind Emerald People's Utility District being formed and taking over Pacific Power & Light through the courts. Those panels reflect some of the process. For instance, in the middle one, here they are meeting at the Fern Ridge Grange, talking.
|"History of Emerald People's Utility District," triptych painting by Susan Applegate, 1987|
And the foreground is overlooking Pleasant Hill, he's saying "This is ours!" This is like WPA [Works Progress Administration] stuff. "This is our land, this is our electric cooperative. We need to take control of our electricity." Up above is the Bonneville dam, and people are all pulling together over here. They went to court, and they won, and here's the court scene [just below the Fern Ridge Grange].
Then [in the left-hand painting] this is the electric lines from the Columbia down to Eugene and you see the rainbow lands there, at EPUD's new facility -- new at the time this work was commissioned. And I went out and I drew, drew, drew, lots and lots of these electric towers and the gizmo things they have on them, and I watched these guys and how they work. And here [lower right] is where EPUD took their old poles and dropped them by helicopter into Fern Ridge Reservoir for ospreys to nest on.
LH: Creosote coating and all?
SA: Well, probably. And here [the right-hand painting] are some of the people, some of the founders, and a scene from part of the rural electrification project.
LH: And the Rose Series was triggered by --
|"Eternal Transitions," painting by Susan Applegate, 1975|
SA: A health scare -- cervical cancer -- and that just shook me to the core. I was also reading books on manifestation. The rose is the softest -- it's so feminine. I didn't have it in mind, but it was what evolved from that time. There's the unfolding. I thought about it at that time as the western equivalent of the lotus.
LH: So this one, "Eternal Transitions," is the one partly inspired by a camping trip?
SA: Oh yes, to the Painted Hills. There they are in the foreground. In all the colors of the rose, but there's their forms.
|"Eternal Transitions, the Hills," painting by Susan Applegate, 1975|
LH: When I see your work I don't think of you as ever not being an artist for the environment. Are you saying that there was a particular period, or peak, when you were more involved with environmental issues?
SA: Yes, there was a peak, and that was in the early to mid '90s.
LH: And that was when you did the "fossil works?"
SA: Yes. Like this one, "Transition to Memory 1." That's the spotted owl's shadow, or fossil, in the rock. And it would have landed on the tree, but instead it lands on the crack in the fossil. Because the tree is not there. It's a ghost tree. And these others are ghost trees, too, with just their memories.
|"Transition to Memory One," painting by Susan Applegate, 1990|
LH: Because we are going to be left with nothing but memories. Ghosts.
LH: This one (see above) , "Salmon Cycle," is not a fossil work.
SA: But it is about the cycle. It was when I started learning how important the trees are - and a variety of trees are - along the creek and river banks for the salmon. Not only do they hold in water, but the insects that visit each specific species of trees become the food for the salmon. And it is also that those trees historically provide - and this is what Rhoda Love, the University of Oregon biologist, discovered - she discovered that the scent of the river, which these trees would in part provide, is specific and it helps the fish to navigate up the watershed.
If there is clearcutting going on along the watershed, the scent changes. No one really knows how many fish have not made it up because of the loss of a scent. It is also true that with clearcutting in the watershed, siltation occurs and kills the fish. So trees are important, and not just a monoculture of even-aged firs. Now the tree in the rock was kind of a little Japanese idea. It was to flatten it out, and to say two things: it is the rock; it is the tree. I love visual puns, and this is kind of a visual pun: it's a tree, it's also a cracked rock; this is a limb, it's also a river. It's the connection of things. This is also a lung [the rock], that's how I sometimes see trees.
LH: Now " Walt's Place," (see above) is this one of your "rhythmic landscapes?"
SA: Yes. That was a commission for Walt's place, it's up near the Dalles. That day we were on that hillside, there were wild spots and then very architecturally agricultured areas, too.
Now with this one, "Sunset/Moonrise," I was interested in two dimensionality bumping up against three dimensionality. Most painters, or at least most painters I know of, go through a phase of struggle with their painting where they are attracted to two dimensionality. You don't always want to do three dimensionality because at a certain point the love affair with the materials and the tools takes over. So this whole background is very flat. Yet we see a glow from the sun, a glow from the moon, and there's more three dimensionality.
|"Moonrise, Sunset," painting by Susan Applegate, 1999|
LH: It seems to me it almost makes a visual hill or hump. This is the flatter area through the middle and then to either side it goes back to having depth, because you're looking down on the bird and there is also a down past the bird on the right and looking at the trees in the moonlit distance on the left. And this one --
SA: That's "Green Angel." There, down below, are the ribs of the Earth. Above are the ghost trees. And this is the cloud, with the fog level. This is the spotted owl. It's a kingly bird, but it's kind of an owl and kind of a dove. That one eye, I decided to make that eye and beak look like a dove and this is actually gold leaf around the head, that's why it's called angel. And the owl also turned out to be green.( See "Green Angel" at conclusion of interview.)
LH: You did a mural in downtown Roseburg that depicts part of the history of your family.
SA: No. It was the history of just one segment of the Applegate Trail. It focuses on the trail through Douglas County. The background on this mural is the trek that the trailblazers took to Fort Hall. Then the foreground, which are these "mountains," are scenes that I selected to illustrate the passage of the people coming from Fort Hall through Douglas County.
Some horrible things happened. It was the worst part of the whole Applegate Trail and it was the place in which the Applegate name in many circles became synonymous with Satan, for having led people through this hazardous place.
LH: So this is a trail that the Applegates blazed in reverse: from the Oregon territory back through the northeastern corner of California, across the northern part of Nevada, to Fort Hall in southeastern Idaho.
LH: Did they have a tough time doing the initial blazing or was all the hell for the people following it?
|The wagon section of the "Applegate Trail" mural by Susan Applegate, 2000, Main St., Roseburg, Oregon|
SA: They had a tough time. They knew it was going to be not an easy thing. And bad weather happened early that year. It was 1846, the year of the Donner Party's demise. Jesse Applegate and Black Moses Harris and others went up into the Willamette Valley and left Levi Scott and Lindsay Applegate to lead the people through while they brought back supplies. Supplies kept coming back because they knew the people were in desperate straits. The trail had been blazed, but it hadn't been made. That was the difference.
LH: So they blazed it on their way to Fort Hall?
SA: Yes, they just marked it. And Levi and Lindsay particularly told people if you come with us on this trail we really need the promise that you've got strong men and boys to work on this trail, because we've got to make it, create it, build it. It's just blazed. And so I don't think people really understood how treacherous it was going to be. I mean some people were wet for two weeks; they never did dry out. So people died. Like this one right here: the boy is dead in the back of the wagon. That boy had mountain fever [yellow fever] and the wagon hit a rock, dumped over, and Mr. Wood's beehives fell out and the bees were drowned in that watery hole.
LH: When did you decide that you were finally ready to teach art? You must have been quite thoughtful to understand or know that you weren't ready to teach art when you got of college.
SA: Was I thoughtful? Well, I started doing artists-in-education stuff. I quit teaching first and second grade; it wasn't what I wanted to do. I wanted to do art. And so that's when I started doing the Rose Series. Then when I was in Eugene in the '90s I was teaching children through Maude Kerns Art Center. Those weren't really big jobs; they were getting my toes wet -- not a full-time thing. Then when I moved back home to Yoncalla in 1997, this is the first time I have done regular art teaching.
LH: I was just getting to know you when you started that. You were at Yoncalla and Drain, and you were having a terrible time.
SA: Yes, it was horrible. Because I was going between three schools and I didn't have a room. Yoncalla was the worst by far. I would have done okay with Drain and Elkton. But Yoncalla was a misery. It was discipline problems, which were exacerbated because I was in another teacher's room without the teacher there. I was mostly with the teacher in Elkton and in Drain.
LH: And now you just do Drain. You are the teacher, and it's not an after-school program.
SA: Yes. I'm it. And I'm enjoying it. I've learned a lot. The other problem that first year was that I really wasn't used to classroom management. I think I would have been better able to manage that kind of situation - this is my classroom, but it isn't my classroom; these are my kids, but they're not - now because I've had more experience.
LH: And then there are all the social pressures that these children are under.
SA: They're middle school aged. And do any of them come from nondisadvantaged homes, that's the question.
LH: All? They can't all be --
SA: It's a very large number. It's an economically depressed area. And that effects the family life. It's also an area where there is abuse of alcohol and other substances. But now my third graders who have been with me longer are able to talk about art in a much more sophisticated way than the high school students that I taught today.
|"Green Angel," painting by Susan Applegate, 1992|
LH: And so you are surviving partly as an artist creating and partly as an artist teaching.
SA: Yes. I have always wanted to just do my art and not have to worry about anything else. But I've always been too afraid of the wolf at the back door to take that risk. And it's difficult when you have a child. You don't want to put your child through hardship or scary risky things because you want to pursue your art. Also, I do believe that our biggest art form is our family. Now my child's grown. He's in film school in California and I'm very proud of him.
I'll never forget one little kid I had. He was in the first or second grade. He did a drawing of himself and he had five dots in the body part, the stomach part. I asked him about those. And he said that those were his belly buttons. I said, "Well so you have five belly buttons. That's very unusual." And he said, "There's one for each person in my family. There's five people in my family." He was a real unusual child. His spirit was really quite big. Anyway I found out from his mother that he had been adopted, which made the symbolism even more poignant.
LH: One last question: where do you see yourself going now?
SA: I'm very interested in doing these "light paintings." In the light paintings there are darknesses. And I don't know what lives in the darkness, but I'm going to find out.
You may find out more about Applegate House Heritage Arts and Education.
All images herein are protected under Copyright (©) by Susan Applegate and may not be used without express permission.
"Conversations with an Artist: Susan Applegate, Evolution of a Northwest Painter" copyright 2002 by Lokiko Hall.
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