Amy and Ryan culminated the 2009 season with two essays that they published in a leaflet titled First Spark. It captured their personal reflections on beginning...
Autumn’s approach is subtle on Mount Hood’s wet westside. Today is sunny and stunning and clear, and the soft flanks of the Roaring River drainage look like a timber man’s paradise. Far off I see nothing but stately, shaggy Douglas fir— the tree that built the Northwest— and for a moment the logic of tree farms is almost graspable.
the ground is a different story: at this elevation slender silver fir
crowd under the Dougs, their flat needles soaking up any spilled
sunlight. The lacy lower branches of young Western hemlock hold the dew
with cartoonish glints of sunlight. There are pockets of mature cedar,
too, directing me to a place to fill my canteen. It’s all too green for
late September. The red alder and rhododendron, the vine maple and
vanilla leaf betray no hint of the coming changes. Only the
huckleberries— ripe enough to fall with a gentle shake— have begun to
cede their chlorophyll to a ruddy hue. It looks, from the ample scat,
like the bears have been enjoying them.
Shouldn’t I be doing something? I have a show opening next week, prep-work for my classes, and a whole tangled web of loose ends back in town that I am always on the cusp of being able to tuck in and tidy up. “There,” I’ll say. “I finally got my act together. Time for a break.”
uneasiness subsides after a day in the backcountry. There is just no
way to stay ambitious in the plodding, ceaseless pace of the wild. My
self-importance assumes all the gravity of a housefly’s biography. Out
here I’m an obscure, organic event. I’ll flower, wilt, and die. And that
feels very good to think about right now. Signal Fire comes from that
same place of smallness and bewilderment, of solitude and sanctity and
It may have started as an inside joke, actually. Amy and I would be backpacking, winding our way up the endless switchbacks, and I’d break the silence with, “You know what I’m thinking about right now?” It was my favorite get-poor-quick idea: Let’s get some artists to come hiking with us. The premise, you see, is that so many creative professionals are hitched to the city— with its patrons, venues, readings, galleries, cultural support and exchange— and so overworked with day jobs and projects that this connection to wild places tends to wither and die.
Why is this connection so vital? Well, the creative life is uncertain. Most of us labor at pursuits that seem largely out of sync with western society and its notions of progress. We tinker away as our friends from high school and art school hang it up for steady jobs. Our bank accounts hover near the red, health care is something of a mirage, and we reassure our families and partners that all the sacrifices will be worth it, but that mantra can ring hollow as we age, and the sacrifices increase while the payoff eludes us. Every show or performance becomes a parody of what we imagine ourselves capable of.
When I was 19, I spent two months backpacking through Colorado and Utah, taking part in an innovative program called Sierra Institute that offers university-level environmental studies courses in the wild. I had been collecting my general education requirements at UC Santa Cruz, teetering between committing myself to pursuing art and some other ‘sensible’ alternative, even though I knew any mainstream career would kill me from boredom.
experience of that time on the trail stripped away any sense of
obligation to the practical. Here, at last, was the world served raw:
rare and beautiful and painfully finite. I left school and spent some
months on the road, hitchhiking around the West to sort through my
thoughts and get my fix of 19-year old existential angst and loneliness
set against the most spectacular backdrops I had ever seen.
When I emerged from the trance I was in Portland, applying to art school. Something about knowing how few things I need to take care of myself instilled the self-reliance necessary make that leap. Now, when the shallowness of the art world eclipses my vision, or the demands of making ends meet causes me to lose sight of my goals, I retreat to wild places to rediscover that grounding solace. Wouldn’t others want this resource? I talked it up, with very little idea about how to actualize it, until my wife Amy— who is well known as someonewho-makes-things-happen— had enough. In 2008 she received a small grant for her work as an activist, protecting the public lands of Mt. Hood from timber sales, road-building, motocross yahoos, and, lately, pipelines for foreign gas imports. She spent her grant funds on a 1963 matte-black suburban (“The Fish”), and a rickety trailer (“Arlene Schnitzer”), that we remodeled to serve as both studio and shelter. After the lengthy makeover, we were fit to jettison courageous artists on old logging roads, with a bit of food, water, and a couple deep-cycle batteries, to find out what a little time alone might do to their minds and their work. We call this residency Outpost, and we convinced a handful of friends— all gifted artists— to be test subjects in our first season of Signal Fire. This exhibition is a reintroduction (you probably know of most already) to their work and a recognition of their gift to us. I am not a goal-oriented hiker. I like to be away from roads when possible, and I certainly enjoy the scenic appeal of mountaintops and bodies of water, but I’m not inclined to put in heroic mileage to get to a named place on the map. I will be happy to pitch my tent in some old grove or a rocky bluff, lie back, and listen to the wind. The model for Outpost is similarly free of expectation. The trailer has ample light and a work table, but we invited the artists to spend their days with any pursuit or lack thereof: work, play, napping, exploring…
hope the premise of the project will foment more crossover between
creative minds and those charged political issues that are so easy to
ignore. We're not trying to be heavy-handed about this, but much of the
art and writing that moves me takes an unexpected approach to social
justice, overlooked histories, preservation, or other problems that, in a
general context, often seem unsolvable. Also, a lot of silly boundaries
between professional disciplines are disappearing these days. We would
like to support this.
I wish I could report that our first season of Signal Fire was seamless, an unbridled success. But, like most things that I touch, it was a ramshackle affair, pieced together of spare parts in sparer time, with help from friends and some kind donations from people who really can’t afford it. The trailer is a menace on the road. It sways and drifts at 45 mph, as if threatening to pass the truck that pulls it. We struggled to find sites that were remote and scenic, but also accessible to our unwieldy rig. Most of the artists had a blast. Some had never been camping alone before. Most made work, some created elaborate campsites, and everyone had helpful suggestions.
Renwick’s residency was cut short by an ugly experience. On her fourth
night at Fish Creek— a tributary to the Clackamas that is in the way of
the proposed Palomar LNG Pipeline— a man tried to break into the trailer
while she was inside. He was unsuccessful, but he kept her under siege
for hours before going away. She flagged down the first passing car
(ironically a surveyor from Palomar) and made it back to town, but this
terrifying incident marred Vanessa’s retreat, and caused us to
reevaluate the entire project. We know, of course, that there is an
element of risk inherent to the premise, but Amy and I have always felt
safer in the woods than in the city. We have no intention of putting our
artists in harm’s way. Although Vanessa was gracious and forgiving, her
experience was the absolute opposite of the empowering time we were
trying to provide. I remain furious that some scumbag could nearly
undermine everything we have worked for in so little time. Now the
trailer is outfitted for security. Scumbag, you had best not fuck with
The other learning experiences have been gentler (like, that everything falls off the walls when we drive), and so we’re steering the (hardly roadworthy) vehicle of our ambition toward future plans. You're invited. This past June, illustrator and fellow PNCA instructor Daniela Molnar and myself organized another project under the auspices of Signal Fire: a ten-person retreat in Eastern Oregon’s Blue Mountains. We rented a vacation ranch and spent our days hiking to nearby peaks, dodging thunder storms, jeering cattle, and exploring Haines, Oregon, population 391. At night we drank wine and continued jeering cows. I hope the coming years see other versions of this retreat- perhaps a backpacking trip where participants can be immersed in the wild (we can still have wine), and gather solitude from the deep connections that assembling a strange tent with a stranger seem to foster. Outpost will reoccur, too, under a somewhat different format. It may integrate more practical wilderness training along with some group meals and discussions, without losing the isolated core of the project. We want a flexible, shifting project, that can travel light and far, and that will give us good excuses to take our own medicine and meet like-minded artists and activists— collaborators to bring new initiatives as the ideas take shape.
On that note, I’m writing this from Serene Lake, which is an apt name for this placid jewel set in Hood’s southern foothills. The huckleberry bushes on the lake’s northwest shore have turned before their counterparts. The ground here is open and soft, with tufts of coarse bear grass, and fluffy seeds that drift on the wind like errant insects.
trees creak in the gentle breeze, and I know the winter storms will
turn them to nurse logs. Others are bound to stand another hundred
years, as this lake lies inside the largest parcel of Oregon’s
newly-declared wilderness. Now that I have scribbled this out, I can
shed that urge toward productivity. I have things to do: sit on a rock.
In the sun. By a mountain lake.
just over ten years I have been involved in the community of people
desperately in love with the forests and rivers of Mt. Hood. For most of
us, the mountain is a feature to keep us relevant, just one ecosystem
among many. The breathtaking is in a bend on the river or in the
scorched remains of a forest fire. I have been fortunate to find a niche
and a home within this community that is fully engaged in the defense
of these wild places:the grassroots watchdog group Bark. But anyone who
has lived in the shadow of Mt. Hood will know that it is not just those
who devote themselves to her protection who claim their spiritual stake
in this mountain's forests. Access is infused in the life blood of both
rural and urban.
Over the years I've also become acquainted with the drain that happens when I start back to town from time in the forest. The inspiration does not pour out of me in a proverbial, creative river. It drips out in a steady and tortuous way. Suddenly, taco carts are on the side of the road and I'm hungry. Red lights come up unexpected. Gas needle is lingering on empty. The distractions hurry the drops. And by the time I am home, boxed into quiet space, the incubation is nearly useless. The dishes need to get done anyway.
when we started thinking about Signal Fire, this was the challenge. I
do not identify as an artist. But, whereas some of the activists I work
with came home inspired to find the next political or legal outlet for
protecting what they had just witnessed, I've never found that to be
enough. I have always wanted to stay awhile and incubate, not run back
and dissect. I was listening to Ethan Rose's music when I started to
wonder if other people struggle with this insatiable desire. I would
hear the haunting song of the Swainson's Thrush on the banks of Fish
Creek and think of his site-specific sound recordings, when I was
supposed to be considering the legal strength of a Riparian Reserve
Oregon has more public land than any other state in the lower forty-eight. Like so many white people before me, I was profoundly changed by this seemingly limitless access after living in the intensely private and territorial landscape of the contemporary Northeast. In the months before I began to entangle myself in the political atmosphere that hovers over these western public lands, I had to reconfirm what I was learning about the color designations in my Rand McNally road map a half-dozen times. I was young and wanderlusting all over those pages.
Forests are not National Parks. They are working forests. They don't
usually have sexy destination features. Often they bare scars of so many
mistakes. They have messy histories of speculating, corporate subsidy
and determined resistance. And ultimately, we in the west are
economically, spiritually and inevitably dependent on the services that
they provide for us. A third of all Oregonians' water originates in Mt.
Hood National Forest.
Many people in this country do not know that President Richard Nixon passed one of the most powerful laws protecting public involvement in government decisions. At the time, highway expansion was not only omnipresent, but likely fast-tracking through your backyard if you were anywhere near a growing town or city. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 made a two-part commitment to the public; if the federal government was going to approve any action that could harm the environment, they would be required to write an analysis of the impacts it could cause and, most importantly, this analysis would be made available to the public for review and response. For many environmental activists, especially a scrappy, on-the-ground group like Bark, defense of NEPA is as important as defending the places we want protected.
surprise, George W. Bush made it part of the mission to take some
monumental swipes at the foundation of this law. Fortunately, NEPA is a
beautiful law: clean, concise, almost naive. The next time your ballot
feels like a cheap trick, read NEPA. It believes in you, the public. It
thinks you may know something the government hasn't figured out yet. The
agencies that oversee the NEPA process may try to remind you that NEPA
is not a democratic process, that they aren't counting votes. But fuck
them. They are hired by the people we elect. And when they aren't afraid
of what happens when their bosses get replaced, dangle a pissed off
judge in front of their boss' faces and you'll start seeing results. The
residual effects of the Bush years may yet to be seen, but there is a
Part of my job at Bark is to write comments in the period that the agencies request public input on their plans. Over time, I can anticipate what the Forest Service or the agency overseeing the process is looking for in terms of potential legal claims. The Forest Service has many guiding standards for managing our public forests. And in fact, there is an entire section devoted to "Visual Quality Objectives" (VQO) or what a forest is supposed to look like to achieve visual quality.
have only been a few projects in Mt. Hood National Forest where Bark
has challenged VQO compliance, and it hasn't been pretty. But, every
time, I think of Bruce Conkle's work. The way we visually reference
nature does not just feel arbitrary. It can be tragically hilarious. If
you can possibly imagine the United States government creating a set of
standards around the visual quality of our wild spaces, likely the
language that is coming to mind is not far off. So while my own personal
experience has driven the need to start Signal Fire, I have also
realized so many times how important the artist could be to the true
value of this land.
In the past few years, Bark has had to diversify along with the Forest Service. Just as the timber industry is pounding its own coffin nails, the energy industry is looking at our public lands with newly focused, shiny eyes. Perhaps we can jump start these fledgling renewable energy efforts with a little free land! Which sounds familiar to public lands advocates and also sounds politically doable to those we keep electing. Fortunately for industry, foreign natural gas gets counted in this Equation of Doability and now a forty-seven mile permanent clearcut corridor is proposed across Mt. Hood National Forest to allow for a pipeline to connect proposed liquefied natural gas terminals on the Columbia River to existing pipeline infrastructure leading to California...where residents already stopped development. Four times.
I first met with Vanessa Renwick, I had a lot I wanted to ask. First,
would she test out our project? Once I got comfortable I sought her
advice on how much political information to provide to residents.
Vanessa has been a major influence in my development as a creative
agitator, if I can even associate as such. I knew she would have
thoughtful insight into Signal Fire. She encouraged me to think about
how to share the politics of the land that surrounded each resident. In
the week leading to her arrival we decided to place her with access to
Fish Creek, near to where the Palomar Pipeline corridor is proposed to
cross. I wanted her to connect to this place because over the last few
years I've come to realize that I've built up a physical relationship to
this watershed's history, in the sense that I would undoubtedly be
compelled to put my body on the line for its protection. This scares me
after so many years away from such actions. But thinking about a
powerful voice like Vanessa seeing this area for herself made me feel
And this selfish act led to a decision that ultimately led to Vanessa's compromised safety. Close friends of mine know how deeply I felt the event (which Ryan has described in the accompanying piece). As an assault survivor, I feared for my hero's long recovery. I felt humiliated to have failed at something I draw upon for strength: bringing people into the forest to empower them to see positive roles of engagement. I became paranoid about who would want to derail our work. And I felt absolute fury that as a woman, I once again was forced to face the reality that my safety was never completely assured.
But that was my experience. I did not have to endure what Vanessa went through. In the days following, I will never forget Vanessa's return to her home. Her daughter Montana was there and Vanessa seemed to gain strength back as she offered me maternal wisdom for moving forward. She assured me the project should go on, that it would be good. When Vanessa came to hang Nice Package in the show at Igloo, she was wearing a shirt from Dufur, a little-known town on the eastside of Mt. Hood. It reminded me that although Vanessa's work is merciless for its honesty, I've always found myself most compelled by her ability to capture a sense of place. I fucking love Dufur.
long afterwards, there was a two-day gap in the artist schedule. I
decided that it might be just the right opportunity for me to try the
residency out myself. For a myriad of reasons I called on my old friend,
Jenn Rawling to come out with me. Jenn has approached art and activism
with so much grace and has used her time as a summer fire lookout worker
as her own personal arts residency for several years now. If there was
anyone I could trust to help me rebound from my shaken confidence of
leading people into the wild, it was certainly her.
In the end, this was only one of the challenges to completing Signal Fire's debut summer. Ryan and I are fiercely committed to our work. Even given the chance, I'm not sure we would have let up to make adequate time for Signal Fire. The money I got last fall certainly didn't give us that option. We burned those dollars on a small spark under our asses and then hoped the rest would come together. It did. And I knew that it would all be worth it the moment I saw Ryan Jeffery walking up from the river after five days alone in the forest. He was shirtless with a large gash out of his chest. His plaid shorts were worn, hanging low. His famous hair was tossed around in all its glory. And he had an enormous grin on his face. Ryan is a tactile filmmaker and his work makes microcosms huge. I had known he would help find the essence of our intention.
this summer, I rode my bicycle to the artists' post. Over the years,
I've biked many miles of road in Mt. Hood National Forest, usually old
logging roads leading to future Forest Service projects. Learning the
forest at the pace of a bike has helped me to understand concepts of
slope and hydrology in a way that hiking makes the forests too immense
and driving misses everything all together. The second time riding out
along the Clackamas River, I was accompanied by my roommates,
experienced tour riders. Somewhere in Oregon City we started seeing
signs for a Civil War Reenactment event. The signs directed attendees to
the Milo McIver State Park. The picnic area is a punishing (by bike)
half-mile down into the Clackamas basin and as we sped down (my mind
distracted by computations of the climb in return), I noticed a woman
driving an enormous SUV, wearing a dress made of an antique print with a
high lace collar. We came up on the picnic area, filled with canvas
tents and other costumed attendees, and I had a vision of the future of
Signal Fire. I leaned my bike up against a tree just as the deafening
shot of a canon came from the battlefield.
For a few weeks now, I've pondered the dilemma of the trailer. Arlene is old and no matter how much we worked to spiff her up, her parts are starting to come apart. Our roommates have been patient with the enormous metal box in our front yard, encouraging of our efforts. But it's time to give the space back to our common needs. Also, driving a 1975 trailer behind a 1963 Chevy Suburban with drum brakes is an act of anarchy that has tested even our most reckless friends.
as I walked through this tent city, I was beginning to have the same
hopeful restlessness of walking into the trailer parks of outer Gresham
and St. John's, when purchasing the trailer. Last fall, as I shopped for
an incubation vessel, I had the thought, why hasn't anyone ever thought
to get land, buy a bunch of trailers and live together? Which was a
test of my most ignorant moments when I realized that indeed, this had
already been thought of and was more often referred to as a "trailer
I came upon one of the more complex 19th century structures and a family sat under an open tent beside the entryway. They had a careless, Disneyworld approach, merging items from western prairie expansion with Civil War era regalia. I figured the kids wouldn't lie, despite their perplexing complicity in the whole get-up. I surpassed my role as party crasher in black, form-fitting Lycra and asked if I could check out inside the tent. "Does it leak?"
"No. I sleep over here, in this bed. We've been to lots of events."
Tents. Sold. In fact, I was entirely inspired by this event. It seemed serendipitous to be on my way to collecting Katy Asher and crew, their work profoundly connected to the communal experience. What the Northwest Civil War Council (NWCWC) was accomplishing was not too far off from what we want for Signal Fire. They were creating a space to experience living inside their inspiration and not just taking it away for later. Albeit a very different interest, their reenactment events are an attempt to actually feel the experience they were so curious about.
cannot just learn about the forest and fight for the river. We have to
go enjoy and experience them, too. We stopped on our bike trip to see if
the Chinook had reached the Collawash River in their epic spawning
journey. Weeks after his time in the trailer, I had joined Tom Colligan
on his autumnal trip to the Wallowas of eastern Oregon in the hopes of
learning from him how to fish myself a river supper. Returning to my
home watersheds, I felt speculative of what they now had to offer me.
The confluence of the Collawash and Clackamas River provide outstanding viewing of this struggling species. However, they had not arrived yet. But signs of summer's demise were on view all around. Vine maple tinging red. Fireweed passed from candy pink to twisting seed pods. I sat down on the bank of the river and took out a pen and paper to write some things down.
Lamb Eliot came to Portland as a minister in 1867. He gave regular
attention to Mt. Hood in his sermons. "Mt. Hood, great and glorious as a
gem which has fallen from paradise and brought with it an unearthly
light stands over, against the city of Portland fifty miles away. A
wilderness of forest and hills is between us and its lowest line of snow
and every man, woman and child here feels that he owns it....Mt. Hood
has always seemed to be a symbol of aspiration, an emblem of that
immortal restlessness in the soul which bids us rise and which points
upward and onward and ever drives the spirit of man to lift him and
photo by Tom Colligan, 2009 resident
photo by Renee Jenkinson
Residents were invited to stay for a week in a renovated travel trailer in the forests of Mt. Hood National Forest.Desert Notes / River Notes was a three-day artist retreat along the John Day River in the Blue Mountains of Northeastern Oregon, June 5-7. Artists gathered to enjoy a relaxing and inspirational weekend of hikes and discussions about the unique natural history of the Blue Mountains. By day we explored crags, meadows and alpine lakes; a spectacular backdrop to surprise and shape our creative practice. The retreat was open to artists and writers in any media.
2009 OUTPOST RESIDENTS: