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For 40th anniversary of eruption, Portland Art Museum exhibit chronicles changing perception, image of Washington peak

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND ART MUSEUM - Renowned German artist Albert Bierstadt painted Mount St. Helens late in the 19th century — a long time before the 1980 eruption took its peak. Bierstadt's painting and more are on display as part of a Mount St. Helens exhibit at Portland Art MuseumAn entire generation of Oregonians might have only one perception of Mount St. Helens: It's a hollowed-out, peakless mountain off in the distance in the state of Washington, thanks to the cataclysmic eruption on May 18, 1980.

But, Native Americans have another view, according to Dawson Carr, a curator for the Portland Art Museum. For members of the Cowlitz and Yakama tribes, reverence of the mountain goes back hundreds of years, and the day when Mount St. Helens erupted "was just another episode for them."

Native Americans told stories about Mount St. Helens, but never documented the mountain with images.

"I would assume it's because it's a living presence on the landscape and there was no need to depict it in any way," said Carr, who curated a new exhibit of artistry about the beauty and power of the peak, "Volcano! Mount St. Helens in Art," which is on display at the Portland Art Museum through May 17 — the day before the 40th anniversary of the eruption.

There are Native American artifacts and artist depictions galore in the exhibit, including epic photographs.

"It was known as the Mount Fuji of North America," said Carr, referring to Japan's most recognized peak, which artists for centuries portrayed in their works. "It was a beautiful, conical volcano, and strato volcanoes have been painted wherever they existed. When they erupt, they create nature's most visibly spectacular manifestation of power."

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND ART MUSEUM - Modern artists, including Henk Pander, have portrayed Mount St. Helens, especially during the 1980 eruption.
For Native Americans, it was a sacred place, the most prominent landmark of ancestral lands. It was a supernatural being in their eyes, Carr said.

The first painting of Mount St. Helens was believed to be by Canadian ethnographer Paul Kane in 1845, during the mountain's previous active period. Lewis and Clark, on their journey west, only mentioned it briefly in their writings.

Later in the 19th century, many artists started painting the mountain, including renowned German immigrant Albert Bierstadt in 1889.

Artists continued to make images of the mountain before, during and after the eruption, including Henk Pander, whose oil painting from July 22, 1980, showed the mountain in action even after the big event. (Remember, the mountain was "erupting" from March 27 through the rest of 1980 and periodically through 2008).

Others made photographs of Mount St. Helens that go down in history; black and white photos turned out stunning. COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND ART MUSEUM - Many photographers, including Emmet Gowin, have documented Mount St. Helens through the years.Carr mentions Emmet Gowin and Frank Gohlke as two photographers who caught particularly stellar photos of the mountain.

Carr said he hopes the exhibit brings new appreciation for Mount St. Helens, which for decades always seemed to not mean much to Portlanders and Oregonians.

"Mount St. Helens was portrayed far less than Mount Hood," he said. "Relative to paintings of Mount Hood, paintings of Mount St. Helens are rare, from what collectors say. The only thing that can explain that is people could identify with Hood, they could get to it. There wasn't a bridge over the Columbia River till 1911, and then you had dense forest all around the mountain. It wasn't easy to get to, by any means."

The exhibit, "Volcano! Mount St. Helens in Art," has several related programs and events. For more: www.portlandartmuseum.org./volcano.


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