Lillian Pitt

Lillian Pitt

Artist Statement

“I was born of the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon over seventy years ago. My ancestors lived in the Columbia River Gorge area for over 10,000 years. My father’s people lived on the Oregon side near the great Celilo Falls. In the mid-1800’s the government moved the Washington Wasco, Wishxam, Wanapum Indians to Yakima, then switched their names to “Yakima.” The Oregon side Wasco, Wyam, Tenino, Tygh, Watlalas, were moved to Warm Springs, Oregon, then were called the “Warm Springs” Tribe. I lived in Warm Springs with my parents for twelve years before moving fifteen miles away to Madras. The day after high school graduation I moved to Portland to attend a hair styling college. After years of hairstyling, I became an instructor but had to retire because of a bad back, resulting in four back surgeries. I received my Associates of Arts degree in Mental Health/Human Services in 1981. It was during this time that I took a ceramics class. It was love at first touch! I knew then that I wanted to work in clay forever, but did not feel I was talented enough. So I made plans to continue my education in the undergraduate program in social work.

That same summer, I made seven raku-fired masks, just for the fun of it! When I heard the famous Navajo artist, R.C. Gorman, was having an opening at a local gallery, I gathered my poor quality photographs to show him, if I could muster up the courage to talk to him. I went, we talked, he asked, “What do you do?” I answered, “I make masks.” He bought two, and then convinced the gallery owner to carry the rest of my work. His generous support started me on my way in the art field. I had planned to give myself a year to give art a try; if I failed, I would go back to college.

Well, that was many years ago. I have been fortunate enough to make a living with my masks, mask pins, and multi media works ever since. My motto is the three “P’s”: patience, persistence, and perseverance. When hand-building my masks, I think of the rich history of the Columbia River Gorge, the people, the legends and stories, the animals, salmon, and all its life-giving properties. It inspires me to pay homage to it all throughout the clay process.

I was in my 30’s, and already an artist before I knew that my ancestors lived in the Columbia River Gorge for more than 10,000 years. I had no idea. That’s 8,000 years before the time of Christ, and 6,000 years before the time of the Great Pyramids at Giza! My family never spoke about it, because when I was growing up, it was better for our survival to try and cover up the fact that we were Indian. But today I can tell you that I’m proud of who I am and who my people are. We are Warm Springs, Wasco (Watalas) and Yakama (Wishxam) people — Indian people of the Pacific Northwest. We call ourselves the River People.

My early years as an artist involved learning about my heritage. We didn’t talk much about my ancestors when I was growing up, because my father thought I could have a better life if I wasn’t so Indian. So in my early years as an artist, I didn’t really know all that much about the traditional arts of my people. I wasn’t even all that sure as to whether or not I wanted to be an “Indian” artist or just an artist. But then an elder took me to see the rock carvings and paintings created thousands of years ago by my ancestors, and I was hooked.  I couldn’t get over how interesting these rock images were.

So since those early years as an artist, I’ve spent a lot of time learning about my ancestors and studying the designs that they created. I learned everything I could about their rock carvings, their baskets, beaded bags, dresses, the tools they used. You name it, I’ve tried to learn about it all. But there’s so much.  I don’t think I could ever learn about 10,000 years of history in just one lifetime. My art is a reflection of the Native American culture of the Columbia River Gorge. According to archeological records, the history of that region dates back at least 10,000 years.

Still, my goal is to incorporate as best I can, the traditional Native American arts of my ancestors into the contemporary art that I create. Regardless of the medium, and ever since my early years as an artist, my work directly relates to and honors my ancestors, the environment, and the animals.”

Much of Lillian Pitt’s work focuses on the ancient petroglyphs and pictographs that were carved and drawn by her ancestors in the Columbia River Gorge.

Petroglyphs are rock art engravings, and pictographs are rock art paintings. Petroglyphs and pictographs are both important parts of the rich cultural heritage of the Columbia River people. Archeologists estimate that the oldest of them in the Columbia River region could be between 6,000 and 7,000 years old. Rock art along the Columbia River include both petroglyphs and pictographs. Though no one can say for certain, official estimates are that there were roughly 90 rock art sites along the Columbia River, in the stretch of land between Pasco, Washington to the east, and The Dalles, Oregon, to the west.  Unfortunately, many of these sites were either inundated or destroyed when The Dalles and the John Day dams were put into service, and are now lost to the world forever.

She Who Watches, whose Native name is Tsagaglal. Unlike most of the rock images found in the region, which are either rock etchings (petroglyphs) or rock paintings (pictographs), She Who Watches is both. Many of Lillian’s works reference the staring eyes and enigmatic expression of Tsagaglal. She sits high up on a bluff, overlooking the village of Wishxam, the village where Lillian’s great grandmother used to live. She Who Watches was the first rock image that Lillian ever saw or knew anything about, and it was only because an elder took her to see it. The elder thought it would be good for Lillian to learn something of her heritage and of her grandmother’s village.

“There was this village on the Washington side of the Columbia Gorge. And this was long ago when people were not yet real people, and that is when we could talk to the animals. And so Coyote — the Trickster — came down the river to the village and asked the people if they were living well. And they said “Yes, we are, but you need to talk to our chief, Tsagaglal. She lives up in the hill.”

So Coyote pranced up the hill and asked Tsagaglal if she was a good chief or one of those evildoers. She said, “No, my people live well. We have lots of salmon, venison, berries, roots, good houses. Why do you ask?” And Coyote said, “Changes are going to happen. How will you watch over your people?” And so she didn’t know.

And it was at that time that Coyote changed her into a rock to watch her people forever.”

-Information, writing and direct quotes copyright and courtesy of Lillian Pitt

Learn more about Lillian’s work and history in this excellent TED Talk from 2013: