By Rosemary Carstens
As a young boy, James Lavadour lay in bed at night in his grandmother’s house, looking up at water stains on the ceiling’s wallpaper and imagining another world in their shapes. Even then he saw the infinity of the universe in everything around him. He was constantly drawing pictures and was “obsessed,” he says, with the natural world surrounding Cayuse, his small rural community in northeastern Oregon. Today, Lavadour’s portrayals of that landscape are in constant demand.
It could be said that a painter takes possession of his subject as he replicates it on canvas, but in Lavadour’s case it is the landscape that possesses him. He has hiked, hunted, and dreamed in these hills and valleys his entire life. Upon returning from a day on the land, the lines, geology, and rhythms of what he has seen replay themselves in his mind, haunting him until he can get to his studio. He rises daily at 3:00 a.m. to begin work, and there is always music playing in the background—especially jazz greats such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sun Ra, and other innovative musicians of the 1950s and ’60s.
Perhaps it is his affinity for Sun Ra that is most revealing, since he, too, shaped his talent in eclectic and unorthodox ways, underlined by a cosmic viewpoint. A jazz musician begins with a basic structure for a musical composition and then grafts onto it his own life’s experiences; he improvises and elaborates to make the piece his own unique interpretation. So, too, does Lavadour extend beyond ordinary landscape renderings to reveal, through bold riffs of color and texture, his own comprehension of the universe. Often he begins with a detailed depiction of the land around him—its hills and mountains; its craggy, multilayered geological formations; its drifting mist and unusual light. Working with this foundation, the artist extends his medium and uses the physical properties of paint to examine where we are in the world. For Lavadour, painting is “about seeing something, not making something, a way of bringing generations of knowledge and wisdom together to lift our spirits,” he says.
Lavadour’s work is, in essence, about heritage. He grew up in a community that valued creativity and honored the land. At a very early age he was captivated by form, line, reflection, and shadow. More than these concrete influences, however, he felt that painting the world around him was an informative process, a means of learning. His art is not just about what is before him, but about what has been there since the beginning. Some years ago he came across a book about ancient Chinese artists; their philosophy resonated with him and became a major influence on his own art. His reading and research revealed that these painters considered their work to be all about “flow,” about “symbols of eternity,” and about a kinetic experience with the natural world. Lavadour has brought this sensibility into his own paintings, where text and subtext, layers of geography, history, and time travel burst forth in dynamic strokes and vivid hues.
Lavadour’s talents have been recognized through numerous awards, including an Eiteljorg Fellowship, an Award for the Visual Arts from the Flintridge Foundation, two fellowships at the Rutgers Brodsky Center for Innovative Print and Paper, and the Oregon Governor’s Arts Award, among many others. His paintings have been exhibited in galleries and international art fairs, as well as at the Smithsonian Institute, and are part of public and private collections throughout the United States and in the Netherlands. While at the Brodsky Center, he discovered a strong interest in lithography. He began making prints, working with master printer Eileen Foti. “When you work on prints, you are challenged to be more analytical, to understand your own process,” he explains. “Up until that time I had worked in great bursts of energy and emotion, but printmaking is one layer at a time. I learned to set aside the emotion—although, of course, it’s always there—and to understand my process more deeply.”
His experiences at Rutgers led Lavadour and a group of supporters to found Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts, a nonprofit art facility that brings technology, instruction, and cultural exchange to artists on Oregon’s Umatilla Indian Reservation. Just as art had changed Lavadour’s life, he felt compelled to use it as a transformational tool within his Native American community and continues to serve as a board member and artistic advisor.
Through exploration and discovery, invention and reinvention, Lavadour has determined that there are two major aspects to his paintings. The first captures the sediment, layers, and shape of the physical scene. This phase reveals the topography and the geological history of his region. Then the artist moves beyond the visual to intuit the scene’s energy, its emotion and meaning within the cosmos. While this phase might seem to be all about imagination, for Lavadour it is essentially about the physics of paint—not what it looks like but rather its texture and how it behaves as he creates grids, scrapes, and glazes, what he calls “windows and doors” into the essential character of the scene. His paintings are not just about the land he loves; they are about history and heritage through the ages. As he says, “Seeing art in this cosmic sense is liberating. No one interprets it for me. I don’t need cultural leaders as my guides. What I do still adds up to landscape and interiors, but the surface of the painting has exploded into time and space … connecting us all in a shared existence.”
He is represented by PDX Contemporary Art Gallery, Portland, OR; Cumberland Gallery, Nashville, TN; Grover Thurston Gallery, Seattle, WA.
Featured in March 2009