The Portland Art Museum recognizes and honors the Indigenous peoples of this region on whose ancestral lands the museum now stands. These include the Willamette Tumwater, Clackamas, Kathlemet, Molalla, Multnomah and Watlala Chinook Peoples and the Tualatin Kalapuya who today are part of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, and many other Native communities who made their homes along the Columbia River. We also want to recognize that Portland today is a community of many diverse Native peoples who continue to live and work here. We respectfully acknowledge and honor all Indigenous communities—past, present, future—and are grateful for their ongoing and vibrant presence.
The Portland Art Museum proudly presents this tribute to Mount St. Helens on the fortieth anniversary of the eruptions of 1980. Spanning the period from 1845 to the present, this exhibition is the first survey of works of art inspired by the mountain. Although 175 years is barely a blip in geologic time, the art bears witness to an extraordinary era in the long, cyclical life of the volcano.
The beauty of Mount St. Helens has ranged from bucolic to savage. Before the eruptions, painters delighted in depicting its pleasing conical shape rising high above the verdant landscape. The 1980 eruptions challenged artists to capture the thrilling and terrifying displays of nature’s sublime power. When the smoke cleared, the new apocalyptic face of Mount St. Helens compelled the depiction of its haunting majesty. Since then, the rapid return of life to the mountain has captured the attention of photographers as well as scientists from many fields. Although the volcano seems to have reclaimed its serenity, some artists have begun to look to the future. Mount St. Helens will erupt again.
We are pleased to welcome you to this celebration of a great wonder on our horizon.
Organized by the Portland Art Museum and curated by Dawson Carr, Ph.D., the Janet and Richard Geary Curator of European Art.
I was three when Mount St. Helens blew, living well north of the blast in Lake Stevens, Washington. I remember visiting the area a couple of years later with my family and seeing everything pumice-grey, with all the fallen trees and mud-lines from the lahars on the trees that still stood. I wore out the Everett Herald’s short book Mount St. Helens Erupts, which had stories of victims and survivors alongside photos of the destruction. They were powerful images that stuck with me. These three paintings are inspired by the four time-lapse photos of the eruption taken by Vern Hodgson. The title of my paintings quotes the last transmission sent to the usgs office in Vancouver, Washington, by geologist David A. Johnston before he was overwhelmed by the blast.
These works are part of my series Fear of Volcanoes, which has a lot to do with the stubborn refusal of people to respect and pay attention to both our impact on the environment and how the environment is responding. If we don’t change, the destruction that Mount St. Helens caused will be nothing compared to what is in store for us.
Mount St. Helens has been a sacred place to Native Americans for thousands of years. It is known as Lawetlat’la (“Smoker”) to the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation. While the volcano figures prominently in traditional stories of all the tribes living within eyesight, it has special significance for the Cowlitz People because it is the most prominent landmark of their ancestral home.
Lawetlat’la’s intermittent eruptions over the ages determined not only its name, but also its character in numerous creation stories. These tales differ greatly, but all share the idea of the mountain as a supernatural being with the ability to unleash mighty forces, both destructive and generative. The volcano is not only a place charged with spiritual energy, but simultaneously a powerful entity, which Native people visit to seek guidance, whether on a personal quest or as part of community ceremonies.
In the years following the 1980 eruption, Lawetlat’la became a symbol of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe’s “mountain of resentment” that had built up due to the persistent, unfair treatment of their people and lands; tribal federal recognition was only confirmed in 2000. In 2013, Mount St. Helens was listed in the National Register of Historic Places for its significance as a Traditional Cultural Property of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and the Yakama Nation, who now work with the Forest Service in managing the sacred upper reaches of the mountain.
Indigenous peoples along the Columbia River used the substance of adjacent volcanoes—particularly basalt, andesite, and obsidian—to create objects of great beauty for utilitarian, cultural, and aesthetic purposes. The extraordinary sculptures displayed here were made from various forms of basalt, the most common volcanic rock, which is formed by the rapid cooling of lava near the surface. These objects were selected from the collections of the Portland Art Museum to recognize the original inhabitants of our common landscape and the importance that Native peoples have long assigned to the many volcanoes in our area.
Volcanic activity often creates a mountain of unique beauty, which attracts the eyes of artists. Stratovolcanoes like Mount St. Helens are particularly famed for their pleasing symmetrical slopes and crater peaks. They are one of nature’s truest conical forms because they are built slowly in layers, or strata, by successive eruptions.
The first known depictions of Mount St. Helens were created by explorers in the 1840s; Henry James Warre visited in 1845 and was followed by Paul Kane in 1847. At this time, the mountain was nearing the end of an eruptive period (1800–1857). On view here are their remarkable records of the volcano erupting steam and ash from vents near Goat Rocks on the north side. These smaller eruptions presaged the wholesale destruction of this area in 1980.
After 1857, painters celebrated the beauty of Mount St. Helens by depicting it nestled harmoniously among its surroundings. Paintings of the great mountains of the Cascade Range were in demand to decorate homes and businesses in Portland, as well as to satisfy collectors who desired depictions of the American West. Displayed here are works by local artists and visitors showing Mount St. Helens up to its transformation in 1980.
Henry James Warre made the first known paintings of Mount St. Helens. The viewpoint for this watercolor sketch was the Cowlitz Farm, or Fort Cowlitz, an agricultural settlement of the Hudson’s Bay Company a few miles north of modern Toledo, Washington. It shows Mount St. Helens erupting steam and ash from a vent on the volcano’s north side, which was blown away in 1980.
Warre was a British spy, who was sent to the Pacific Northwest in 1845 to determine if a war could be won against the United States for the Oregon Territory. The dispute was settled with the signing of the Oregon Treaty of 1846.
Warre visited Mount St. Helens near the end of an eruptive period that began in 1800 and ended in 1857. As this watercolor sketch demonstrates, he witnessed eruptions of steam and ash from a vent on the north side of the volcano.
The viewpoint is from present-day Longview, Washington. Mount Coffin is the promontory in the middle ground. It received this name from European explorers because it was a burial ground of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe. Mount Coffin was leveled in 1929 so that its gravel could be used in constructing the port of Longview.
Paul Kane is well known for his depictions of Native Americans in Canada and the Pacific Northwest. He followed the tenets of salvage ethnography, a nineteenth-century movement that sought to record cultures thought to be threatened with extinction owing to colonialism.
Kane visited the Pacific Northwest with the support of the Hudson’s Bay Company, whose main trading post was at Fort Vancouver. Kane set out from there on March 25, 1847, and traveled up the Cowlitz River by canoe. He made this watercolor sketch showing Mount St. Helens the following day. The volcano was quiescent at the time, but sometime in the next few weeks, he witnessed an eruption, as recorded in the sketch at far right.
Kane created this sketch in the weeks after he made the watercolor at far left on March 26, 1847. While his first depiction of Mount St. Helens showed the volcano quiescent, this work shows an eruption from a vent on the north side. Once back in Toronto, Kane made the oil painting at left based on this study.
This is the most famous depiction of Mount St. Helens prior to 1980. It was last exhibited in Portland in 1971 at the Oregon Historical Society. Kane painted this work after he returned to Toronto from his travels in the Pacific Northwest. It was based on the sketch he made from life, on view at right. Although his pencil and watercolor studies were made in daylight, he created a nocturnal scene in this oil painting. This was inspired by the European tradition of depicting Mount Vesuvius erupting at night to accentuate the pyrotechnics. Kane knew such paintings from his travels in Europe from 1841 to 1843. For an example of this type of painting in our collection, see Francesco Fidanza’s Vesuvius Erupting at Night.
Rockwell spent his most of his career as a survey engineer and cartographer for the United States Coastal Survey, but he was also an accomplished artist. He was first sent to Oregon in 1868 to survey and map the mouth of the Columbia River. It was at this time that he made this panorama showing the three volcanoes immediately north of the Columbia.
Rockwell’s employment as a survey engineer for the U.S. Coastal Survey brought him to San Francisco, his first home on the West Coast. After experiencing Oregon, he moved his family to Portland in 1879. He then surveyed and mapped the lower Columbia and its tributaries, including the Willamette River. His work helped ensure safe transportation to and from Portland. By the time he made this exquisite watercolor in 1894, he was well established in Portland as an artist as well as surveyor.
This panoramic view of Portland was painted by Olof Grafström shortly after he emigrated from Sweden in 1886. Mount St. Helens dominates the horizon at center. From the painter’s vantage point in the undeveloped West Hills, it is clear why the volcano was known as the Mount Fuji of North America. Rising behind its left flank is Mount Rainier and at right is Mount Adams. The burgeoning city of Portland is divided by the Willamette River at center; note the absence of bridges. Vancouver, Washington, and a sliver of the Columbia River are visible at left.
Grafström’s six-foot-wide painting was purchased by local collectors shortly before we opened the Mount St. Helens exhibition. In spite of this, they generously agreed to lend it, but the Museum closed before we were able to hang it. We hope that you will be able to see it when we reopen.
This “sketch” of Mount St. Helens was made on October 6, 1885, as the artist recorded at lower left. On the back of the canvas, he described his vantage point as “a hill back of Portland.” It is not known if Stuart ever created a fully elaborated painting based on this sketch. The spontaneity of execution makes this work especially appealing to modern eyes.
James Everett Stuart was an itinerant painter for most of his career. He was born in Maine and moved to Rio Vista, California, with his family when he was eight. He studied at the San Francisco School of Design with Virgil Williams. In 1881, he opened a studio in Portland, where he remained for five years. After periods in New York and Chicago, he finally settled in San Francisco in 1912.
The late nineteenth-century American frame was generously loaned by Atelier Richard Boerth, Seattle.
Parrott was born in Missouri and moved with his family to Oregon in 1847 at the age of three. Growing up here, he developed a great love for the mountains. He opened his first studio in Portland in 1867, and his mountain landscapes proved to be very popular with collectors and other artists. He trained several painters, including Eliza Barchus and Grace Russell Fountain, and his inspiration can be detected in their works below.
Grace Fountain grew up in Ashland. She later spent time in Klamath Falls and participated in expeditions to document Crater Lake for the Park Service. She subsequently moved to Portland, where she studied with William Parrott. Although he inspired her, she developed her own distinctive style, as can be seen by comparing this painting with Parrott’s work above. Fountain shared a studio in Portland with her artist sister, Mabel Russell Lowther, until 1907, when Fountain moved to Oakland, California, with her husband.
Eliza Barchus was born in Salt Lake City and settled in Portland in 1880. She studied with William S. Parrott, whose work appears above, because his style greatly appealed to her. She painted thousands of works up to 1935, when arthritis and failing eyesight finally ended her career. A stamp on the back of this painting lists the title and the downtown address of her first studio in Portland, where she worked from 1886 to 1891. In 1971, the Oregon Legislature recognized her as “The Oregon Artist.”
Eliza Barchus was an enterprising and prolific painter in the early days of Portland. After her husband’s death, she had to support her family from her work as an artist. She painted scenes of the Pacific Northwest and the great sites of the West in general, but also printed popular views that virtually anyone could afford. This work on slate illustrates her desire to appeal to all segments of the art market, including reasonably priced souvenirs. Many painters of this period represented landscape scenes at either midday or sunset, in line with the conventions of the time.
Bierstadt was tireless in his pursuit of splendid scenery for his paintings. He was already internationally famous when he visited Oregon and Washington for the second time in September and October, 1889. During this second trip, he likely made sketches that he used in creating this painting in his New York studio. The autumnal foliage of the deciduous trees would seem to confirm this date. However, the artist regularly adjusted the appearance of sites as well as seasons to create a beautiful picture.
A native Bostonian, Greta Allen studied with Frank Benson (1862–1951) at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Benson had adopted the Impressionist style while training in Paris in the 1880s. His work inspired Allen, who became a distinguished American Impressionist in her own right. Allen visited the Pacific Northwest around 1910 and painted this lovely work from a vantage point in Portland’s Northwest Hills.
This boldly painted view of Mount St. Helens poignantly highlights the encroachment of human infrastructure on the once pristine landscape. It was made by one of Oregon’s most outstanding women painters, Clara Jane Stephens, who was born in Land’s End, England, and arrived in Portland in 1894. After training in New York and in Italy, she became an exceptional American Impressionist. Her exhibitions in New York and on the West Coast consistently received enthusiastic reviews. She was also a devoted educator. In 1916, she taught children’s classes at the Portland Art Museum, and in 1917, she joined the faculty of the Museum Art School, serving until her retirement in 1938.
Keller was one of the Pacific Northwest’s most distinguished Impressionist painters. A native of Salem, he was precocious and enrolled in drawing classes at Willamette University at age 12. In 1894, he became a cartoonist for the San Francisco Examiner, but continued painting landscapes, seascapes, and portraits. He lost everything in the 1906 earthquake and returned to Oregon. He sustained himself by selling his oil paintings and watercolors, and by running an art and frame shop on Southwest Washington Street in Portland from 1907 to 1936. His favorite subject matter was Oregon scenery, and he particularly favored Sauvie Island. He retired to Cannon Beach and continued to paint until his death, leaving a large body of work. This is his only known depiction of Mount St. Helens.
Ray Strong’s earliest encounters with Mt. St. Helens occurred during his time with the YMCA. Strong’s most notable trek with the group occurred in 1921, when they were bogged down in six feet of snow on Christmas Eve. The trek culminated in an arduous ski and snow shoe slog to their newly erected cabin on the edge of Spirit Lake. Afterward, they circumnavigated the Loowit Trail. A few years later, Strong had established a reputation as a “Mountain Painter,” known for summiting many of the Cascade Mountains, paint box in hand. In the early 1950s, he spent three summers painting extensively throughout the Cascades with his young family in tow. He scaled up many of the resulting oil sketches, such as this one, in his California studio.
Fritz Kempe immigrated to the United States from Germany by himself at age eighteen and eventually settled in Salt Lake City to be near family. This painting was created after he visited his daughter in Portland in April 1979. At that time, he toured southwestern Washington and made studies of Mount St. Helens. He was at work on this painting when the great eruption radically altered its appearance. The event compelled him to finish the work in the following weeks to record his memories of the beauty of Mount St. Helens as it once was.
Mount St. Helens inspired art as never before when it awoke on March 27, 1980. Impressive eruptions continued until 2008, but the great eruption on May 18, 1980, surpassed all the others by far. The top 1,300 feet of the mountain collapsed in a massive landslide, releasing the blast that gutted the north side. The eruption and resulting effects decimated human infrastructure and killed 57 people and countless animals. Human fragility in the face of nature’s might was made abundantly clear, and those witnesses who escaped immediate danger watched in wonder at the grandeur of the event. Artists were compelled to render one of nature’s most stunning displays of power. The 1980 eruption remains the most amazing and destructive geologic event in North America in modern times.
This room displays works created by artists in Portland and Seattle in the years after the eruption. These depictions of Mount St. Helens erupting are distinctive for having been created by eyewitnesses to the event. The works demonstrate the complexity of conceptual approaches present in the Pacific Northwest art scene in the early 1980s. The eruption and its effects became a long-term focus of expression for two Portland artists interested in landscape and city views: George Johanson and Henk Pander.
When I arrived in Portland by boat and train from the Netherlands in 1965, I was utterly unprepared for the grandeur of the Northwest landscape. Riding the train early in the morning through the Columbia River Gorge is forever ingrained in my mind as an otherworldly experience. I had lived in the flat, damp, ditch-riddled Netherlands my whole life, and I loved it, but I had never experienced such immense volcanic landscapes. In those early years, the great volcanos intrigued me and I often wondered what an eruption would be like. So utterly un-Dutch.
In the 1970s I lived in a small house on Cable Street in Southwest Portland and had a stunning view of Mount St. Helens, the Mount Fuji of the Northwest in its perfection. The eruption of Mount St. Helens was fantastic. On May 18th 1980, I first saw the eruption cloud far away through a crack in the overcast. It loomed immense and mysterious. As an immigrant artist and a chronicler of contemporary experiences, I immediately started documenting the events surrounding the eruption in the form of works on paper and slides. Sometime after the big eruption, an ash cloud drifted over Portland. That night, I drove around in silence in the cement snow, the streets disappearing, the blossoming trees turning to stone. At that time, there was talk of nuclear war and fallout. In my mind, the eruptions became a metaphor of what could be.
This work depicts Mount St. Helens on the evening of the great eruption of May 18, 1980. I took my wife Delores and my sons Jacob and Arnold to watch the spectacle from an ideal spot on Sauvie Island. I made the watercolor from life late that afternoon, when the eruption plume had subsided and drifted northeast across the landscape.
Henk Pander made a number of watercolors from life during the various eruptions of Mount St. Helens. This work was painted from his yard on Cable Street during the eruption of July 22, 1980. He later used it in creating the oil painting below.
This painting is the culmination of a great many works I did in response to the eruptions of Mount St. Helens. The work was based on studies I made on July 22, 1980, when the eruption appeared against a clear summer sky. One of the studies is included in this exhibition. The view is from my yard on SW Cable Street. The painting is a reflection on the experience as seen in a mirror. It also recalls that it was a huge media event at the time.
When Mount St. Helens first erupted with small emissions, I visited frequently, driving up logging roads to photograph it. I was amazed by the sublime spectacle, but also amused by the picnic atmosphere of crowds in lawn chairs lined up to watch it like a reality TV show. It became personified, a mighty and even benevolent sentient being communing with onlookers.
On the morning of May 18, 1980, I was in Seattle. When I drove down later in the day, access to the volcano was blocked. The mood was somber, no longer celebratory. The glorious spectacle had been transformed. The volcano, a dispassionate force of nature, had taken on a new persona. Tag III represents this transformation through the lens of pareidolia, which is the imagined perception of a pattern or meaning where it does not actually exist, e.g., seeing faces in things. The ensuing altered and anthropomorphic image alludes to Mount St. Helens’ transformations, from the ridiculous to the sublime and from Muppet to monster.
Lucinda Parker watched the great eruption of Mount St. Helens with her family from a vantage point on Sauvie Island. Not long thereafter, she submitted this sketch to a competition for a mural at Portland State University. She did not win and subsequently gifted the painting to her husband Steve McCarthy, as the inscription notes. The distinctive energy of the artist’s style is here beautifully matched with the subject.
Mary Davis studied at the Museum Art School and later worked in the studio of noted artists Hilda and Carl Morris. She became a successful Portland painter in her own right and is best remembered for her emotive style, which sought to express the mystical qualities of her subjects.
Ken Weeks lives in Lyle, Washington, and was deeply affected by the eruption of Mount St. Helens and its impact on people and animals in the area. In addition to the loss of fifty-seven human lives, countless animals, large and small, were killed by the eruption over a vast area. The artist wryly included human dwellings encroaching on the volcano, pointing to our short memories and desire for expansion even where it is unwise.
The eruption of Mount St. Helens was a wake-up call, a reminder in stark terms that the very firm solid earth on which we rely is not what it seems. In reality, it is only a thin crust with a fiery molten beast lurking underneath that is ready to break out at any time.
Volcanos are not supposed to be in our backyard. They are supposed to stay far away, in stories and fables and on exotic islands. Suddenly this one was interrupting our own personal existence, for a time spewing its ash over Portland so that we could not drive without wrecking the car engine, or breathe outside without a protective mask.
The volcano began to be a motif in my work almost immediately after the eruption. It appears as a reminder of our subordination to nature. Over time, I have used it in various ways as a visual-emotional-intellectual device. As with my other subject matter, the volcano is transposed in painting, and can stand for qualities other than what it is in a strictly literal sense.
I had been teaching for 25 years when I retired in May 1980. I was only 52, but had decided that, whatever the financial challenges, I needed to devote full time to my studio. The mountain erupted that month, in fact within a day or two of commencement. If I had asked for a sign from heaven to validate my decision, this would have been a pretty potent one. Linking the baby self with the volcano in this print is my way of suggesting a new beginning, perhaps a new self.
In the early ‘80s, my wife Phyllis had already been involved with animal welfare work for over 25 years. Partly as a result of that commitment and also because of our love for cats, we had up to 10 living with us at that time. Phyllis used to take them all for a walk on a wooded side street near our home. She was like the pied piper with all the cats strung out and zig-zagging along behind her, following her up the lane. In this etching, the cityscape is an interpretation, as it might have looked from our house. The landscape is crowned by the volcano posing as a giant cauliflower.
In Black Cat—Mountain, the volcano is stylized and set far back in the landscape. It is subordinated in color to other surrounding elements, but it is also a royal presence rising up majestically into the heavens. Everything in the painting is teetering and in flux. It is a statement about impermanence. And the volcano watches over it all like a monarch.
In Mirrored Porch, the volcano is a big event, but not solely a threatening one. It is also something like a celebration, like fireworks on the 4th. So, in this painting it becomes both menacing and a visual feast.
For many years, I have made a practice of doing a print from a painting, using the same composition. But the print is more than a reproduction of the painting. It has its own demands and interests. It is always drawn freshly, not traced from an image of the painting. Some shapes are added or changed. In an etching, I am involved with the way lines mass and how edges are arrived at in a different way than in a painting. Also, the black color is printed first with an oil-based ink. Then, further colors are added with brush and transparent watercolor. So, the sense of light is often quite different from the painting.
A virtual exhibition offers the possibility of including artworks that we know exist, but could not locate. Here are photographs of two significant works created soon after the eruption of May 18, 1980.
By 1980, Roger Brown had become well known for his wry commentaries on modern life, including numerous depictions of natural disasters. He quickly responded to the eruption of Mount St. Helens with this painting, which considers the reactions of relatively recent settlers to the awakening of a powerful natural force nearby. In the highrise towers, Brown’s trademark silhouetted figures gesticulate with both shock and indifference. People also populate the hills around the volcano, appearing like ants in the vast wilderness. The ironic title, First Continental Eruption, reflects the arrogance and short memories of humans in the face of geologic time. Brown’s distinctive style was largely inspired by popular culture, including the comics, art deco theaters, and the work of self-taught artists.
Tapestry weaver Judith Poxson Fawkes settled in Portland in 1972 with her artist husband Tom Fawkes. Over the decades, she produced a large body of work, including many large-scale tapestries for public buildings in Oregon and around the country. Fawkes is also fondly remembered as a teacher at four local colleges. She was fascinated by the interplay of light and color in Portland’s weather and this is evident in her interpretation of the effects of the eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980. She returned to the subject in 2013 in a linen-inlay tapestry now in the Cleveland Museum of Art: https://www.clevelandart.org/art/2014.387
When the great eruption subsided, utter devastation was revealed. The blast had completely scoured the landscape north of the volcano down to the bedrock. Dense, old-growth forests had been blown down or incinerated up to nineteen miles away. Mud and ash clogged the land and waters, turning their vivid colors an almost uniform putty grey. The scene was as apocalyptic as the eruption itself.
Photography’s capacity to capture vast vistas, fine detail, and minute variations in light and atmosphere made it the perfect medium for recording the aftermath. Numerous local and international photographers were drawn to the mountain; most chose black and white to heighten the drama of the bleak, almost monochrome scenes. Over the following years, they captured sudden as well as incremental shifts in the terrain. While their works are ostensibly documentary, they are highly emotive in expressing the terrible beauty of the desolation. The renowned landscape artists Frank Gohlke and Emmet Gowin were especially inspired by the subject, winning acclaim for creating extraordinary photographic essays over the following decade.
[Unfortunately, it has not been possible to illustrate ten photographs by Frank Gohlke and two by Emmet Gowin. We hope to be able to add images of these works after the current lockdown eases.]
The ash from Mount St. Helens is 65% silica, and at 2600°F it can be fused to form volcanic glass. The 1980 eruptions occurred as the art glass movement in the Pacific Northwest was burgeoning. Two glass studios and artist Paul Marioni took advantage of ash that had literally been deposited on their doorsteps.
I made this vase from pure volcanic ash collected on the day of the big eruption. As soon as we heard about the ashfall, Rob Adamson and I drove to eastern Washington and collected a barrel of the stuff. That night, we melted it and I blew the vase. It looked black, but was actually a very dark green. The iridescent color came from a metallic fuming agent. This piece is the only one blown from pure ash that I know of.
A major figure on the West Coast in the movement to redefine the nature and materials of painting in the 1970s, Charles Arnoldi was mesmerized by the television coverage of the eruption of Mount St. Helens. The images of thousands of felled trees and the ragged crater prompted him to reintroduce actual sticks in combination with painting in his post-eruption works through the next decade. In Untitled, 1983, Arnoldi creates a dense, powerful work that is clotted in highly fluid, directional arrangements of sticks that overlap and collide to define both the painting's surface and silhouette. The cultivated disequilibrium of the work’s elegant veneered surface of modeling paste and sticks produces a formally beautiful yet poignantly emotional evocation of the triggering event.
Mount St. Helens fascinated Ursula K. Le Guin (1929–2018), the renowned author best known for her science fiction novels. The volcano was visible from her house in Portland’s Northwest Hills and she was enthralled by its many moods in the ever-shifting weather and light. She watched the great eruption all day, declaring it “the biggest thing I ever saw or hope to see.” Le Guin referred to the mountain as “the Lady” and chose to depict it visually:
When “the Lady” started shaking and doing strange things in 1979, my love of her beautiful presence became a driving interest, almost a fixation. While she was dormant I had made sketches trying to catch the pure line of her almost-but-not-quite symmetrical flanks and the clouds that wreathed around her head like veils. As activity increased and ash eruptions began to blacken the cone, I drew what I saw as best I could, sitting at my study window, using binoculars to bring details close. Experimenting then with chalk pastels, I found them a good medium for the drama of ash and cloud and snow going on there, 60 miles away overland and 9,000 feet up in the air.
Le Guin’s family has kindly allowed a selection of her pastels to be shown here for the first time.
In October 1981, three friends—artist Henk Pander, photographer Ron Cronin, and author Ursula K. Le Guin—managed to finagle a one-day pass into the Red Zone, the restricted area around the mountain. Le Guin later described the experience:
…the fear I felt that day went deeper than the physical. After driving miles up through the endless green vitality of a great forest, to turn a corner and enter a world of grey ash, burnt stumps, and silence—from the complexity of flourishing life into the awful simplicity of death: the fear I felt was metaphysical. And the scale of it all was beyond comprehension. I tried to write about it afterwards, in poetry and essay. I never felt I could describe it adequately, hardly hint at it.
Henk Pander made this drawing shortly after the trip. He explains its most unusual feature:
Ursula used the great Northwest landscapes as inspiration for her description of alien worlds. Coincident with the Mount St. Helens event were the first Voyager flybys of Saturn, which greatly interested us both. One of its most beautiful moons was Enceladus, an icy world lacking craters, but covered in mysterious cracks. More recently it was discovered that salt water exists beneath its surface ice. There is speculation about primitive life forms in its dark, deep oceans, so it has become even more appropriate for Ursula.
I had flown over the Red Zone, but it did not prepare me for the experience of being there on foot. It was extremely difficult to walk because the landscape was covered in spherical pieces of pumice. We stumbled across a small lake. Because of the immense ash falls, the chemical composition of the lake had changed. The water was blood red, and dead trees were all around.
I have long been interested in the tension between American technology and the wilderness. For better or for worse, America has long held a war-like attitude toward dominating the sublime natural world. This cultural characteristic is seen in NASA, which used wartime missile technology to open up the wilderness of the solar system. That irony is explored in much of my work and this watercolor is an early example.
Harrison Branch served as Professor of Photography in the Art Department at Oregon State University from 1972 to 2013. The subject matter of his work has varied over time, but he is especially attracted to undeveloped natural areas. In the early 1980s, he was becoming convinced of the superiority of platinum/palladium prints for capturing subtle tonal variations, as this photograph demonstrates.
Mount St. Helens and its surroundings have dramatically changed in the last forty years. The volcano has begun rebuilding itself; two lava domes now sit in the crater, surrounded by a growing glacier. Significant rockfall and debris flows continue, requiring frequent revisions of topographic maps. Color has returned to the once-bleak vistas as plants and animals now thrive where life seemed unimaginable. The area around the volcano has rebounded far faster and with greater diversity than scientists had thought possible. We are reminded of something that Native Americans have long appreciated: eruptions bring not only destruction, but also renewal.
Frank Gohlke returned to Mount St. Helens several times in the decade following the eruption, visiting some of the same viewpoints to record the evolving saga of rebirth. His photographs illustrate both short- and long-term changes. The majestic landscapes emerging at Mount St. Helens are considered in the photographs of Diane Cook and Len Jenshel, who visited in 2009, and those of Buzzy Sullivan, who visited in 2017. Brad Johnson and Cameron Martin reflect on the instability of the mountain, pointing to when the epic cycle of destruction and regeneration will begin anew.
Celts described “thin places” as locales where the distance between heaven and earth is closest, where another dimension is right there, looming and palpable. Mount St. Helens is one of the thinnest places I’ve encountered.
I’ve been drawn back to the volcano many times since I first photographed it in 2009. Climbing into the crater is to ‘ascend to the underworld’ where dynamic geologic forces are breaking down and building up new interior landscapes. To observe these cyclical workings of the earth is to witness deep time, a transcendent experience that photography alone never seems to capture. In manipulating the surfaces of photographic prints of the crater I’ve attempted to inject, impress, and reveal the volcano’s many conjurings—in this case hell as described by Dante and rendered by Botticelli.
I was ten years old and living in Seattle when Mount St. Helens erupted. In retrospect, it was my first experience of the sublime—never before had the natural world excited a feeling of such awe in me. I have vivid memories of the clouds produced from the discharge. They were otherworldly forms that uncannily anticipated the Cloud City that would appear in The Empire Strikes Back, released a few days later. My grandparents’ Eastern Washington home was covered in a thick layer of ash that people feared would become like glue if it rained. It terrified me to think that the earth was capable of such wrath. As an adult, when I became an artist making work about how we picture nature, at first I resisted depicting the mountain that had made such a deep impression on my psyche. When I was finally ready to take it on, I spent several months painting what remains the largest work I have produced. It’s painted in a way that is meant to conjure a certain amount of instability, where the dark section, which reads as the foreground from a distance, becomes a possible void as you get closer. I titled it Remission, because you never know.
Welcome to this digital version of the Community Partner in Residence gallery organized in collaboration with the Mount St. Helens Institute.
Founded in 1996, the Mount St. Helens Institute is a nonprofit organization that connects people of all ages to the volcano through outdoor youth education programs, expert-led field seminars, guided exploration programs, and meaningful volunteer opportunities. Programs take place at the Science and Learning Center on Coldwater Ridge, approximately 10 miles from the volcano, and out in the field across the Mount St. Helens Volcanic Monument and surrounding Gifford Pinchot National Forest. However, with the Covid-19 pandemic, many programs have been postponed and moved online through the new portal MSHInside.
We invite you to enjoy this online learning space where we have brought together different resources to better understand the past, present, and future of Mount St. Helens. Through maps, books, scientific equipment, and geological materials, we encourage curiosity and exploration as you learn more about this incredible place.
Also, thank you to the U.S. Geological Survey - The David A. Johnston Cascades Volcano Observatory (CVO) in Vancouver, Washington for their support in developing this learning space.
For even more Volcano! Learning Resources, we encourage you to visit the “Learning” tab on the exhibition page of the Portland Art Museum website.
The Monitoring Spider, designed by USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory, is recent technology that helps scientists quickly monitor an active volcano while reducing risks to scientists. The sturdy Spider is deployed by a helicopter, and is designed to transmit data in real time to the Cascades Volcano Observatory. The Spider can detect small changes in the ground shape (or deformation) with GPS, lightning and/or low-frequency sounds from explosions, gas emissions, and shallow earthquakes.
Breadcrust bombs are volcanic rocks ejected as semi-molten lava during an eruption. The outer surface begins to harden while traveling through the air and becomes brittle. Meanwhile, the hot molten rock inside forms gas bubbles and begins to expand causing the outer surface to crack, like a piece of popcorn.
This ten-minute loop combines short historic and contemporary video clips drawn entirely from the archives of the U.S. Geological Survey:
The David A. Johnston Cascades Volcano Observatory (CVO) in Vancouver, Washington is home to about 80 scientists, technicians, and support personnel devoted to the study and monitoring of the active volcanoes in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The scientists have a diversity of interests and expertise needed to study the past eruptive histories, develop new tools and ideas to understand volcanic systems, monitor current volcano behavior, assess future impacts, and communicate with officials and people at risk. CVO works closely with other government agencies, public officials, emergency response groups, the business community, educators, and concerned citizens to accomplish its mission.
CVO is one of five volcano observatories in the United States supported by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Volcano Hazards Program. The David A. Johnston Cascades Volcano Observatory is dedicated to David Johnston, the USGS geologist who was killed on May 18, 1980 at Mount St Helens.
For more information on the Cascades Volcano Observatory, visit volcanoes.usgs.gov/observatories/cvo