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Stone Alignments/Solstice Cairns

By Lisa Radon
July 2, 2011
Visual Art

Let’s get this out of the way up front. I am not a habitual trespasser. I’m a nice girl who was raised to call first, never to drop in unannounced, and to ask permission from the neighbors with the smiley face mailbox when I wanted to detour through their property to save four minutes on my elementary school walk home. But let’s be fair, there was no one to call. All we had was a 30-year-old, hand-drawn map of the bluffs above I-84 near Mosier, Ore., with typewritten directions noting such landmarks as the “red fire truck” near “the barn.”

We were on a quest for Michelle Stuart’s “Stone Alignments/Solstice Cairns,” the 1979 earthwork Stuart had created on Rowena Plateau overlooking the Columbia River, commissioned by the Portland Center for the Visual Arts, the now-defunct Portland contemporary art center. We knew Rowena Plateau was private property, but belonging to whom? Letters in the PCVA Archive at the Portland Art Museum’s Crumpacker Library described the sale of the property by the original owners who’d permitted the construction of Stone Alignments in the first place.

It is a time piece in which cairns and viewing circles form a 100′ diameter wheel and line up with the sunrise, sunset, and true north on the summer solstice. Nearby a smaller circular natural crater was lined with river stones and became a “moon circle.” It turned out that the islands in the river directly below were sacrosanct Indian burial grounds.
— Mary Beebe, Executive Director, PCVA (Twenty-Seven Installations: Portland Center for the Visual Arts)

Hope Svenson and I each had our own reasons for searching it out. After a couple of years of on-again/off-again research for a book on PCVA, this was my chance to time travel, to be present with a PCVA-commissioned work in real life. Maybe. Ever since I’d seen the photos of the work (and Mary’s description) in Twenty Seven Installations: Portland Center for the Visual Arts, I’d wanted to stand there on Rowena Plateau. Reading Paul Sutinen’s account of its construction in a yellowed Willamette Week only whet my appetite further, as did an essay on the work by Stuart herself in Prologue, the art magazine that Sutinen edited (three issues-worth) in the ‘70s. Stuart’s writings on the piece had been featured in Artforum, and art critic Lucy Lippard writes about the work in her book Overlay.

Hope had been neck-deep in the PCVA archive as well, helping to pull together materials for Selections from the PCVA Archive at YU Contemporary, the new East Side Portland art center with MASS MoCA-like ambition. I’d mentioned a field trip to Stone Alignments to YU Executive Director, Sandra Percival, and she was enthusiastic. Before I knew it, a summer solstice trip to Stone Alignments was on the schedule of public programs for the Selections exhibition, meaning that someone had to get out there and find out whether it had survived the past 32 years. Hope was assigned to the recon mission, and I tagged along.

After the longest winter in history, it was finally spring; we put on sunscreen, hopped in Hope’s loaner Jetta and headed east on I-84. When we stopped at a rest area, big yellow signs warned us to watch out for rattlesnakes. I was wearing hiking boots, but envied Hope’s heavy, mid-calf leather boots as greater protection against fangs. Actually, I was more worried about dogs. We knew Stone Alignments was on private property and quite near a home. And I knew, from growing up in a rural area, that guard dogs came with the territory. Twice bitten, twice shy.

Private Property

The sketchy directions told us to drive down into Rowena Dell, then take a left. Rowena Dell is now a subdivision with posted “Private Drive” signs. We spotted a barn up on the hill to the left, so we parked and walked up a drive paved in crushed grey stone that wound up out of the dell toward the barn. A hollow-eyed clay mask with its tongue sticking out was tacked to an oak tree. On the other side of the tree were three signs, “Private Property,” “Private Drive 5 MPH,” and a torn, rain-damaged sign that read:

This trail belongs to the 1135 Canyon Way property and is private. It was designated s a Bridle Path in 1975 to [ ] the [ ] above. Rowena Dell Homeowners and their guests are [ ]come to use this trial. Rowena Dell Homeowners are those houses built along Canyon Way and include Oakbrook Lane.

If you are trying to access the Mathesin Property, it is located one mile to the right at the road at the top of this hill, above Rowena Dell Subdivision. If you are in a vehicle and wish to respect our property and our privacy you may use that road to return to Hwy [ ]. Unlike this trail, it is straight and flat.

John Maher and Pat Bozanich

And haphazardly in white paint below: ROWENA DELL FOOT TRAFFIC ONLY

We puzzled over why the signs seemed to be facing the wrong direction as we knew we had to get up out of the dell to find our plateau. But we thought that if someone had to post a sign to direct visitors to the Mathesin property, we were probably in the right place…more or less.

Where the road flattened out, we saw the barn we’d been promised in the instructions, then decided to try to drive around and access the property via the route the sign suggested. Hope drove back to the “highway” and took a double-rutted drive (on which the loaner Jetta bottomed out — don’t tell) into a field. We stopped at a closed gate and climbed over the downed barbed wire fence. Turned out we were well above the barn now, and we couldn’t just slide down the rocky cliff. We decided to see if we could see Stone Alignments from above and began walking along the edge of this plateau through knee-high grass and lupine (Hope: “I do not like snakes.”) broken by stony ground and carpets of cushiony white moss riddled with gopher holes. It was strange, this terrace of plateau over plateau, the grassy, crumbled edges of which you can’t see until you’re on them. “Don’t walk too close to the edge, Hope. I won’t leave you, but don’t make me have to climb down after you.” There was a breeze, but the sun was warm and a couple of white puffy clouds dotted the sky.

Fake Solstice Cairns

As we looked down, we could see the that crushed rock drive that passed the barn continued to head out north toward the Columbia and likely toward our plateau. We continued to move along the eastern edge of the plateau when suddenly we saw below and a ways off, a handful of jagged stacks of rocks. Even from far off we could tell they were sharp-edged rocks, not the rounded ones we had seen in the photos of Stuart’s artwork. They were stacked just two or three high and haphazardly arranged, certainly not in a circle. We took it as an homage to Stone Alignments/Solistice Cairns and also as a sign that we were close. We continued out to the northern end of the plateau, but could see nothing more than a young deer on an opposite bluff and grass and a trail of yellow wildflowers below. I took off my coat and kicked myself for forgetting to bring water.

The House

Hope backed out of the rutted drive, and we headed back to the Dell, thinking we’d park where we were before and hike up past the barn. Suddenly on the left, we both saw a crushed stone drive we’d missed before heading off into the oaks. Seconds later, we drove past the fork in the road, one branch we knew headed down into the dell, the other past our barn. Just after, we reached gateposts and a sign: Kliewer & Mathisen. Private Drive.

“Private drive.”
“I know, but we have to get out there.”
“Should we drive or walk?”
“You saw how far it is out there, let’s just drive.”

We drove past the first “horse gate” (our typewritten directions asked us to close the gate behind us, but now just gateposts remain) and the second. And here was the weathered house on the plateau, a house with a little vineyard, a lovely garden, and outbuildings. Hope parked in the drive, and I, quite bravely I thought (“Please don’t let them have dogs”), rang the doorbell. No answer. But also, no barking.

Who saw the cairn first? I think it was Hope. “Look, over there.” She pointed to the right, past the mini-vineyard, at a mound of rounded stones in the tall grass. Hope moved the car out of the driveway and down the drive a bit. “What if they come home while we’re here?” she said. On foot, we headed out toward the cairn, past the grapevines and into the grass. Having forgotten to look down for snakes now, we almost stepped right into a bog. There must just be a thin layer of dirt over rock here for the ground to hold so much water, I thought.

Hope forgot her camera in the car and had to go back. So I reached the cairn first and looked down…under the top stone was a paper with the letter L printed on it. Welcome, L-is-for-Lisa.

The Thunder

The stones were all wrong for this plateau. The rest of the small igneous rocks we’d been negotiating as we walked were dark, jagged, porous, and to me, exotic. These stacked stones were rounded, tumbled, the kind I was used to from growing up near beach and river. I remembered that they’d been hauled here in trucks, unloaded by the many hands of the volunteers who camped for days on this plateau and shaped the work. And I thought of the out-of-place slabs of stone that make up Stonehenge, also on a grassy expanse, or those of the Great Pyramid, surrounded by sand. Markers want to be out of the ordinary.

I looked down and saw, embedded in the grass, lines of stones coming out of the cairn. I remembered the 1979 photos, how they showed the stones sitting high on the ground, on grass that looked as though it had been grazed. Now the stones melded with the ground, just half exposed. I followed the straight line east as Hope approached from the south. “This is the center circle,” she said as we met.

Thunder crashed and rumbled above our heads. We looked at each other and then looked north. Although our plateau was bathed in sun, dark clouds trailing grey curtains of rain gathered over the opposite bank of the Columbia out past the northern cairn. Lightning streaked down, and thunder rumbled again. Call me a lightning rod, I was the tallest thing on that plateau. But the wind was blowing from the west. I thought maybe the cloud would move off while staying on the Washington side of the river. Quickly we took some photos. The cairn opposite of the one I first found had a piece of paper under the top stone with an R printed on it. Oh my god, my initials!, I thought, This place has been waiting for me. “It’s left and right, Lisa,” Hope said, and looked at me pointedly.

“But the thunder…” I said.

Indians called Rowena…the place where the sun meets the rain…each day clouds hung low over the mountains during the sun’s passage…
–Michelle Stuart

More lightning and a shift in the wind sent us back to the car, and I’ll admit I moved more quickly than Hope. Back in the car, I regretted our rush, regretted experiencing Stone Alignments through the lens of the camera. I hadn’t followed each stone line through the grass, hadn’t visited each cairn. I didn’t find the moon circle. Hope meanwhile was relieved that the homeowner hadn’t returned while we were trespassing.

We headed further down Highway 30. The Doll Museum, which, according to our instructions, offered a fine view of Stone Alignments from above, had disappeared, of course, though we did see more stacked rocks near where it should have been. Shortly, we were in Mosier looking for City Hall when we found Glenna, a volunteer in the one-room library. Amid shelves of worn, cloth-bound books, and with her 72-years-worth of Mosier memory, she tried to help us puzzle out who the Mathisens might be and how we might get in touch. I wandered across the street to the volunteer fire department to ask around. Jim Appleton, the fire chief, not only knew about Stone Alignments, which he said had been all the buzz when he’d moved to Portland for college (“I just missed the dedication,” he said) but also had Mathisen’s cell phone number.

We got back in the Jetta and headed west under blue skies.

“I don’t know if I want to go back with a bunch of people, Hope. It won’t be the same. That was for us.”

“I know.”

“The thunder.”

“I know.”

“It was magic.”

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