Art Center at the Old Library

A tale of two community art centers

Baker City and La Grande, Oregon

I went to the east side of the state a few weeks ago with the expressed purpose of learning a little about arts organizations in both La Grande and Baker City and the artists who live there. Having never been on the other side of the Cascades in the ten years I have lived in Oregon, I thought it was high time to encounter that geography while also bringing a little more “Oregon” to “ArtsWatch.”

My plan was to cover a lot of miles on and off of Route 26, take as many back roads as daylight would allow and camp for a few days before re-entering populated areas. In my mind—as naive as it may seem—the need to isolate myself was also an immersion, a necessary transition to get my head into the mindset of the folks on the other side of the Cascades. I was and remain aware of a perceived ideological line drawn between those who live (and vote) in the Valley and Oregonians who make a life for themselves in less-populated areas. After all, I live in a part of the Valley where many folks dream of retiring to the East Side, which they see as the real Eden of Oregon. They don’t care two licks about Portland or Eugene.

Of course, these are all false constructs, for no matter where one prefers to live, or whether one prefers the Beavers over the Ducks, the conversation is always more diverse and the factors involved, more complicated; it is only a tendency toward a specific preference that can color perceptions and I am no less guilty than the next person. I make no secret of my lack of enthusiasm for pastoral art, but I also recognize and admire the proficiency of the artists who engage in that practice. I have a similar attitude toward much craft-based art, but again, that has not stopped me from curating exhibits consisting solely of crafts. And, as I would be reminded, not every small town is like another.

As soon as I crossed over the Santiam Pass I knew I was in new territory. The geography seemed harsher with evidence of wildfires from the recent and distant past. The architecture was decidedly more dated, sometimes as a façade, but there was nothing fake about abandoned and collapsing log structures. There was much greater distance between towns and once I got away from Prineville, vehicles were more scarce. Big RVs outnumbered cars, and I sometimes had to slow down for cattle in the road. But I had little trouble finding a breakfast of eggs, bacon and hash browns with a small side of biscuits & gravy or a decent burger for a later meal, as long as it was before 8 pm. The truck radio could find religious and country stations quite readily but nothing else, yet I surprisingly had phone service on some pretty remote stretches of road.


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