Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands: An Artist’s Dream

Richard Brandt grew up in Oregon and has long been deeply connected to its wild places. He’s been making art for over 50 years as a way to more deeply understand his love of nature. He credits the Owyhee Canyonlands as being one of the most profound realms of beauty and deep wells of spiritual solace and inspiration he’s ever had the privilege to explore – one he’s been sharing with his art students at Portland Community College for over 15 years. Photos courtesy Richard Brandt.

Richard Brandt works at his wheel.As the hot desert wind raced by me in a steep, unnamed draw in the Owyhee, my mind ached for shade, my throat demanded more water and my brain just kept kicking around the same tired, annoying thought: It. Is. So. Damn. Hot.

And then like the cool balm of aloe on a sunburn, I heard it. A musical, descending cascade of liquid notes. The Canyon Wren. And my mind and body exhaled. As an artist and teacher, I’ve spent a lifetime exploring eastern Oregon and the Owyhee Canyonlands. Experiences like the one with the Canyon Wren are always unexpected – and continually inspire my work and renew my spirit. One of the things that draws me here is the amazing depth of the silence. The silence is so complete sometimes that it’s like a presence that surrounds you. Then when the Canyon Wren calls it almost appears in the air giving a new  dimension to the space. Like a color that’s swallowed back up by the silence before it becomes visible.

Owyhee colors & shapes are highlighted in Richard Brandt's work.This is a place where creative musing and inventive opportunity abound. From its otherworldly color palette of oranges, pinks, greens and browns to the unique flora and fauna (over 28 species are found nowhere else on Earth!), hidden canyons and precious rivers, to its rich cultural history and mysterious petroglyphs, to the profound solitude and enduring quiet in which you can truly observe and connect with the wonders of the world around you…this place is truly an artist’s dream.

Indeed, fellow professional and aspiring artists have used a variety of mediums in an effort to capture the essence of this place: silk screening, painting, sketching, poetry, photography and videography to name a few. For me, it’s been ceramics, photography, and video.

As a ceramicist I work to understand the forces of my body and of heat on clay and the raw materials of the Earth. I push, slice, cut and fold the clay in a way that, perhaps, mirrors geologic forces forming our planet. Sometimes I am so inspired by an arrangement of giant boulders or the wind worn caves pocking a cliff face that I try to replicate them in my work. Not just the textures and design of them but also the powerful line and kinetic energy which created them. My best work is done when I feel I have lived the forces of the place while making my pieces. This is absolutely experiential. Without this specific place to interact with my work would be nothing…could not be made…because it comes through my interaction with the place not my imagination. What I do is not mine. It is co-created. The Owyhee is my collaborator. With it’s rare living spectrum of colors, aromas, sounds, and vibrations it is an essential being in my creative process.

The Owyhee light is often the main feature in my work. Sometimes the sunlight crashes down like a solid block vanquishing all shadow. But sometimes it skiffs pastel glances down the canyon walls while the last rays of sunset catch in the yellow tips of rabbitbrush - in this video it is a kaleidoscopic dance of water, rock and wind.

This piece highlights deep, earthen colors.My students have also found this same powerful quality of silent beauty here. They’ve also found quite individualized “lessons” for themselves reflected in their experiences of this place. Each recognizing an aspect to their own unique creative process that they needed and value. I tell them, “The limitless vastness of the desert sky is like the true nature of your mind. To be in the desert is to taste, in reality, the fertile ground for truly original ideas.”

Places like the Owyhee are rare. They’re spiritual. They’re sacred. They speak to our souls in ways that can’t be fully expressed in words, paint or film. And yet, we try. Because we can’t afford to lose places like this. Because by attempting to capture and share some small part of the wonder of this place, we may get one more person to fall in love with it, cherish it and ultimately, want to ensure it stays just the way that is: Free, wild and awe-inspiring.

Yes, we need the Owyhee. But the Owyhee also needs us. Its wild lands, waters and wildlife need voices to speak up and protect them from mining and oil and gas development; from pollution, noise and fragmentation; from destruction. So as an artist indelibly touched by the Owyhee and a teacher of future generations, I urge my fellow community members and Oregonians to join me in the effort to get this place the protection it has so long deserved. The Owyhee’s inspiration is abundant, timeless, endless – so long as it is protected by the people who care for and are inspired by this special part of Oregon. People like me.