Schnitzer family announces $1 million gift for her final public art site on the Columbia River

Maya Lin's proposed 'Celilo Arc' includes an elevated wooden walkway that projects over the Columbia River. Lin says the design is inspired by the wooden fishing platforms that once jutted over Celilo Falls.Maya Lin has come a long way since 1981, when as a senior at Yale University, she submitted the winning design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

She came to Portland on Friday to talk about her most expansive projects yet.

One is the Confluence Project, which spans 438 miles of the Columbia River from its mouth at the Pacific Ocean east to Hells Canyon. Five public art sites in Oregon and Washington are or nearly complete.

The sixth site will be at Celilo Park, 13 miles east of The Dalles, and is scheduled for completion in 2017. The Schnitzer family announced a $1 million gift for it just before Lin spoke at the Friday Forum of the City Club of Portland.

It’s the largest public art project in the United States.

"I am fixated on water and rivers," she said at a City Club of Portland luncheon.

Lin says the Confluence Project goes beyond the six public art sites to interweave the natural and tribal stories of the Columbia River with the descriptions from the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition two centuries ago.

She calls that interaction, which will be done through an education program, the seventh site.

The “Celilo Arc” centerpiece, still in the design stages, will be an elevated wooden walkway that projects over the now-calm river. Lin says the design is inspired by the wooden fishing platforms that once jutted over the falls.

The Celilo Park site also will have an interpretive pavilion and online interpretive center, a redesigned landscape, a parking lot and railroad crossing.

Lin’s other major undertaking is “What Is Missing,” a virtual project that calls public attention to vanishing species and habitats — but also will offer practical suggestions that people can follow to reverse those trends.

While they have differences, Lin says, they also have similarities.

“They are fairly complex projects, in full (public) view, in time,” she says.

“I write things down, develop it as a whole, and then pin things down. But they all talk to one another.”

Celilo Park

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: PETER WONG - Artist Maya Lin came to the City Club of Portland Nov. 21 to discuss her work on the Confluence Project, which spans 438 miles of the Columbia River from its mouth at the Pacific Ocean east to Hells Canyon.When U.S. explorer William Clark wrote in 1805 that “the multitude of this fish is almost inconceivable,” he could have been writing about Celilo Falls, which had been a prime fishing spot for tribes on the Columbia River. Their settlements dated back 15,000 years, and Clark and co-leader Meriwether Lewis noted their presence in the expedition’s journals.

The spot disappeared, however, in 1957 when the Army Corps of Engineers completed The Dalles Dam — two miles east of the city — and the resulting backwaters submerged the falls and drowned the village of Celilo.

While the site was a natural for the Confluence Project, which Lin agreed to take on at the invitation of the tribes along the Columbia, they were initially reluctant.

“They said please don’t touch it; it might be seven generations before we can face it,” Lin recalls.

Five years later, after Lin had completed public art work at three other sites along the Columbia as part of the Confluence Project, the tribes invited her to take another look at the former Celilo Falls.

“The fact that we could have a conversation is part of what the Confluence Project stands for,” she says. “Sometimes it is not the physical building that counts. It’s about the ideas, dialogue and discussion that has taken place.”

After her City Club remarks, Lin told reporters:

“It is not just a symbol. It is still one of the sacred spaces to the tribes. They know it’s still there under the water. When we studied this, there was a lot of concern that it has been dynamited — but it’s still there.”

In 2008, sonar readings by the Army Corps of Engineers showed that the falls remain intact below the artificial Celilo Lake created by The Dalles Dam.

Lining up funding

Friday’s announcement of the $1 million gift to the Celilo Park site by Arlene Schnitzer in honor of her son, Jordan, was made by Thomas Lauderdale, leader of the Portland-based band Pink Martini. The gift is also in his honor.

“The Confluence Project tells this story and our family wants to help support this project so that other families will understand our heritage for generations to come,” Jordan Schnitzer said in a statement.

The gift is in addition to commitments of $500,000 from the Meyer Memorial Trust, $250,000 each from the Ford Family Foundation and the Collins Foundation, and $150,000 from the Oregon Community Foundation.

The Oregon Legislature has approved $1.5 million, and the federal government, $3.7 million.

The project is still seeking $1.1 million in private donations and $1 million in foundation donations for the $11.4 million goal, which includes support for a continuing education program.

Other public art sites in the Confluence Project are complete, or nearly so:

• Cape Disappointment State Park, Ilwaco, Wash., 2006.

• Fort Vancouver land bridge, Vancouver, Wash., 2008.

• Sandy River Delta forest ecosystem, Troutdale, 2008.

• Sacajawea State Park at the confluence of the Columbia and Snake rivers, Pasco, Wash., 2010.

• Chief Timothy Park on the Snake River, Clarkson, Wash., 2015.

Memory, not memorial

At the Friday Forum, Lin did not go into detail about her best known works — the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, two black granite walls that converge as a “V” on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and the Civil Rights Memorial at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. Both were completed in the 1980s.

She talked about more recent work, such as the Langston Hughes Library in Clinton, Tenn.; the Museum of Chinese in America in New York’s Chinatown, and Wave Field, a series of mounds that she has done in three places. The largest is an 11-acre installation at Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, N.Y.

But she says in all her works, art should portray not just what was or is, but what could be.

“To me, none of these memorials has been about loss,” she says.

“These are ‘memory’ memorials. We learn from history — and if we do not accurately remember our past, we cannot learn from it in order to proceed to our future.

“So none of my projects — whether it’s the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Civil Rights Memorial, Confluence Project or What Is Missing? — is chosen with just the old idea about what a memorial is. To me, that (old idea) is that it’s done and we can’t change it. It’s really about how we can affect and change the future.”

Her latest work

At 55, Lin describes herself as a designer, rather than an artist or architect.

Aside from the Confluence Project, her most ambitious project is not a single work but a multimedia, multiple-place “What Is Missing?” A series of video and audio recordings tell about the disappearance of species and their habitats at a pace that has accelerated in recent years.

Some of those videos were put on display in New York’s Times Square in 2010.

Lin says the project is still evolving, and while she describes it as “my last memorial,” it is not intended to spread a message of doom.

“Nature is resilient,” she says. “If we give it a chance, it can and does come back. But we are moving so rapidly that we are not giving nature a chance.”

New segments will be in the form of “greenprint,” which will offer practical suggestions for people to carry out to improve the environment.

“What can art do? Art can imagine a different future,” Lin says. “Sometimes I just think we need to imagine it, and then we can achieve it. People feel they are a little helpless and nothing they can do will make a difference. But that’s not what it is.”

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