Photographer-filmmaker Matt McCormick once found a scrapbook in a thrift store that documented a 3,200-mile car tour of the Northwest that four Seattle women took in 1958.
Considering it an important piece of memorabilia of a simpler time, McCormick decided to retrace the women's journey, shooting a then-and-now, 70-minute movie and lots of photographs for an exhibit titled, "The Great Northwest." It's the centerpiece of three exhibits at Southern Oregon University's Schneider Museum of Art in Ashland through May 31.
The other two are "Flood.Control," an abstract installation depicting Emigrant Lake and its history by Avantika Bawa, curator and assistant professor of fine arts at Washington State University in Vancouver; and "Visibility Near Zero," an exhibit of found objects by Heidi Schwegler, associate chairwoman of the Master of Fine Arts in Applied Craft + Design, a joint Oregon College of Art and Craft and Pacific Northwest College of Art program.
What: Three exhibitions — Heidi Schwegler's "Visibility Near Zero," Avantika Bawa's "Flood.Control" and Matt McCormick's "The Great Northwest"
When: Through May 31
Where: Schneider Museum of Art on the Southern Oregon University campus, 1250 Siskiyou Blvd., Ashland
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday
Admission: $5 suggested donation
In McCormick's exhibit, wall art integrates pages from the album with beautiful modern photos by the artist, postcards, matchbook covers, menus, receipts, beer labels, even a savings withdrawal slip of $370 each woman took out to pay for the excursion.
The four women — Bev, Berta, Sissie and Clarice — are pictured grinning at their many stops, holding up steelhead they just caught, sitting in their nighties and curlers, drinking beer.
McCormick found many of the bars, cafes and tourist spots where the women stopped on their way to Glacier National Park and back. In the movie, he often shows a 1950s postcard, then moves it out of the frame and you see the same scene today, often jammed with freeway traffic. The movie is silent, except for ambient sound of his trip.
One shot in a cafe shows his table with menu and a ketchup bottle and people chatting by the cash register, out of focus. It puts you there.
"It's so appealing because we're all fascinated by change," says Erika Leppmann, Schneider's executive director. "All four of the women are dead now. ... Someone old enough to have lived in these times would have been a child then, but we all have nostalgia for the '50s and the myth of the West and we are eating it up."
The film has been screened at the Museum of Modern Art and film festivals in Rotterdam, Jerusalem, Montreal, Portland and San Francisco.
The other two exhibits are much more abstract, even puzzling. In Bawa's, visitors walk into what seems an empty room. Walls are blue and there's a narrow catwalk at belt-height along all four walls, then declining into a rock and the floor.
Bawa, a native of India now living in America, created "Flood.Control" after a visit to Ashland looking for the most art-worthy site or thing. She chose Emigrant Lake. The blue is the sky. The catwalk is the sandy soil of the shore, says Leppmann. "It's very spare and people ask if the art isn't hung yet."
In a statement, Bawa says her work reflects the regional, cultural and geographic influences of the time and space she is creating in.
"I am interested in transforming the act of drawing into sculptural gestures that intimately connect to architectural spaces," she writes. "The contrast between the sublime beauty of Emigrant Lake's expanse, its controversial history (on Dead Indian Memorial Road and at the site of the now-submerged town of Klamath Junction) and its location at the boundary of the natural and fabricated are poetically explored."
Schwegler's installation is a collection of "junk materials found in an urban setting, detritus left behind, often manufactured objects discarded, reconfigured and recontextualized, giving it new life," Leppmann says.
Visitors will see a mattress held up on a wall, a wrecked kitchen chair with a brown blob under it, a crushed and repainted colander, an Elmo doll covered with flocking.
"We respond to the narrative here," says Leppmann, "and you'll notice there's a relationship between every object. ... The students love it."
Schwegler writes that her art is a hybrid of conceptual art and craft.
"In reaction to the ubiquity of the disposed commodity now empty of use value, I am interested in making beautiful objects that deal with those private tragedies that make us distressingly aware of our own mortality," she writes.
Bawa and Schwegler spoke at a gala opening of the exhibit April 3. McCormick will visit Ashland in May.
The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.