Featured image (above): Erik Sandgren (American, b. 1952), Hat Rock, 2022, acrylic on panel, 11” x 14”

March 15–November 15, 2024

Included with general admission


Few landscapes figure as prominently in the Pacific Northwest consciousness as does the Columbia River and the land along its shores. The waterway is heralded variously for its social, cultural, and historical importance, its economic value, and its visual qualities. The 300 miles between Wallula Gap and the Pacific Ocean represent about one-fourth of the river’s overall length. A portion of that distance may be seen as the cradle of Northwest history.

Indigenous peoples have lived in the Columbia River Valley for millennia. The river and its tributaries informed Indigenous settlement patterns and the Columbia was a major transportation artery. Log canoes once moved east and west along its length. Celilo Falls and environs were home to one of North America’s largest and most important Indigenous trade centers. In addition to the important fishery that was situated there, the residents of The Dalles region served as go-betweens in a trade network that included their coastal neighbors, people from the interior Northwest, and goods that came from the Great Plains and Great Basin. Existing Indigenous transportation and trade routes were generally adopted by 19th-century Euro-American interlopers.

The Columbia River provided a highway for Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery, fur trading companies, and Oregon Trail immigrants. Trading posts and settler towns were often situated near existing Indigenous trading and settlement sites.

The Columbia River is an ever-evolving entity, but it remains a cherished commercial, recreational, and aesthetic resource. An 80-mile stretch extending upriver from the Portland suburbs is protected as the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. The Historic Columbia River Highway passes Crown Point and many notable waterfalls. Multnomah Falls is the most Instagrammed location in Oregon. Hood River, White Salmon, and environs are internationally known for their place in the water sports universe.

This section of river also borders or bisects several distinct American Viticultural Areas, including the Columbia River Gorge AVA, the Columbia Valley AVA, and the Horse Heaven Hills AVA. Regional vineyards and their wine culture provide a new ambiance to an already celebrated area.

The Columbia River: Wallula to the Sea featuring works by Thomas Jefferson Kitts and Erik Sandgren - Maryhill Museum - Columbia Gorge
Erik Sandgren (American, b. 1952), Wallula to the Sea (polyptych), 2023, acrylic on panel, 48” x 96” (48” x 24” each)

Indigenous artists have lived along the Columbia River for generations. Surviving works show mythical and historical figures: animals, humans, and other beings. In all instances, this work was created with materials found near the river and they are a response to origin stories, social structures, and survival needs.

As the Indigenous population was displaced in the 19th century, European and American artists appeared and brought a new aesthetic. Their goal was to capture official and commercial images of the region—all works for distant consumers. Early expeditionary, military, and itinerant artists were followed a half-century later by a host of visiting and local artists that included Cleveland S. Rockwell (American, 1837–1907), Charles “C.C.” McKim (American, 1862–1939), and James Everett Stuart (American, 1852–1941).

Painters of early Columbia River scenes recorded images of vistas for viewing by distant patrons and populaces. Their compositions were generally realistic and frequently romanticized. Many of their works pre-dated the appearance of local photography.

As 20th-century artists traversed the region, they created works reflecting period artistic movements, especially Impressionism and Modernism. By the end of the century, the river was abutted by growing population centers with art schools. Ease of transportation allowed almost universal access by locally trained artists and their colleagues from around the world.

The Columbia River: Wallula to the Sea featuring works by Thomas Jefferson Kitts and Erik Sandgren - Maryhill Museum - Columbia Gorge
John Mix Stanley (American, 1814–1872), Old Fort Walla Walla, 1853, lithograph, Plate XLV from Narrative and Final Report of Explorations for a Route for a Pacific Railroad, Near the Forty-Seventh Parallel of North Latitude, from St. Paul to Puget Sound by Isaac Ingalls Stevens, Vol. 12, Book 1, 8½” x 11½”

The Exhibition

The Columbia River: Wallula to the Sea, featuring works by Thomas Jefferson Kitts and Erik Sandgren contains approximately 70 historic and contemporary paintings and photographs showing Middle and Lower Columbia River landscapes, peoples, ideas, and structures. It also contains select examples of regional material culture by Indigenous artists. The works are drawn from the museum’s permanent collection and borrowed from public collections, private collectors, and local artists. Institutional lenders include the Oregon Historical Society and the Yakima Valley Museum.

The Columbia River: Wallula to the Sea celebrates the active and diverse ways in which humans have interacted with the river, its beauty, and its bounty. As a significant feature in the regional landscape, it is a companion for those who travel east and west between Astoria, Portland, and the mouth of the Snake River, and it is a destination for countless fishermen, water sports aficionados, and outdoor enthusiasts.

The interpretive goal of the display is to provide the public with an opportunity to reflect on the many facets of the river’s identity and to visually chronicle some of the human behaviors that shape its daily life—past and present. Within these parameters, diverse—and sometimes competing—economic enterprises are near the forefront.

Major support for the exhibition was provided by Marie Lamfrom Foundation, Maybelle Clark Macdonald Fund, Firstenburg Foundation, BNSF Railway Foundation, and Traditional Fine Arts Organization.

The Columbia River: Wallula to the Sea featuring works by Thomas Jefferson Kitts and Erik Sandgren - Maryhill Museum - Columbia Gorge
Erik Sandgren (American, b. 1952), Google Server Farm—Last Light The Dalles, 2023, acrylic on panel, 12” x 24”

A related exhibition titled King Salmon: Contemporary Relief Prints appears concurrently in the museum’s Entry Level Changing Exhibitions Gallery. The “king salmon” in the exhibit title refers at once to the Chinook salmon species and the place of salmon in the economies, cultural life, and leisure-time activities of local people.

About the Artists

Two prominent Portland artists, Thomas Jefferson Kitts (b. 1961) and Erik Sandgren (b. 1952), were commissioned by the museum to ensure that representations of critical locations are included in the exhibition.

Thomas Kitts graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute (1984) and returned home to paint in the Pacific Northwest and California. He is an active member of the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association, the California Art Club, the Oil Painters of America, and the American Impressionist Society. He travels extensively, teaches numerous workshops, has an extensive exhibition history, and has completed a variety of high-profile commissions. Thomas’ commercial instructional videos (Streamline Premium Art Video) include Sargent: Technique of a Master (2020) and Sorolla: Painting the Color of Light (2018). Among his other activities, he was 2011 Artist-in-Residence at Portland’s University Club.

Erik Sandgren was born in Corvallis, Oregon, where his father taught at Oregon State University. He studied at Yale University (BA 1975), Cornell University (MFA 1977), and served as a one-man art department at Grays Harbor College in Aberdeen, Washington, from 1989–2018. During sabbaticals, he taught and was artist-in-residence in England, France, and elsewhere. Erik has created numerous public art projects, including work on a 75-foot-long mural for the Port of Grays Harbor’s Commission Room that commemorates a century of marine commerce and the 78-foot-long Nirvana and Aberdeen in downtown Aberdeen (2014).

Both artists are active participants and frequent award winners in Pacific Northwest Plein Air in the Columbia River Gorge—a four-day juried event that features approximately 40 artists from around the country painting en plein air in locations between the Sandy River and John Day Dam and south and north to Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams. At the end of the paint-out, 200 works are shown at Maryhill Museum of Art during a four-week-long exhibition. The 2024 edition of the event is its 19th occurrence, and it has been hosted at the museum since 2016. The event was featured on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Oregon Art Beat in 2017.

The Columbia River: Wallula to the Sea contains Indigenous carving, twined basketry, and beadwork from the Middle Columbia River region. A commissioned Chinook-style carving created by Greg A. Robinson (Chinook, b. 1957) is prominently featured. It shows a Coyote narrative about the river.

The Columbia River: Wallula to the Sea featuring works by Thomas Jefferson Kitts and Erik Sandgren - Maryhill Museum - Columbia Gorge
Greg Robinson (Chinook Nation, b. 1957), Carved panel (Coyote narrative), 2023, yellow cedar, 23” x 32”


The exhibition will be supplemented by a 40-page softcover publication showing the exhibited works with accompanying captions. These will provide biographical data for the featured artists and/or commentary about the pictured locations. Essayists for the descriptions include Thomas Kitts, Erik Sandgren, Hobe Kytr, Mark Humpal (Portland gallerist), and the museum’s Curator of Art, Steve Grafe.

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