To learn more
Renowned Native American artist Lillian Pitt is the June featured artist at the Camas Gallery. The gallery, open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Friday and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays, is located at 408 N.E. Fourth Ave., in downtown Camas.
To learn more about Pitt’s work, visit www.lillianpitt.com.
It was a single moment in time, but the beginning of several moments that would forever alter a woman’s life.
Lillian Pitt was a student at Mount Hood Community College in 1981, earning her dental hygienist degree after her nearly 20-year career working as a highly regarded hair stylist and instructor had come to a halt thanks to multiple back surgeries.
On a whim, the then 37-year-old Pitt decided to take an art class as an elective.
“The first time I held clay, it was love at first touch,” she says. “Nothing gives me more pleasure than to get my hands working in clay.”
The way Pitt speaks about her favorite artistic medium is reminiscent of a lifetime romance.
And indeed it has been a love story: Thirty-five years after taking that elective art class, Pitt is a highly regarded Northwest Native American artist, known for the stories she tells through her intricate pieces.
Primarily a sculptor and mixed media artist, Pitt’s work includes artistic expressions in clay, bronze, wearable art, prints and, most recently, glass.
But clay remains her first love.
“I feel totally at one with the story I want to tell when I tell it in clay. The conflicts, the joys, the sorrows and the awe — all of these feelings can come out when I work with clay,” Pitt says.
Like a majority of creators, she becomes attached to each and every piece she makes, because, she says, each takes on its own unique identity in her life.
“Regardless of the medium, my work directly relates to and honors my ancestors, my people, the environment and the animals,” Pitt explains.
A meeting of ‘creative spirits’
While taking her college art class, Pitt made another choice that would forever alter her life’s course.
“I read in the newspaper that the famous Navajo artist, R.C. Gorman, was coming to Portland and on a whim, brought him some photos of some masks that I had been working on as a part of my class,” she said. On the drive to see Gorman’s exhibition, Pitt recalls feeling nervous and excited.
Plucking up the courage to talk to the “Picasso of American Indian art,” as he was described by The New York Times, was no easy task, especially given Pitt’s reserved personality at the time.
But when the opportunity presented itself, she seized it.
“To my shock and surprise, he wanted to buy two of my pieces,” Pitt recalls. “Our meeting was like magic. He is one of many creative spirits in my journey. From that point on, I was hooked. I was now an artist. I decided to give it a year and see what happened.”
That was 35 years ago. Today, Pitt’s work can be found in personal collections, art galleries and museums all over the Northwest, and in numerous public spaces, including parks, schools and cultural institutions.
She and Gorman remained friends, and he invited her to visit him at his home every year until his death in 2005.
“He was an amazing inspiration to me, and I’ll always be grateful to him for giving me the help and support I needed over all those years,” she said. “Now, I try to return the favor, by teaching as many people as I can about the things that I know, and by helping them along their own paths in whatever ways I can.”
Artwork and history
Pitt’s artwork has been exhibit and reviewed throughout the Pacific Northwest, the country and the world, and she has received numerous awards and distinctions.
This month, Pitt is the featured artist at the Camas Gallery.
Her work can also be seen at the Vancouver Land Bridge, one of the seven Columbia River “confluence” projects, designed by internationally renowned architect Maya Lin.
Pitt’s focus is on creating contemporary works of fine art, which also honor the history and legends of her people. She is a descendent of the Wasco, Yakama and Warm Springs people of the Pacific Northwest.
“Being an ‘Indian’ artist wasn’t necessarily a good thing in the early days,” Pitt says. “And, it’s not necessarily a good thing still to this day. There was, and still is, a lot of baggage to go along with it.”
She continues: “But today I can tell you that I’m proud of who I am and who my people are. We have not disappeared. We’re still here, and we’re still creating.”
Like most artists, Pitt also struggled with the ‘lean years,’ times when she truly didn’t know whether or not she would make rent.
“It has taken patience, perseverance and persistence,” she says. “It’s so challenging when you’re not receiving positive feedback on your work.”
Pitt encourages aspiring artists and others with big goals to be patient, even when it seems like nothing is moving forward.
“You have to be ready to grab opportunity,” she says. “You have to be open to taking a risk.”