Like so many good ideas, the art magazine High Ground was born over a glass of cheap wine.
That’s how Ross Coates recalls it anyway.
The event occurred several years ago, in Los Angeles. Coates, a Washington State University professor of art, was attending the opening reception for an art exhibit. An exhibition of his own had opened just the week before, but this one was for Marilyn Lysohir, Coates’ long-time companion.
So, he recalls, he’s standing there with his glass of wine in hand when a stranger walks right up to him.
“Where are you from?” she asks.
“Well, um, I’m from Pullman,” Coates answers.
“What the hell is going on up there?” she says.
Taken aback, Coates manages to croak out a question of his own, even though “What?” is all he’s able to say.
“Well,” the woman says, “you’re having a show. I just saw your show. This person is from Pullman, and she’s having a show here. And then there was this other guy, he was from Pullman, who had a show last month. And there’s somebody else who’s going to have a show next month, and he’s from Pullman. So, what the hell is going on up there?”
And just that fast, Coates had an insight, a thought that began to crystallize for both him and Lysohir when they returned home and started looking around at what was going on in the Moscow-Pullman region.
“We began to realize that in this whole plateau area, there’s all kinds of good stuff happening,” Coates says.
And almost that fast, the two of them decided that they needed to help get the word out. Which is how High Ground came to be.
Two issues of the art magazine have been published so far, one each in 1995 and ‘96, and a third is on the drawing board (scheduled publication date: August or September). Coates and Lysohir, who act as co-editors/publishers, work with a budget that wouldn’t match a typical magazine’s expense allowance (after printing 600 copies of the ‘96 issue and pricing them at $31 apiece, Coates and Lysohir expect to “break even” if they sell some 450).
Yet while clearly not a money-making project, High Ground does boast a mailing list of about 250. More to the point, it strives to fulfill an aesthetic objective: to be an effective hybrid of form and function.
High Ground may be about art, but it also is art.
“Exactly,” says Coates.
“It’s also about artists writing about art,” Lysohir adds, which is another way of saying that High Ground is about artists working hard to define themselves for anyone willing to listen.
For this and many other reasons, this is no ordinary art journal. High Ground meets its artistic goals by boasting elements of a glossy magazine blended with sections that resemble an imaginatively made children’s book. It introduces artists and explains what they stand for, but it also allows artists to tell their own stories.
It is a record of creative endeavor, and it is a creative endeavor all by itself.
Above all, it affords Coates and Lysohir the opportunity to have some fun, do something important and flex their own artistic imaginations all at the same time.
“The really interesting thing is that it is this weird mixture of journalism, art, sort of documenting and leaving a historical legacy,” Coates says. “So it allows us to wear a whole bunch of hats.”
Both already sport a number of hats.
Lysohir, 46, is a noted ceramic artist who’s earned a measure of fame for her oversized installation pieces, such as a 24-foot-long ceramic battleship that was exhibited at WSU in 1990. She’s working with a Seattle dance troupe on a performance-art piece titled “Tattooed Ladies and the Dinosaurs,” and will be teaching at Ohio State University during winter quarter.
Coates, 64, served as chairman of WSU’s fine arts department for eight years and has been teaching at the school for 20. A native of Ontario, Canada, he also does installation pieces, typically combining drawings and various kinds of found art. A piece he created on hunting was exhibited in Salt Lake City, Texas and Alaska.
Neither Coates nor Lysohir originally planned to put out High Ground by themselves.
“It started with two or three people sitting around, leaning up against a pickup truck, talking about it,” Coates says. “Saying, ‘Oh, that would be cool to do.’ It was like those old Shirley Temple movies, ‘Let’s put on a show. My uncle has a barn.’ Then they all dropped out except for us. And by that time we had already asked people to write.”
When the second issue had come out, people were offering themselves as writers - even though there was no money to pay anybody anything.
Even the staffers. In fact, Lysohir and Coates have sold some of their own art just to raise publication money. That’s how strongly they feel about the magazine.
“We think of it as historically documenting the area that doesn’t get documented in a whole picture,” Lysohir says. “And then this becomes an art object in itself, so that you’re not just buying the information in a kind of magazine book. You’re actually getting a signed piece of art that happens to have writing in it.”
Coates puts it this way: The reigning attitude around WSU, like much of Eastern Washington, used to be one of insecurity, typified by statements such as, “We’re way out in the boonies, we’re not even Seattle, we’re inland, just a lot of dinky towns, a cultural wasteland.”
High Ground is an argument against that mindset.
“I think the thing that has changed over the past 20 years is that there are wonderful things happening here, unbelievable things,” Coates says. “And one of the reasons that we wanted to do this is so that people would have that understanding and not that insecurity.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MEMO: Back copies of High Ground can be purchased at the Cheney Cowles Museum, BookPeople in Moscow and through the mail by writing to: High Ground, P.O. Box 8961, Moscow, ID 83843. High Ground ‘95 is priced at $20, High Ground ‘96 at $31 (add $4 for shipping and handling). Copies of High Ground ‘97 can be reserved by writing to the same address.
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