A story that starts in the Ice Age and ends at Expo ’74 is a pretty long story.
To divide an ageslong history into chapters, Kay O’Rourke found the stories within the story – the faces, the tensions, the transformations – that stirred her imagination, and that moved her. And she used oil paint and 30 canvases, rather than pages, to tell the tale of the Spokane River gorge.
The result is “The River Remembers,” a series of paintings commissioned by Kendall Yards developer Jim Frank, which is hanging at the Spark Center, the nonprofit learning center at the development. Kendall Yards runs along the river’s north bank in the West Central neighborhood.
Now the paintings have been made into a book, also called “The River Remembers,” to be released tonight.
The 30 paintings tell a Spokane history with the river as a common thread. The story starts after glaciers carved the river gorge into basalt, when mastodons were locals. O’Rourke’s portrayal ends with the world’s fair held along the riverfront.
O’Rourke, of Spokane, spent a year researching and painting. When she found that facts conflicted, she said, her task grew from finding “true” stories to finding their “greater truth.”
“There’s that saying: History gives you facts, but the folk tales or the mythology of a people will give you the sounds, the tastes, the smells,” she said. “They give you something that goes way beyond the facts, which may be a greater sense of truth. That’s what I tried to do.”
O’Rourke has shown her paintings in more than 50 exhibitions in the Northwest and throughout the U.S. She’s won “best of show” and other awards, including a local magazine’s “best local artist” award, voted on by residents.
At this stage in life, she knows what she wants to create. Commissions tend to be about other people’s visions.
So she was prepared to turn down Frank’s commission request. But it turned out, she said, Frank asked her to paint the series because of who she was: a narrative artist, a descendant of pioneers who farmed in Eastern Washington, someone who valued her connection to the land. “He wanted me to be me,” O’Rourke said.
The series’ best paintings portray the stories that moved her the most, O’Rourke said. Chief Garry, of the Spokane Tribe, appears in two: one portrays the theft of his farm, another Indian Canyon, where he lived afterward.
“Circling of Ravens” portrays a chief who had a vision at the top of Mount Spokane: White people were coming. In a subsequent painting about white explorer David Thompson, beavers appear larger than humans.
In the end, the project was a gift, O’Rourke said – partly because it confirmed that, at 72, she’s on the right track as an artist.
She’s been criticized for being “illustrative,” she said. But telling stories gives her the most joy, and it’s what she thinks she’s meant to do.
“The strongest work and the best work you can do is who you are deep inside, from all your experiences and everything that’s part of you,” O’Rourke said. “It might not always make sense. But you have to be true to who you are.”
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