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Shawn Vestal: An artist you probably know – even if you don’t know him – could use your help

Artist Ric Gendron at work in his studio in Peaceful Valley on May 6, 2013. Gendron’s home in Elmer City, Washington, was destroyed by fire in September 2018. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

I don’t know Ric Gendron at all. You may not either.

But in a vivid way, we know him through his gift to us – his paintings.

Their bright palettes. Their bold color. Their use of tribal iconography and history, and their rock ‘n’ roll spirit. Their rage and humor. Their storytelling. You might know his work from lots of different places, but it stands perhaps most prominently on the side of the Hotel Ruby on Lincoln Street, four 30-foot paintings of musicians, now a dominant visual signature of downtown Spokane.

Gendron’s paintings are not inexpensive, nor should they be. But if you’ve ever wanted to buy one, there’s never been a better time: Gendron lost his home and belongings in a fire in Elmer City, Washington, last week.

A lot of people have offered assistance, and a couple of accounts have been set up to gather donations. But, as his friend and Marmot Art Space owner Marshall Peterson puts it, there’s no better way to help artists – if you can – than to buy their art.

“It’s tough to make it in the visual arts,” Peterson said. “The best way to respect him is to purchase his work.”

Peterson has more than a dozen Gendron paintings for sale at Marmot Art Space. Several of them are larger canvasses that go for thousands of dollars, but there are smaller works, too. Peterson held an event for Gendron last week, and is planning another Oct. 27, with plans to offer a larger number of smaller works.

Gendron is a dual-enrolled member of the Umatilla and Colville tribes who grew up in Grand Coulee. His touring exhibit, “Rattlebone,” was hosted in museums around the West in 2012, and then made into a book – which greatly expanded his profile in the region after more than two decades of making art.

“I think Ric’s one of the seminal, most important artists of this generation in the wider region,” said Ben Mitchell, a former curator at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture who helped put the “Rattlebone” tour and book together.

Gendron did not want to be interviewed about the fire, but posted a statement on Facebook recently.

“Things happen for a reason I believe,” he wrote. “Most of you know I am a solitary person so it’s a little embarrassing to be drawing this much attention. I am going to be OK. … Let’s all take a deep breath and enjoy life.”

On Oct. 2, Gendron’s home was one of four destroyed in a fire at the Grandview Village Mobile Home Park. He lost nearly everything, friends have reported on social media – artworks and supplies, a large record collection, guitars, photographs, and, crucially, a place to work.

Like Mel McCuddin and Ruben Trejo, artists who gained a wider acclaim while remaining in Spokane, Gendron’s work announces itself immediately through its style – you don’t mistake him for someone else and you don’t wonder whose it is.

His use of color is dramatic and sometime surreal. His images of Native Americans and animals, of landscapes and menacing local cops, are rendered with energy and boldness.

“Ric is a supreme colorist,” Mitchell said. “He has a sense of freedom … in his use of color. It can be so wild and adventurous and brave.”

Mitchell also admires Gendron’s righteous anger – his frank and unapologetic rendering of the realities of the historical and present-day racism Native Americans experience.

Gendron once said, in a 2015 profile in the Inlander, that he knew his work sometimes made people uncomfortable.

“That’s their problem,” he said. “I never apologize.”

In one of Gendron’s most powerful works, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” a priest prepares to scissor off the braids of a Native student. There’s a lot of the Gendron style and power in that painting: It’s a realistic scene, a powerfully true and deep story told in an image of startling simplicity, but Gendron adds touches of perhaps unexpected color, suffusing the student’s hair and braids with a cornflower blue, shading the priest’s fingers in lilac.

For me, that color is everything – it tips the image off the horizon of realism, and threads a line of melancholy beauty through the moment. It reveals the hand of the maker distinctly.

There’s something else important about that painting: No one seems to know where it is. It’s one of four paintings in a series based on the Catholic boarding school experiences of Native children – experiences that Gendron’s parents went through firsthand, Mitchell said. A digital image of the painting still exists, and you can see it online and in the “Rattlebone” book, but the actual paintings are missing.

Years back, a call was put out in The Spokesman-Review to try and locate some of the paintings. No one responded.

It’s just one story in the long life of an artist, one that naturally includes disappointments. He’s had them before – a long-planned MAC exhibit was abruptly canceled a few months before opening when Mitchell was laid off in 2011. And he’s come back from them before – following that cancellation, he and Mitchell put together “Rattlebone.”

He came back then and there’s no reason to think he won’t again. But if you feel like helping him – helping to keep one of our most vital artists making some of our most vital art – now would be an excellent time to do so.

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