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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Celebrating Ric: Sinxit artist Ric Gendron, facing some health struggles, is the subject of a new book

By Audrey Overstreet For The Spokesman-Review

On a recent morning, artist Ric Gendron was perched, legs crossed, on the edge of his twin bed at the North Central Care Center in Spokane. Dressed in a green T-shirt and moccasins, his flowing gray hair curling below his shoulders, the ferocious Native American painter with the rock ’n’ roll attitude still had his trademark swagger.

“Did you just say my shoes were ‘cute?’ ” the 68-year-old Gendron growled. “I’m taking them off.”

Keeping his humor intact is a minor miracle for Gendron (pronounced ZHAN-DROH), especially after 10 weeks of recuperating from surgery at a local rehab center. He has missed living the way he likes – painting on large canvases instead of the small ones that fit on his hospital bed, eating hot breakfasts, and doing “sweats” at the lodge with his friends. But his frail body, and a brush with death last February, has forced him to grapple with a host of gnarly health issues, including kidney failure and cancer.

Despite the severe health setbacks, Gendron looked lively in his cramped room at the care center where he waited for medical tests. For two hours, he juggled calls from two of his grown daughters, shot the breeze with three drop-by visitors, and endured constant interruptions from nursing staff. Surrounding his crisply made hospital bed were a few possessions brought in to pass the time: his electric guitar he plays like a pro, books by Edgar Allen Poe and the Beat poets, and a stash of National Geographic magazines.

“When people started bringing me plants I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ ” Gendron asked in feigned irritation. “Do I live here now?”

Two of the visitors seated in industrial chairs at the foot of Gendron’s bed were old buddies from two sweat lodges Gendron regularly attended before his illness – Don Hurst and Anthony Whiteclay. The bonds between Gendron and the men who “sweat” with him is palpable, even in a setting as surreal as an antiseptic hospital room. The men’s brotherhood is unstated, but strong, like that of fellow time travelers who have witnessed other worlds, or ancient explorers who climbed into the abyss and managed to make it back safely.

“Ric used to pick me up and bring me down to the sweat lodge at the (VA medical center’s campus),” Whiteclay said. “I was in the middle of a pivotal point for me in my life, and I credit where I am and the accomplishments that I’ve made in life to the sweat.”

How fitting that “KWILSTIN (Sweat Lodge)” is the Salish name of a new book about Gendron that was released Friday at the Marmot Art Space in Kendall Yards. Gallery curator Marshall E. Peterson Jr. wrote and arranged the book – a dynamic compilation of Gendron’s rich works – with an urgency borne out of concern. Worries about Gendron’s recent health crises lit a fire under Peterson to finish the book, to celebrate Gendron, and to remind people of the significant body of work that this contemporary Inland Northwest artist continues to contribute to the world.

Gendron, who lived in Spokane for more than 20 years, moved back to where his family is from on the Colville Reservation seven years ago. He is a member of the Sinixt Band of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, and the Umatilla Tribe of Oregon. He has enjoyed many accolades over the past three decades for his colorful, contemporary painting style dealing with deeply personal subject matter. His “Indian Boarding School Series” of paintings shown at Whitworth University in 2002 was a pivotal point in his career; the painting depicting a Native child having their braids cut off by a priest was explosive.

His first book, “Rattlebone,” by former Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture curator Ben Mitchell, was turned into a traveling exhibition in 2013, which was featured at the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner, Washington, and at the Museum of Contemporary Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, among other locations. He was awarded an arts residency at the Institute of American Indian Art in 2019. His murals are sprinkled throughout the region and beyond, from his larger-than-life musicians brightening the side of the Ruby Hotel in downtown Spokane, to the deeply meaningful and historical figures from the Sinixt Nation that he installed in 2021 in Revelstoke, British Columbia.

Among the postcards and pictures by the grandkids, hanging in Gendron’s care center room is a hand-beaded medallion that he picked up and showed to his other “sweat” guest, Hurst, who was obviously touched. Hurst, who is not a tribe member, but works and lives on the Colville Reservation, made the medallion necklace a couple of years ago as a gift to Gendron. On it is an image of a face lifted from one of Gendron’s paintings of a sweat lodge ceremony. The large painting, done in vivid oranges, greens and purples, depicts five naked men inside a sweat lodge holding drums, baring their teeth as they chant, with fire and lightning exploding from their heads. The sweat lodge dome itself is under a blanket of stars giving off bolts of energy, spirits or visions. The head of a nearby raven, found in many of Gendron’s paintings (and even tattooed on his actual body), also has fire coming out of its head.

“I sweat with Ric, and when I saw that painting, I was like, ‘Wow!’ It hit me over the head with a baseball bat. This is what Ric sees,” Hurst said. “It’s really hot in the sweat lodge, figuratively and literally, and it feels like there’s actual lightning coming out of your head.”

“The sweat” is an extremely important, private and sacred ceremony for Native American people. The dome structure is heated with a wood fire and water is poured onto hot rocks to ratchet up the heat. All participants help with the work of the wood chopping, fire-making, and preparations. Elders lead the ceremony, which may include singing and drumming. The session lasts for hours and for several rounds. The lodge can get so dark inside that participants can no longer see their hands in front of their faces. The heat and the darkness can lead to deep introspection, inner journeys, hallucinations, visions and/or spiritual connections. The sweat can purify. The sweat can heal.

Gendron traveled to the Colville Reservation to attend his first sweat in 10 weeks last Sunday afternoon. He said it wiped him out, but he was glad to do a sweat with his community again after so long away.

“(The sweat) was brutal. And beautiful,” Hurst said.

Just like Gendron’s art.

Last June, Gendron unveiled a commissioned mural in downtown Nelson, British Columbia, that included images of sweat lodges. He provided a statement for the dedication, which may help in interpreting symbols found in Gendron’s other works: “I’ve been attending sweat lodges for going on 54 years. Wherever I go, I always look for a sweat lodge. Then we have the figures within the sweat lodges. The centre of the universe is sńḱlip, Coyote. The Creator showed the sweat lodge to Coyote, and Coyote is the one that brought it to people. And so, he’s always in the centre. To the left of him, there’s two figures in that sweat lodge that represent the sky world. The two ravens are something that’s very personal to me. I even wear the tattoos and things like that. The sweat lodge on the right is very abstract, it almost looks South-Western but actually, it’s not, it represents the pictographs that are found all along the Columbia River, from up here, all the way down to the Pacific Ocean. The ones that I’ve seen are very stoic and stiff, they stand straight up, but I decided that I wanted to make these livelier and have them dancing, like they are celebrating, so I added a little movement in there … And then, everything comes from Earth, so that’s the vegetation, the plants, that run all along the bottom.”

In the forward of the book “KWILSTIN (SWEAT LODGE),” Peterson explained that he wants the publication’s release to provoke a new round of exhibitions at museums, especially outside the Inland Northwest.

“I hope this book inspires Ric’s fans to share his work with their friends so that more people find out about Ric before his time is up on Planet Earth,” Peterson wrote.

Perhaps to his own detriment, self-promotion has never been Gendron’s forte. He just wants to paint. He noted that the book was all Peterson’s idea.

“The doctors told me I had two days to live, so when Marshall asked me about it, I just said ‘Get it out. I’m just trying to survive,’ ” Gendron said. “I did tell him there were too many pictures of me in there.

“Hopefully, he took them out.”