An artistic journey, 10,000 years in the making

About 10,000 years ago the Columbia River carved a serpentine path through what now is known as the Tri-Cities.

The prehistoric free-flowing river and its surrounding forests would be unfamiliar to people today. The Columbia then was much shallower and faster moving, with small islands and protruding rocks scattered along its route to the sea, making it fairly easy for humans or animals to wade across.

It was during this time that Kennewick Man and other early settlers of the Americas roamed the land as hunters and gatherers. We know that because his bones were discovered along the river's edge in 1996.

Kennewick Man's are among the oldest prehistoric human remains yet found on American soil, and the story continues to fascinate people from all over the world — including artist Rick Feser.

Feser owns a Kennewick-based construction company. He has not only followed the Kennewick Man saga since its discovery, but also spent the past 10 years researching what the habitat of that primitive era was like before letting his artistic imagination soar.

The self-taught artist created a 40-by-70-inch mural painting depicting Kennewick Man fishing along the banks of the Columbia River.

The painting blends Feser's love of nature and wildlife as well as his fascination with history.

Within a stone's throw of the primordial man are bald eagles in flight, brown bears grappling for salmon in the rapids and elk stopping for a drink of cool water. Standing sentinel in the background is the snow-capped Rattlesnake Mountain.

The acrylic painting, which is priced at $10,000, is one of two historically based creations that will be the focal point of Feser's first Tri-City art exhibit at The Gallery on Gage.

The other painting is smaller, 24 by 36 inches, and depicts Kennewick Man and his wife hunting and gathering along the Columbia. The exhibition, which includes about 35 paintings, continues through Sept. 7.

"Some (history purists) might wonder why I have Kennewick Man fully clothed," Feser said. "But in researching the era I learned the climate was very different around here 10,000 years ago. It was cooler, not the heat of the desert as we know today. He would have needed to have warmer clothes."

Feser paints on thin, tempered hardboard, though he occasionally uses the traditional canvas.

"Canvas tends to stretch out of shape and is much heavier to frame," he said. "I've just always preferred the hardwood."

Feser's interest in art began brewing as a youngster, though he never took it seriously until adulthood.

"I grew up on a farm in North Dakota, so there wasn't a whole lot to do," he said.

His schooling took place in a one-room schoolhouse that didn't offer any art classes, either. "But my brother and I were always drawing with crayons and paper," he said.

Even as a teenager there still wasn't a whole lot for a farm kid to do, he said, but the crayons were eventually replaced by colored pencils and paint.

Feser and his wife moved to the Tri-Cities 43 years ago because he had a brother who worked as a carpenter here. That's when he got into the construction business. And although building houses has kept him busy ever since, he never lost his passion for art.

"I've always found the time to paint," he said. "Even more so now that my kids are pretty much running the business."

That leaves him more time to hang out in his south Kennewick home studio, which looks out over the Tri-Cities. The spacious studio is flanked at one end by a bank of large windows.

Feser has a series of ideas brewing in his head about other Kennewick Man paintings that may soon find their way onto a canvas. He also plans to embark on another series of historical and ancient-based paintings involving the Columbia River in the Wenatchee area as well as the Columbia River Gorge.

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