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'Ice,' above, illustrates James Lavadour’s layering technique for his paintings. “Blanket,” below, captures 15 landscapes in one group. - Jim Craven

Letting the land speak

He's been called "the most important artist in Oregon, bar none, native or non-native" and after just a minute of looking over James Lavadour's haunting, vibrant paintings, now hanging at Schneider Museum of Art at Southern Oregon University, it's not hard to see why.

Lavadour's work, mostly oil on wood will not leave you neutral or trying to fathom the meaning. Rather, it explodes in your face with color, shape and movement, opening up a new dimension of appreciation for the landscapes of northeast Oregon from which Lavadour, of Walla Walla heritage, draws his artistic energy.

"It's my home," says Lavadour, who grew up on the Umatilla Reservation in the Blue Mountains and still lives there.

"We have a very ancient affection for the land," he says. "It's more than an affection. There's an old saying — 'What would the ground say if it were alive?' It would say 'The Creator put all the water, plants and animals here for our well being' and, if so, we're obligated to take care of the land and do each other no harm."

Lavadour works on many different of paintings at the same time, letting the paint dry (and sometimes run) then coming back and scraping off layers with wood or plastic scrapers or with dried paintbrushes, then applying more layers of paint — a discipline and an immersion in art that deeply intensified when he turned 50, nine years ago, he said in an interview.

Any one of his paintings could stand alone, enrapture you for long minutes and sell (as they do) for many thousands of dollars, but he combines lots of them in groups of nine, 12 or 15 under titles such as "Cache," "Scaffold" or "Blanket."

Lavadour's exhibit takes up most of the Schneider Museum and will hang until Sept. 13. He will present a lecture about his art at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 5, in the Art Building at SOU. A reception for the artist will follow at the Schneider Museum.

Michael Crane, the gallery's new director, says "I like the explosion of his palette and the ideas and perception of the landscape that he's offering up."

Each one of Lavadour's pictures makes you stop and — after you settle down from the bold spilling of color and form — try to pick up on which parts of it are clearly landscape and others which could be read as coming from the soul of the land or the painter or both.

Some of the lines, shapes and colors come from architecture, an area that often occupied Lavadour's brush before his recent emergence as an impressionist. By the way, he rejects such labels, calling himself only "a contemporary painter."

Lavadour had been painting for 30 years before the big shift to his current style.

It was the period when he turned 50 and realized he had to turn it up a notch. He had less time ahead of him than behind him. Instead of being philosophical about it, he dug into the process and began living out what is a huge project for him, he says.

Viewers respond to the color and movement and, says Schneider assistant director Mary Gardiner, "his more recent work could be viewed as work on the internal parts of himself, expressed in his paintings. He is self taught."

A quote card by one set of his paintings reads, "I had been painting before, but not like this"¦Everything that I know and remembered began to cascade before me. I began to paint in an outflowing burst. I was shaken by so much energy. I felt I was in a small house as some giant form — the shadow of a cloud, an eclipse — passed by."

Lavadour founded Crow's Shadow Institute of Art in 1992, which provides resources and opportunities to American Indian artists. Located in the historic St. Andrew's Mission Schoolhouse near Pendleton, it offers residencies and has a print-making studio, computer graphics lab and photo darkroom, as well as a library and private studios. The art and prints of Lavadour and others are available there.

Lavadour has won many awards during his career, including the Governor's Arts Award in 1994.

Reach freelance writer John Darling at jdarling@jeffnet.org

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