“Voices of Indigenous Artists”: Greg A. Robinson–Chinook Nation

“Voices of Indigenous Artists”: Greg A. Robinson–Chinook Nation


[MUSIC PLAYING] NIKOLYN GARNER: So I’m
here with Greg A. Robinson, a member of the Chinook tribe and
a very accomplished artist, known for his beautiful wood carving. So my first question
about you is, what inspired you to take up carving? GREG A. ROBINSON: Let’s see. Carving– in high school, I did
a lot of graphic artwork, mostly wildlife, and probably
didn’t do carving until I got out of high school. And I was quite the outdoorsman,
so I had my shotguns and things. And I started wanting
to customize my stocks. And so I started doing
some wood carving there, but nothing tribally until after my
construction career, which kept me fairly exhausted most of the time. And so art kind of took a
back burner for 20-some years. And when I took a job as
a tribal liaison project manager for the
Cathlapotle Plankhouse in Ridgefield, Washington, I started
concentrating more on carving, the traditional Chinookan art form. And that’s kind of how I
started and my motivation. NIKOLYN GARNER: Gotcha. So wood carving is,
as you mentioned, a traditional art
form with your tribe. Would you describe your
artwork as more traditional or more contemporary? Or do you do a combination
of both in your artwork? GREG A. ROBINSON: Well, I think
everything that’s made today is contemporary. But I try to stay within
certain boundaries that I’ve created for
myself and within what I call the “art identifiers” for
the form on the Columbia River. And so especially
in my early work, I tried to stay really in line
with traditional-looking work, traditional materials. But as I furthered my
career, I’m finding myself feeling a little more freedom
to explore different materials still more or less within
the art identifying forms for the Columbia River. But I’m feeling a little more
free to combine and experiment. NIKOLYN GARNER: Yeah. So in your own words, what would
you say the role that the artist plays in indigenous culture is? GREG A. ROBINSON: Well, I think
most artists in indigenous country are also teachers. So that’s a pretty major role. I had to hunt down and find
quite a bit of information for me to push forward with the
art form and the carving. And so I’ve accumulated quite a
bit of visual information files. And so you start to
feel a need to share that so that other people
don’t have to struggle so hard to find reference material. NIKOLYN GARNER: Yeah. So it sounds like your role is
also somewhat of an educator. GREG A. ROBINSON:
Yeah, very much so. And pretty much from about
the time I started carving, Craig out chill out and I
started a Lifeways program here for Grand Ronde. Grand Ronde also has a
contingent of Chinookan tribes in their confederation, so
there’s a mutual tie-in there. And yeah, so we’ve been working
pretty much from the Plankhouse days, 2005, 2006, to present-day and
continue to teach weekly for Grand Ronde and intertribal youth– well, intertribal members
within the Portland urban area. NIKOLYN GARNER: That’s
really wonderful. GREG A. ROBINSON: Yeah. NIKOLYN GARNER: So you actually
work in several mediums other than just wood. You also carve in other mediums. And then you also, I’ve noticed,
do some two-dimensional work in painting. So what has led you to
explore other mediums? GREG A. ROBINSON: So along with the
wood carving, I do stone carving. And the motivation behind
that’s both it’s in line– the Chinookan culture did some
of the largest stone carvings north of Mexico. So kind of within that
tradition of large stonework, I’ve done a couple of
stone public art projects out of basalt and granite. And so that’s kind of the reason
I went down the stone working mode and also some
bone, antler, clay to some degree, although I
haven’t done a whole lot in clay, and then recently– well, also, I should mention sheep
horn and then recently painting just in the last three years, I
think, as a way to– the carvings are really rigid and kind of
fine-tuning type of a thing, very precise. And so painting– I just decided at
the first of the year one year, I was going to take a shot
at painting and see where it went, not knowing if it
would take off or not. And so I decided after I
carved all day, at 8 o’clock, that I would just scribble
something or paint something and try to do one a day. And that kind of started that way. And I just kind of
fell into a style. I don’t have any formal
training in painting. But it’s a way to explore our old
stories in the supernatural realm that’s involved with everything to
do with Chinookan culture and just the freedom to just go. And it’s kind of a crazy
world, and some of them look really strange and odd
and unsettling, sometimes. But that was the nature of
that part of our culture. So that’s been fun. And it’s becoming more
successful as a part of my ongoing professional
career in the arts. And I suspect as time
goes by, there may be a little shift towards the
painting over the carving, later in my career. So yeah, I’m enjoying it. It’s been fun. NIKOLYN GARNER: Mm-hmm. Yeah, it seems like they express
different things in different ways. GREG A. ROBINSON:
Yeah, all the color. It’s just wide open,
no restrictions. And you can just paint kind
of from the soul and the heart and just let it go. And if you don’t like it,
you can put black over it and start over again. So yeah, it’s much
freer than carving. NIKOLYN GARNER: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I can see how that would be. GREG A. ROBINSON: Yeah. NIKOLYN GARNER: So how has your
practice changed over time? GREG A. ROBINSON: My practice– NIKOLYN GARNER: Yeah,
your art practice. Or if it hasn’t– GREG A. ROBINSON: Well, I guess it
evolves is probably a better word. So as I got better at
carving, of course, you’re constantly challenging
yourself to do more intricate. So I kind of get fixated on really
small details and real fine lines. And in cedar, that can be
challenging because cedar’s a soft wood, especially red cedar. So I like that part. I like the challenge of trying
to do something with it that is more difficult. And then,
of course, the painting has become a new thing. But also, part of our goal
in teaching and exposing the public to the art is
to make the general public in the Portland area more aware
of the art that’s from this area. And surprisingly, Chinookan art
is still relatively unknown. Most people would see it and not
recognize it as Chinookan art. And so part of our goals
as teachers and artists is to change that and
make people more aware. The Plankhouse that I mentioned
was a good step in that direction, because now it’s become one of
the largest stops for school kids for field trips. NIKOLYN GARNER: Oh,
that’s wonderful. GREG A. ROBINSON: And so
they can come in there, and they can actually get a straight
dose of history that’s accurate. It’s not totem poles
and cultures that have been brought
in over the decades into the vacuum that’s been
left in the Columbia River area from a lack of our art being seen. NIKOLYN GARNER: Mm-hmm. So you feel that the awareness
is raising, in terms of– GREG A. ROBINSON: Yes. So I’m getting more
calls for public art. So that’s a sign. And it’s a slow increase, but
it’s a sign that institutions and corporations or
whoever are beginning to think more about representing
the accurate art for the area. And that’s a real good thing. NIKOLYN GARNER: Yeah, definitely. GREG A. ROBINSON: It has a long
way to go, but we’re getting there. NIKOLYN GARNER: Going
in the right direction? GREG A. ROBINSON: Yeah. NIKOLYN GARNER: Yeah. Will you talk about some of your
public art pieces that you’ve done? Tell us about your favorite one. GREG A. ROBINSON: Favorite– well, I’ll tell you the first
one was a basalt carving along with a bunch of other stonework in
Parkersville Landing in Washington in Camas-Washougal area. I think it’s the port
of Camas-Washougal. There’s an old park there,
Parkersville Landing. And there was a Chinookan town
or village, whatever you want to call it, close by right there. And there was an elderly lady. I cannot remember her name, but it
was a longtime dream of hers to put a Chinookan element in that park. NIKOLYN GARNER: Wonderful. GREG A. ROBINSON: So it
was a project of hers that she had in mind
for a long time. Sam Robinson is my
cousin, my first cousin, and he’s the vice chairman of
the tribe, Chinook Indian Nation. And I believe he was on the
board for the port or something and involved one of the committees. And my name popped up, and
that led to that project. And so that was kind of my
first big public art project. So in a way, that’s a favorite
just because it led me forward. It moved me forward quite
a bit in just learning stone and what was involved in it. And I carved a couple
of pieces of stone that were originally
intended for Multnomah Falls. I don’t know if you went out
to the pedestrian bridge, but there’s a large bronze that’s
attached to the bridge abutment on the OMSI side. And there’s also a
stone column there. That’s one of two, and
originally, that was all supposed to go on Multnomah Falls. And ironically– and this segues
into this whole historic accuracy thing– management changed there just as
we were getting ready to install and put the three pieces together. They got worried about
historic accuracy, which is completely insane
because historically, you can’t get any more historically
accurate than Chinookan presence at that site. That’s a sacred site. Those falls are an important
site for Chinookan peoples. But they are more in the
history of the lodge. That was the history
they were hung up on. So they got worried that
it couldn’t represent– there was a clash, somehow. So long story short, the carvings
were funded by Grand Ronde through the Spirit
Mountain Community Fund. And so they were in their
possession when the falls didn’t want them any longer. And they ended up on the pedestrian
bridge as a donation by Grand Ronde to TriMet. And so I was happy to
see them go to a place where they could be seen,
because Multnomah Falls gets, what, three million visitors a year. And that was a big incentive
for me to do the project there where that much visibility. And so when the project
stalled, I was disappointed. And probably not that many
people see it on the bridge. But all in all, it’s
a good place for them. And I’m happy that they’re there. Those stone pieces
will never go away. They’ll be there for 100,000 years. They may fall over and
get buried in time, but those will stay carved and
recognizable for a very, very long time. NIKOLYN GARNER: Yeah. GREG A. ROBINSON: I like that part
of it and the permanence of it. NIKOLYN GARNER: Yeah, definitely. So talk to me for a
moment about if you can summarize– if it’s possible
to summarize kind of what you tend to want to talk about in your
artwork, what you want to say, to communicate to other
people with your artwork. GREG A. ROBINSON: Well,
probably the simplest thing is just that this
art’s still being done, that the culture didn’t go away. It may have had gaps and pauses
and coughs and splutters. But like a lot of cultures, a lot
of indigenous cultures around that were heavily damaged by post-contact
disease and disruptions, we put the pieces back together. And we’re moving forward. But we’ve always been here, and
we’re not an extinct people. We still exist. We still speak our
language, sing our songs. We have our dances. We go on canoe journey,
and we have a house. And we’re still practicing our
culture on a day-to-day basis. And so my art really is, I
guess if I were to summarize it, a statement to that effect. Look, we’re still here. NIKOLYN GARNER: Yeah. GREG A. ROBINSON: Yeah. NIKOLYN GARNER: Yeah, it’s
a really important thing to remind people of. Yeah. Well, thank you so much for taking
the time today to speak with me. It’s been an honor to get
a chance to talk to you and pick your brain about
your wonderful artwork. GREG A. ROBINSON: Well, thank you. It was a pleasure. [MUSIC PLAYING]

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