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Western Stories Put Down in Paint

By / December 21, 1993



WE connect with our past, and also with our sense of home and place, through stories. Stories of courage and accomplishment, stories of loss and sorrow. They help us understand; they give us hope; and they foster a sense of family and community. They are, as essayist Elizabeth Hardwick once said about the passion for reading, ``a moral illumination.''

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When the great migrant wave began moving out to Oregon from the Midwest 150 years ago, settlers took hundreds of thousands of stories with them, and they began many more. The Oregon-Trail pioneers also altered the stories that native Americans had begun here more than 10,000 years before.

Especially in this age of mobility and tenuous human connections, it is important to safeguard those stories - to remember that storytelling is part of who we are - and to reinterpret them from time to time in light of what has happened since.

This is the work of painter Susan Applegate, a descendant of one of the first families - a large clan, really - to head out from Independence, Mo., for the Oregon Territory. A collection of Applegate's work, ``Images of Immigration,'' is now on display at the Rogue Gallery in Medford, Ore., a town along a trail blazed by her great-great uncles in 1846.

These two dozen works reflect both an appreciation of what the settlers achieved in order to make a home under trying circumstances and a sorrow over what their success has meant for the land and for those who were pushed off that land - left homeless - as a result.

And for those who know and love the landscape and history of the American West, there is much to think about here as the region enters a new era in which traditional ways of life once more are being challenged.

Using what she calls ``the lore and symbolism of the family,'' Applegate portrays her pioneer ancestors as traveling by ox wagon. When part of the family moves on to a different place in Oregon, a young boy sits crying. In ``The Last Apple of Winter,'' to me the most haunting work in the exhibit, pioneer woman Melinda Applegate is shown with four of her grandchildren gathering wild herbs by a leafless apple tree.

THE three Applegate patriarchs - Charles, Lindsay, and Jesse - are shown meeting for the first time with the Yoncalla tribal headman they called ``Halo Fearn.'' (When they asked him his name, he had replied in Chinook jargon that he was ``halo,'' or ``destitute.'' The name stuck.)

The Applegates were known for treating their Indian neighbors well. Chief Halo welcomed them because they were ``skookum'' - powerful and well-armed enough to provide protection from slave-raiding tribes. In ``Old Friends,'' Susan pictures Charles Applegate and the chief as old men shucking corn together.

Several years ago, Shannon Applegate (Susan's cousin and close friend) published ``Skoo- kum: An Oregon Pioneer Family's History and Lore.'' It is a highly personal work, based on journals, diaries, correspondence, and conversations with her elders. Several of Susan's paintings are used as illustrations. ``Susan and I share a quality that is more easily felt than described,'' Shannon writes. ``For years each of us has sensed `a part of self' that has wandered, almost as though lost, in the labyrinth of family.''