Western Stories Put Down in Paint

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.''

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.''

But Susan's historical paintings are not simple nostalgia, particularly when coupled with her other works painted in a more symbolic, urgent style.

The narrative historical paintings have a timeless depth and presence to them. By contrast, the contemporary ones confront the viewer with immediate and sometimes troubling images.

In ``Promised Land?,'' a pioneer wagon has angels hovering overhead and a coyote watching warily - symbols of two different religious traditions and the clash of cultures to come. ``Immigrant's Garden'' shows a rose garden and picket fence, beyond which the forest has been clear-cut to the horizon.

A Northwest Indian tradition is that when a woman dies, the bowl in which she prepared the family's food is broken. In ``Broken Bowl,'' a mortar, pestle, and acorn overlay road graders tearing apart a hillside. ``Modern Mandala'' is a large TV satellite dish, typically seen dominating the landscape outside rural Western homes. In ``Landmarks I,'' a raven (an important native-American symbol) ponders a landscape of dying trees, power lines, and railroad tracks - new marks on the land.

With these newer images, says the artist, ``we're retelling the stories, we're updating the stories - putting them in a modern context so we can understand them better.''

``There's not enough serious intellectual dialogue in our culture about how we use the land and what its historic uses were,'' she says. ``There's a kind of fracturing of our families and social structure as there is with the landscape.''

IN approaching her work, Applegate is interested in the physical landscape, but she is ``more inspired and excited when I can infuse imagery and metaphor into the landscapes that personalize the stories that I hold about myself and place - or about the place itself.''

Her own feeling is that ``we've got to find a way to tend our garden with a little more beauty and humility.'' Right now, she adds, ``we're not sustaining ourselves in our new home very well.''

This theme of ``place'' is a recurring one in contemporary writing about the West as it changes in the late 20th century. Wallace Stegner wrote of the need to find ``a society to match the scenery.'' The ethic of place runs through the writings of law professor Charles Wilkinson and historian Patricia Nelson Limerick, both at the University of Colorado. In ``Owning It All'' and ``Hole in the Sky,'' William Kittredge, raised in southern Oregon and now teaching at the University of Montana, expresses profound regret for what his and other families did to the land.

Kittredge also writes that ``without stories, in some very real sense, we do not know who we are, or who we might become.''

In recent years, the history of the American West has gotten a new examination, much of it based on the diaries and journals of women. For the Applegates, Shannon writes, it was ``the family women [who] kept the time.... As surely as certain stitches, they have held the generations together.''

In her paintings out of Oregon territory - as it was then and is now - Susan Applegate is continuing this part of the story.

* `Images of Immigration' will be on display through Jan. 14, 1994, at the Rogue Gallery in Medford, Ore.

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