Interviewing a Place

Flowing more than 1,200 miles from the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia through Washington and Oregon to the Pacific Ocean, the Columbia River system houses more than 400 dams and is directly or indirectly responsible for nearly 80% of the electricity supplied to the Pacific Northwest.

Elise Richman, professor of art and art historyFor hundreds of thousands of people, it is a source of industry, sustenance, livelihood, and recreation. For painter and Professor of Art and Art History Elise Richman, it is also a source of inspiration.

Richman’s current project—and the topic of the upcoming John D. Regester faculty lecture, which she’ll deliver Nov. 12—is titled “Beneath Stilled Waters: Representing Columbia Basin Water Issues.” The project includes paintings of numerous sites of sustained environmental debate. Richman has spent months visiting and learning about the locations and their histories and issues, including current and past decisions that determine which communities have water rights and how the sites may be used by local tribes, governments, or corporations.

For the introspective and process-driven artist, “Beneath Stilled Waters” is a meditation on procedure and decision-making as much as it is a study of the Pacific Northwest landscape. “I’m drawing a parallel between natural processes, policy processes, and the creative process,” Richman says. “I see it, almost, like interviewing a place. I go there. I look around. I paint or draw while I’m there to try to get to know it better. And then I come back to the studio, and I learn about what’s happening there. Then I make a painting that evolves over time.”

With this series, Richman breaks from the abstract work that has been her focus the last two decades and embraces a style that means viewers may well recognize the places in her paintings. “I wanted to connect more with particular places in our region,” she says. It was also a chance for her to be more interdisciplinary in her work, creating pieces more directly informed than usual by history, science, and policy. “I wanted to be able to communicate on behalf of places a little more directly.”

Richman’s work on the series is ongoing. “I’m really interested in how conversations and relationships amongst people affect places,” she says. “They are inscribed and embodied in these sites, in the flow of the rivers, whether the rivers are flowing or not, how much they’re flowing. It’s a conversation about the natural environment and human intervention, and how they are in dialogue or debate with each other.”

“Beneath Stilled Waters: Representing Columbia Basin Water Issues” will be held virtually on Thursday, Nov. 12, at 7 p.m. It is free and open to the public. For details, visit the event listing on the university events calendar.

See Richman’s “Eight Mile” from “Beneath Stilled Waters” in process:

The John D. Regester Lecture series was established in 1965 to honor John Regester, who joined the Puget Sound faculty in 1924. The address is given by a member of the university who exemplifies the qualities of scholarship and intellectual integrity that professors and students have long associated with Regester, who taught philosophy and served as dean of the university and graduate school.


By Sarah Stall
Photos courtesy of Elise Richman
Published Nov. 8, 2020