PGE teams up with area artists for powerhouse, dam project

by: ISABEL GAUTSCHI - Artists found inspiration every which way they looked off the walkway on top of the North Fork Dam.There’s no indecision after the tour of the North Fork Powerhouse and Dam on the Clackamas River on Wednesday, June 12. The artists know exactly where they want to get started.

Some descend for another look at the powerhouse or to get closer to the dramatic spume of water rushing out of a man-made chute.

Others disperse over the narrow walkway high atop North Fork Dam.

“The entire town of Estacada could be flattened and this thing would still be standing,” PGE Hydro and Wind Safety Coordinator Mike Bender said of the dam during the artists’ tour.

Photographers lean over the thin railing trying to capture the height and depth and the startling view.

Artist Leslie Cheney-Parr, who has a studio in Sandy, sets up near the center of the 207-feet-high walkway and begins sketching and water-coloring right away.

“I think it was wonderful,” she said later.

She’s participated in the PGE Art Jam before, but has lost track of many times.

She said she’s drawn to the scale and history of the hydroelectric projects on the Clackamas River.

Cheney-Parr grew up in Berkeley, Calif., with an engineer father. Because of their proximity to earthquake fault lines, Cheney-Parr grew up noticing and talking about structures.

“I think math and art are one. I think medicine is in there, too. It’s all about balance,” she said.

Artist Nolene Triska was inspired by her descent into the depths of the powerhouse.

Bender had warned those afraid of heights not to go down. One can see through the metal mesh steps, and it’s a long way down (real long).

“The power in the building is tremendous,” Triska said. “There are these tunnels underneath that have these hatches like a submarine and there’s the water swirling behind.”

Triska, whose medium is watercolor, was drawn to the unique lighting and colors in the depths of the powerhouse. And “the power of the water behind the hatches.”

Retired engineer and PGE historian Bob Steele said the art that comes out of these art jams is popular with engineers. Engineers often buy pieces.

“It’s always fascinating seeing what the artists do,” Steele said. “I’m the other side of the brain. (Artists) see things in ways we (engineers) don’t.”

He explained that when an engineer looks at a dam, he or she looks at its functionality. Is it clean? Are there cracks?

Before the tour, Steele had given the artists a brief history of the North Fork hydro project, PGE’s “newest” project on the Clackamas River.

Construction on the hydroelectric plant and dam started in 1956. The project was completed and operational in 1957.

“It’s a very economical use of concrete,” Steele told the artists before their tour. “It’s just functional. There’s nothing fancy about it at all.”

Depends on how you look at it.

Steele pointed out later that where an engineer sees functionality an artist sees shapes, shadows and textures.

“Both sides enjoy that. The engineers get to see a different side and the artists get to see new things.”

Jane Reid, chairwoman of the Estacada Area Arts Commission, got the idea for the Clackamas River hydro project art jams when she heard of a collaboration between PGE and Willamette Falls Heritage Foundation in which groups of artists toured hydroelectric projects on the Willamette River.

Reid said PGE was very receptive when asked to do something similar with artists on the Clackamas River.

This is the fourth year of the Clackamas River hydro project art jams.

PGE gives the artists access to sites that are normally restricted to the public, they provide lunch, and they donate staff time for tours, guides and to go over safety measures with the artists.

Reid said during the introduction to the day that she wanted to “recognize PGE” because “This doesn’t happen everywhere.”

“It’s a neat collaboration between this huge company, the Arts Commission and the town. Clackamas County Arts Alliance helped fund this as well,” Reid said.

Reid is struck by the beauty of “manmade structures juxtaposed against some of the most beautiful, beautiful landscapes and trees, and the river. What it took to build this is amazing.”

She mentioned that inspiration lies everywhere in the area: in the history of the structures, the architecture, the fish.

“I just find it filled with ideas and visual contrast. It’s so much fun to see how the artists see it,” she said.

Reid said her art is “coordinating artists.” She protested that while she writes, works with clay and has acted in the past, she doesn’t do her own art.

“My title is synergist,” she laughed.

“I love the power of art in a community,” she added more seriously.

In September, the artists who toured North Fork hydroelectric project on June 11-12 will have their work displayed in a show that will travel around Clackamas County and PGE’s headquarters at the World Trade Center in downtown Portland.

The show will open with an artist and community reception at the Estacada Public Library on Friday, Sept. 20.

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