Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

James Lavadour

Mars, 2005 Oil on panel, 54 x 54 inches Courtesy of the Froelick Gallery

Mars, 2005 Oil on panel, 54 x 54 inches Courtesy of the Froelick Gallery

Inspired by the land in and around eastern Oregon’s Umatilla Reservation, painter James Lavadour has created works reflecting the natural order of things in an expressionistic visual language that identifies the human connection to the world around us. The self-educated artist is renowned for his land-based paintings informed by an Indigenous reverence for the earth and a sacred responsibility to maintain it. As a co-founder of Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts, a reservation-based nonprofit organization, Lavadour provides opportunities for other artists and pursues his own vision in printmaking.

Lavadour learned how to paint by simply walking the Blue Mountains between Walla Walla, Washington and Pendleton, Oregon with his father as a young child.[1] Growing up on the reservation near the hills and mountains afforded the artist numerous lessons in seeing the earth as a microcosm of geologic time: “to paint is to know aspects of the land itself.”[2] Painting the land is a natural result of observing it because both forms of knowledge are organic and kinetically dependent on one another by way of human touch. For example, cosmic events in nature like hydrology and erosion present a chronicle of time which can then be mimicked by the action in paint through differing shapes, forms, and colors recorded by the artist’s hand.

Lavadour eschews the idea that he is making traditional landscape paintings as if one could take a snapshot of the scenery and present it as a photograph for the viewer. Instead, he describes his abstract compositions as events shaped by his own bodily movements when out walking on the land. Therefore, the work done in the studio is said to contain personal memories, decisions and experiences that evoke the rocky ridges, peaks, rivers, valleys and waterfalls that shape the Columbia River plateau. The effect is variously created by layering colors, taking paint off with thinner, using stencils for abstract shapes, dripping paint over areas and also assembling the panels into triptychs or checkerboards. The end result is a conscious decision on his part to convey emotions that are inspired and transfigured by a fertile landscape, rather than literal representations of nature.

Lavadour often works on numerous paintings every day and even has some that date back ten years. This highly productive work ethic is the outgrowth of his observations of nature in which things are described as moving at a constant flow and in which one has to do his/her best to keep up with and understand the changes occurring daily. To Lavadour, these physical encounters with the land are internalized and begin to inform the dreams, movements, and feelings articulated structurally with paint. In that sense, one can view Lavadour’s attachment to the land with the process inherent to being a painter because all of the raw elements that constitute an artist’s pigments and oils originate from within the earth. 

[1] Vicki Halper, James Lavadour: Landscapes (Spokane, Washington: Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture; Seattle, Washington: University of Washington Press, 2001), 11.

[2] James Lavadour, telephone interview by author. September 7, 2009.

Additional Resources compiled by students in Contemporary Native American Art History course at the Institute of American Indian Art, Spring 2013

Web-based Resources:

Mejia, Anastasia. Contemporary North American Indigenous Artists: James Lavadour. Phone interview. Spring 2011. Web. <>

Perry, Douglas. The Oregonian Art Review: James Lavadour at Hallie Ford. Oregonian Live. Web. January 30, 2008. <>

Carstens, Rosemary. Southwest Art Magazine: Emerging Artist James Lavadour, Web. March 2009. <>

The Indian Time: Art in the New Millennium is guide of the gallery of where artists’ artwork are located and James Lavadour and other artists were in this exhibition.

Selected Bibliography:

Redcorn, Marla. Indian Time: Art in the New Millennium James Lavadour. May 6, 2000- May 7, 2001. 25 March 2013.

Roberts, Prudence. Northwest Viewpoints: James Lavadour. Portland Art Museum, Oregon, 1990.

Ryan, Chase W. The Betty Bowen Legacy: Fourteen Years of Award-Winning Art. Security Pacific Gallery, Seattle, Washington, 1992.

Archulta, Margaret. Shared Vision: Native American Painters And Sculptors in the 20th Century. The Heard Museum, Phoenix, Arizona, 1991.