Museum of Contemporary Native Arts

Lillian Pitt

By Catherine Mattes

Lillian Pitt is a sculptor and mixed media artist, whose materials include clay, bronze, glass and paper. Born on the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon, she is a descendent of Wasco, Yakama, and Warm Springs people. Her works are exhibited nationally and internationally and she is the recipient of numerous awards and distinctions, including the High Desert Chiles Museum Award for Lifetime Achievement and Governor’s Award for the Arts, Oregon.

Pitt visually interprets her ancestry using tribal narratives and symbols as her foundation. She is particularly attracted to cultural symbols and stories found on petroglyphs from her ancestral lands. Her process is additionally informed by exploring methods and materials from other cultures. She is noted for manipulating and translating traditional mediums such as basketry into contemporary forms.

Pitt’s artistic practice started with clay, which she often morphed into contemporary ceramic masks. Mask-making is not traditional to the Warm Springs and Yakama tribes, yet her masks vividly evoke her cultural sensibilities, and connect her to the ancestors, an important motivator for creating art. Her masks are interpretive portraiture, and raku-fired masks like Spider Woman (1983) are a synthesis of people who have entered Pitts’ life. Spider Woman is multi-layered in medium and meaning, as it also honors women’s kinship and balance.

The tendency to recognize matriarchal roles is a consistent in her work. One of the recurring female images in Pitt’s practice is a legendary figure found on a petroglyph known as “She Who Watches,”or Tsagaglal. Tsagaglal was a female leader who wanted to watch over her people forever, so Coyote the Trickster granted that wish by changing her into a rock. In contemporary times, she is also a witness to land destruction caused by dam construction. Tsagaglal is a symbol of female wisdom, peace and prosperity, and is an important inspiration for Pitt.

Tsagaglal appears on a totemic sculpture that Pitt produced in 2004 for the Ainsworth Greenspace Plaza near a Portland public rail station. Pitt’s bronze sculpture, titled She Who Watches, is topped by a stylized version of Tsagaglal’s head. Her eyes wide open, she vigilantly watches over her people. She Who Watches is flanked by two other totem figures, Salmon and Crow who were created, respectively by indigenous artists Ken MacKintosh and Rick Bartow. Collectively, the three sculptures are called River Spirits and each represents a legendary or sacred being in Indigenous cultures.

Pitt continues to investigate other artistic mediums that translate and evoke her cultural sensibilities. Recently, this has included her production of several large works for the Confluence Project, a multi-site project in Washington and Oregon that stretches along 450 miles of the Columbia River. The designer for all the project sites is Maya Lin and the architect is Johnpaul Jones. Pitt’s welcome gate at the Vancouver Land Bridge features oars with inserts of glass faces of Chinook women, the traditional traders of that region. This work epitomizes Pitt’s practice – collaborating, honoring the ancestors, exploring new mediums, and grounding through matriarchal symbols.