Colour and Music
Ric Gendron, Nespelem Valley, Colville Reservation, Washington, USA
The rain is hitting the skylight above my head. It's been raining all day. It's been raining for weeks. It rained the whole time that Ric was here painting. Tarps were pulled taught over the roof of the building to create a fort to paint under. Bathed in blue light, listening to watery fingers tapping out beats above us, we set to work on his 90' mural.
Ric Gendron is a local legend in the Spokane area art scene. He's also an internationally exhibited artist. He's been painting for the last thirty years, and literally nothing stops him. Not rain, not wind, not fire, not even broken bones. My little mountain town of Nelson, BC is lucky to have a mural by him. I was even luckier to have been asked to be one of his assistants for the six days he had to start and finish the piece.
Gendron is a member of the Arrow Lakes Band of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Northeastern Washington and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla in Oregon. This is important for my town, because his mural is the first Sinixt mural here, a vibrant mountain town built on traditional Sinixt territory. There is a much larger story behind the Sinixt peoples, including the Canadian Government declaring them extinct in 1956. I'll link to some articles on that below.
Known for wild colour combinations and an expressive and painterly style, Ric's work is bold but fluid. He doesn't let anything restrict him – not staying with certain imagery or style, nor societal influence. People would walk by everyday and suggest what he should paint, and Ric would smile and nod and say, “Nah.” He always paints for himself. He's also a rule-breaker in his own right, like the canon artists Picasso, Van Gogh, and Matisse that he's inspired by. They all learned from the greats before them, and then did whatever they wanted to. Similarly, Ric is drawn to Native artists who denied being enclosed into traditional 'Cowboy' and 'Western' art themes like Fritz Scholder and TC Cannon. He dialogues with their use of rich colour fields and pattern use, but he's also made them his own. Recently Ric has started painting imagery that speaks to the altered landscapes found inside the experiences of sweat lodges. He's been told he shouldn't do this either - told this by his own people. Sweats were part of the Native way of life that was outlawed until the 1970s, and there is still a lot for his people to unravel around them. Sweats have been a big part of Ric's life for over fifty years now though, and his depictions of them might end up being his biggest contribution to art history.
Music history is another strong element of Gendron’s creative process. Blues, psychedelic rock, jazz, and traditional Native Music. Playing through the boombox that Ric brought with him across the border, the music was always on. Great cultural engineers like David Bowie, John Lee Hooker, and John Trudell took turns filling the sonic atmosphere around us. Ric shared that he was also a musician. He used to play guitar in a band. Now he focuses on painting, but the music is still there – woven in the feelings and energy that emanate from his work. He’s also well known for painting expressive portraits of musicians. Some, in Spokane, are thirty feet high.
The music helps to guide the work. A process painter to his core, Ric lets the painting and the music orient him on a journey. He says he's always surprised by how his paintings turn out. He loves the mystery and the unforeseen outcomes. He's not one to decide what a painting will look like before he begins. I wondered if his experience in sweat lodges gave him this level of confidence and trust, or if he's always had it. Either way it was incredibly refreshing to be around an artist so solid in their practice.
The Mural on Hall Street in Nelson contrasts the bright daylight landscape of Ric's home - the drier portion of the Columbia Valley - with three sweat lodge spaces. The dark semi-circles hold supernatural creatures; humans figures with animal heads and dancing pictographs. Each lodge contains its own special medicine. The lodge on the left has two Raven-headed drummers. Ideas and electricity are connecting their minds and spirits. Ravens have a personal meaning for Ric that he would speak to but not about. In the center is a single figure – Coyote. Red and orange stripes cover its body. Knowledge is downloading from the thick atmosphere of the sweat, but the being continues to sit tall. The lodge on the right steals a glimpse of ancient pictographs vibrating and dancing to the medicine songs. They are part energy and part ancestor, and they are celebrating. They are moving the energy of this place with their frequency. The mural speaks to the importance of connection to land, to the animals and elements, to traditional practices, to medicine, and to the sheer joy of being alive and taking up space.
Our town is grateful. The mural is already working its medicine. Important conversations are happening and faces are brightening. I'm inspired to work in color again after over a year lingering in grayscale. Thank you for sharing your presence and your work with us Ric. It was an honour to support you and your work.
Follow Ric Gendron's work on Facebook:
Images in the order they are posted:
Full Nelson mural, 2022, photo credit: Stephanie Kellett
Left detail of Nelson mural, 2022, photo credit: Stephanie Kellett
Middle detail of Nelson mural, 2022, photo credit: Stephanie Kellett
Right detail of Nelson mural, 2022, photo credit: Stephanie Kellett
On the Turning Away, 2019, photo credit: Ric Gendron
My Mom is Faith, Hope, and Charity, 2011, photo credit: Ric Gendron
Song for the Grandfathers, 2022, photo credit: Ric Gendron
Artist in front of his Nelson mural, 2022, credit: Robert E. Livingood
If you’d like to read more about the history of the Sinixt and how they went to court to overturn the ruling that they were ‘extinct’, check out these two articles: