by Bruce Patterson, May 4, 2016
“There is much more than concrete in this structure. There is a dream built into this place, a dream for today and especially for tomorrow.” — Queen Marie of Romania. Maryhill, WA, 1926
When, after enjoying our Dalles Motor Hotel’s jazzed-up “Continental Breakfast” featuring perfectly-cooked hard boiled eggs, packets of Quaker microwave oatmeal, bear claws, yogurt, fruit, milk, OJ, toast, crumpets and coffee strong enough to cut grease, Trisha and I checked out of our room and headed toward the sunrise up I-84 for Sam Hill’s Maryhill Museum of Art that’s located about four miles downstream from his Stonehenge. When I caught sight of what had to be his castle/museum standing atop a tall bluff across the Columbia River, it was the spitting image of an English block house in Ireland. The English Lords of the Land lived in multi-storied square stone mansions, for how can you put a block of stone to the torch? When in the upper windows are men armed with crossbows and muskets, how can you break in with clubs and battleaxes? When for every musket you acquire from your unspeakable Underworld, ten righteous Royal muskets are sent against you, what can you do but pin your eyes to the muck and obey as your father and his father had obeyed?
And yet, were you to visit Ireland today, you’d see a countryside littered with the scorched ruins of block houses (turns out they made great chimneys for bonfires).
I still didn’t have much of an idea about my man Sam Hill. After navigating through the internet jungle and trying to fill in his biography, me the whole way getting sniped at by commercials popping up camouflaged as “Informationals” and “Inspirationals,” I gave up on ever finding out the answer to my first question for the man: What in Sam Hill had possessed you to take the name Sam Hill? Seems it’s not the sort of question folks worry over nowadays while orbiting inside the Global Advertisphere with its perennially fresh-faced, pearly-white-toothed cast of thousands ceaselessly anti-aging while celebrating all things New Normal as currently programed and being updated by code-talking jumbo shrimp sporting string-ties, sneakers without socks and smothered in Secret Sauce.
Yet, if Sam Hill sprung back to life and I got to interview him, his answer to that one question would tell me how to proceed. For what’s the “gist” of a character but a “tell,” and that but a telling detail: an unrehearsed showing of self? While there’s no such things as human intuition, fortune tellers or reliable first impressions, and the stars in the sky could give a flying rat’s ass about your love life and/or business dealings, it doesn’t mean you can’t see into the hearts of people if you care to and know how.
I reckon Sam Hill, who was raised in Minnesota, was probably unaware of the deeply Southern superstitions involved and so took the name simply because he liked the ring of it and thought it might help advance his career. Yet, since his Abolitionist parents had fled Southern nightriders, slave-chasers and lynch mobs, and seeing how as Quakers they saw the wickedness in violence, hatred and greed, maybe the old pacifist kept the name out of spite. Bending some to his crooked mortal bones, maybe he enjoyed spooking numbskulls scared of spooks. Or, if he really was innocent of his name’s significance as—seen in the very best light—a cuss word for those scared of cussing, maybe he’ll appreciate you telling him the truth. Maybe, after you’ve lightened him up, he’ll respond with a shit-eater’s grin and say something like, “Well, I’ll be damned” and you’ll become lifelong pals. Or, if his wealth, fame and position have gone to his head, maybe he’ll go to his grave resenting his vague memory of you for having once long ago told him something he didn’t know.
Now his art collection should tell us some about Mr. Sam Hill, his business partners and associates, friends and drinking buddies. Besides, Trisha and I appreciate feasting our eyes on paintings. My grandma Patterson was a good cubist painter and my older sister was outstanding on wood, pottery and canvas before she starting going blind (she’s 72 now). While I can’t draw a lick, as a GI I twice toured the National Gallery of Art up in DC. Have toured the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid, the Da Vinci in Milano and, not the least, have spent a whole day studying Chartres Cathedral in France: the Old and New Testaments in sculpted stone, stained glass and heavenly ceilings. Hell, I earned an “A” in a UC equivalent Art History course in the San Fernando Valley’s tonier southwest side’s Pierce Community College (How’s “Woodland Hills” for highfalutin?). Pierce being that august Institution of Higher Learning whose illuminati include at least two highly esteemed elder statesmen of the Anderson Valley community whose names I shall not mention (even when they’re from back East, Northern Californians tend to enjoy looking down on Southerners). Although I do believe it’s safe to say that one gentleman is a mighty fine cook and barkeep, and the other is a retired school teacher and youth counselor.
Still, when I read on the internet that Sam Hill’s museum specializes in Western Art and includes “multiple works” by the great artiste Auguste Rodin, the name sounded familiar but I couldn’t place it.
“Hey, Trisha. Who was Road-in?”
“You mean Row-Dan?”
I flashed on the bat-winged Japanese sea monster who’d been fool enough to tangle with Godzilla and had, after much heroic struggle, paid the ultimate price. “He was a painter, that right?”
“Guess so; can’t remember at the moment.” Trisha was busy counting stitches.
So I figured Rodin was an American painter but he was neither. Born in the Paris slums in 1840, Rodin was so slow at learning his parents thought he was retarded. Turned out he was “gifted” but nearly blind. He chose sculpture to express himself because he could feel his way to perfection. He is considered the preeminent founder of the Modern School of sculpture and his most famous work is The Thinker.
Of course! How could I forget? That sculpture—a naked, musclebound dude sitting on a stone with his elbow on his thigh and his chin on his fist—became a guest star in all kinds of Warner Brother’s Looney Tunes cartoons. The thinker coming to life and running away; him toppling over, his legs getting pissed on by passing dogs. About every kid in America knew who The Thinker was. Copies and take-offs were everywhere, the most famous an oil painting of a chimpanzee sitting and contemplating the human skull he’s holding in his hand.
It seems everybody sensed that there was something vaguely Un-American about any old naked dude doing some serious figuring. Why isn’t he at work? Does his boss know what he’s doing?
We Americans are doers, not thinkers, right? What good’s thinking when there’s nature to be conquered, frontiers to be pacified and citified, wars to be won, planets to be colonized, land to be subdivided and subsidized, books to be cooked, fortunes to be made? YOU PEOPLE are sitting up there atop your Ivory Towers while the rest of us are busy making a whole new world to go with our same old sublimely self-satisfied self-image.
Sam Hill was a collector and his collection of Northwest and Northern Plains Indian artifacts (ancient handicrafts as Fine Arts) is first-rate. Considering how all they owned they usually traveled with, it’s remarkable how accomplished Native Americans were. In their cultures utility was wedded to beauty and “waste not, want not” was a given. They were as far away from Throwaway Fossil Fuel Man as could be, and yet they were the same people as us. Were we able to speak across the centuries and millennia, we’d see we inhabit the same world and live inside the same skin. It’s not difficult to imagine how much we could learn from each other.
The museum has four levels and a couple of dozen exhibits and we could’ve spent a lot more time there than we did. But, for instance, how much do I really need to know about Eastern Orthodox Christian Icons? Besides, having been brought up at the westernmost edge of the Western World, to my ear “Orthodox Icons” sounds a whole lot like Istanbul, Moscow and Constantinople; sounds of Cossacks and Communists, Tartars and Armenians, Caucasian Holy Warriors and hordes of stampeding White Russians with their horses frothing and their swords flashing in their clenched teeth. In short, attributing magical powers to swords or bits of “ancient” church property sounds downright Rasputian to me.
Speaking of coming to sudden, violent ends, the museum includes probably the world’s best collection of Chess sets. Gathered from all over the globe, there are something like 120 sets on display. The game originated in India in the 6th Century AD. It spread to Persia and, when the Muslim Arabs conquered Persia, they adopted Chess as their own. Europeans got it from the Muslims and it became popular in the 1600s. That it’s a war game accounts for its popularity. The four elements of war: position, force, movement and initiative are made manifest on the game board. As a boy I was taught to think of the pawns as infantry, the knights and bishops as cavalry and the rooks and queen as heavy artillery. Yet, in India, rooks can be battle elephants and knights Bengal tigers up on their haunches. In Africa, pawns carry shields and spears and knights are lions. There was a hand carved ivory chess set from Alaska with igloos for rooks and walrus’ for bishops.
Going around the world while working our way along the museum’s subway-like hallway, we saw the same game yet always with the board and pieces reflecting the material cultures and artistic traditions that produced them. In the West, in 1849, a man named Staunton invented the abstract style of chess pieces now used in tournaments that we’re so familiar with today. As the game of chess has evolved over the last 1,500 years, seventeen variations on the Staunton style have been officially acknowledged over the last 165. Originally the game of god/kings, now it provides diversion for everyone from inquisitive kids to mathematical aces, would-be generals and, naturally, gamblers. Also, as an old Quaker philosopher once told me when I was a wild-assed soldier boy back in North Carolina, you won’t keep your lawnmower sharp when you have no intention of ever using it.
The museum had more of interest, much more, but enough’s enough. Leaving the museum and stepping back into the morning calm, I felt some sweet sorrow. Before the serial atrocities of the 20th Century ripped out and ate the heart of the wild child humanity, people like Sam Hill were filled with hope for the future. The land we were treading upon was a part of a 5,300 acre ranch that, in 1907, Sam Hill bought for a cooperative agricultural community that never came to be. In Sam Hill’s day, enlightened people trusted that future generations would not just be better off, they’d be better on the inside, too, their minds clearer, souls bigger and consciences cleaner. By liberating us from lives of unrelenting brute labor, they believed, the Industrial Revolution would also liberate us from the brute.
Sam Hill and his compatriots were once American Utopians because they saw no reason not to be. And maybe they were right. Maybe it is we with our cynicism and apathy who are the Utopians for, contrary to all of the evidence of our senses, convincing ourselves that we can keep on keeping on because we’re the proud owners of a Hall Pass that never expires. If others want to worry their heads off, that’s their privilege. But it’s none of my business. My business is gizmos.
Our drive home was a cinch. Different federal highway, this one with slightly more than no traffic, but the same vast empty breadbasket to traverse and ascend. We stopped and walked around some in Shaniko, but there’s nothing left to do there. Another ghost town sleep-walking, a scattering of elderly left-behinds peeking through dusty curtains, another lonesome blues riff riding the breeze. For a while back in the early 20th Century, the long-gone railhead at Shaniko exported more fleeces and more sheep per year than any other railhead on earth. In 1901, Shaniko filled 400 railroad cars with beef on the hoof.