Maya Lin’s Transformational Art Project Along the Columbia River

The Confluence Art Project Connects Us to People and Place

Photographer Glenn Nelson’s portraits of an art project by Maya Lin that spans 438 miles along the Columbia River basin.

At Cape Disappointment State Park, where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean, a fish-cleaning table made from a single block of basalt is engraved with a Chinook creation story. The table is heavily used--if fish smell and the prompt arrival of hopeful gulls are any indicator.
Photo by Glenn Nelson.

A path, slightly curved, leads you from a parking lot to a bench overlooking an estuary in Cape Disappointment State Park, on the southwestern tip of Washington state. A prehistoric-looking heron cuts across the sky. The water gurgles. An eagle shrieks. Some seagulls bob.

 

Waikiki Beach at Cape Disappointment State Park. A boardwalk inscribed with excerpts from Lewis and Clark's 4,133-mile journey leads you to this view.
Photo by Glenn Nelson

The frame Lin offers is massive and comes in multiple parts, a sweeping public art project called Confluence. Six large-scaled works of art are sited along the Columbia River basin: from Clarkson, WA where the Snake and Clearwater rivers converge all the way west to where the Columbia River empties into the Pacific Ocean.

 

 

Map of the Confluence Project along the Columbia River
Illustration by Hum

Through boardwalks and story circles, through a bird blind and even a fish-cleaning table, Confluence arcs backward to honor river and land, the Corps of Discovery and those who were living here before Lewis and Clark arrived. It is architecture wedded to sculpture; the past with the present; the natural alongside the built world.

One of seven Story Circles nestled throughout Sacajawea State Park in Pasco, WA where the Snake and Columbia rivers converge. Some of the circles sit on the lawn and are meant to be read from the outside while others are embedded into the ground and invite you to step in. Text and images map a narrative from the time when this was a fishing and trading hub for native people from across the land. Lewis and Clark spent three days at this site in October 1805.
Photo by Glenn Nelson

This experience—elegant, quiet—of being able to walk from Point A to Point B and take in the watery view has been carefully orchestrated by Maya Lin. She’s the artist and designer best known the world over for her Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the long black granite wall etched with more than 58,000 names. It’s ranked No. 10 on a 2007 list of “America’s Favorite Architecture.”

A 1.2-mile hike through the Sandy River Delta in Troutdale, OR delivers you to the Bird Blind, whose slats are inscribed with the 134 species of animals documented by Lewis and Clark during their journey of discovery. A passionate environmentalist, Maya Lin also notes which of the animals have since gone extinct or are in danger of doing so.
Photo by Glenn Nelson

But what to make of the pathway and its viewing platform, which do not intuitively register as art?  And what about another pathway at the other side of the park that meanders to a sandy beach?

A bit of backstory: A parking lot, a restroom and a hedge once obstructed these views. “Now you can sit and look,” Lin tells me.

“To me, the art is nature,” she adds. “I’m merely a frame.”

The Confluence Bird Blind in Troutdale, OR.
Photo by Glenn Nelson

The Chinook Nation, Celilo Village, Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Yakama Indian Nation and Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation—Confluence gives voice to Washington and Oregon’s native people through cast glass faces, carved basalt and text grooved into footpaths. It was tribal elders who convinced Lin to take on this mammoth creation in the first place. They joined local and state leaders to push for a series of permanent artworks that would go beyond just spotlighting Lewis and Clark on the bicentennial anniversary of their voyage in 1805.

 

The Confluence Listening Circle at Chief Timothy Park just west of Clarkston, WA is an amphitheater sculpted into the homelands of the Nez Perce. To sit here is to look at a landscape that most closely resembles what Lewis and Clark would have seen.
Photo by Glenn Nelson

“Excuse me, Lewis and Clark did not discover this land. We were here,” Lin recalls one of the elders telling her when they met with her in New York. “That was it. I had to do this project.”

The welcome gate on the Vancouver Land Bridge crosses Washington State Route 14 and railroad tracks to link Fort Vancouver to the Columbia River in Vancouver, WA. Native architect Johnpaul Jones of Seattle (National Museum of the American Indian) consulted with Maya Lin to design the winding bridge. The gate features artwork by Lillian Pitt that honors Chinookan women.

Five of the six artworks have been completed. (The sixth, slated to begin construction in 2017, will honor the sacred and now submerged Celilo Falls.) The projects span 438 miles.

Antone Minthorne, Founding chair of Confluence and former chair of Confederated Tribes of Umatilla Indian Reservation. He's standing in Celilo Park, where Celilo Falls, a tribal fishing area, once cascaded. This is where the sixth Confluence artwork will be sited.
Photo by Glenn Nelson

It requires dedication and planning to visit them but consider the payoff: an invitation to reflect, learn, celebrate, watch, listen—even smell.

An artist rendering of the Celilo Arc, the sixth and final Confluence installation. Courtesy of Maya Lin Studio/Confluence.
  • Glenn Nelson

    Glenn Nelson is a photographer, journalist and founder of The Trail Posse.

  • Florangela Davila

    Florangela Davila is the editor of Ampersand and the producer of Ampersand LIVE, a stage show.
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