Lillian Pitt | University of Portland

Lillian Pitt

Lillian Pitt, one of the finest artists in the long story of the Pacific Northwest, was born in 1943 on the Warm Springs Reservation in the high sage desert of central Oregon. Of Warm Springs, Wasco, and Yakama ancestry, she moved to Portland after high school and conducted a business career until the 1980s, when she took a ceramics class that changed her life. Since then she has become an artist of international stature, with work featured in North America, Russia, Japan, Korea, Europe, and New Zealand, countless awards and honors (among them the Oregon Governor’s Award for the Arts, and the Oregon High Desert Museum’s Earle Chiles Award for accomplished Oregonians), and riveting artistic partners (among them celebrated architect Maya Lin, who has used Lillian’s work in her Columbia River Confluence Project).

Primarily a sculptor and mixedmedia artist, Pitt is also renowned for her extraordinary masks in various media (including astounding ones made of glass); perhaps her best-known works are a dizzying series of portraits of She Who Watches, a famous pictograph in the Columbia Gorge. Tsagagalal, as the image is called by First Peoples, has long been a symbol of conscience, of death, and of endurance among the people of the Mighty River, and Lillian has done many works in which She features, as well as a host of figures from the legends and spiritual traditions of her people: Spider Woman, honoring mothers; Feather Woman, honoring teachers; Hawk Woman, Coyote Woman, Wolf Woman, many more.

“Everything I do,” Pitt has said, “regardless of medium, honors my ancestors, and tries to give voice to the people, the land, the animals of this place. It is all, for me, about maintaining a link with tradition, about honoring the contributions my ancestors made to this world.

“I feel that making art is a sacred act. It is sacred to me—when I am working I grow very calm and peaceful and meditative. There is an intimacy, a closeness with what is here and now, in your hands, that feels like a great blessing.”

There is great magic and miracle in art and story, says Pitt, and art and story is where the future lives, where the future is possible, where the future can be born, if we witness it with humility, and lure it forth with respect and hard work.

The University is particularly honored today to have Lillian Pitt among us, not only for the grace and integrity of her own life and work, but as a representative of the peoples who lived along the Mighty River for many thousands of years. At this University, poised at the confluence of Oregon’s two great rivers for more than a century, utterly convinced of the holiness of water as God’s gift, the chance to bow, as a community, in gratitude and prayer for the people who were here long before the University was is an honor—a great blessing, as Lillian Pitt would say.