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Forest of Dreams: Ainu and Native American Woodcarving

June 8 – July 21  Pavilion Gallery 

Photo courtesy of Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum

Forest of Dreams (co-curated by Sachiko Matsuyama and Deana Dartt, PhD) brings together the artistry and traditions of indigenous peoples of Japan and the Columbia River Region to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the Portland-Sapporo Sister City Association (Sapporo is the capital of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island and home to the native Ainu). This exhibition of woodcarving revisits the Garden’s 2008 Parallel Worlds Art in the Garden exhibition, which showcased the ceremonial robes and textile arts of both Ainu and Northwest Native American cultures in a first-of-its-kind exhibition.

Monumental carved planks called Power Boards, which include layered symbolism of the respective cultures, have been commissioned from artists on both sides of the Pacific and installed on the Overlook. Additional carved pieces will be on display in the Tanabe and Pavilion Galleries. Ainu artists include the late Takeki Fujito, as well as carvers Mamoru Kaizawa and Toru Kaizawa. Columbia River Native artists include Greg Archuleta, Tony Johnson, Bobby Mercier, Travis Stewart, and Greg A. Robinson. Both the Ainu and Columbia River peoples have ancient relationships to their ancestral homelands and, therefore, their artistic expressions reveal strong spiritual connections as acolytes and stewards of the natural world.


Courtesy of Nibutani Ainu Takumi No Michi

Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido, are distinct in their culture, language, and religion from the Japanese. The Ainu believe in many gods, or kamuy in their native language. Traditional belief holds that the god of mountains dwelled in the mountains, and the god of water dwelled in the river. The Ainu hunted, fished, and gathered in moderation to take care not to disrupt the natural balance or disturb the gods. Traditionally, Ainu men created tools and ceremonial instruments like spirit sticks, called ikupasuy, with wood, covering the surfaces in decorative patterns of spiritual meanings, while women produced cloth woven of elm bark fiber and nettles with cotton appliqué with similar symbolism.

The Ainu further believed that animals were visitors from the other world, temporarily assuming earthly shapes. Creatures like bears, wolves, and insects received great respect as divine incarnations. In reverence to them, the Ainu would often include representations of animals on their ceremonial items. Evolving from this tradition, the modern practice of carving three-dimensional works of creatures became a commercial artform of Hokkaido from the 1960s, when tourism became an increasingly important part of the survival of the Ainu culture and traditions. In this exhibition, some of the most prominent contemporary Ainu wood artists will be presented, celebrating their own unique creativity in artistic expressions, while still embodying a collective Ainu cultural identity.


Photo by Jonathan Ley

The Chinook peoples have occupied the lands of the Lower Columbia River region for thousands of years, stewarding the rich landscape that Port-landers call home. Historically, at this important site for trade, the Chinook tribes lived in wooden longhouses which could house large extended families, and which were often embellished with carved posts and boards representative of the spiritual and material authority of the family head.

Today, Columbia River Native peoples make use of the durable and highly-prized red and yellow cedar abundant in their region to craft elaborate utilitarian, as well as purely artistic, objects. Inspired by a long history of carving and woodcraft, many current artists reinterpret established forms based on historical examples, oral traditions, and cultural dissemination.

Oregon’s native people are a strong presence in the larger community, and their art can be seen at local sites including Tilikum Crossing Bridge, Blue Lake Park, Cathlapotle Plankhouse, and installed on the Portland State University campus. Artists from both the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and the Chinook Nation will represent the artistry and woodcarving traditions of the original peoples of the region.

Salmon Berry’s Comb, by Greg A. Robinson. Photo courtesy of Steinbrueck Native Gallery

Forest of Dreams will provide a rich exploration of the shared aesthetic expressions of native cultures on both sides of the Pacific. Common threads include a strong interdependence with nature, spiritual connections, and a celebration of their respective cultural legacies. An ambitious array of associated programming from both cultures will include carving demonstrations, lectures, and musical and dance performances.

This exhibition is made possible with the support of NW Natural, Don Vallaster, Corinne Oishi, and Lindley Morton.