Forty years ago this week, Portland awoke to find the earth in the sky.
At 8:32 am, on an unseasonably warm Sunday, what had always seemed an abstract threat, a product more of Hollywood than of the Cascadian landscape, turned real and deadly. Citizens felt a tremor beneath their feet—and looked north. There was no mistaking the boiling cloud on the horizon.
Fifty-two miles from Portland, Mount St. Helens, a long-dormant volcano that had last erupted 180 years before, torpedoed gas and molten rock 19 miles into a pristine forest. The blast killed 57 people, interrupted daily life and commerce, and sent Portlanders searching for masks to cover their faces.
Is it odd that so many of us now long to revisit that moment?
Nostalgia for the volcano is perhaps a measure of the scale of catastrophe we're now experiencing. The parallels between St. Helens and COVID-19 are inescapable: natural fury, death and, of course, the masks. ("Although air-filter face masks were said to be generally ineffective in removing the smaller and most dangerous particles," WW reported in early June 1980, "mask sales continued at a brisk pace.") When people refuse to stay home to avoid spreading the virus, it's hard not to think of Harry Truman, who wouldn't leave his lodge on the shore of Spirit Lake and insisted his mountain would never hurt him.
But the ashfall, while gloomy, was finite and visible. What confines us to our homes now is unseen. The virus gives us nothing to gawk at, no power to show us our scale on the planet. The pandemic is defined by emptiness: deserted streets, vacant buildings, missing people. Compared with a volcano, it brings the terror without the majesty.
Little wonder that St. Helens has such vivid appeal. Few of us are taking mountain vacations these days, so a pilgrimage to the mountain is out. The COVID-19 interruption has been so complete, it shut down a variety of celebrations of the anniversary of Mount St. Helens' eruption. The Portland Art Museum launched its exhibition Volcano! Mount St. Helens in Art just weeks before a governor's order closed public spaces. The Cowlitz Indian Tribe and the Mount St. Helens Institute will present a livestream with celebrated scientist Bill Nye at 6 pm Saturday, May 16. (For more anniversary events, visit mshinstitute.org/mshinside.)
You can't go to the mountain. So we're bringing it to you.
The art museum spent much of the past six weeks preparing a virtual tour of its exhibition. The curator, Dawson Carr, allowed WW extraordinary access to the works on display, permitting us to re-create—on a smaller scale—the experience of wandering through the galleries.
In the following pages, you'll see the role St. Helens played in the culture of Native Americans and pioneers, the imprint its eruption left on the imaginations of this city's best artists—including science fiction genius Ursula K. Le Guin—and the way it still looms over our region, as bright and strange as the moon.
Think of this as a trip to the museum you can enjoy from home. Or consider it a time machine, to a Sunday morning when everything changed. AARON MESH.
Organized by the Portland Art Museum and curated by Dawson Carr, Ph.D., the Janet and Richard Geary Curator of European Art
Mount St. Helens has been a sacred place to Native Americans for thousands of years. It is known as Lawetlat'la ("Smoker") to the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation.
Indigenous peoples along the Columbia River used the substance of adjacent volcanoes—particularly basalt, andesite and obsidian—to create objects of great beauty for utilitarian, cultural, and aesthetic purposes. The extraordinary sculptures displayed here were made from various forms of basalt, the most common volcanic rock, which is formed by the rapid cooling of lava near the surface.
Albert Bierstadt was already internationally famous when he visited Oregon and Washington for the second time in September and October 1889. During this second trip, he probably made sketches he used in creating this painting in his New York studio.
This painting is the culmination of a great many works I did in response to the eruptions of Mount St. Helens. The work was based on studies I made on July 22, 1980, when the eruption appeared against a clear summer sky. One of the studies is included in this exhibition. The view is from my yard on Southwest Cable Street. The painting is a reflection on the experience as seen in a mirror. It also recalls that it was a huge media event at the time. —Henk Pander
When Mount St. Helens first erupted with small emissions, I visited frequently, driving up logging roads to photograph it. I was amazed by the sublime spectacle, but also amused by the picnic atmosphere of crowds in lawn chairs lined up to watch it like a reality TV show. It became personified, a mighty and even benevolent sentient being communing with onlookers.
On the morning of May 18, 1980, I was in Seattle. When I drove down later in the day, access to the volcano was blocked. The mood was somber, no longer celebratory. The glorious spectacle had been transformed. The volcano, a dispassionate force of nature, had taken on a new persona. Tag III represents this transformation through the lens of pareidolia, which is the imagined perception of a pattern or meaning where it does not actually exist, e.g., seeing faces in things. The ensuing altered and anthropomorphic image alludes to Mount St. Helens' transformations, from the ridiculous to the sublime and from Muppet to monster. —Barbara Noah
I made this vase from pure volcanic ash collected on the day of the big eruption. As soon as we heard about the ashfall, Rob Adamson and I drove to eastern Washington and collected a barrel of the stuff. That night, we melted it and I blew the vase. It looked black, but was actually a very dark green. The iridescent color came from a metallic fuming agent. This piece is the only one blown from pure ash that I know of. —Paul Marioni
A major figure on the West Coast in the movement to redefine the nature and materials of painting in the 1970s, Charles Arnoldi was mesmerized by the television coverage of the eruption of Mount St. Helens. The images of thousands of felled trees and the ragged crater prompted him to reintroduce actual sticks in combination with painting in his post-eruption works through the next decade. In Untitled, 1983, Arnoldi creates a dense, powerful work that is clotted in highly fluid, directional arrangements of sticks that overlap and collide to define both the painting's surface and silhouette. The cultivated disequilibrium of the work's elegant veneered surface of modeling paste and sticks produces a formally beautiful yet poignantly emotional evocation of the triggering event. —Bruce Guenther
In October 1981, three friends—artist Henk Pander, photographer Ron Cronin, and author Ursula K. Le Guin—managed to finagle a one-day pass into the Red Zone, the restricted area around the mountain. Le Guin later described the experience:
…the fear I felt that day went deeper than the physical. After driving miles up through the endless green vitality of a great forest, to turn a corner and enter a world of grey ash, burnt stumps, and silence—from the complexity of flourishing life into the awful simplicity of death: the fear I felt was metaphysical. And the scale of it all was beyond comprehension. I tried to write about it afterwards, in poetry and essay. I never felt I could describe it adequately, hardly hint at it.
—From In the Blast Zone: Catastrophe and Renewal on Mount St. Helens, Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, 2008
The Monitoring Spider, designed by USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory, is recent technology that helps scientists quickly monitor an active volcano while reducing risks to scientists. The sturdy Spider is deployed by a helicopter, and is designed to transmit data in real time to the Cascades Volcano Observatory. The Spider can detect small changes in the ground shape (or deformation) with GPS, lightning and/or low-frequency sounds from explosions, gas emissions, and shallow earthquakes.
Breadcrust bombs are volcanic rocks ejected as semi-molten lava during an eruption. The outer surface begins to harden while traveling through the air and becomes brittle. Meanwhile, the hot molten rock inside forms gas bubbles and begins to expand causing the outer surface to crack, like a piece of popcorn.
Both the Spider and the Breadcrust Bomb are part of a learning space created in collaboration with the Mount St Helens Institute and U.S. Geological Survey's David A. Johnston Cascades Volcano Observatory.
Visit the full virtual exhibition at portlandartmuseum.org/volcano-online.