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.
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.
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, Washington, where the Snake and Clearwater rivers converge all the way west to where the Columbia River empties into the Pacific Ocean.
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.
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.”
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 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.
“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.”
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.
It requires dedication and planning to visit them but consider the payoff: an invitation to reflect, learn, celebrate, watch, listen — even smell.