The Artful Side of the Gorge

There's more to the Columbia River Gorge than outdoor adventure—like a blossoming arts scene.

By Kasey Cordell March 22, 2013 Published in the April 2013 issue of Portland Monthly

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Find form fused with function, like this pottery from local Melanie Thompson, at the Hood River boutique Twiggs.

The Columbia River Gorge has an image problem: it’s typecast as the ultimate outdoor adventurers’ paradise. And, of course, it is. But while our signature chasm’s mighty river, mountainous terrain, and plentiful sunshine certainly shine as a grand outdoor playground, when seen through a camera lens, reimagined in watercolor, or translated into song (thank you, Woody Guthrie), those same features serve as inspiration for artists. 

The Gorge as muse isn’t an entirely new idea: since the mid-19th century, it’s stirred landscape photographers such as Carleton Watkins, Fred Kiser, and most recently the late, great Terry Toedtemeier. But the western Gorge’s growing artistic energy offers good reason to leave the hiking boots behind for a day. Just this fall, for instance, Troutdale’s Corbett School (one of the country’s top public schools, according to both Newsweek and the Washington Post) rehabbed the historic Springdale schoolhouse and reopened it as an art school.

Meanwhile, bronze sculptor Rip Caswell is about to break ground on a live-work artists’ community on the northeast side of town. A few miles down I-84, in Cascade Locks, bronze-casting prodigy Heather Soderberg, whose childhood artistry was featured in National Geographic and People, among other magazines, runs a foundry right across the street from longtime Gorge gallery Lorang. And in April, the Hood River area will celebrate its seventh annual open studios tour—an opportunity to examine the work (and in many cases homes) of 29 Gorge artists. There’s even a Maya Lin sculpture near Troutdale. 

The art of the Gorge can range from the sublime (Lin) to the, shall we say, folksy (you be the judge). But then, that’s part of the region’s charm—and what makes finding a beautiful, one-of-a-kind piece part of the thrill. After all, whether you’re hunting art or adrenaline, the Gorge’s siren song calls to a desire to discover. Answer it.


The Sandy River Delta Bird Blind Confluence Project by landscape artist Maya Lin

Image: Bob Meador

Birds were so plentiful in the Sandy River Delta area when the Corps of Discovery arrived in 1805 that William Clark complained of not being able to sleep because of the “horrid” cacophony. Inaugurated in 2008 as part of renowned landscape artist Maya Lin’s Confluence Project, the bird blind, just outside of Troutdale, affords visitors a hidden glimpse at the noisemakers. You’ll find the names of the 134 species Lewis and Clark recorded on their journey, some now extinct, inscribed in the blind’s wooden slats—a fact you’ll have plenty of time to ponder on the easy 1.2-mile return hike through restored forests and wetland.

Troutdale General Store

There’s more to Troutdale than outlet stores and Edgefield—namely a quaint little downtown that makes an ideal midday meander. Highlights: Rip Caswell’s gallery, where you might find the bronze artist himself, at work on an eight-foot-tall statue of Admiral Chester Nimitz, commissioned by the Naval Order of the United States to stand guard at the entrance to Pearl Harbor; Italian glass jewelry maker (and perennial favorite at Portland’s Real Mother Goose) Marco Polo Beads, which moved to Troutdale last summer; and the Troutdale General Store, a 7,000-square-foot paean of nostalgia featuring candy and toys kids of the ’80s will love—and an ice cream counter today’s tykes will, too.

The 301 Gallery in Hood River

In July, the 301 Gallery and wine bar transformed an 89-year-old, A. E. Doyle–designed bank building that housed the city’s parking enforcement office (among other things) into a bright, art-centered space serving creative small plates and many regional wines and beers. The fledgling gallery—which still gets people trying to pay parking tickets—joins downtown’s cadre of galleries, among them the Pines and the Columbia Center for the Arts, the community arts group that helps organize April’s Open Studios Tour. For some “functional” art, stop by Twiggs, a home décor and accessory boutique featuring local work, such as Melanie Thompson’s cheerful, colorful pottery.

If you want to make art instead of just ogle it, pilot your car up to Odell. Glassometry’s surprisingly affordable “blow your own glass” options (from $20) teach you the basics of handling and shaping 2,000-degree glass from veteran glassmaker Laurel Marie Hagner and her associates. Plus you’ll walk away with the best kind of souvenir: one you made. 


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Mussels and frites at Pfriem

First came Full Sail. Then Double Mountain. Last summer, Pfriem joined Hood River’s expanding brewery universe. Former Full Sail brewer Josh Pfriem debuted the family-friendly brewpub on the edge of the still-being-developed Waterfront Park in August, much to the relief of beer fans taxed by the sometimes hour-plus wait at Double Mountain. The Belgian-centric beer list shines with stars like the creamy, mildly spiced Wit and the hefty Belgian Strong Dark, an in-your-face chocolaty ale that demands your attention. The upscale pub grub contains both hits and misses, but file the onion rings and mac and cheese under sure bets. 

puts the “art” in artisan baking with delicately decorated tarts and pastries and its popular “fougasse,” a kind of French pretzel bread carefully painted with an olive oil, herb, and salt glaze.

Nora’s Table
With an almost exclusively locally sourced menu, Nora’s has long been a locals’ favorite for dinner. And now it’s becoming a beloved breakfast spot, too. This fall the seven-year-old eatery just off of Oak Street began serving tummy-filling wake-up calls like Dutch babies piled with cinnamon bourbon apples and a Bombay-town fry featuring curried potatoes, spinach, oysters, and red onion date chutney.


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The other side of Edgefield

Hood River Hotel
Hood River’s oldest hotel—listed on the National Register of Historic Places—provides easy access to downtown’s bevy of galleries and brewpubs from the corner of First and Oak Streets, where it has stood since 1911. Even better, the elegantly restored 41-room hotel has continued its centennial celebration into 2013, offering guests Sunday-night stays for $100. From $100

We’ve all swayed and played at this poor farm–turned–concert venue, golf course, and McMenamins hotel. But tucked amid the property’s 74 verdant acres, you’ll also find a resident potter and glassblower—and a dozen other reasons (Rudy’s Spa and a 102-degree saltwater soaking pool among them) to turn your day trip into an overnight. From $30  

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