It’s easy to forget that, for most of history, there were no cameras.
So when we see a movie of an historical event, or an illustration, or a painting, we rely upon the artist’s interpretation of what they thought happened, hopefully based upon scholarly historical research.
“There are no photographs, no ‘cast of thousands’ to help establish placement, maneuvering, long shots, medium shots or close-ups for cameras,” says artist and historian Nona Hengen, who has spent 30 years researching, and painting, the “Indian Wars” of the Inland Northwest. One of Hengen’s focus has been the Steptoe Battles of 1858, in which government troops led by Colonel Edward Steptoe were routed and defeated by the Spokane, Couer d’Alene and Palouse tribes.
On the eve of the Civil War, this battle, also known as The Battle of Pine Creek, set into motion events that led eventually to the extermination of the Native Americans’ traditional way of life. And because this happened in the region where Hengen presently lives, she has studied it, spoken on it, and painted it extensively. It’s what she does: she brings history to visual life, whether that history is the war between the Native Americans and the U.S. government, the life of the pioneers and immigrants in the region, or even carousel horses.
History and the Present
“The subject matter of her realistic canvases are the houses, the barns, the tractors, the horses, hills, and fields of the Palouse country,” wrote Dr. W. Robert Lawyer, director of libraries at Western Washington University, in an introduction to a showing of Hengen’s works in Bellingham.
“Her deep attachment to the land and to country life, coupled with her fine powers of observation, find expression in genuine recreations infused with the life, the strength, the vigor, the loneliness, and the vastness of life in the country.”
Hengen, who at 10 years old wrote to her uncle that she planned to be an artist, took the long way round, earning her PhD in education and history, then teaching at universities, because there were no art schools in the area. When her mother became ill, she returned to the 1904 family homestead in Spangle, later settling in permanently and picking up the dream she had set aside 23 years before.
She began writing and illustrating for numerous magazines — Cats and Kittens, Dog and Kennel, Bird Times, Wheat Life — and authored 16 books on life in the Palouse region. Her artwork appeared on cards from Leanin’ Tree, as puzzles from Sunsout, and on the front page of the 1998 Voters Pamphlet. National Geographic has contacted her, seeking permission to include paintings from her historical series in two recent publications.
Preserving the Barn, and History
In 2014, Hengen applied for, and received, a grant to restore the homestead’s historic barn, which now houses a generous selection of her many, many paintings. By appointment, she shepherds interested groups through the gallery, explaining the rich and diverse history of the area, seeking to show the people of today their connection to the people of the past, whether those people were the pioneers, or the people who were here long, long before that.
To bring this life to visual life, Hengen pores over historical accounts: diaries, memoirs, letters, sketches by eyewitnesses, and then adds a dose of artistry to the research. For one of her historical works, Horse Slaughter Camp, depicting the U.S. Army’s shooting of more than 800 Indian horses in 1858, Hengen relied heavily upon the cooperation of her Quarter Horse, Sam.
“I spent numerous leisure moments on hot days observing my horse cooling himself off in a dust wallow he had made for himself in the farmyard,” Hengen explains.
“I would nudge him and coax him to pull himself up on his front legs, giving me opportunity, sketchbook in hand, to observe the ‘getting up’ maneuver.
“At other times, he seemed to say, ‘Really? And just what is the purpose of this unwarranted pestering and intrusion into my naptime?'” Eventually, many photos and sketches later, Hengen had the material she needed to work out a composition.
Native American and Pioneer Life
It’s a combination of history, research, reading, sketching, writing, artistry, and imagination, and the result is a body of work that invites the past into the present, encouraging people of modern day to notice not only the differences between the eras, nor the similarities as well, but the pain and the joy, the injustice and the adventure.
Such is human history: family, hard work, leisure time, hopes, dreams, disappointments, the day to day activities that comprise a lifetime, violence, peace — it can all be found in the Palouse region.
“These are the sorts of subjects that revive family memories and look back at the experiences of pioneering in the Palouse — in short, the tie to the land, and the shared bonds of a life lived in earlier times.”
Nona Hengen is the featured Art Event at Wenaha Gallery from Monday, January 29, 2018, through Saturday, Saturday, March 3, 2018. She will speaking at the gallery Saturday, March 3 at 1:30 and 3, discussing the U.S. Government/Native American conflicts of the Inland Northwest. Joining her that day will be watercolorist Roy Anderson of Walla Walla and glass artist Gregory Jones of Pasco.
Contact the gallery, located at 219 East Main Street, Dayton, WA, by phone at 509.382.2124 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Monday through Saturday, and by appointment. Visit the Wenaha Gallery website online at www.wenaha.com.