Trained as a mariner and former chief mate for the American Empress tour boat, which frequently docks in The Dalles, Scott Stephenson is now executive director at The Dalles Art Center.
Stephenson replaced former director Carmen Toll. Assistant director Lettie Young has also left the center for other work.
It isn’t Stephenson’s first gig with art in the Gorge. An artist himself, he served as a board member for the Columbia Center for the Arts in Hood River for several years.
He also worked as a teacher in New Orleans, and he majored in history as a college student.
It’s a mix of skills he believes will help him guide The Dalles Art Association into the future. “I wanted to be able to combine my skills in management, education and art, bring that all together,” he said.
As a mariner, Stephenson learned to manage a diverse operation. “As chief mate, you are in charge of operations—the crew, shore-side work—and you stand a 12-hour watch, navigating the boat alongside the captain or pilot, who has the authority on the bridge,” he said.
The American Empress was designed to navigate the waters of Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico and the Columbia River. Today, the cruise ship works up and down the Columbia, and Stephenson served as chief mate for two years.
As an artist, he started as a photographer, then worked in “warm glass,” a type of glass work formed in a kiln (in contrast to “hot glass,” which is blown glass worked while melted.)
He also began working in textiles. A recent installation, part of a show at the Columbia Center for the Arts, incorporated both glass and textiles, featuring an abstract form made from the glass of a 1950s television tube and LED lights, shown with a 78- by 100-inch quilt made up of screen-printed blocks of text. “I wrote the content as well,” Stephenson said.
The piece was political, he said. “It was dealing with the Red Scare of the 1940s.” It focused on the change in media from newspapers, with their in-depth stories and coverage, to the new media of television, with its sound bites and video snapshots, and how that change impacted the politics of the Red Scare.
“The print on the quilt was what people absorbed in the newspaper, before it moved to the shorter sound bites of television. Only so much could fit on the television.”
“It’s about dealing with fear, and what happens with fear,” he said. “It wasn’t to choose a side, but to raise awareness.”
He said the piece was a historical reflection on modern times as well. “What’s happening now to some degree has happened before.”
History has always held a fascination for Stephenson. “Having worked on the river, I enjoy the history of it,” he said. “The place names, the landmarks, the dams. The juxtaposition of the past and the present. The sense of place.”
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Stephenson said he wants the center to engage with the community, and with art projects both locally and throughout the Gorge.
The big thing is creating partnerships, according to Stephenson, who is working with Maryhill Museum of Art, Gorge Artists Open Studios, Columbia Gorge Community College, Oregon Humanities and The Dalles-Wasco County Library, among others.
One project, called “Exquisite Gorge,” is a collaboration with Maryhill and will involve the creation of a 60-foot block print made from 10 blocks carved in 10 sections by artist communities along the Columbia, from the Snake to the Willamette rivers.
Local artists will carve The Dalles’ block in August. Each unique block print will be joined with the others to form a continuous image with the Columbia River running through it.
The print will be made Sept. 3, when the 10 blocks will be inked and printed by a steam roller, typically used for road construction.
“It’s an ambitious project, there’s a lot of interest nationally,” he said.
He also hopes to work with Oregon Humanities with a workshop called “Bridging Oregon,” a dialogue on change planned for the Columbia River Gorge and Eastern Oregon in 2019.
“It’s a conversation about how communities are changing, and how to create the dialogue of how to deal with that change,” Stephensen said.
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Stephenson also hopes to grow the center as a local resource for art. “That takes a lot of resources and planning, and we are looking to work with partners like Arts in Education in the Gorge,” he said.
“We want to make this an institution that really exposes people to art,” he said.
He hopes to expand the center’s summer art camps from 1 1/2 hour sessions to a full day, providing a more robust art program that parents can rely on as childcare as well.
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The center is currently funded primarily through donations, an annual art auction, and gallery sales.
As he works to develop more diverse funding sources, one new source is already in hand: The center is now renting its basement room for meetings and events. The room can accommodate 45 people, and has a projection screen and kitchenette. “It will help fund the work of the center,” he said.
Stephenson has also been upgrading computer systems at the center, which influences how sales are made and tracked and how the center connects with the community. This involved switching accounting from a cash-based system to an accrual-based one, and — from hand-written price tags to bar codes.
“It gives a clearer picture, allows us to see where we are,” he said of the new database.
Stephenson said the center is strong, with a full slate of shows and events planned for 2019.
“We have really great volunteers. We are looking to expand that engagement, find new people as well. We want to be a ‘community art center.’”
“It’s an exciting time,” he added.