From Missoula, driving through the Tri-Cities in eastern Washington usually seems like the worst leg of a journey to somewhere else more beautiful—Portland, maybe, or the coast. The highway view reveals RV dealerships, a prison, dust, chain-link fences surrounding industrial buildings and roads winding through brown agricultural fields where irrigation machines loom high against the sky.
Artist Karen Rice agrees. Even growing up in Richland, where she had more opportunity to explore the landscape, to find something likable, she didn't think much of it.
"I thought the land around there was ugly," Rice says. "I always hated the desert growing up. My parents were from Oregon and I looked forward to getting into the lush green land there."
Richland was founded in 1904 as a farm community, but during World War II the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers evacuated it, along with the towns of Hanford and White Bluffs. They were mining plutonium for the Manhattan Project and the site produced the plutonium for the "Fat Man" bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Everything that marked the landscape thereafter—even when people moved back to the land—seemed to be geared toward that extractive industry and, eventually, environmental remediation.
Rice's father worked at the Hanford site for 30 years, specifically on the Fast Flux Test Facility reactor near a sign for workers that read "Silence Means Security." He didn't talk about his work.
"I would climb high in a sycamore tree just to get a glimpse of the FFTF reactor," she says. "His whole work life was a complete mystery to me, and in my 20s that fueled a strong curiosity of wanting to know more."
It took leaving eastern Washington for the Olympic Peninsula for Rice to fall in love with Richland's desert landscape. Specifically, it took experiencing what might be described as biblical proportions of rain. "I had followed a boyfriend to Olympia when I was 22 and he was going to Evergreen State College," she says. "It was the wettest year on record—literally 40 days and 40 nights. The floating bridge in Seattle sank and I was working a shit job. I started to feel really homesick for Richland."
Rice's Hanford Series grew out of her attempt to reconnect with Richland and its surroundings. The drawings are made of charcoal, rust and dry pigments with accents of color. At first, she used historical photographs to help create the monochromatic scenes of desert, industrial buildings and barbed wire. But by the time she was knee-deep in the works, the mid-1990s, the security around the Hanford site, aka "The Area," had become lax, and she could cautiously investigate it in person.
"I began to realize I didn't hate that land anymore," she says. "It was the realization that the parts of the land I didn't like were the parts that had been changed by either big agriculture or the nuclear reservation ... I began to relate more to the actual desert itself in its unchanged forms. For the paintings, I wanted to address some of the complexities of being from that place—not paint it all in a black and white, didactic way."
Rice worked on the Hanford project between 1993 and 2007, even after she moved to Missoula to get an art degree at the University of Montana. She worked on other series dealing with issues like bee colony collapse. Her son, Silas, was born in 2007, and as he got older Rice began to see the world differently.
"I began to look at my work in the studio of all these images of chain-link fences and transformer stations and began to think about what it might look like through the eyes of a child," she says. "And so, not that I wanted to censor myself, but I realized I wanted to explore the other side. I want to reinforce the idea of beauty."
Rice is part of an artist collective called Saltmine that includes well-known local artists Bev Beck Glueckert, Stephen Glueckert, Peter Keefer, Edgar Smith, Cathryn Mallory and Kathleen Herlihy-Paoli. Rice's current body of work is a series of lichen images, inspired by her walks in drainages of the Bitterroot. Like Hanford, they deal in a controlled palette—just a few colors. The drawings are done on both sides of translucent vellum and layered so the images appear to be almost 3D, as if the lichen continues into the background in a milky infinity. It's landscape-like, but less complicated in its subject manner than the Hanford work, and more peaceful. Still, Rice says, she'll always find her way back to Hanford.
"My tendency to look for and notice the subtle is informed by growing up in the desert," she says. "The moment I hit eastern Washington I want to flip my camera on, I want to stop the car and just keep taking photo after photo. It's a land that really resonates for me. I feel like right now I'm searching for what's going to resonate for me within my life here in Missoula. I'm sure in some way I'll keep cycling through the Hanford Series in a way that's not so obvious."
Karen Rice's Lichen series is currently on display at Montana Art and Framing as part of the Saltmine: New Works 2014 exhibition, which runs through Sat., June 28. The gallery hosts a closing reception for the show Wed., June 25, from 5 to 7 PM. Visit karenrice.com to view the Hanford Series and montanaart.com for gallery hours.