Good for the Soul: Wallowa Valley Studio Tours

Joseph, Oregon’s welcome billboard says it all: ‘This little town is heaven to us. Please don’t drive like hell through it.’ Joseph’s little slice of heaven is the kind that could only exist in eastern Oregon: made of equal parts rugged natural beauty courtesy of the Wallowa Mountains, small town charm (the Old Town Café’s hours are ‘6am-2-ish’), rich Nez Perce tribal history and an internationally renowned artist community and bronze foundries. A stroll down the cobblestone walkways of Main Street is a feast for the senses. Life-size bronze sculptures erupt from community-maintained flower boxes animating each street corner with western scenes—a cowboy and his dog, a mother horse and her foal, a Native American warrior on the hunt. It is clear that this is a town that celebrates art, beauty and its heritage.

Artists of many disciplines are clued in to this fact and have set up their homes and studios here. Artists on the Wallowa Valley Studio Tours—which includes Joseph and neighboring towns Enterprise and Wallowa—open their studios to anyone seeking one-of-a-kind pieces, master classes or a dose of inspiration. My self-designed tour includes three studio visits interspersed with a stop by the Chief Joseph Memorial, a tour of the Valley Bronze foundry, a stroll through Main Street art galleries and quick trips to nearby Wallowa Lake State Park to sit by the glacial-lake. Not bad for a 3-day escape from Portland.

Sculptor and master flute-maker Roger McGee is a bayou-boy from Louisiana who has found himself in the far-reaches of northeast Oregon making Native American flutes. His wife, Cherie, is a paper artist. They should be the poster-people for the adage, “Follow your bliss.” Together they work at their home studio, Wind Dancer Studio, with the joy and abandon of kids hard at work playing. Cheri uses upwards of 25 different kinds of scissors to varying effects and layers colored papers to create stunning collage-like prints. Roger uses sculpture and Native American tuning techniques to create one-of-a-kind flutes that can send your spirit soaring. Grammy-nominated artist R. Carlos Nakai and Grammy-award winner Mary Youngblood think so, too, choosing McGee’s custom flutes as their instruments.

Woodworker Charlie Mastro is a man who loves his tools. Correction: his Japanese tools. An afternoon with Mr. Mastro is a journey into the fine art of perfect detail with an education on the history of fine woodworking tools to boot (Japanese tools operate on the ‘pull’ stroke rather than the ‘push’ stroke allowing for more control and precision). You’re guaranteed to leave with a profound appreciation for joinery—how two pieces of wood are joined together—and awe for the beauty of wood finished by the hands of a master craftsman. If you call ahead of time, Mr. Mastro is happy to offer a class in woodworking techniques.

Jim and Anne Shelly’s Fire Works Pottery is a hobbit-like studio nestled into the woods en route to the Hurricane Creek trailhead just a few miles outside of downtown Joseph. It is a necessary stop. The husband and wife team are a bubbling fountain of creativity and a studio tour is a fascinating foray into the Shelley’s endless experimentation with technique. You will find functional pottery and more abstract pieces, as well as a spirited discussion of the merits of form versus function. Make sure to see their homemade kiln.

Stops on the Wallowa Valley Studio Tours are close enough to squeeze in a tour of the internationally-recognized Valley Bronzefoundry as well hikes into the first-rate wilderness that surrounds Joseph. While on paper it may look like too-packed of a schedule for a short vacation, but the reality is a mind-opening and soul-nourishing adventure. For residents and visitors alike, Joseph is just plain good for the soul.

P.S. The fantastic hosts at the Bronze Antler B&B make your visit complete!

Published in Travel Oregon