The story begins with a chance encounter while Klatt was attending art school. Given an assignment to paint something organic, Klatt chose a fish, versus the more conventional bowl of fruit or vase of flowers. Eventually, she graduated from Washington State University with a Master in Fine Arts in 1990, specializing in drawings and paintings of fish, particularly those native to the Pacific Northwest.
A little more than seven years ago, Klatt's artistic vision was influenced by her discovery that (according to a 1995 National Marine Fisheries Service study) 61 species of salmon had become extinct just in the tributaries of the Columbia River. This epiphany of large-scale salmon extinction inspired her to "embark on a pilgrimage," she writes. In a 2006 Lost Horse Press catalog documenting the first run of "Litany of Salmon," she documents vision-quest she came to think of as "the Sacred Heart of Salmon."
"Salmon called me through my dreams and paintings, in stories and myths, until the impulse became a longing that would not be denied," she writes.
In order to signify a transition from the mundane to the ascetic, Klatt shaved her head, took the name Salmon Pilgrim and vowed to see all the rivers of extinction. Beginning in 2000, Klatt took two years to explore all of the Columbia River tributaries, pausing in between her travels to attend to the necessities of everyday life in Hope, Idaho. At each stop along her journey, Klatt performed several rituals. She made offerings to the river, such as wood and rocks she'd gathered previously from where the Columbia rejoins the sea. Klatt prayed for the "health of the river and the return of the salmon," she writes. And she collected water, which she would then mix with pigment to create the watercolor paintings of the salmon that would represent the now-extinct species from that river.
Once back in her studio, Klatt worked from sketches, notes and her photos to develop a realistic representation of each fish. She depicted the salmon in mating pairs as they appeared during their pilgrimage, transformed by the call to create. She also married each pair to a species now extinct and the river in which they once swam, with titles like "Extinct: Wind River Coastal Cutthroat." Some examples come closer to home: the Spokane River Spring Chinook, the Pend Oreille River Steelhead.
The result was entitled "Litany of Salmon," a series of 51 paintings first shown in 2005 at North Idaho College and again at Sandpoint's Oden Community Hall. Thirty of those images will be shown at the MAC.
"Inspiring" is how curator of art Ben Mitchell describes Klatt's story. "Amazing" and "visionary" are other possible descriptors. The title, even, is a credit to Klatt's contemplative approach. A litany can be a series of liturgical prayers or requests for blessings, like the ones Klatt spoke at each of the rivers she visited. It can be an invocation from a priest including the response from congregation. When asked what response Klatt is hoping for from viewers, she has a reply ready: "I want them to weep in the face of this devastation."
Eileen Klatt's "Litany of Salmon" will be on display in the MAC's Orientation Gallery from Sept. 7-Oct. 28. Artist reception: Friday, Sept. 7, at 5:30 pm. Call 456-3931.