View of the lake

An exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art maps the art history of Lake Tahoe

Albert Bierstadt painted “Donner Lake from the Summit” in 1873.

Albert Bierstadt painted “Donner Lake from the Summit” in 1873.

Photo/Kris Vagner

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Picture Lake Tahoe. Now picture what you think might be “the art of Lake Tahoe.” What comes to mind?

For me, until last week, “Tahoe art” meant magazine photos of Sand Harbor’s boulders, set as if they were jewels in seductive, cerulean and emerald waters; chainsaw-carved bear statues standing outside gift shops; and high-contrast black and white glossies of Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra or anyone trying to emulate their style, sitting around a poker table with a martini, grinning uproariously.

Images from pop culture, kitsch and Nevada Commission on Tourism ads came to mind easily, but what about images from actual art history or those by artist working today? Other than the bold landscapes and swirling skies by South Lake Tahoe’s Phyllis Shafer, the region’s most prominent contemporary landscape painter, I had nothing.

Then I joined curator Ann Wolfe for a sneak preview of the exhibit, Tahoe: A Visual History at the Nevada Museum of Art. It turns out the gap in my knowledge wasn’t just from having snoozed through the “Tahoe” chapter of college art history. The problem was that it hadn’t yet been written.

“There’s never been a full art history of our region undertaken,” Wolfe said. “Yosemite has been done, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls—major art museums and art historians have worked on that material, but never Lake Tahoe and Donner.”

Five years ago, she set out to research, write and exhibit that history. This weekend it will be officially unveiled in the form of a comprehensive exhibit that takes up the whole museum, accompanied by a catalog that weighs in at almost 500 pages and a wider-than-usual roster of special events. The schedule includes gallery talks, classes, Tahoe Rim Trail Association hikes, a commissioned musical performance, and what sounds like an Antiques Road Show of historic basketry, where people can bring in their Native American-made baskets and have them identified by a panel of experts, three of whom have the title of “Dr.” before their names.

In addition to scholars of basketry, Wolfe and the museum staff also consulted a range of other experts to help get their heads around this enormous topic. They included essayists, curators, research librarians, archivists and members of the Washoe Cultural Advisory Committee. The museum borrowed about 400 paintings, maps and documents from a long list of lenders that includes collectors, galleries, museums and institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Washington D.C., the De Young Museum in San Francisco, the Field Museum in Chicago, the California State Capital, the Nevada State Museum, and the University of Nevada, Reno.

The museum’s galleries have been closed for almost a month so this exhibit could be installed, and when they open again Aug. 22 they’ll look a little different than usual. New cabinetry, mural-sized, historic photos printed on the wall and antique, leather-bound books in vitrines make it look a bit like a history museum. And, just like in a history museum, visitors are expected to start on the third floor and progress through the exhibit in chronological order.

Woven through history: Regional basketry

The first stop is a large collection of Washoe baskets.

“People know the Gatekeeper’s”—the museum of the North Lake Tahoe Historical Society in Tahoe City, California—“and they know the Nevada Historical Society, and they have great collections,” Wolfe said. But there hasn’t ever been an exhibit that’s covered the full scope of Washoe basketry. She worked with scholars and consultants to unearth dozens of stories, enough baskets to fill several rooms, and a few other woven items such as snowshoes, fishing nets and cradleboards for carrying babies. “Most of these were collected about 1890s, some older than that,” Wolfe said.

There are several examples of contemporary baskets, but still, Wolfe hopes it’s not a dying art form. She said, “Although the tradition is still cherished by Washoe people, there are very few basket weavers still working. It’s super time-consuming, and there’s not a market for it.” She named Florine Conway and Sue Coleman as two artisans who still work in the tradition. As part of a larger effort to keep the tradition alive, Coleman plans to teach a weekend basket weaving workshop at the museum.

Early paintings: Are those the Sierras or the Catskills?

Even though the arrangement of artworks in the exhibit is new, and the layout of the galleries is different, much of the work might look familiar, especially historic paintings. Wolfe said, “Almost every major landscape painter working in the 19th century was here [in the region].”

Rooms of oil paintings depict Lake Tahoe, Donner Summit and environs, often bathed in the romantic, hazy light of—what?—an East Coast sunrise.

“All of these painters are working in the Hudson River School style,” Wolfe said. That style of painting, which rendered the landscape with as much flattery as possible, was popular to the point of ubiquity in the late 1800s, and just about any place could be amended with a fictional detail or two. Sometimes, especially when a painting was commissioned by a railroad or other corporation, it had to be what Wolfe termed, “better than right.” For example, Frederick Butman, a Maine native who moved to San Francisco in the 1850s and brought his Down East vision with him, painted a wall-sized canvas with a view of Lake Tahoe from Echo Summit. Wolfe pointed out a fabrication in the picture: “There are really no big, white mountains looking that way. So, there’s a lot of artistic license.”

Art of its place, or art of its time?

That same artistic license was used in a lot of Hudson River School paintings of the West, which brings up a theme that's noticeable throughout the exhibit as viewers traverse through 20th century prints, architecture, hand-drawn maps, and contemporary work: that much of the artwork in this exhibit—and anywhere—is more a product of its time than its place. The entire exhibit, rather than being an accurate depiction of one landscape—could such a thing exist? I vote no—is a complex history of individual viewpoints that are products of their times, all of which happen to have been expressed in Reno's own backyard.

“What’s happening in history is shaping the artistic production,” Wolfe said. Over a century before the internet, before phones even, national trends ran strong, and they still do. It’s easier to identify early Tahoe photos as being those of then-famous Carleton Watkins or Timothy O’Sullivan than it is to identify them as shots of Lake Tahoe. A Frank Lloyd Wright model in a vitrine could have fit into any number of different landscapes. In the contemporary section on the second floor, a wall installation commissioned by Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., is shaped like the Tahoe watershed region and looks very much like a Maya Lin. A “landscape” sculpture comprised of geological samples and detritus collected from Tahoe shores, encased in neatly stacked plexiglass cases, could be described as looking very Brooklyn. It was made by former Renoite Nick Van Woert, who now lives in Brooklyn.

As she passed by Van Woert’s sculpture, Wolfe said teasingly, “There’s your chainsaw bear.” There is actually a section of a chainsaw-carved bear encased in his sculpture. As for the rest of my preconceived notions about Tahoe art—with the exception of Phyllis Shafer, whose paintings are in fact represented in the show—they’re history.