March 26th, 2021

Rooted in McMinnville: Linfield University’s Thea Gahr

Thea Gahr sits on a futon in her McMinnville art studio, a small one-room space she shares with fellow artist Nathaniel Hitchcock. Her prints are on the wall, his guitars rest on floor stands. Some of her recent paintings remain on an easel. From the ceiling, an aerial hoop hangs in the middle of the room. It’s hard to overlook.

The hoop may be an apt metaphor for Thea’s explorations in life and art. She’s taken twists and turns, lived in different countries, and explored new forms of artistic expression. Like the hoop, the circle returned her home.

The Yamhill County native is an adjunct professor of art at Linfield University where she’s been teaching for nearly a decade. She added a new role as Linfield Gallery curator two years ago. Then COVID forced curtailment at the gallery.

Thea has big plans, including a unique gallery installation this fall.  She recently took time to answer a few questions.

Q: You’re originally from this area?

Thea: I grew up in the Muddy Valley area on Masonville Road (south of McMinnville), and when I was pretty young, maybe about 13, I started organizing punk shows out on my family’s farm. I was trying to funnel culture down from Portland, which was great. I just wanted something positive for us youth to do. I craved culture like music and art and dance and the full array.

Q: But you didn’t stay here. You hit the road.

Thea: I worked and saved up money and went to Australia with a friend when I was 17, then came back and lived in Portland where I started doing aerials and sewing puppets. I did that for some years, always making art. I went to school at PNCA (Pacific Northwest College of Art). I loved it and I learned a lot.

Q: I understand you lived in Mexico for a few years. How did that affect your art?

Thea: Yes, I left in my mid 20s for Mexico. I first went to Seattle to go to circus school and met somebody there from Mexico. We cycled down to Mexico and I just fell in love with the place and stayed for six years. There the printmaking tradition is super rich with imagery that changes how people feel and think about their physical world. And I got it.

Q: You eventually made it back to McMinnville and now teach drawing, painting, and printmaking at Linfield University. But you recently took on a larger role as Linfield Gallery curator?

Thea: I was invited to curate the Linfield Gallery two years ago. I had been teaching at Linfield about eight years at the time, so they knew me well.

Q: How do you reach your audience?

Thea: It’s all about bringing in specific artists that are really speaking to this moment in space and time, choosing who is going to present their work here and why now. And asking how is it relating? Not everyone will relate but that isn’t the point. What’s interesting is having a feeling, loving or hating something. It’s about having a reaction, like what a gift it is to get to feel alive. And I think that that’s what art gives us.

Q: What do have planned for the gallery once COVID restrictions are lifted?

Thea: We’re hoping to bring in two quite large shows this fall. One is Lucia Torres, an artist coming from Mexico City. She’s just brilliant. She’s a musician and she does photo embroidery. She merges these two things with deep-rooted traditional Mexico City spirituality.

Q: You’ve lived in different places, in other countries, and now you’ve been back home for about 10 years. What keeps you rooted in McMinnville?

Thea: I dream that all of this work that I’ve done, in Mexico and in Haiti and all over the U.S. and Europe, I can bring those nutrients here. What keeps me rooted here is seeing this potential in connecting all these brilliant, brilliant people in this artistic community. I have this feeling that there’s a purpose, that I have a place, a connection to this place.

Dan Shryock

Dan Shryock regularly writes about McMinnville and Yamhill County.