Eastern Oregon University > Mountaineer Magazine > Alumni Stories > 55 by 55

55 by 55

By Ronald Bond, Wallowa County Chieftain
Story and photos re-published with permission.

Joan Gilbert in her studio
Joan Gilbert, ’90, works with a wide range of media to capture a single subject: Wallowa Lake, in 55 distinct pieces before her 55th birthday.

Joan Gilbert, ’90, is stepping outside her comfort zone.

Gilbert, a graphic artist who lives in Enterprise, is seeking to expand her artistic ability while completing a major project that will be three years in the making.

The project, called “Wallowa Lake: 55×55,” will be completed next year and displayed at the Josephy Center for Arts and Culture.

“Basically, I started two years ago with a three-year project (that) by the time I turned 55, I will have done 55 pieces of artwork — all pertaining to Wallowa Lake,” she said.

That 55th birthday — and with it, the project’s deadline — will arrive in August 2022.

Gilbert, a La Grande native, originally got a degree in economics from EOU and didn’t seriously consider art until she was prodded by her parents (former EOU President David Gilbert and Carolyn Gilbert) to take an art class. She finally took their advice during her junior year, and then finished the core classes for art at EOU before transferring to Oregon State University to get a degree in graphic design and illustration.

She has turned that into a career as a graphic designer, and has worked with more than 100 businesses since moving to Wallowa County in 2002. She’ll complete watercolor and acrylic paintings of Wallowa Lake, but also expand to less familiar mediums, too.

“Part of the reason I started this project was to give me an excuse to sample all types of media and techniques. I’ve done illustration before, and children’s book illustration,” she said.

Joan Gilbert sculpting clay in her studio
Joan Gilbert sculpting clay in her studio

Pastels. Oil. Cold-wax paintings. Wood carvings. Mosaics. Potentially a monochromatic, black-and-white piece.

“I may even have a bronze in the show, and that is way out of my comfort level,” she said. “You name it, I am going to try to experiment.”

Wallowa Lake serves as the subject for several reasons.

“My family spent a lot of time up there — it’s sentimental,” she said. “I spent six years being art director at Wallowology. I learned a lot about the lake and learned how special it is with the moraine and the protections.”

Choosing just one subject for the focal point, she said, was a way to keep her from having to decide which subject to focus on in different mediums.

The pieces won’t be identical in scope, though. One is a pastel of fireworks over the lake. Another is an icy winter scene painted in watercolor. Yet another has the lake in the background and is focused on a bird nest in the trees.

The bronze piece she hopes to complete — and currently is in the process of making a clay sculpture of — is Wally, the Wallowa Lake sea monster.

The high volume of pieces gives her plenty of opportunity to experiment, and will help her work through a fear she carries with her artwork.

“If I did just three pieces, then I might get over-obsessed with those. I wanted to keep things loose and keep moving forward. If I have a goal of a lot of pieces I keep moving forward,” she said. “One of the things I always knew I had — and I have to work through it, is sort of the fear of finishing. I tend to overwork things. It could be pretty darn good and I keep noodling with it, and it ruins it.”

To prevent “noodling,” when she reaches a point where a piece is close to done, but needs that final, finishing touch, she’ll shelve it for a while, focus on another piece, then return to the incomplete one.

As a result, she is approaching two-thirds of the way through the project, but many pieces are in this limbo stage of close, but not quite done. A year away from her deadline, 18 of the pieces were complete and several others were at about 75% done.

Working on “55×55” three days a week from her home studio, Gilbert said she may be putting final touches on things the night before the display is set up.

And while her graphic design work has been rewarding — and could be a fall-back plan — she is hopeful this step outside of her comfort zone could be successful enough to allow her to become a full-time artist.

“Can I actually start a career from this? That is the big question,” she said. “I’m hoping by the end I’ll have fallen in love with a medium and I’ll want to work with that. If I get a gallery representation that would be great.”