Charlene Rivers and her husband, Ron, with one of her Mount Hood landscapes. Charlene’s work brightens the couple’s home in Parkdale.

Inspired by nature upper valley artist brings love of bright color to work

By Stu Watson

Even with mid-winter sunlight tumbling over Mount Hood and through the picture window of Ron and Charlene Rivers’ house, most everything inside pales when compared to the riot of bright colors erupting from Charlene’s paintings.

On the walls. And easels. And floor. And tabletops.

Almost everywhere in the house the couple has called home since 1976, one encounters the happy expressions of Charlene’s creativity.

Charlene says as long as she can remember, art has flowed in her veins. After she and her childhood sweetheart finished high school in the upper Hood River Valley, they pursued teaching credentials at what is now Western Oregon University in Monmouth.

Charlene graduated with a degree in art education, and taught two years in McMinnville before coming home. Ron had a chance to help his father with the family orchard, and ultimately bought it.

Charlene spent three years helping middle-schoolers tap their inner artists until the birth of their son, Aaron, in 1973. Even though she admits “middle school wasn’t my cup of tea,” she likes teaching. She has done a lot of it.

While mothering Aaron and her daughter, Tanya, Charlene was a substitute teacher for 15 years. She taught cooking, sewing and fiber arts to 4-H kids, and still teaches two or three classes for adults each year.

In what little time remained, Charlene worked with other valley artists such as Mary Winans, Sue Hamada and Judy Lambert to organize—and teach classes through—the Hood River Valley Arts and Crafts Society, and later, the Columbia Art Gallery.

Charlene says she loves teaching her students to move beyond their self-critical mindsets and inhibitions.

“But I prefer to do art,” she says. “I’m more about the process and the fun of creating it. Pretty much everything you create, someone will like it. I tell my students, ‘Don’t judge it. Someone will like it.’”

She says this now, but as a young artist, Charlene wrestled with doubts. Influenced by the masters—including Picasso, Matisse and Monet—Charlene she says she really didn’t like her early work and what she calls her “burn barrel” phase.

More than 40 years later, she has a clear grasp now of what she likes—and doesn’t.

Two examples of fiber art show off Charlene’s talent.

“I like bright colors,” she says. “I don’t blend colors. I use primary colors pretty much all the time. Any time you mix color, you have less brilliance.”

Charlene says something happened in 2006 that transformed her work. She started to draw. Her work became much more abstract and whimsical.

Her husband liked the change.

“The weirder her art gets, the better I like it,” Ron says.

To fuel that new tilt, Charlene turns to the internet, scouring the web for work she admires.

“I’m hooked on Pinterest,” she says. “I look until I see things I like.”

She has pinned work by contemporaries such as Gillian Ayres, Gordon Hopkins and Stephen Kilborn, a New Mexican she encountered on a trip with her daughter.

Charlene puts her work into two categories. The work in one category is clearly inspired by subject matter: Mount Hood, an orchard, a house or Southwestern imagery from the six years she and Ron wintered in Arizona. She calls it “tourist painting.”

“That gets tedious, repetitious,” she says.

People like it, buy it and even commission it. But if she had her druthers?

“I love the abstracts,” she says.

Charlene paints every day or works on handcrafted books. For five years, she has made and self-published coloring books for children, instructional materials for adult classes and, most recently, the Parkdale Palette—a large-format softcover book full of photos, art and recipes.

“With all the tools available, why wait for someone else to publish it for you?” she says.

Charlene also loves to cook. Valley residents may remember the four years she spent starting and helping run the Hood River City Market. The market served cold and hot prepared foods, and supported a robust catering business before Charlene and Ron sold it in late 2004.

Charlene’s distinct style is evident in still lifes inspired by the natural world around her home.

With experiments like that now behind them, Ron approaches his 13th year as chairman of the Hood River County Board of Commissioners. Charlene is planning larger canvases rich with images pilfered from the plant world.

Charlene says 2017 was her best year ever.

“I sold close to 40 paintings this year,” she says.

She tries to keep prices affordable— close to $1,200 for her larger work and less for smaller pieces.

“I don’t care about the money,” Charlene says. “I like people to have my paintings. I even sold one to my niece who lives near Gaston for 30 razor clams.”

For more information, email Charlene at charleneriversstudio@gmail.com, call (541) 352-7362 or go to https://sites.google.com/site/charleneriversstudio/home.