It's almost sunset. We're rushing out onto a grassy plateau overlooking the Columbia River in Central Oregon—past the renovated 1880 farm shack with three cars in the driveway, past the middle-schooler dangling in a hammock out front, past the net-enclosed trampoline in the side yard, past the patch of grapevines—and I'm following James Matthisen, who with his wife and kids has lived here 12 years (he is a business consultant who makes wine on the side). I ask, "So do you own the artwork, then?"

"I guess it just sort of comes with," he says. "I mean, it was cool and important, but it's not why we bought the place. My kids are into doing scavenger hunts on it, though."


We barely make it out in time. The sun is already sliding down the back of a hill across the river. But for a minute, we see what we came for: ourselves aligned perfectly with the universe.

We achieve this by standing at a 12-ton work of art that has gone unappreciated for a very long time. This work of land art is called Stone Alignments/Solstice Cairns, it stands on the Rowena Plateau above the Columbia River outside the town of Mosier, Oregon, and it was commissioned by the Portland Center for the Visual Arts in 1979. While it's made of stones—stones that point directly at the point where the sun rises and sets on the solstice—the 3,200 stones themselves are not really the art; it's the experience they create. The experience involves, among other things, knowing where you are located. It involves knowing that in the direct line between you and the planet's source of life—the sun, seen across the Columbia River on the day when we get the most of it—there rests a former open-air Native American burial ground island, just lying there in the middle of the river like a pregnant woman on her back. The artist who makes you notice all this is Michelle Stuart; she lives in New York.

Back in May, a group of artists and arts workers in Portland—organizers of a new arts center in Portland called YU Contemporary—posted to the YU blog, "Google Earth research revealed a circular trace in the landscape that is almost positively evidence of the earthwork."

They didn't even know for sure whether the art was extant; it had sat forgotten by the art establishment for three decades. That's why they organized this bunch of people to get into a bus and drive out there.

"This is all Lewis and Clark territory now," one guy on the bus said, as we exited exurban Portland and entered frontierland.

Wrong! I thought. The 100-foot circle of stones and cairns on Rowena Plateau is Michelle Stuart territory. This is a woman, born in California, the daughter of Swiss and Australian immigrants, who in the 1950s did work for the Army Corps of Engineers as a topographical drafter and painted on rickety scaffolding alongside Diego Rivera in Mexico (all this after a brief stint as one of the few women in art school, where "even the teachers wanted to screw you," she recalls). In 1975, she moved Niagara Falls back to its prehistoric location: She sent a 460-foot scroll made of sheets of sewn-together paper cascading down the side of the earth that the falls originally carved 12,000 years ago.

That scroll dissolved in a few weeks, intentionally (it lives on, like so many earthworks, in photographs that have become their own lasting monuments). But Stuart had the misfortune of building her one major, permanent earthwork in art Siberia—the wet Northwest—rather than in the dry, self-preserving, popular Southwest.

Then she didn't pimp it and she didn't repeat it.

"I'm not like the guys," she says, laughing, in a phone conversation from her summer studio in Amagansett on Long Island. She's referring to artists like James Turrell, who has been repeatedly creating Skyspaces around the world (such as the one at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle) while working on his massive Roden Crater in Arizona for the last 30-plus years. "I don't hustle my one genius piece. I just keep working."

"I'm a little confused about what kind of experience we're gonna have here," Portland artist Aaron Flint Jamison said excitedly as he de-boarded the bus that had taken us 80 miles east of the city. Jamison was born in 1979, the year this art was made.

"If people go to the piece," wrote Paul Sutinen in the Willamette Week in 1979, "they should avoid going in groups."

Our group received, upon climbing into the bus, a copy of Sutinen's essay reprinted beautifully by YU. Sutinen was part of the small construction crew in 1979, which meant driving a pickup truck to a location 40 miles south, where a private property owner had agreed to give the artist as many water-smoothed river stones as she wanted from a stream bed at the base of Mount Hood. The stones would be placed, as visible interlopers, at the jaggedy-rock plateau location (property of a second private landowner) near Mosier. "To bring the mountain to the river," Stuart wrote.

"Stone by stone, that's how the work had grown," Sutinen wrote. "Each stone had been chosen over and over again, first at the source, then from the pile dumped from the truck, then perhaps shifted in the alignment. The stones were used as is. Measured by eye and hand, there was no cutting of a two-by-four, no molding of concrete, no welding together. Choose the stone, see if it looks right in the place, see if it fits, see if it will balance to hold itself in place, work with the simple material given—that was the process."

The pattern Stuart used—"Stuart's piece is like a lens gathering many things into focus," Sutinen wrote—looks like a wheel with three spokes. One points to sunrise on the solstice, another to sunset. The third points due north-south.

Cairns up to five feet tall sit at the ends of the spokes and in the center of the circle. Stuart buried rocks from her other travels inside the central cairn—rocks "from Guatemala, New Jersey, Scandinavia, and England," she wrote. Also hidden in the central cairn is Taoist poetry by Han Shan and a line from Rudyard Kipling's ode to the sun god Mithras: "Many roads Thou hath fashioned: all of them lead to the Light."

It was not until later that Stuart discovered that Mithras is said to have been born from a rock. It was also not until later that she discovered that she'd aligned the view to the setting sun straight through what's now called Memaloose Island. Named after a Chinook word, Memaloose was once a burial ground upon which bodies were set, often in the upright seated position wrapped in blankets. In the 1950s, when Stuart was making her way into the world (she refuses to share her age and says the internet—which claims her birth year as 1938—has it wrong), Memaloose came to the attention of the State of Oregon because it was about to be flooded by water rising above the Bonneville Dam. Some 650 bodies were moved and reburied in 1957; the island was reduced from four acres to about half an acre. The only conspicuous mark on the island today is a six-foot-tall obelisk that marks the grave of a white state legislator and gentlemen's saloon owner (self-proclaimed "anti-Negro" but very pro–Native American) whose dying wish was to be buried in the place where his first wife, a Native American woman from whom he'd separated, was buried in 1883. "In the resurrection," he wrote, "I will take my chances with the Indians."

"That was another one of those very strange, um, happenings," Stuart says. "The reason I think I found out about that island is that there was a woman who had worked at Foster/White Gallery [in Seattle, where Stuart had a simultaneous exhibition in 1979] who came out to the opening of the piece with her husband or boyfriend. His family had lived in that area back to the 19th century, if I remember correctly, and he said, you know, that island is very significant, and you've sited the piece exactly on it. I mean, it was really spooky. The other funny part was, there's another place along that stretch of river with a fake Stonehenge."

The fake Stonehenge is a burial ground, too, erected by and for Sam Hill, another eccentric-come-West whose intended family home (they never came to join him from the Midwest) instead became Maryhill Museum of Art. When Maryhill opened in 1940, Time magazine called it "the remotest museum in the world"; it has on display live peacocks, chess sets of the world, Romanian regalia, and plaster casts by Rodin.

As if the view of the setting sun and glinting river with pregnant burial island weren't enough, a pair of deer line up along the route of Stone Alignments/Solstice Cairns at sunset on June 21.

"The fates were always with this piece," Stuart says by phone later.

Back in 1979, she stood "in the wind at 4:00 a.m. every morning to see which notch or triangle on the mountains the rising sun will crown," followed by the same task at night—in order to determine where the rocks should go. She made a deal with the rattlesnakes: I'll never put a rock over one of your holes if you don't bite us; they didn't, although Stuart and her assistant camped out every night and worked every day (the farmhouse on the property then had no electricity, let alone an enclosed trampoline). On the morning of the solstice in 1979, in one of the cairns where a bird had built a nest, an egg opened. "It was magical," Stuart says, still in disbelief.

The land is, unexpectedly, super bumpy, like a field of ski moguls, and covered—at the moment—with hairy grass, dotted with pretty purple bachelor's buttons. Stuart hasn't been here in more than a decade.

This June 21, there's discussion about how long it will take for the art to go out of alignment with the sun, given the earth's wobble. "There are petroglyphs in Italy that still line up," one person says; the universe moves slowly. Except when it doesn't. Stuart thinks younger artists are interested in 1970s earthworks in part because there's terrifying evidence of climate change every day. Stone Alignments/Solstice Cairns relates to the desire to get realigned—which might be proposed as the ethos of the entire ongoing experiment we call the Western United States (even when that ethos gets perverted).

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If the art is a map leading in many directions at once, one of the great spots it points to is Stuart herself—and to the idea of woman as mapmaker, despite the odds against her. With a new book out, a widely praised double-venue solo survey in New York this year, and work in an upcoming land-art survey in LA, Stuart is experiencing a boomlet.

But Stone Alignments/Solstice Cairns is unlikely to join the national circuit of Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty on the Great Salt Lake or Walter De Maria's The Lightning Field in New Mexico or Turrell's much-anticipated Roden Crater—tourist destinations all (one curator I know says she makes it a point to urinate on every land artwork she visits). There's no way to visit without getting permission from Matthisen, for instance. He uses a drawing of the art on the label of his wine. He did this without asking Stuart, who says, laughing only a little uncomfortably, that she prefers rum. recommended