“I was too much the farmer’s daughter, in a sense. You know, that marvelous dirt out there that gets turned over with a plow and getting my hands dirty in the clay was the thing that turned me on.”
Betty Feves, the pioneering modernist ceramic artist who flourished for many years in the Oregon desert town of Pendleton, had a habit of explaining herself very well. So when you sit down to write about her, the temptation is just to let her talk. And Namita Gupta Wiggers, curator of the just-opened retrospective exhibition Generations: Betty Feves at Portland’s Museum of Contemporary Craft, does a lot of that in her illuminating catalog essay, Betty Feves: Setting the Stage for Clay, which kicks off with the quote above.
Walking into the exhibit the other day and almost immediately standing before a handsome longitudinal sculpture called Garden Wall, I discovered another of Feves’ plain-spun self-descriptions on the explanatory label. “I always have difficulty putting titles on things,” the label reads. “ ‘Figure Group,’ ‘Figure da da da …’ and you always have to have them for the exhibitions. Once in a while, it’s easy, for instance, ‘The Cliff-Dwellers.’ But the literary connection has never been an important element for me.”
Betty Whiteman Feves’ bare-bones biography is this: born into a Northwest wheat-farming family in 1918, died in 1985, studied art at Washington State College (now University) in the late ’30s under the young Clyfford Still and others, spent a few years in New York studying at the Art Students League and working before returning in 1945 to Pendleton, where she remained the rest of her life.
But that’s like a beginner staring at the desert and seeing nothing but emptiness. Looking at two floors of exhibition space filled with Feves’ sophisticated-primitive forms, and listening to the way she talked about herself and her art, the picture shifts. You begin to see a woman unabashedly of the open spaces. A practical woman who found doing and seeing infinitely preferable to naming and categorizing. A woman as frank and energetic as the high plateau, with an eagerness for life. In spite of all the intellectualizing that seems inescapable in the art world, most artists are blue-collar workers in the sense that they work in a physical way with physical materials. In Feves’ case you get the sense that working with her hands was both a discipline and a sensual pleasure: down and dirty with the muck.
Wandering around the craft museum’s galleries you can see the sorts of pieces that suggest other artists and movements: an elongated Modigliani head or two, some Henry Moore-like figures with holes through them (one looks very much like a Madonna without child, the empty space opening precisely where the belly would be), hints of Picasso and Feves’ early teacher, the Ukrainian-born Cubist and Constructivist artist Alexander Archipenko. For reference there’s also a single painting by Still, a key 20th century West Coast artist and teacher who was one of the founders of Abstract Expressionism. Feves adapted modernist and abstract approaches to the much more functional world of clay sculpture.
Wiggers stresses that Feves didn’t come to ceramics through the arts & crafts world but through contemporary fine art. This is a pertinent point, especially considering the shotgun marriage of the two that took place more than a half-century ago. Wiggers refers to the work of Peter Voulkos and the Otis Group in the late 1950s, which Feves’ own work a few years earlier anticipated, as “undoubtedly a moment of rupture, a critical shift in which the methods and approaches of the American avant-garde jumped from one art medium – painting – to be redefined in another – ceramics.”
Thinking about that shift helps explain why the hierarchy of “art” over “craft” has come under fierce attack in recent years. A lot of artists who see the distinction as a dead end have just plain ignored it, and it can seem a little silly: do you scold the earth for not being the sky? But the distinction can influence the way that individual artists think about how they fit into the larger arts world and what it is, exactly, that they do.
In Feves’ case, the two seem inseparable. Her more mature work, the stuff where you see more of her and less of her influences, is pared down and elemental, more purely suggestive than representational of anything specific or immediate. But you also see, very clearly, the landscape in which she lived her life: the geologic curvatures and textures, the size and brawn, the brown-based desert colors that shift suddenly and sometimes burst into flame. Things crack and sag and curl, and sometimes their glazed surfaces look like wood or stone. But usually lurking somewhere is the spine of the land. Its impact is inescapable, as in the paintings of the late Oregon abstract artist Carl Morris and the works of Pendleton artist James Lavadour, whose celebrated international career got a kick-start from Feves’ prodding and encouragement.
The craft museum’s retrospective is a big show that documents both the arc of Feves’ career and the broad range of her interests. It includes some purely functional pieces – bowls, plates, casseroles, the eating and cooking implements of a well-led life – as well as some glorious large bonfire pots that have their roots in everyday use but have moved beyond it to pure form. A series of six from about 1981, coiled and rounded in a delicate and arduous technical process, with small openings at their tops and subtly interrupted smooth surfaces, are reminiscent of Southwest Indian art without mimicking it.
Like a lot of modernist and at least nominally abstract artists, Feves didn’t entirely abandon figurativism (her small ca. 1955 stoneware bust Harmonica Player, with its puffing cheeks and long cupped fingers hugged close to the jaw, is recognizable and expressive and funny) but more often used design elements such as leaf figures as decorative marks on more abstract shapes. And often, only shape and shade remain, even if the shapes of pieces such as her late ’70s and early ’80s series of “stacked sculptures” suggest human form. The abstracted human form is more vivid, and wryly comic, in a series of monolithic 1960s mud-people figures sometimes adorned with thatches of prickly dried-grass hair.
Feves’ link to the land went beyond simply looking at it: she used it, often literally. Armed with digging tools and a geological survey map, she would go on hunting expeditions, seeking out places where she could gather material for her work and take it home to her studio. “She had specific sites that she would go to get the clay she wanted for specific effects,” Wiggers says.
Like many artists struggling to find their own voices, Feves had ambivalent relationships with some of her teachers. Archipenko introduced her to clay as a medium, and she studied with him on two separate occasions, but she found him too dogmatic: He had a specific way of doing things, and it was his way or the highway. The Archipenko method was like an old-fashioned European atelier’s: copy from the masters until you’ve learned their techniques.
Still was vastly more open. Wiggers quotes Feves on the subject: “It wasn’t what he taught in terms of techniques, it was the sense of dedication, the excitement about being an artist, the importance of it.” Yet he, too, was a controversial teacher. When another artist/teacher, David Park, famously tossed all of his abstract-expressionist paintings in the Berkeley city dump in 1949 and set off the Bay Area Figurative Movement, it was partly a response to Still’s insistence that contemporary art must be abstract.
Feves had another problem with Still, as Wiggers details in her essay: He had, as Feves’ friend Alice Burke Schuchmann put it, “difficulty with women who had talent.” This was partly because he thought they’d just get married and have kids and give up their careers.
Again, Wiggers quotes Feves, from a 1951 letter to Burke: “Still is all wet – he put the work of art as the product as the ultimate achievement. Important as it may be, I’m sure that more important is the sense of pleasure and achievement, felt by the individual doing the work. That’s why the women students and second and third raters are still not really a waste of time. … The more I recall of Still’s notions the more I realize how false much of it was.”
And this seems to be a crucial turning point in Feves’ career. What many people would see as a retreat – her move back to the “emptiness” of Pendleton – in fact opened up not just her career, but her life. She married a doctor, Louis Feves, who was a leading and inspirational figure in the community, and raised four children. She taught music. She served for many years on the Pendleton school board. Whether it was her intention or not, she became an inspiration to younger women artists for the way she achieved a balance of career and private life, not giving up either. She had a rich personal and public life – and she made art. That life – her citizenship in her community, her rejection of paternalistic attitudes about what a career “ought” to be, her sense that where she was was where she needed to be and that actually making art was more important than being recognized for it – makes up the fascinating underlying story of everything you see as you walk through the craft museum’s exhibition.
It also marks her as a quintessentially Northwest artist. And it underscores the underappreciated truth that “regional” and “national” are not mutually exclusive terms.
- Dep’t of Credit Where Credit’s Due: Wiggers is the longtime curator of the Museum of Contemporary Craft, and the invaluable source of most of what’s factual and none of which isn’t in this essay. A good curator is a good editor, researcher, analyst, historian, explainer and designer rolled into one package, and like good editors, good curators seldom get sufficient credit for what they do. So this one’s for Namita. I cribbed shamelessly from her essay on Feves, and scribbled many notes from snatched conversation while walking through the exhibition with her and a small group of fellow journalists. Where I jumped to unwarranted conclusions, the jumping was mine and mine alone. Not to give away any trade secrets, but this is one of the ways that journalism gets done.
- Vital Statistics: “Generations: Betty Feves” opened March 15 and continues through July 28 at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, 724 Northwest Davis Street, Portland. Hours: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; open to 8 p.m. the first Thursday of every month. Admission $4 general, $3 for students 13+ and seniors 62+, free for ages 12 and younger. (503) 223-2654.