A history of Portland women artists

Katherine Ace's "9 Portraits" celebrates the strength of a generation of women artists. All nine gather to talk about how they got there.

It’s all about the art, of course. But it’s also about the artists and the viewers, and how and why the art came to be. So on a sunny Saturday morning at Froelick Gallery off Northwest Broadway in Portland, a standing-room-only crowd of more than 80 people, many of whom had ducked and dodged around the Portland International Beerfest setting up in the park a block away, gathered to delve into a particular work of art and its double and singular visions.

Katherine Ace, 9 Portraits, diptych, 2019; oil, alkyd on canvas, 72 x 120 inches, at Froelick Gallery through July 13. Photo: Jim Lommason

The crowd, many of whom were also artists, packed the place to get a close look at 9 Portraits, artist Katherine Ace’s 10-foot-wide diptych group portrait of nine prominent veteran Portland women artists, and to hear those artists talk about the painting, their careers, and the often difficult path of making it as a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field.

Singular visions? The artists in the painting are united in their variety, creating work as different as Mary Josephson’s riveting and lushly stylized portraiture, Lucinda Parker’s bold modernist slashes of musical paint, Shu-Ju Wang’s richly detailed book-art projects and clusters of small patterned paintings, Judy Cooke’s sharp expressive geometrical shapes, Sharon Bronzan’s iconically myth- and folklore-infused scenes, Phyllis Yes’s pointed conceptual art, Sherrie Wolf’s color-saturated overlays of the contemporary and the historical, Laura Ross-Paul’s ephemeral contemporary figurativism, and Ace’s own deeply personal, sometimes startlingly mythic naturalism. “We women don’t paint the same,” Ace, the instigator of it all, declared at one point. “We’re individualists. … (but) we’re a small enough market that we’re also a community.”

Double vision? Watching the panel discussion felt a bit like peering through an old-fashioned stereoscopic viewer tipped at a 90-degree angle. The nine painters sat in a semi-circle below Ace’s painting, each arranged below her own portrait: from the left, Ross-Paul, Ace, Josephson, Cooke, Yes, Bronzan, Wang, Parker, and Wolf, with gallery director Rebecca Rockom sitting at the far left and moderating. 9 Portraits takes up an entire wall, and the space was arranged like a little makeshift theater, with the “actors” animating the stage and echoing their own portraits, and the audience taking in both at once.

An overflowing crowd packed Froelick Gallery on Saturday to hear Katherine Ace’s nine artists talk. Photo: Stephen O’Donnell

Difficult path? These nine artists, most in their 60s or 70s, have been through the battles. They told tales of having to push themselves into the art conversation – of declining offers to be gofers and mistresses to male artists, of being told that sculpture was too hard for women to handle, of pressures to work in “women’s” forms. H.W. Janson’s History of Art, probably the 20th century’s most widely used textbook in college art-history programs, came up for its notorious absence until relatively recently of women artists, perpetuating the false impression that there are no women artists worthy of a place in art history.

Cooke noted the impact in the 1970s and ’80s of the old Portland Center for the Visual Arts, and Parker pointed to PCVA’s bringing to town Alice Neel, a great contemporary artist who had to fight for recognition and often didn’t get it. Wang, who came full-time to artmaking after a career as a computer engineer, noted that the roadblocks for women in engineering were similar, and that the current impact in computer engineering of gaming, a very male-oriented enterprise, might have made things worse. Yes talked about teaching at Lewis & Clark College in the early 1980s, in classes with a lot of women students, and asking her students to draw a series of things, including their concept of an artist. “And not one of them drew a woman,” Yes declared – an outcome that became the topic of intense conversation at the next class session. Parker noted that women generally outnumber men in college art classes – they must be taking them because they want to become artists, she declared – but that at each step up the professional and economic ladder, male artists take over the sales and the conversation.

9 Portraits is an attractive painting in a number of ways. To begin, it’s a work of living history – a “we are here” statement celebrating the achievements of a significant generation of Oregon artists. “As soon as I finished it I thought, ‘People are going to hate me, because I didn’t include them’,” Ace noted, maybe only semi-jokingly, and added that nine was really all the painting could handle. (A little later, an audience member noted one significance of the number nine, recalling Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s comment that ”there will be enough women on the Supreme Court when there are nine.”) Ace knew there were group portraits of male artists in the art-history books – a replication of Henri Fantin-Latour’s 1870 painting A Studio at Les Batignolles is painted into the left side of 9 Portraits ­– but couldn’t find much evidence of the same for women artists. So she decided to do it herself.

9 Portraits detail: Artist Ace’s self-portrait with phone; newspaper clippings and show cards; Ross-Paul and Josephson in working clothes.

It’s been a long and sometimes arduous process. She began taking photographs of her artist friends in 2015, thinking about who to include and how to structure the painting and what would be in the backdrop. (In the painting, Ace depicts herself sitting on a stool and looking down, checking photos on her smart phone: “I’m pretty shy. This is the first self-portrait I’ve done. And I’m sort of hiding behind my phone.”) She worked on each figure separately, staging her shots, determining how her artists would interact on the canvas: She took a photo of Yes, she said, “having a conversation with my mannequin.” Finally, several months ago, she began to paint, sitting on scaffolding as she worked on the long stretch of canvas. It took her three months – “but that is three months of working every single day for 10 or 12 hours. Every day. It becomes what you breathe.” Once she’d finished painting, it took another month to add glaze layers.

And it’s been a historical process. The nine women in the painting are contemporary artists, but each with a long history in the art world. Homages to a pair of earlier Portland woman artists show up in the background – a still life by Sally Haley and the outlines of a painting by Amanda Snyder. A small slice of a large painting by Parker also shows up in the background, disappearing into the right edge. Gallery exhibition cards are strewn on the floor, along with a scatter of old newspaper pages with reviews or features about the artists. And on the wall at the left of the painting Ace has placed her version of Fantin-Latour’s grouping of male artists A Studio at Les Batignolles, a painting that now resides in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. “He had them dress in suits and ties,” Ace remarked. “It was to show that being an artist was a valid profession.”

9 Portraits will be on view at Froelick through July 13, but soon enough it’ll have a more permanent space in town. Ace’s painting, gallery director Rockom announced, has been bought by the prominent Portland collector Arlene Schnitzer “on behalf of the Portland Art Museum,” and Grace Kook-Anderson, the museum’s curator of Northwest art, already has plans to include it in a fall portrait show she’s curating with Portland artist Storm Tharp. Schnitzer has a long history of supporting Northwest women artists and helping to nurture their careers, both as a collector and as founder of the groundbreaking Fountain Gallery.

9 Portraits detail: The shoes have it. From left, Bronzan (seated), Wang, Parker, Wolf.

The political and gender aspects of Saturday’s conversation were crucial and potent. What struck me equally was the importance to this group of artists of work and craft. “These are images of women who are doing something,” Rockom said, looking at the painting. “These are women who are getting it done.” And unlike the male artists dressed as gentlemen in Fantin-Latour’s painting, they’re in their painting clothes, asserting their position in the workplace. Yes commented admiringly on the way Ace rendered the studio floor, all spattered with paint. Ross-Paul brought up the working smocks, all stiff and crusty with paint. “I think the hands are very symbolic,” she said. “Look at the hands. Everybody’s got wonderful hands. Hands are important. They’re connected to the brain. … We all look like we’re looking. Like our brains are engaged.”

Josephson qualified that a bit. “I thought it was more like we’re all in our own worlds,” she said, “thinking about our own work. We’re together, but we all have our own studios.”

And the studios, in the end, are where it happens. If it’s all about the art, the art is largely about the work – the labor, the skill, the creative impulse and the following-through on the creative impulse; the finding of your way through the thicket. “My favorite part of being an artist is about three-fourths of the way through a painting,” Ace said. “You think it’s going to work. It’s talking to you. It’s the hunt. I like the hunt.” The crowd laughed – some, no doubt, in recognition; some at the eager audacity of it all. I knew exactly what she meant.


WILLIE LITTLE


Left: Willie Little, Sweet Hope, 2018. Multimedia oil, wax medium on panel; 41.25 x 31.25 x 2.25 inches. Right: Willie Little, hoops and sticks from his exhibition And Miles To Go Before We Sleep, at Froelick through July 13.

In the front of Froelick Gallery, also through July 13, is Willie Little’s exhibition And Miles To Go Before We Sleep, a bold and arresting blend of large, emphatic paintings and a series of fascinating sticks that seem to carry echoes of Africa in their richly geometric lines. Little, a Portland artist by way of North Carolina, is a recent addition to the Froelick lineup, and what’s here has me eager to see more. The sticks, taller than most people, are strong and ebony-colored, with bristles of natural material: skeleton and flesh in one firm grasp. The paintings are richly colored and graphically assertive, with thick rustic layerings of paint and wax, and as in Breathe (I Can’t), a response to the chokehold death of Eric Garner at the hands of a policeman on Staten Island, they are deeply engaged socially and politically.


KAY WALKINGSTICK


Kay WalkingStick, Buffalo Country (Diptych), 2018, oil on panel, 30 x 60 inches, at Froelick Gallery through July 13.

Froelick has also recently begun to represent Kay WalkingStick, the prominent veteran artist and member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, adding to the gallery’s strong list of indigenous artists: Her large painting Buffalo Country is just around the corner from Ace’s 9 Portraits. Speaking of Janson’s History of Art, as we were above, in 1995 WalkingStick became the first Native American artist and the first Native American woman artist to be included in its august pages. It’s a bit like leaving the whole Latin American magical realism movement out of the literature texts: Janson nudges its door open slowly, creakily, and reluctantly.

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