Claudia Cave’s playful visions

A little bit of architecture and a little bit of Dr. Seuss mix it up in the Oregon artist's Hallie Ford Museum show.

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In terms of square footage, and even though it occupies two rooms, Claudia Cave: Interiors and Interiority is not currently the largest exhibition at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem.

But after a few minutes of losing yourself in any one of the playful, surreal worlds depicted in her paintings, it starts to feel like it might be. Cave’s “interiority” may be represented by the fixed boundaries of a vaguely Suessian architecture, but once it occupies your own interiority, the show looms as large as you let it.

Autumn is officially here on Wednesday and Hallie Ford is, mercifully, open to the public, so you can get out of the house and experience that “fall arts” vibe. Masks are required and the museum is open with a maximum capacity of 45 visitors at a time, so timed entry tickets are highly encouraged. Check the museum website for the latest Covid protocols to plan your visit.

Claudia Cave, “Light House,” 2008, gouache and watercolor on paper, 34 x 41 inches, Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Willamette University, Maribeth Collins Art Acquisition Fund, 2008.068. Photo: Aaron Johanson

The Cave exhibition draws from pieces the museum already had acquired, but also includes an impressive number of pieces on loan. According to curator Roger Hull, this is the first time Cave has had her own exhibition at Hallie Ford, even though she’s lived in the Willamette Valley much of her life. “We collect her work because it’s so fascinating, and it’s local,” he said. “She grew up in Corvallis. That’s part of our mission, to promote art that’s from here along with our other collections.”

You hardly need to know anything about Cave to enjoy her artwork, which Hull described at one point as “an anthropomorphic approach to architecture,” but it helps. A brochure written by Hull, a professor of art history emeritus at Willamette University, serves as an excellent introduction. Fewer than half a dozen pages are filled with a brief biography and analysis of Cave’s themes, influences and style.

Claudia Cave, “An American Tradition,” 1983, pencil and colored pencil on paper, 22 x 22 inches, collection of the artist.

As it turns out, Cave’s artistry bloomed from a specific seed: a magazine she encountered as a child.

She was born in Salem in Salem in December 1951. Her father, Lyle, worked at a local cannery. Her mother, Sherlee, was office manager for a Salem architectural firm. Thus, the family’s home in Keizer had within its interior books on Impressionist painting and copies of Architectural Digest. “That was the one magazine we had at home all the time,” Cave says in the notes prepared by Hull. “I pored over each issue. I was fascinated by how things were put together.”

That vision of architecture via a glossy magazine was complemented by her paternal grandmother’s house in Southeast Salem. From the notes:  “It was a very wacky house. Everything was a little off, and that fascinated me. I loved staying with her and looking at everything around her house.” It left her with a lifelong fondness for “awkward things that aren’t quite right, that are off in some way. It comes up in my work.”

“Comes up” is an understatement.

Homes and structures in Cave’s work are expressionistic and nonsensical, with crooked chimneys, rain gutters that seem to have a mind of their own, and ribbons of Rapunzel-like hair fluttering through scenes that will surely resonate in as many different ways as there are viewers. Picasso, Mad Magazine and Whoville from Dr. Suess were among the visual frames of reference that swept along unpredictably in this reporter’s stream-of-consciousness during a recent viewing. Parents, take note: This is a show that, more so than others, would appeal to children.

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Claudia Cave, “Excavation,” 1995, gouache on paper, 33 x 41 inches, collection of the artist.

To be sure, virtually every piece in the show exhibits a wild sense of abandon and play.

One, Dwelling, depicts two structures. One vaguely resembles a classic red-and-white barn and features nearly a dozen tiny windows up near the roof and an impossibly large one down below. The building next door is a mishmash of wacky: A door on the exterior (or is it inside?) opening onto a wood plank walkway that ends at a short ladder one reaches from the ground by a rope; a stairway leading to nowhere; pipes that seem to snake across the exterior of one but through the interior of another. And the homes are bridged by a chimney they share. One can only imagine what Grandma Cave’s house must have looked like to inspire such delightful visual lunacy and mystery.

The people who occupy these surreal scenes, more often than not, are equally bizarre. The woman in Preserve Your Memories is looking at a family photograph album. While the images of photos are “realistic,” the woman herself looks a bit as if a red-and-black striped capital “C” has been stretched and shaped into a person.

Claudia Cave, “Refuge Mask,” 2002, gouache on paper, 20 x 18 inches, collection of Bonnie Hull.

Another woman, seated slightly outside the frame, has an impossibly long arm stretched into the scene, which is spackled with other bits of weirdness: Look carefully and you’ll find a tiny sperm whale near the shoulder of the first woman. Through the room’s window is not the outside, but another inside, the most prominent feature of which is a flimsy chair built of sticks.

This wonderland of Cave’s visual rabbit holes is perhaps best illustrated by The Down Under, in which a series of scenes lead the viewer deeper and deeper into the interior of a charm bracelet’s miniature house.

“In my childhood, charm bracelets were really popular,” Cave writes in the accompanying notes. “My sister had a lot of them, and I had a few, one from the Seattle World’s Fair. I always loved the little objects on charm bracelets. In each charm, a whole world exists. If you look closely, you become part of the experience.” That final sentence nicely describes virtually all of Cave’s work.

“Imagery to me is what comes into my head at the time,” Cave says. “These are not necessarily universal symbols. I leave it to the viewer to figure out what a work means for his or her own self. My art is about other people finding themselves in their own way. They don’t need to know why I specifically put that there.”

Look even closer, not at the images, but at the lines and colors that form the images, and you will see a level of detail that Hull best describes:

“There is a process of structuring the work with drawing as a linear framework and then introducing color, often by using a tiny brush with a very fine point so that each form, pattern and gradation is the result of thousands of marks of great delicacy,” he writes. “Cave’s sometimes wildly energetic renderings are the result of initial free-form sketches and subsequent stages demanding relentless patience and weeks of methodical work.”

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Claudia Cave, “The Down Under,” 1988, gouache on paper, 34 x 42 inches, Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Willamette University, Elmer Edwin Young Purchase Fund, YNGAF93.06

The Cave exhibition occupies two spaces. The Study Room that greets you at the top of the stairs features ten gouache pieces completed between 1985 and 2016. Over in the Print Study Center are 18 more pieces that adorn the walls (some in graphite, others in pencil) and a smorgasbord of smaller pieces in two long glass cases.

The latter includes a collection of “Mail Art,” mixed-media artworks that were sent through the U.S. Mail. At the time, this was apparently a thing, an international movement that eventually inspired Cave and her husband, Kent Sumner, to exchange pieces with other artists in England, Japan, German and Belgium. The notes elaborate:

“These items were of the moment, ephemeral creations made of bits of cardboard, paper, found materials and tape–vehicles for brief, whimsical messages. At times, the work defied standard mailing protocol, as when Sumner sent a hollowed-out eggshell that, somehow, managed to arrive at its destination more or less intact.”

Cave’s artistic skill was apparent even as a child, when she took art classes in Salem public schools, but she did not plan to become an artist. With plans to become a teacher, she enrolled at the Oregon College of Education (now Western Oregon University) and majored in secondary education, minoring in art. She didn’t take much painting because of the expense; students were expected to buy their own supplies. So she focused more on drawing and design.

The culture of OCE’s arts scene was apparently enough to draw her into the fold. Both Cave and Sumner (they met at OCE and married in 1977) earned Master of Fine Art degrees at the University of Idaho in 1980. “By now,” Hull writes in the notes, “Cave’s feet were solidly on the path to being an artist after all.”

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Claudia Cave, “Epitaph,” 1985, gouache on paper, 24 x 24 inches, collection of the artist.
  • Claudia Cave: Interiors and Interiority will be on exhibit through Dec. 4, and it’s one of several shows at the Hallie Ford.
  • Also on site is En Diálogo: Diego Rivera, which features the painter’s 1931 painting La ofrenda “in dialogue” with pieces by other well-known artists. Curated by Jonathan Bucci, the exhibit includes prints by Alfredo Arreguin, Carmen Lomas Garza, Enrique Chagoya, and Rupert Garcia.
  • In the Melvin Henderson-Rubio Gallery is Time In Place: Northwest Art from the Permanent Collection, also curated by Bucci. This show was in the midst of being installed last week when ArtsWatch dropped in, and from what was on display so far, it’s impressive.
  • The Hallie Ford Museum of Art is at 700 State Street in downtown Salem, on the corner of State and Cottage Streets. Open noon-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; closed Sundays-Mondays. Admission: $6 General, $4 Senior (55+), $3 educators and students (18+ with an ID card); 17 and younger admitted free. More information, call 503-370-6855 or write museum-art@willamette.edu.

About the author

David Bates is an award-winning Oregon journalist with more than 20 years as a newspaper editor and reporter in the Willamette Valley, covering virtually every topic imaginable and with a strong background in arts/culture journalism. He has lived in Yamhill County since 1996 and is currently a freelance writer whose clients have included the McMinnville News-RegisterOregon Wine Press, and Indulge, a food-oriented publication. He has a B.S. degree in journalism from the University of Oregon and a long history of involvement in the theater arts, acting and on occasion directing for Gallery Players of Oregon and other theaters in Oregon.

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