Not your grandmother’s watercolors

The Watercolor Society of Oregon’s show in Newberg debunks stereotypes that the medium is about wimpy, washed out florals and bowls of fruit

The Watercolor Society of Oregon’s original plan was for members to converge in Newberg this fall for their annual convention, to be held in the Chehalem Cultural Center. As with so many other cultural doings, that was not to be.

But the paintings are there, more than 80 of them filling the center’s largest space along with the spacious lobby. The show runs through Nov. 28, and it easily qualifies as must-see fare, for it opens your eyes to the range of possibilities with a medium that tends to be mistaken for what I suppose one would call the stereotype.

I thought it was just me, but I asked Oregon watercolorist Kristi Grussendorf about it. She juried the show and is active not only in the 800-plus-member state organization, but also in regional groups. She knew what I was talking about.

“Chrome of Fire II,” by Sandra Wood (38 by 30 inches , watercolor)
“Chrome of Fire III,” by Sandra Wood (38 by 30 inches )

“Yes, it’s not your typical, wimpy, washed out florals that little old ladies did,” she said. I actually did not cite “old ladies,” but I knew what she was talking about. It’s part of the stereotype, maybe at a subconscious level, but it’s there: this image of aging women using watercolors to produce flowers, pastures, and bowls of fruit. “Watercolor is a powerful and versatile medium,” Grussendorf said. “It’s also archival. It’s past time for the old stereotypes to be discarded.”

The Chehalem show smashes through this stereotype powerfully. Indeed, the first impression a few of the pieces made was that they weren’t in watercolor. Dona White’s enchanting Play Time on first glance looks like it might have been done with acrylic. Doyle Leek’s Olive Oil from a distance vaguely resembles a graphite drawing. Sandra Wood’s Chrome of Fire III briefly appears almost like it was “painted” digitally, but no. I’m not sure what I thought upon first seeing Marjett Schille’s Slipping Into Darkness, which hauntingly depicts a surreal exodus of butterflies leaving Earth, but it definitely was not “watercolor.”

For each of these and many others, first impressions are layered with a closer inspection that allows you to really see what an inspired and talented artist can do with watercolors. If you were introduced to watercolors through a cheap plastic tray with rows of hardened oval pools of pigment to be dabbed with way too much water, it’s eye-opening.

“Olive Oil” by Doyle Leek (29 by 39 inches)
“Olive Oil” by Doyle Leek (29 by 39 inches)

Grussendorf started with oils, but gravitated to watercolors. She earned her BFA from the University of Utah and learned from some of that state’s prominent artists and teachers. She has had her work exhibited around the country and has taught here and in Spain and France. She also has an impressive resume of watercolor activism with groups that “preach the gospel of watercolor.” She remains active with the Utah Watercolor Society and holds signature status in the Wyoming Watercolor Society, the Western Federation of Watercolor Societies, the National Watercolor Society, the Transparent Watercolor Society of America, and the American Watercolor Society.

Given that perspective, I asked Grussendorf how Oregon’s watercolor scene compares.

“The Watercolor Society of Oregon is probably one of the very strongest societies in our Western Federation of Watercolor Societies,” she said, noting that the group has 10 member chapters. “The art that’s produced by this group reflects that strength.  I have juried several exhibitions now, and I can’t praise WSO enough.  The society does a phenomenal job of raising awareness and funds.”

Grussendorf unfortunately but necessarily had to jury the show looking at images on a computer screen. I asked her about the art life in the midst of a pandemic.

Elizabeth Haberman’s “Pin’demic” (watercolor, 28 by 22 inches) was named Best in Show at the Watercolor Society of Oregon’s show.
Elizabeth Haberman’s “Pin’demic” (28 by 22 inches) was named Best in Show at the Watercolor Society of Oregon’s show.

“I think it’s different for everyone,” she said. “Many of us create the best in the isolation of our studios. For some, the pandemic has taken a real emotional toll and many are finding it difficult to even pick up their brushes. For those who support themselves by teaching, they’ve had to find new ways.  I’ve done three Zoom workshops so far, and although I’d prefer to be with my students in person, it’s a good solution. There are some advantages to it.”

As it happens, the Best in Show painting is pandemic-inspired. Elizabeth Haberman’s Pin’demic is an image of a vast apartment building with a surreal touch — it’s held together with safety pins. Though in plain sight, the painting is easy to miss; it’s directly to the left of the lobby service counter when you enter the building.

Given that the show represents artists from around the state, it’s perhaps not surprising that it’s drawing more than the usual foot traffic. Many of the pieces have already been sold. Yes, you can see all the images online, and yes, there’s a lovely video someone made of the show that’s on the center’s Facebook feed, but what you really ought to do is grab a mask and go see it up close and personal.

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.

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