By ANNA GRAY and RYAN WILSON PAULSEN
On February 27th, just a month before his 67th birthday, Oregon lost one of its finest artists: D.E. May. When he was diagnosed with cancer, he was given just months to live but continued working and living among close friends in his native Salem for nearly 3 years. May was an important feature of this region’s artistic landscape and an artist fiercely admired for the things he made and the way he made them.
We first got to know May through stories told by Jane Beebe, his longtime friend and gallerist at PDX Contemporary Art. Her anecdotes cast May as a warm and original character. They told of a person living according to his own time, of a workspace like the hidden pages of a pop-up book, of a maker of tender objects, who never forgot to send her (and many other mothers, too) a postcard on Mother’s Day.
When we met him in person, we immediately liked the man as much as the things he made. We felt refreshed by his matter-of-fact approach to art making, as if being an artist was no more mythic than being a carpenter or steel-worker, no less necessary than being a bartender or a cab driver. His humility, dedication, and sureness of purpose were reflected in the things he created. It is as if his drawings and small constructions weren’t made, but evolved over time without the overly conscious intervention of an artistic hand. Because of this, his meticulous abstractions hold a subtle magic. They appear as both documents of the past and proposals for a future architecture–his subtle geometries incorporated with such sensitivity into the found surfaces he collected and used in his work. His pieces remind us of how objects gather energy and meaning, becoming real through their use.
May will be remembered in many different ways. Some will remember him from bright gallery openings, as he nodded and said thank yous to those who’d come to see his collections. Others will remember him as a friend that was always willing to share a drink. Some will remember him as a fixture of his beloved ‘Island Salem,’ where he’d be seen walking, perhaps to the library where he’d go to look at books he says he didn’t read. Many others, still, will remember him by his artworks, their quietness and precision. We will remember him for his sensibility as an artist and his commitment to his life’s work and also for the encouragements he gave us over the years, sometimes in the form of small tokens—a postcard, folded origami figures, a or note—that always seemed to build our confidence in mysterious ways.
Anna Gray + Ryan Wilson Paulsen are mixed media collaborators living in Portland, OR.
May’s work is currently on view at PDX Contemporary Art and the Portland Art Museum. You can read more about his work in a 2011 essay the authors wrote to accompany his show and publication The Template Files.
In Oregon ArtsWatch, Paul Sutinen wrote a review of the artist’s 2015 show at PDX Contemporary Art and Sabina Poole photographed May in his studio and wrote about the experience as part of the Ford Foundation’s Connective Conversations|Inside Oregon Art program.