Kate Bollons has been teaching the same Studio Oil Painting class at Maude Kerns Art Center since 1999. It’s not unusual for an instructor to teach the same class for more than two decades. What’s different here is that some of her students have been in the class continuously since she began.
Why would a person take the same class for 24 years? “It’s not me,” Bollons said, “…it’s because people need to paint.” When I visited, her class seemed like a typical painting studio. People working quietly at easels, including Bollons, who was set up in a corner with a still life.
“Don’t take a picture,” she said, “It’s not done yet.”
The students were as intent on their painting as she was, though I use the word “students” in the loosest sense. Bollons told me the people in this class don’t need instruction. They are all skilled. The feedback they get comes in the form of critiques at the start of each day, looking back on what they’ve done the time before, and they comment on each other’s work informally throughout the period.
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Painting side by side for more than 20 years leads to trust, Bollons said, which in turn relates to progress. When people are comfortable with each other, she explained, “they take risks.”
Bollons also teaches an introductory painting class at the art center, where she offers instruction, especially working with people on value and design. In Studio Oil Painting, though, she sets up five still lifes for each class that people can choose to work from – or not. Some would rather bring a photograph to paint.
Most of her students are retired. But not Nancy Silvers, who works as a landscape architect for the University of Oregon. Or, as she put it more simply, “I’m a gardener.” Silvers brings in things she finds on her walks: a twig or branch with buds growing on it, depending on the season. Painting throughout the year, Silvers’ artwork is illustrative of her life outside the studio and her close relationship to nature.
Maude Kerns Art Center has for 73 years provided Eugene residents, and those living in outlying areas, a gathering place to learn basic techniques, practice existing skills, exhibit art, and support each other. It is composed of two gallery spaces, two classroom studios, an onsite ceramic studio cooperative called Club Mud, an onsite darkroom photography studio cooperative called Eugene Darkroom Group, a new printmaking studio, and Artist Services Studio.
It is a rare conglomeration of amateurs and professionals, a member-run organization that offers all its members – whether they’re 6 or 60 (or 80 or close to 90) – an opportunity to exhibit. The annual membership show, Art for All Seasons, ensures a spot for every member, regardless of how many want to participate, which can be quite a challenge for hanging the show. In 2021, more than 175 members’ artworks were featured.
Last year, the art center offered 111 classes, workshops, and camps to more than 700 students of all ages, said Executive Director Michael Fisher. “This is over 540 individual art class sessions.”
If not for the modest sign in front, you might think the building, a former chapel built in 1895, was still a place of worship. Located at 1910 E. 15th Ave., a couple of blocks from the University of Oregon, the center is a little more than 8,700 square feet in size. A raised area at one end of the main gallery, once a pulpit, is where musicians often perform at opening receptions.
The Maude Kerns Center reaches out into the community past its walls, as well, with its annual fundraiser, Art and the Vineyard. A sprawling, multidisciplinary arts festival that takes place in Alton Baker Park, it came to a halt during the pandemic but a comeback is planned. Another outreach arts exhibit is Seen in Oregon, a juried show that takes place in the Gallery at the Airport. Arriving in Eugene, visitors can first glimpse some of Oregon’s landscape and wildlife through artistic representations done in photography, painting, drawing, or sculpture.
The art center offers an inclusive environment for anyone who wants to make or exhibit art, but one of its unique characteristics – besides the building itself – is the lasting bond that people form with it. Some of Bollons’ students have been taking the same studio class for 24 years. Double that amount, and then some, and you’ll arrive at the number of years that Sarkis Antikajian, a retired pharmacist, attended and then monitored studio classes at the center. He has been a continuous member for 57 years.
Antikajian joined in 1966, about 16 years after artist and educator Maude Kerns (1876-1965) co-founded the arts center in 1950. From the start, it was a place where people could both be introduced to art and exhibit as practicing artists. That initial vision, Fisher said, is one he wants to protect.
Kerns was raised in Portland and studied in New York City, where she received degrees in art and art education from Columbia Teachers College. There, she studied with Arthur Wesley Dow, the instructor who inspired Georgia O’Keeffe to follow the abstract shapes in her mind rather than realistically represent what she saw in nature. Kerns embraced abstraction as well, although she tied her shapes more precisely to spiritual concerns and was part of a formal movement known as Non-Objective Painting.
In addition to being a student of Dow’s, Kerns studied with Abstract Expressionist Hans Hofmann and was friends with fellow Portlander and Color Field painter Mark Rothko. She exchanged letters with Rothko, who also attached a spiritual significance to his art. The Rothko Chapel in Texas, which houses some of his monumentally sized works, serves as both a non-denominational place of worship and a museum.
From 1941 to 1951, Kerns showed her work at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting – now the Guggenheim Museum – where she exhibited alongside influential modernists such as László Moholy-Nagy and Josef Albers. She was in New York City at the beginning of the 20th century, when the modern art world was taking shape. Had she stayed, her career as an artist might have unfolded differently. But she returned to Oregon to be close to her family, where she founded the Art Education Department at the University of Oregon and was its first chair (1921-1947).
Though Kerns never received full professorship at the university, she is celebrated still, by current director Fisher and by all those who appreciate and are members of the art center that carries her name.
Fisher began his career at the center as an intern in 2008 – just 15 years ago, a mere fraction of time compared to instructors such as Bollons or members such as Antikajian. But Fisher has done much to keep the center going and accessible, particularly during the pandemic. He tried not to think about restrictions, he said. Rather, he aimed his sights on how to “pivot” to keep the community engaged.
With the art center closed for exhibits, he created its first online show, A Change of Space. They put out a call to artists, and he expected to hear from maybe 20 people. Instead, more than 100 people sent in pictures of their art, wanting to be included in the online show. Since then, all exhibits at the center have been digital, in addition to in-person.
Once a show has been put online, of course, it stays there. Fisher said the digital exhibits are helpful, too, for those who aren’t ready to participate in person yet or for people living in outlying rural areas.
Before COVID struck, Fisher’s first priority after becoming director in 2018 was to create new studio spaces. Especially impressive is a previous storage room that has been transformed into a print shop. It looks like a print studio you might find in a college, with equipment for creating prints in relief, intaglio, and monotype.
A painting in Fisher’s office by artist Analee Fuentes depicts him putting up the 25th annual Dia de los Muertos exhibit, when he was still exhibits coordinator, a job he held between his intern days and the time he took over as director. Done in the style of the Day of the Dead holiday, the painting shows him as a skeleton.
Fisher joked, “I wonder if that means I’ll be hanging art shows for all eternity…”
Jeweler and art advocate Hannah Goldrich has been a member at Maude Kerns Art Center for more than 50 years. “It’s a miracle,” she said about how the center survived – even thrived – through the pandemic. “Michael is gifted,” she added. She knows the effort it takes to keep the nonprofit going, as it was more than 30 years ago that she helped construct the center’s primary fundraiser, the Art and the Vineyard festival.
From 1971 to 1977, Goldrich served on the center’s board, then again from 1985 to 1990. She taught for about 15 years, too, and still regularly exhibits there.
She is a jeweler who works with gold, silver, and stones. “I have a slight addiction,” she said of her love of stones. If her passion for stones is an addiction, then it’s a beautiful one. Besides being stunning in form, her jewelry is capable of expressing emotion.
A piece from 1990 called Loss, which is in the catalog from her 50th retrospective at Jacobs Gallery (no longer in operation), is sterling silver and shaped in the form of an eye. Teardrops falling from the eye are differently colored stones: moonstone, amethyst, garnet, and hematite.
The work was inspired by her own tears, shed at the loss of “two beloved friends, Selena Roberts and Steve Lowenstein.”
Goldrich is originally from Germany and immigrated to the United States in 1941. She had just returned from Oaxaca when I met her. “Have you ever been there?” she asked, her face lighting up. No, I admitted, suddenly feeling like I should. She showed me a collection of small, brilliantly colored sculptures of animals she brought back from Mexico. She said she had an “addiction” for those, too. I started to get the idea she might consider her collections and art as an addiction. It’s certainly one way to think about art: a habit or a behavior that you can’t live without.
She spoke with enthusiasm about the annual Dia de los Muertos exhibit at the Maude Kerns center. Individuals create altars for the dead, depicting or including the things they loved in life. Goldrich has helped build around 10 altars, she said, not sure of the exact number. One was for her friend, fellow artist Beverly Soasey, who died in 2018.
I had the pleasure of meeting Soasey at Maude Kerns Art Center, to review a show not long after I moved to Eugene. Soasey worked largely with found objects, organizing them into “assemblages.” Her art had a dreamlike or surreal edge, the way works do when you put subjects together that normally wouldn’t be found in the same space or context.
Goldrich’s altar for Soasey was not unlike an assemblage, a collection of disparate things tied together by Soasey’s interests, by those things that drew her attention in life. “I learn something about a person each time I make an altar for them,” Goldrich said. She’s made altars for friends, her mother, and for victims of COVID.
At 88 years old, Goldrich is still a center member. In 2022 she celebrated 50-plus years with a show benefiting the center.
“I’m connected,” she said. “I still know what’s going on.”
Marsha Shankman was invited to write press releases for the Maude Kerns center in 1995 by her friend Nancy Frey, who was then director. She’s been writing them ever since. Also the newsletters, which take more time than before. They used to be quarterly and hard copy, but during the pandemic they were switched to digital and monthly.
Besides being publicity director, Shankman practices her drawing skills in a class she also facilitates for other students. She is a member of the The Duchess Committee, an informal group of women, including Goldrich. The committee’s purpose is to create and bring a show of Maude Kerns’ art to the center. The title of Duchess was given to Kerns by younger faculty who thought her countenance on campus was regal. The “Duchesses,” as Shankman and her fellow committee members refer to themselves, are working to curate a Kerns exhibit by January 2024.
Shankman’s relationship to the center goes back to before she began writing press releases, to when her daughters were children taking art classes there. Her daughters, Melissa and Emily, now are 41 and 37.
The center has art classes for people at every stage in their life, Cece Anders, director of arts education, explained. “Someone who studies art as a child can return as an adult.” Courses are offered for children, teenagers, adults, and family workshops allow parents the opportunity to make art along with their children.
“It’s multigenerational,” Anders said, when I asked why she thinks people keep coming back.
Shankman suspects the continuity might have something to do with the building itself. At the corner of 15th Avenue and Orchard Alley, it is a city historic landmark, as well as a previous place of worship. People have come into the center and told her they were married in that building back when it was a chapel.
“There’s something about the aura of the place,” she said, trying to explain the draw.
Born in 1933 to ethnically Armenian parents in Jordan, Sarkis Antikajian wanted to be an artist since he was in high school and found a book on Impressionism that stole his heart. He knew that he wanted to be an artist, but that wasn’t an option for him in Jordan. His parents wanted him to become a doctor, or hold some other job in the medical profession. He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, then worked for a while as a pharmaceutical salesman.
Trying to sell people drugs was not for him. “I hated it,” he said.
He followed his dream of becoming an artist to the United States. At the University of New Mexico, he met his wife and obtained an education that would allow him to work as a pharmacist. In 1966, the couple went on vacation in search of a place where they could “grow something” and found Oregon. The job he landed as a pharmacist in Eugene was within walking distance of Maude Kerns.
The hours for his pharmacy job were 1 to 9 p.m., which allowed him to attend the morning open studios in figure drawing and painting. Open studios are different from regular classes, as they don’t have instructors. He eventually became the facilitator for those two classes, opening the rooms and monitoring the models. Local artists with reputations, such as Mark Clarke, were in those studios. Antikajian says it made him feel like he belonged to an artist community. He worked in the open studios the whole time while he was a pharmacist. After he retired, he was finally able to live his dream fully — working as an artist full-time.
It’s hard to imagine Antikajian’s life without Maude Kerns center. He is proud of his 57 years of membership, and in 2009 they gave him a retrospective that filled both the center’s galleries. The exhibit included works made over the decades, executed in oil, acrylic, watercolor, and pastel. Relationships with people he met at the center have led to gallery representation and commissions, not to mention an OPB feature that showed him painting at his home in Cheshire, an unincorporated community in Lane County.
The home in Cheshire sits on six acres, where Antikajian and his wife, Karen, have planted fruit trees, poppies, and other wildflowers. He paints the landscape on his property often, just like his Impressionist hero Monet painted his home garden in Giverny, France. Although Antikajian sometimes feels guilty about leaving his parents in Jordan, he described his home in Oregon as a haven for artists.
“There’s no other place I would want to live.”
He stopped going to the center because his classes were not available during the pandemic. But, he said, Shankman told him that they will reopen soon. “Will you be returning?” I asked. He would like to but isn’t sure he can. He’s had some health problems and is low on energy. Having been the room monitor for the open studios, he told me, “I still have the key.”
Why do people keep coming back to the art center? Is it because the building, previously a place of worship, has a special aura? Is there a multi-generational aspect that keeps the circle of community revolving? Or is it something closer to an addiction, though a beautiful one at that?
Fisher had an idea about the bond which people form with Maude Kerns Art Center. People of any age can always learn, grow, evolve, he suggested. “We can always return to art.”
The Maude Kerns Art Center’s gallery is open 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. weekdays and noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays. April exhibitions are focused on photography: John Bauguess: A Life Through His Lens and Depth of Field: A Eugene Darkroom Group Exhibit.