Oregon Cultural Trust

Yes says no to gender stereotypes

Artist Phyllis Yes's paintings of a man doing housework in the buff, banned from a church gallery, find a new home – and after a half-century, her nude model comes clean.

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Gallery visitors taking in Phyllis Yes's paintings of a naked man doing household chores. Photo: Jane Mantiri
Gallery visitors taking in Phyllis Yes’s paintings of a naked man doing household chores. Photo: Jane Mantiri

Stacks of brightly colored microfiber cleaning cloths greet you as you enter Phyllis Yes’s exhibit of her paintings at The Water Tower, which premiered June 5th. Feel free to take one, but only if you promise to wash the floor, scrub the toilet, and do the laundry. Dusty does all that and more in Yes’s paintings of him, buck naked or wearing only a frilly apron.

The eleven 48-by-36-inch acrylic paintings in black, white, and grays, Dusty . . . at Home, reverse the roles the sexes have played out in society for centuries. The 83-year-old Yes, Dean Emerita of Humanities and former chair of the Art Department at Lewis and Clark College, has been saying no to gender stereotypes for decades in her paintings, sculptures, furniture, clothing, jewelry, and writing.

Visual artist and playwright Phyllis Yes. Photo: Heaven MacArthur
Visual artist and playwright Phyllis Yes. Photo: Heaven MacArthur

There’s the famed lace-painted 1967 Porsche, PorShe (1984), and similarly adorned Mrs. Johnson’s Gun (1984); her decoratively painted saws, Untitled (1980); and ten paintings of dinner-table place settings with hand tools instead of silverware, Mixed Metaphors (1991). At 75, Yes wrote her first play, the dry-humored Good Morning, Miss America (2016), about a daughter from afar caring for her dementia-ridden mother and stepfather while dealing with family conflict, loosely based on her own experience. Portland’s CoHo Theater staged the world premiere of it in March 2018.

Yes’s visual art enjoys permanent collections in the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art and Portland Art Museum, among others; and in 1981 with New York’s Museum of Modern Art Lending Service. Her work has been shown throughout the United States and in Japan, Ethiopia, and Brazil.

Phyllis Yes's painting of Dusty doing laundry in the buff. A half-century after the photo session that was the base for Yes's recent paintings, model Dusty Moore reminisces below about the day he posed doing household chores.
Phyllis Yes’s painting of Dusty doing laundry in the buff. A half-century after the photo session that was the base for Yes’s recent paintings, model Dusty Moore reminisces below about the day he posed doing household chores.

Now at The Water Tower—a lucky find after the First Congregational Church’s last-minute withdrawal due to the show’s nudity, as Andrew Jankowski reported in Willamette WeekDusty . . . at Home is the first art exhibit at the 121-year-old former furniture-warehouse-turned-retail complex recently remodeled to also include mixed-use office space. In one of the currently leasable ones, this body of artwork is also what Yes says will be her last.

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Author/interviewer Claire Sykes with Dusty at the ironing board. Photo: Phyllis Yes
Author/interviewer Claire Sykes with Dusty at the ironing board. Photo: Phyllis Yes

From her large light-filled John’s Landing home with her two cats Lucy and Ruth, named after the famous suffragist Lucy Stone and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she tells me about her life as an artist—and what exactly happened in that house in the McDonald Forest. The interview has been excerpted and edited for brevity and clarity:

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Claire Sykes: Growing up in Austin, Minnesota, when did you first think of yourself as an artist?

Phyllis Yes: I had a woman art teacher in high school, Ione Bell, and I owe a great deal to her. When I was a senior, she lined up art jobs for me, murals for the hospital, movie theater, and people’s patios in town. Those were big deals. In the paper they called me an artist. It was like, well, I must be an artist then.

CS: What spurred your interest in the role of gender in your art?

PY: I was married for ten years and not only did I bring in all the salary, putting my husband through school, but I also did all the housework. In my era we were trained that if the body has breasts you do this and if you have another genitalia, you do that. Even if the husband and wife have both worked, when they retire, she’s still got all these chores to do. I think things have changed, but how much?

CS: There’s been some progress, but a 2023 Pew Research Center poll revealed that “in egalitarian and breadwinner wife marriages, . . . wives do about 2.5 hours more [per week] on housework.”

PY: Well, the dealbreaker for me was when my husband wouldn’t sign for me to get a credit card or my own bank account. This was before 1974 [when the Equal Credit Opportunity Act passed] and women still weren’t allowed to do those, themselves. I divorced him that year and changed my last name to Yes. I began thinking back on my personal story and wanted to start the conversation.

Gallery visitor Tom Bordon gets an up-close view of Dusty at the oven. Photo: Phyllis Yes
Gallery visitor Tom Bordon gets an up-close view of Dusty at the oven. Photo: Phyllis Yes

CS: You’re a self-described feminist artist. What does this mean to you?

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PY: It means I’m a real proponent for equal rights. Simple justice.

CS: Dusty . . . at Home attempts to balance the scales. What’s the story behind the paintings?

PY: I found Dusty Moore on a list of models from Oregon State University’s art department, the only one who didn’t look like a radical hippie—this was the mid-70s—and I invited him to my house outside Corvallis in [OSU’s] McDonald Forest. He knew I was going to photograph him nude acting like he’s doing mundane housework, and I wanted to see a man doing those things, apron on, apron off. I didn’t pay attention to whether it was full frontal or not. Only three of the paintings show private parts.

CS: Why nudes?

PY: Having Dusty unclothed emphasizes the maleness, plain and simple. I was in my early-30s at that time and a little bit of a rebel, although in hiring him I’d gone by all the rules. Not getting that credit card really set me off.

CS: What did you think you’d do with the photos?

PY: My idea was I’d make paper guys and different outfits for doing the cleaning. I never did. A couple years later, I had them made into postcards. I hung onto those photos and looked at them every ten years or so. Last year, I came across the postcards again and thought, Have we “come a long way baby” or have we not? It wasn’t an easy decision to do the paintings because it would mean a year and a half of work, and I didn’t intend to sell any.

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A panorama of Dustys at The Water Tower. Photo: Jane Mantiri
A panorama of Dustys at The Water Tower. Photo: Jane Mantiri

CS: How much does the paintings’ size matter? And why did you paint in monotone yet also highly contrasted, and without detail?

PY: The bigger the better. The paintings this large have more impact than the postcard photos do. And they’d fit in my car. Why grays? Because it’s serious business for me, getting back to simple justice, and I didn’t want to detract or deflect from that with colors. With the dramatic shadow and light, there’s emotionality, as in, Wouldn’t this be fun for a mate to pitch in? The simplicity of the painting style gives just enough to know what task he’s doing, so that’s the main focus.

CS: Some would say Dusty’s nudity, especially frontal, is what they first notice, the reason why these paintings aren’t hanging in a church, as it turns out. What would you want to know about people’s experiences of them?

PY: I want to know their gut reaction. Then after they’ve thought about them for a while, I want to know, is it shocking, funny, perplexing, aggravating? What is it? That’s why I have the guestbook. I know there’ll be a variety of responses, and that’s good.

CS: What’s next for you?

PY:  It won’t be visual. It’ll be a book. I have one friend who’s been asking me for years when I’m going to write a book about my life. In it, I want to honor the women who’ve been such an important part of it, like artists Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro; and my friend Jane Mantiri and her family, big supporters of my work, including helping prepare the show’s space. In the book I’m going to tell things that I’ve thought and dreamt about and experienced, things I haven’t told anyone. I’m going to let it all spill out.

DUSTY COMES CLEAN 50 YEARS LATER

Yes had no idea of Dusty’s whereabouts when I interviewed her, three days before the show’s opening. I was hoping he’d surface. He did, when his Google app alerted him to a new “Dusty Moore” appearance on the net. This time it was him, in the May 29th Willamette Week article on her, and he texted his son in Portland.

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Dusty Moore, Phyllis Yes's model a half-century ago, today. Photo courtesy of Dusty Moore.
Dusty Moore, Phyllis Yes’s model a half-century ago, as he looks today. Photo courtesy of Dusty Moore.

Jesse Sugar Moore, DJ and owner of Broken Dreams, a vintage record store on Northeast Alberta Street, told me, “Growing up in Maryland, maybe I saw one or two of the postcards, but the story of my dad posing nude doing housework was basically lore to me. Seeing the show and meeting the artist was surreal, and it confirmed the myth.”

That day modeling for Yes, “I did what she asked and the two hours went by fast. I signed something and I left. That was that,” said Dusty, now 70, by phone from his home in Phoenix, Arizona.

There’s one shoot that sticks out for him, and Yes said she had lost the photo of it. “I was reclining, with All My Children on the TV and Susan Lucci in a bra and panties. I started getting an erection, and she’s clicking away. Oh, this isn’t going to work. So, she turned off the TV and we went into the kitchen.” Yes named that painting Baking, simply titled like the rest.

I asked Dusty what he thinks of Yes’s paintings. “An artist should have free expression to do what they want to do,” he said. “I’m humbled that she’s still got those photographs in her head and expressing them in a way that people respond to very positively.”

For 40 years Dusty has been sewing industrial canvas covers for yachts. He also has made flutes, at least 500 of them, out of sunflower stalk, bamboo, and cedar, selling them up and down the Eastern Seaboard. “I never worked for the CIA or the Pentagon,” he told me, correcting what Yes had once heard from a friend of his. “And I’ve always cooked, cleaned my own toilet, and done my own laundry.”

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Dusty . . . at Home

  • What: Exhibit of paintings by Phyllis Yes
  • Where: The Water Tower, 5331 S. Macadam Ave., Portland
  • When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily through June 26

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(c) 2024 by Claire Sykes. All rights reserved.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Since 1990, freelance writer Claire Sykes has been covering the arts. Her articles have appeared in Oregon ArtsWatchArt on Paper, Photographer’s ForumCommunication ArtsChamber Music MagazineMusicworksThe Wire, and elsewhere. She has profiled Paco de Lucia, Mary Ellen Mark, Twinka Thiebaud, Pauline Oliveros, and the Shanghai Quartet, among others. She also writes about health, the human side of bioscience, philanthropy, community, and business. When she’s not typing away, she’s taking in the arts or hiking some trail, preferably up in elevation. For more of Claire's stories, visit our archive website.

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2 Responses

  1. Thoughtful, meticulous, compelling, and well crafted article that mirrors the Dusty at Home installation.

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