Betty LaDuke exhibit features Almeda Fire, social justice themes
By Holly Dillemuth, Ashland.news
The last two years have been a journey rife with conflict and hardship. Ashland artist Betty LaDuke’s newest exhibit reflects those themes and, threaded throughout it all, the need for hope.
Nearly four years in the making and shaped by the experiences of the Almeda Fire in southern Oregon and social justice protests, LaDuke’s series of vibrantly colored wooden panels are also alloyed with climate change, school shooting traumas, the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Fire, Fury, & Resilience: Totem Witnesses and Turtle Wisdom” opens Tuesday, March 29, at Grants Pass Museum of Art. Hyla Lipson, director of the museum, has come to anticipate a lot of insight into current events from LaDuke’s works, with overarching themes as well as subtle hints of current events, such as the COVID-19 vaccine and the attitudes people held toward wearing masks or social distancing during the pandemic.
“She’s very passionate about things that are going on in the world and that comes out in her art,” Lipson said.
LaDuke, a longtime professor of Art at Southern Oregon University (SOU), now retired from teaching, said she hopes the panel series “opens up dialogue” for people who have also experienced so many of the themes depicted in her works.
“The work is symbolic,” LaDuke told Ashland.news recently in her home studio. “It’s not a realistic kind of work, but I want them to feel what the work says to them and hopefully to think about these issues in their own way.”
Her showcase at the Grants Pass Museum of Art will take museum-goers on a journey through the themes of the past two to four years of current events, those felt locally, nationally and abroad.
A catalog with poems, quotes and notes from LaDuke will also be available for visitors to follow the path of the art journey.
“It will help people to understand where I’m coming from, what has provoked my thought process and emotions,” she said.
“Fire, Fury, & Resiliency”
Standing on her paint-bespeckled studio floor, LaDuke reflected on the three panels that start off the 34-panel series: “Fire, Fury, & Resiliency.” The panels, she said, serve as a “catalyst” for many of the other overarching themes of the wooden panel series.
Each of the three panels depicts the fire, from the “fire” itself, to the “fury” of desperateness by residents having to immediately leave their homes, with the third panel depicting their “resiliency” as they returned to find their home either still standing, or in ashes.
Time LaDuke spent housing one of her friends, Annegret Topal, who lived in Phoenix at the time of the Almeda Fire, influenced the panels. Topal stayed with LaDuke for nine days following the blaze, not knowing whether her home could be saved.
LaDuke experienced the great anxiety and trauma that Topal and others experienced at the time, and she strove to translate those feelings into her art.
LaDuke was also there in the process of her friend finding out her home had survived the fire, as well as the emotions of those trying to recover things during a time of neighborhood lockdowns following the fire.
Along with the three pieces of art depicting the themes of the Almeda Fire and its aftermath, LaDuke has been creating panels for the past four years that help depict the current events over the last four years, some of which she calls “totem witnesses.”
Symbolic art forms
LaDuke uses many symbols in her art — birds, turtles, totems — to help tell a larger story.
“The totem witnesses are all these other panels that have stories behind them,” LaDuke said. “They’re symbolic, but they deal with all the issues that we’ve been facing collectively — all of us.”
The turtles museum-goers see in the exhibit point to a need to “return to the Earth” and address climate change.
The birds highlight a sense of hope, “reaching to the part of the psyche that needs to have hope,” she said.
“All of her totems and turtles are brilliant in their color,” Lipson said. “When you see an entire room full of that, it’s an experience in itself … It’s like walking through a garden.”
LaDuke’s sketchbook comes to life through her panels
LaDuke sketches her art first in sketchbooks, then transfers them onto wooden panels she creates using a Skilsaw and power tools.
LaDuke describes her artistic style as having an element of storytelling and symbolism.
“So people will have to spend a little time with it, and sort of enjoy the journey of the shapes, the forms, the colors,” she said.
“Then, the journey means something, so that’s the second step,” she added, essentially a path of discovery for each exhibit-goer.
The fire-related panels, which depict the plight of local refugees, also connect to the idea of refugees on a worldwide scale.
“We have to not turn our heads, but be present,” LaDuke said.
LaDuke’s work showcased in Grants Pass
The 34-panel exhibit is featured in a catalog compiled by Lipson, the museum director, who obtained a grant to provide the catalog for the first 500 visitors to the art show starting April 1, when delivery of the catalogs is expected.
Former Oregon Poet Laureate Lawson Inada wrote a poem for the catalog showcasing her work.
“One of my favorite pictures in the catalog is of her (LaDuke) standing — The stance is a woman who is ironing, you know with an ironing board, but she’s not; she’s cutting one of her totems out with a Skilsaw,” Lipson said.
This is the third exhibit that Lipson has helped LaDuke with at the Grants Pass Museum of Art since she’s been executive director.
“I don’t think there’s anybody like her,” Lipson said. “She’s definitely a force to be reckoned with.”
Lengthy career in art education
LaDuke, 89, was the only woman on the SOU Art Department’s faculty for 18 of her 32-year career at SOU. She was only the second woman in history to be on the art faculty there.
She has had hundreds of exhibits over the years, most displayed at colleges and universities, libraries and children’s museums throughout the United States. Some exhibits have been displayed throughout the world.
Having just turned 89 in January, LaDuke recalls that her mother had a second career of international folk dancing in her later years. LaDuke has no plans to slow down, and hopes to continue creating art into her 90s.
“As soon as (my mother) was retired, she organized a folk dancing group, where she lived in the Bronx,” LaDuke said. “She had pleasure from it and cared and wanted to share it.”
That inspired LaDuke to continue doing what she loves.
“Also, there’s a sense of reciprocity,” LaDuke said, noting she has met and interviewed female artists from all over the world and those have impacted her work and what she taught to her students.
LaDuke’s father was born in a small village in Ukraine and her mother was born in Poland. Both emigrated to New York in the early 20th century. LaDuke was born in 1933 and grew up in The Bronx.
Her travels have led her to many parts of the world, including Latin America and Africa. During a recent interview at her studio, LaDuke wore brightly colored bracelets from her travels to Timbuktu. She said she had planned to travel to Ukraine prior to the current conflict.
Her newest art piece depicts the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which began Feb. 23. The piece will not be part of the Grants Pass showcase, but it’s in progress.
“It’s still raw, but it’s coming along,” LaDuke said.
She stressed the need to acknowledge refugees from all over the world, not just those who are white or European.
“The people of color from other parts of the world, we seem to ignore them,” she said.
Having lived and traveled in Latin America and all over the world, she said, “I have a particular sensitivity, having experienced it.”
She said she plans to reach out to other institutions in Oregon and California to further display and showcase her “Fire, Fury, & Resilience” exhibit.
The show runs through May 20 at Grants Pass Museum of Art, 229 SW G St., Grants Pass. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday (closed Sunday and Monday).
LaDuke plans to be at the showcase for Grants Pass First Friday Live from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Friday, April 1.
LaDuke also plans to share an artist talk at 2 p.m. April 9 and is scheduled to be at the museum on May 6.
Reach Ashland.news reporter Holly Dillemuth at email@example.com.