For 65 years, with no agent or gallery representing her, Ashland painter Betty LaDuke has been creating her colorful images of common people, farming, peace, spirituality and the Third World.
Now 80, the tireless and soft-spoken LaDuke presides over a dazzling art retrospective of her life at Southern Oregon University's Schneider Museum of Art, stretching from her first pencil sketches of working people in her native Bronx in 1948, then paintings from her first scholarship in Mexico in 1953 and onward, with long and creative stays in Africa, India and Latin America — and a study of farm workers in the Rogue Valley.
What: Exhibit of 65 years of art by Betty LaDuke
Where: Southern Oregon University Schneider Museum of Art
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays through Sept. 14. A special showing for farm workers will be held from 2 to 4 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 18. A gala showing, featuring many other artists, musicians, poets and the Ashland International Folk Dancers, will be held from 7 to 9 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 25
An SOU art professor from 1954 to 1996, LaDuke says her work shows "how people need each other. It shows we're not isolated beings. We need to have compassionate understanding and not dwell on rights and wrongs. It's about the ability of people to connect. There is great sorrow, but also great joy, and that usually happens when we see ourselves as part of the larger whole."
Her vividly colorful works show people at work in fields, tending flocks, cuddling their babies and grieving their losses in war and as refugees from it, something she saw up close in Eritrea, at war for 30 years with neighboring Ethiopia.
Her "Dreaming Home," 2001, shows a clearly sad couple with many children standing in a strange land, with little hope of going home, she says, because of the proliferation of land mines.
LaDuke has tried to show "the real world around us ... and the people we normally don't get to see." They wear common peasant clothing and do their daily chores with the placid expressions of people who don't know they're being painted. They're often surrounded by spirals and zigzags, fanciful birds and stars and people painted within people.
Her "Creation Dance," 1972, from India, shows Shiva dancing, but as a full-breasted nude female, instead of the traditional male, and standing on a turtle, representing Earth, with a giant black bird behind her.
"I've made her into a goddess, celebrating life and dance. I love that energy I found in India," says LaDuke.
Her acrylic, "The Healer," from Nigeria, shows an exulting shaman full of lizards, snakes and birds, with an eye in his hand and crescent moon on his head.
"He's an herbalist, the person who knows all about natural resources, who makes concoctions to heal people, not only the body but the soul," she says.
In "The Tree of Life," a mother is the tree, surrounded by images of sorrow, the white-clad mothers who have lost husbands and children to war, she says, noting that branches spring from her body, speaking of eternal renewal of life and "the possibility that the next generation will find ways to stop war."
Many of her paintings of farming in the Rogue Valley are on permanent display at the Medford airport. Showing the planting and harvesting of regional crops, some are at the Schneider show.
LaDuke has never tried to market her art, preferring to show it in public places and universities rather than having it end up in private homes, she says. Much of it will be donated to SOU and other Oregon universities.
"To view the work of 65 years spent making art is both a humbling and inspiring experience," wrote acting museum Director Erika Leppmann. "As Betty LaDuke and I looked through stack after stack of drawings, then etchings, racks and racks of paintings, and then the work in progress in her studio, I was overcome by the energy, industry and passion evident in the work and the artist."
LaDuke's exhibit will be on view from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays at the Schneider Museum through Sept. 14. A special showing for farm workers will be held from 2 to 4 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 18. A gala showing, featuring many other artists, musicians, poets and the Ashland International Folk Dancers, will be held from 7 to 9 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 25.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.