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Mentor taught what it means to dig deep

I stepped into the little Rogue River gallery for the first time a dozen years ago. My goal was simply to get one of my paintings framed.

The Universe had bigger gifts in store.

Before I could even introduce myself to the owner, a wall filled with colorful paintings spun me to the left. The hand I had extended in greeting to Ellen Campbell dropped to my side. I stood staring, then smiling, as the joyful energy of this artist's work washed over me.

The colorful oils depicted interesting characters engaged in everyday life. Skillfully painted to look as if they'd been created with utter and carefree abandon, each buttery brush stroke was meticulously placed to offer maximum effect. Each piece not only set a mood, it told a story. Brilliantly.

"I love these!" I exclaimed. "Who did them?"

The work had been created by Medora Nankervis, Ellen said.

"Aren't they wonderful?" she added, coming to stand by me.

I don't know how long we stood there gazing at the magical paintings. But by the time I left the shop much later that afternoon, Ellen had determined I must meet Medora. And also that I should write for the town's weekly newspaper.

I had determined Ellen would become my new best friend.

True to her word, Ellen arranged a meeting for me with Medora. And another with the editor of the Rogue River Press.

I would later determine the editor would have hired a monkey, could it only type. In hindsight, he probably wishes he'd done just that. I gave him fits, finding my way. But enough about my days as a cub reporter. I'm Bob Hunter's problem now. And he appreciates your prayers.

Back in 2000, meeting Medora was much more personally intriguing — and intimidating. The beautiful, white-haired woman had serious skills in an arena I figured I already understood. She was also about to launch a new art gallery. And my work was suddenly up for her review.

Medora had a generous smile, a deep, throaty voice and a joyful laugh. She also had snapping dark eyes that seemed to see right into one's soul. Medora was all about digging deep. And telling the truth. Your personal truth — as an artist.

I had achieved a certain amount of success painting portraits of people's kids and pets. (I much preferred to paint the pets, in case you are wondering.) I had also sold many lovely floral paintings.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with painting portraits or landscapes or still-life images. But, to tell the truth, I was bored out of my gourd with painting between the lines. And Medora deduced that long before I did.

"Good, good. Very nice," she said, reviewing my work.

I was accepted into the gallery. But I could tell my art didn't blow her skirts up ... until the day I brought in a new piece that Ellen laughingly referred to as "the Helter Skelter painting."

It had started as an exercise in creative freedom. Something I was eager to teach my uptight art students. A lesson I had not fully grasped myself.

The rules were simple. Pick your favorite light colors, then dark colors. And carve out positive and negative spaces in a simple scene. Underpinned in light pastels, then mostly covered in midnight tones, my painting depicted a bright moon shining on a very dark and starry night in a mysterious oak forest. Trails of red spattered across the piece.

I suppose it bears mentioning that I had been widowed the year before. Lost my best friend and a lot of my light — for awhile.

A Psych 101 student could have seen the connection. But I was still too blind-sided by grief.

Because Ellen found the piece disturbing, I was more than a little hesitant to show it to Medora. I shouldn't have been. She lit up when I took it into the gallery.

"Now you're really working," Medora said, patting my leg as we sat together on the bench.

She insisted we hang the piece immediately — in the center of my display. It was a rather jarring contrast to my birds and bears and irises and butterflies. It was also the only piece that ever sold in that particular gallery.

I think Medora put a spell on all the art. "We shall sell no piece that does not speak."

The young woman told me the painting was the first piece of original art she'd ever purchased.

"It's very evocative. Something about it speaks to me," she said.

I didn't tell her my story. Nor did I ask about her own. That was the painting's job.

Not all of Medora's paintings were sunshine and light, either. This was a woman who had also loved and lost. Struggled and survived. There were political pieces about war. Social commentary on the plight of women. And children. And the aged.

Medora, my friend and mentor, passed away last week at age 85, surrounded by love. She will be forever in the heart of this artist for the lessons she taught about digging deeper — and telling our most personal truths.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.