b. From Civil Rights
to Feminine Mythical Landscapes
Bagels and Pears
In 1964 Winona and I arrived in Ashland, Oregon, in time for her fifth birthday and my new job at Southern Oregon State College (SOSC). At first it was a difficult transition, and we both experienced culture shock. Ashland was very White. We did enjoy exploring the Rogue Valley, with many pear orchards and small farms overshadowed by tall pine trees and mountains. I sketched goats and cows, but not for long.
In the spring of 1965 when pear trees blossomed, I met Peter Westigard. Gradually our friendship matured, and that summer we married. Together we designed our home, with a small kitchen and a large studio so I could paint again. My interest in food production soon expanded from a new perspective. Peter, an agricultural scientist, was employed by Oregon State University and worked at a local agricultural experimental station. His research on spider mites and other insects that attacked the pear tree benefitted the local pear industry, a mainstay of the Rogue Valley economy. His experiments resulted in less grower dependence on chemicals by substituting an approach called integrated pest management (IPM). This could partially be described as the use of predator insects and hormone traps for male insect sterilization.
The first decade of our marriage was a challenge! Bagels are tough and chewy, pears are sweet and mellow. Big adjustments! Talking and listening, listening and talking. My Bronx style was emphatic, while Peter's California voice was a whisper by comparison, but his message was clear and strong. Camping trips, hiking, and exploring mountain lakes and Oregon's wild ocean beaches offered space for our varied moods as we were nourished by the magnificence of nature.
Gradually, in my studio a series of large mythical landscape paintings evolved. I entered into each form, the earth, trees, rocks, water, letting them possess me so that I, too, became the huge wave rising and falling in Ocean Sunrise (fig. 12), or a tree approaching winter in Redwood Silence (fig. 13), or a bird within a mountain in Summer's End. Sometimes Peter and I embraced within a rock form as in Whale's Head (fig. 14), or became filled with the energy of flowers, birds, and sunshine, as in Summer Joy (fig. 15) (see Gallery II for figures 12-15).
fig. 15: Summer Joy, 1972, acrylic, 68"x54"
© Betty LaDuke
Our family expanded when Jason was born in 1970. Winona, then eleven years old, was a wonderful helper, and Peter, a patient, devoted father, so I could still juggle teaching and studio work.
Winona grew up at the initiation of the Barbie doll era, and I did not compete well with Barbie (fig. 16), by looks, by temperament, and much more. Winona was also a frequent subject of my early paintings on masonite.
In Merry-Go-Round (fig. 17) (1969), she is firmly seated on a galloping wooden horse. Was I foretelling the future? In 1996 she appeared on a real horse on the cover of Sierra Magazine along with the announcement of her Vice Presidential candidacy for the Green Party with Ralph Nadar as President.
Bee Sting (fig. 18) expresses Winona's anguish as a victim, a role she would fight against all her life. The Parting (fig. 19) was painted in 1977 when she was about to leave home for Harvard University. It portrays our physical separation as she would soon reclaim her Native American heritage and actively devote her life to fighting for indigenous justice, and environmental sanity, nationally and internationally.
A decade earlier Winona had been my symbolic model for the Black children in an intense series of paintings Play Free (fig. 20), Watts Riots and End of the Whitey Myth (fig. 21). In this latter painting, in deep, dark reds, a young Black child throws aside her White Barbie doll (they were in only one color then) to acknowledge her own identity, Black Is Beautiful!
Jason also appeared in many prints and paintings, from the Terrible Two's and Summer Play to a large canvas, Jason Climbing (fig. 22), in which he cautiously surveys reality from his high perch upon the playground monkey bars. In Jason's Journey (fig. 23), a young boy stands between darkness and bright sunlight, a bird in hand, a spirit guide, propelling him forward. Jason's journey was more circuitous than Winona's, and at California State University at Hayward he developed a professional interest in writing, editing, graphic design, and computer technology. Soon after graduation, he applied his skills as editor of my book Women Against Hunger, A Sketchbook Journey and as graphic designer of Africa, Women's Art, Women's Lives (both published by Africa World Press in 1977). It was a wonderful relationship change, to work together as two professionals. Being out of sync with some aspects of Ashland reality was made apparent when a front page headline of the Daily Tidings (February 14, 1968) stated "Ashland Artist Starts a Ruckus." In the photograph I stood beside Love Totems (fig. 24), a series of thirteen box paintings highlighting the people and diverse news events of the past year. There were portraits of Martin Luther King, Jr., the Pope and the pill, Kruschev, President Johnson, the Beatles and flower children, and scenes from the Vietnam War and the Detroit riots.
fig. 24: Betty LaDuke and Love Totems, 1968,
13 box paintings, © Betty LaDuke
Before arriving in Ashland, I had attended one of the first NOW (National Organization for Women) meetings held in Los Angeles. Therefore, I was astonished that the faculty women at SOSC had organized themselves as the "Purple Girdles," and this demeaning title persisted into the 1970s. For the first eighteen years of my SOSC teaching career, I was the only woman in the art department faculty, which had expanded from five to ten men. Unfortunately, some remained unenlightened concerning equal rights for a long time.
But I did make big changes happen for myself and my students after attending a WCA (Women's Caucus for Art) meeting of the College Art Association in 1977. The WCA was a turning point in my professional career. My women artist vocabulary rapidly increased from the basic four of my school years, Elizabeth Catlett, Frida Kahlo, Kathe Kollwitz, and Georgia O'Keeffe, to include many more. Women art historians such as Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin were uncovering our hidden history and, for the first time, 150 paintings by women artists from 1550 to 1850 were assembled for exhibit. This was just the tip of the iceberg, as the publications of Elsa Fine, Charlotte Streiffer Rubenstein, and other historians gradually melted away a frozen chunk of human history so that women s aesthetic achievements were made visible. Art critics such as Lucy Lippard, Cindy Nemser, Rozsika Parker, and Griselda Pollock analyzed the societal power struggles that had obstructed women s creative opportunities and professional acknowledgement.
With the realization if I didn't do it, no one else would, in 1978, while simultaneously teaching and learning, I initiated the course "Women and Art." Through the years when funding was available, I brought to our campus Charlotte Streiffer Rubenstein, Gloria Orenstein, Judy Chicago, Faith Ringgold, and other influential women artists and historians.
My annual travels to non-Western cultures began with my first sabbatical to India in 1972. Then, as my journeys continued for four to six weeks each summer, I took on a new focus. In addition to my sketchpad, I carried a notepad and camera for interviewing women artists and documenting their work. The commitment to research, writing, and teaching students, as well as my studio work, was intense but inter-related. At SOSC I initiated another lecture class, "Art in the Third World." In my studio, my paintings began to evolve as a series based on specific cultural experiences, first in Asia, then in Latin America and more recently in Africa.