Much has already been said about Betty LaDuke, the Ashland-based artist and writer who has garnered an international reputation for her artwork. Whether she is painting, doing large scale murals, or sketching, the 85-year-old LaDuke (who is also mother to prominent activist and environmentalist Winona LaDuke) is showing few signs of slowing down.
Her work remains a standard-bearer for the working man and woman, filled with images that might be considered overtly socialistic in Trump's America. Based on her political record, one would imagine that Ms. LaDuke would be quite happy to annoy the current occupant of the Oval Office; she has a long and proud history of standing up for the underdog.
Born in 1933 in the Bronx, New York, to Sam and Helen Bernstein, LaDuke says that she knew she would be an artist by the time she reached the age of 9. Seven years later, she was attending the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan, which had been established by Mayor LaGuardia as a public school for students of the arts. Over the next number of years, she completed her studies and moved to California, where she met the future father of her child, Vincent (Sun Bear) LaDuke, who enrolled her in his White Earth tribe, an Ojibwe clan.
LaDuke has traveled extensively and is particularly influenced by the art of indigenous women in communities all over the world. Says LaDuke, “I love women who paint on mud walls of their homes and within their communities. I love women’s ceramics and the stories that their pottery can tell about their lives. I love women working with cloth and patches of cloth to create stories that tell of their oppression.”
In this presentation, LaDuke is showcasing many of her bedrock influences. The gallery is filled with pieces that showcase some 50 years of painting. Unfortunately, there are giclee prints available — perhaps necessitated by LaDuke's desire to show financial support for her various causes — but for the most part it seems that LaDuke is continuing to grow her legend with a compelling clutch of aesthetically pleasing works.
In her 2017 "Catch the Joy as it Flies," eight birds of complex coloring burst forth from a more muted background. The piece is carved into panel, as are many in this program. Wood panel has long been a staple among LaDuke's work materials. In "Daca 1," birds and humans coexist in confined quarters, perhaps as a warning that man and nature are one and the same. In "Standing Rock Totem 2," LaDuke sends a similar message.
Many of these pieces are on display but not for sale, which is perhaps a necessary choice for a retrospective show — and a bold one for virtually the only serious gallery left standing in Ashland. If you do want a souvenir from the show, there are passable giclees available. "Play Free" from 1965 is a vibrant and riotous picture with strong color with a central figure who appears to rise like a totem from a background that is split into bold colors, around which swirl abstract entities that burst with bright white and deep orange hues.
Perhaps LaDuke's most famous work, "Jamaica Tomorrow" (1985) is available as a print, too. The pregnant figure at the center of the piece is protected by birds and women with children of their own.The woman rests in the sand at the edge of a body of water. In the distance, a mountain rage in deep cerulean pushes against a black, red, and rifle green sky. LaDuke has a gift for color in these early works that propels the viewer into a compelling emotional space and makes them pay closer attention.
Hanson Howard has mounted this show in conjunction with a corresponding group show that prominently features work by LaDuke at the Schneider Museum of Art at Southern Oregon University. The abundance of work on display is a potent reminder of what a real, working artist looks like, and one would hope that this might go some way to neutralize the preciousness of the young in making art.
If nothing else, LaDuke understands that being a working artist is much like digging a ditch. She's not petty in her creative process. She just makes things happen. We need more of this in the world of visual art, where what I call the "decorative hay" that makes up much of the contemporary gallery scene is becoming more and more pervasive. Consistent, integrous work is how you keep yourself relevant if you're planning on being a serious artist for 76 years — LaDuke is an artist who should continue to be watched, supported, and valued.
"Betty LaDuke: Diversity" will be on display at Hanson Howard Gallery, 89 Oak St. in Ashland, until Feb.28.
—Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at email@example.com.