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The Color of Cultures Fills Her Canvas

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 7, 1998



ASHLAND, ORE.

When Betty LaDuke was a little girl in the Bronx, it was a big event when her mother took her to shop for groceries.

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"There were no supermarkets," she recalls of those days in the 1930s and '40s. Instead, there was a rich mix of butchers, bakers, greengrocers, and other merchants, many of them immigrants like her parents who had come from Russia and Poland.

The women who gathered to shop for their families, the smell of the spices and the vibrant colors of the produce, excited and stimulated the girl, who began carrying a sketchbook with her everywhere she went.

Today, more than half a century later, such markets, and especially the women who buy and sell there, still excite and stimulate artist Betty LaDuke. She finds in them an inspiring and sometimes profound metaphor for the nurturing and healing aspects of humanity.

"The theme of market women is one that's stayed with me," she says. But over the years, her world of artistic inspiration has expanded vastly to include Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Traveling light, with a camera and sketchbook as her primary tools, she brings back to her studio in the mountains of southern Oregon pen-and-ink first drafts. These will become large, vibrantly colorful, imaginative expressions of things that connect human beings no matter what their ethnic, racial, religious, or national makeup.

"Again and again she finds the shared humanity of the people and the place," says Bruce Guenther, chief curator of the Orange County Museum of Art in Newport Beach, Calif., and former chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. "It's beautiful, powerful, and playful. It's giddy and serious. It's all of those things."

Mr. Guenther has followed Ms. LaDuke's work for many years, since the time he was a student at Southern Oregon University here in Ashland where she taught for more than 30 years before retiring in 1996 to paint full time.

For LaDuke, African landscape and life are infused with the rhythm of sounds, activity, and color that are reflected in her compositions, complex in their rhythmic curvilinear forms. Although the figures and the activities she portrays are recognizable, there is a surreal aspect to much of her work.

"She shows how humans can relate very closely to nonhumans - to animals and the land - and to the spirit world," says Gloria Feman Orenstein, professor of comparative literature and women's studies at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and author of a 1993 book on LaDuke's work ("Multi-Cultural Celebrations: The Paintings of Betty LaDuke, 1972-1992," Pomegranate Artbooks).

Birds and other animals are depicted as contained within and springing from the minds of people. And still, says Professor Orenstein, "she always brings me back down to earth."

LaDuke's close, personal connections to other cultures began early. Her working-class parents (her father was a house painter, her mother a seamstress in a pocketbook factory) sent her to an interracial summer camp where her early mentors were African-American artists Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett.

She graduated from the High School of Music and Art in Harlem, then dropped out of college to spend three years living with indigenous people and painting in Mexico (where Mexican muralists became another strong influence). Her first husband was native American. After she obtained her bachelor's and master's degrees at California State University in Los Angeles, she taught junior high school in East Los Angeles.

After she was married again (to agricultural scientist Peter Westigard) and had been teaching college for several years, she took her first sabbatical, to India in 1972. Since then, with small grants and a low-budget approach, she has traveled widely, typically taking at least one trip a year.

For the past 12 years, her focus has been on Africa, where she not only gathers inspiration and ideas but also works closely with African artists. This has included teaching sessions there.

"I keep going back and discovering so many new things," she says. This includes the work of Eritrean artists, including many women who fought in the long war for independence from Ethiopia.

But she adds, "It's also been fun discovering the joy, the positive things we never see publicized - a wedding, for example, or women getting together to prepare food."

The artistic inspiration works both ways. Some African women artists she has worked with in the past are now weaving patterns based on LaDuke's sketches.

LaDuke is the first to agree that her work "doesn't fit the mainstream" of avant-garde art. Or as curator Guenther admiringly notes, "It's not about hip, deconstructionist symbols." Still, if it hasn't taken the art world by storm, her work has been widely seen. Her paintings have been featured as cover art on 36 books and journals. Three collections of her paintings, drawings, and photographs are now on tour through Exhibit Touring Services (operated by Eastern Washington University in Cheney).

Sept. 18 and 19, exhibitions of her paintings and etchings will open at the Spirits in Stone galleries in Sausalito and Sonoma, Calif., respectively, together with the stone carvings of Shona artists from Zimbabwe. Also in September, an exhibition of her work will be shown at the Indianapolis Art Center.