The exhibit Celebrate Life honors the 80th birthday of Ashland artist Betty LaDuke and the countless people from all over the world who have inspired her compelling paintings over 65 years.
“The work is still ongoing. I feel grateful that I have the strength and the energy,” says LaDuke.
A bulk of LaDuke’s retrospective exhibition at Southern Oregon University (SOU) showcases the lives of female artists in Peru, Mexico, Uganda, Tanzania, Vietnam, Cambodia and other developing nations. She traveled through those countries for three to four weeks every summer for about 40 years and chronicled the lives of female artists in her sketchbooks, paintings and books.
“The conditions under which they create art are not as ideal as we have. They juggle better than we do. They complain less and juggle more because they’re mothers and they don’t have dishwashers and washing machines in the house,” says LaDuke.
Some of LaDuke’s most moving artwork is from eight visits to Eritrea from 1996-2002. She met female artists who had fought as soldiers in wars against Ethiopia. She painted their grim lives in refugee camps, but always highlighted the women’s strength and resolve.
LaDuke’s travels have broadened her respect for all kinds of artwork.
“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,” says LaDuke.
“They’re the newspapers. They’re the ones getting the message out about what’s happening. These are the stories that I’ve enjoyed learning and sharing with others, interpreting through my art and through the books I wrote.”
Governments would often use the women’s artwork on billboards, posters, school textbooks and educational materials to persuade people to get inoculations, to learn to read or to promote other community programs, says LaDuke.
Female artists are proud of how their artwork can serve their community, she says.
“It gives them a certain amount of pleasure and satisfaction that their imagery can be wisely used to stimulate and educate people,” says LaDuke. “In a deeper sense, too, the artists benefit. There’s a private kind of work that happens that expresses their inner life as well.”
LaDuke’s more recent paintings focus on pear and vineyard farmers in the Rogue Valley, her home for almost 50 years. Another theme often seen throughout her work is the sowing, the farming and the harvesting of food. She feels strongly about “honoring the earth and how the earth in turn nourishes and gives back.”
Her connection to food began while growing up in the Bronx, the child of Russian and Polish immigrants, says LaDuke.
“I was aware of English not being their first language or my own. I watched how they survived and how markets were always important. It was local markets and dealing with nourishment. And I took that around the world,” she says.
LaDuke says she hopes people who attend Celebrate Life will come away with one main message.
“We have to develop a sense of compassion and respect for each other. Because without that, there will never be peace.”
LaDuke’s exhibit at SOU’s Schneider Museum of Art runs through September 14, 2013, Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.