The staff of the Museum of Contemporary Craft is having Christmas in March this year. They're unpacking the life's work of the late Betty Feves, a sculptor who worked on the vanguard of clay construction in the late 20th Century. She's the subject of a 40-year career retrospective in an exhibition that opens this Thursday.
Betty Feves was someone who drew both inspiration -- and even her sculpting materials -- from the ground where she lived. Curator Namita Wiggers looks over a three-foot construction of loamy brown, textured like a spinal column, and flecked with bolts of chocolate and rust-red glaze.
"Some of the pieces are more orange," Wiggers notes. "Those pieces, the clay was pulled from Emigrant Street, In Pendleton. Some of the pieces are a little more dark brown, like this one, those were from Dead Man's Pass, somewhere near Dead Man's pass."
Wiggers says the Museum has been working to pull together the exhibition for about eight years.
"Nobody has done research on Betty Feves in this way before. The only way you can do it is by invading the privacy of the family, and going in."
Feves died in 1985. This month, the Feves family allowed crews from the Museum -- and Oregon ArtBeat -- inside the sleek Craftsman-style home Feves and her husband, Lou, shared. Wiggers says the house was a gold mine.
"They were incredibly generous letting us rummage through their personal files, their correspondence, their photographs," Wiggers said.
Staff catalogued hundreds of ceramics, from small household items to the massive, organically-textured Garden Wall that's a centerpiece of the Museum's exhibit. The works were taken apart, packaged in yards of bubble wrap, and transported to Portland.
Those who knew Betty Feves say she didn't spend a lot of energy on self-promotion. Painter and printmaker James Lavadour, who grew up in Pendleton, met Feves in the 1970s.
"I think about her all the time," Lavadour said. "She was very plain, you could see her around town -- jeans with mud, bobbed hair, glasses. Sort of the original Bohemian in Eastern Oregon."
Born in Eastern Washington, Feves and her husband, a physician, settled down in Pendleton shortly after World War II.
Lavadour counts Feves -- a New York trained, abstract sculptor -- as one of the major influences on his work and his life. He says her perspective startled him. And he found her as interested in helping others as she was in her own work.
"She was not really interested in pursuing a professional career," Lavadour remembers. "It came knocking at her door, she didn't really go looking for it. She told me that. She had enough to do without running around looking for that sort of thing."
While living and working in Pendleton, Feves was raising three children, serving on the Pendleton school board, setting up the art program at the high school, mentoring young artists like James Lavadour, and giving violin lessons to dozens of kids. Feves' son, Alan, says he grew up in the middle of this whirlwind, and he's still astonished.
"She worked tirelessly, and I don't know how she got all the -- in a day, she had so much work," he said. "It's just a tribute to her ability to organize, and raise kids, and give music lessons and still get down to studio and organize her time so that the pots were drying while she was doing these other things."
As much as Feves downplayed her career, she was showing her work regularly, and pushing herself in the emerging field of clay ceramics, at a time when few artists were using clay for sculpture. Alan Feves says he's glad some of his favorites from the collection will find a home at the Museum.
"They're basically human figure forms with a real earthy feel to them. The clay body is right here out of the Northwest, she dug the clay, and it has little bits of iron that turn up as little black specks. The glazes were formulating using local materials as much as possible."
Namita Wiggers says the experiments Feves conducted with local materials are a big part of her legacy.
As the museum's staff unpacked hundreds of items this week, Wiggers says the experience of going through Feves' home and personal effects helped her understand what a good amateur engineer and chemist Feves was. Wiggers says Feves knew how different local materials would behave when fired, using that knowledge to great effect in her hollow constructions.
"She understood how to build things," Wiggers said. "She didn't sit back and wait for things to come her, she made it happen. So when she needed a different kind of kiln, she went out and got the plan and figured out who could come to Pendleton and build it for her. She didn't wait around for technology to catch up."
In years to come, the Feves archive will remain at the museum for other scholars to examine. Namita Wiggers says there's simply too much informative material to use in only one exhibition.
Oregon ArtBeat will air its profile of Betty Feves on OPB-TV April 26.