Women’s Perspectives on Display, Maude Kerns Art Center Hosts ‘Social Being’
The Maude Kerns Art Center in Eugene, Oregon—first opened in 1950—is a non-profit community center for the visual arts formed by a collective of local artists, including the center’s namesake, Maude Irvin Kerns.
Kerns was a local “visionary” and internationally recognized artist, art educator and mentor. She was born in 1876 and passed away in 1965. Kerns was the first head of the Art Education Department at the University of Oregon and ran it from 1921 through 1947.
Kerns has permanent collections at museums around the country and her work has been purchased by many. Seventy-five pieces of her work are here in Eugene as part of the art center’s collection. When the center first opened, it was housed in one of the homes owned by Kerns.
Now it is housed in an old church building on the corner of 15th and Villard, near the university. When the church went up for sale, Kerns chose to sell her home in which the center was run and donated the profits as downpayment on the church to house the art center.
As a result, the collective decided to name the art center after her.
The goal of the art center is to promote both the creation and appreciation of visual arts. This is done through public events, such as exhibitions and educational programs, and by supporting local artists.
The center’s mission statement is: “To nurture artistic expression and creativity in the individual and to cultivate an appreciation and understanding of art and culture in our community.”
The most recent exhibit would have made the founders quite proud as a fine example of their mission statement, goal, and purpose.
‘Social Being,’ which opened on Jan. 14 and ran through Feb. 11, was a unique exhibit providing the perspective of five local female artists, Kathleen Caprario, Sandra Honda, Mei-ling Lee, Charly Swing, and Kerry Weeks.
These artists, each with a unique lens, gave audiences a chance to peek into the hearts and minds of the beautifully complicated women who surround them — women who are too often and stereotypically mis-labeled as the more social ones.
‘Social Being,’ though, was ironically created during an isolating pandemic and thus that was the inspiration for it. The exhibit begs the question “what happens to a social being in isolation?” and this group of artists didn’t hold back in exploring it.
Each installment explored the concept specifically through a female lens, focusing on topics ranging from identity, the “other,” but also social justice, and privilege.
Charly Swing’s piece was just around the entrance from the front doors. Slightly off center and to the right hand side of the room stood a monolith made out of doors. Four rust colored doors without knobs were positioned together to create one small room with a narrow view.
The doors were rather large, requiring an observer to look up, not down, on the subject in view. At the top of the doors there was a window, each one unique, providing a disjointed and voyeuristic effect. On one of the windows a film made from self-drawn images of different women was projected
Swing, a social sculptor and founder of ArtCity, is always looking for new ways to connect to her audience and fellow artists. New creations by Swing are often a collaborative effort. With her piece titled “On Being Seen” she asked fellow female artists to draw a new self portrait daily.
Artists Barbara Counsil, Cari Ingrassia, Liz Larue, Patricia Montoya Donohue, and Sandra Honda each contributed drawings. Those drawings were then captured digitally and combined with narrations by the artists to create the projection.
Pulling inspiration from her own life while trying to avoid “telling someone else’s story,” she focused on her ancestors and identity. Swing wanted to create something similar to creations made by the Celtic like Stonehenge.
“At that time in Celtic history, women and men were equal,” said Swing. “I’ve also thought a lot about lost languages, my culture’s language, Gaelic, has been lost too.”
“It’s conceivable that men and women built Stonehenge. Why in stone,” pondered Swing, “I think it represents the story of Earth. It’s like they’re talking to you. They contain our story.” she answered.
So Swing set about crafting a modern day monolith out of the doors as a way to preserve and share images of today’s women and language.
“The doors are an opening to see and hear the stories of these women. The doors, the box is proportional to a body and its energy,” she said. Though the doors didn’t actually open, one simply needed to stand close to the structure to hear the individual voices of each artist telling their own stories of “where they were at” while creating “On Being Seen.”
Swing’s contribution also invited the observer to be a part of the artwork with her other installment titled “Be Seen.”
Through her interactive piece, observers got a chance to be fully immersed in the experience. Swing invited her audience “to draw themselves the way they want to be seen.” Swing feels that, for far too long, women have been told how to be seen and wants this invitation to help women take back control over their own narratives and definitions of beauty.
Provided on the walls were baskets with tape, pencils, next to two mirrors mounted with plenty of space between each corner of the room. To the right of one mirror was a giant scroll of paper securely mounted to the wall. The idea was to use the mirrors and paper to draw your own image on the page.
Those drawings would later be added to “On Being Seen” as it grows and adapts in the future. Swing initially wanted to have four monoliths representing the four directions, but due to time and money, she was only able to build one.
Swing hopes to showcase this piece again with more stories. Participants were also encouraged to give their drawing a unique identifier and to record and email an audio file to Swing about “how they would like to be seen.”
“I’m honored to share this,” she said. On the wall above the collection box for observer images hung an oil self-portrait of Swing titled “Me in the Mirror.” Her use of reds, oranges, and browns cast a glow on the subject, giving her a fiery, yet welcoming, appearance.
It is a simple, elegant, and honest portrayal of the artist.
Sandra Honda’s first piece was just inside the door. “Unfinished Business” documented Honda’s process and it contained the essential elements that inspired her contributions to the exhibit.
Honda grew up in Chicago, moved to the Pacific Northwest in 2018, and moved to Eugene with the goal of becoming a full-time artist.
She created her installations during COVID-19. She used that time to explore her own identity as a sansei — third generation Japanese-American. With her art, Honda explored the “trauma, grief, and long-term consequences of ethnically based mass incarceration.”
Through her work, Honda aimed to reclaim her identity as a “descendant of a people incarcerated in U.S. concentration camps during World War II,” as she explored “what it means to be Asian and American.”
The piece contained portraits of her grandmother who came to the U.S. in the early 1920s along with an oil painting and a piece of abstract art representing the shift in her work to non-objective abstract focused on identity.
Upon entering the gallery, one was immediately met with a spoken narration that corresponded to identification tags hung just around the corner.
On the other side of the wall from “Unfinished Business” hung three wood boards, interspersed with barbed wire. The names of the World War II Japanese concentration camps were etched onto the boards. Paper imprints recreated the barbed wire fences symbolizing the effect of trying to “relive” a past experience.
“Camp Trauma (We Endure)” was a collaborative effort by Honda with Dr. Mei-Ling Lee, a Taiwanese-born musician and composer. The multimedia installation captured the feelings of trauma, isolation, and fear experienced by the Japanese during World War II.
“The barbed wire shape was imprinted on the paper, expressing that those events already happened, the trauma and grief had occurred, no matter how hard we try, how hard we try to relive the experience, it is all reduced to memories and history. It is like a wound, it may not hurt as much, but the scar will never go away,” said Lee.
On charcoal colored card stock, the duo replicated the identification tags issued to the Japanese during forced relocation. Ink drawings were added to each card. Those adaptations were taken from photographs that documented the transition to and life inside the camps.
Blue light guided the viewer to the individual tag correlating to the narration being heard at that moment. The tags were hung from wood mounts spanning the length of two walls tucked into the corner, giving the installation an isolating feel.
Isolation was an apparent theme in Honda’s work. Created during the COVID pandemic, Honda used her art to deal with and unpack the trauma passed down through generations. In her isolation and work Honda found healing.
“It was a horrible, very bad, good time.” said Honda.
“Greif (We Remember)” hung next and compiled 240 identification tags to symbolize the grief suffered by the 120,000 individuals of Japanese ancestry incarcerated. Each tag was unique and, as they hung together, reflected the “individuality within what was incorrectly labeled as a monolithic ethnic and enemy community.”
A beautiful and delicate vessel sat next to grief called “Mottainai (Memories).” Inside the vessel were shards torn from the remnants of grief representing the memories that form and reside in grief. Though “Mottainai” is a Japanese phrase often translated as “don’t waste.” Honda doesn’t imply it as a directive.
Honda’s vessel, instead, asks its audience to give grief a new view, to see it as something beautiful, delicate, and precious, requiring both gratitude and care for healing.
Her work is created randomly and uses music and poetry to affect her movement, especially improvisational jazz. She hopes to “build a shared understanding of the past, present, and future.”
Hanging just to the left of one of Swing’s mirrors, was the second in a series of three by Honda titled “Healing (We Speak).” Three of the pieces in the series were black ink and watercolor paintings on rice paper. The paintings were mounted and hung with brushed-gold metal frames.
The paintings resembled ink blots similar to a rorschach test, possibly made from living tissue. Certain parts were reminiscent of what is seen in a cell sample when viewed with a microscope.
Each one had holes in the rice paper, but those holes were outlined in gold, representing healing.
Using a poem she wrote, sort of like instructions, Honda created “Broken Promises, Broken Dreams” and “The Body Remembers.”
“The poem goes a little like this,” Honda said. “Imagine a teapot, hold it over your head, let it go, watch it fall to the floor.”
“I wanted to make a film, but I don’t really know how,” said Honda. But her mom dropped a rice bowl belonging to her grandmother while she was working through her process. She gathered the pieces and decided to scan them.
“Broken Promises, Broken Dreams” is a twelve-piece series of scanned photos of a broken rice bowl. Hung diagonally on the wall together they give the impression of an object falling to the floor and breaking.
Honda’s piece “The Body Remembers” echoed Ling’s statements about an old wound. It was a collage created from images from the broken and healing series. Honda said that though there was no picture of the whole rice bowl before it broke, “looking back” was not the focus of remembering. “It was about looking to the future,” she said.
For interdisciplinary artist and innovator Kerry Weeks, “Social Being” was about nature and connection. Her lens was focused on the “love of life” and restoring one’s mental well being, nurtured through nature. Weeks called her lens “Biophilia and Attention Restoration Theory.”
While growing up in Oregon, Weeks has always been inspired by the natural world. It provides a source of beauty, peace, adventure, and introspection. Weeks believes that the “love of life” or the fascination and communion one feels in nature is a biologically driven need within humans.
A need to be social, to interact with other life forms. Through immersion in nature a person can satisfy this need and feel restored. Weeks believes it may be a way to help people heal from societal afflictions. Restoring through time spent appreciating nature.
Weeks exhibited three pieces, two sculptures and one video.
The first sculpture “Contact” was a hand forged steel human ear representing the “important practice of listening and hearing.” Born from the “reflection on empathetic and active listening” Weeks sought to highlight the connection made between people regardless of beliefs when one takes the time to listen with awareness and respect, the “ability to be present without judgment.”
Her other sculpture was displayed with her film titled “Breathing Outside In.” Set apart from the other parts of the exhibit, “Modus Operandi,” was set up in the rear of the gallery space on the stage.
Before ascending the stairs into a darkened room draped with black fabric, Weeks’ provided her observers with some simple instructions to help maximize one’s experience.
She began by explaining that her installment was a place to nurture oneself and invited her audience to take a seat in her second sculpture the “Limbic Loveseat” and take three deep belly breaths. She offered her audience a space to relax the nervous system while appreciating nature.
Her plush loveseat was situated in front of a wall covered with projection screen cloth. On the screen Week’s movie was projected. Below the screen a doterra diffuser precipitated “the forest” into the room.
The couch was formed in the shape of lips and was constructed out of materials Weeks found readily available which normally serve a single purpose, plastic. She gathered plastic from various sources and used that to stuff and bolster the loveseat.
Rich gold, red, silk and velvet fabric covered the couch, remnants Weeks had leftover from previous projects. The couch provided individuals a warm and soft space to “let go.”
“Breathing Outside In” was a film made by Weeks encouraging viewers to relax while enjoying the landscapes. Her film was divided into four regions or segments weaved together similarly to the geography of Oregon and included spoken poems written by Mary Oliver.
The film started in the mountains, descended into the valley, traveled through the forest, and then cast the audience out to the ocean. Each segment was twelve to thirteen minutes long and each had its own soundtrack made by Nathan Trowbridge.
Weeks said it took about five months to capture and compile the videos and photos and hundreds of hours to complete. She focused her lens on the “small moments in the chaos” that help people “make it through the day.”
It was her version of “art therapy” a way to dissolve one’s “stress and negative emotions,” so that people can be the “best versions of themselves,” and “social beings.”
Spending time on her Limbic Loveseat getting lost in her film mixed with scents of the forest did feel like an escape. The full immersion experience was often watched in silence, and though visitors wore masks, contentment was written all over the viewers faces.
Weeks asked her viewers to leave behind comments if they wanted to talk about their individual experiences. One can only imagine what’s in the wonder-filled notes that were left behind.
Mei-ling Lee’s display was in another section of the gallery, just around the corner from her collaborative installment with Honda.
“The Lighted Windows” was a video performance made by Lee and her family. The film began with a story written by her husband, Jefferson Goolsby. Goolsby’s story was about the journey of a young, discontent girl as she explores her neighborhood at night.
The lighted windows of her neighbors provide a glimmer of hope and curiosity as the girl wonders about how others live inside. Lee said the story began with a conversation that she and Goolsby had with their nine-year old daughter, Jayshing Goolsby.
Goolsby provided the narration of the story while Lee gave the story it’s soundtrack. Their daughter acted the part of the young girl.
Lee’s soundtrack was made using two Wii controllers and Kyma by the Symbolic Sound Corporation and she appeared front and center during the performance.
As a musician and composer, Lee’s work has been “evolving around the use of various controllers” as musical instruments.
“With the advent of recent technologies, musicians can utilize much more varied and unique instruments—devices—to “perform” music,” said Lee. She chose the Wii controllers for two reasons, first it was one that she felt audiences would quickly recognize and would instantly realize that she was manipulating the sound with her hand movements.
The second reason was that the wireless controllers allowed the artist to move about in her performance while maintaining accurate responsiveness to control the sound. Lee said it allowed her “to design my movements around the instrument to convey the idea of “wandering” around places, either physically or psychologically.”
“During the performance, I’m orienting myself as the girl wandering around the neighborhood. During her journey she questions the possibilities of what might be an ideal family.” said Lee.
She appeared in black and white to “not only to emphasize it being night time, but also to signify a kind of surreal experience she’s having, slipping deeper and deeper into other worlds.”
Towards the end of the performance, the girl “experiences a moment of frantic fear,” thinking that she’s gone too far and is lost. Even from her own family.
“There are so many wonderful things around us that we often take them for granted, and later feel regret when they’re lost,” said Lee.“The message might be “explore the possibilities, but don’t undervalue the wonderful things you’ve got,” she added.
Kathleen Caprario’s installation was in the same room as Lee’s. Caprario’s work focused on “how she, as a white woman, relocates herself in relationship to critical conversations around race, art, equity, and place.” Caprario hopes to do that without also perpetuating the privileged stance she is questioning.
On the wall across from the entrance hung five abstract pieces made by Caprario. In the center was a “bioDIVERSITY – Bodies in Nature 1.” It along with the other four in a series “Patterns of Privilege – Past Present” explored the artist’s questions about “race, privilege and place.”
The pieces were layered collages, the omni-present theme were idyllic yet hazy representations of nature. Contrasting that just below the surface in bold black font were the names of Black individuals killed by police brutality and racism.
To the right of that was her piece “Patterns of Privilege – Reflect This and Under My Skin” echoed the theme inviting the audience to reflect on themselves in the mirror taking a more personal look into her work.
The mirrors were hung around pieces of wallpaper giving the illusion of a room in one’s home. But the edges were peeling away giving a glimpse of what the wallpaper whitewashed from view. Here again Caprario layered the names of Black individuals whose names should not be forgotten or whitewashed away.
In her last piece, “Patterns of Privilege – Now Hear This” was hung on the wall next to the entrance. This piece was a collaborative effort with three Oregon poets, Carter McKenzie, Bobbie Calhoun, and Benjamin Gorman.
Three poems were displayed on the wall next to two large white sheets. The poems also explored the questions about race and privilege from a white lens. Caprario said the draped forms should be viewed as metaphors for curtains, shrouds, an altar, and even the KKK.
Her piece evoked the idea of lifting and removing the “blinding white” veil.
Caprario said that “it was my response” to the poet’s writings and this work is a “new collaborative direction for me.”
Exhibit Coordinator Sarah Ciampa said that the art center has exhibited a few female-only shows before, but “this exhibit was unique” in that the artists each installed their own submissions. Usually the pieces and displays are set up by staff.
Ciampa was on hand to answer questions about the artists along with taking care of customer purchases in the gift shop in the rear of the building. Just beyond Weeks’ “Modus Operandi” was a large brightly lit hall showcasing the works of the center’s artisans.
Paintings, sculptures, pottery, and other hand made pieces were for sale all made by artists supported by the Kerns center. The old church has been converted to house the art center including classrooms for painting, wheel turning, kilns, a dark room, and a print processing center.
Executive Director Michael Fisher said that they had to scale back on classes due to COVID but are resuming in person classes. However, the pandemic also allowed them to reach larger audiences. During the initial stages the center decided to host their first online exhibit.
Fisher said that the attendance and participation was higher than expected. So now the center plans to continue allowing audiences to see exhibits from the comfort of their own homes.
Though the center is dedicated to “visual arts” the board and directors have been thinking up new ways to be welcoming and inclusive to all. Currently, exhibit entry is free with a suggested donation of $3 per person and $5 for a family.
Some of their past exhibits have been “touch” exhibits allowing people to feel a small sample of the fabrics, paintings, and other pieces of the art on display.
‘Social Being,’ along with current and other past exhibits, is available for viewing on Kern’s website. To learn more about the artists and poets make sure to check out the webinars included on the exhibit page.
Fisher hopes to have more like it in the future.