More than six decades of work and travel don’t seem to have slowed down Betty LaDuke all that much. In fact, the 86-year-old Oregon artist just returned from a trip to the Arizona-Mexico border, where she spent five weeks observing the lives of migrants and working with humanitarian organizations that provide aid on the border—an experience she is working to translate into a new set of painted panels.
The longtime Ashland resident has explored numerous topics across her career, often ones rooted in social issues, like her acclaimed books and paintings that advocate for female artists in Eritrea. You might also recognize her colorful panels celebrating local farmers that are a permanent installation at the Medford International Airport in Jackson County, or the similar series that was on display at PDX back in 2015.
A new exhibition at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, titled Betty LaDuke: Early Work, is a collection of, well, her early work—namely black-and-white prints from the ’60s dealing with her experiences growing up as a first-generation Jewish-American in New York, merging the bustling street life of her immigrant neighborhood with religious stories. It’s particularly interesting to see how these works focused on her own culture paved the way for the global work that would come to define her career. LaDuke sat down with Portland Monthly to talk about the new exhibit and more.
I’m curious about your experience revisiting the work on display at the OJMCHE. How does your work from the ’60s resonate with you today?
The work that speaks the closest to what you’re asking is the three-dimensional piece called Holocaust Remembered. At the time that I did that piece I did a piece on Hiroshima as well, and one that I called The Love Totems, which dealt with what was happening with the Vietnam War—the protest era. [Holocaust Remembered] is the only one of those three that’s here, but I haven’t been focused just on being Jewish or having a Jewish heritage, rather I’ve been focused on having a broader outlook on the world and living in a broader sense of community. That interest has always been mine.
As for the early, early work there that has to do with religion, that comes partly from my mother’s stories growing up impoverished in Poland. The messiah was someone who was always going to stir hope. He’s your runaway, your escape. So that series has that basis. It gave me a chance to work through my early roots and my mother’s memories instead of my own specific ones. But if you look into the images there are also little groups of children, and that actually had to do with my experience in Mexico, so within it, interwoven, is my life in Mexico, where I spent three years before I finished up my academic work.
It strikes me that your work is very concerned with place—whether home in New York and Oregon, or abroad, as with Mexico or Eritrea.
I think the early work is about roots. Going back to parents’ roots, going back to childhood stories, and developing an awareness of Jewish cultural heritage. And then a lot of the later work is related to travel and specific research that I did. I was interested first in Latin America, where I had lived and gone to school, but then I went back to deal with women’s arts. The first book I did was on women, art, and social change in Latin America. I was just interviewing women in villages or urban areas and connecting the work with their lives, their communities and politics. And that kind of transferred over to Africa as well, and my long-term relationship with the nation of Eritrea.
Have politics and social justice always been such an integral part of your work? Or is that something that has developed over time, as you’ve seen more of the world?
My current work certainly deals with just that. I’m doing a series of, I call them totems or panels, that have to do with topics like the refugee crisis, school shootings, Black Lives Matter. So a lot of my work is concerned with the here and now. Does that come out of my earlier experiences? I think for me there has always been an awareness of rich and poor. But ultimately it comes down to caring about people. I really do care. And my work is not motivated so much by styles. I think a lot of young people are motivated by what’s in—I have no interest in that. I’ve been able to develop in my own way, largely because my focus has not been so much about commercial sales. I’ve had a job. My work is more for educational purposes. My biggest pleasure is when my work shows at university student unions, or nonprofit spaces—public collections as opposed to private ones.
Is traveling still an important part of your work?
As I’ve gotten older, a lot of my newer work is more symbolic. It’s not quite such literal storytelling: I’m taking the essence of an experience, the feeling, rather than being literal, kind of like that three-dimensional piece that’s here. Can I always travel? I have to realize it's a little bit harder for me. I'm , so it's not quite that easy, the knees have no cartilage. However I can absorb a lot [from home] too, with things like PBS and NPR. Exploring more symbolic work allows me to be based in my studio and accommodate what my body tells me. But I had this opportunity to go to Arizona and I just wanted to, I mean I had really hoped for that. So will I travel more? I’m sure I will.
Thru Sept 22, Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education