Betty Feves

So, in the past 24 hours I saw a dancer digging fake viscera out of a stuffed animal of unknown species (I’m thinking it was goat-like, though).  Before that I saw a beautiful exhibition of work by the late Betty Feves, and it made me want to start a bonfire. And then just moments ago, I appeared on OPB’s Think Out Loud and spent so much time talking about the unequal distribution of the goods of the society that I didn’t have time to distribute one of those goods — a poem by the late Adrienne Rich. Stick with me and I’ll rectify that for you, lucky readers,  though I’ll always feel bad for all those people in radio land who will go without!

Do these things have anything to do with one another? Well, maybe the work of Feves and Rich, but just glancingly. Feves was one of those dynamos who built a successful life for herself in Pendleton, Oregon, adventurous in its exploration of the arts and in its commitment to building and serving a community.  Perhaps because of her gender and her geography, her life and art reached fewer people than Rich, who was so important to so many woman (and men) seeking to understand the conditions that limited the reach of Feves, successful as she was. I don’t know, but that’s how I’m thinking about it right now.

The viscera? They came from the comic imagination of Israeli choreographer Yasmeen Godder, whose “Love Fire” is a work of comic genius of a sort, almost burlesque, and almost completely unthinkable in the world (1918-1985) that Feves inhabited.


"Six Figures," date unknown. Raku on wooden base. Collection of Feves Family. Photo: Dan Kvitka

“I was too much the farmer’s daughter, in a sense. You know, that marvelous dirt out there that gets turned over with a plow and getting my hands dirty in the clay was the thing that turned me on.”

Betty Feves, the pioneering modernist ceramic artist who flourished for many years in the Oregon desert town of Pendleton, had a habit of explaining herself very well. So when you sit down to write about her, the temptation is just to let her talk. And Namita Gupta Wiggers, curator of the just-opened retrospective exhibition Generations: Betty Feves at Portland’s Museum of Contemporary Craft, does a lot of that in her illuminating catalog essay, Betty Feves: Setting the Stage for Clay, which kicks off with the quote above.

Walking into the exhibit the other day and almost immediately standing before a handsome longitudinal sculpture called Garden Wall, I discovered another of Feves’ plain-spun self-descriptions on the explanatory label. “I always have difficulty putting titles on things,” the label reads. “ ‘Figure Group,’ ‘Figure da da da …’ and you always have to have them for the exhibitions. Once in a while, it’s easy, for instance, ‘The Cliff-Dwellers.’ But the literary connection has never been an important element for me.”

Betty Whiteman Feves’ bare-bones biography is this: born into a Northwest wheat-farming family in 1918, died in 1985, studied art at Washington State College (now University) in the late ’30s under the young Clyfford Still and others, spent a few years in New York studying at the Art Students League and working before returning in 1945 to Pendleton, where she remained the rest of her life.


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