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Art Beat

Oct. 14, 2004


Artistic legacies


I WAS NEVER MUCH OF A HISTORY BUFF AS A KID. THIS aversion probably had to do with the fact that my mother adored anything smacking of bygone eras, and forced my siblings and me to endure one historical site and ghost town after another. She was especially fond of California's missions She thought nothing of taking hundred-mile detours on family vacations to examine one. "Look at these!" she'd enthuse over fragments of lumpy pottery housed in damp adobe remains. "Can you believe the Indians made them by hand?""Dinner with the McKnights" painting by Brenda Tuxford

At the time, these historical jaunts didn't inspire much more than boredom and a firm determination to "be here now," but eventually I came to appreciate the cultural history of my home state. Oddly enough, my interest in the past wasn't engaged by my original firsthand visits to historical sites and vistas, but rather by viewing these things through the eyes and hands of early California painters.

Left, "Dinner with the McKnights" by Brenda Tuxford. Self portrait by Reese Bullen.Self portrait painting by Reese Bullen

Throughout my childhood and early adulthood, I was fortunate enough to live near cities that were early art colonies, like Pasadena, Laguna Beach and Monterey, places with galleries and small museums brimming with the work of artists who had found inspiration in California's historical treasures. After seeing paintings of missions by William Keith, Edwin Deacon and Arthur Rider, I began to study the history of these structures with a more appreciative eye. Similarly, cityscapes by Wayne Thiebald and landscapes by Maynard Dixon and Edgar Payne inspired me to travel the state, rediscovering the beauty these artists had witnessed before me.

Artists chronicle the people, places, things and ideas in their surrounding environment, whether they intend to or not. Studying their work can open the door to an awareness of our connection to our cultural past, often compelling us to learn more. On a local level, this concept seems timely, since over the past several months some of our art community's most influential and inspiring creative voices have crossed over into history.

Peter Palmquist, photographer and internationally renowned photo historian, was killed by a hit-and-run driver in January 2003; Reese Bullen, a multi-media artist who established the art department at HSU died last November; we lost Justin Schmit, a sculptor who served on the board of the Redwood Art Association, this past May; and in August came the stunning news that Brenda Tuxford, co-founder of The Ink People, had suffered a fatal heart attack while visiting her son in Amsterdam.

Although these local voices have been silenced, their place in our cultural history survives through the work they produced. I used to think that once an artist was gone, their work became finite, something historians could examine in its entirety. I have discovered that artists live on through their work and their contributions to the community, continuing to teach and inspire future generations infinitely.

Consider the exhibition of Reese Bullen's work at the gallery named in his honor at HSU (through Oct. 23). When Bullen arrived in Arcata in 1946 with his master's degree from Stanford University, Humboldt State was a small liberal arts college. Bullen established the art department, hiring teachers, developing a curriculum, and expanding the program throughout his 30-year tenure. He retired in 1976, but his influence, as an educator and visual artist, continues to be felt today.

For me, the most compelling pieces in the Bullen exhibit are the artist's acrylic paintings on paper from the `80s, works that hover between reality and complete abstraction, with crisp, complex layering of colors and heartbreakingly eloquent brushwork. Yet equally compelling and historically significant are examples from his time spent educating future artists at HSU. The exhibit includes early ceramics and watercolors, as well as photos and demonstration pieces from his calligraphy classes and two wonderful portraits of the artist and his wife, Dorothy, from the early `50's. These paintings capture the couple's youth and intensity at a specific time in our regional history.

Similarly, the etchings, paintings, and handmade books in Brenda Tuxford's current retrospective exhibit at A.G. Edwards in Eureka (through November) illustrate the artist's presence during a specific era on the north coast. Tuxford moved to Humboldt from Saskatchewan, Canada in the late `60s, during that "back to the land" movement. She met Libby Maynard while they were both pursuing their master's degrees in art, and the pair founded The Ink People Center for the Arts in 1979.

Throughout her 25 years of serving the art community at The Ink People, Tuxford touched and inspired many lives. Stories about her talent, generosity, wisdom, and sense of humor abound and remain evident in the art she left behind.

The work in Tuxford's retrospective exhibit is almost entirely figurative and narrative, expressing in a whimsical yet elegantly rendered manner her interpretation of the people and environment that surrounded her while she lived here. A prolific artist, Tuxford was constantly experimenting, reinventing and recycling her work in a variety of media as she sought to chronicle the time she spent among us.

And perhaps the most prolific voice of all, in terms of local cultural history, belonged to Peter Palmquist. A professional photographer, Palmquist was also a prodigious collector, writer and internationally respected authority on the history of photography in the American West. His collection ultimately came to include more than a quarter-million photographs and much of his archive is permanently housed at Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. (See Journal cover story "A Photographer's Obsession," Jan. 24, 2002)

The most recent exhibition of Palmquist's work at the Morris Graves Museum paired his photographs with those A.W. Ericson (1848-1927), one of many local photographers whose work Palmquist collected and wrote about. The combined work furnished nearly a century and a half of images featuring significant people, places and events in our county's history, images destined to bring the past alive for generations to come.

In the literature accompanying the Palmquist-Ericson exhibit, it was noted that Palmquist "spoke of photographic images as collective `twigs' on our global society's `family tree'." I'd like to extend that analogy to all visual images. Studying these twigs can lead to an understanding of where we've been, where we are, and what it's possible to achieve. n

Linda Mitchell can be reached via




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