Colorful, mythical images of forgotten people and places

written by Lee Lewis Husk | Photos By Claire Thorington

A kneeling farmworker’s hands become roots in the soil. African women and children, plants and vines, birds and other animals are interwoven. Colorful, mythic, swirling images represent life in all its forms. That’s the passion and imagery of Ashland’s Betty LaDuke, who came to Oregon in 1964 to teach at Southern Oregon University and now, more than a half-century later, remains true to her message­­—we are one with the earth.
Her farmworker panels—featured in the book, Bountiful Harvest: From Land to Table, White Cloud Press, 2016—are on permanent display at the Medford Airport and can be seen in traveling exhibits around the Northwest. In 2016, her work was shown at the Grants Pass Museum, Four Rivers Cultural Center and Museum in Ontario, and in California at Turtle Bay Arboretum in Redding.

She is inspired by Oregon’s agricultural workers who plant, care for and harvest vineyards, orchards and fields. Her home studio is stacked with plywood panels that await her conversion of field sketches into acrylic paintings that express the experience of the people on the front lines of farm work.
Once she finishes a panel, LaDuke loads it into her Subaru wagon and returns to the fields. “I enjoy bringing the panels back to show the workers how I’ve interpreted them,” she said. She also brings photos and reproductions for them to keep.
LaDuke’s paintings and collected art from decades of travel cover nearly every inch of the home she and her late husband built in 1965. The studio floor is splattered in paint, as is the apron hanging on the easel. She wears jeans, an embroidered Mexican blouse she bought twenty years ago, handmade Timbuktu bracelets she picked up in 1988 and a hair-pull her daughter gave her. Everything has meaning and a story.
In the small kitchen, she tells of trips abroad—seldom as a tourist, always as an artist—carrying a sketchpad to capture displaced people and forgotten places.
“LaDuke’s panels evoke textiles, carvings, and painted decorative objects from Mexico and Guatemala, Mali and Eritrea, aboriginal Australia and Papua New Guinea,” Bonnie Laing-Malcolmson, a retired curator at the Portland Art Museum, wrote in Bountiful Harvest.
At 83, her pace of travel outside the U.S. has slowed, although, in 2016, she returned to Eritrea, a country she’s visited several times. She’s donating twenty-six paintings to a new archeological museum there.
Her paintings have been exhibited and acquired by museums, universities, foundations and public entities throughout the United States. In 2016, the Brauer Museum of Art at Valparaiso University in Indiana held a retrospective of her work. In Oregon, her work is in the permanent collections of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, the Schneider Museum of Art, the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, the Portland Art Museum and Oregon State University.
Beyond her art in public and private collections, LaDuke’s legacy is portraying the voice, strength and dignity of people living on the margins everywhere. “LaDuke’s has always been an art of cause and conscience,” Laing-Malcolmson wrote.