“Gordon’s Couch”

Working Mother Guilt

Gordon kept a couch in our shared offices, and he took a nap in the afternoons, often snoring gently(or not so gently!) But Gordon’s metaphoric couch was the sage advice he doled out to me when I was frustrated at work.

I have chosen to highlight the great colleagues I worked with and the times things went smoothly at the college. However, as anyone knows who has ever worked with other people, everything did not run smoothly all the time. Nor did I work with only pleasant, collaborative people. Gordon was unfailingly optimistic, especially with the often present tension between the college and the museum. An art college focuses on the new, innovation, controversy. An art museum focuses on preservation, perpetuation, and tradition. Needless to say, this is a perfect set-up for disagreements. And the museum was the parent of an often unruly child, the college.

Whenever a new museum president arrived with yet another idea of how the college should or shouldn’t operate, I would get flustered. Gordon would always give me a sly grin and tell me,”Don’t worry. We will outlast the s.o.b’s.” I like to imagine that he learned this approach from World War II and used it during his long run as a college administrator himself. It was good advice.

I try to remember it now in our present political chaos!

“A Humble Hero”

I first met Dr. Gordon Gilkey when the office the art historian and I shared was no longer available to us. It was actually the “green room” for the Art Museum stage, and performers dressed and sat in it between acts. We often found bottles, food wrappers and wine glasses on our desks, so it was less than ideal as a work space anyway. Gordon had brought his enormous valuable print collection to the Museum and was going to teach History of Printmaking using the actual prints. He had been given a large office and he told us we could have half of it for our offices. This generosity was my first introduction to this wonderful man.

Completely unprepossessing, Gordon never spoke about his past accomplishments. I learned over time that he was a retired dean from the state university. More amazingly, I discovered that Gordon(center in the left picture above) had been central in retrieving and identifying stolen and stored Nazi art work. The film “Monument Men” highlights this priceless activity.

I knew him as a gentle, fairly laconic fellow faculty member. Unlike some heroes, Gordon never bragged about any of his past life. He went on daily sharing his prints and sharing his office as if these treasures were only temporarily in his keeping. Which, I suppose, they were.

More on Gordon tomorrow.

“The Snow King”


(First off, points to anyone who can spot what’s wrong with this photo I copied from the internet.)(Points have no monetary value, but they do give you bragging rights.)

Although Bob had grown up in the East and I had spent four years there, neither of us thought about snow when I planned a mid-February trip from Portland to Boston and New York. By mid-February in Portland, the first sign of spring is just around the corner and snow is highly unlikely. But we did get hit with a blizzard when we arrived in Worcester in mid-state Massachusetts. We woke up to 18″ of snow and the radio cheerfully broadcasting that Worcester had “missed the brunt of the storm.”

We had no trouble for the first leg of our drive on the Mass Turnpike, but it began to snow heavily as we went down the New York Thruway. I had the typical Portland response to snow now—-panic at more than 1/4 inch! Bob drove on as the Thruway was closed to traffic behind us. When we got to Yonkers, I suggested we stay until the snow passed. Bob ignored me and drove straight to the West Village and slid into a parking spot. Bob had triumphed over the storm.

A day later we were due to fly out of JFK Airport. When we arrived, we encountered hundreds of passengers who had spent the night on chairs and on the floor since their flights had been cancelled. In logic only understood by United Airlines, we left on our scheduled flight. I have no idea when the stranded passengers made it out.

“What Do Artists Need?”


The curriculum for developing studio artists had been established before I arrived at the college. It was agreed that drawing was basic, whatever major the student chose. Similarly, two dimensional and three dimensional design were central. After those basics, students could branch out into sculpture, painting, photography, printmaking, graphic design or illustration. But it was less clear what academic background should be part of their bachelor of fine arts degree. This was the intent of the curriculum grant Bob and I were utilizing.

We learned that no art college had a particularly unique academic program which took into account that all the students were being prepared to be professional artists or teachers. Most agreed that art history was essential, but other than that there was not much imaginative curriculum. Our consultant, after realizing that we had an unusually well read studio faculty, suggested we design a new course which would be co-taught by studio and liberal arts faculty members. It would tie artistic movements to historical and philosophical movements, allowing students to begin to sense the  cultural context for their work.

We called it Art and Ideas and began teaching it the following year to all first year students.

Tomorrow I will recount Bob’s driving prowess.

“What’s Going On?”

In 1981 I was finally a full time faculty member in what we were calling the Liberal Arts Department. We were one English professor, one Art History professor and one part-time Historian. I wrote a grant to the National Endowment for the Humanities for a consultant to advise us about our program. We wanted to know what other studio art colleges were doing for their liberal arts requirement, since we had the same accrediting agency.

I received the grant and a very helpful consultant from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. He suggested that we use some of the grant money to visit similar schools. I think the entire grant was $5000, so it would have to be a very low budget excursion. Fortunately, one of my favorite colleagues, Bob Hanson(pictured above) agreed to travel with me for a week in the East. His sister-in-law lived outside Boston and we had a mutual friend in New York City. Our consultant said we could stay with his family for a night while we visited an art school there. So our expenses would be only a rental car and plane tickets.

I couldn’t have had a better travel companion than Bob. While we liked and respected each other very much, there was no question about anything untoward happening between us. In fact, one night as I sat in my pajamas talking with Bob and his sister-in-law I recognized how grateful I was for his safe company.

We visited his alma mater the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston, a now defunct college in Rhode Island, Clark University and–since our air fare was based on being gone seven days–museums in New York City. That last was just for pure joy. What did we learn? More tomorrow. Along with what I learned about Bob’s amazing driving skills!

“Not That Kind of College”


Before I write any more about my years at the Museum Art School, I thought I better clarify what kind of a college this was. The photo above, taken around 1980, shows almost the entire student body, faculty and administrators on the floor of the art museum. The man with glasses in the front is a printmaking teacher. I am obscured by my legs in the air on the left margin.

We were part of the Portland Art Museum who handled the financial details. As for us, we had three administrators for many years: a dean, a secretary/registrar, and a financial aid worker. The rest of the college was run by the faculty. We had a faculty council which was chaired in successive years by elected full time faculty. I say elected, but really it was a rotation so that everyone had a turn at the work. The faculty secretary was in a similar rotation. Three faculty committees handled admissions, curriculum and personnel and tenure. The council met once a month with the committees meeting once a month between the council.

While we were an opinionated and vocal bunch, we hammered out our disagreements and nearly always reached consensus on decisions. So the college was really more of a collaboration than an institution, and it remained that way for many years. Eventually the college was renamed the Pacific Northwest College of Art, gained independence from the museum, built its own building and built up a multi-layered administration. When I look at their website now, I recognize almost nothing of the place I called home for 25 years. As with so many colleges, a majority of faculty is now part-time and a group of “professionals” run things. But while it lasted, the Museum Art School was an unlikely anomaly in academe. And it fit me perfectly.

“Picture Perfect”


One of the true joys of my 25 years teaching at the art college was my chance to work along side wonderful artists. I had never met any before I worked there, and I really enjoyed their idiosyncrasies and talents. I worked with a majority of the faculty for at least 15 years, and many I worked with for the entire time I taught. In the next few posts, I will share stories of a few of these colleagues, but sticking to my promise to only include photos of those no longer living so as not to invade their privacy.

Terry Toedtemeier, pictured above pointing out, taught photography. Terry’s work can be seen at the web site of the Portland Art Museum’s online archive of Terry’s photography. He majored in geology as an undergraduate, and it was his love of the Columbia River Gorge that provided much of his inspiration. He and John Laursen co-authored a book “Wild Beauty” of the Gorge, a compilation of photos taken there over a hundred years.  In a sad twist, Terry died of a massive heart attack at a book signing of that collection.

He had a rambling way of talking, and it was often impossible to figure out exactly what he was saying. It never really mattered, however, as he inspired his students and encouraged precision in their darkroom techniques. Terry was old school all the way, as you can see in his gelatin silver prints.

My favorite anecdote from Terry involved his taking a long time to find a perfect place to look down for a panoramic view of the Columbia River from a perch in the Gorge. When he located the spot, he looked behind him and found an ancient pictograph on the rock he was leaning against. Clearly he was not the first to find the ideal vantage spot, he told me. And he felt connected to those who had inhabited and loved the Gorge before him.

“Breaking the Ice”


When students first met each other, they were naturally nervous about my requirement that they would be reading their papers aloud to the class several times a semester. After a while, they were over their trepidation, but at first they couldn’t imagine doing this. So I came up with what became known at the college as the “famous 30 minute assignment.”

The task required that students spend half an hour doing something they had never done before. The writing was to be two paragraphs. The first would be a description of what they chose to do and how they went about it. The second paragraph was a reflection on the activity, including, if appropriate, contrasting how they thought it would be with the actual activity. There was no way to fail this assignment, nor could anyone be an expert in it. It would also give students a chance to reveal a side of themselves they wanted to share with the others, whether silly, brave, or serious.

Students tried everything–legal and not pornographic(I had those restrictions since they were art students after all!) One rode the school elevator for their time. An atheist read the Bible. One went to the grocery store in pajamas. One of my favorite antics had the student hide her family’s remote control and document the chaos that followed. One went sky diving; another bowled; and one went into the Scientology Center(and left after 30 minutes.)

It was always a successful experience for these students. It was silly enough to get over their stage fright about reading them aloud. It was a chance to try something new for those who needed an excuse. And they were having a chance to see each other outside of the very competitive studios.

“The Shape of Things”


After I had been teaching college English classes for a few years, I enrolled at Portland State University in an Master’s of Art in English degree. I thought it would be helpful to have a stronger credential and not always rely on someone recognizing the strength of my undergraduate degree. A drill sergeant named Marge supervised the program, and as part of my coursework, she observed a section of English Composition I had been assigned as a graduate assistant.

Marge and I could not have been further apart in our view of the role of the professor in the classroom. She was a retired army veteran and favored an authoritarian approach to teaching. I was a true child of the 60’s and valued collaboration, though I acknowledged my particular role as discussion leader. I also had a much deeper background than my students and I held the authority of experience in the field  that they were yet to gain.

After Marge had sat in on one of my classes, she called me in for a review. Her first sentence was “Do you always teach your students in a circle?” I replied that I did. She then asked, “Why do you do that?” I told her I appreciated conveying that we all had something to contribute. ” She sat silent for a while, as I waited for further grilling. But instead she said,”Well, I don’t know why, but it’s working. Your students are unusually engaged with the material.”

Marge and I reached an uneasy truce.

And I continued to sit in a circle with my students for the rest of my teaching career.


“I Step Into a New World”

Courtyard of the Museum Art School

I was 29 and started teaching in a very different environment than the community college. Here all my students were intentionally going to college for four years to study art. Because most of their parents had asked them “how do you expect to make a living as an artist?” few were being financially backed by their parents. This meant that when I started the average student was 24, had been working, and finally just had to follow their dreams. Tuition was very low in those days(as was the pay), so most students were able to fund their way through while continuing to work.

All but three of us faculty members were practicing artists with studios of their own outside the college. I think most of them were teaching to make a living so that they could be artists. The college prided itself, rightfully, that the faculty were active in the Portland art community, had regular gallery shows, and were rigorous in their critiques of student work. It was an intense environment, but the focus was on art making, not reading and writing literature.

My students were all in their first year, getting used to the idea that they were no longer the best artist in their class.  Their curriculum  was prescribed, very technical, and often designed to correct “bad habits” students had developed in high school art classes. I intuitively realized, without any real experience to back me up, that the last thing they needed was a traditional English class. They needed a chance to talk with each other, share ideas of things besides art, and write about their genuine responses to what they were reading. And so I designed a first year curriculum to allow those things. After all, I was only filling in for a year. Even if it was a disaster, I would be gone after that time.

And then my friend decided she liked staying home. And then my marriage fell apart. And then I needed a job. And so I returned for my second year of teaching.