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Clifford Gleason: An Underappreciated Oregon Artist

October 15, 2020

Clifford Gleason: The Promise of Paint was published in 2020 in conjunction with an exhibition of the same title at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art. The book is a comprehensive overview of the life and times of the mid-century Oregon modern painter Clifford Gleason (1913-1978), arguably one of the most skilled, if also underrated, Pacific Northwest modernists of his era.

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Clifford Gleason was about 25 years old when he posed with his mural Alice in Wonderland, designed for the library of Bush Elementary School in Salem. A project in Louis Bunce’s advanced painting class at the Salem Federal Art Center, Alice in Wonderland is one of the most avant-garde murals created under the auspices of the WPA, which established federal art centers nationwide. Salem’s center was considered one of the most successful, with its rich program of classes, exhibitions, and outreach projects to public schools.

 

Alice in Wonderland 

Clifford Gleason with his mural Alice in Wonderland. ca. 1938

Alice in Wonderland

 Alice in Wonderland. 1938. Tempera on canvas, affixed to panel. North Salem High School since 2005.

Still Life with SDpools

Still Life with Spools. ca. 1939. Oil on board. 45 1/4 x 32 in. Hallie Ford Museum of Art. Maribeth Collins Art Acquisition Fund, COL.98.07.

This painting, created when Gleason was in his mid-20s, reflects his full awareness of European modern painting, especially the work of the French Cubist Georges Braque. At the same time, the spools may refer to the local world of Salem manufacturing: Gleason’s parents owned and operated the Gleason Glove Factory, located near the Thomas Kay Woolen Mill, and both companies made use of large wood spools of thread.

 

 








Belcrest Still LifeBelcrest Still Life. 1947. Oil on Masonite. 11 1/4 x 9 1/2 in. Hallie Ford Museum of Art, Gift from the Maurice Hudkins Collection in memory of C. Ronald Hudkins and Betty-mae Hartung Hudkins, 2005.019.026.

In the 1940s, living in Salem following two years’ study at the Museum Art School (now the Pacific Northwest College of Art) in Portland, Gleason continued to paint costumed figures, still life, and townscapes. Gleason’s parents lost the glove factory in the Depression, and beginning in the mid-1930s his father was the superintendent of Belcrest Memorial Gardens, a cemetery in Salem, where Gleason lived with his parents. His paintings from the 1940s combine Fauvism, Cubism, and an eye for the local scene.

 

FireflyFirefly. 1960. Crinkled paper and collage on board. 8 1/2 x 11 1/4 in. Murdoch Collections courtesy of Marilyn Murdoch.

Firefly is from a series of small experimental works that Gleason created in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The series marks an important transition in Gleason’s development as an artist. His process was to dampen and crinkle rice paper to create an irregular surface on which he painted with gouache and sometimes, as here, incorporated collage. The results were entirely different from his earlier work depicting figures and still life objects. The new crinkled paper pieces can be understood as studies for his thickly painted, highly abstract oil paintings of the early 1960s.


 

Moving TotemMoving Totem. June 1964. Oil on canvas. 36 x 36 in. Collection of Dorothy and Brooks Cofield.

By the mid-1960s, Gleason’s paintings are more open and “airy,” suffused with what he referred to as a “fresh breeze of discovery”. Here, the dynamics of the painting involve the anchoring of the black pods on so slender a stem, the delicately rendered contours of the pods, and the rich build-up of paint (red, orange, turquoise) that bridges the two upper forms.

 

 









Clifford GleasonClifford Gleason in his studio, Salem, ca. 1960. Photograph by Bob Crist.

The artist George Johanson described Gleason as “the thinnest person, a bundle of nerve endings with a person wrapped around them.” In drawing and painting, and especially in painting, Clifford Gleason found the arena—the only one, he believed, in which he could excel. With paint, he found the promise of accomplishment, success, and recognition. This book serves as confirmation that for Gleason paint’s promise was genuine.

 

 

 

 

 

 



Roger Hull, an independent arts writer and curator, is Professor of Art History Emeritus at Willamette University. He has written monographs and organized retrospective exhibitions on a dozen Oregon artists, most recently Lucinda Parker and John Stahl.

 

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