Honoring a major figure in Northwest art, “Betty Feves: Generations” featured sculpture, vessels and dinnerware as well as documentary footage of the artist orchestrating open-air pit firings in Pendleton, Ore., where she settled in 1945. Undaunted by her distance from all artistic centers or by the responsibilities of rearing a family with her physician husband, Feves (1918-1985) forged a career in art. She quickly rose to prominence in national and international ceramics invitationals, producing quasi-abstract figurative forms and architectonic assemblages, crowding her domestic wares into spare corners of the kiln. Sales of the sturdy stoneware cups and casseroles she produced helped support her otherwise highly impractical enterprise.
Feves became adept in the alchemical processes of ceramics, mastering multiple firing techniques and developing her own clay mixture and glazes from local materials. This expertise served a formal vision that was modernist in its devotion to material authenticity. The artist used glazes, for instance, as liquid accents while allowing the warm-brown clay to show through. Among the many revelations of this retrospective was how Feves developed the figure over time and how almost all her work engages the body, whether as image or implied presence. Starting with tabletop examples such as Figure with Drape (1952), Feves progressed from statuettes with attenuated proportions, little heads and, often, hollow spaces at their centers to monumental evocations of woman, earthy and ponderous. Standing Woman (1966), over 5 feet tall, with an egg-shaped head and arms like cup handles, is one of these goddesses, her stately hauteur undercut by Feves’s humorous treatment of breasts and buttocks, each a ball of clay stuck casually onto the columnar trunk. The elephantine Torso (ca. 1972) has an oval concavity for a head, hollowed out of a lintel surmounting three posts that define torso and arms. Baseball-size spheres stand for breasts and two big pumpkin shapes suggest hips and thighs-or giant boxing gloves.
Stacking slab-built boxes allowed the ambitious Feves to transcend the limitations of scale imposed by the kiln. At times, stacks arranged side by side suggest human families, as in the close-knit, tripartite Stacked Sculpture (ca. late 1970s-’80s). Photographs in the exhibition and catalogue of cliffs abutting the nearby Columbia River invite a comparison with the tall, blocky Garden Wall (1979), an impressive room-size installation of box stacks. Feves quickly moved away from the influence of her much-touted teachers Still, Archipenko and Ossip Zadkine to become a dedicated regionalist exploring the rich possibilities of clay. If she had a kindred spirit, it was her contemporary Hilda Morris (1911-1991), another sculptor (in bronze and cement) who established a successful practice in Oregon, drawing inspiration for largely abstract, modernist works from basalt formations along the coast and the Columbia River Gorge. Like Morris, Feves was a maverick, pursuing sculpture at a time when painting ruled, resourcefully mining the margin for all the exhilarating freedom and independence it could provide.
Photo: Betty Feves: Torso, ca. 1972, stoneware with wood base, 60 by 18 by 12 inches; at the Museum of Contemporary Craft.