Artful Survival

Three Lane County artists share their stories of life in 2020

‘The Tall Machine’ by Pete Goldlust

Even without a pandemic to contend with, artists struggle. The difficulty is associated with both making art and making a living. The living part is always a bit of risk, since artists often produce highly personal work before sending it out into the world to see if it resonates.

For the last nine months, they have largely had to send their work out into a world gone virtual. 

A flat screen doesn’t cut it for Wendy Huhn, a fabric and multimedia artist who lives and works in the foothills of Mount Zion. Huhn describes her art as “mixed media textiles and other curiosities.” Her works are assembled in a semi-random manner, and each one is inspired by a phrase or word.

She was set to be in a three-person retrospective when COVID-19 struck. To put it mildly, she was not pleased when the museum she’d rather not name canceled the exhibit, with no prospect of holding it again, apart from being online. 

“My work doesn’t work virtually,” she says. 

Huhn’s medium is paint, printing and embroidery. She also incorporates a menagerie of other materials that it’s taken her a lifetime to collect. She has given art workshops around the country and the world, and has scouted out antique or junk shops wherever she’s gone. Her collection includes a 75-year-old coloring book, antique toys and outdated medical texts. 

When quarantining began, she made a decision. She would keep regular hours even if she had no deadlines to meet. She stays in her studio from the morning to 6 pm daily, using the time to take stock and reorganize her inventory. 

She also taught herself something she’s always wanted to learn — how to cast objects. Huhn is not sure yet what to do with the multiple forms of a ceramic cat she’s made. But having learned to cast, she looks forward to working more in three dimensions. 

Christopher St. John lives and works in Eugene and is represented by three out-of-town galleries: Rowboat Gallery in Pacific City, Eutectic in Portland and Biz’Art-Biz’Art gallery in Le Vaudioux, France. 

He started as a figurative painter but two years ago stopped painting to learn ceramics. Since then he has been selling his ceramic bowls, cups and sculptures at festivals such as Eugene’s Art in the Park or Portland’s Ceramic Showcase. 

These festivals and lots of others have been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Though many have moved online, St. John misses interacting with people in the festival setting. And from a buyer’s perspective, browsing online is not as personal or satisfying an experience as buying art directly from the person who made it.

St. John’s art has a connecting theme, that of stewardship of the environment. He wants to encourage people “to see themselves as animals.” His drawings, paintings and ceramics lovingly represent different species of animals, including sometimes human ones. His style ranges from children’s book illustration to gestural expressionism, depending on the medium.

When festivals first started shutting down, St. John says he became depressed about how to move forward. Now he’s back in “survival mode,” staying afloat with production and outreach. He has two shows coming up in February in Portland and also multiple residencies for the coming year. 

He believes more strongly than ever in the purpose of his art, the message of stewardship. As he puts it, “We have to care for each other’s well being.” 

Pete Goldlust says he can’t keep himself from telling artists that public art is a great way to make a living. Usually he works with government agencies in conjunction with the one percent rule for art, where money for art is set aside in the construction of public buildings. A benefit of working in this niche, he says, is that the submission process is not tied to current events. Timelines are normally scheduled for years in advance to match those of construction projects. 

Goldlust has submitted about 60 applications for different commissions, a time-consuming effort on its own. He was chosen as a finalist by ProMedica Toledo Hospital. But the committee ultimately didn’t select him.

Immediately after his application was rejected, though, a member on the selection committee, the hospital’s public art director Valerie Thompson, contacted him with an offer. She liked his playful and surreal style of art. Though his figures are highly stylized and executed with simple lines, his approach is often complicated by the subject matter, which in conjunction with flat, bold colors, can read as robots or humans on wheels, jellyfish and other sea creatures or machines. 

Thompson hired Goldlust to work on a special rushed mural. The project she had in mind, a nine-story stairwell and hallway, was inspired by notes received from patients expressing thanks to hospital staff. 

Now Goldlust is working on the biggest assignment of his life. 

On Election Day, he and his wife, Melanie Germond, a Ridgeline Montessori Charter School art teacher, and their two children got on a plane to Ohio. Anticipating uproar over election results, the airline they took cut off access to the internet. The family was “super nervous” travelling. It was their first time doing so since the start of COVID-19. 

Goldust hadn’t planned to fly across the country to work in a hospital during a pandemic. But he feels lucky now, he says, to be busy and distracted by the work.