Photo courtesy of White Lotus Gallery

Margaret Prentice Just Wants to Paint

A show at White Lotus reflects a new beginning for the ‘retired’ Eugene artist

Just as artist Margaret Prentice was nearing retirement, she experienced a rebirth of sorts. She began a new way of working and even of seeing the world. The results are on view in her third solo exhibit at White Lotus Gallery, Coastal Waters/Desert Sands: Oil Paintings by Margaret Prentice, showing until April 24. 

About 10 years ago, recovering from radiation treatment, chemotherapy and surgery, Prentice understandably had little energy.  But her identical twin sister, also an artist, said, “You can’t just sit around and not do anything.”

Prentice by then had enjoyed a long and accomplished career as an art professor at the University of Oregon, as a paper and art book maker, and as a printer. But recovering from her illness, she didn’t have the strength to operate her very large and special-made 4-by-8-foot printing press, much less carry out the laborious process involved with printmaking.  

Her sister set her up at the kitchen table with a small easel and primary oil paint colors, like one might do for a beginner. After all, Prentice had never painted with oils before. 

Painting, she says, was just supposed to be fun, something to do for entertainment. From the start though, it was a revelation. Printing, she had to add colors to an image one at a time. But with paint she could mix and add as she pleased. She was captivated by the ease and also the challenge of matching colors to what she saw. 

Up to then, she’d worked as an abstract artist or in a style she describes as “magic realism.” Once she began to paint, she traded magic realism for the magic of realism. She replaced the impossibly weightless and half human, half cacti figures in  her previous work with sky and sand, light and shadow, and — most of all — color. Not abstract, detached from reality colors, but ones attached to the real world. 

Her favorite spot on the Oregon Coast is Heceta Beach — at least three paintings of Heceta are in the show — and it’s where she took her sister during the kitchen table phase. As usual, Prentice took photographs while at the beach. When she returned, rather than painting another still life, she gave landscape painting a try. An entirely different and productive artistic period in her life was born. 

Prentice likes that painting landscapes takes her outside. The biggest compliment she can receive, she says, is when people say that her paintings transport them. 

For her, subject matter is about love for places. This show reflects that love: She has 24 paintings of places in it. Half are of high desert areas like those outside Tucson, Arizona, Taos, New Mexico and Oregon near Bend. The other half are places by the water like, “Heceta Head Beach” and “A Favorite Spot to Relax at the Coast.”  

How has Prentice’s work evolved these past 10 years, since she started painting? She no longer works at the kitchen table. She likes working big — but not too big. Still dealing with certain physical limitations and being a practical person, she wants to exert her energy on painting, she says, not on packing or shipping.  

The size of her paintings is as large as she can transport in her car, and no larger. At this stage in her life, Prentice is highly aware of how she spends her time. She knows she could or should be reaching out to galleries in Portland or elsewhere. 

“The paintings are stacking up,” she says. 

But she also knows how time consuming the business of art can be. She practiced it along with her creative endeavors for many years. Now, she says, “I just want to paint.” 

In 2019 the Oregon Arts Commission’s Committee for Public Art helped Prentice make more room in her studio by purchasing 10 of her paintings for Tykeson Hall at the UO.  

And whatever happened to that large press that Prentice could no longer handle? It went to Heather and Paul Halpern, founders of Whiteaker Printmakers, a community nonprofit organization. Prentice says she is “thrilled knowing so many artists in Eugene are enjoying it.”