Margaret Coe at home in her studio. Photo by Ester Barkai.

Peg’s Home Adventure

Moving into her 80s, the longtime Eugene artist turns to her backyard for inspiration

Margaret Coe, known to her many friends as Peg, is one of Eugene’s most recognizable and respected artists. In 2017 the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art mounted an exhibit of her oil paintings together with the work of her late husband. Mark Clarke and Margaret Coe: Our Lives in Paint was shown at the museum, says curator Danielle Knapp, because there was “a high level of excitement” in the community to see the two artists’ work.  

When I meet Coe it’s at her home in Eugene’s rustic Laurel Hill neighborhood to discuss her new paintings in Work, an exhibit running at Karin Clarke Gallery downtown from Jan. 18 to Feb. 25.

Coe’s basement studio is in the house where she’s lived in for around 50 years. We pass a room with picture windows. It was her studio when her daughter, Karin, was little, she says. Now Karin, owner of Karin Clarke Gallery, represents her mother’s paintings.

Coe’s art has long been fueled by monthlong painting trips to Europe. When her travel was restricted during the pandemic, she turned her attention from European cityscapes and landscapes to the trees in her own backyard. Looking at her recent paintings, you’ll notice the shift. The change in subject matter from Roman arches to forest scenes is accompanied by a move toward abstraction, with a touch of surrealism thrown in, a focus on process and experimentation and a deep dive into metaphor.

It doesn’t take an expert to understand her metaphoric visual language: A tree needs light, it grows and it takes root. Sometimes a tree falls, and other times it continues to stand, even after it dies.

“Entrapped in Reality” is a relatively small painting and more than a little surreal. A root shape sits in a tree with an apparent arm extended. “It’s not a big stretch from trees to the human body,” the artist says.

At 81 years of age, Coe feels as if she’s coming into her stride. She isn’t doing anything new, exactly, except being more experimental with her techniques. She previously used a blotting or dabbing technique to take paint off the canvas. But now that blotting can be central to how an image is created. She might follow a pattern made by it to a new subject matter in the form of a root or a branch.  

The combination of dabbing and glazing techniques often leads to a brilliant, golden surface. “Into the Mystic” is a painting that looks as if it could have been made out of gold leaf. “The Fallen” isn’t quite as abstract, and the trees in this one define the horizontal design of the composition, but the sky takes on a golden sheen as well. 

Staying home and drawing on the familiar has led to a different kind of adventure — coming upon a new version of her style. She describes it as being the result of letting the process take over. Talking about it, she has the enthusiastic spirit of someone just starting out on their artistic journey. Her gray hair is dyed purple on one side and she’s wearing jeans and a warm vest. Though it’s unusually cold in Eugene the day I visit, she takes me out back, where I recognize some of the subjects from her recent paintings.

I see two trees she depicted in a painting whose title she didn’t quite have down, yet. She has often thought of the two trees as standing for her and her late husband, she says. Mark Clarke, who died in 2016, is present in other ways, too. Coe had a gazebo built last year. It has a view of the woods and she put “Mark’s easel” in there. She calls the set-up one of her outdoor studios. Following her to another spot outdoors where she paints, we need to high-step over branches. I ask how she gets her supplies out there.

“It takes two trips,” she says,

She had long assumed there would come a time when she’d have to stay put, in which case she was probably going to paint the woods behind her house. But she didn’t think it would come this soon. She says, “I thought it would be when I was 90.”

Now she’s referring to her upcoming exhibit of 27 oil paintings as maybe “the best show of my life.”

Margaret Coe’s exhibition Work opens Jan. 18 and runs through Feb. 25 at Karin Clarke Gallery, 760 Willamette Street. Hours are noon to 5:30 pm Wednesday through Friday, 10 am to 4 pm Saturday and by appointment.