MAC Aluminatti: Exhibit highlights impact of Mt. Angel College on art scene

October 2009 Posted in Arts, Culture & History

By Steve RitchieBruce West sculpture at Mt. Angel College, 1970s.

Mt. Angel College may be long gone, having closed in 1973, but it is certainly not forgotten by those who attended the small, liberal arts institution founded by the Benedictine Sisters of Mt. Angel.

Over the weekend of Oct. 9-11 there will be a Mt. Angel College Reunion at The Oregon Garden Resort and Queen of Angels Monastery. More than 150 people are expected to attend the all-class gathering. A week before the reunion – on Oct. 2 – MAC Aluminatti art exhibit will open at Dovetail Gallery in Silverton. The show, which will continue through November, will feature the work of 15 or more former faculty members and students of Mt. Angel College and its renowned art department.

In its heyday during the 1960s and early 1970s, the art department boasted a heavyweight roster of instructors. Lee Kelly is one of the most highly regarded sculptors on the West Coast. Sculptor Bruce West, painters Jim Shull, Jon Masterson, Leland John, poet and painter Pat Love, sculptor Gen Wilson and other artists of local and regional renown built an innovative program that nurtured and showcased a broad range of talent.

Alumni art exhibit
Dovetail Art Gallery,
Prudential Real Estate Office
210 S. Water Street, Silverton
First Friday reception Oct. 2, 6:30-9:00 p.m.
MAC reunion receptions Friday, Oct. 9, 6:00-9:30 p.m.
and Saturday, Oct. 10, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Gallery hours are weekdays 9 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.,
weekends by appointment.

For all the acclaim that would come later, the college art department had a very humble beginning. Benedictine Sister Therese Marie Albrich, now deceased, was a first-grade teacher who had a passion for painting. While taking summer courses at Dominican College in California in 1955, Sr. Therese Marie, or TM as she was known, met Genevieve Wilson, who was then an art teacher in California. They became friends. In her gentle but persuasive fashion, Sr. TM convinced Wilson to visit Mt. Angel and share her knowledge of art with the sisters.
In 1956 Wilson came to Mt. Angel and began teaching art to a few of the sisters in exchange for room and board. That simple arrangement eventually blossomed into an exceptional visual arts program. After getting to know Wilson and her teaching ability, Mother Gemma Piennett, the prioress at that time, hired her to teach at Mt. Angel College, which had never had an art instructor on its faculty. Those early classes went well and the demand grew, so Wilson began bringing in other artists, one by one, to teach new classes.

Within a few years, the program expanded well beyond art history and art education, and new faculty members like Kelly, Masterson and West were teaching studio art classes in painting, ceramics and sculpture.

“These artists were young and exciting and knew a lot more than I did,” said Wilson, now known by her married name, Barnhart. “It was something that could probably only have happened in that time and that place. No one ever had a (teaching) contract until much later (in the college’s history) . The sisters gave me full rein and everyone trusted everyone else.”

Silverton resident Jim Shull was among the first people Wilson hired. She knew him as a young painter from Salem who hung around the art department, and she entrusted him with teaching art history and other classes. When Wilson left the college in 1965, Shull became the department chairman – “by default,” he now says.

Along with his friend and fellow artist Jack Eyerly, Shull hauled loads of cedar boards up from Roseburg in his VW bus and created a gallery space in the hallway of the second floor of the Education Building, now Shalom Prayer Center. For nearly a decade, the Mt. Angel College Gallery hosted incredible art exhibitions that led some to compare Mt. Angel College to Portland’s prestigious Reed College, calling it “the little Reed of the Willamette Valley.”

According to Shull, the college exhibitions regularly attracted carloads of artists, critics and art lovers from Portland, including the legendary painter Louis Bunce, local legend Jack McLarty and art critics from The Oregonian and The Oregon Journal.

Lee Christiansen was one of the young aspiring artists attracted by the art scene at the college during that era.

“I met Bruce West, Lee Kelly, Jim Shull, and I really liked what was going on in the art department there. It was just a juicy place. I thought I could really get into something here.”

Christiansen had attended both Oregon State and Portland State and, with the notable exception of one influential teacher at OSU, found the art programs at those institutions lacking. He even got “thrown out” of a painting class he took at PSU.

“The other schools I had been to, the art program was drier than a popcorn tart . . . the first painting class I took where we actually painted was at Mt. Angel College with Jon Masterson and that was a great class. He was a very hands-on instructor . . . he was really good at teaching the nuts-and-bolts of painting, which is what most people just starting out really need to know.”

Part of the mythology of Mt. Angel College in the ’60s, which has filtered down to the present, is that it was populated with radicals who were doing controversial things. According to Shull, that simply was not the case, despite the occasional avant garde exhibit.

“No one was mad at us about anything and I always felt we had a good relationship with the local citizens,” Shull says. “Bruce West had a strong rapport with a lot of the local characters downtown and I personally knew the guys at the lumber yards, the gas stations and taverns, and as far as I knew we had good relationships.”

The influence of the college’s art department continues to be felt even today, especially locally, with artists like Ann Altman, Pam Altree, Lee and Josie Christiansen, Antonia Jenkins, Charles Hannegan and many others who will be represented in the show. Silverton Art Association and Lunaria Gallery are two examples of organizations that have been greatly influenced by artists who went through Mt. Angel College.

Dovetail Art Gallery operator Patti Battin is the driving force in making the exhibition a reality. She said that this exhibition was something that simply had to happen.

“There’s a little piece of history there that we’re trying to capture . . . When we started planning this we didn’t know about the college reunion. That is a happy coincidence.”

  1. One Response to “MAC Aluminatti: Exhibit highlights impact of Mt. Angel College on art scene”

  2. By Fred Horstman on Sep 26, 2012

    Reading this brought back memories of when Bruce West and 12 of us students put the first pottery class together. We were the discoverers of Mt. Angel Blue clay dug out of a logging road up near Silverton. Twenty years later I became a successful potter in Japan and taught the American way of throwing pots. It all started at Mt. Angel. The memories make me smile.

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