Random events can change everything. If a painter named Jan Zach (1914-1986) hadn’t been working in New York when the Nazis invaded his native Czechoslovakia he may have never gone to Brazil, or moved to the Pacific Northwest where he became a teacher at the University of Oregon. He would have missed the gorgeous plant life of Brazil, and the rough coasts and huge logs of British Columbia which had a defining effect on his work. He may never have met Russell Childers (1915-1998), or helped Childers’ work gain widespread attention.
Retrospectives of the work of these iconic northwest artists will be at Hallie Ford Museum through October. The concurrent exhibits “Jan Zach: Works on Paper” and “Russell Childers: Oregon Outsider” show the bodies of work of these two very different artists, and the unique story of how they met.
Zach was head of the sculpture department at the University of Oregon,. He became known for a wide range of approaches including wood carving, laminated wood sculpture, casting, sheet metal construction, and kinetic work. “Jan Zach: Works on Paper” includes drawings, sketch books, and sculpture maquettes covering his entire career from the 1940s in Rio, the 50s in Victoria, through the 60s and on in Eugene. His earlier work tends to be more figurative and representational, while a number of preliminary sketches and maquettes from the 60s and 70s are more abstract.
In 1976 graduate student Dorie Nelson brought the woodcarvings of a relatively unknown woodcarver to class, sparking a discussion of art and folk art. Zach was so intrigued he went to meet the carver, and helped bring to public awareness one of Oregon’s most unexpected artists.
In 1926 aged 10, hearing impaired and non-verbal, Russell Childers was removed from his family against their wishes. Until 1965 he lived at Fairview Hospital, one of many children institutionalized due to their disabilities. In the early 1940s, he saw a wood carving article in “Life Magazine” and began carving with improvised tools. In 1965 his talent was noticed by Pauline Lindell, founder of the Willamette Valley Rehabilitation Center, who helped Childers gain placement there. He got hearing aids for the first time, and began to speak. His work gained a following, first among local woodcarvers, and later through contact with Zach and other artists, more widely.
Completely self-taught, Childers’ pieces show spirit and creativity that rose above the circumstances of his early life. “Russell Childers: Oregon Outsider” the first retrospective and largest exhibition to date of his work, includes 25 carvings. The subjects, skillful emotionally charged depictions of childhood memories, people, animals, and historical figures, are largely autobiographical. Childers’ handmade tool chest will be on view. Childers’ art, and the interest of mainstream artists, such as Zach, changed the life of this amazing “outsider.” He was able to meet other artists, visit museums, and reconnect with one of his family members.
Random events. A painter who can’t go home goes on to become a sculptor and teacher. An institutionalized young man sees an article on wood carving in a magazine, and becomes a woodcarver. The two meet when a student brings the work of the woodcarver to the attention of the teacher. Forty years later their work enriches our lives.