Bonnie’s first show in eighteen years opened last night at everyone’s favorite watering hole, Winestock in Oregon City. Big thanks to Sarrah and Carlos Torres, owners, and to Ben Bright , photographer and occasional wine bar host. The show is modest in size but has a lovely cocktail-napkin sized publication featuring some of the first ever critical writing about Bonnie.
I always thought Oregon City was too small to generate much of an artistic community. But since Winestock opened, I’ve met more local artists than I thought possible. They’re here, struggling along with the rest of us. So this show of Bonnie’s work feels to me like a celebration of this odd, impossible little mill town on a forgotten bend of the Willamette River where we’ve all chosen (or in my case, been drafted) to barely eek out our tiny lives. Oh, I don’t mean it like that! (Except, yeah, I kinda do)
Anyway, this show is a testament to The Theory’s firm belief that Bonnie’s work deserves another—serious—look. I’ll post excerpts from the publication soon. But in the meantime, here’s a piece I wrote for the show that turned out too long for the space provided. Probably too long here too but I’m posting it anyway:
Bonnie Bronson in 1965. Painted metal collage in the background. This image was probably taken for her show at Mt. Angel College.
In 1991, seven months after Bonnie’s death, I began cataloging Bonnie’s art work. Her friends and family were in the middle of an ambitious project which included the creation of the Bonnie Bronson Fund and a retrospective exhibition of Bonnie’s art. It was my job to examine her remaining studio work and make some recommendations to the curator about which pieces were in good enough condition to be shown.
Bonnie’s death at age fifty was a shattering event to her family, especially after my brother Jason’s death eleven years earlier from leukemia. With my children, Agamemnon and the Baron Lucy-Lee, newly arrived in the family, it seemed as if we had left the hard business of death and dying behind, at least until it was timely and expected.
We weren’t ready for her to fall to her death on Mt. Adams, and, as it became very clear seven months later, there was a lot about her I did not know.
Bonnie made her art within and around and despite the demands of family life. For all that her time must have been very limited—I never arrived home from school to an empty house, and for years we sat down to dinner at six o’clock—she pioneered the use of industrial porcelain enamel as an art medium, and later became technically proficient at the application of automobile lacquers.
After Jason’s death in 1978, Bonnie created the first of her monumental wall reliefs. Jas was shown at the Portland Art Museum in 1979, and fortunately two of these 12′ long wall sculptures sold. In 1980, she created Kassandra, a cardboard construction that was twenty-four feet long. A few years later, she did another series of acid-etched steel wall reliefs called Leland which were exhibited at the Blackfish Gallery. Later, she painted these sculptures for a show at the Fountain Gallery.
New series followed, many referencing her travels to Nepal and Central America. Her interest in rock and mountain climbing provided much of the momentum and fierce dedication she brought to the last years of her life. The two final series, Serpent Feathers and Chac, were in some ways an integration of her travels and her absolute control over materials and color.
When I ventured out to her studio in 1991, I expected to find all Bonnie’s remaining unsold art. There was a full record in slides of everything she’d made, including Jas, Kassandra and Leland. Kassandra, I knew, was gone. She’d burned the cardboard panels after the show closed. Storing something as fragile yet bulky as a twenty-four foot cardboard sculpture was nearly impossible. When I asked whether it bothered her to burn something she spent weeks constructing, she said the piece was never meant to last. It was temporary.
At first it didn’t alarm me that I couldn’t find the Leland series in the storage area. My father’s studio, a refitted dairy barn, was full of art I hadn’t explored. But when Lee went looking for the Leland pieces, he couldn’t find them either. The art hadn’t sold, I knew that. They hadn’t been cut down to make other sculptures. And they were too big for anyone to move around without help. So where were these four or five significant wall sculptures?
A family friend named Ron Theod was working as a studio assistant at that time. Though he mostly worked for Lee, I asked him if he remembered these sculptures of Bonnie’s. And he did—he remembered very clearly helping her load them into the back of the truck and later unload them at the Oregon City landfill. He thought it maybe happened a few months before her death.
Twenty years later, I still wonder how she felt that day as she drove away with the Leland pieces in the back of the truck. She couldn’t know how profoundly this loss would be felt by others, when the world finally caught up to what she saw when she first created them. I hope she decided that they, like Kassandra, were only temporary.
When I look at her work now, like the Grid series, I feel her loss very deeply, the subtle intensity of the color, the clean and patient sweep of the pencil across the page. And I miss the art, like Leland and Kassandra, that she chose not to keep. But I am amazed and humbled by what remains.
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