PATRICIA DUBOSE DUNCAN, ARTIST

by Weston LaFountain

Director, University of New Hampshire Museum of Art

January 2009

 

Introduction

 

American artist Patricia DuBose Duncan has spent more than fifty years creating highly original art. This online retrospective of her culturally informed and passionate work is presented so that more biological information can be readily available about this artist whose work spans continents and decades.

 

Wherever she has made art the center of her creative life, from Japan, to Kansas, to France, to Maine and to points between, Pat has been a storyteller, using a variety of mediums to tell her stories of the world and our places therein. Her history of over 30 one-person exhibitions, three museum retrospectives and the award of a residency at La Cite’ Internationale des Arts in Paris by her alma mater, Washington University, indicates the resonance with which her work has connected with people over the years. The following web pages present examples of Pat’s work and a glimpse into her story, divided into distinct periods and places when she was creating woodblock prints, photography, mixed media and paintings.

 

Works shown on these pages are representative of the broad vision and life experiences of this accomplished artist. Many more images are available on request. Let her know via the contact button what period or medium you wish to see.

 

Patricia DuBose Duncan Bio 

The Early Years: 1950’s & 60’s

 

Born in 1932, Pat spent her childhood in Philadelphia, where she was first exposed to art in scholarship classes at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Her family then relocated to St. Louis, Missouri where she graduated from high school and matriculated at that city’s Washington University School of Fine Arts in 1950. The University boasted a strong art department, where she was influenced by several now-legendary European emigrants, among them Philip Guston, Max Beckmann and Bauhaus artist Werner Drewes. Pat studied painting and printmaking, graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1954.

 

After graduation, Pat married Herb Duncan, a fellow graduate of the University’s School of Architecture. One month later, he responded to the Korean War Draft by joining the U.S. Navy and attending Officer Candidate School (OCS) in Newport, Rhode Island. Pat moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to be near Herb and her brother who was a student at Harvard. She took a job at the Phillips Bookstore in Harvard Square and was excited to meet many notable writers, among them Archibald MacLeish, whose epic poem Songs for Eve inspired her to create woodblock prints based on several verses of the poem.

 

After OCS, Herb was stationed at Long Beach, California, where they lived long enough for Pat to be invited into a group show at the Long Beach Art Museum. Pat also became very interested in Japanese calligraphic paintings on exhibit at the museum. In early 1956 Herb was transferred to Sasebo, Japan, for what would prove to be a pivotal period for the blossoming artist. While in Japan, Pat undertook an intensive study of woodblock printing, continued painting and drawing, and acquired a commission from the U.S. Navy to execute a large mural at the base Officers’ Club. She immersed herself in the culture of Japan and began to incorporate elements of Japanese aesthetics that stayed with her as compositional components throughout her future work. Primary among these developments was the notion of perspective. In the West our tradition has been one of presenting perspective as the illusion of objects receding into space, front to back. The aesthetic traditions of the Far East incorporate a vertical format, with more distant objects placed higher up in the picture plane. The adoption of this device, one that she has incorporated judiciously throughout her career, serves Pat’s work well, as demonstrated in the woodcut “Colorado Mountain”, illustrated in the woodblock section of this web site. She had her first one person show in Sasebo, Japan in 1956.

 

Pat and Herb returned to the States in late 1957, to Herb’s home town of Kansas City, Missouri. They built a Japanese style home overlooking a lake just west of Kansas City in eastern Kansas and raised their two sons. Herb established his own architectural firm and, when their sons were old enough, Pat attended the well-regarded Kansas City Art Institute as a special adult student since a Master’s Degree (MFA) was not available. She also continued making woodblock prints from sketches she had made in Japan, learned to create lithographs and etchings and discovered photography. Photography was not considered an art form at Washington University in the 1950’s. At first she worked with large format black and white film and produced an artist’s book of her work. Photography was about to change her life.

The Prairie Years 

In the 1970’s, Pat merged her personal and professional lives, as she became fully committed to the early environmental movement by helping conserve the last vestiges of the great Tallgrass Prairies which once covered one third of the North American continent. As an artist, she wanted her photographs to reflect the beauty, the history and the scientific value of this endangered landscape just as 19th century artists had done for places such as Yosemite and the Redwoods National Parks. She became deeply engaged in a long-standing effort to create a Tallgrass Prairie National Park in Kansas that would honor and sustain what little was left of this unique ecosystem. She was also concerned with preserving the culture of the prairie and honoring its Native American roots. These were pivotal times and Pat turned her talents and experience with photography towards a complete effort at recording everything she could about the prairie. Her work was now tuned to straight photography sustained by the goals of this important project. In her words, she tried to “marry ecology with art.” She also believed that if artists produce landscapes in any media, artists should educate themselves about every facet of that landscape. The landscape then becomes more than just a pretty picture. Pat spent the 70’s fighting the good fight with others of the same ilk and, ultimately, they were successful. Today, there is a Tallgrass Prairie National Park in Kansas, thanks to Pat and the many other visionary citizens who saw the value of saving this important piece of our collective history.

 

One of the other notable volunteers on this project, an artist with whom Pat became acquainted during this time, was the famed photographer Gordon Parks who has been called a “Renaissance man of the arts.” During this time, Pat received grants from the Smithsonian Institution and the Hallmark Corporation for the execution of a large traveling exhibition: “The Tallgrass Prairie, An American Landscape”, documenting the many facets of the Tallgrass Prairie. Launched in Washington, D.C. and then at Hallmark, the exhibition traveled across the country from 1976 to 1986, visiting every state in the nation. There were also commissions from Life Magazine and HBO Films to provide stills for a film of the life of Mr. Parks, a native Kansan who was a photographer, author, film producer, composer and musician.

 

Pat also wrote a book that featured her color photographs entitled Tallgrass Prairie: The Inland Sea (The Lowell Press, 1979). Stretching herself as an artist, she produced a multi-media (9 projectors, 3 screens via pre-power point technology) sight-and-sound production that told the story of the Tallgrass Prairie. There were national TV interviews including the “Today Show” and guest lectures all over the country.

 

In recognition of her achievements, she received the Distinguished Alumnae Award from Washington University in 1979. At the time, she remarked, “I had always thought of the American prairie as an unexciting large chunk of empty space; an underdog landscape. At best, it has been taken for granted. The prairie is my theater, my stage, my drama.”

 

Her part in the tallgrass project completed, the 1980s called for a new vision. She would find it in the State of Maine.

Maine, Mixed Media, and More 

In Maine, where the natural world is large and bold and carved in stone, Pat could have stumbled, overpowered by the major transitions both physical and cultural in character, but she took it all in stride. She continued her studies in large format photography at the famed Maine Photographic Workshops and, in 1986, established a studio in Belfast, Maine while maintaining residency in Kansas City where her husband, Herb, continued to own and operate a successful architectural firm.

 

In Maine, she also began experimenting with mixed media. After 15 years in photography she missed drawing and painting, but found it impossible to abandon photography completely. Her new work became an attempt at resolving these divergent passions. She began to combine photography with acrylics and prismacolor, reacquainting herself with painting without letting go of photography. She explored xerography, creating photocopies of her own photographs on Rives BFK archival paper that were then hand-colored with prismacolor. Several examples of these are illustrated in the web site, including a few of the “Boat Series” of the late 1980s. A work from this series is in the permanent collection of the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, purchased from a group invitational show in 1990. The “Boat Series” features images of weathered boats propped up and abandoned on land, brightly and selectively hand-colored. They are reminiscent of her approach to the old rusted farm machines that dot the landscapes of the Prairies. As well as combining techniques, these images are conscious explorations of visual and cultural relationships between the seacoasts of Maine and the inland seas of grass in Kansas.

 

In additional aesthetic explorations, Pat began working with collage as a design element in her flat works. She also explored photo-sensitive linen where the black lines of a photo are exposed on the linen and serve as a charcoal-like sketch or under-painting, a framework for acrylic paint that the artist then applies, sometimes painting the photograph out completely and other times allowing the pentimento to add visual depth to the image. In 1988, Pat’s work in the mixed media format was exhibited in a solo exhibition at the legendary Anne Weber Gallery in Georgetown, Maine.

Recently and Currently

By 1991, Pat had returned completely to painting. In doing so, she incorporated recurrent visits to Kansas and prairie imagery in her new work. She also continued to pursue her Maine explorations and became entranced by the shifting patterns on the surface of the sea in Penobscot Bay. The visual correlations between the two shifting seas of windblown prairie grass and shimmering surface patterns of windblown waters of liquid ocean, as well as the dominance of the horizons of both places, provided rich material and cross-fertilized her already fecund vision.

 

While the early 1990’s represented a return to painting, Pat continued to exhibit her previous work in photography. She was included in the invitational “Women in Photography International”, an exhibit that originated in Pacific Grove, California and traveled around the world in 1989 and 1990. She had solo shows at the University of Southern Maine and the Caldbeck Gallery in Rockland, Maine in 1990. Her show at the Caldbeck was reviewed by Philip Isaacson in the Maine Sunday Telegram, on September 9, 1990. He wrote “DuBose-Duncan is a brilliant colorist and an elegant draftsman. In her work, color does more than build form; it has a life of its own.”

 

The year 1992 found her back in Kansas City for a solo show that combined imagery from both the vanishing prairie and coastal Maine. It was reviewed in The New Art Examiner:

 

The artist’s subject matter remains, as it always has been, a dedication to the prairie. To this Duncan brings parallel imagery from her other sea off the coast of Maine, addressing the spirituality, the archetypal correspondence in the vast expressionist undulations of ocean and prairie. Her goal however, is inevitably abstraction, harking back to her student days and the influences of her famed teachers. And it is as abstraction and in satisfying infinite renderings of volume, color, and movement that this work has impact.

 

                       Roxane Riva, New Art Examiner, January 1992

 

In 1993, Pat returned to Maine to care for her aged and ailing mother. Maintaining a studio in Rockport, she began a new series of paintings and drawings entitled “The Memory of Trees”. Tree forms have remained a topic of compelling interest to Pat since that time.

 

After the passing of her mother in the late 1990’s, Pat moved back to Kansas City, re-established a studio there, and began preparations for two 50 year retrospective exhibitions, one at the Beach Museum of Art on the campus of Kansas State University in 2001 (to which institution she recently donated 1,500 slides, negatives, papers, and mixed media work) and a second at the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art in St. Joseph, Missouri in 2002.

 

In 2003, Pat had two paintings on view in Japan, the country of her first artistic success. Her work was displayed at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo as part of America’s global “Art in Embassies” program. Also, in 2003, Pat and Herb retired to Rockport, Maine. A work from her “Silver Boat Series” was selected as part of the celebrated statewide “Maine Print Project” in 2007 in an exhibit at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, one of several venues of a multi-site exhibition that was assembled by Bruce Brown, former Director of CMCA, now a well known curator in Portland, Maine.

 

Currently, Pat is hard at work in Maine continuing her “Memory of Trees” series of paintings. Once again, she is making use of one of her favorite design elements, the calligraphic line that has stood with her through images of Japan, prairie tallgrass, abandoned lobster boats and more. She and Herb still travel as time allows, and Pat, 53 years after her first solo show in that Japanese gallery, still wields a compelling brush, still looks to create new and meaningful work.