In Print

This is not a story (Part 6)


To commemorate an exhibition of the late Bonnie Bronson's work on view in the Swigert Commons at Pacific Northwest College of Art, Randal Davis writes about the influences, context and history that shaped Bronson's development as an artist.

(….I am in the lake, in the center of the picture, just under the surface.

It is difficult to say where precisely, or to say how large or how small I am: the effect of water on light is a distortion.

but if you look long enough eventually you will see me.)

—Margaret Atwood, “This is a photograph of me” [60]

This poem made an audacious opening to Margaret Atwood’s first collection, The Circle Game (1966), a narrative that performs an almost-visual fragmenting and reassembling of subjectivities. Deceased, the eponymous narrator is both subject and object, remarks Marie-Claire Ropars–Wuilleumier on such disembodied voices, “as if the patient work of a hypothetical reconstruction had borne fruit.” [61]

So, too, must this story come to an end, in a landscape, as Atwood writes, of “blurred lines and grey flecks blended with the paper.” This has already been as many or more words than were written about Bonnie Bronson and her work during her all-too-short career. Necessary, sufficient? It became commonplace after her death to note some essential unity to all aspects of her life, especially her efforts landscaping the acreage of Leland Iron Works with her husband. Prudence Roberts, in her catalog essay for Bronson’s 1993 retrospective, could not have been more explicit when she concluded that Bronson’s “gardens [were] the ultimate summation of [her] love of materials.” [62] Joel Weinstein echoed this hagiography, remarking that “Bronson’s artistic routine was entwined with her daily life as a gardener, householder, and citizen.” [63]

There’s surely no reason to doubt the sincerity of that sentiment nor, really, that Bronson shared it, at least to some extent. But, it’s not been my story, which should be evident by this time, in no small part because of the way Anne Middleton Wagner takes a fragment of Sylvia Plath’s radio play Three Women as an ironic epigraph to her own study of Eva Hesse, Lee Krasner and Georgia O’Keeffe: “I find myself again…. I am a wife.” That is to say, that imagined unity and holism, however well-meant, is no less a partial story, a partial truth. As Wagner observes, “to make art is to signal belonging, as much as difference.” [64]

In an interview with Deborah Trione in the summer of 1981, as she was developing the pieces that would ultimately become the Leland series wall sculptures, Bronson remarked, “I clearly don’t know what direction I’m pointed in at the moment because I’m in the middle of it, and you never know until you get to the other side” (3).

The Leland works surely looked back to, for example, the earlier Jas series, but they also became a kind of way-station: she was to show them twice, in 1982 and 1984, but with radically different surfaces. And, while developing the Leland works, she was also making a series of paintings on paper that explored the extreme angularity that would come to characterize the Leland works, but with a strictly reduced palette. She was attempting to make, as she explained to Trione, a “powerful statement, but at the same time a minimal statement” (3).

There was never a time in her career when Bronson was not, I think, “in the middle of it”—every arrival was a departure for another destination, every departure a new arrival. This could not be more explicit than in an unrealized project proposal for the Anchorage, Alaska public school system (1988), in which a foyer and reception area is covered with motifs derived from several distinct phases of her work. A set of two pieces from 1987, Tuck Welded Kisses, also make this clear—based on the irregular polygons of the earlier Jas and Leland series, these were assembled with the much rougher spot-welding technique that Bronson preferred for the more self-consciously totemic Serpent Feathers series (also 1987). But it is also not so hard to see in the Tuck Welded Kisses works references to the jagged edges of the 1960s metal constructions.

So, if her family and friends, her gardens and her travels, have been absent from my story, it is because the story that I wanted to tell was both larger and smaller than that—it has been about the problem of, as Stephen Melville puts it, “the seeing of something from somewhere, rather than the seeing of everything from nowhere.” [65] And that has meant for me to see her work in the context of her contemporaries, to pay tribute to the intensity and restlessness of a mercurial body of work.

The last words go to others, “voices that I thought I recognized.” Perhaps you do, too. Her brother, Dave Bronson, ended a remembrance thus:

If Bonnie were here now, her eyes would be narrowing at me.
…‘That’s enough. You’ve covered it. Why don’t we do something else?’ [66]

Republished from the catalog that accompanies Bonnie Bronson: Works 1960–1990 at Pacific Northwest College of Art. The fully illustrated catalog is available for purchase through The Gallery at Museum of Contemporary Craft.

Additional essays and information can be found at

60. Margaret Atwood, Selected Poems 1965–1975 (New York: Mariner Books/Simon & Schuster, 1976): 8.

61. Marie–Claire Ropars-Wuilleumier, “The Disembodied Voice: India Song,” Yale French Studies 60 (1980): 248–9.

62. Prudence Roberts, Bonnie Bronson (Portland: Bonnie Bronson Fund/Oregon Community Foundation, 1993): 15. Reprinted by the Portland Art Museum for the exhibition, Bonnie Bronson: A Retrospective, exhibition dates February 23 through April 4, 1993: n. pag.

63. Joel Weinstein, “Art as biography: a Bonnie Bronson retrospective,” The Oregonian (7 March 1993): D4.

64. Anne Middleton Wagner, Three Artists (Three Women) – Modernism and the Art of Hesse, Krasner and O’Keeffe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996): 286–287.

65. Stephen Melville, “The Temptation of New Perspectives.” October 52 (Spring 1990): 12.

66. Dave Bronson, “Artist landscaper traveler rock climber wife mother my sister.” Eulogy for Bonnie Bronson (unpublished: 1990): n. pag.

by Randal Davis

— Posted on 08/31 at 05:34 PM

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