Harry Widman, a painter’s poet
Harry Widman was an artist with steadfast convictions and a poet’s heart.
Harry Widman was an artist with steadfast convictions and a poet’s heart. People who knew him called him a gentleman and speak of being deeply moved by his generosity. They also speak of his continuous creative quest and his conscientious articulation around the process of art making. At his final retrospective in 2005 at the Hallie Ford Museum, art enthusiasts and loved ones huddled in close to make room and hear the wise words of the influential artist. Even as Widman was falling prey to the effects of Alzheimers and the related memory loss, he was still able to dip into his deep well of visual language to show others what he felt and saw so passionately. Harry Widman died this fall, passing away peacefully at home surrounded by his family. As a beloved part of the PNCA community, his span of influence is far reaching as Widman taught at PNCA for 36 years, starting when it was still the Museum Art School.
Born in New Jersey, Widman ventured to the University of Syracuse completing an undergraduate degree in art. He then enlisted in the army and served for two years in Germany, afterward studying art at the University of Oregon through the GI Bill. It was there that he met Jack Wilkinson and Dave McCosh, professors who inspired him to think theoretically and with creative action. Widman eventually found his way to Portland. Here he took up residence in what is now known as the Pearl District and began to teach courses full-time at the Museum Art School. Widman was a guide, leader, educator, and a foundational Oregon artist. Widman passionately pursued the imago ignota, which he describes as, “the unknown, or better yet, the unknowable image.” Widman contributed to the arts in significant broad strokes and led both the Oregon art scene and educational institutions in a direction that would affect people for generations.
When Widman was hired in the 60s, The Museum Art School was undergoing a transition as a number of faculty members were retiring. Longtime PNCA faculty member Paul Missal remembers Widman hiring him as a faculty member and showing him the ropes of the school. Missal recalls Widman as a “quiet authority and a deep thinker” who took Missal under his wing and was his mentor. PNCA President emerita Sally Lawrence also remembers Widman during this time of transition. She recalls how generous Widman was when she took on the role of Acting Interim Dean of the school. Widman helped her by introducing her to faculty and to the many responsibilities of her position. Lawrence says that Widman “had a very broad scope about how the arts were important to our lives, both historically and present….” It was this set of values that made him immensely important to The Museum Art School and surrounding art communities.
Students of the Museum Art School wanted to study with Widman even when classes weren’t in session. PNCA faculty emeritus George Johanson remembers several instances of students demonstrating their love for Widman. In one instance, “the students had a week off to do various projects, and I remember several students asked Harry to do a class in figure painting…and this was completely of their own interest…some were his students and some were not. And I remember him doing that for a week and getting wonderful results.” Another time, the students paid homage to Widman by surprising him with a collaborative class artwork. The students took a photo of Widman and tore it into enough pieces for each student to have one to paint. The final assembled piece was an 18”x24” painting of their sections put together as a surprise for their teacher.
A number of books have been written about Widman’s artistic endeavors. In Harry Widman: Image, Myth, and Modernism, Roger Hull, curator at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, writes on Widman’s life and transformative artwork. Widman remarks in the book that Horse and Rider (1958) and The Secret Music (1963) were major breakthroughs in his artistic practice. About The Secret Music, Widman once wrote, “[The] deep color and more complicated surface, large area of brilliant yellow in the lower left corner…‘Painting The Secret Music’ points the way. It is an accomplishment and a key. Have I found the key?” Widman’s search for the key continued through the 70s and 80s with more sculptural works leading to collage with painting remaining the medium of choice. When painting, Widman played with ideas like The Journeying Spirit and The Magician, being influenced by the bold gestures of Robert Motherwall and surrealist conceptions of Joan Miró. The Magician appears in Widman’s paintings with two hemispheres attached to a central connecting body. Widman wrote a poem to describe it entitled, “Against the Grid: Homage to Gorky, Kandinsky, Klee…and primarily to the great magician Miró. Those ancient modernists.”
Through the 90s and into the new century, Widman’s artistic themes ventured into apocalyptic scenarios and gradually came to rest in the stories of ancient mythology. Hull notes, “Greek playwrights and the scholarly interpretations of their work by Graves, Jane Harrison, Bruno Snell, and others, permeated his imagination.” Widman, Hull writes, painted Greek heroes, and explored, “the universals and absolutes that the postmodern world rejects,” through examination of male and female binary perception. Hull notes that Widman advocated for “inner necessity” rather than creating for a market. Even nearing the end of his life, Widman still was a passionate educator and mentor for artists.
During interviews for this article, which led to meeting more and more people who knew and loved Harry Widman, many mentioned Widman’s wife Mardy with warm adoration. Malia Jensen, Widman’s stepdaughter, remembers fondly how Mardy and Harry would “often go to Sauvie Island and spend the day with paints and watercolor pads,” and how both seemed to give creative fulfillment to one another. His friends remember a talk Widman gave on the occasion of his last retrospective at the Michael Parson’s Gallery. Due to the progression of Alzheimer’s he would have trouble with names, but when talking about art, he became a “painter’s poet,” as Paul Missal recalls. In a room that was approximately 15 by 20 feet with several of Widman’s paintings and some sculptures, Widman was asked to talk about his work. When he spoke he was able to “reach into his painter’s soul,” as Missal put it, and speak profoundly about what it means to be a painter. The quest for knowing what is unknown through art is a true expression of human spirit, and Harry Widman valiantly pursued this mission leaving behind a lifetime of influential artwork, having touched the lives of many.