Betty LaDuke’s Great Gifts
John Ruff

The first time my friend Dolores “Dee” Fitzpatrick laid eyes on a painting by Betty LaDuke, she wept. This happened a year ago in the main corridor of the College of Arts and Sciences Building at Valparaiso University. Gloria Ruff and Gregg Hertzlieb of Valparaiso’s Brauer Museum of Art were unpacking the first of twenty-one large-scale, boldly colored acrylic paintings that LaDuke had donated. At the time, of all the university’s classroom buildings, the College of Arts and Sciences Building was the newest, the best lit, and the most unadorned.

It was spring break, and the building was empty but for a few faculty members working in their offices, plus Luci Hicks, Yvonne Hale, and Catherine Busch, staff members from the dean’s office. Carol Goss, who directs the the Language Learning Center down the hall, must have noticed what was happening through the big picture windows that look out on the corridor. She joined others who had begun to congregate there as Hertzlieb and Ruff worked, and Goss snapped three photos with her cell phone to record the event. They show five paintings: one on a rack, two leaning against a wall, and the diptych, Africa: Osun Procession, 1997 already installed. Yvonne Hale appears in one of the photos taking a photo. Dee Fitzpatrick does not appear, though Goss and Busch both recall that Dee was there and that she cried.

When I first met Fitzpatrick, she was working the 4:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. shift as a custodian in the Arts and Sciences Building. I would see her when I arrived around 7:00 a.m. to prepare to teach my 8:00 class on writing in the health professions. One day early in the fall semester, I introduced myself and told Dee what I was there to teach. In the brief conversation that followed, she informed me that being a university custodian was her job and it covered her daughter’s tuition, which was great, but her passion was providing home health care as a certified nursing assistant, her second job. She spoke with such passion about her passion that I asked if she would talk to my students sometime. She said she was afraid she’d cry because she gets so worked up, but I asked her to come anyway, and she did.

If I were fictionalizing for dramatic effect, I’d write that she pulled up outside the classroom on her floor washer, but she just walked over. I introduced her, and she spoke to my students about her work, about taking care of people in their homes, feeding them, bathing them, making sure they were taking their medications—every patient a different story. Some got better, others did not. She told it like it is. My students were spellbound, and yes, she cried.

All of which is to describe how humbly, how without pomp and ceremony or even public acknowledgment, but blessed by a working woman’s tears of joy and a welcoming committee of other hardworking women, LaDuke’s great paintings arrived and were received.

Betty LaDuke was born Betty Bernstein in the Bronx, New York City, in 1933. From an early age she prepared herself to be an artist, first at the High School of Music and Art in New York City, then on scholarship at Denver University, then at the Cleveland Institute of Art. From 1953 to 1956, while attending the Instituto Allende in Mexico, she lived with the Otomi, an indigenous people whose influence upon LaDuke was profound and enduring. At some point, she studied under two African American artists crucial to her development, Elizabeth Catlett and Charles White. She completed a master’s degree in printmaking and acquired teaching certification at California State University, Los Angeles in 1963. From 1964 until 1996 she taught art at Southern Oregon University.

Since 1972, LaDuke has traveled the world, always with a sketchbook, and has become internationally renowned for murals, large acrylic paintings, and sketches that record those travels. She has taught, published books, and made films and videos about women artists from developing nations she has encountered, encouraged, and exhibited with. Her artworks are featured in public and private collections across the country. Works by LaDuke appear on permanent exhibition at the Portland (Oregon) International Airport and at the Rogue Valley International Airport in Medford, Oregon. Versions of her Dreaming Cows project have been installed at the Heifer Project’s international headquarters in Little Rock, Arkansas, and at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. Other permanent public installations of LaDuke’s art can be visited in Ashland and Coos Bay, Oregon; Waterloo, Iowa; Greensboro, North Carolina; and now, happily, at Valparaiso University.

LaDuke’s art has been featured twice previously in exhibitions at Valparaiso University. In 2010, LaDuke loaned twenty-one large paintings that appeared as part of Valparaiso University’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration that year. The loan was arranged by her former printmaking student, Gloria Ruff, then co-chair of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Planning Committee, and currently associate curator and registrar of the Brauer Museum of Art. In 2011, LaDuke made her first gift to Valparaiso University, a large triptych, painted in acrylic, entitled Africa: Eritrea, Coptic Altar I, II, and III. In 2012, she donated to the Brauer twenty etchings done between 1963 and 1994. In 2016 the Brauer Museum hosted a major exhibit of LaDuke’s work entitled “Celebrating Life: Betty LaDuke Retrospective.” It was while Ruff was giving LaDuke a tour of the campus—they were, in fact, in the College of Arts and Sciences Building at the time—that LaDuke wondered if for some reason Valparaiso University had an aversion to color. She noticed great light and many bare walls but not much color. She told her former student she was going to do something about that.

In the fall of 2016, Ruff traveled to Ashland, Oregon, and visited with LaDuke in her studio. Not long after, LaDuke donated twenty-one large canvases and eighteen smaller works to the Brauer, including paintings, etchings, and drawings. Her hope was that they would be installed in public spaces around campus.

As I write, seventeen of her works adorn the main corridors and entryway of the College of Arts of Sciences and the entryway to Christ College in Mueller Hall. They depict scenes from around the world, from Central and South America, India, Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. They feature members of indigenous peoples from across the globe, people whom LaDuke has sketched, photographed, lived with, and studied. The paintings LaDuke gave us, all large canvases done in acrylics, represent her best work. They include men but feature more women, often at work, usually with their children and the animals they depend on, wild and domesticated. The images are visionary, mythic, and magical.

LaDuke’s artist statement, right there besides the wall text that includes her biography, begins with the question, “What unites the body of work?” Her answer is better than any I could provide:


What pulls us all together is the need to survive. How we coexist depends upon basic components—tilling the earth, forming communities, celebrating the transaction of seasons and rites of passage from birth to death. I yearn for peace in a world where life can blossom and where creative potential allow for “constructing” rather than “deconstructing” as the primary force. My sketches, prints, acrylic paintings, and shaped wood panels often embrace the following themes: spiritual traditions that connect us to our past, present, and future; honoring the earth—plowing, planting, and harvesting; peace that brings an end to conflict and war; and transitions that recognize our life cycle from birth to bonding to ultimately letting go.


Consider how this statement helps us better see and understand LaDuke’s Mexico: Easter Journey, 1978. The curators placed this painting just inside the main entrance of the College of Arts and Sciences Building, on the wall closest to the dean’s suite of offices, opposite the only decorative element to precede the LaDuke painting onto the walls: the university motto in large capital letters, painted in light beige upon a slightly darker beige wall: “IN LUCE TUA VIDEMUS LUCEM.” The Latin phrase means, in English, “In Thy Light We See Light.” The verse comes from Psalm 36:9. If you step outside the door opposite the inscription, you will see that same Latin verse on the middle of a large metal screen, surrounded by translations of that sentence or parts thereof—particularly the word “light”—in forty-three languages. No decorative feature of any building on campus better embodies Valparaiso University’s commitment to cultural diversity and global education than that screen.

Back inside, that commitment is affirmed in yet another language, this one visual, or visionary, that LaDuke developed for herself through almost seventy years of studying, teaching, and making art. Even without LaDuke’s title, the ochre-colored cross is a clear signal this scene connects to the Christian story of the Passion, though not conventionally. Two human figures, a woman and a man, appear to embrace the cross. Gloria Feman Orenstein, author of Multi-Cultural Celebrations: The Paintings of Betty LaDuke (Pomegranate, 1993), identifies them as “the Virgin and Christ.” If so, Mary wears a bright green dress instead of the traditional blue one, decorated, as is her reddish auburn hair, with brightly colored flowers. Christ, the male figure opposite her, according to Orenstein, wears a plain cobalt colored robe, stands in a flock of birds, and has three heads—two human and one the head of a dog or wolf or coyote, perhaps some manifestation of an indigenous trickster figure.

Together they express a wholly different trinitarian presence than we encounter in traditional Christian iconography. Three stars appear to reinforce the trinitarian theme, and a green and yellow crescent shape suggests the moon. Images of the Virgin of Guadalupe always show her standing upon a crescent moon, so that element, along with all the flowers and birds, synthesizes indigenous Aztec and traditional Christian symbolism. I haven’t mentioned the bodiless head that hovers above the woman. Neither can I account for him. Orenstein claims “the Virgin and Christ, female and male, transform the cross of crucifixion into a spiritual crossroads.” She claims “it is at a point of intersection of the horizontal and the vertical, the material and the spiritual, that miracles can occur.” She suggests the stars and birds in LaDuke’s work “remind us that all earthly things are also spiritual, and that we too come from the stars.”

In “An Artist’s Journey from Oregon to Timbuktu,” an essay LaDuke wrote about her work for an anthology edited by Susan R. Ressler entitled Women Artists of the American West (McFarland & Company, 2010), LaDuke recounts the origin of Mexico, Easter Journey, 1978. “Mexico,” she writes, “is like a mother that always beckons me home.” She continues:


Through the years I kept returning, to the see the changes in San Miguel, Guanajuato, and the Otomi Indian villages where I have painted murals. I also visited Oaxaca, now the home of my first art teacher, Elizabeth Catlett, to interview her for my book, Women Artists: Multi-Cultural Visions. I also attended the week-long celebration of Easter in the villages surrounding Oaxaca and created many sketches of these seasonal rituals.”


She goes on to describe how “El encuentro, or “the meeting,” inspired Mexico, Easter Journey. 1978:


On Easter Sunday, statues of Christ and the Virgin Mary, dressed in splendid velvet robes, are elevated on wooden platforms and carried out of the church into the sunlight. They are carried in opposite directions around the church, accompanied by processions of mothers, fathers, and children, singing and then praying at each of the cardinal directions until they meet again and re-enter the church. Christ and the Virgin represent a spiritual crossroad between heaven and earth, good and evil. Local farmers also bring their seedlings of corn, chilis, and frijoles to receive the Virgin’s blessing.


In other words, this image of Easter is also an image of the earth’s fertility and capacity for regeneration. It celebrates a sacred local cultural practice and those who keep it alive in a meaningful and reverent way. It came to us as a gift, like life itself.

In the fall of 2019, the Brauer Museum of Art will host another exhibit of Betty LaDuke’s art, this time featuring works that address issues of social justice. The Brauer’s programming includes a campus talk by LaDuke. At that time, Valparaiso University will have a golden opportunity to honor Betty and her gift, to properly bless what is already a beautiful blessing.


John Ruff is a professor of English at Valparaiso University.

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