Deborah Trione   Oregon's Quick Change Artist      1980


Bonnie Bronson bends over a i huge workbench. She is in work attire: hiking boots, sweatshirt, jeans spattered with paint. Intent on a few pieces of sharp-edged enamel, she fits them together, matching edges here, overlapping there. Cocking her head and stepping back, she ponders the design. She shifts the pieces again. The smile so often on her face is gone. But In a few minutes she will find a composition she likes -a rectangle of overlapping pieces no more than a few inches across. Mumbling something about simplicity, her eyes will sparkle as she looks up at me.

Bronson lives with her husband, Lee Kelly, in the farmland outside Oregon City. They've recently moved into a former cow barn that's now a super-efficient studio and living space. Bronson and Kelly, who is a sculptor, divide the main section of the barn into separate studios, Kelly's full of heavy metal machinery and a half-finished mammoth sculpture of rusted steel, Bronson's holding a sturdy wooden table, shelves of powdered glass, and miscellaneous tools. Large glass door and
ceiling-level windows beam light into both halves.

Kelly is working next door, and sharp clangs and rough grinding noises break into the jazz on the radio, making it impossible to talk. Bronson and I climb the stairs to escape the noise. Midway up, a door opens onto her intimate, white-walled drawing studio, complete with drafting table, wooden storage cabinets and flood lamps on the ceiling. Up the stairs, we enter the "living space," whose white walls are punctuated by occasional wooden beams and pieces of art behind glass. The space is lofty, open, and clear. Skylights in the 15-foot ceilings drop light from above.

Bronson has been an important Portland-area artist for at least 10 years. Her work is known to Portland viewers through several major exhibitions - 1980 at Blackfish, 1979 at the Portland Art Museum, 1976 at Contemporary Crafts - and through commissions she's completed around town. She considers that her development has been in stages, and that she's now at a major transition point. "I have a date when things have to be really resolved - the show at Blackfish next March - but I have time to explore at thIs point," she says.

And she is exploring. Apart .from the small enameled-steel compositions she was working on when I came in, she has just completed a series of medium-sized acrylic paintings on paper. These paintings are Diebenkornesque - lines juxtaposed with voids, warm gray against cool gray, bold palette-knife strokes lightly veiling architectural lines, subtle color transitions.

"To describe what I'm working on right now," she offers, "would be to talk about shapes and angles. Using straight lines, one line working against another, one color working against another. Using close colors. Trying to be as subtle as possible and yet having a lot of meat there. Trying to have it be a powerful statement but at the same time a minimal statement." She hesitates to be more specific. "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."

Bronson has gone through a variety of styles and media in the 20 years since she was graduated from the Museum Art School. "I think it's important to keep pushing on materials and ideas," she says, "and when you become stagnated, you have to do something drastic sometimes to change."

Emerging from art school in the early '60s, she was making large "throw-on" paintings in spontaneous, Abstract Expressionist mode. Forcing herself onward, she went through periods she now feels were less successful: painting large geometrical figures suspended in space; or, in the late '60s, during the "Earth Movement," doing realistic drawings of her garden and of nudes. An Art Advocates Project in the mid-'70s allowed her to research large-scale enameling processes at a factory in Seattle.

Her most recent period is characterized by large wall sculpture in enamel, cardboard or steel. Most of the work is simple in design, with subtle variations in color and texture on the surface. Many of the pieces employ "modulars" -a simple form repeated with only slight variation.
Bronson's most successful work has always been abstract. It is about form, the
interaction of triangle and square, warm color against cool color. She would probably
be uncomfortable it you recognized figurative elements in her work, and she would downright resent being characterized by the material she uses. "I feel the materials are just something I'm using. The material is just one way of developing the idea." In other words, she is not an "enamelist," a "painter" or a "steel worker," she is an "artist." Bold media changes - from paint on paper to enamel, from cardboard to steel - have often been the motivation behind new phases in her work.

"I was commissioned to do a piece for Nordstrom's," she remembers. "I wanted to do a large piece in enamel, and the only way I could do it was in modulars. So it opened up whole new possibilities in my work."

By the 1980 Blackfish show, Bronson was well into the modular phase. She exhibited a huge wall sculpture made of hundreds of cardboard rectangles fitted together like the pieces of a poor-fitting jigsaw puzzle or a bumpy cobblestone road.

"Once I started seeing the modulars, started becoming interested in patterns," she goes on, "I also started thinking about the women's movement about then. I was thinking about what things women did that they enjoyed doing that weren't necessarily designated 'pieces of art,' like sewing and quilt making. There were very few women who were actually artists working in studios - very few. I wanted to experience some of the same things I thought they experienced when they made quilts - being involved in something and really enjoying it, but not really thinking too much about it when you were doing it. Doing something that flowed and felt comfortable. To get into a rhythm. To make one thing and then make another thing and then make another thing just like it and keep going and see how that develops."

It's evident that 'Bronson's modular work is-more professional looking, more economical and direct than any of her earlier work. But she feels ambivalent about this clarity. "I think the more minimal one gets, the more powerful the idea becomes," she says. "Some of the earlier paintings and collages were more like Abstract Expressionism in the sense that they had a lot of things going on. I would start with something simple and just start adding things to it and often I would go way too far. But," she continues, "I remember how much I enjoyed those paintings. You're just dealing with your immediate emotions and it was an enjoyable experience - exciting. A lot of my modular work had become in a sense too clear and too thought out."

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Bronson is the Intensity of her day-to-day devotion to making art. Everything else is secondary. Everything else is judged by its possible effect on her ability to work. "It could be beneficial not to spend time in the studio," she says thoughtfully, "but I've never really felt that. I've often felt that whenever I wasn't working there was really no excuse for it."

Art is not just Bronson's job, not just her career. It is her life. Fortunately, her husband shares this attitude. Over the years, they have worked continually to reduce outside interferences, to clear their minds so as to concentrate with full attention on their art. They talk candidly about how this effects their life together. "We've had out share of excruciating tests on our relationship," says Bronson. "But I think what it really comes I down to is that working is more important to both of us than anything else. So we're flexible. Neither of us tends to get strung out over things."

"We may get mad at one another," Kelly agrees, "but we don't tend to make an issue out of things. I think both of us would avoid anything that would be destructive. Anything that gets too emotional would be counterproductive."

Another thing is that, in a sense, we never take vacations," Bronson adds. "We go backpacking two weeks out of every year and the reason we go backpacking is so we can work on our ideas. We usually take drawing materials and we usually write. We're not trying to get away from our work," she explains.

"If anything, we're just trying to get away, from the extra stuff that builds up - the telephone, the making a living," Kelly says. It gets all piled up on you like too much dandruff and the only way to get rid of it is to go someplace where none of that exists." "We know it might possibly make our work better," Bronson adds.

And she has gotten down to work. Her life has become increasingly siimpler, more efficient. "I think it's important to fail," she says with some hindsight. "I often think back to 10 years ago and 1 remember periods of nothing working, not feeling good about anything I did. As my life became more sorted out, less complicated, it makes it easier to work. I've been getting more nourishment from it. I'll go down to the studio and feel comfortable about myself. I must say, I've seen quite a change in a 10-year span. I definitely have improved things."

Though Bronson isn't having a major show in Portland for several months, her work can be seen on request at Portland's Blackfish Gallery or Seattle's Traver Sutton Gallery. She and Kelly have a joint show at Salishan Lodge, opening on August 15, and a recent cardboard modular piece of hers will be on display at Artquake in September.