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Art instructor awarded rare grant, opportunity
Photos and Story by James Hill
Everyone wants to find the object of their desire. Few people do, and even fewer get paid to create them.
But that’s just what Portland Community College art instructor Jacqueline Ehlis is doing. She is the recipient of an $8,000 stipend from Portland gallery owner Ruth Ann Brown to produce works for next year’s “Couture” exhibit. Ehlis was one of 10 artists chosen from a nationwide pool of 98 applicants for the stipends, which Brown – who operates the New American Art Union gallery in Southeast Portland – hopes will be used to produce works that are more “challenging” than those that usually permeate Portland’s gallery scene.
“I make objects that I actually look at as commodities,” said Ehlis, a painter who teaches at PCC’s Cascade Campus. “(They are) objects of desire; things that you just can’t stop thinking about.”
Ehlis said she thinks that the stipends are a boon to a city that prides itself on its creativity and innovative way of life, but that often doesn’t do enough to encourage homegrown artists to stretch themselves. She was pleased when she found out that, despite the fact that the applicants came from all over the country, the vast majority of the stipends went to Portland-based artists.
“Portland needs to rise to a higher standard so when Ruth Ann Brown offers $80,000, it’s a beautiful thing,” Ehlis said.
A former PCC student who grew up in Portland and the first person in her family to earn a college degree, Ehlis is one of those rare people who is truly happy in her job.
“I feel like I’m a true PCC success story,” she said. “I hold the highest degree of anyone in my family, and it’s just awesome to be here. I believe in community colleges, and I love being at Cascade Campus. It’s almost like a dream.”
Ehlis is an abstract painter, meaning that the art she creates makes no direct representation of the world we live in. Rather, her work derives its meaning from the dialogue that occurs between artwork and viewer. She described this process as being equally about the viewer and the thing itself.
“I’m excited about the new meanings that come out of that [interplay],” she said. “I make this thing, and its sole purpose is to be. I’m not making things just for me. If I can help reveal ‘you’ to you, then I’ve done my job.”
Her art makes liberal use of bold bursts of color (“I love color!” she said), reflection, and light and shadow, in such a way that she believes bucks some of the dominant trends in contemporary abstract art.
“In contemporary art, there is this tendency toward self-reductiveness,” Ehlis said, an inclination toward a kind of simplicity that downplays, oddly enough, a creator’s artistry. “I feel I’m unique in that I have a drive to make objects that are substantial, and not self-reductive. I’m committed to the object.”
Ehlis said she’s excited about the opportunity that the stipend represents, not just in terms of the impact it will have on her fame as an artist, but also in terms of the personal challenge before her and, ultimately, of the fate of her artworks themselves.
“I ask myself, ‘What am I doing, kinda?’” she said. “I’m interested in the idea of creating this object of desire, and then loving it or losing it. I want to see what will happen to the objects.”