I’ve been a fan of Betty LaDuke’s art for many years, so it was especially gratifying that she not only agreed to allow us to put one of her works on our cover but to also grant us an interview. We spoke early-ish on a Sunday morning in November, 2022. I’ve edited that conversation for clarity and readability and offer it here now for you.

Magazine Cover for Volume 7: Feast and Forage. Cover Art is by Betty LaDuke / Photography Credit to Robert Jaffe

Nikki Jardin (NJ): Good morning, Betty. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me about your work as well as talking with you a bit about your life. Let’s first talk about this piece that we’re using for our Volume 7 cover. Can you tell me a bit about it? 

Betty LaDuke (BLD): Yes, thank you. Corn Mothers is the name of the piece. I don’t have it right in front of me to tell you exactly when it was created, but a lot of my work in Africa began in 1986 and then consecutive annual travels. I think this (piece) was early on when I was in Cameroon. It might have been 1989.

NJ:  One of the things that struck me immediately when I saw it was all the smiling images, even the corn had a little face on it. And they were smiling, too, which I really liked. 

BLD:  Right. It’s the wholeness of the process. The women do the work. They do the planting, the weeding, the harvesting, and then finally the selling. And it becomes part of their life’s necessity to have income to feed their kids. So the corn is really alive for them in a personal way, since they are involved from the very beginning in creating food that nurtures the family. So the face is kind of a spirit face. 

NJ: I love the way that you use color. Your colors are so vibrant and warm at the same time. 

BLD: The work is inspired by the culture. My work begins with sketches made on location. So that painting meant that I was standing where the woman was selling the corn and sketching them. It’s based on a real experience. And then in the studio, that becomes the painting. But also one of the joys of traveling in Africa is the richness of what they call cloth. The fabrics that they wear and the pattern varies from country to country. And some of them can be political, and some of them just sort of reflect the landscape of their environment. But I find that so joyful, and I have used that element. As I create images of people going about their daily lives, the cloth enters into it in a very rich, positive way. 

Betty LaDuke sketching amongst children in Eritrea. 1997. Photo courtesy of Betty LaDuke

NJ: Regarding this particular piece. We’re seeing it as a painting, but was it also on a wood panel or is this a painting on canvas? 

BLD: It’s a painting on canvas, which is totally different from what you experienced at the Corvallis Museum. My work on canvas began a long time ago. It was about 1965 when I began to paint large canvases. I had moved to Ashland, Oregon — I had a job at Southern Oregon University, a teaching job — and recently married. We built a very simple home, but the choice was to have a big kitchen or a big studio.  I chose a studio. That became the place where everything happens and where it still happens. 

NJ: And you’re still in the same home? 

BLD: Yes. I came in 1964 for the job, we married in 1965 and built the home. It’s grown and expanded, but the studio has remained there. It’s always been there for me, which a lot of women don’t have. 

NJ: I want to ask you about teaching. I know that you’re retired now, but you did teach for a long time, didn’t you? 

BLD: Yes, for 32 years, from 1964 until 1996. And, for the first 18 years, I was the only woman in the art department, so that tells you something. And, actually, this is why I’ve gone to Africa, and Asia, Latin America, and it’s promoted a lot of my imagery — to research other women’s art, with the focus on non-European women. So I went to these countries and began writing books (Africa World press) that told their stories. The Africa books are “Through the Lives of Women Artists.” Most of my travels in Africa inspired interviews. As I interviewed the women, I learned about their lives and had the privilege of traveling around or getting to know their villages and the little towns and cities. All of this led to many, many sketches. And the sketches then became paintings. 

Betty LaDuke with a Sketch pad. New York, 1948

NJ: I love your sketches, and got to see more of them in the coloring books you sent, which are wonderful. I understand from the OPB documentary that you’ve been sketching since you were very young. Pre-teens? 

BLD: Oh yes. I think early teens probably was the real beginning of a consistent, you know, traveling around New York City with my sketchbook. 

NJ: Was this something your parents encouraged? Or was this something you just sort of did on your own?

BLD: Well, drawing was promoted because I went to a very special high school, a city high school. You got in through a portfolio of work plus good grades. It was the High School of Music and Art (now the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School) that really promoted and encouraged my work. 

My parents were working people, Mother in a pocket book factory, Dad was a house painter. But being the only child I had coloring books and all the paper I wanted and colored pencils and, you know, crayons, that kind of thing. So that was, you know, I had more of that than dolls. 

NJ: I’ve been a fan of your work for a long time. Are there any works you would like us to feature in particular? 

BLD: Well, a lot of people are familiar with my work in the Medford, Oregon Airport. The same work with the Portland Art Museum, and then also in the Portland Airport. That’s more recent work. It’s a whole series of wood panels that I’ve done that deal with Oregon farm workers. And I kind of think that continuity from Africa to Oregon is in the interest of the people who produce the food. So that’s the focus of the Oregon panels. 

NJ:. You seem to focus a lot on food harvesting. I know you did work with Heifer International. Is there something about that particular subject that continues to draw you back? 

BLD: Yes, I’ve been interested in craft work and how that and other art is related. Wherever I’ve gone to interview women artists, whether it’s Asia, Africa or Latin America, women are often the producers of the baskets, cloth, and pottery. But it’s also the fact that I was married for 48 years to an entomologist who dealt with the local tree fruit, mostly pears. That was Peter’s work. He was a scientist and dealt with it from integrated pest management, which means getting insects to eat insects, so you don’t have to use pesticides. And my first husband, Native American, Indigenous — he focused on wild rice,  and how to grow your own corn and the reality of what it takes to plant and weed and harvest. So personal circumstances influenced me as well. Because, being from the Bronx, that wasn’t my thing.  

BLD: Yes, I’ve been interested in craft work and how that and other art is related. Wherever I’ve gone to interview women artists, whether it’s Asia, Africa or Latin America, women are often the producers of the baskets, cloth, and pottery. But it’s also the fact that I was married for 48 years to an entomologist who dealt with the local tree fruit, mostly pears. That was Peter’s work. He was a scientist and dealt with it from integrated pest management, which means getting insects to eat insects, so you don’t have to use pesticides. And my first husband, Native American, Indigenous — he focused on wild rice,  and how to grow your own corn and the reality of what it takes to plant and weed and harvest. So personal circumstances influenced me as well. Because, being from the Bronx, that wasn’t my thing.  

Betty LaDuke with one of her wood panel paintings

But I also lived in Mexico for close to four years as a 20 year old. I saw people’s lives, especially in rural villages and towns and how people worked the land with animals and simple tools. But they depended on the water for the planting and the growing and the season on and on. So I don’t know, through the years it became very much people’s relationship to Mother Earth. That became the link for me, spiritual and physical and spiritual.

NJ: Well, that makes sense, and it seems like it’s provided a lot of inspiration for you. 

BLD: Right, and so it carries on with the turtles. You know, now, because of all the work that you saw, the exhibit was pretty much focused on the pandemic and climate change and social justice issues. But the turtles were inspired by early drawings I did in Africa a long time back.  They’ve revived for me a format to voice autobiographically and more recent feelings about what we’re all experiencing. 

NJ: Thank you so much for your time today and for your lifetime of work. 

Visit BettyLaDuke.com to read and see more of her work. And take a look at a gallery of images here.

And, to learn more, Oregon Art Beat, a production of Oregon Public Broadcasting  created a wonderful short film about Betty LaDuke which we’ve linked to here: