Thanks to a persistent Eugene art historian, a new show opening Saturday at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art offers the first public glimpse in half a century at the work of a little known Oregon-born artist.
“Chipping the Block, Painting the Silk: The Color Block Prints and Serigraphs of Norma Bassett Hall” features 68 works by Hall, who was born in 1889 in Halsey. Heavily influenced by the Arts & Crafts movement, Hall created at least 94 prints in her lifetime.
The JSMA show, which runs through Oct. 12, grows out of the detective work of Eugene art historian Joby Patterson, who spent the past 15 years tracking down art works by and information about Hall, whose life had previously been undocumented.
Patterson also wrote a book about Hall, which has just been published by Pomegranate Communications: “Norma Bassett Hall: Catalogue Raisonne of the Block Prints and Serigraphs (Amazon link).” (You can also buy direct from the publisher here.)
The beautifully illustrated book traces Hall’s life and career with her artist husband, Arthur W. Hall, and lists what Patterson was able to discover about the 94 prints she’s found.
The historian first heard of Hall when she was researching a previous book on Bertha Jaques, one of the founders of the influential Chicago Society of Etchers. Hall, Jaques had written in a letter, “does the most delectable block prints.”
Patterson had never heard of the artist. “And coming from Jaques, that was quite a statement,” Patterson told me one recent morning over coffee on the front porch of her south Eugene home.
Only later did she discover that Hall was born not far from Eugene, in Halsey.
An adjunct professor of art history at the University of Oregon, Patterson specializes in art of the early 20th century. She is also a print collector and a lover of wood block printing, in which the artist carves an image into the surface of wood, then inks and prints it.
When Patterson was looking for a subject for another book, she remembered the obscure artist. “Hall was a color relief-woodblock artist, a woman, and from Oregon,” Patterson said.
That was when, as Patterson says, the trouble began. She couldn’t find much of anything out about Hall. There was no published biography. No one seemed to know where her papers had gone. No one really had any idea exactly how much art Hall had produced.
Her first source of information was eBay, where Hall’s prints were regularly being sold.
Then, one night in 2004, Patterson’s son called her from Portland. “Turn on ‘Antiques Roadshow,’” he said. The show was featuring a Hall print bought at a thrift shop for a pittance. Patterson didn’t get her television on in time to get the print owner’s name. She called her son.
“Don’t worry,” he told her. “I know the owner. She’s on my soccer team.”
From that oddly coincidental beginning, she got in touch with the print owner, and later reached members of Hall’s family. She talked to a great nephew of Hall’s. She ended up talking to relatives in half a dozen states.
Despite years of trying, including travel all over the western United States, Patterson never found the mother lode of information she had hoped for about Hall. Instead, over a period of years, she cobbled together the story of Hall’s life and work, one single bit of information at a time.
Hall studied art at the school run by the Portland Art Association, and later at the school of the Art Institute of Chicago. She spent two years studying and working in Europe. She began her professional life as a watercolorist, but soon began making the serigraphs and wood block prints for which she is known today.
Her work is colorful, well composed and finely done, and it shows the distinct influence of the Arts & Crafts movement, a late 19th and early 20th century reaction to the cold, impersonal look of industrially manufactured goods.
Hall especially came under the influence of artist and educator Arthur Wesley Dow, who valued the elements of composition more highly than literal representation of anything in nature.
“She learned from Dow the principles of design, composition and color,” Patterson says.
In the absence of much other firm information, Patterson has dated Hall’s prints based on the work itself, from paper type to the evolving monograms that Hall often used as a signature. “No two prints have exactly the same monogram,” she said.
One of the problems in dealing with a little know artist is that the lack of published information makes it easy for her work to be misrepresented.
By the end of her life, Hall was primarily making photoengravings, a much more commercial and less subtle form of reproduction. Some of those later photoengravings have been sold, in the current market, as silkscreens – and a few have had signatures added to them.
“It’s amazing that an artist – especially a woman – in this period managed what sh managed,” Patterson said. “Her family was not greatly supportive of her art. She was just talented – and determined.”
Chipping the Block, Painting the Silk: The Color Block Prints and Serigraphs of Norma Bassett Hall
Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art
Saturday, August 23, through October 12
Patterson will share her adventures in uncovering Hall’s life and work and lead a tour of the exhibition at 2 p.m. Saturday, August 23. A reception and book signing will follow.
The Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art is located on the University of Oregon campus at 1430 Johnson Lane. Museum hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesdays, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays through Sundays. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for senior citizens. Free admission is given to ages 18 and under, JSMA members, college students with ID, and University of Oregon faculty, staff and students. For information, contact the JSMA, 541-346-3027.