Up the freeway in Salem, the Hallie Ford Museum of Art on Saturday opens a retrospective of the work of outsider artist Russell Childers (1916-1998), whose haunted wood carvings gave him a passport to escape decades of unwarranted isolation in Oregon’s state institution for the disabled.
Childers – his name rhymes with “builders” – was 9 years old and living in eastern Oregon in 1926 when he was taken away from his mother and committed to the State Institution for the Feeble-Minded, later known as Fairview Hospital and Training Center. It would be four decades before he was released.
I met Childers in 1992 – he was 76 – and interviewed him for The Register-Guard. A small man, hunched over his workbench, he proudly showed me carving knives from a hand-crafted tool chest he used as he worked on a small carving of a buffalo. Childers was striking in his simplicity and strength of vision, and I found a big part of me envying his focus. He had been given hearing aids and speech therapy when he was released from Fairview in 1965 – he spent the rest of his life in an assisted-living facility, doing his carving at the Willamette Valley Rehabilitation Center in Lebanon – and could hold a conversation, though his voice was was sometimes very difficult for me to understand.
By the time I met him, Childers had been discovered by the academic art world, primarily by University of Oregon sculptor Jan Zach and by art consultants Michael Whitenack and Tommy Griffin. They arranged a small exhibition of Childers’ strange and beautiful carvings that traveled around the West. His work has been shown even in Japan.
His best work is profoundly affecting. Starting at the time of his release from Fairview in 1965, Childers turned from crafting modest but quite ordinary carvings of animals to a series of autobiographical pieces showing, for example, his mother delivering him to the hospital in 1926.
The 1971 carving shown above, “The Wee Mother and Boy,” is a good example. Childers depicts himself in the clothing of early 20th century America, right down to the big heavy laced shoes of the day. In this and similar carvings, in fact, Childers puts a lot of emphasis on details of the shoes; this may be, says Hallie Ford curator Jonathan Bucci, who created the exhibition, because his shoes were taken away from him when he entered Fairview for security reasons.
Bucci explains that he had heard about Childers and his work for several years. “It was like a thread,” he says of researching the artist and putting the show together. “I kept pulling at it and kept reeling it in.”
Little documentation exists to explain why Childers was committed in the first place. A county judge wrote that the boy suffered from “fits,” suggesting epilepsy; he was also called “incorrigible.” In retrospect it seems today he was simply deaf and possibly autistic.
Over the decades he spent at Fairview, Childers began making wood carvings, which he sometimes sold to ward attendants for a dollar or less. Years later he explained that he had been inspired by seeing a magazine article – probably Life magazine – about a wood carver in the 1940s.
The Hallie Ford exhibition contains about two dozen of Childers’ carvings of the roughly 50 that Bucci was able to locate. Some of them seem clearly inspired by photographs he might have seen in magazines such as Life: Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima, for example, or a life-sized portrait bust he made of John Kennedy.
But others are more enigmatic. My two favorite works by Childers are both in the show. One, titled “The Long Wool Stocking Days,” shows a line of naked boys walking from left to right, each boy with his hand on the shoulder of the boy in front of him. Childers explained when I met him that this was how the boys at Fairview were required to line up for the showers.
The other isn’t autobiographical at all; Bucci calls it one of the few metaphorical pieces Childers did.
In “Man Climbing a Ladder,” a man wearing a trenchcoat and hat starts up a ladder that seems to have been carved out of a growing tree; at the top, a large cat is perched. The piece seems to have no particular reference other than Childers’ imagination.
“There was definitely a progression as he learned to carve,” Bucci says. “And there is a haunting sadness – and a hopefulness, as well.”
As I visited the exhibition, that sadness was focused on Childers’ painted tool chest, which I had seen him use almost a quarter century ago. It has his name carved into a drawer front, along with other names – Nathan Doe and Donald Caseday. These were men who helped him build the tool chest, Childers told me the day I met him.
In the current exhibition Childers’ wooden chest sits at the door to the museum’s small study gallery, which houses most of the show. It’s protected from prying fingers by plexiglass panels, and it still contains his tools.
“Russell Childers: Oregon Outsider” runs through October 23 at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art, on the campus of Willamette University in Salem. See more information here.
‘Boy with Shoes,’ 1968-1970, wood, 6” x 8.5” x 5.375”. Photo/Willamette University.