Roger Hull, a Willamette University professor emeritus, curated a new exhibition at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art featuring the work of the late Clifford Gleason, an artist who had a "very difficult life." (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)
The historically significant artist Clifford Gleason, whose story and career aren’t well known, is getting another chance at discovery through “The Promise of Paint” exhibition at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem.
“Clifford Gleason was a highly original artist, arguably one of the more accomplished mid-century modern painters in the Pacific Northwest,” according to Roger Hull, professor emeritus of art history at Willamette University.
Hull curated the Gleason exhibit, which remains on display through Oct. 31.
Hull describes Gleason, who died in 1978, as an “artist’s artist” whose work is less known to the public yet he remains of “keen interest to collectors and artists.”
In Salem where Gleason was raised, he was recognized as early as the 1940s as a cultural treasure and in Portland as an artist worthy of many exhibitions. His works were displayed more than 20 times at the Portland Art Museum, three of them solo shows.
Gleason worked primarily in oil as he didn’t like acrylic paint, according to Hull. He sometimes painted on Masonite panels but mostly he preferred canvas.
He also experimented with painting on paper that he had crinkled.
“Gleason took an usual approach to color. He loved to juxtapose bland tans and off-golds with vivid accents,” Hull said.
He loved textures, doing studies of textures on textures. Gleason also executed drawings in ink and graphite.
There are about 45 pieces of Gleason’s work on display at the art museum. They were acquired for the show primarily from private collectors, the Portland Art Museum and from the Hallie Ford collection.
Hanging in the museum’s lobby are Gleason’s earliest works, moving on to his descriptive paintings and then the more abstract.
Gleason was born Carl Goss in Portland in 1913 and was adopted by Wilhelmina and Leon Gleason of Salem. His adoptive parents owned and operated the Gleason Glove Factory at 14th and Oak streets.
“Clifford grew up as an adored and perhaps overly protected child. He showed an aptitude for art and as a child drew on the walls of his parents’ factory,” Hull said.
He excelled in art classes at Salem High School, located where Macy’s is now, and was encouraged to pursue his artistic bent by Ruth Brauti, an artist and teacher familiar with modern art.
Although Gleason did well in art, he failed many of his other courses so didn’t graduate. Gleason felt he wasn’t good at anything “except making art.”
As he honed his skills, he designed the mural “Alice in Wonderland,” a surrealistic vision of the tale. The work once hung in the former Bush Elementary School.
Then in 2005, the piece was moved to the North Salem High School auditorium, where it remains on display. It is Gleason’s earliest surviving work.
One of his larger paintings commissioned by the Marion County Health Department later was moved to the Salem Public Library.
There it was damaged by a book cart, moved to the basement, and later disappeared, Hull said.
Hull describes Gleason as two people living in one body.
When he was sober he was “charming, debonair and gentlemanly. But when he had too much to drink, he was none of those things.”
Consequently along with being gay, “he had a very difficult life,” Hull said. “He often lived near poverty and came to depend on the financial and organizational support of friends who recognized his talents.”
Visitors can view Gleason’s work at the museum located at 700 State Street from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Masks and social distancing are required.
Upcoming exhibitions include “Forgotten Stories: Northwest Public Art in the 1930s” from Nov. 28 to March 27, 2021; and “Lockwood Dennis: Woodcuts,” from Oct. 24 to Jan. 16, 2021.
Mural panels done in 1950 in oil on Masonite are from the law office of Donald Young, Salem. They are part of an exhibition featuring the late Salem artist Clifford Gleason. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)
A piece called "Orange and Blue" is oil on canvas done in April 1963 by artist Clifford Gleason. The work is on display through October at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)
Oil paintings done in the 1970s by artist Clifford Gleason are on display through October at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)
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