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Gallery celebrates art as life

by: ELLEN SPITALERI JoAnn Gilles, right, curator of the new Art Under 300 Gallery in downtown Milwaukie, checks out a painting with some of her art students.

Art is blooming in Milwaukie, but the current exhibit, 'Growing Season,' will only be on view for three more Sundays at Art Under 300 Gallery, across from city hall at 2031 S.E. Harrison St.

The gallery, curated by art teacher JoAnn Gilles, is only open during Art a la Carte, the First Friday event in downtown Milwaukie, and every Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., during the farmers market. The next exhibit, 'On the Horizon,' opens Sept. 2.

The mission statement for the gallery notes that the space is a showcase for artists where they can 'complete the process of the art cycle, by showing their work.' All the art is for sale, and all prices are less than $300 - thus the name of the site.

Gilles said the idea of the gallery came from Val Hubbard, a student of hers, and a member of Milwaukie's artMob arts committee.

'Val and her husband, Steve, live in the apartment above the gallery and they were using the space for storage. She suggested we show the class's artwork here, and I was all for it,' Gilles said.

Artists in her classes who want to show their work pay a small fee, which pays the utility bill for the studio; Gilles sets up a broad theme for each exhibit and curates each show in order for it to be cohesive.

There will be a new show every month, even in the winter, and a special holiday show in December, featuring gift items.

Ultimately, for Gilles, the gallery is 'a fruition of work; the culmination of a process that feeds into the next cycle. The product is deemphasized; learning and self-realization from the art of creating is what is important.'

'Visual language'

Gilles believes she can teach anyone to paint; that painting is a 'visual language' that needs to be practiced, like any other language.

'People are hungry to do this; they find solace in this. The artist Giacometti said, 'The only reason to paint is the feeling you have when you're painting.' When you are being in the moment, you are at peace,' Gilles said.

The tiny space in Milwaukie only functions as gallery space for artists in Gilles' two classes. Her studio is in N.E. Portland, and she welcomes students with no experience, many years of experience and everything in between.

She vividly remembers the date when the studio opened - Sept. 11, 2001.

'Everyone was shellshocked [after the events of 9/11], and this became a place of community and healing,' she said.

Students

For some sessions, students come in and pick assignments out of a box. They spend part of the time in class painting and then gather around for a critique of the day's work.

'I like the critiques, because other people see things that I don't see,' noted Milwaukie resident Leslie Foeller, who said she had been in Gilles' class since the studio opened 10 years ago.

'JoAnn is very open, very giving. I'm always learning something, even if it might just be patience. What I like about the class is that she shares her knowledge of different artists,' she said.

One special assignment for Foeller came when Gilles asked her to 'paint light' and work with a color palette she was not used to.

What she likes best about Gilles' teaching style is that she teaches the students a language.

'We all have our different dialects, but we all understand each other,' Foeller added.

Although she had not painted for years, Marcia Peters joined the class last November and instantly felt comfortable working alongside such 'complimentary and encouraging people.'

Peters, a Clackamas County resident, said she came in when her life had been turned upside down, and she found the class energizing.

'JoAnn has you come in and put away your past. I had only painted with watercolor before, and she encouraged me to try acrylics - to put the color on paper and see how the paint felt,' Peters said.

One of her favorite assignments came when Gilles showed the class 10 slides and students had to take an element from each and create a work that unified the whole.

'She told us, 'Don't think about where you are going, just start to paint,'' Peters added.

Susan Waddington is the newest member of the class and is one student who has plenty of background in art. She attended the Cleveland Institute of Art at the urging of her high school art teacher.

'I have been dabbling in art my whole life, but this class brought me back and has totally reawakened my artistic ability,' she said.

When she is in class, it is the 'only time in the week when I am in the moment - that is so valuable.'

A memorable assignment for her came about when Gilles urged students to put 'a light wash over the whole painting and then scrub it in the sink,' Waddington said.

When you put a glaze over the whole work, Gilles said, 'you can draw into it, you can scrub it, you can begin to excavate - it is like an archeological dig.'

It can start out the 'ugliest thing in the world,' and end up beautiful, she added.

'Only paper'

Gilles said her first art experience began when she was 5 years old and hiding in a closet drawing under the coats. She was too intimidated in high school to take art, but in her later years in college came back to art, earning a fine arts degree.

She has taught art at the high school level all over Clackamas County, particularly in Lake Oswego and Oregon City, and has led workshops in France, Arizona and at the coast.

For her, teaching is 'like a mission, spreading the word - that is where my passion comes from.'

Art is like a 'river of gold,' she added, saying, 'The more you go to it, the more river of gold you get.'

Painting class 'is like a microcosm of life. All the observation and self-realization that you need to make an authentic work is what you need every day. It's like practice for life - you need a harmonious whole,' Gilles said.

She tells her students to look at their work 'and get surprised by it,' and to always remember that 'it's only a piece of paper. It is such a badge of honor when your painting is liked, but I want to turn down the volume on that. Art is worth nothing, and it is worth everything. The process is the main thing - the process is the endeavor.'