Above: La Plage Bonaparte # 1, by Margaret Coe, who likes to paint large; one of her huge originals measures 12 feet by 7 feet.
By Randi Bjornstad
“Mark Clarke and Margaret Coe: Our Lives in Paint” is exactly what it sounds like, an exhibit spanning the careers of Eugene artists Mark Clarke and Margaret “Peg” Coe, who not only were students together at the University of Oregon but married and carried on their individual painting careers together for five decades, until Clarke died unexpectedly in January 2016, shortly after his 80th birthday.
That fact might lead some to believe that the concept for this retrospective exhibit at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art was spurred by his demise, but the show’s curator, Danielle Knapp, says not so — she and Jill Hartz, the art museum’s executive director, started thinking about this show at least four years ago.
“It’s a different kind of project, and one that we both felt very strongly about from the beginning,” Knapp said. “They studied here, they continued their lives in art here, and on top of that, Mark was a member of the ‘museum family’ — he worked here on and off in many capacities for 23 years.”
Even more important, though, “Their work is so strong, and their relationship is so compelling,” she said. “In many cases where couples are involved in the same activity, one outpaces the other, but that was never the case with Mark and Peg — they both progressed and evolved throughout their careers, and Peg continues to do that.”
In fact, that was the most difficult part about reorganizing the concept for the show after Clarke’s death, Knapp said.
“No one ever would have expected that we would be having this show without Mark’s involvement,” she said. “I had gone on maternity leave, and I sent them a message saying we would get together as soon as I got back, and the same week I returned to work, he died.”
The museum offered to delay the exhibit, but Coe thought it important to go ahead as planned, Knapp said.
“We were all glad he had been part of the original planning, but it couldn’t really be a complete retrospective any more, because Peg continues to be so active with her painting, and she has done several major projects since then,” she said. “In the end, we chose 40 works that span their careers from some lithographs Mark did in 1958 to some very recent work of Peg’s — just off the easel — from her travels to Italy.”
The show includes paintings that Clarke and Coe did of each other, as well as self-portraits and paintings that included their children, jazz musician Tim Clarke and artist and gallery owner Karin Clarke.
Two — a Coe self-portrait and a painting of her with their son — both were done in 1966, “so it’s interesting to compare those and see where they were comparatively in their technique at that time,” Knapp said.
People often think of Clarke as primarily a landscape painter — and he frequently referred teasingly to himself as “just an old landscape painter” — but he also did significant figurative painting, Knapp said.
“Putting Peg’s part of the show together was easy, because of course she can talk all about the subjects of her painting and retrace when she did them,” she said. “But we felt a lot of pressure regarding Mark’s work, because we just have to assume we’re selecting the right pieces, and we don’t always know when they were done.”
For that reason, the show is not organized chronologically, but more as an expression of the ebb and flow of daily life of the couple and their children, Knapp said.
“What is so impressive to me is the fact that they both were artists who made it work — it was paint, paint, paint, a continual part of their everyday lives. You don’t see any gaps in their careers when they weren’t painting.”
There were differences between their personalities that affected their painting, however.
While both were dedicated to making their lives in Oregon and reflecting that in their paintings, Clarke was not particularly interested in travel, something that Coe relishes.
“I’m told that Mark went on one family trip to Europe in the 1970s, and we have one painting in the show from that trip,” Knapp said. “But Peg loves to travel, and she does it often, and then she creates series of paintings that incorporate what she saw and what she learned from it.”
Mark Clarke and Margaret Coe: Our Lives in Paint
When: Opens on Saturday, Oct. 21, with a 2 p.m. tour of the exhibit with artist Margaret “Peg” Coe and curator Danielle Knapp, followed by a reception; exhibit ends April 1, 2018
Where: Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, 1430 Johnson Lane, University of Oregon campus
Museum hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday
Information: 541-346-3027 or jsma.uoregon.edu
Related shows: Through Oct. 28 at Karin Clarke Gallery at 760 Willamette St. in downtown Eugene: “Paintings from the Estate,” a show of Mark Clarke’s work; Nov. 1-25, “Margaret Coe: New Works”