It’s not often you get a gallery show that’s half exhibit, half shrine. But art has long been a way of honoring the dead, and if the deceased is also an artist — and a well-respected one — it makes perfect sense. In Kittredge Gallery at the University of Puget Sound, the walls hold a 45-year retrospective of Betty Sapp Ragan, longtime faculty member and art activist who died this July at age 78.
In the center of the exhibit is a minimalist recreation of her studio, a tribute to a Tacoma artist who was loved by students and fellow artists alike.
“She was the kindest, sweetest lady, with a beautiful Southern lilt to her voice,” said Becky Frehse, art instructor at UPS, who knew Ragan well for more than 10 years. Frehse co-curated “A Life in Art: Betty Sapp Ragan Retrospective, 1969-2014” along with UPS associate professor Janet Marcavage and the artist’s son Mac Ragan. “As an artist, she was a perfectionist, very picky, and she expected the same of her students. But after she passed I got so many emails saying that she was so nice, so generous with her time.”
And so the entire area of Kittredge, usually split into two separate shows, is devoted to Ragan’s career. Born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1937, Ragan studied art there and in New York before getting her master’s of fine arts in photography and printmaking at Pratt Institute. Four years later she joined the art department at UPS, staying until 2014 while developing the university’s printmaking and photography programs. She also exhibited widely nationally and internationally, evolving through watercolor and oils into collage techniques, and ending with her “Geometry Rising” series of large acrylics with photograph inserts. A lifelong feminist and activist on women’s and gay rights issues, Ragan was a member of New York’s Guerilla Girls group, using art to promote equal rights.
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All this is evident in the Kittredge retrospective, though in a muted way. There’s very little wall text information, allowing the art to speak for itself — but the thing that speaks loudest is the studio set-up between the room’s four central pillars. In a square are workbenches with paints, brushes and pencils; latex gloves are strewn casually and a red plaid painting shirt is hung on a hook above a Frida Kahlo shopping bag, as if Ragan had just stepped out and would shortly return. A battered, splattered step stool sits with its back to the door, putting the viewer directly into this memory of Ragan’s work space. With a musty, disused-room smell, the set-up is a little uncomfortable, yet speaks clearly of the woman behind the art, whose face smiles warmly from photos and exhibit postcards tacked onto the pillars.
And that studio, in a sense, helps the art speak to those who might not have known Ragan personally. The most visible works are those for which Ragan was best known in recent years: her photo collages, blending historic architecture, history and a unique vision of living color. Over a sharp-edged photograph of architectural details — columns, friezes, finials — Ragan hand-colors in pencil to bring the pale tan-gray stone to vivid life. In “Uptown Broadway Angel,” a tranquil face with blue eyes and surfer-blond locks peers down from a crest that’s draped in watermelon-and-gold fabric and wreathed in pastel fruit cornucopias. From tall alcoves in the Waldorf-Astoria, graceful “ladies” pose in neo-classical drapes of peach and aqua, delicately matching the palette of green leaves over their heads. It’s not just the intensity of overlaying color that’s so startling — like the ancient Greek and Indian temples used to be before time bleached them white — but the human faces that appear in the ovals and squares, half-mythical, half-real. Some are timeless, others are very modern, like the woman staring pensively out from squares above Corinthian columns as if imprisoned, or a contemporary “Madonna” holding a pudgy baby. In Ragan’s “Button-Down” series, it’s stuffy headless shirts that occupy the gaps in the architecture, like forgotten ghosts. All have a sense of jarring mythologies, of time warping our sense of past and present with layers of color in fantastical hues.
The same sense of color and architecture emerges in Kittredge’s small room with Ragan’s more recent work, such as the “Geometry Rising” series. On immaculately rendered acrylics of landscapes (forests, coastlines, ice floes) Ragan superimposes smallish photographs of human buildings that would inhabit the same wild space: an igloo, a mansion, a Renaissance town hall. It’s a more understated comment than the living beings inhabiting her architecture photographs, but the point is clear that the intersection between human and natural environments is not harmonious, though it’s beautiful.
Rounding out the collages in the main room are lesser-seen works that show Ragan’s mastery of various techniques: intaglio, screenprints and photo etchings that delve into shape symbolism and gender identity; even a drip painting experimenting with layers of intensity and brush texture in a spectrum of red.
Finally, just by the door as you exit, there’s one more portrait — this one of Betty Sapp Ragan herself. Her black-and-white photograph, with casual forehead bangs and alert eyes, is swathed in Elizabethan coils of marble ornamentation and, like that famous monarch, she’s grinning slightly at us out of the frame as if delighted to have the last word.
IF YOU GO
What: “A Life in Art: Betty Sapp Ragan Retrospective, 1969-2014.”
Where: Kittredge Gallery, University of Puget Sound, 1500 N. Warner St., Tacoma.
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday, noon-5 p.m. Saturdays through Sept. 19; closing reception 5-7 p.m. Sept. 17 with remarks by curators and Mac Ragan.
Information: 253-879-3701, pugetsound.edu/kittredge.