Art Out of the Blue
Sometimes mysterious things happen, especially when you have the pleasure of being an academic curator at an institution as unique as Reed.
I had one such surprising and delightful experience last year, when out of the blue I received a call from Andrea Campbell ‘60, who left me a message about the artwork of her aunt, Marjorie McDonald ’19 (1898-1995). Andrea, her parents, Malcolm A. Campbell ’28 and Inez Heyman Campbell ’31 (both now deceased), and Andrea’s daughter, Jane Leu Arnell ’87, all attended Reed. Andrea’s initial message described a large body of work by an “untrained” artist. She asked if I could help her evaluate Marjorie’s work and give her some guidance on organizing it, now that Marjorie was deceased. We arranged to meet in my office on campus, and Andrea offered to bring some examples of Marjorie’s collages. I was completely unprepared for what I saw, and for the amazing story of Marjorie McDonald’s life.
Marjorie McDonald was born Marjorie Campbell in 1898, in Akron, Indiana, and for the last 20 years of her life, she was a prolific artist. Marjorie’s favorite medium was collage, and she created a large body of intricate works (more than 300 pieces remain) composed of a variety of papers which she would cut and tear, washing the surfaces with thinned-down paint or glue, sometimes adding pastel and colored pencil. Marjorie began making art primarily to stave off pain; she suffered from terrible migraines that lasted for days. But she also needed the engagement. Before her retirement, Marjorie had led a truly amazing life—as an educator, outdoorswoman, and adventurer.
Marjorie’s parents moved west in 1912 to provide better educational opportunities for their six children. Marjorie was at Reed for three years, from 1915 to 1917, majoring in English, Latin, and history, then transferred to the University of Oregon, where she graduated in 1919 with a B.A. in English. The year Marjorie graduated, she was the women’s singles interscholastic tennis champion.
In 1925, she married John McDonald, and they spent their free time fishing throughout the Northwest (Marjorie gained a reputation as one of the finest steelhead fishermen in the region). Professionally, Marjorie was an educator, teaching typing and shorthand at Washington High School in Portland for 40 years. She also traveled alone behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War in the 1950s, blazing trails for the study of Russian language and culture. In an interview with Edna Kovacs (Calyx, Winter 1991), Marjorie described her life: “After school I’d teach English to Russian immigrants. I became so fascinated with the Russian language that I received permission to travel and study for three consecutive summers in Russia, and began what was to be the first Russian language course offered to high school students in the United States.” She also took a selection of classes at Reed during the 1940s and ‘50s, including German, education, and international relations.
Studying Marjorie’s work, one can see her love of Russian art; some of her compositions reflect the geometric linearity of Russian religious iconography, others suggest the prismatic qualities of Marc Chagall’s paintings. But true to character, Marjorie found inspiration in a myriad of artists, stating a love of Monet and J.M.W. Turner. Marjorie’s artistic subjects range from still life compositions to strong political statements, quirky portraits, and strange fantastical worlds. Marjorie looked to her art as a vehicle of exploration and expression, and worked consistently until her death. In the 1980s, Marjorie’s work was recognized by Northwest dealer William Jamison (co-founder with Jeffrey Thomas ’78 of the Jamison/Thomas Gallery in Portland).
Thanks to the generosity of Andrea Campbell, a selection of Marjorie McDonald’s collage works is entering the Reed College Art Collection. We have framed the pieces and installed them in the second floor of Eliot Hall for the coming year. Please visit them when you come to campus. These magical works are an important addition, not only to the permanent collection of the college, but also to the story of Northwest art.
—Stephanie Snyder ’91,