Every five years, the New Zone Art Gallery throws Ellen Gabehart a birthday party. At the last one, friends and art students gathered in the gallery to celebrate Gabehart’s 85th. “When she turns 90 we’ll have another party for her and one at 95 and one at 100, at 105, she’s going strong,” said Steve LaRiccia, New Zone’s treasurer and gallery coordinator. Gabehart is a member artist at New Zone, but the birthday treatment comes from her unique role in Eugene and Springfield’s art scenes.
Since moving to Eugene around fifty years ago, Gabehart has taught art at high schools, community colleges and art galleries, participated in Eugene and Springfield’s ArtWalks, co-authored a book of art lessons and displayed her work in local venues like New Zone and the Washburne Cafe. “Art is my LIFE!” she wrote in an email to the Daily Emerald.
Gabehart describes her work as expressionist — similar to realism, but not photographic, and with more emphasis on feeling. Many capture the emotions created by music and nature. “Especially my musician paintings integrate the design of the music,” she said. “My paintings of nature tend to focus on the beauty of the moods in nature.”
Her latest show at New Zone, a collection of paintings titled “Inspirations: Nature and Music,” opens Sept. 4 with a reception at 5:30 p.m. The event will include music, wine and beer and is part of the First Friday ArtWeek 一 a version of Eugene’s traditional First Friday ArtWalk, extended to prevent crowds.
“Inspirations: Nature and Music” captures two of Gabehart’s favorite artistic subjects since childhood. Growing up in New York City, where she lived in the Bronx, she drew the nature available to her: her mother’s plants, and the trees and stones in the park. After getting into a selective arts high school, she started sketching the musicians playing in school assemblies, intent on capturing the precise forms of the instruments and the feeling of the music. A year later, her parents transferred her to a different high school to study secretarial work. Gabehart failed all her shorthand courses and continued drawing, eventually turning the pastime into her career. “This strong desire never left my being,” she said. “I still continue to draw and paint the beauty of nature and music.”
Her latest collection features natural places Gabehart has visited in Oregon and local musicians at venues like the Jazz Station and WOW Hall, where she draws the musicians she sees playing. “I have sketches of all the musicians in this town practically,” Gabehart said.
Despite challenges posed by Covid-19, New Zone continues to give artists like Gabehart a platform for their work. The gallery reopened June 5, the first day of Phase Two reopening in Oregon, after having been closed for two and a half months. It requires masks and provides hand sanitizer. The 6,000-square-foot space makes physical distancing manageable, LaRiccia said.
Unlike other galleries in Eugene who are showing their art online (such as the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art) or by appointment (such as White Lotus Gallery), New Zone is open Tuesdays through Sundays from 12 to 6 p.m., making Gabehart’s collection accessible to those who want to avoid crowds. “I knew many people that were uncomfortable coming out during an opening would come out during our regular hours, and we’re the only gallery that’s pretty much open in that way,” LaRiccia said. The gallery tracks visitors and generally has no more than five at a time.
For October, New Zone will take down “Inspirations: Nature and Music” and fill the gallery with “Zone 4 All,” an open art show that was delayed in March due to Covid-19. Interested artists can deliver 2D or 3D pieces to New Zone on Sept. 26 between 12 p.m. and 6 p.m. The exhibit will open on Oct. 2 with the month’s First Friday ArtWeek. In November and December, the gallery will pick up with its regular two-month shows featuring member artists such as Gabehart.
LaRiccia is intent on “trying to have the best possible time in the times that we’re in,” as he runs an art gallery during a pandemic. “The arts, they’ve been through economic downturns and pandemics and wars, and they’ve always come back,” he said.