The renowned, Eugene-based artist Keith Achepohl said that his works currently on display in the University of Oregon’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art are “all about the life and death of plants.” The exhibit, “Vision of Nature/Vessel of Beauty,” will remain in the JSMA Barker Gallery until April 29. However, on Feb. 24, the local community learned that Achepohl passed away in his Eugene home while surrounded by family, according to his obituary in the Register-Guard.
“The works in the exhibition represent six years of an artist’s life — in this case, an artist who is nearing the completion of his own life,” Jill Hartz, who co-curated the exhibit, told the Register-Guard in February.
The JSMA exhibit includes nine distinct but related explorations of objects from nature. One exploration is called “Tree Conversations;” another is “Skunk Cabbage.” Each exploration is grouped separately in the gallery and consists of multiple artworks. Achepohl used an impressively wide variety of media including pencil, acrylic, collage and oil to create the pieces.
A three-week residency at the Morris Graves Foundation’s 150-acre forested artists’ retreat on the Northern California coast called “The Lake” inspired Achepohl to create these pieces. Graves was a colleague of Achepohl and an esteemed artist from the Pacific Northwest who died in 2001. According to the Foundation, upon Graves’ death, “The Lake” became a place to incubate artists interested in utilizing the abundance of nature available in the area. In the past, Achepohl had described his residence at “The Lake” by saying it was like “going to a monastery.”
Through its depictions of the smallest natural objects and minute details, the works implore viewers to look at nature in a way they never have before. Many of the paintings show a single decaying leaf, while others show the minuscule fibers of a lively, grassy plant’s root system. The pieces range from intensely detailed to indiscernible and abstract. Achepohl acknowledges life and death equally in these pieces as he uses vibrant earth colors coupled with the muddled blacks and greys of charcoal.
“The closer you get to it, the better experience you’ll have with it,” Achepohl said about the intimacy viewers feel with the natural objects in his paintings during a February interview with UO’s Oregon Humanities Center.
During the OHC interview, Achepohl said he encountered many people while living in Eugene for the past ten years who told him, “I just came back from a walk in the forest.” When he asked them what they saw, Achepohl found that most people were puzzled by the question and simply say that they saw trees.
“Often they don’t know what they saw, ‘cause they didn’t bother to look. Oh, what a waste, you know?” Achepohl said.
During the decade Achepohl lived in Eugene, his ability to meditate on the often forgotten details of life and translate them into his work made an impression on the directors of the JSMA. He served on the JSMA’s Leadership Council and Collections Committee, gifted and loaned numerous works of art from his own collections and participated in many UO classes and museum events.
“It was a joy to see so many of Keith’s friends and family experience his work alongside our community of museum visitors,” read the JSMA’s post on their website following Achepohl’s death.
“Vision of Nature/Vessel of Beauty” is on display through April 29. The JSMA is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Wednesdays and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Entry is $5, $3 for people 62 and up and free for members, UO students and faculty.