The daughter of Oregon pioneers, Maude I. Kerns blazed her own trail as an abstract artist and educator.
It stands 20 inches high and 16 inches wide, an untitled oil on cardboard painting of overlapping abstract forms awash in tones of magenta, gold, sage, and dusty blue—colors inspired by the rugged, lush, and coastal landscapes of Oregon.
Located in the aptly named Pioneer Place in Portland, the unsigned painting is the work of the late avant-garde American artist Maude I. Kerns (1876 – 1965), a singular woman whose independent spirit defined her as much as her unorthodox approach to art.
“As the only woman in the Pacific Northwest to be active in the non-objective art movement, we feel very privileged to display her piece here,” said Jessica Curtis, general manager at Pioneer Place. “From the Rick Bartow Sculpture ready to greet guests at SW: Fifth and Taylor, to the William Stafford poetry that flows through the concourse level of the center, the newly acquired Maude Kerns is a welcomed addition to the family of notable artists that can be found at Pioneer Place.”
Raised by parents who migrated to Oregon in 1852—a year marked by illness and death among the estimated 10,000 pioneers who made their way across the Oregon trail—in many ways Kerns followed in their footsteps. “She was fearless,” said Michael Fisher, executive director of the Maude Kerns Art Center in Eugene, Oregon. “Here at the Art Center, we’re primarily a school, and I always like to tell people that Maude was doing some of her best work when she was in her 60s. She was never afraid to try new things, new mediums, and new techniques.”
After moving to New York City in 1904 to attend Columbia University, where she earned a Bachelor of Science in art education, Kerns established herself in the abstract art scene, exhibiting her modernist landscapes at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, now known as the Guggenheim Museum.
It was Kerns’ interest in spirituality that first drew her into the non-objective art movement, which focuses on a harmonious arrangement of geometric shapes. “Non-objective art allowed Maude to express her higher ideals by putting the spiritual above the material,” Fisher said. “She often left her work untitled, so people could bring their own experiences to that work and see things that mean something to them.”
The only woman in the Pacific Northwest to become an internationally recognized artist in the non-objective art movement, Kerns was also a visionary educator, serving as the first head of the Art Education Department at the University of Oregon. Well-traveled and never married, Kerns was said to have advised her female students to be “more than baby-making machines” if they wanted to have a career in art.
“She may not have self-identified as a feminist, that but that was certainly part of her legacy,” Fisher said. “She persevered in a male-dominated profession, even when she received less enthusiasm than her male peers.”
Yet Kern’s career was ultimately held back by parental care obligations, keeping her in Oregon instead of New York City, where her work was better received. And even though she taught at the University of Oregon for more than 25 years, she never attained the rank of full professor.
But her artistic legacy lives on in the permanent collections at the Guggenheim Museum, the Seattle Art Museum, The Portland Art Museum, and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, as well as in numerous private- and corporate-owned collections, including Brookfield Properties. More than 75 pieces of Kern’s artwork—including watercolors, prints, brush paintings, and oil canvases—are on display at the Maude Kerns Art Center, which recently celebrated its 72nd anniversary.
As Fisher gears up for an exhibition that will run in conjunction with the upcoming World Track & Field Championships in Eugene—a celebration of human potential and achievement—he’s reminded of Kern’s pioneering spirit.
“There’s a Teddy Roosevelt quote Maude would often repeat to her students—‘to be afraid of what is different or unfamiliar is to be afraid of life,’” Fisher said. “I think that’s the perfect example of the way she lived her life and how she approached her work. She was a pioneer who was always pushing boundaries and embracing change.”