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Art Prof Curates Exhibition of 'Modernist with a Message'

When Art History Professor Roger Hull and his wife, Bonnie, bought their house, the appraiser told them it was from the 1940s. Turns out he was off by 100 years. The Hulls took off the aluminum siding, stripped the paneling, did some scouting around, and discovered the house was actually built by Willamette University leader Alvan Waller in the 1840s, during the school's first decade.

The house is a good fit for a man who spends his days reconstructing the past. When Hull arrived at Willamette in 1970, he taught the entire sweep of world art history, from cave paintings to contemporary work. He now has the freedom to concentrate much of his energy on Pacific Northwest artists and this winter, in particular, on Portland painter Harry Widman.

Hull is curating "Harry Widman: Image, Myth and Modernism," an exhibition at the University's Hallie Ford Museum of Art. The show runs Jan. 31 to March 29.

Widman's wild colors and search for abstract forms that convey meaning have given him a strong following, but the Northwest artist is more than a colorful abstract painter. "He's a modernist with a message," Hull says. "His art has taken on a strong tone of social commentary in recent years and is now outspoken about U.S. policy, the Iraq war and social injustice." A recent show was titled "Greed, War and Deception."

Hull, who is writing a book to accompany the exhibition, says mid-century modernism has not typically been about politics. "It's about paint, brush stroke, the self, the use of paint to express inner feelings. It's about art-making, not global issues. Widman takes traditional painting and works it to his own purposes.

"There is a strong literary bent in Widman's painting," Hull says. "He is a voracious reader of philosophy, novels and poetry, and uses oil and watercolor to explore the interplay between the physical strength of the athlete and the intellectual delicacy of the poet or philosopher."

Hull has curated five exhibitions of major Oregon painters: Carl Hall, a Willamette art professor (2002); Jan Zach (2003); Charles Heaney (2005); George Johanson (2007) and Widman.

"Oregon art, from the 1920s on, is more modernist and cutting edge than other regions and states," Hull says. "It transcends the typical 'regional' art. Artists here combined traditional subjects -- abandoned mining towns, logging operations, the natural beauty of the Willamette Valley and the Oregon coast -- with modern technique."

Hull's exhibitions, which have helped give the museum regional recognition for its attention to Northwest artists, are not his only legacy. The museum itself may not have been born without his vision.

In 1990 collector and sculptor Mark Sponenburgh approached Hull, wanting to donate 250 art objects to Willamette. At the time, the University had no way to properly care for them, but made do with a small climate-controlled room on the top floor of the art building. Meanwhile, a valuable collection of Native American baskets languished in storage in the attic of Eaton Hall.

Hull began to proselytize for an art museum, approaching University trustees with a presentation and art from the collections, and by the mid-1990s the idea had captured people's imaginations.

When the nearby telephone company building came on the market, Hull toured the rooms with a keen eye, perhaps remembering the transformation of his own house. "The 1960s building was all used up," he says. Orange carpet, blue paneling, stray macramé hangings and "some of the world's oldest computers" huddled under a low ceiling.

After philanthropist Hallie Ford presented a $2 million gift, Hull and others began planning the new galleries. Maribeth Collins, Melvin Henderson-Rubio, David and Bruce Roberts and the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde also gave financial support. The museum opened in 1998 and celebrated its 10th anniversary in October.

The opening reception for the Harry Widman exhibition will be Jan. 30 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Hallie Ford Museum. For information visit www.willamette.edu/museum_of_art.