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New paintings by long-dead artist arrive at Grace Hudson Museum

A sepia-toned historical painting by Grace Hudson of an elderly female Pomo singer.
Grace Hudson's painting of ,Te-ha-ra the last tribal singer of the Yokayo Rancheria

February 8, 2022 — It’s hard to get new paintings by an artist who’s been dead for 85 years, but that’s what the Grace Hudson Museum in Ukiah did a few weeks ago. A new exhibit, “The Art of Collecting,” features sixteen paintings by the eponymous artist, donated by a museum on the other end of the state. Director David Burton talked about what happened when he picked up the phone last spring. “Back in May, 2021, I got a phone call from the director of the Palm Springs Art Museum,” he recalled. “And he said, we’ve just gone through a process of doing some strategic planning for our collections, and we think the Grace Hudson paintings we have here might have a better home with you guys in Ukiah. Do you want them?”

People who work in museums are always putting together pieces of the past, trying to figure out how to tell the old stories in a new light. Curator Alyssa Boge found that the recent additions bring another perspective to familiar subjects. One of her favorite parts of the exhibit is a series of portraits of John Scott, a Pomo spiritual leader who appears often in Hudson’s work. She painted him in full-color oils as well as bitumen, the liquid tar found in asphalt and thinned with turpentine. “So you can see three different paintings of him, right in a row, which I just kind of love,” she enthused.

In the full-color rendering, John Scott is wearing traditional regalia, like the Wy-Li, a woman’s portrait the museum acquired at an auction. It’s regarded as one of Hudon’s finest. “She is wearing a turkey-feather topknot,” Boge explained. “Grace painted a few women wearing a turkey-feather topknot, but this is the first one to enter our collection, which makes it really exciting — and what also makes it exciting is that we have the turkey-feather topknot that Grace painted, most likely…Grace probably would have commissioned someone in the Pomo community to make it for her so she could use it for her paintings.”

An oil painting of a Pomo woman wearing a turkey-feather topknot.
The Wy-Li, an oil painting by Grace Hudson of a Pomo woman wearing a commissioned turkey-feather topknot

Burton explained why the museum is careful not to display objects that are actually used in ceremonies, saying, “Certain dances are more for the tribe and not for outsiders, and often regalia that’s worn in those ceremonial dances really shouldn’t be displayed as part of museums or used for a model when a painting is done, which is probably why Grace had this particular one that we see in this painting commissioned.”

Museums used to preserve artifacts by dousing them with mercury and arsenic, which made them unsafe to handle. The baskets in this collection were put in a freezer to destroy any pests that may have been inhabiting the fibers or the feathers that adorn them.

Some of the pieces are a combination of recent vintage paired with older items, like a tule basket that looks a little like a miniature canoe, stocked with round clay projectiles. In 2010, former Museum Director Sherrie Smith-Ferri commissioned the artist Bev Ortiz to make the basket, while the balls are authentic hunting weapons collected by Grace’s husband John Hudson. “This is a basket that men would use for duck hunting,” Boge explained. “They would use a sling made out of dogbane cordage and tule, and they would sling the balls at the unsuspecting waterfowl. And so this is a hybrid piece of those clay balls that we already had in our collection, versus something we commissioned for an exhibit. So it’s kind of a unique piece in that regard.”

The exhibit, being about the art of collecting, ranges widely through the literary and artistic accomplishments of all kinds of people associated with Grace Hudson, be they Pomo basket-weavers, singers, or her own relatives. Since Valentine’s Day is this month, the exhibit also includes a love letter to Hudson’s grandmother Clarina Nichols from her second husband, the newspaper editor George Nichols.

Newspapers, writing, photography and social activism had all been in the family for generations by the time Grace Hudson had established her professional reputation. So, it seems, were women with careers. Boge picked up on the story after the correspondence, when George fell sick and Clarina took over his editorial duties at the newspaper. “It was of course quite rare for women to do that,” she noted. “And it also really made her, I think, feel more confident to speak out about the issues that she cared about. And she was really well recognized as a women’s rights activist.”

The exhibit, with its new and old works of art, will be open through April 10. “As we were talking about our Pomo collections, it is important for us to make them accessible to Pomo people,” Boge added. “So if anyone is interested, they can send me an email, call the museum, leave a note at the front desk, and we’d be happy to set up a time for people to get back in the collection and see some of the materials that we have.”

Local News
Sarah Reith is the lead reporter for KZYX News. She joined the KZYX News team in 2017, and covers local politics, water, law enforcement and the arts in Mendocino County.