Before her time 

ZACC exhibit illumes the bold art of CP Fels

Catharine Phillips Fels started drawing cars after she found an abandoned Model-T so eaten by the natural landscape that a rose had bloomed in the middle of it. While living in Long Beach, Calif., inspired by a junkyard, she created the "Gay Cadavers" series of prints and paintings showing colorful cars stacked in piles like joyous mounds of wreckage.

The printmaking artist, who went by CP Fels, was born in 1912 and died in 1991. Now her daughter, Margery Fels Palmer, who lives in Missoula, is providing pieces for a retrospective on Fels's work called Nothing Stuffy about this Master at the Zootown Arts Community Center, opening this week.

The exhibit is an homage to a woman who was before her time in many ways, and rebellious. At the age of 16, Fels moved to Berkeley, where she attended art school and joined a circle of academics and artists who lived on the edge of convention. She signed her work CP Fels to elude the sexism she perceived in the art world of the 1940s.

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Her body of work captures California landscapes, from Victorian homes of Bunker Hill, Los Angeles to the shore rocks and stunted trees of the coast. Her woodcuts of birds and landscapes reveal an obsession with texture, while her paintings and collages show how enraptured she must have been by light and color. Her 1979 painting of Alay Han Aksaray Road in Turkey is gloriously bathed in golden light.

Palmer, her daughter, recalls being five and singing folks songs in her parents' home during the first folk revival in the early 1940s. While her mother taught art, art history and elementary art education at Los Angeles State, Palmer's father, Leonard, was a philosopher and professor at Long Beach State. They hung out with rebels of the time, including Malvina Reynolds, who wrote the political satire "Little Boxes." They were strong supporters of civil rights.

"My folks were bohemians," says Palmer. "I grew up knowing blacks as equal."

One of Fels's paintings that strays a little from her landscape works is a 1965 piece called "Philadelphia, Mississippi," which shows the bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, three civil rights workers who were executed there in 1964 in what was deemed a conspiracy between the Ku Klux Klan and county law enforcement. The three young men—a black man from Mississippi and two white New Yorkers—had been registering black voters. The painting shows four shadowy pictures against a periwinkle sky hovering over men splayed in a brown field.

"The series is not typical of my mother's work but she and my father had a very broad range of interests and commitments," says Palmer.

Palmer only saw this painting after her mother's death. She didn't know why her mother painted it, but she knew the story behind the murders: As it turns out, Palmer and her husband knew one of the white men and the brother of the other, who'd been a classmate of the Palmers at Antioch College.

Some of Fels's sold works have been difficult to trace. The 80-piece exhibit, however, provides a sense of Fels's eye and passion for subject matter that spans from the Mississippi slayings to the lively, colorful boulevards around 1940s Los Angeles.

The CP Fels retrospective, Nothing Stuffy About this Master, opens Friday, Dec. 9, at the ZACC, 235 N. 1st St. W. with a reception from 5:30 to 8:30 PM, which features hors d'oeuvres, wine and a printmaking demo. Free. The show continues through Jan. 9, 2012.

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