Provoking for art 

How curator Beth Sellars made a tenacious bid for The Jesus Corner

In 1992, an exhibit at the Cheney Cowles Museum in Spokane made front-page news when it became infested with flies. The show, by Montana artist Ted Waddell, included animal pelts that were, unbeknownst to everyone, carrying larvae that hatched in the warmth of the gallery. The media had a field day—the Associated Press headline read, "Bizarre Art Exhibit Draws Crowds of Flies," and the story made "Weird News" lists across the nation. All the hubbub overshadowed Waddell's work, an exhibition titled True Objects and Stories from Two Dot, and it ended up painting the rancher-artist as backwoods rather than what he is: a worldly professional artist with an arts education. (The sting hasn't lasted; Waddell's work continues to be in demand.)

But the fallout also affected curator Beth Sellars, who was trying to raise the profile of the Spokane museum at the time of the larvae incident. She told the Spokane Chronicle that the flies had been blown out of proportion, but lamented that "Spokane has always considered itself a podunk town ... what better way to [reinforce that attitude] than to say the major museum in the city of Spokane brings in horse---- and flies."

Two decades later, the story is a blip on the radar for Sellars, who has now put together hundreds of provocative, nationally renowned exhibits. Though she's been a curator since 1975, she made her mark the last 20 years exposing the Northwest to contemporary and avant garde art that doesn't often make it past the confines of big city museums. She has also worked with top Montana artists such as Rudy Autio and Dennis Voss. And she managed 3,000 works of art for the city of Seattle and, in the last 17 years, brought in big names from New York, San Francisco and everywhere in between to the Suyama Space, a nonprofit gallery she co-founded in Seattle with architect George Suyama.

Sellars, 75, is a woman with moxie, and it's her acquisition of one installation in particular that sticks out as a prime example of her distinct style. The Jesus Corner, a work by the late Edward Kienholz and his wife and collaborator, Nancy Reddin Kienholz, has been featured in top art museums around the country since 1982. It's a reconstruction of a Spokane storefront window filled with pictures, cards and symbols arranged in a Christian shrine. The original shop, owned by a man named Roland Thurman, was never open to the public, but passersby could peek in at the display. Ed, though he was an atheist, admired Thurman's dedication. When the building was condemned, Ed and Nancy salvaged the artifacts and recreated the shrine.

The Jesus Corner is one of five reconstruction installations created from Spokane buildings. The highly sought-after pieces had mostly found homes among cosmopolitan museums. But, in the early '80s, when Sellars was working for the Cheney Cowles, The Jesus Corner was still homeless. She felt that because they were created after Spokane landmarks, by a Washington-born artist, her museum deserved dibs on at least one of the works.

"It's one of the five tableaux pieces that were created from old apartment buildings in Spokane," Sellars says. "And for that reason alone it was something that needed to be included in the museum. When Ed and I first started talking about it I had said, 'We need you in the collection.'"

  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

Sellars says that Kienholz offered one of his jerry-can sculptures—a small piece from a series that looks like a television. But it wasn't enough for Sellars.

"Like it or not, we are your museum," she recalls telling him. "Our budget obviously doesn't allow for the acquisition of one of the major tableaus but I just want you to know we want one."

Sellars says she and Kienholz talked off and on for several years about art and sometimes about the installations. Sellars continued to press the issue. In 1993, she got a call from Kienholz's Los Angeles dealer.

"He said that he wasn't sure what was going on up there but that Ed had told him to call me and offer The Jesus Corner to me," she says. "It was for a price he said he didn't want me to tell people because it is so below what he normally would charge.

"And of course, in retrospect, he was getting ready to die," Sellars adds. "He was getting his life in order—his estate in order—and he knew we wanted a piece. He agreed, yes, like it or not we were his museum, and so that's how it came about."

Kienholz died in 1994 of a heart attack. The Jesus Corner eventually ended up in the permanent collection of the Northwest Museum of Art and Culture in Spokane, thanks to Sellars' persistence.

Looking at the Kienholz' assemblage works you can find all kinds of provocative themes. The installation Five Car Stud shows the castration of a young black man by a group of white men who have found him with a white woman. The installation Back Seat Dodge '38 reveals a couple having sex in the back of an automobile, and when it went on display in 1966, it was nearly banned by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors for being pornographic. The Jesus Corner is a comparably tame piece in theme, but it's arguably just as engaging for the fond manner in which it pays tribute to a man no one seemed to really know. (The Kineholzs and others had tried to track down Thurman, to no avail.)

It's been a long time since Sellars had to fight for any art exhibit. The Suyama Space doesn't do much with pre-existing exhibitions. The design of the gallery is so unconventional that it requires artists create art according to the space.

"The first few shows we did were artists bringing in preexisting work, but the building is so powerful and overbearing it was visually eating alive the exhibitions," Sellars says. "George [Suyama] and I determined we have to actually have the artists respond to the physical space and that's what we've done for the last 13 years." Past exhibitions have included visually provocative works including colorful inflated plastic and spring-steel rods that grow upward to the gallery ceiling, emulating grass.

As for The Jesus Corner, it's currently on display at the Missoula Art Museum. This week, as a tribute to Ed Kienholz, Sellars will read from an essay he wrote about the original Jesus corner and the impact it had on him.

"The essay is a really pure expression of respect for what other people think and what he thinks and how that works together," Sellars says. "It's a beautiful thing."

Beth Sellars gives the story behind The Jesus Corner at MAM Wed., Nov. 6, at 7 PM. Free.

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