Juris Ubans Retrospective
The University of Southern Maine is hosting a retrospective exhibition of work by artist and educator Juris Ubans that opens tomorrow, January 20 and continues to February 15. Juris Ubans was my painting mentor during my undergraduate studies in art. I was one of Juris’s hundreds of students that he taught painting to as professor of art at the University of Southern Maine. The exhibit displays a forty year career in painting, teaching and collecting art.
Ubans was born in Riga, Latvia in 1938 to father Konrads, who was an artist, and mother Elina Ella, who was a textile weaver (she won the Paris Grand Prix for her wall hangings in 1926). At the age of six Juris, his two brothers, and mother fled Latvia near the end of World War II, two weeks before Riga fell to the Soviets. Juris’s father Konrads Ubans was ill with typhoid fever and could not leave Latvia. Ubans’s mother, siblings and he made their way to southern Germany and lived in a camp for immigrants after World War II finished and the Americans occupied Germany. Eventually, in 1950 Ubans, his siblings and mother made their way to America and came to reside in Syracuse, New York. He received an undergraduate degree in art at Syracuse University in 1968, and earned his MFA at Pennsylvania State University in 1968. Juris did not see his father again until 1973, during a visit to Latvia.
Juris decided to relocate to Maine in 1968 to pioneer a painting department at the University of Maine’s Gorham College campus. He was chairman of the art department from 1974 to 1979. He became Director of the USM Art Gallery on the Gorham campus, and helped develop the art department curriculum when the Gorham campus merged with the Portland campus to form the University of Southern Maine. He served as a consultant for the Latvian Council of Science and the Latvian Academy of Art. Ubans was also the chairman of the Board of Trustees of the American Folk Life Center at the Library of Congress, a member of the board of the Maine Commission on the Arts and Humanities, a commissioner for the National Association of Schools of Art and Design and a member of the National Conference of State Legislators. (Source here.) During the last few years Juris has created the Foundation Fiore Verde, a non-profit organization aimed at cultural and artistic exchange between the U.S. and Latvia. Juris also lovingly cataloged the paintings of his father Konrads Ubans, who passed away in 1981.
I came along as one of his students in the mid eighties, where I was taught painting and encouraged to open to new ideas and explore my own creativity. His tutelage consisted of an emphasis on their being no rules at all to what painting was. He emphasized that painting could be anything, but that a painter had to address the “integrity of the plane” (or to deal with the nature of painting on a two dimensional surface). He emphasized tools of design, of color, of repetition, and encouraged the adoption of techniques from prior art movements. He went to great lengths to not influence my work with his particular tastes or sensibilities. I don’t think I ever saw one of his works, as he kept them very absent from the campus studio. I graduated at a time when post-modernism was beginning to take shape. In my particular case, my study in painting primarily consisted of an emphasis on the craft of painting more so than painting as a conceptual enterprise. For me, painting has been a vehicle to document and illuminate my own life, which began in my studies under Juris.
Over the years Juris built a collection of art works from other artists, which will also be included in the retrospective exhibit. I remember some lovely prints by Juris’s friend and artist Italo Scanga hanging in the USM Art Gallery when I worked there as an assistant, which should be included. Through Scanga I believe Juris came into contact with a contemporary, Dale Chihuly. Juris has had a long, productive career in the arts, that didn’t seek critical attention or fame. I can recall him often exclaiming in a slightly exasperated tone, as the American culture of art entered the 1990’s, that artists are only interested in fame rather than the work and craft of painting. I suspect that if he saw this blog entry, he’d be somewhat uncomfortable with the publicity and focus on his work.
For the retrospective exhibit, the curator Dennis Gilbert asked many of Juris’s friends, former students and colleagues to write a short paragraph for the exhibition catalog about an incident, memory, anecdote, joke, etc. concerning me and Juris. I wrote:
“At my class graduation dinner given by the USM Art Department, I received a book entitled “A Giacometti Portrait” by James Lord. Within the book was a handwritten signature from Juris and the message: “Wes – you are destined to meet Dorian Cow – Juris.” Gary Trudeau, creator of the popular cartoon Doonesbury, had done an amusing drawing in the eighties of a cartoon cow looking into a mirror with the witty inscription below it: “Portrait of Dorian Cow”. This of course was a burlesque nod to Oscar Wilde’s “Picture of Dorian Gray”.
I regarded Juris’s written epigram in the book with considerable importance and thought to myself, “there must be some message for me here; one last lesson from my mentor before going out into the world.” I speculated about the meaning of his note to me for quite some time. Dorian Gray’s pursuit of beauty and hedonism in life resulted in the portrait of Gray materializing the ill effects of a life of debauchery and aging over the years. The painted portrait revealed a wretched disfigurement of Dorian, which he eventually could not bear to look upon. Trudeau’s Dorian Cow, in contrast to Wilde’s gothic horror story, laughs at the themes contained in the original story and mocks Wilde’s Victorian tragedy. I wondered, was my pursuit of beauty in painting going to lead me to a tragic disillusionment? Had I too made some Faustian deal that would one day be my downfall? Was this a prediction that one day I would truly learn to laugh despite injustice in life?
It’s been twenty years since my graduation and I’m here to report that I still don’t know what the heck that inscription in my Giacometti book means. Juris stays with you in that way.”
Juris resides in Portland, Maine with his wife of 43 years, Dr. Mara Ubans, professor of German classic languages. Although Juris retires from USM in August of this year, his art and work in his other cultural organizations will continue. The exhibit at USM is a beautiful illustration of what a life in the arts can be.