Oregon State’s Artistic Visionary

When Nazi tanks stormed into Czechoslovakia in March, 1939, Gordon Gilkey wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, telling him if the U.S. “got involved in the war in Europe, that there should be knowledgeable people along with the troops to tell them what not to blow up.”

Gilkey was referring to Europe’s fine art and architecture. In 1939, he was a young man living in New York City. His life revolved around art, which it had since his childhood on a ranch in Scio, Oregon. He had
a growing reputation as a printmaker, a passion for culture and vitriol for the Nazis.

Gordon Gilkey

Gordon Gilkey at Oregon State. Photo courtesy of Oregon State University Special Collections and Archives.

Roosevelt loved Gilkey’s idea.

Those “knowledgeable people” became known as the “Monuments Men” and were tasked with preserving and protecting historical monuments and Europe’s other cultural treasures. Gilkey was never one of them; he would later play a critical postwar role in confiscating Nazi art. But the idea alone illustrates his passion for art and culture.

Gilkey made art throughout his life, much of which depicted an Oregon landscape in vibrant, ecstatic colors. He created friendships during his years in Europe, New York and beyond that helped him amass a print collection more than 20,000 pieces strong. He went on to helm Oregon State University’s nascent College of Liberal Arts, advocate for the arts indefatigably and set a foundation for excellence that CLA is still building upon today.

The son of a rancher, Gilkey was born in 1910 on the same patch of land in the foothills of the Cascades as his father and grandfather. He was a bright kid who liked to draw more than just about anything else.

“I used to draw all the time as a way of expressing myself. Because, as you can see, I am illiterate in the English language,” he joked in an oral history recorded in 1980.

By the end of the war, he was finally charged to head up a special mission, the German War Project, to collect and sequester German war art and Nazi propaganda.

Drawing created the opportunity for higher education for Gilkey. He traded hours as a drawing and watercoloring teacher at Albany College (now Lewis & Clark) in exchange for a tuition waiver. Gilkey was the college’s first art teacher.

He paid his way through the rest of his college years in a way that would make Oregon’s nostalgic hipsters weak in the knees: working as a muleskinner leading teams of horses in front of a thrashing operation,  clearing land for a dollar a day, and as a fire watchman for the Forest Service.

“I looked for forest fires all day long and slept at night and studied, too, and drew pictures,” he said. “It was a very good place for a college student to contemplate, study, draw. I would see another person about every month.”

Gilkey painting

Ranches, Coast Rande in Oregon, 1984 by Gordon Gilkey. Monoprint, aquatint touched with watercolor. Image courtesy of the Portland Art Museum.

Gilkey continued his education in the MFA program at the University of Oregon in 1936 and became the first person there to graduate with an emphasis on printmaking.

He took his final thesis — a collection of fifteen original etchings documenting the construction of the new library on the Eugene campus — to New York City in the fall of 1936. Seeing an opportunity in the upcoming New York World’s Fair, Gilkey presented his drawings to the fair organizers and offered to create a similar fine art record of the architecture and construction of the site.

With funding from renowned publisher Charles Scribner, Gilkey worked eagerly on the drawings until the fair’s opening in 1939. Today his prints of the World’s Fair architecture can be found in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, and the National Collection of Fine Arts.

While opportunities like this were a big draw for Gilkey, there was a more important reason why he decided to head east. His sweetheart Vivian was an accomplished concert violinist studying at the Julliard School of Music and Columbia University.

Armed with artistic dreams and anchored by their shared childhood experiences in Oregon, the two ended up together in the big city and were married soon after.

The attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 meant big changes for most Americans, including the Gilkeys. Gilkey volunteered for the Army Air Corps and served as an instruction supervisor at the advanced navigation schoolat Ellington Field near Houston, Texas until 1944.

“All the while I was trying to get into fine arts and monuments work in Europe.”

By the end of the war, he was finally charged to head up a special mission, the German War Project, to collect and sequester German war art and Nazi propaganda.

Gilkey, army

Gordon Gilkey, center, was the sole member of the Propaganda Confiscation Unit. His mission was to locate and sequester Nazi art. Photo courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, Oregon State University.

Pamela Morris, a Portland art curator who worked with Gilkey from 1985 until his death in 2000, says that while he wasn’t one of the Monuments Men, his role was no less impressive.

As the sole member of the Propaganda Confiscation Unit, Gilkey recovered more than 8,000 pieces of art after the war. Much of it was Nazi propaganda and considered so politically poisonous that it remains in U.S. custody today. Among these works are four watercolors of architectural sketches painted by Adolph Hitler himself.

To do his work, Gilkey relied in part on testimonies from former Reich artist Hauptmann Luipold Adam, who hid scores of propaganda after the war. He also pored over arrivals and departures from the Berlin Metro station. He tracked Nazi officials who were escaping German cities after VE-Day and watched as they departed from Berlin or Frankfurt.

Gilkey followed them to their repositories of propaganda art, at least one of which was sequestered far to the east, at the border between Bavaria and Czechoslovakia. He tracked art to abandoned salt mines,basements and homes. He interrogated collectors until they gave up the locations of their stashes.

“I worked with that until August, 1947. I helped put Europe back together, you might say. Single-handedly,” he joked.

In the years following his mission, Gilkey campaigned for art supplies to be sent to non-Nazi German artists. He wrote in a 1948 letter to Alfred Frankfurter, editor of the prestigious New York publication The Art News:

Gilkey print orange

Inanimate Phantasy, 1989 by Gordon Gilkey. Color aquatint on paper. Image courtesy of the Portland Art Museum.

“There are competent persecuted artists who have used their last bed sheets for canvas to say what they have to say. If your supplies reach them, we shall have done better for them than the Nazi regime who took everything away from them.”

As Gilkey concluded his mission in the Propaganda Confiscation Unit in 1947, he and Vivian returned to Oregon, where he took up a different kind of discovery and recovery project: heading up Oregon State’s fine art program.

“They always seemed to know that their home was in Oregon. He really loved this part of the country,” Morris says. “He never had an interest to live anywhere else.”

While today Oregon State prides itself on the diversity of academic programs available to undergraduate and graduate students, it was a different story 60 years ago. When Gilkey accepted the position as chairman of the art department, academic programs at OSU were overwhelmingly agricultural and technical. There were limited liberal arts classes offered on campus — and no majors in any of the core areas of the liberal arts.

Gilkey taught many of his classes in improvised art studios upon his arrival, like a former laundry room in Kidder Hall.

The dearth of liberal arts classes on campus wasn’t for lack of interest. With veterans returning to school in record numbers thanks to the GI Bill, the few classes available were packed.

“Everyone wanted to take art. We didn’t have enough teachers,” said Gilkey.

While adding classes was easy, the greater struggle was fighting for official recognition of liberal arts majors on campus. “Those first years he was there, the humanities were more like a community college,” says Bill Wilkins, former College of Liberal Arts dean.

Gilkey drypoint

August Hood, 1970 by Gordon Gilkey. Drypoint on paper. Image courtesy of the Portland Art Museum.

It wasn’t until 1961, when the School of Humanities and Social Sciences was established, that Oregon State was finally able to offer baccalaureate majors. Gilkey took over as dean of the school in 1964 and immediately worked to build new majors for OSU students, starting with English.

“The students, working with the faculty, helped to develop the programs,” said Gilkey. “A great number of them said ‘we’re committed to Oregon State. Our parents went to Oregon State. Our grandparents went to Oregon State. We’re here, and now we can’t major in what we want.’”

Gilkey added departments one by one over the next decade: English, Art, Economics, History, Political Science, Speech Communications, Russian Studies, French, German, Music, Sociology, Anthropology, Philosophy, Spanish and Psychology.

He also advocated for graduate education in the liberal arts and created study abroad programs in Germany, Japan, France and Mexico. He curated a rotating print collection on the second floor of the Social Sciences Building, which is now Gilkey Hall. He passionately — albeit unsuccessfully — pushed for the creation of a “Great Hall” that would house all the arts at Oregon State.

“Gordon had wanted more visibility for the arts,” Wilkins says, and was disappointed that the LaSells Stewart Center was built in 1981 without a heavy emphasis on arts education.

Now, though, Gilkey’s vision is finally being realized. Last spring, CLA received a $25 million gift to revamp the LaSells Stewart Center into a complex that will emphasize art and its intersection with science, humanities and technology.

“This facility will transform the way our students and community learn, perform, innovate and communicate,” says CLA Dean Larry Rodgers.

His biggest legacy is the passion and enthusiasm he brought for prints to the Northwest.

A strong foundation for the arts wasn’t Gilkey’s only legacy. Over the years, the personal collection of prints Gilkey started as a young man grew into an extensive and rich grouping of more than 22,000 works from artists all over the world.

“He liked everything from the old masters to the contemporary, from well-established artists to people no one had ever heard of. He just responded with so much enthusiasm for works of art on paper,” says Mary Chapin, curator of graphic arts at the Portland Art Museum.

After his retirement from Oregon State, Gilkey bequeathed his collection to the Portland Art Museum in 1978, establishing the Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Center for Graphic Arts.

As the only large-museum print-study room in a five-state area, the Gilkey Center continues to be an important resource for the public today.

“Most people think of Gordon’s legacy as the print collection itself, but in some ways, I think his biggest legacy is the passion and enthusiasm he brought for prints to the Northwest,” says Chapin.

“A big part of Gordon’s vision was making his collection accessible to the public: printmaking classes, instructors, anyone; he wanted those people to have full access,” says Morris.

She remembers Gilkey, well into his 80s, walking through the room with a big smile on his face, “all because people were in there, looking at prints, using the library, asking questions. Seeing that was really the fulfillment of a life’s goal to him,” she says. “When I first started working for him, that was his biggest advice to me — be open and learn from everything you see.”

-Story by Joe Donovan and Rebecca Olson

One response to “Oregon State’s Artistic Visionary”

  1. Brian Baker says:

    I remember going to the Graphics Art Center as a kid and admiring the prints only to learn years later that Gordon Gilkey donated them. My Senior year at Oregon State, I had the honor of redesigning the interior reception area of the Liberal Arts College with David Hardesty when it was renamed, Gilkey Hall. I never met Gordon, but his generosity will live on forever. – Brian Baker, Class of 2001

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