In Van Flet's 'Turtle Dove,' the lines move on the page, 'which is like how a chicken moves,' Southern Oregon University assistant art professor Sharon Dvora says

Painting amid clucking

By Hannah Guzik

Artist Ellen Van Fleet has a history with chickens.

She grew up with a brood of them on her parents' land in Eureka, Calif. Then in 1974 she learned to hypnotize Rhode Island Reds to create a chicken/performance-art version of a Mark Rothko line painting at the University of California at San Diego.

Now, at 69, Van Fleet's still not finished with the birds. The Sacramento resident is showing her watercolor line paintings, inspired by her Barred Rock Bantams, at Southern Oregon University's Schneider Museum of Art this month.

"Chickens are just lovely shapes," she said. "They have episodically circled through my life and artistic life."

Community members can sign up for a free workshop Saturday where they will observe the paintings and real Barred Rock Bantams, then make their own watercolor and ink art. "We need to have real chickens for inspiration, just like Van Fleet," said organizer Sharon Dvora, SOU assistant art professor and art education coordinator for the museum. "Van Fleet's paintings are very whimsical and they're somewhat like op art, or optical illusions, because of the ways the lines move on the page, which is like how a chicken moves."

Dvora will hold two sessions of the workshop Saturday, from 10 a.m. to noon and 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. All materials will be provided at the all-ages event. She also is seeking a few well-behaved Barred Rock Bantams with travel cases who could visit the museum during the workshop.

Participants will learn about watercolor line drawing and make collages from their own paintings, cutting up the paper and rearranging it, as Van Fleet does.

Van Fleet's abstract paintings try to capture the spirit and beauty of chickens, she said. "Seeing those beautiful shapes and feathers move around my yard really inspired me to paint," she said. "There's something lovely about seeing them move around the space."

Van Fleet fell in love with chickens as a young girl, when she helped her parents care for them in Northern California. After earning a degree in sculpture from the University of California at Davis, she began incorporating the birds into her work.

She learned to hypnotize chickens, putting their heads under their wings and spinning them around, and lined them up in hay at the UCD museum to create a living Mark Rothko painting.

"You really can hypnotize them, and it's a fairly simple process," Van Fleet said. "Then you place them on the ground, draw a line on the ground, and they will stare at the line until something really distracts them."

Van Fleet's paintings are part of the museum's summer exhibit, titled "Views from the Inner Eye," which runs through Aug. 26.

Saturday's workshop is funded by an outreach grant from the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation of Portland. In the coming weeks, Dvora plans to use the grant money to hold an Indian dance event in front of the M.R. Renjan paintings at the museum. "I want to use the grant funds to reach out to community members who might not normally come to the museum," she said. "This art is for everyone to learn from."

Reach reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-776-4459 or email

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