ELLENSBURG — Among artwork on display at Central Washington University is a small photo of a 5-year-old girl. She wears a plaid shirt and a gray sweater. Her russet hair is neatly parted down the middle. She is smiling, slightly.
The girl is Jane Orleman, a 78-year-old artist known to and beloved by many. Almost everywhere she goes, people wave, say hello, smile when they see her. The home she made with her late husband, Dick Elliott, set in a dense garden of colorful original creations and delightful found objects, is pure visual joy. It’s known as Dick and Jane’s Spot.
Orleman’s childhood photo accompanies a painting in her latest solo exhibit, “Telling Secrets: An Artist’s Personal Journey Through Family Trauma,” in the Museum of Culture and Environment in Dean Hall.
“This is the first time I’ve included that photograph in my exhibit. ... That’s when I would have been testifying” in court, she said.
When she was 4, her mother left Orleman with the husband of her best friend so he could babysit her and his two daughters while the women picked blueberries. During nap time, he molested her.
“As Momma and I walked home later, she knelt down on the sidewalk and asked me if he had touched me,” notes text accompanying the artwork and the photo. Orleman told her mother what happened. The man was convicted and served five years in prison.
Her mother knew the man had molested other children, yet left her daughter with him. Text accompanying “Painful Parting,” which Orleman painted in 1996, describes its scene: “This image refers to that time and all of the subsequent times she left me in danger.”
In 1990, after struggling with the overwhelming legacy of the physical, mental and sexual abuse she suffered, Orleman followed the guidance of her therapist. She began unearthing memories of molestation, beatings, attempted suicides and near murders, rapes and teen alcoholism, and she started putting them on canvas.
Over the next decade, Orleman created a series of 350 paintings. Her fear and rage and shame are almost palpable in the 44 chosen for display in the museum’s main gallery. Almost all are in her usual bright colors, but some are dark. Remembering the time she tried to drown herself, Orleman surrounded her own pale image with slashes of blue and black.
This is her 27th solo exhibit centered on her story of domestic violence. It’s always relevant, but with others emboldened to speak out in this era of #MeToo, it’s especially important. Orleman wants others to learn, to acknowledge and to heal however they can.
“I think it’s the best,” she said. “I’ve had time to reflect.”
When the exhibit opened in October, a few visitors entered and left quickly. Some of the paintings contain nudity and injury. Curators moved a warning banner to the center of the museum entrance, and it hasn’t happened since.
Even with the warning, it’s hard to resist the urge to flee. But those who stay will finish with hope. As in her first exhibit of these paintings in 1992, Orleman has felt much love and support from the community she has called home for half a century.
A room in the exhibit, which continues through Dec. 14, allows visitors to share anonymous messages and reflect on what they have seen. “Learn To Fly” is among Orleman’s favorites.
“Stories like ours deserve to be told,” another says. “Thank you.”
Daily abuse, years of coping
A leaflet promoting the exhibit features Orleman’s 1993 painting “Confrontation in the Kitchen.” A slight woman, her hair flying, aims a knife at the man in front of her. Another woman is intervening. The figures seem to vibrate against a smudged background.
“The butcher knife had spun through the air and hit me right between the eyes — handle first,” accompanying text says. “This painting is the next moment in time. Something snapped in me. I was intent on killing him.”
Orleman was a first-quarter college student then, and the man she wanted to stab was her oldest brother. The woman stopping her was their mother.
Her father was a violent alcoholic who made their lives a misery. He beat his oldest son until he fell down, then would kick him, she said. The oldest brother turned the abuse on Orleman. As a teen she told her parents of her oldest brother’s assaults and their parents made him join the military, she said.
While home on leave he blamed Orleman for his situation, prompting the argument involving a knife. Several of Orleman’s paintings feature knives, and she has used a butcher knife as a tool to paint.
The kitchen confrontation, after which she suffered a nervous breakdown and dropped out of college, was just one in an almost unimaginably chaotic childhood defined by abuse.
Her earliest memories are of being molested, Orleman said in her 1998 book, “Telling Secrets: An Artist’s Journey Through Childhood Trauma.” It features dozens of paintings, with explanations and related dreams.
“Between the ages of 3 and 8, it happened often,” she recalled in the introduction. “Between the ages of 9 and 13, I was subject to almost daily emotional, physical or sexual assault. Rarely did a day go by without violence.”
Her mother worked different hours, leaving Orleman and her two older brothers at their father’s mercy. She also has a much younger brother who wasn’t really part of this, she said.
“’You aren’t worth the powder to blow you up with’ was one of my dad’s choice remarks to us kids,” she remembered in her book.
After the kitchen confrontation, Orleman moved out and for several years kept moving, covering several states and drifting in and out of college until she found Ellensburg. She was 3,000 miles from her family back East. She enrolled in Central as a senior and changed her geography major to art.
Orleman met Elliott, also an artist who would become known for his exuberant reflector murals, and they married in 1971. Her brother John, who was 11∕2 years older, later joined them in Ellensburg. They had been close growing up. “John and I understood each other,” she said of her brother, who died a few years ago.
Their parents also moved to Ellensburg and lived there for five years. “They were literally driving me nuts,” said Orleman, who began counseling.
Elliott saw the strain on his wife. While she was out one day, he went over to his in-laws’ house and confronted her father outside. “Oh, Janie’ll get over it,” her father responded.
The usually mild-mannered Elliott kicked out both taillights, prompting her father to put their house up for sale. “My hero,” Orleman said.
She had used drugs, alcohol, distance and smoking to cope. In trying to quit smoking, Orleman met a clinical psychologist in Yakima whom she refers to as “Dr. W.” A breathing exercise brought back the memory of being raped by five older boys when she was 11. Orleman began writing down her memories. He encouraged her to paint them.
“This time I don’t want to just put a lid on it and survive,” Orleman said. “This trunk full of horrible memories, I took them all out, shook them all out.”
For this exhibit, Orleman chose 44 paintings with assistance from Lynn Bethke; museum collections manager; J. Hope Amason, museum director; and Yakima artist Andy Granitto. He helped Orleman pull out some of the bigger pieces from storage bins in her art warehouse.
“Telling Secrets” also includes another piece — a stout wooden paddle the children called the war club. It’s suspended in a case near a large painting, “Daddy Enraged,” that shows him holding it over her, and a smaller piece where he is using it on her.
After their parents died, Orleman and her siblings found the club. Her brothers wanted to burn it. “I always kept that piece as a witness to things that happened,” she said. “I did paint with it. ... I just kind of smashed the canvas a little.”
Work on the exhibit began in August, when the museum was closed. After the initial choices, Orleman changed it “right up until the day it opened,” she said.
A story in The Seattle Times about child pornography prompted her to include “A Shadow of a Memory,” which she painted in 1993.
“My memory is of white sheets with dark shadows cast by the bright lights,” accompanying text says. “It is about the experience of being photographed nude when I was 10 years old.”
‘So many women are facing these things’
Along with her paintings depicting the abuse she suffered, Orleman has spoken to sex offenders. In one gathering in Walla Walla, the 15 participants sat in a close circle. It was the most intimate of her presentations, and daunting.
“It was really emotionally intense, but I was glad Dick was sitting beside me,” she said. “He was always there.”
Her process of bringing back and working through those memories has been, and continues to be, one of learning. Orleman talks occasionally to her oldest brother, still back East. His memories were different. Every witness brings a different perspective to events, but many are warped by the trauma. Details are forgotten, or remembered in another way, because the horror is still too painful.
She has also learned that her family legacy of sexual abuse and alcoholism extends back generations. Orleman understands better, now, where her parents came from. It does not exonerate them, and neither ever apologized for the abuse. They rarely acknowledged it, she said.
Some have asked Orleman if she is experiencing her childhood trauma again in this exhibit. She is not. She is confident in what she is doing.
“I wanted to share the work because so many women are facing these things,” Orleman said. “Before, I was opening a door to this problem in our world. Now it’s just affirming what’s open now and encouraging the continuance of movement. You’re facing this now but we’ve been facing this for centuries.”
Upon completing the exhibit, visitors may take pamphlets from several mental health organizations. “We’ve had a lot of support from the counseling community,” Bethke said. “We want people to have the resources they need.”
The exhibit is beautiful, Orleman said.
“I’m just very proud of this exhibit and how it looks in this space,” she said. “It’s really good for me to bring it out again.”