Interview with Gretchen Milhaupt
Gretchen Milhaupt has a show currently hanging at Ona Restaurant and Lounge. We were delighted to speak with her and learn more about her artistic career.
TYG: What made you decide to become an artist?
Gretchen: Okay, that’s the best question of all. And I don’t know that it’s a decision. I would say, as a child, I was told by my grandmother that I had “it.” She was the daughter of a painter. Her father was a Scotsman, who came from Scotland to British Columbia, and supported his wife and eleven children by his landscape paintings in British Columbia. So, growing up in California—[sotto voce] that dreaded place that everybody loves to hate so much—and getting time to spend with my grandmother was a really good thing for me. I knew that she was artistic and liked to paint, and she really encouraged me. My parents didn’t notice a thing—they had four other kids. Oh. I was lucky. We moved from northern California in Eureka to Eugene, Oregon. I had to go to North Eugene High School, which was not a very happy thing for me because I would have fit in South Eugene a lot better, but at least it was a new school, and they had this fantastic art room. And it had beautiful clerestory windows around, and tables, and equipment—it was 1961, and it was a brand new school, with a terrific art teacher. So really, I loved that, and I just stumbled through chemistry and various other things.
But going to college in those days, a young woman—my father was educated, and my mother didn’t have a whole lot to say about what a young woman should be doing—I finally thought, well, maybe what I could be doing is study architecture. That’s what I think I might like to do. And somebody said, “Oh, go over to Bill so-and-so, over at the School of Architecture at the U of O.” And what did he say? “Oh no! Women can’t be architects!” Well, I was only 17, and it was a time when people said things like that, and I didn’t know how to say “I’m going to do it anyway.” I really didn’t. So, yes. It was expected that I would go to college, and it was expected that I’d find some nice guy to get married to, and then I wouldn’t be a problem anymore for anybody to worry about. So... I dropped out. I was a 1963, early 60’s, drop-out. The other thing I could say about that, which I have learned to say from being here all these years, is, when they go: “Oh. Eugene. The 60’s. Really?” Yes, I was a card-carrying member of the 60’s in Eugene, and all that that implies. Except I didn’t throw any bombs, and I didn’t go to jail. So other than that, yes, I was there.
TYG-Graphic Design: What happened in Eugene in the 60’s?
Gretchen: Eugene was a hotbed in the 60’s of young people doing exactly what I was doing: dropping out, coming from all over the country, saying “I don’t want to be straight; I want to go to San Francisco, but if I can’t go to San Francisco, I want to go to Eugene.” Do you know about the Country Fair?
TYG: No! We’ve never heard about any of this!
Gretchen: You’ve never heard about the Country Fair which has been going on for 48 years?
TYG-GD: Is that the one outside of Veneta or something?
Gretchen: Yes. You would know if you’d been there.
TYG-GD: No, we haven’t been.
Gretchen: I’d recommend it. In the 60’s, I met somebody who later became my husband. He was a very flamboyant and notorious artist, a photographer. He was a lot older than I was. We were all in Eugene together—we managed to get together. But he was so much older than me that I had to say no. But five or six years later we re-found each other and became husband and wife. But he was known as... Oh, I’ll go get a picture.
TYG: What was his name?
Gretchen: Harry I. Gross. [leaves and returns with a photo] Ok, here’s me down at Bob Creek, on Gwynn Knoll. We lived in Eugene, but we had a house at Bob Creek, too. And we were married on that rock. In this picture I was maybe 29, and he was 27 years older, so... 56. So in my marriage, I had a chance to learn a lot about artistic expression, the artistic process, and the idea that a good photograph is... composition is the most important thing. I learned a lot about that from him. And we traveled, and that kind of stuff. So that was during the whole 70’s. So in some ways I could be considered somewhat of an old timer here. It’s funny, because now I play ping pong with Ian Smith, who was growing up around here, and he remembers me from those days. I would say that in those days I wished I could be doing artwork, but I was more the assistant of the photographer-husband.
When he died in 1979, I stopped living there, and I had a chance to go live in Japan, and that’s where all of my kind of interest in other exotic areas, or people, or culture, or any of that, was always going towards Japan. My whole life. And I think it was from growing up in California and being exposed to Japanese culture, too. I was very taken by everything Japanese. I met a young woman who lived there, and I bought kimono from her. I went to the art library at the U of O and took out every book about Japanese art. I combed over it, and studied it. I thought I’d just go for six months or something, but I wound up, over a three year period, spending two years there and making five trips going back and forth. I met wonderful Japanese people.
TYG-GD: What were you doing there?
Gretchen: Well, I went there in 1980, with the idea that I felt that I—as well as other people, maybe—could learn something from a culture that from the outward appearance, appears to be a successful society. But also, because of being a 35-year old widow, and wanting to go someplace exotic, different, really experience what it was like to live in a different culture, I wanted to be safe. I didn’t want to have to worry about personal safety, which I didn’t have to do in Japan.
TYG: Japan sort of fits that role perfectly.
Gretchen: Absolutely! And I thought, “Oh! They love nightly, wonderful hot baths, and Mozart, I’m going to get along with these people!” [laughs] “And I love their art!” So I had a great experience. Then I came back. I was sort of jokingly referred to as the “Travelling Silk Merchant from the Orient” in those days because I met people who were in the textile business in Kyoto. I would say that because I wasn’t 22 with a back-pack, when I went to Japan, I fell in with people who were more like 35—they were my age, they were successful Kyoto people in the textile business, in the kimono business or some form of that business. One man was in the thread business. Another man had an obi company; he was an obi maker.
TYG: What’s “obi”?
Gretchen: Kimono is the one word that means dress, or apparel, in Japanese. Obi is the sash that goes around and ties in the back, because they believe that the back view is just as important as the front view. This obi-maker, no, he wasn’t sitting weaving at a little loom—he had a factory and a lot of people who were hand-weaving looms for him. And he was a designer, even though he was 78 or something, and became a very good friend. The Japanese people that liked me wanted me to teach them English. Somebody said that that was a good idea, do it, because it’s a good way to know people. And I thought that was good advice, so... My attitude about anything in life is that I keep a date book, and if they say, “Do you want to do this and go there?” I look, and if there’s nothing on it, I say yes! Because why would I go to Japan and say no to something that I don’t even know what I’m saying no to? That’s not me.
Then, I had to come back from Japan, because I knew I wasn’t going to stay there forever. I did realize that if I had been 22, I might have married a Japanese man and stayed there forever. But that wasn’t in the cards for me. So I came back to Eugene, and I went right to South Eugene High School and I said to the principal, “We’ve got to start learning Japanese! They’re going to be coming here!” This was the early 80’s. And everybody thought, “Oh, Gretchen’s gone off her rocker. She thinks we’re all going to learn Japanese.” Well, it wasn’t very long after that, they started an immersion program, and people have been learning Japanese in Eugene ever since those days.
Then, it was kind of like, “Well, I’m back in Eugene and I need to find a way to make a living. I do need to do that. So I think I’ll go into the real estate business.” Because we were at the very end of a long dive, from high prices and a lot of real estate speculation, and suddenly in six months it dropped and went down, down, down. ‘85 was probably the pits. It was the lowest point in real estate terms in Eugene at least. It lasted a little longer in Portland. So I started doing that, and at the same time I was still trying to get rid of some of my Japanese silks that I hadn’t really been successful at doing. I was trying to sell to designers in Los Angeles or San Francisco, or Seattle—there’s a circuit that I learned about in those days of people that are in the kimono business who know something about it, and are involved in it. Second-hand kimono, mostly. But I was dealing with brand new textiles that I got from a friend, who had a wholesale house. And I thought I could maybe find some one or two people, maybe in Los Angeles or San Francisco, that would really take off with it. My Japanese friend in Kyoto helped me form an association of kimono material makers, and he introduced me and said, “She remembers everything.” [laugh] I got the idea that these men, they made these kimono materials, they were traditional, they were not used to working with women in business, period, let alone an American woman who would actually stand up and start talking to them! [mimes panic] And I didn’t have an extra hundred thousand dollars to come back and start a dress-making operation. So I had to give up on all that. But I was kind of known as a kimono-silk-textile expert in Eugene. I gave talks to people at the library, then schools: What the whole thing about kimono is, the art—it is wearable art.
I had plenty of success selling real estate in Eugene, after the end of a terrible depression, and everything was going up and up and up. And then, in the middle of it, some people who were part of the Eugene-Kakegawa Sister City Committee said, “Come on, we need you.” They really insisted they wanted me to be the leader of this group. I was still in the real estate business, and I remember some of my real estate buddies when I would say, “Oh, we’re having a delegation from Japan coming, and I have to close that deal.” “That’s like two jobs!” [laughter] And it kind of was! But it was in a time when there were Japanese coming her, buying things up because they were spending pocket change to buy properties in the US. Kakegawa was a small place. My Kyoto friends would say, “Huh? Where’s that?” Like somebody living in Portland saying “Where’s Cresswell? Never heard of it.”
Towards the end of that I had some big successes, and I sold two of the biggest properties that had ever sold in Lane County to Japanese investors. Sister City people bought this really big farm, because they said “We want to have a farm, and a culture center, and we want to do this and do that.” “Oh, but we have laws here—you can’t do whatever you want just because it’s your property!” So after the farm was sold, the Junction City people who sold the farm to the Japanese people were very happy, because nobody else was going to pay that amount of money, probably, it became a very public situation. I had to learn how to dodge the newspapers, the TV, and when they finally got it down, somebody spray-painted “Go home Japs” in the road. I remember, I had to call Mr. Matsumoto down in California and say, “This is happening.” And he said, “Gretchen, it’s just how people react to that, that’s what matters.” Later, they came back and said, “Well, we want to buy another property.” And I said, “You’d better bring a lawyer who speaks English.” But I knew they would never come again if they didn’t trust what I did for them. And then they bought a big property up on McKenzie River. So the upshot of that was that I was exhausted at that point! I wanted to go to Portland, and get serious about doing artwork!
So in ‘91, I left. I found a teacher. I drew in his studio for three years. I got a job as a real estate appraiser, so that sort of supported my whole thing, there. And then the market went down again, and the bank said, “Well, anybody who hasn’t been here for 10 years, you’re out.” By then I’d been drawing in the studio for several years, and the teacher was encouraging me. I have to say that I feel like an example of somebody who made up her mind to really go for what it is she wanted to do. There’s a lot of talk about how you have to figure out what it is you want to do—and then maybe it’s going to happen. If you don’t know what what it is you want to do, what’s going to happen?
Then the doors started opening. I had a brother who was living in New York City, and I lost my job as a real estate appraiser, and I wanted to draw and do artwork, and I didn’t know what I was going to do. I had a house that I’d bought, because I was being a responsible adult with a real job. I asked my drawing teacher, “If I want to go to art school here in Portland, where should I go?” His name is Phil Sylvester, and he’s still teaching drawing in Portland, and I recommend him to many, many people. He’s just wonderful. What I loved about him in his advertisement, and why I went there, was: His idea was, it’s not about doing it right, it’s not about being correct, it’s about being expressive. And it’s about learning how to get what’s in here [gestures towards her chest] OUT there. Even Picasso said, “It may be correct, but that doesn’t mean it’s good!” [laughter]
TYG: Yes. There was this whole movement of trying to portray stuff as realistically and as perfectly as possible—I want to say, late 1800’s to early 1900’s?
Gretchen: Well, but that has been the effort of art... My friend is an artist here, and we were having a little talk about all this, and I said, “I’m not interested in going to churches in Italy and looking at that stuff—I’m not! That’s not what I think is interesting! It’s interesting when artists got freed from the aristocracy and the churches and the rich people. And then they had to go on their own, and do what is truly important to them. That’s when modern art started. And when it started, everyone went, “[shrieks] Oh my god, that’s just awful!” [laughter] And they had to suffer through that, and keep going! Well, I’m getting a little ahead of myself. But I did get a chance, thanks to my brother, who was a Hollywood movie producer and understood that artists need help. He had a friend that hired him and paid him a whole lot of money just to be there in New York City and do interesting things. My brother was a very generous person, and he helped a lot of his friends, and he helped me, and said, “Go ahead and go to art school. I’ll give you a stipend so you can do that.” I was 52 years old when I started going to art school. I think the main point that I feel is really true about my experience, and for lots of people, is that when you start doing the artwork, you have no idea what’s going to happen! You can’t predict where that piece is going to go, or who’s going to see it, who’s going to care about it, who’s not going to care about it—all that, you can’t... you just do it.
I went to Pacific Northwest College of Art, which is THE art school in Oregon. But before I went to art school, I think it was in 1995... My brother was a man who had been HIV positive for a long time, and was slated to die from AIDS, but he was living a kind of life that said he could have everything that he needed, so his life was extended by that. At the same time, his three sisters and his brother, we’re all here, and he’s there in New York, and he was lonely, too. So I went to visit him one time. It was a very difficult time—he was being very difficult. But he was living in a nice apartment on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, with a view of all of New York, and you can’t feel totally sorry for someone like that. But I came home, and I thought, “Okay, I have to do a painting about my experience of spending a week with Charlie in New York City, and he knew ballet dancers and other people all around the world, so he’d be talking on the phone, wandering around in his turquoise robe, and so I did a little painting like that. It was a memory piece. And then I sent it to him. Well, he took it to a woman at a small gallery, and did some framing, and she said, “I want to give your sister a show!”
TYG-GD: And you were still in school?
Gretchen: I was in my freshman year!
TYG-GD: [laughter] That’s wonderful!
Gretchen: And my brother called me up and said, “You’re not going to believe this!” And he even said—to her— “Well, not all her paintings look like this.” And she said, “I don’t care. I’m just sick of people who’ve been painting bull’s eyes for the last twenty years.” [laughter] So I have something I’m going to give to you as a souvenir, because my first year in school, the first year we painted in acrylic paint, and at the end of the first semester the teacher said, “Now alright, I want everybody to do a self-portrait in the manner of an artist that you really admire.” Well, I had learned about a woman named Alice Neel. She was born in 1900, and she was working during the times of abstract expressionism. As a child, it’s kind of what I was exposed to; that’s what American art is. But she never went to abstract expressionism—she stuck with figurative work and doing portraits. She had a hard life in a lot of ways, and a lot of struggles, but she had “it” and she did amazing work. So I did this self-portrait in the first year of art school, in the manner of Alice Neel. That’s the announcement for the show in New York City—this was in the Fall of when I started art school, in 1996. I remember telling my teacher, who was my age, that I was going to have a show in New York City, and his lip... [makes a pouting, trembling kind of lip] “Life isn’t fair...” So, I thought, “What am I going to do?” and we decided that I would put this in the show, and some other, way more abstract things that I had done.
Our interview with Gretchen Milhaupt will continue in Issue 73.
Interview with John W. Thornton
We continue our interview with John from Issue 71.
John: So anywhoo—let’s see what happened next. [...] I got a job with GE, Missile and Space Division, in Philadelphia. That was a big deal, a big operation. And that’s when I first went to work on Minuteman III, and I worked on various other projects. Then in ‘69, I was offered a job in system marketing for GE - Philadelphia. That means you’re dealing with the Air Force, and the Navy, at their sites. So I commuted to Southern California. That was with the Air Force Ballistic Missiles System Division, out in San Bernardino, California, 90 miles east of Los Angeles. As I said, I was basically a commuter. To get to San Bernadino, you either have to rent a car in LA, and drive out, which I did a few times. Most of the time they had a little twin engine aircraft that flew back and forth. I remember one night we were flying out to San Bernardino, and I looked around, and everywhere I looked in the sky there were private aircraft. Anyway, it was enlightening working with the Air Force out there. Most of the things I was involved with were not missile systems, but experimental missile projects to develop new technology. A lot of those flights were out of White Sands, New Mexico. I remember one time flying into Los Angeles—I’d had lunch in San Bernardino first—and it was very bumpy over the airport there. That was the only time I ever got ill on an airplane.
TYG: Must have been pretty rough then!
John: It was very rough! I don’t know what was going on; I guess it was a big cross-wind or something. Anyway, [a couple of years later, in 1971,] that’s when I got the new job. I became a District Sales Manager.
TYG-Graphic Design: Well, how was that—hopping from actually creating to being a sales manager?
John: It was fine. It was good for me.
TYG-GD: You didn’t get bored? I would get so bored!
John: No! I haven’t told you what I did, though—so I got this job in Seattle as a district sales manager, and we handled all kinds of product to do with electronic components, and my territory was Washington, Oregon, and western Idaho. So I went to a lot of places, and so much of my business was in Portland, Oregon, that I was out there almost all week every other week.
TYG-GD: Oh! And where was your family living at this point?
John: In Seattle. The company I was mostly involved with was called Tektronix. At that time Tektronix was at the top of its game, and they had about 18,000 people working there, in Oregon and in sites around the world.
TYG-GD: What were they doing?
John: Electronic instrumentation, primarily oscilloscopes. So at that time that was their primary product, and so I was dealing with designers, design engineers; I was dealing with what they called components, and for every kind of component they bought, I had an engineer who was responsible for getting the parts [...] and getting them qualified to Tektronix’s internal specifications. So I dealt with a lot of people like that. And mostly nice people. I really enjoyed that part of the job.
TYG-GD: So who were you selling oscilloscopes to?
John: I wasn’t—Tektronix was. They sold to all kinds of people: electronic laboratories, underground nuclear tests. The oscilloscope was destroyed by the explosion, but they got great data before it was destroyed.
TYG: So essentially they had to have a new one each time, I’m guessing.
TYG-GD: That’s convenient.
John: Yes, it didn’t hurt Tektronix any! [laughter] They had quite a few for each test. So it didn’t hurt the component makers either, so we all did well. That went on pretty much from ‘71 to ‘84, I guess. Other major companies I dealt with were Hewlett-Packard in Boise, and in Vancouver, Washington, and a couple other sites. I’m trying to think of anything special that went on... [The job] was good for me, because I like to get things done. If something came up, you could close it off in a day or two, and move on to something new. Whereas with some of those other jobs that I had, you never got on to the next step. And there were years involved. That wasn’t so good for me, because I like to get things done quickly and move on to something new.
So in 1984, they were cutting back on field reps, and my position got cut back. By now I certainly didn’t want to leave GE, and I already had over twenty years on my pension. So I found a job, Marketing Representative. I called on the Air Force Systems Command people in Albuquerque, at the air base there, and also at Los Alamos, where there was engineering for nuclear weapons. That is a beautiful place, Los Alamos, up on the plateau at about 8,000 feet. It’s all real flat, a lot of trees around, and just a great place up there, a research facility, the Los Alamos National Laboratory. They did all the original research for the nuclear bomb. In the development of the first bomb, they were doing research of taking two half-spheres and pushing them together. They once let them get too close, and Wham-o! They had almost a critical mass. [Louis Slotin] got severely radiated; he lasted about four days. He pulled [the two halves] back apart again, and that’s when he really got zapped. But he was a hero, you know. He could have blown up the whole lab.
Anyway, that’s what I did from ‘84 to ‘87. I liked that job. There were a lot of good people I dealt with there, Air Force type people. And I went to labs where we saw unusual things. In fact, I was in a lab there one day. They had a thing that tracked eight different sources, I think. Then what they did was blow a hole in the roof of the building.
TYG-GD: [laughs] On purpose?
John: Well, I don’t think that was the intent. [laughter] But they learned a lot! I was really startled by that one. We were sitting in this room and I was watching, and all of a sudden, Boom! They had six or eight inches of leaded glass between you and what was going on. So I didn’t get irradiated.
TYG-GD: Did they make you wear little counters on your suits?
John: Geiger counters, yes. Anyway, that job went away, but I had one more for GE, aerospace field marketing, in Washington, DC. I was marketing in Philadelphia, and I was responsible for the science and technology programs. And that means, what we’re going to do in the future. So I was calling on places like the Electronics Lab, the Army at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. So those are some of the places I called on. Oh! I used to go out to the headquarters of NSA, the National Security Administration. I never got clearance to go inside, but one of our facilities, called the GE Electronics Laboratory, in Syracuse, was submitting proposals to them a lot, and I would get the proposals and deliver them to the NSA.
TYG-GD: And was your family still in Seattle at that time?
John: Oh no, we kept moving. We had a pretty nice place outside of Annapolis, Maryland. I didn’t realize when I bought the place that it was 37 miles from downtown—I had to leave by 6:15 in order to get there.
TYG-GD: The traffic is insane around there!
John: Yes! The bad thing was that if I waited till 6:45, it took me two hours to get there!
TYG-GD: So that was your last job with GE?
John: Yes—as I said, I was involuntarily retired. But, I have no complaints. They offered to move us any place in the US we wanted to go.
TYG-GD: Was that when you came to Yachats?
John: No, that was back to the Seattle area, to Redmond. While I was there, I got a job with Boeing, Commercial Aircraft Division.
TYG-GD: Also in marketing?
John: No. I was an engineer working on contract. I liked working on contract—it was great. I did that for two years. My job required me to spend a lot of time in the plant, the big, huge plant there. We’d run into a problem, and I’d have to document the problem, and figure out what we had to do to the drawings to make it work.
TYG-GD: Wow! So how was it jumping from marketing back into the specifics?
John: No problem. One thing that interested me though: A job that would have had one GE guy working through, I had three or four Boeing guys doing the same job. I guess GE was getting every ounce out of people that they could! [laughs]
TYG-GD: And so, how did you come to Yachats?
John: Okay. So we’re living in Redmond, and we’d decided we wanted to live on the Oregon Coast. I guess the first place we went was in Bandon. And we definitely wanted a view, you know. Well in Bandon, the only place you could have a view was on the front row of a housing development. If you’re back, you hardly have any view.
TYG-GD: Yes, it’s kind of flat out there.
John: It’s flat on top. So we didn’t go to Bandon. Bonnie had spent one or two nights here with our daughter, when we still lived in Redmond I guess—I’m not sure. They stayed at the Adobe, and she really liked it. So we spent a good two days here looking at houses, and the third day, we bought a house!
TYG-GD: Do you have a view of the ocean?
John: A little. It’s not as good as it used to be. We live on the uphill side of King Street. Our goal was to downsize, so we bought a two bedroom, one story house. No stairs! I think we were pretty lucky! We have a big picture window that looks out on the ocean. It was pretty wide open originally, but now there are big trees.
TYG-GD: So what do you do with your days, these days?
John: Well, Wednesday afternoons I work at the Little Log Church. I was on the Planning Commission for seven years; I was the Chairman for three years.
TYG: Well thank you so much for your time!
John: Well thank you Allen—thank you for considering interviewing me! I haven’t been interviewed before.
TYG: How was your first time?
John: Fine! [laughter]