Rip Cronk, Ken Haines, Earl Newman, Bill Siebler, and Vince Zettler sat and talked at a crowded table over burgers and sandwiches last Tuesday at Squirrel's Tavern in Corvallis.

It was the latest iteration of a weekly ritual for the crew, which calls itself "The Lunch Bunch." The group has met for lunch every Tuesday over the past four years.

Lee Kitzman, the other regular from the group, couldn't make it this time, but other mutual friends sometimes fill in when a regular can't attend.

These weekly gatherings are more meaningful and productive than simply getting a bite to eat. They are about camaraderie as artists and friends whose life stories and creative work have intertwined for decades.

Now the six artists are displaying their diverse works in a group exhibit, "Artists and Friends," at the Benton County Historical Museum in Philomath. The exhibition is on view through Sept. 29.

These lunches began with Kitzman, 71, a Philomath potter who specializes in Japanese-influenced raku, and Siebler, 80, an amateur glass artist and collector from Corvallis. Kitzman previously taught art and ceramics classes at the Children's Farm Home for 23 years and later at Corvallis High School, while Siebler was a math instructor and administrator at Linn-Benton Community College for 25 years.

"Lee Kitzman and I were meeting for lunch, and we invited Earl (Newman)," Siebler said.

Newman, 88, a printmaker of nearly 60 years and longtime Summit resident, is well-known for his posters for the Monterey Jazz Festival since 1963. He's also made poster prints for the Oregon Coast Aquarium, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Oregon State University Theatre and more.

After Newman's addition to the group, others followed.

"Earl selected us," said Zettler, 71, a weaver and retired special educator from Summit, who was formerly a curator at the Benton County Historical Museum and The Arts Center in Corvallis.

"It's a grueling process," said Haines, 65, of Corvallis, who owns the Color Wheel Co. in Philomath.

Color wheels are tools used by artists, students, instructors, home gardeners and others. They're designed to promote understanding of color theory, color relationships and color mixing. The company employs a staff of nine and produces several hundred thousand color wheels per year, which are marketed worldwide. 

"Everyone here has in one way or another through their artwork experienced color wheels," Haines said. "It's really been an honor to meet all of these gentlemen. They're an exceedingly creative bunch."

"He is a real pro in the business," Siebler said of Haines. "He touches more artists than all of the rest of us combined."

And that kind of artistic touch forms the essence of The Lunch Bunch's collective, continuing story.

"We actually bring in work to show each other occasionally," Zettler said.

"They are an important part of the creative process," said  Cronk. "The three major pieces I've done in the past couple of years, these guys were involved in all of them."

When Siebler takes out his camera to show a picture of a mural Cronk recently painted, the group shares in the excitement of the finished creation. It is one of four 5-by-10-foot animal portrait murals he painted outside of Crescent Valley High School.

"They're fabulous," Haines said.

Friends for years

The artists have affected each other for years, and they've affected many others, as well.

For example, lunch guest Mark Tolonen, exhibitions curator of the Benton County Historical Museum, curated the group exhibit. Tolonen says that Newman has made posters and actively supported the historical museum since the 1970s, when Zettler was curator.

Zettler said he has two major fiber arts pieces displayed in public buildings. One is a tapestry piece in the second floor stairwell of the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library. The other is in the council chamber of Albany City Hall.

"It is the biggest commission I've ever had. It's of the Three Sisters," he said.

Cronk, 71, a Philomath resident, who moved to Oregon about six years ago, has painted huge murals on city walls everywhere from Honolulu and Switzerland to Southern California.

"I knew Rip down in Venice, California, and he's done six or eight murals down there. He's well-recognized," Newman said.

In addition to the photo realistic animal portraits Cronk is wrapping up at Crescent Valley, he has painted two other large community murals thanks to help from his lunch companions.

Siebler introduced Cronk to faculty members at LBCC. This allowed Cronk to paint his first mid-valley mural, a 145-foot-wide, 27-foot-tall portrait of four student athletes on the wall of the college's activities center in Albany.

Cronk's 100-foot-long and 20-foot-hall mural, "Cultural Transformation: The Teddy Bear Dance," on the wall of the Yoga Center of Corvallis downtown, was made possible by Newman's friendship with Paul Hochfeld, who co-owns the building with his wife, Janet, Siegler said.

"Paul has chronicled Earl's work through video. He had the wall, and Earl made the connection," Siegler said.

Nothing captures the spirit of their lunches quite like their conversation about The Teddy Bear Dance mural, including the controversy it sparked. The project was sponsored by the artists and some of their spouses, as well as the Color Wheel Co., and Squirrel's Tavern.

The colorful mural features dancing teddy bears singing the lyrics "I say, it’s the women today, smarter than the man in every way” from a song titled “Man Smart, Woman Smarter” recorded by The Grateful Dead in 1981. The song was originally done by King Radio in 1936, and has been made famous by every generation as a symbol of women's empowerment, Cronk said.

It was also recorded in 1956 by Harry Belafonte.

"If you listen to the all three versions it gives you a nice perspective of the song itself, which is pretty damn cool," Haines said.

Hochfeld, who joined in the lunch, recommended another version of the song, which most of the others at the table didn't know about.

"The best and most entertaining version of the song was by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz on one of her 'I Love Lucy' episodes. It was a talent show, and it's just a riot," he said.

The group members were surprised by the negative feedback they received about the mural from some community members that it is offensive and sexist.

"It's kind of tongue-in-cheek lyrics, so I expected it would draw the ire of somebody," Cronk said.

But the artist said he had different intentions with the mural.

"Right now in the country where we are about to lose Roe vs. Wade, which will happen, this is a time in history where women's issues need to be at the front. Corvallis, because it's a progressive community, needs to be at the leading edge of that movement," Cronk said. "This (mural) was my attempt really to do that. I was taken back by complaints that it was sexist."

There is sign near the mural that says the song's satirical lyrics celebrate and empower women, as they make the point that men and women are equal, Hochfeld said.

Todd von Hoffman, a friend of Newman and Cronk who was visiting from Venice, had an opinion on the mural debate.

"It is sexist, just sexist the other way for a change," von Hoffman said. "Public arts should never be placid or flaccid."

Zettler said, "Artists bring change, and that's really where it's at."

Cronk's mural may lead to the creation of more murals.

"There's a group of women artists that are talking about putting up a mural themselves in Corvallis," Newman said.

Haines added, "Which we are probably going to sponsor."

But that's a conversation that The Lunch Bunch can continue at the next Tuesday meal.

"We're usually the loudest group in the restaurant," said Zettler, drawing a laugh from the others.

"We haven't been kicked out of anywhere yet, though," Siegler added.

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