It is with heavy hearts that we announce the passing of Mary Ellen McFadden on October 5, 2022. She was 94 years old. Ellen was born Helen Olina Brenna to Hjalmer and Leila (Houchen) Brenna on July 22, 1928 in Portland, OR. Soon after, she was adopted by Herman and Mary Binschus and her legal name was changed to Mary Ellen Binschus.
Ellen studied at the Portland Art Museum School in the late 1940s, followed by a lifelong commitment to art and design, primarily in the Pacific Northwest and for a time in Iowa. Through the 1950s she continued studies in calligraphy with Lloyd Reynolds and graphic design with Douglas Lynch, while also working on a professional freelance basis in both fields.
In addition to her diverse career in design, Ellen was a dedicated teacher, offering instruction in graphic design, art and calligraphy for over 40 years starting in the late 1960s with the Bureau of Indian Affairs “Children of the Tribes” summer youth camp. In the following decades, as a tenured professor at Spokane Falls Community College she founded and supervised innovative cooperative education and work experience programs that allowed students to develop skills in corporate settings including Hanford Nuclear Plant, Boeing, and Kaiser Aluminum, among others.
Ellen was married twice; first to Harold Sater with whom she raised two daughters, Rhonda and Theresa. It was in collaboration with her second husband, Irwin McFadden, that she assimilated new styles into her own design and art practices, heavily influenced in the 1960s by Constructivist and New Graphic Design movements in Europe and the United States.
It was not until her early 70s, however, that Ellen dedicated herself full-time to her painting practice, creating works that incorporated pattern and vibrant color, with titles alluding to the Pacific Northwest geography and native tribes that were such a part of her personal history; from time spent on the Chehalis Indian Reservation with her birth father Hjalmer and later, summers spent in remote regions of Alaska, working with her adopted father Herman, in the Alaska salmon canning industry.
Her final teaching assignment was in 2009 at the age of 80 as the guest instructor of a two-week graphic design workshop at the Suzhou Art & Design Technical Institute, Suzhou, China. This followed her exhaustive recount of the history of modern graphic design on Flikr (Alki1) which has thousands of followers throughout the world.
This last chapter of her wide-ranging creative career found an audience with exhibitions first in Bend, OR at the Atelier 6000 Gallery and in Portland, OR at Ampersand Gallery and Wieden+Kennedy. In 2016 she was among 34 regional artists selected to exhibit in the Portland Biennial. Her final exhibition was in 2020 at the age of 92. Her paintings are now part of several private and corporate collections.
Ellen will forever be remembered as a creative spirit and a true inspiration; her love for, and knowledge of the Pacific Northwest matched equally by that for her family, the visual arts, and of teaching. She will be buried with her maternal grandmother, Minerva Houchen, in a cemetery in Cathlamet, WA overlooking the Columbia River, the river she knew so well and loved so much.
Ellen is survived by daughters Rhonda Sater and Theresa (Gunter) Ullmann; grandchildren John Mays Jr., Willie (KaiLynn) Mays, Laura (Daniel) Schiemann and Alexander Ullmann; great grandchildren Leilani Mays, Lanaia Mays, Naemi Schiemann and Emily Schiemann; and siblings Bill Grimes, Dorothy Sarver, Harvey Grimes and Tom Grimes, in addition to numerous nieces, nephews and great nieces and nephews.
In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation to the Portland Audubon Society in Ellen’s name.