by Deloris Tarzan Ament

The new Museum of Northwest Art showcases past and present masters of a distinctive Northwest approach to art. The style, variously described as delicate and profound, subdued and seraphic, sprang from the region's misty light and softened colors.
Northwest art first came to national attention in 1941, when Life magazine featured moody pictures of Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Guy Anderson, and Kenneth Callahan, hailing them as "Mystic Painters of the Northwest." In 1958 Tobey became the first American artist since James McNeill Whistler to be awarded first prize at the prestigious Venice Biennale.
But until recently, it was easier for a visitor to the Northwest to see fine art from the other side of the Pacific Ocean, from China or Japan, than to see paintings by the most respected Northwest artists. It's rare for the Seattle Art Museum to have more than one or two works by any of them on view. Finding more was a matter of luck and timing --mostly by catching a rare retrospective exhibition at one of Seattle's better galleries.
The idea of a museum devoted to Northwest art was floated from time to time, but didn't take root until art activists in the historic town of La Conner began it on a shoestring. The town, a former fishing village north of Seattle which metamorphosed over the years into an artists' colony, seemed an ideal site. The Museum of Northwest Art (MoNA) began modestly in a renovated Victorian mansion. Handsome as the building was, it was undeniably cramped and makeshift, lacking in essential amenities such as an elevator.
An ambitious round of fundraising gave MoNA a new home. Last October, the museum reopened in smart contemporary quarters on La Conner's principal business street, in the center of the action. The Henry Klein Partnership redesigned the building's 12,000 square feet into handsome gallery space, complete with an underground parking garage and a well-stocked museum shop.
MoNA is the only museum anywhere devoted exclusively to Northwest art. That alone makes it worth the trip up I-5 through some of Washington State's most lush and scenic land. Novelist Tom Robbins, who has a home in La Conner, has compared the Skagit Valley to a classical Chinese Sung Dynasty landscape painting, with misty fields and winding waterways.
Those aren't just any fields; they're tulip and iris farms. The annual Tulip Festival, when fields are at the height of bloom, was March 29 to April 19. Many Northwesterners combine a tour of the flower fields with seeing art in La Conner. Few Northwest artists paint flowers. Their art pays homage to nature in ways that filter its wonders through a special sensibility. With Graves, the focus often was birds or music. Tobey's "white writing" paintings traced light itself.
This summer, through July 22, MoNA pays tribute to Guy Anderson's 90th birthday with a major exhibition of his work. The youngest of the four artists hailed by Life, and still a resident of La Conner, Anderson paints heroic canvases that depict "Man as Metaphor" -- the theme which gives the show its title.
Anderson brings sweep and vitality to the theme. His art combines the three streams of tradition that blend to give Northwest art its distinctive aesthetic. He paints a softened version of the classical European nude figure, indicates the forces of nature with the swift, energized brushwork of Asian calligraphy, and makes liberal use of the enclosed ovals and subdued palette familiar in Northwest Coast Native American art.
Anderson interprets manŐs place in the universe in mythological terms. Giant, glowing circles and stylized wave patterns simplified to charging zigzags carry the energy of his brushwork. He paints with long, deliberate strokes that loop or streak like broken thunder. It's a style which has influenced many younger artists.
Museum director, Susan Parke, aims for MoNA to show not only the artists she terms, "The Big Four," but the inheritors of the Northwest tradition, such as sculptor Philip McCracken, and painter Richard Gilkey (another La Conner resident).
MoNA is also a splendid place to take in the newest artform to interpret Northwest tradition: glass. The museum's Benaroya Gallery is devoted to the work of leading lights of Northwest glass, led by Dale Chihuly, William Morris, and Sonja Blomdahl, and the youngest hot artist on the glass scene, Dante Marioni.
Museums constantly battle the bottom line, and MoNA is no exception. The building's second floor, slated to house pieces from MoNA's permanent collection, awaits completion and the installation of a handicap-accessible elevator. Challenge grants totalling $100,000 are earmarked for the project.
Deloris Tarzan Ament writes about art, design, restaurants and travel. For 20 years she was Art Critic for The Seattle Times.

Navigation Bar

Thank you for visiting Art Guide Northwest! ©1999 Tipton Publishing Co.
All rights reserved. 12/1/1998 Site development by Scribe Typography