Written by Brendan Kiley
The four-room, 200-artwork exhibition hit all the notes you’d want — tender, droll, brooding, even beguiling — but the mug shots stole the show.
Around 40 members of the Mature Friends (a 250-strong social club, mostly gay men, mostly of retirement age) assembled at Cascadia Art Museum in Edmonds one recent overcast afternoon for a tour of “The Lavender Palette,” a painting-heavy exhibition of work by early- to mid-20th-century gay and lesbian artists from the Pacific Northwest.
It was, curator David Martin said, the first show of its kind in the United States: an exploration of regional culture through these gay artists’ works that “is probably not going to happen again in the Northwest in anybody’s lifetime.”
Some of the Mature Friends, like Scott Hogan, had come to see pieces by the famous artists (Morris Graves, Mark Tobey) and maybe find some new favorites among the lesser-knowns (the witty, Art Deco-inflected Mac Harshberger; the adventurous Orre Nelson Nobles, influenced by his travels in 1920s China).
But the mug shots got him: a grid of 50 black-and-white faces, staring into police cameras after being arrested for sodomy in Washington state between 1893 and 1913. The convicts ranged from 18 to 63 years old, were mostly working class (boilermakers, farmers, miners, sailors) and served harsh sentences, several spending 12 years or more in hard labor.
“This is really hard to take,” Hogan said, and turned away.
“The Lavender Palette” is not a doleful exhibition — most of its landscapes, cityscapes and portraits of friends and lovers buzz with affection — but the Mature Friends kept murmuring about the mug shots, long after they’d moved on to happier subject matters.
Martin said he placed those doomed-looking faces at the beginning to remind visitors of the world those artists inhabited — and of the anti-gay violence and erasure that still persists. Martin, for example, had been the director of a gay support hotline in Phoenix in the 1980s, when its offices were firebombed by the Ku Klux Klan. Twice.
“The Lavender Palette” took decades of research to assemble — Martin had to wait until one “grumpy” head librarian died before he could get access to some male nudes in a Tacoma archive. The result is his effort to bring forgotten gay artists, and the truth of well-known artists whose sexuality has been euphemized by larger museums, into the open.
“Honestly, I wanted to avenge them,” Martin said. “At Cascadia, you will never see wall text that says ‘Morris Graves and his close friend’ like a lot of museums do — even in New York and Los Angeles, even in Seattle. No. Here you will always see ‘Morris Graves and his boyfriend’ or ‘and his partner.’ “
Some of the Mature Friends seemed surprised: Aren’t big-city museums supposed to be, you know, progressive?
“I honestly don’t think museums are that progressive,” Martin said. “In the last couple of years, they’ve started studying the paths of African American artists or Native American artists, but they always grab the same ones. If it’s women, it’s [Georgia] O’Keefe or Frida Kahlo. It’s almost like somebody’s made a template, with the same exhibitions around the country, and it’s ‘let’s jump on this bandwagon if it’s already well-known.’ There’s not much original scholarship happening.”
But the big idea of “Lavender Palette,” Martin said, “isn’t simply to out artists. It’s about how this suppressed group came up with a new art language and contributed to the culture of this region.”
In 1953, a Life magazine article famously announced the “Mystic Painters of the Northwest” — Graves, Tobey, Guy Anderson and Kenneth Callahan — as a Northwest School influenced by Native American and Asian aesthetics, as well as diffuse Northwest light. (The “mystic” label is a little exoticizing and problematic — and Callahan, along with others, rejected it.)
But, Martin found, three of those four “mystics” — and many of their local forerunners — were gay, and that gayness was the catalyst for the Asian influence.
“I didn’t know this earlier, but China in the [1910s] and ’20s didn’t really care about homosexuality,” Martin said. “It wasn’t welcoming — it was just indifference. So it became this haven for gay men from all over the world to live and work. This is the real start of the Asian influence on art in the Northwest School. It wasn’t just because they saw some show with Japanese scrolls in it. It had to do with being gay, had to do with their lives.”
Nobles, for example, was one of those Northwest artists who spent time in China and designed carpets — one in the Cascadia show features the Seattle waterfront and a Mount Fuji-ish depiction of Mount Rainier — for a company in Beijing, then romanized as Peking. He also had a robust life stateside. Martin read through his diaries, learning about Nobles’ rustic existence (he lived in a town of 50 people on the Olympic Peninsula, canoeing across Hood Canal to teach art classes), and his long-running, three-way relationship with “the boys,” who were probably local fishermen.
At first, Martin was astonished (“I thought: ‘They didn’t have three-ways back then, did they?’”), but realized that these gay artists, living in a time of persecution, knew they weren’t considered “normal” — so they didn’t aspire to normality. That also influenced their new artistic language.
“Some of these people were really quite free,” Martin explained. “They didn’t fit in anyway, so they didn’t conform, and were having free romantic and sexual lives, which gave them different insight into different people and experiences, and it affects their work.”
You can see that in Delbert McBride, a gay Native American (Quileute and Cowlitz) whose painting and drawing embraces an eclecticism one doesn’t often see from the same artist, or even in one exhibition: an expressive painted portrait of a cross-dresser (and not, Martin suspects, an actual performing drag queen); a man standing on a table in a crowded bar, gleefully grabbing his crotch; a gorgeous ink drawing of male nudes frolicking, with Coast Salish architecture and totem poles in the background.
Other evidence of their romances is quite sweet. To commemorate a three-way they had with artist Lionel Pries in the 1930s, Morris Graves and Guy Anderson made a two-sided watercolor — Graves’ nude study of Anderson on one side, Anderson’s study of Graves on the other.
But that, like many works in “Lavender Palette,” also carries a note of tragedy. Pries was a celebrated art and architecture professor at the University of Washington — until 1958, when he was swept up in a Los Angeles vice sting. The university found out and Pries lost everything, including any severance pay.
On their way out of the exhibition, some of the Mature Friends returned to the mug shots (compiled by photo historian David Chapman) and a nearby quote on the wall from former University of Washington president Thomas F. Kane, from a 1905 issue of The Seattle Times: “I cannot but feel that it is not half so sad for a boy to be even killed in college as it is for the influence in college in any way to trend toward a type of ‘dude’ or ‘sissy,’ young men who are hardly worth killing.”
It’s difficult to imagine a university president today saying, in essence, “better dead than gay” — much less that quote getting printed in a city’s daily newspaper.
In a car headed back to Seattle, Hogan and other members of Mature Friends said they were glad they’d gone — and that Martin had taken so much trouble to find and document these artists.
“A lot of them didn’t have children, didn’t get married,” Hogan said. “So there was nobody left to promote their work after they died.”
“Yeah,” Mature Friend member Dick Takaki said. “But this kind of show is a sort of validation of our existence.”