Cascadia Art Museum explores contributions of gay and lesbian artists

Written by Brian Soergel. Published by the Edmonds Beacon on October 24, 2019.

Cascadia Art Museum in Edmonds will be the first museum in the country to explore regional gay culture through the work of early- to mid-20th-century gay and lesbian artists in an exhibit opening Thursday, Oct. 24.

“The show is groundbreaking because no other museum in the United States has ever produced an exhibition demonstrating how gay artists influenced the culture of their particular state or region,” said David Martin, Cascadia’s curator.

In Washington state, the famed Northwest School was defined by artists Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Guy Anderson – who was born and raised in Edmonds – and Kenneth Callahan. Only Callahan was not gay, Martin said.

“The Lavender Palette: Gay Culture and the Art of Washington State” runs through Jan. 26. Mediums represented include paintings, drawings, photography, design objects, and ceramics.

The majority of the art in the exhibit has never been seen publicly. Cascadia has curated works from family collections, national and local private collections, as well as major institutions, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

This is a rare and exclusive opportunity to view these pieces exhibited together before they are returned to their original private collections, Martin said.

“Our regional gay artists shared a common struggle, many of them being born or raised during a time when homosexuality was illegal in Washington state and they could have faced imprisonment.

“In spite of the social and personal pressures that they endured, most of these artists traveled extensively and were well-read and highly educated. That had a profound influence on their art, which brought national and international attention to the region.”

Art historians in the past, Martin said, have been reluctant to discuss their sexual and emotional orientations and often left important facts about their lives unrecorded or sanitized.

“When we think of the Renaissance, we think of Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael,” he said. “They were all gay, and their homosexuality was an important aspect of their work. In a similar manner, the Northwest is one of the only regions in the country where homosexual artists defined the aesthetic in a major way.”

“The Lavender Palette” exhibition, in addition to Tobey (1890-1976) and Graves (1910-2001), will highlight the reintroduction of talented but lesser-known figures such as Thomas Handforth (1897-1948), Mac Harshberger (1900-1975), Orre Nelson Nobles (1894-1967), Sarah Spurgeon (1903-1985), and Virginia Weisel (1923-2017).

Tacoma’s Handforth was one of the Northwest’s earliest internationally known artists. Known primarily for his etchings and book illustrations, he was included in the Paris Salons before returning to the U.S.

His work is represented in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, Seattle Art Museum, Biblioteque Nationale, Paris, France; Academy of Art Honolulu; Library of Congress; NY Public Library, Tacoma Art Museum, Fogg Museum and Tacoma Public Library.

A prolific illustrator, he was the author of the children’s book “Mei Li,” in 1938, which won him the prestigious Caldecott Award for the most distinguished American picture book for children.

Spurgeon began teaching in the art department of Central Washington University in 1939. Before arriving in Ellensburg, she had a distinguished career in Iowa, where she assisted famed Iowa artist Grant Wood, as well as modeling for some of the figures in his murals.

She had a distinguished and influential career at CWU until her retirement in 1971. Her final tribute came in 1978 when Central Washington University celebrated the dedication of the Sarah Spurgeon Gallery, with an exhibit featuring 55 of her former students who developed successful careers under her guidance.

Bennett was a nationally known printmaker, painter and illustrator, born in Ireland but raised and educated in Washington state. He was most famous for his work as an author and illustrator. In 1935, Doubleday published “Skookum and Sandy,” the first of seven original children’s books that Bennett wrote and illustrated himself.

During the 1940s, Bennett had a relationship with Edmonds’ Anderson and based his 1948 book “Mick and Mack and Mary Jane” on their life together at their cabin at Robe Ranch near Granite Falls.

Some mature content

“The Lavender Palette” does have some mature content in its west gallery.

“I have curtained off the room for several reasons,” Martin said. “One is that it contains fragile photography, and we are obliged to lower the light levels to decrease exposure to UV rays. But also, I am displaying works by some of the artists that contain nudity as well as a few drawings that contain sexual subjects.”

By curtaining off the west gallery, Martin said, visitors can decide if they want to enter. School tours will not allow anyone under 18 in the west gallery.

“America is still a bit prudish,” Martin said. “I see art exhibitions in Europe that contain much more explicit subjects, but in the U.S., museums are still reluctant to celebrate sexuality in all of its various expressions.

“The other social aspect that is fascinating is that female nudes in painting and photography are accepted by the public and are almost commonplace,” Martin said. “However, there are some folks who are still embarrassed by the male nude even though some of the most famous artworks in the world are male nudes. Think of ‘David’ by Michelangelo or Da Vinci’s ‘Vitruvian Man’ – these are cultural icons.”

Forgotten by time

As Cascadia Art Museum has sought to spotlight diverse artists since opening in 2015, “The Lavender Palette” is a natural fit, Martin said.

“We have been highlighting women and minority artists since we first opened. Not just for the sake of equity, but because they were so talented and successful but had been forgotten by time.

“Being gay myself, I have wanted to do this exhibition for a long time because it is a personal project that I have been working on for 25 years, and I can identify with the struggles these artists went through.”

Since most of them had no children to carry on their artistic reputations, Martin took it on himself.

“I had approached several other regional museums with the prospect of presenting my research and adding new scholarship to an understudied group. They all rejected the idea, and it wasn’t until Cascadia Art Museum opened that I was given support by the founder, director, and the board to produce this exhibition.”

Martin’s book on the “The Lavender Palette” will be released in December.

“We are pleased that we are able to exhibit works that have never been seen before by the public,” Martin said. “We have an incredible WPA linoleum mural by Malcolm Roberts that is on loan from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It hasn’t been seen in the Northwest since 1945.

“We also have an important, large, early Mark Tobey painting called ‘Skid Road Philosophers’ that hasn’t been seen since that same time period. We have rugs designed by local artist Orre Nobles when he lived in Peking in 1930, and works that were stored in family collections for decades. This will be an opportunity to see these works before they are returned to collections from across the country.”

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