Untraditional artists from the Northwest region went unrecognized for many years until 1953 when Life magazine published a feature article about the Northwest School of artists, according to Tim Detweiler, executive director at the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner, Wash.
The main artists of this movement — Mark Tobey, Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan and Morris Graves — “were never totally congealed into a school, but they were significant because the West Coast was ignored by the country in terms of art,” Detweiler said.
“The main thing about this group of artists is that they were the ones who put Seattle on the map in terms of contemporary art,” said Phen Huang, who works at the Foster/White Gallery, 220 Third Ave., in Seattle.
These artists combined distinct Asian styles and aesthetics to create a unique depiction of the Puget Sound region, and they portrayed it through many different mediums of art, according to Huang.
For instance, Anderson used anything that was available to him, including lots of oils on drift board, and Tobey did a few prints as well, painted on natural sponge, according to Huang.
Some of them were thought of as mystics due to the focus on color and lighting in the artworks, according to Huang, and also because of the artists’ beliefs.
“They had respect for nature, looked for spirituality in everything. They believed in universality and followed Eastern religion and Buddhist ideas,” Detweiler said.
Influence still felt
The name “Northwest School” should not mislead people into believing that the artists were a part of an actual school.
Even though they were friends and knew each other, “it was not that they all literally got together and did something, but rather they were all seriously involved with making art during that time. What pulled them together was their serious pursuit of understanding the media and pushing the communication of what it was able to give,” Huang said.
People group them together because they were all involved in making that type of art at the same time and were all equally invested to the cause.
As years passed, the artists either isolated themselves or continued to paint into contemporary times, according to Huang.
“Today, there are definitely people who keep the tradition alive by continuing in that frame of mind, their ideals, their techniques and their painting styles. There is a big following,” Detweiler said.
It is less of a struggle for the next group because now Seattle is established as an art center, according to Huang.
While there are not a definitive group of artists today like the main four, Northwest influences are definitely seen in artworks not only in Pacific Northwest, but internationally as well. One of these artists is James Washington, Detweiler said.
“Washington, a sculptor, has his own individualistic voice but was influenced by the Northwest School,” Detweiler said.
However, there also are artists who reacted against this movement and embraced the Modern Art techniques instead, like Seattle-born artist Roger Shimomura, according to Detweiler.
“We do effectively have a Northwest style and school. We are different from Portland and other cities, but all these artists are discussing the same ideas and techniques,” she said.
There are contemporary artists who are opposed to the Northwest ideals,
Detweiler noted, and they reacted against it, such as the pop artists who emerged from the ‘60s.
Otherwise, the influence from the Northwest School masters is still alive in contemporary paintings, photographs, sculptures and other media of artwork that depict the Northwest region from different individual artists today.
Many of these works from the masters and from many other Northwest School artists can be found at the Museum of Northwest Art; Woodside/Braseth Gallery, 2101 Ninth Sve., in Seattle; and at Foster/ White Gallery in Seattle.