Monthly Archives: March 2015

Jim Ridgely

JIm Ridgely artist lo res

Jim Ridgely

Jim Ridgely was a painter. He was enjoying his 50’s when I was in my 20’s. His work was frequently in group exhibits. At the time he and a few others represented the “New” Northwest Artists. They were supposedly breathing fresh visions to the more staid NW work done in the previous couple of decades by the likes of Graves, Tobey, Callahan, Cumming, Guy Anderson, etc. Ridgely was of the same generation as William Ivey and Okada. During my studies at the U-Dub, I met many of these established artists and their work was an inspiration to me. The work appeared to be within the realm of the possible: with persistence, I could do that. Ridgely disappeared somewhere in the 60’s, I have no idea what became of him and he doesn’t appear in an internet search.

I didn’t like Ridgely, his work was starkly simple and very lushly painted, but it seemed cold and austere despite the slathering of pigment. We exchanged a couple of sentences. He was aloof, and full of himself. At a gallery he could be heard venting to an informal group of ‘art lovers’. He seemed energetically self-involved in some form of nature mysticism in which he was the primary if not the sole interpreter. I guess his paintings sold with some regularity, but looking back, I suspect he was teaching and perhaps using his studio for private instruction. One of the lessons for the ‘art scene’ observer is that the support system for the ‘fine artiste’ is often opaque. The supportive working wife, the trust fund check, the enamored lover’s wages, the extent of the abject poverty, is often rendered invisible. The lies regarding sales income, and extensive gallery support, the successes are greatly exaggerated. The recitation of profound relationships with the splendors of nature and the depth of the philosophical discourse are often thinner than a coat of shellac.

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Beth Lynden

Beth Lynden-author-lo res

Beth Lynden 

Beth Lynden a spry old lady that had posted a little card on the Opportunities Board offering a walk in the park to artists that were unfamiliar with the local flora and fauna. In the Spring and Summer she put on a Walk every weekend if the weather was bearable. It was reputed to be an amusing walk. I didn’t and don’t know the names of any plants, nor can I recognize any birds, and very few animals.

She was a published local author of stories about the early pioneer days in Seattle, interspersed with little mysteries, intrigues, duels, murders, and naughty behavior. Later it came to light that she was not much of a researcher and that some of the stories were fanciful and semi-factual interpretations. I don’t think anyone brought this to her attention publicly in her lifetime, because she was such a charming little character.

We met at the entrance of the Arboreatum near Lake Washington at 9:30, and went for a long walk during which she twittered along pointing out about a thousand plants and discussed whatever varieties of birds, slugs, snails, snakes, insects that crossed our path. This walk was in about 1960 and the park is now much more developed. At that time it was dirt paths with muddy spots and most of it unavailable to cars. She was in her black rubber knee-high boots, and we fools tagging along were in miscellaneous footwear that soon soaked through. By the end she was vibrant and we tagalongs were exhausted and hungry.


Rank Stella

Stella lo res

Frank Stella

In 1967 one of the MFA group seminars was suddenly to have a surprise guest. We were told a day or so in advance that a noted Artist would review and critique our work. The MFA candidates that were wired into the gossip channel quickly learned that Frank Stella was to be town and the likely reviewer. He and his work were ‘on fire’ in all the Arts magazines, but very few of us, out in the sticks (Seattle), had seen any actual work. It was an east coast fire. Soon enough there would be Stella works and various rip-offs everywhere. Hotel lobbies, airport walkways, gallery shows consisting of one or two enormous pieces soon abounded. I had seen little 4” reproductions in the magazines and found it puzzling. By and large we at the ‘U of Dub’ were completely out of step. The first we knew of Pop Art was when the Life Magazine hit the stands a few years previous. Minimalism was just beginning to be dabbled. We were still struggling with deKooning and discussing Arshile Gorky.

I was a TA teaching a drawing class and working nights in a machine shop, slogging away at Art, trying to get the right amount of slosh and drool distributed across 5’ canvases. Looking back I marvel at our innocence. It had not dawned on many that this so-called opportunity of a MFA as ‘certification and authentication’ that would inaugurate the select few into the inner sanctum of the Arts was more of a kindergarten of low keyed delights and approvals. We were hot shit in a cooky factory. The UW was barely a third class arts facility with a faculty of losers.

We all brought in our ‘best work in progress’ and it was a shoulder to shoulder display. We sat quietly in anticipation. The guest artist showed up half an hour late. As rumored, the international star – Frank Stella – appeared in ratty peacoat and scruffy slacks. He was not a giant, but perhaps 5’6”, assertive and a bit odd looking. He spent a few minutes walking past our works, pausing here and there, and then informed us that it was all crap, every last single bit was just pastiche of bygone and discredited stylistic flourishes. He proceeded to run us into the ground for a few minutes and then summarily disappeared with his entourage of fawning arts councilors, gallery owners, museum curators, and professors.

Aside from a few momentarily bruised egos, life and art continued as usual. There was no intellectual discussion in my presence, no meaningful dialogue with professors – after all they were all fakers and phonies, accidentally serving life sentences while preening their privilege. It was an amusing experience, but not funny. Out of it came little of value, no major insights, no business wisdom. We all proceeded to obtain a worthless degree signifying endurance in self-amusement. The only survivors that thrived were those that abandoned ship early and found a hole in more prestigious institutions.


‘Huff’ Huffnagle

huffnagle

‘Huff’ Huffnagle

Huff was an old man when I met him in the early ’60’s. It is possible that he doesn’t belong in a group of Artists, Poets and Philosophers, but he represents a life that hardly a soul today knows or comments on. When I met him he was peddling real estate in Kingston and doing moderately well. His background was that of a professional fighter during the depression. There was a small troupe of fighters traveling from town to town, fighting the local toughs in crudely roped rings for prize money. Huff pursued the bare-knuckle fight scam with a vengeance for several years. I recall his speaking of pulling into Coulee – the ramshackle temporary town on the banks of the Columbia River. Several thousand workers were employed by the WPA and Corp of Engineers to build Coulee Dam. The Depression was destroying the country, there were millions unemployed and unlike today, the government under Roosevelt put men back to work at huge infrastructure projects.

In his prime, Huff was perhaps 6’4” and 275 pounds. There was an old photo, creased and stained, in a frame on the mantle in his house. It showed him in baggy tights (long johns perhaps), a big leather belt, and his arms cocked and ready parallel in front with the hands wrapped in strips of bandages. They didn’t fight in gloves (pillows as he called them).

There were a couple of sharp dressed smooth talkers that were the advance men – they would go ahead of the troupe and arrange the fights, a week or so in advance. The goal was to have a fight every weekend, weather permitting. I gather there was some bribery of local officials occasionally, and small posters in bars, taverns, telephone poles etc to stir up interest and gather a crowd. The advance men also took in the gambling money during the week proceeding the event. The rope and posts for the ring, stools, buckets, and other  accoutrements would arrive on a truck early on the day of the fight and set up, often in a local baseball diamond or park, occasionally indoors. The fighters would be camped outside of town in tents or empty barns.

Huff and the other fighters preferred to show up about noon on fight day, get a meal, and stalk around town. The half dozen fighters were somewhat divided in weight/size classes. The dam workers could thus size them up and appraise their opponent. In a town of several thousand there would always be tough guys that had reputations as fierce bar fighters and ferocious temperaments. The general population would most frequently bet on their local specialists in abuse.

Huff said the trick was to size the opposition quickly and then to knock them down cold fast, because the more people you cold-cocked the more money there was to be made. Why wear yourself out in a long boxing match? Just slug the son-of-a-bitch. The simple laborers may have been in multiple bar fights but they were no match for s man that had seen a thousand real fights and who was thus cool, calm, collected, and forthright. There was rarely any anger, it was a business. Get in the ring with the opponent, dance around for 20 seconds, take a hit or two, and then simply knock him out. Unpredictably here and there would be some damned fool that wouldn’t easily be felled, and they were a nuisance.

Huff had a face that had been hit, eyebrows were gnarly, ears cauliflowered, knuckles that were huge and scarred, and he walked stiffly, his ankles, knees, and hips aching. I was walking down to his house one day, he was at my side, and he dropped a pen on the ground and he said “What kind of a merciful God is there, that would put the damned ground that far away. That damned pen flee there because it belongs there, damned if I’m going to pick it up.” I picked it up for him.

In the house his wife,”Toots”, would serve coffee and Huff would remind her that despite the early hour, he could sure use some medicine. He had convinced her that the doctor had prescribed schnapps to ease his aches and pains. If the schnapps was gone he would settle for whiskey. We would sit and talk real estate at 10 am sipping MJB coffee and downing shots of schnapps, a shot per cup was the proper dose.

His real estate dealings were low key genial swindles. It was his job as a realtor to fleece the Pilgrims. He primarily showed property to be developed and the principle was to not take Pilgrims for more than they could afford to lose. He was generally reluctant to sell houses, his feeling was that anyone that wanted a house was a sheep awaiting shearing, and he sometimes had pang of guilt.


E.B. Rollen

E.B. Rollen

E.B. Rollen

In the mid ’60’s E.B. Rollen was a regular feature at the gallery monthly openings. At that time he was probably his mid fifties. A small compact gent with a sort of jazzy beard and balding rapidly. He often wore a brown leather coat that featured brown woolen liner, which added to his look of being bulky. I chatted with him several times – he always scouted the food and wine service. In those times a fillet of smoked salmon was frequently featured if you got there before it disappeared. I caught him at one point stuffing his pockets with crackers and cheese.

He had a sly smile, gave the impression of being up to something, or on to the scam in some way. He was a painter of not very decorative but energetically overpainted abstracts, larded with knots, and crusts, and hunks of earlier work – the residual effect of a lot of time painting and repainting. He was teaching one course a term at Cornish, as I recall. That would pay enough to maintain permanent impoverishment in a distinctive manner.

He had been a student at the Art Student’s League in New York, and had been a groupie/student at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Black Mountain was a very progressive institution that had enormous influence in the Arts from the mid-30’s through the mid-50’s when it closed. Such luminaries as Cage, Creeley, Kline, Buckminster Fuller. Joseph Albers and others were instructors or lecturers at Black Mountain. Their influence was scattered all through the Arts until the hippies and their enthusiastic illiteracy drowned it out. Several of my instructors had been associated with Black Mountain.

While hanging out at openings he would discuss the featured artists. We had quite a discussion regarding the distinction between careerism vs ambition within the Arts. In those ancient times, it seemed as if an Artist might create a semblance of a career in the Arts, through diligent self-promotion and the development of a long series of pieces that would sell, This was not and has not been a simple course, particularly for those in the more abstract modes. In areas such as watercolor landscapes or sea scenes it still seems to work for some. For most artists this is becomes a mind-numbing  process similar to handcrafted furniture in the Shaker stylings. Whether its is better than working for a living is a personal assessment. Within the arena of sheer ambition there is the respect for achievements often unaccompanied by any sort of monetary aspect. It could be possible to create a few solitary expressions that would be recognized as significant pieces, but more or less solitary in the course of a lifetime and of interest to others in pursuit of truth and beauty. This is a more monkish path that exists outside the commercial process of career building.

Although E.B. was an instructor he seemingly had no intention of becoming a ‘professor’. He was just getting by and doing what he wanted to to do. Unfortunately that didn’t amount to much of interest. The work was not decorative enough to be popular, and the compositional factors were not fully formed – a bit vague in concept and execution.

I have no idea what became of him. He often talked about leaving Seattle and going back east ‘where the action is’.


Bill Brown

Bill Brown lo res

Bill Brown

When I first noticed Bill Brown at the UW Art School I was a newly minted MFA candidate: a TA in morning classes and working nights at as a burr man in a machine shop called Astro Gears.

I was 25 or so, and he was maybe 20 and in his Sophomore/Junior year at the Art School. I sort of assumed he was Eskimo. I had no reason to make such an assumption and it turned out to be wrong. He was, in fact, a Puyallup Indian. He was a bit of a puzzle. His drawing abilities were rather primitive and reminded me of Eskimo inkings on skins or ivory, but he had somehow managed to create an oddly effective style of painting.

He was one of very few art students from recognizable minority groups. There were typically an Asian or two, a solitary Black, and then, out of the blue, this guy. It was rare for beginners – underclassmen – to actually have a body of notable work, but he was exhibiting these distinctive renderings with the theme of iron girders in spatially ambiguous vaguely impossible contradictory assemblage. The paintings were generally 4’ wide and quite stark and imposing. He was using very fine grain linen canvas (portrait canvas) with multiple smoothed coats of gesso that had been tinted a pale blue – sometimes graduated slightly for a sky effect. The black girder structure was then laboriously laid out from detailed sketches with masking tape to keep the edges clean.

I was just a person in passing, nodding acknowledgement. He disappeared without notice on my part. A few years ago there was an artist in the 619 Western cabal that was doing somewhat similar renderings, not quite as well. Decades ago I was visiting Puyallup frequently and noticed the railroad bridges crossing the Puyallup River and Bill Brown came to mind. Could he have been influenced or inspired by these bridges that date back to the ’40’s? Perhaps. I have not seen any further work from him and have no idea what became of him. There are so many ways to fail in the Art World, so many ways of getting astray, and only a few manage to prosper for any significant length of time.


Hank Wilson

Hank Wilson lo res

Hank Wilson

Hank was an old man when I met him in Seattle in the early ’60’s. I had been conned into a creating poster for what turned out to be one of the last of my friend Malcolm’s Seattle productions. I can’t remember the name of the play although I saw some of the rehearsals.  I had attended the rehearsals to draw a couple of the characters in confrontation with a strong city background. The style probably resembled the above drawing of Hank, a bit coarser ala Beckman and Grosz.

The posters were to be two color and silkscreened because that was the least expensive way to produce a small quantity of strongly colored units. I was told to take the ‘artwork’ to that little shop on Ravenna in Seattle. On that block the adjacent businesses were a diner, a barber shop, a TV repair place (We fix everything!). Each business was in a space about the size of a caboose – tiny. The silkscreen shop reeked of ink, and upon entry there was was a small wiry old man trimming menus with an office cleaver-cutter. I had thought this would be a 5 minute drop off errand, but we ended up discussing aspects of production and then the state of the world for a couple of hours.

He was born around the turn of the century, his parents were immigrants from England. His father had been a Apothecary and had similar but irregular employment in the USA until the Depression. The family was wiped out and basically homeless during the Depression. Hank’s earliest employment had been as a wallpaper hanger and was in his 20’s when the Depression hit. He was a hobo riding the rails and became crop worker, farmhand, beggar and tramp. When the WPA Artists program started he swindled a position by exaggerating his role as paper hanger into a designer/decorator and was put to work in a printing facility in New York – the printing was in the new experimental and still basic silkscreen medium. The silkscreening techniques developed in the WPA program became the basis for a modest industry, now fading rapidly thanks to computer technology.

Hank found himself working shoulder to shoulder with Ben Shahn and other artists producing posters for the many plays, musical, educational, and art programs of the WPA. Through his association with artists such as Shahn and the Soyer brothers, Hank was led to begin his own dabbling in oil paints. His heart was in the right place, but he had not put in enough time and thought to arrive at reasonable and coherent work. Shahn, et al, were very potent political artists in a time of great ferment. Socialism, communism, and what today would be considered far-far-left ideas were eagerly discussed and infected a great deal of the art of the Depression & WWII era. That sort of work is ignored if not suppressed in our enlightened times. The Soyer brothers, Levine, Grosz, Beckman and many others have simply disappeared from contemporary art history.

The Theater poster came out fine, Hank’s suggested minor changes much improved the design. I stopped in and chatted with Hank several times – I was still afflicted with colitis and his shop had an available toilet, but one of the most dirty, shabby and ill-kempt I have ever experienced. When I returned to Seattle in ’66 he was buried in work. He was printing ‘Hippie’ band posters full of curlycues, paisley, cartoons, bubble type, and odd band names; most printed in shrieking dayglo colors. He didn’t like that stuff, but was glad to have the work. He had hired a couple long haired young men to help production, but he didn’t have time to talk, unfortunately. He is long dead and forgotten. The block that contained the little funky businesses has been entirely re-decorated and is now all candy-assed with decor shops, a vegan diner, an organic pet food purveyor, and hand crafted trinkets and bead sources.