All posts in “Curator’s Soapbox”

Seeing Nature through The Eyes of Curators: Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, and Impressionism

Waterloo Bridge, Overcast Weather

One of Paul Allen’s favorite periods is obviously French Impressionism, and he has some exquisite examples. In Seeing Nature there are five paintings by Claude Monet. Monet had such a long life that he underwent a long evolution based on seeing and communicating his subjective experience to the viewer.

Monet was constantly trying to forget what he knew and what his mind told him—such as that if a stone building is brown it should be depicted as brown. He wanted to forget logic and just paint what he saw. In Waterloo Bridge, Overcast Weather, London was beset by terrible pollution and it created a very foggy atmosphere. For Monet, those atmospheric effects made for a series of beautiful paintings where you can subtly perceive the fact that there’s a bridge before you with smoke stacks beyond. The brushstrokes depicting sunlight coming through the arches of the bridge have more substance than the bridge itself. He was interested in the changing color effects of different times and days so he painted the Waterloo Bridge at different times of day.

Landscape on île Saint-Martin, Claude Monet, 1881.

Landscape on île Saint-Martin

Earlier in his career, Monet didn’t have the luxury of going far afield to paint. It took him years to be able to make a living. Landscape on île Saint-Martin and The Fisherman’s House, Overcast Weather are from the early 1880s when he was still years away from becoming successful. He painted where he was living with his family. During one summer, Monet was on a little island just north of Paris and painted it in all of its summertime glory with this beautiful field of poppies. There is a little fisherman’s cabin that used to be a watchtower right on the Normandy coast, an area of his childhood that he would return to many times over the years. These paintings reward looking close up, but they also reward standing back and taking in the whole—he’s thinking about both perspectives at the same time.

The Fisherman's House, Overcast Weather, Claude Monet, 1882.

The Fisherman’s House, Overcast Weather

Claude Monet painted Venice fairly late in his career. It’s important to mention The Palazzo da Mula in conjunction with View in Venice–The Grand Canal by Edouard Manet. Manet was such an inspiration for Monet. Though he never called himself an Impressionist, Manet was absolutely fundamental to the movement. It’s interesting that both artists went to Venice—Manet painting in 1874 and Monet in 1908. By this time there is a historical body of work that artists have created about Venice. There are conventions about what Venetian paintings look like and both of these artists are interested in breaking those conventions.

The Palazzo da Mula, Claude Monet, 1908.

The Palazzo da Mula

Manet’s painting is particularly radical. He is right on the water. It’s as though he’s painting in a boat. All of the grand views, the many beautiful buildings that intersect with the sky and water, are not his main subject. The dome, which was originally much bigger—there’s a pentiment that shows through a little bit now—he suppresses it. He doesn’t want that to be the main event. He’s instead much more interested in the mooring poles that are part of the navigational system of all the boat traffic in Venice.

View in Venice–The Grand Canal, Edouard Manet, 1874.

View in Venice–The Grand Canal

When you see just the prow of the gondola come into the picture, it reminds you that photography has become part of the visual vocabulary by this time. A view can be cut off like a snapshot and a form can end abruptly. It’s not composed in that traditional way, it almost looks like a found view although he obviously worked at it. To me, this painting is an antidote to the kind of more melancholy mysterious aspect of Venice, which is so much a part of its literary reputation. This is more about a bustling city full of movement. It’s full of vigor and sparkling light in the middle of the day.

– Chiyo Ishikawa, Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture

See these and other Impressionist artworks in Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection, on view at SAM through May 23.

Note: This text is taken from an audio recording of a staff tour of the exhibition led by SAM curators.
Images: Waterloo Bridge, Overcast Weather, 1904, Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926, oil on canvas, 25 9/16 x 39 1/8 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection. Landscape on île Saint-Martin, 1881, Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926, oil on canvas, 28 13/16 x 23 5/8 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection. The Fisherman’s House, Overcast Weather, 1882, Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926, oil on canvas, 22 3/4 x 28 3/4 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection. The Palazzo da Mula, 1908, Claude Monet, French, 1840-1926, oil on canvas, 26 1/6 x 36 3/4 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection. View in Venice–The Grand Canal, 1874, Edouard Manet, French, 1832-1883, oil on canvas, 22 9/16 x 18 3/4 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection.
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Ping’s Puzzle: Putting Together a New Narrative for the Asian Art Museum

While the Asian Art Museum is closed in preparation for renovation, our curators are staying busy. Hear from Ping Foong, Foster Foundation Curator of Chinese Art, on what she’s busy with and how it will impact the Asian Art Museum.

SAM: What are you working on while the Asian Art Museum is closed for the next 18 months?

PING: I’m hoping to convene a panel of senior advisors to help us address big-picture questions for the museum: What defines Asian Art? How can we define Asian Art in the 21st century? What are the boundaries of Asia that we want to talk about? What role does contemporary Asian Art play? What role does less represented areas of Asia play? The term Asia doesn’t refer only to East Asia (China, Japan, Korea) or South Asia (India and Pakistan). So one of the big questions is how to balance the stories the collection itself can tell versus the stories we ought to tell. So, basically I’m asking my elders for help.

A motivation for the proposed renovation is to better display South Asian artworks, correct?

Yes, this is not my area, so I found us expert help: a senior curator of South Asian art will join my team as a consultant so that we will have “three pillars” representing our collection—China, Japan, and South Asia. Another important question is what role must Islam play in the display of Asian art. Islamic art is not geographically specific. Right? So, we have on display right now downtown a room full of Islamic art, but then the question is should it also be included in the Asian Art Museum? Where do you draw those lines? That’s an important question to ask. And how do we ask these questions? Well a curator has a very important role in these things, but I like to have feedback. I want this to be part of a conversation.

How do you see this conversation impacting the future of the Asian Art Museum?

The theme that surfaces often is transcultural connections. There are objects that cannot be defined by religion. We want to talk about how artistic styles travel. Other things travel that you may not imagine. For instance, tattoos travel because they’re on the body. I like to think about the ways that color travels. I would love to make a room full of color talking about the way that trade connects Persia and China. Cobalt goes from one end of the world to the other end and gets made into something and comes back. This process of going back and forth can be demonstrated with objects.

In the meanwhile, what sort of Asian art will be on view at Seattle Art Museum?

Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors is on view this summer. People are very excited about that exhibition. Another reason to be excited is Pure Amusements: Wealth, Leisure, and Culture in Late Imperial China. It’s basically a scholar’s objects show with a twist. Certainly, you get to see some very important examples of well-known furniture, lovely Ming dynasty chairs, elegant brush pots, pens—the kinds of objects that a scholar might need for everyday life. But the theme of the show is that these things are not just necessarily belonging to scholars. They belong to people who aspire to join the community scholars, or to participate in scholar culture. These beautifully crafted objects may have been made for somebody who wants a scholar’s object, but is not a member of that class.

Also, it’s a chance to display things we’ve never displayed before. I found a set of very nice ink sticks that belonged to one of the most famous Chinese emperors. He lived in the 18th century and collected like a maniac. He was probably the greatest emperor collector on earth; no one had a bigger collection than him! These ink sticks are little and each of them looks like a tiny musical instrument. With an ink stick, you rub it with a little bit of water against the inside of an ink stone and you create ink you can use in paintings or calligraphy. They’re ephemeral, they disintegrate, but yet these ink sticks are so beautifully crafted.

Sounds like we won’t be missing out on Asian art in the interim. But what will you miss most while the Asian Art Museum is closed for proposed renovation?

Well, I miss a number of things. The offices, for example, those will change. They are historic offices. There’s history in sitting on those seats and that will go away. The plan right now is that where the current offices are will become perhaps the conservation studio and the administrative offices will move. So I will miss my beautiful window. I have a tree outside it. That was my favorite part about working in the park. As objects are concerned, I’ll miss my favorite Buddha.

What are you most excited about maybe in terms of the new space?

We’re planning on two new education spaces. Currently, we’re busting at the seams on Saturdays because we cannot accommodate all the kids who come to the museum. So we’ll have one space in the lower level, an art-making area, and a family area upstairs that is currently a gallery. It’s one of the most important parts of the proposed renovation because we just don’t have room for that currently.

Anything else you want to share about your future plans for the Asian Art Museum?

I think that the conversations we’re having with our advisory panel have to happen now, as I’m formulating ideas. And I do have some crazy ideas. I’m not sure if I can talk about them yet. It’s like this: Permanent collections—we’ve got to bring them a little love. You know? I want to put together a new and exciting narrative that people will love now and in the future.

– Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, Copywriter & Content Strategist

Photo: Natasha Gillett
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Seeing Nature through The Eyes of Curators: The Grand Canyon

The first time I saw Cosmic Cities, I found it hard to believe that the Arthur Wesley Dow who I was familiar with could paint so large and boldly. This is what the Grand Canyon did for him. Dow was famous as a teacher at Columbia Teachers College. He developed a course of composition study based on Japanese prints, on filling the page or canvas through flat patterns and linear rhythms. This is what he taught to people like Georgia O’Keeffe, a new modern way of looking. In his own practice, he created beautiful little wood cut prints and tiny paintings done in the landscape around his Massachusetts home. But when he went west it changed him completely.

When Arthur Wesley Dow got to the Grand Canyon, he said it compelled him to think about pictures in three different ways. One was color, because the sedimentary rock, sand, and shell shimmered, changing colors all day long and giving a glittery quality to the atmosphere and the surfaces. He said the immersive experience of the Grand Canyon made him think differently about the structures of pictures—he loved that disorienting quality, the feeling that we have no footing, that we might tumble into the scene. He also said he saw nature’s innate architecture. In Cosmic Cities, this strange architecture looks like it could have come from some ancient builders, but it is the product of nature itself. This painting was commented on by critiques as a great breakthrough for American painting at this time in 1912. Because of its large scale and its all-over, painterly color pattern, it doesn’t look like a Victorian-era painting—it looks like it could have been painted today.

Dow went to the Grand Canyon because he saw paintings like Thomas Moran’s Grand Canyon, also in the Allen collection. Moran visited the Grand Canyon repeatedly. His trips were paid for by the Santa Fe Railroad and the Fred Harvey Hotel. The Santa Fe Railroad extended its tracks right up to the south rim of the Grand Canyon and built the famous Fred Harvey Hotel there. It was a tourist destination for a long time before Theodore Roosevelt designated the Grand Canyon a national monument in 1908. When you look out across the vast space, you see the horizon in the Moran painting, and so you get a sense of firm grounding, and of deep landscape. It’s a very different effect from Dow’s boundless, dizzying place.

–Patricia Junker, Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art

I don’t know how many of you have been to the Grand Canyon, but the drama of the Grand Canyon is just extraordinary. When you stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon you can hardly ever see straight down to the Colorado River because it is so deep. What you see is this texture of different planes that unfold in front of you. I have this idea that Dow painted the Grand Canyon at sunrise because once I got up at four in the morning to see the sunrise over the Grand Canyon and the lavender tones start coming out. In David Hockney’s Grand Canyon, on the other hand, I see sunset colors because that’s when there are intense orange and yellows. You can’t believe how much purple there can be in a rock! Of course, Hockney exaggerates since these are not natural colors.

A British artist who spends a lot of time in Los Angeles and travels to the Grand Canyon, David Hockney did some work designing stage sets. I think that’s especially pronounced in his Grand Canyon. He uses these small squares of canvas corresponding to photographs he took at the Grand Canyon. Initially he planned a photographic series. He took all these photographs, taped them together, and then decided the photographic representation wasn’t successful. So he painted the Grand Canyon in three different versions. This one is called The Grand Canyon and conceptually, if you think of stage design, the purple form would be one slice that you roll onto stage and the yellow form could be another. There’s a way in which he was learning from his experience in stagecraft for the composition of this scene. The stroke of genius here, that tiny sliver of sky—which when you’re standing there, would instead feel enormous—puts so much pressure on the entire composition. It’s really an extraordinary painting.

–Catharina Manchanda, Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

Bring your own experience of the Grand Canyon to Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection and compare it to three wildly divergent depictions of this natural wonder. Seeing Nature presents 39 exquisite, highly detailed paintings as a platform for visitors to consider their own experience with the world through sight, touch, smell, sound, and taste. On view through May 23, don’t miss it!

Images: Cosmic Cities, Grand Canyon of Arizona, 1912, Arthur Wesley Dow, American, 1857-1922, oil on canvas, 61 x 79 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection.
Grand Canyon of Arizona at Sunset, 1909, Thomas Moran, American, born England, 1837–1926, oil on canvas, 30 x 40 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection. David Hockney, British, b. 1937, The Grand Canyon, 1998, oil on canvas, 48 ½ x 14 ft. 1 in. overall, Paul G. Allen Family Collection, © David Hockney.
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Seeing Nature through The Eyes of Curators: Venice

By the 18th century, landscape has become a full-fledged genre. One of the reasons that artists paint landscapes is for a shifting international clientele that is doing a lot of travel. Of course, it is the wealthiest elite that is doing this kind of travel, such as English gentlemen on the Grand Tour. It becomes a mandatory part of one’s education to spend time in Italy, which is where European systems of government formed and where there are still ancient monuments for people to see. It also has a lush and exotic landscape from an English perspective. In Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection you’ll see works focused on Italy, and particularly Venice—a favorite place for people to visit and a very favorite place for artists to portray. It is also a favorite place of Paul Allen’s—there are eight paintings of Venice in this exhibition. Throughout, you have the opportunity to think about places you have, or haven’t, visited, and see them through the eyes of artists. And this is especially true of Venice.

The first great painter of Venice is Canaletto, a Venetian, and he paints very exacting images of particular locations in Venice. Venice is a magical place because it is so unchanged. You can seek out this view of the Grand Canal and it will look just like the painting. Canaletto had his studio in Venice where these paintings were displayed and English visitors would commission paintings or buy them in groups as decoration for their homes. Both of the Canaletto paintings in Seeing Nature are spectacular paintings in their own quiet way. He can easily describe the rhythms of everyday life, but can also describe pageantry and the kind of stately and more decorated trappings that Venice could put on for grand occasions. The ingredients that you see here—buildings, water, boats, sky—those are the basic ingredients of any painting about Venice and artists will address these elements according to their own interests.

J. M. W. Turner painted about a century after Canaletto, in the mid-19th century. By 1841 when he painted this painting, Turner had visited Venice three times. His early works are watercolor studies made on the spot—probably influenced by images by Canaletto and other Venetian artists. By the time he is well into his career, he has made Venice the scene for a kind of more poetic rumination on mood and atmosphere–and also a sense of nostalgia for the past, which often accompanies views of Venice as well as poetry and literature about the city. Turner has invented a story here about the great 15th century painter, Giovanni Bellini, whose paintings are still to be seen in many churches in Venice. In Turner’s fantasy, three Bellini paintings are being delivered to the church that you see in the painting. He has created a lavish and dignified pageant: you can practically hear the music playing, with richly dressed people and flags and banners and a full flotilla delivering these paintings to this beautiful church. Sky, water, boats, buildings—it’s all here, but what a different effect from the Canaletto paintings. Most of the paintings in the exhibition have Plexiglass over them so you can get close to them and study the surface and brushwork. This one is almost like enamel. It looks like palette-knife work. Turner’s texture and color contribute to the mood. This is all part of concocting an emotional and poetic response to this place.

Later in the exhibition you can see how Manet, Monet and other Impressionists saw Venice through the lens of the artistic issues of their own time.

– Chiyo Ishikawa, Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture

Hearing from SAM ‘s curators is a treat and this post is only a taste of what Chiyo Ishikawa and Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator, will be speaking on Wednesday, April 19 during A Constant Entertainment: A View Of Venice From Canaletto’s Studio. This lecture is part of our Conversations with Curators series. This popular members-only lecture series still has tickets available and single lectures are open to the public. Get your ticket now for more on Venice and our current exhibition, Seeing Nature, on view through May 23.

Images: Installation view of Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection at Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Natali Wiseman. The Grand Canal, Venice, Looking Southeast from San Stae to the Fabbriche Nuove di Rialto, ca. 1738, Canaletto, Italian, 1697–1768, oil on canvas, 18 1/2 x 30 5/8 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection. Depositing of John Bellini’s Three Pictures in La Chiesa Redentore, Venice, 1841, Joseph Mallord William Turner, British, 1775–1851, oil on canvas, 29 x 45 1/2 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection. View in Venice–The Grand Canal, 1874, Edouard Manet, French, 1832–1883, oil on canvas, 22 9/16 x 18 3/4 in., Paul G. Allen Family Collection.
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Pictures and Words: National Gallery by Frederick Wiseman

One of the abiding pleasures of my job is that I get to spend so much time in museums—not just the Seattle Art Museum, but great institutions throughout Europe and the United States. That’s where I spend my business trips, and many vacations too. Working in a museum, I am familiar with the teamwork and myriad decisions that go into creating collection installations and exhibitions. Now a gorgeous new film, Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery (playing December 5-11 at the Northwest Film Forum), invites viewers to watch the activity behind the scenes at one of the finest collections of European art in the world, London’s National Gallery.

Wiseman edited down hundreds of hours filmed on-site to craft a paean to the art of looking. We observe masterpiece after masterpiece–close-up, within the grand architecture of the galleries, and unframed in the attic conservation studio. We observe people—the professional staff of the Gallery, which includes the director Nicholas Penny, curators, educators, marketing specialists, scientists, framers, conservators, art handlers, maintenance staff—as well as studious visitors who scrutinize these paintings looking for answers or just marveling at the talents of great artists of the past.

In contrast to many documentaries, there is no narration, no interviews, and no identification of the speakers. We take a fly-on-the-wall position and watch the business of the museum unfold in a non-hierarchical way. The closest thing to a dramatic crisis is a series of conversations among museum staff about whether the august Gallery should succumb to marketing opportunities to appear more hip and reach a broader audience. I was fascinated to recognize that the National Gallery–which has free admission and welcomes over five million visitors annually—is as concerned as we are at SAM to understand our audiences and develop programs with their needs in mind. But in a film that lasts nearly three hours, this is just one of many activities that hum through the museum, seemingly no more or less important than installing a new lighting system, managing a blockbuster Leonardo da Vinci exhibition, or conserving paintings.

The curators and conservators have unparalleled knowledge about the works of art in their care, but their conversations here are often quite insular and subtle. For me the heroes of the film are the talented and passionate gallery educators who are marvelously effective in helping visitors to understand what the artist was trying to do all those years ago under circumstances that feel quite foreign to us today. All of these dedicated professionals prize active looking, as does Wiseman. He lets scenes unfold in real time, which will require an adjustment from viewers used to quick-paced, plot-driven films. But patience has its rewards, and in the final scene the film achieves poetry as a pair of dancers perform in an empty gallery before two of the most moving works that Titian ever painted. These wordless moments where music, dance, and painting come together resonate with a power beyond all of the eloquent words that came before.

–Chiyo Ishikawa, Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art and Curator of European Painting and Sculpture

Image: Courtesy of Zipporah Films.

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Joseph Hillaire: Carver of the Kobe-Seattle Sister City Friendship Pole

Hillaire carving the pole for Kobe, Japan, in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, 1961. Photograph by Harvey Davis. Post-Intelligencer Collection, Museum of History and Industry.

Joe Hillaire Kwul-kwul-tu, (meaning “spirit of the war club”) was a man of indomitable spirit, grace, intelligence, and talent. For his Lummi people, he perpetuated song and dance traditions through the Setting Sun Dance group, was instrumental in reviving the Lummi Stommish water festival (and Chief Seattle Days at Suquamish), taught totem carving and canoe-making, and was a voice for social and political causes. Of parallel importance were his actions as a liaison between Native and non-Native people. He imparted knowledge of Lummi heritage to anthropologists Bernhard J. Stern and Erna Gunther (curator of the Northwest Coast Native exhibit at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair) and ethnomusicologist Willard Rhodes, as well as to the Boy Scouts of America and various school groups in the Seattle region. Hillaire also provided guidance to business and civic leaders, and traveled throughout the U.S. and to Japan with the objective of fostering inter-cultural friendships and bringing attention to Native culture.

Totem pole carved by Joe Hillaire, Kobe, Japan, 1961. Photograph by Lawrence Denny Lindsley, 1967. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division.

The 35-foot-tall pole depicted in the image to the right was carved by Hillaire in 1961 as a part of a two-pole project to call attention to the upcoming 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle. Kobe is Seattle’s sister city and the story pole was a goodwill gift meant to point out commonalties between the two cities, ease the memories of WWII, and promote trade between the U.S. and Japan. Hillaire’s approach is richly symbolic: two sisters grow closer as they acknowledge the things they share, like the salmon, mountains and sea, and the rising sun (Japan) and setting sun (Seattle). The monster blowing a dark cloud symbolizes the darkness of war, while the sun alludes to the hope of peace.

Images from Joseph Hillaire’s Trip to Kobe, Japan (1961)

 

 

 

Joseph Hillaire and the Saga of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair Totems

Lummi artist Joseph Hillaire was commissioned to carve two story poles in connection with the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. In celebration of its 50th anniversary, we are remembering Hillaire’s contributions to the Century 21 Exposition in a series of weekly posts. Please check back each week or subscribe to our RSS to learn more about Joseph Hillaire and the Saga of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair Totems. 

Top Photo: Hillaire carving the pole for Kobe, Japan, in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, 1961. Photograph by Harvey Davis. Post-Intelligencer Collection, Museum of History and Industry.
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Joseph Hillaire: Carver of the Century 21 Exposition Totem Pole

Joseph Raymond Kwul-kwul’tu Hillaire (1894–1967) was an artist, storyteller, performer, Native activist, and diplomat. When Joe Hillaire was born, lingering distrust permeated Native-White relations. Many of Joe’s totem poles were created as civic monuments and served to bridge cross-cultural understanding, as well as to project the rich Lummi oral traditions.

Hillaire’s monumental carvings are “story poles”—the deeds of ancestral heroes and their encounters with supernatural beings appearing on both sides of the pole. When Hillaire learned carving from his father at sixteen, Coast Salish totem pole carving was a recent practice. While this art form was adopted in shape and size from northern Native groups, it displayed more naturalistic figures (adapted from traditional interior house posts) and arranged them in narrative fashion.

In 1961, Hillaire was commissioned to create two totem poles for the Seattle World’s Fair celebration, one to tour the United States to promote the Fair (and the unique heritage of the Northwest) and one for Seattle’s sister city, Kobe, Japan. The Land in the Sky Pole—which tells the story of the adventures of two brothers who enter the sky worldtraveled to 300 cities and towns before it was returned to Seattle for the April 21, 1962 opening of the Exposition. By the time it was completed the sixty-six year-old Hillaire having carved on it in twenty-five states! The Land in the Sky Pole was never erected at the Seattle Center but stood near Chief Seattle’s grave on the Suquamish reservation from 1963 until 2005, when it was deemed unsafe and taken down, and returned to his ancestral home, the Lummi reservation near Bellingham, WA.

Joseph Hillaire and the Saga of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair Totems

Lummi artist Joseph Hillaire was commissioned to carve two story poles in connection with the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. In celebration of its 50th anniversary, we are remembering Hillaire’s contributions to the Century 21 Exposition in a series of weekly posts, starting this week! Please check back each week or subscribe to our RSS to learn more about Joseph Hillaire and the Saga of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair Totems.

Hillaire and grandson, Ernie Lewis, 1950s. Photograph courtesy of Pauline Hillaire.
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