Sea Bear

Object of the Week: Sea Bear

We who love art find joy in putting words to what artists are doing visually. Scholarly articles and Instagram posts, Ph.D. dissertations and dinnertime monologues, poetry and pop music are all common sites for reflecting on the ideas impressed upon us by visual art. However much we enjoy sharing our own angle, we should designate the greatest respect for the words artists share about their own work. They are often, in themselves, a kind of poetry.

Along with a few images of this week’s object, Sea Bear, by Seattle artist Sherry Markovitz, here’s a selection of thoughts from the artist on her work and this resplendent piece:

I am after beauty, with an edge of uncertainty, vulnerability, and power. I use animal metaphors to explore issues of intimacy, closeness, and separation.1

Immersing myself in work and making objects is a way of setting boundaries and losing them at the same time.2

This piece was done after the birth of my son Jake. It has a quiet about it that is different from the preceding pieces. It also is part of the stories I have been doing that utilizes an extension to the head. It also is a transition piece that displays the qualities of the work that involves horns & gourds.

The quiet, monochromatic color.

I see the ‘collar’ as directional. The wood shape & the bear shape—working in tandem was the key (formally) on this one. I think the large pearls pulled the shape back to the bear. It’s funny, as I get further away from a piece, it is, in fact, the abstract concerns that remain the most visible to me.

Emotionally Sea Bear is circular, all the stuff on it is traceable to significant walks. Walks with my mother in Florida, walks in Port Townsend with Peter (during which time J was conceived), walks alone to find the ‘root’ pieces at Discovery Park. Walking on the beach is such a drifting and wonderful activity.

I feel whole at those times, and quiet.

The beadwork is a lot about getting quiet—& color—the beauty of the colored glass. Muting it somewhat on Sea Bear—making it more sand like and solid. How pieces lay in the sand—3

I have several strong personal influences: my family of origin, whose psychodynamics have been a continual source of reference; my partner, whose vision, optimism, and endurance keep everything in fresh perspective; and the late Emil Gehrke, a folk artist of Grand Coulee, Washington, who taught me that art could be about joy and totality.4

I work as hard as I can. I set no limits on how or when I work. My limit is exhaustion.5

– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Sea Bear, 1990, Sherry Markovitz (American, b. 1947), wood, beads, shells, fabric, paint, papier mâché, 25 x 17 x 29 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Terry Hunziker, 90.3 © Sherry Markovitz. Installation view of Pacific Currents at Seattle Art Museum, Photo: Nathaniel Willson. Sherry Markovitz’ hand-written notes on Sea Bear, from SAM’s curatorial files.
1 Sherry Markovitz, quoted in 50 Northwest Artists: A Critical Selection of Painters and Sculptors Working in the Pacific Northwest, ed. Bruce Geunther, San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1983; 81.
2 Sherry Markovitz, 50 Northwest Artists, 81.
3 Sherry Markovitz, letter to Vicki Halper, August 14, 1991.
4 Sherry Markovitz, 50 Northwest Artists, 80-81.
5 Sherry Markovitz, 50 Northwest Artists, 80.
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SAM at American Alliance of Museums 2017

The theme of the American Alliance of Museums 2017 Annual Meeting was Gateways for Understanding: Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion. I appreciated how the various sessions I attended and the conference overall tackled this themes in all aspects, from identities (race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity) to abilities. It is apparent that these things are at the forefront for professionals in the field from museums of all sizes, of all types, and from all areas of an institution, and that these issues are incredibly integral to shaping the future of the museum.

The #AAM2017SlaveAuction incident in the MuseumExpo during the conference however, indicated that even though these conversations and the work around these things are happening, we still have a long way to go. We need to find ways to hold ourselves accountable, have everyone on board at all steps in the process, and ensure we have the right voices at the table. To me, much of the work to shake up our institutions needs to start from within before our museums and cultural spaces can have external influence. Even though these conversations are happening at large in this moment, it’s also important to acknowledge that the things we seek to undo and change have been embedded in the fabrics of our institutions. In many ways these conversations are not new and have been happening outside of our institutions for years already. The conference left me optimistic and hopeful, so I’m excited to see where things go!

– Marcus Ramirez, Coordinator for Education and Public Programs

For more on SAM’s participation in AAM 2017 and thoughts from our staff on this year’s themes listen to the panels the SAM staff presented on during the conference.

Radical Equity and Inclusion featuring David Rue, SAM’s Public Programs Coordinator

Beyond the Buzzword featuring Sarah Bloom, Senior Manager for Teen, Family & Multigenerational Programs and Learning

Co-curating in a Changing City: Library/Museum Partnerships featuring Regan Pro, Kayla Skinner Deputy Director for Education and Public Programs

It’s Critical: Evaluating Museum Volunteers featuring Jenny Woods, Manager of Volunteer Programs

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A Touch of Class: More Films of Cary Grant

Once again our summer series celebrates Cary Grant, witty, handsome, elegant gentleman, and superb actor. Comedy, romance, action, suspense—Grant handles it all with incomparable grace and a wry grin.

July 13: Mr. Lucky (H.C. Potter, 1943)
Archie Leach of Bristol, England, rose from his humble, impoverished origins to become Cary Grant of Hollywood, “the man from dream city.” In Mr. Lucky, Joe Aden’s (Grant) life follows a similar arc, rising from lower-class British obscurity to stellar American success—but on the shady side of the law. World War II is raging, but Joe has more immediate concerns: he needs more money to run his floating gambling casino, so he steals another man’s identity to avoid the draft and launches a fail-proof scheme. He’ll charm War Relief society ladies, including delectable Laraine Day and her crew of elders, into letting him run a gambling operation at their charity ball. But Joe’s more than met his match as the women put him to work knitting with needles and yarn in a downtown window, where men walking by on the street can see him. With Charles Bickford, Gladys Cooper, Paul Stewart. In 35mm, 100 min.

The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer

The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer (1947)

July 20: The Bachelor and the Bobbysoxer (Irving Reis, 1947)
This is the first film to make Grant’s capacity for bedazzlement its subject. When visiting artist Dick (Grant) lectures her high school class, student Susan (seventeen-year-old Shirley Temple) envisions him as a knight in shining armor. Dick wants no part of her dream, but after he’s found in a compromising position by a judge, Susan’s older sister Margaret (Myrna Loy), he’s sentenced to squire Susan about until her crush subsides. Grant is marvelously silly as he dresses cool, talks jive, and competes in a three-legged race at a teen picnic. Is Susan still feverish? Of course, and now solemn sister Margaret is getting weak kneed. With Rudy Vallee. In 35mm, 95 min.

I was a Male War Bride (1949)

July 27: I Was a Male War Bride (Howard Hawks, 1949)
In his roles Grant could suffer frustrations and humiliations hilariously, and a spirited, independent-minded Howard Hawks woman like Air Corps officer Catherine Gates (Ann Sheridan) can dish them out. During World War II in occupied Germany, Catherine and French officer Henri Rochard (Grant) find each other obnoxious, presumptuous, even dangerous—so of course they fall in love and marry. But the much-desired consummation of their marriage, and their entry into the United States, must wait for Grant to put on a dress and a wig and convince the world that he’s a woman. With Marion Marshall, Randy Stewart. Digital restoration, 105 min.

August 3: People Will Talk (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1951)
Powered by Mankiewicz’s wise, witty, literate script and one of Grant’s best performances, People Will Talk celebrates non-conforming, quirky individuals who put their provocative ideas into practice. Plus, it’s a romantic comedy! Grant is a non-traditional medical professor who believes that emotions effect physical health, whose best friends are a convicted murderer (Findlay Currie) and an atomic physicist (Walter Slezak) who plays with toy trains. And he thinks maybe he should marry one of his students, a suicidal pregnant woman (Jeanne Crain) who has no partner. All this is just too much for a sour, spiteful academic (Hume Cronyn) who launches an investigation of easygoing Professor Grant. With Margaret Hamilton (The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch). In 35mm, 109 min.

August 10: Monkey Business (Howard Hawks, 1952)
In this comic masterpiece, director Hawks and screenwriters Ben Hecht, I.A.L. Diamond, and Charles Lederer take America’s obsession with remaining youthful to delightfully absurd extremes. The marriage of chemist Cary Grant to physicist Ginger Rogers is a dismal, rocky affair of boredom and smoldering resentments. When Grant, with the help of a laboratory chimpanzee, develops a rejuvenation drug and samples it, he suddenly gets a crew cut and a sports car and flirts with his secretary (Marilyn Monroe). Rogers gets her own turn at being an adolescent again, with the dangerously unruly anarchy of childhood soon to follow. In the wacky way of screwball comedy, maybe indulging your inner savage is a sign of true love. With Charles Coburn and George Winslow, famous in the 1950s for his “foghorn voice.” In 35mm, 97 min.

To Catch a Thief (1959)

To Catch a Thief (1955)

August 17: To Catch a Thief (Alfred Hitchcock, 1955)
This Hitchcock jewel sparkles with the glamor of Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, and the French Riviera, and the allure of ill-gotten gains. Grant, a retired high society jewel thief called “The Cat,” is suspected when priceless trinkets start disappearing all around Cannes. The gendarmes want to catch him in the act, while Grant wants to prove his innocence by nabbing the real culprit. Prime targets for plucking are a wealthy American heiress (Jesse Royce Landis) and her daughter (Grace Kelly), so Grant stays close to them, hoping the thief will make a move. Kelly appears to be a remote ice princess, but inside she gets an erotic thrill from the idea that Grant might want to steal from her. Kelly and Grant’s coy approach to seduction is a delight, as when Kelly unpacks a chicken lunch and says, “Would you like a leg or a breast?,”  striking Grant speechless. With Brigitte Auber and John Williams. In 35mm, 97 min.

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Smoky Sunrise, Astoria Harbor, 1882

Object of the Week: Smoky Sunrise, Astoria Harbor

The almost-summer, peek-a-boo-sun weather here in Seattle has me excited about all the potential the coming season holds for outdoorsy activity. Having been cooped up through a cold winter and rainy spring, we’re ready to get outside, to maximize those sun rays, and to utterly exhaust ourselves. Let’s burn some skin and burn ourselves out! What better place to get the most out of summer than the Pacific Northwest? (Nowhere, that’s where.)

One can find endless things to do on a sunny day here, but a favorite of mine, and of quite a few other folks, clearly, is to get out on the water. Kayaks, SUPs, sailboats, and some one-percenter yachts will be out in full force these summer weekends. After three years of living in Seattle, I’ve finally met a family with a boat and can’t wait to bum a ride, to float out over the Sound, to reverse my land-bound perspective, and to drink in the beauty of the coastal landscape. The quality of light and the diversity of the geography in the Northwest give us the perfect ingredients for a romantic painting, which is why I’m especially grateful that we have a really good one at the Seattle Art Museum: Cleveland Rockwell’s Smoky Sunrise, Astoria Harbor.

In the painting, soft orange light filters through a dense atmosphere to coat the scene in mystical hues. Hardly joy riding, its figures row with exertion and carefully navigate an active harbor, bustling about to accomplish the trade that made Astoria an important port town in the 19th century. The scale of their enterprise varies, some maneuvering humble canoes and others commanding imposing merchant ships. A flock of seagulls finds its breakfast before gliding into the distance, maybe headed next for the salmon canneries that are the only sign of humanity’s nascent shaping of the land. Silhouetted by the gently rising sun, the mounds of Astoria’s Tongue Point root this picture in a place, reminding us that it records a real local history. Rockwell worked with the US Coast Survey and knew the terrain in Astoria well, so he’s not imagining anything. Even the phantasmagoric warmth of the sunlight may be truer to life than we imagine; his title references then-frequent fires that would leave this kind of dreamy atmospheric effect.

Second to Rockwell, we have Captain George Flavel to thank for this painting. Captain Flavel lived in Astoria and did quite well for himself as a bar pilot, helping ships to navigate the very dangerous access point to the Columbia River from the Pacific, and running a tugboat service that took ships upriver from Astoria to Portland. Captain Flavel was a friend of Rockwell’s and commissioned him to make several important paintings, including Smoky Sunrise, Astoria Harbor. He passed away in 1893, but this painting remained in the Flavel family for several generations. Within the first few months of my time as Collections Coordinator at SAM, I received a call from a descendant of Captain Flavel who had an interest in the painting and planned to visit SAM. It was heartwarming to look at this painting with him and his family, who held such a personal connection to it. Our warm and fuzzy feelings reflected right back at us from Rockwell’s cheery painting.

– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Smoky Sunrise, Astoria Harbor, 1882, Cleveland Rockwell (Born Youngstown, Ohio, 1837; died Portland, Oregon, 1907), oil on canvas, 20 x 34 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Len and Jo Braarud, Ann and Tom Barwick, Marshall and Helen Hatch; and gift, by exchange, of Lawrence Bogle, Mr. and Mrs. Taylor Collins, Eustace Ziegler, Mary E. Humphrey and Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 89.70
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Object of the Week: Union

Sam Gilliam’s 1977 painting Union tantalizes with its tactility. It’s rhythm, texture, color, and shade; bright and inviting, dark and rough. It’s free-form abstraction raked as a zen garden, and grounded by geometric shape.

Over the course of his career Gilliam has shown a deep interest in painting as a physical process. He made waves in the art world in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when he displayed paint on canvas in innovative ways. He began suspending his canvases, hanging them by corners like linen sheets on a laundry line, or pinning them up at certain points, allowing the canvas to cascade downward in thick, heavy folds. While this body of work created a sculptural experience of the canvas, his series of Black Paintings, of which Union is a prime example, created a sculptural experience with paint. In these works he used a shag-rug rake to create a notched surface texture that unifies the painting.

Interestingly, Gilliam started out as a representational painter. Born in Tupelo, Mississippi, in 1933, he studied at the University of Louisville, earning his BA in 1955 and his MA in 1961. In the ‘60s he relocated to Washington, DC, where fate awaited. In DC Gilliam joined up with the artists who would become known as the Washington Color School—a group working in abstract modes to press the expressive potential of color.

In his own milieu Gilliam was a sponge, always soaking up wisdom, but also dispensing it. Discussing artists who have influenced him in a recent interview, he begins with Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis but covers a staggering range after them, speaking smoothly on Paul Klee, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Yvonne Rainer, Claude Monet, Georges Braque, Arthur Dove, Tintoretto, Alice Denney, Jan van Eyck, and David Smith. Add to that mix: jazz music, especially the tunes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk; curators like Walter Hopps, one-time director of the Washington Gallery of Modern Art; symbols, like the American flag; and Washington’s urban design, its circular hub and radiating arteries.[1] Gilliam links his own productivity with his ability to recognize fine material: “There’s a mental connection that’s very good between the activity of painting and, let’s say, the visual and the listening process from the outside, which is always stimulating.”[2]

Though Gilliam’s beginnings were tied to the figure, his future was bound in colorful abstraction. His first one-man show in DC, held at Adams-Morgan Gallery in 1963, featured exclusively representational paintings, while his second show, held just a year later, featured no representational works.[3] Gilliam recounts that one of the DC artists, Tom Downing, played a large part in encouraging this shift: “Tom saw an exhibition of mine that was entirely figurative plus a series of watercolors on a grid, which were Klee-like. He suggested that, obviously, the figurative painting was unnecessary and that the watercolors were right in. So, I guess he’s the one that got me started making abstract paintings.”[4]

Gilliam’s work now graces prominent collections all over the country, and his Black Paintings have been collected by many important museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Denver Art Museum, and the Whitney Museum of American Art. We can safely say that his influences, and his innovations, have served him well.

Check out Union and a group of earlier paintings in the Sam Gilliam exhibition on view now at SAM!

– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Union, 1977, Sam Gilliam (American, b. 1933), acrylic on canvas, 55 x 65 ½ in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Peirolo, 82.117 © Copyright the artist. Courtesy of the artist and David Kordansky Gallery, Los Angeles, CA.
[1] Sam Gilliam, interview with Peter Halley, March 29, 2016, reproduced in Sam Gilliam. Ex. Cat. Los Angeles: David Kordansky Gallery, 2017; 82-92.
[2] Sam Gilliam, 92.
[3] Gilliam/Edwards/Williams: Extensions. Ex. Cat. Hartford, Conn.: Wadsworth Atheneum, 1974; 15.
[4] Sam Gilliam, interview with Peter Halley, March 29, 2016, reproduced in Sam Gilliam. Ex. Cat. Los Angeles: David Kordansky Gallery, 2017; 82.
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Get to Know SAM’s VSOs: Emily Jones

The middle daughter of three girls, Emily Jones grew up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, IL. She soon longed for adventure and moved to the city to attend Columbia College in 2008. She graduated in 2012 with a major in Creative Writing and minor in Black World Studies. Her coursework in bookbinding, cartooning, and metalsmithing affirmed her passion for working with her hands. Her love for the arts led her to seek employment in the museum shop at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she daily visited two of her favorite paintings: George Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte and Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day. After two long years at an office job in the promotional products industry, Emily decided to shake things up. In 2016, she made the cross-country journey from Chicago’s Logan Square area to West Seattle (in the dead of winter) with her aquatic turtle, Flapjack, and handsome tuxedo cat, Duke Ellington. It is there that she can be found toiling in her greenhouse or frolicking on the beach with Duke.

SAM was naturally calling her name.

SAM: What do you think of the Sam Gilliam installation (May 6–November 26)? 

Emily: Holy Color! I love this gallery. I am particularly drawn to Union. I can’t imagine having to handle and care for that painting with all the textured pieces and chunks of paint. Another VSO showed me a few pictures of his draped work and it is spectacular. My mind just keeps trying to imagine a garment made out of his colorful polypropylene fabric. It has a beautiful sheen to it.

What is your favorite piece of art currently on display at SAM?

I have such a hard time picking favorites! I am pretty in love with Der Orden der Nacht by Anselm Kiefer lately. It wasn’t my favorite at first but the more I stared, the more enamored I became. A lot of people see it and remark about how the man looks dead, but to me he looks completely at peace. Although the scenery is completely haunting (a sunlit haze over a field of looming dead sunflowers) and a little creepy, I can’t help but imagine what it must’ve looked like ablaze with yellow, alive and lush. That man lying beneath those flowers knows what I’m talking about.

I also really enjoy dissecting the craftsmanship in the Men’s tunic from Cameroon in  . There is so much appliqué and embroidery. I’m also obsessed with all of the jewelry pieces we have—especially the gold serpent bracelet in the Ancient Art gallery and all of the Maassai beadwork and Fulani earrings.

Who is your favorite artist? 

Again too many favorites! I love the impressionists and art nouveau. I’m a sucker for the female form and flowers. That being said Alphonse Mucha comes to mind. The way he adorns women (swoon). Beautiful!

What advice can you offer to guests visiting SAM? 

See it all! You never know what you are going to glean inspiration from and appreciate. It’s not aways the things you expect to like that you fall in love with. You might be surprised.

And put down your phones! I know I am guilty of this too sometimes but there is nothing worse than when I see people texting, not even looking at the art, or just snapping quick, blurry pictures that they will probably never look at again, and moving on. You really can’t get scale or the impact of an artwork from a picture. If you really love it, take the time to stop and stare for a few moments—maybe even minutes—and really connect with the piece first. Being at a museum is an experience. Savor it.

Tell us more about you! When you’re not at SAM, what do you spend your time doing?

My favorite things to do are travel and visit other museums. I love to be outside, so hiking, running, and kayaking are a regular occurrence. I also enjoy seeing live music and am an avid reader who loves comics and graphic novels. I am always trying to make more time to create art and explore new mediums. I just started volunteering at the Northwest African American Museum and am interested in volunteering with the Frye Art Museum as well. I can’t imagine life without art, so I intend to drown in it.

Katherine Humphreys, SAM Visitor Services Officer

Photo: Natali Wiseman.
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Creating the Unseen Land of the Olympic Sculpture Park

The Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library‘s latest book installation, to coincide with the exhibition, Seeing Nature: Landscape Masterworks from the Paul G. Allen Family Collection, introduces a work that recently came into the library’s artists’ books collection. This illustrated book, with original pen-and-ink drawings and watercolors, was created by Seattle author, illustrator, zine creator, and book artist Jessixa Bagley. Bagley is best known for her award-winning children’s picture books: Boats for Papa (2015) and Before I Leave (2016). Her latest book, Laundry Day, was just published by Roaring Book Press in February 2017.

The work is the first in our collection to be born out of a Seattle Art Museum program. The Land of Unseen is a culminating storybook inspired by a collaborative process with visitors to SAM’s Olympic Sculpture Park. The “Summer at SAM” program was entitled “Build a World with Jessixa Bagley” and took place over several weekends in August 2016. Jessixa invited participants to help her “create the unseen imaginative world of the Olympic Sculpture Park and give voice to all the creatures and animals that live within it.” Each week, visitors participated in interactive, open studio sessions that explored a different aspect of Bagley’s creative process. These sessions included plot development on vintage typewriters supplied by Carriage Return, character advancement through collage, and landscape mapping with watercolor and mixed media.

To construct this unseen land, the first group of park visitors were given prompts and encouraged to use typewriters to create stories about characters that live in the Olympic Sculpture Park. Next, Bagley had a different group of visitors develop those characters by creating collages based on the writings of the first group or from free-form ideas. One participant imagined an otter wearing a hat participating in plein-air painting, creating a colorful landscape. Another imagined a crow strumming a banjo surrounded by hats reminiscent of National Park Service ranger hats, in a background of rich organic textures of yellow, green, and blue. The final group of visitors was asked to create Mad Libs–style stories based on the collages, and ultimately a map of this hidden world began to take shape. From there, the book was born.

Bagley’s normal practice is to create her work alone indoors, but for this experience she really enjoyed creating work on-site at the Olympic Sculpture Park, being outdoors and working with so many visitors. This was the first time she did this type of collaboration with a group of strangers, and she found that the experience offered a very different type of inspiration.

The Seattle Art Museum is celebrating the Olympic Sculpture Park’s 10th anniversary this year. In addition to considering how the park has changed since its opening, it’s also rewarding to reflect on the many thoughtful, creative projects like this that have been inspired by it.

–Traci Timmons, Librarian, Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library

Photos: Natali Wiseman.
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Object of the Week: War God

Perched in a gallery of Northwest modern art, Philip McCracken’s War God sculpture, a carved figure in cedar wood with a leather strap and saw blades as accessories, has a dark, significant presence. Here at the Seattle Art Museum, he’s surrounded by the work of Mark Tobey, Guy Anderson, and Morris Graves, and it seems the perfect place for us to consider McCracken’s art.

McCracken’s work finds its form and substance in the beauty and power of nature. For many years he has chosen to live close to nature, working from a Guemes Island studio near to the animals that inspire much of his sculpture. McCracken has frequently returned to the bird, and other animal forms, as a visualization of the artist’s inner psychology. Much more than wildlife art, McCracken’s work aims to chart new emotional and spiritual depths, recording what is for the artist a process of open-ended exploration. McCracken has spoken about his work as a mode of discovery; rather than dictating what he knows, his sculptures offer reflections of his meanderings into the mysterious and the unknown.

McCracken’s primary subject—the bird—and his mystical understanding of art-making have encouraged comparisons to Morris Graves, one of a handful of figures often cited as standard-bearers for modernism here in the Pacific Northwest. How suitable is the comparison between Graves and McCracken, and how well McCracken does in contributing to the symbolism Graves established, depends on one’s perspective. Writing in 1980 and reviewing a catalogue produced in conjunction with a McCracken retrospective at the Tacoma Art Museum, longtime Seattle art critic Matthew Kangas gave us this resounding barb: “McCracken’s solidifying of Morris Graves’ wispy spirit birds into chunky, polished wood carvings goes down as one of the great jokes in American art.”1 Kangas went on to write that War God was, for him, representative of a troubling current in McCracken’s art that seemed to exalt violence rather than undermine it, and he culminated his criticism by suggesting that McCracken’s sculptures were best suited to Northwest patios—not art museums. You can’t win ‘em all, as they say.

Without a doubt, War God is a harsh piece, one that deals head-on with forces McCracken has called “anti-life.” Many have seen the redemptive value in this piece and in McCracken’s body of work.

War God notably represented the artist at the Fine Arts Exhibition of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, a watershed moment for the arts in this area. In the 55 years since, McCracken has received countless shows and accolades—but I’ll share just one gem from the SAM annals. In March of 1976 McCracken served as the guest of honor at an event hosted by SAM’s Pacific Northwest Arts Council, a classy affair that paired his visual art with lyrical accompaniment by poet Eve Triem. Moon: Philip McCracken is one of the poems Triem read there:

Is a tree
budded
with many names.

My fingers trace the wood
nonlunar color
To a birdshaken twig.

Remembering the poet Li Po
who sang the sliding into cloud
and the emerging
of blossoms into light
attended by
owl          wolf        mountain             cat

and the child’s first sentence:
What do you know—the moon.

The carved verticals
quivering the circle
illuminate
the birth-death cycle
as plumage for freedom.

I don’t think McCracken’s goal has been to win critical acclaim or to inspire poetry. He seems most interested in learning by exploring with his materials, come what may. In the same year he produced War God, McCracken reminded us that “Everyone wants you to fit his conceptions. But to do so is dangerous if it comes before being true to yourself and to your personal vision.”2

– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 Matthew Kangas, “Birdman of Guemes Island,” ARTWEEK Nov. 15, 1980.
2 Philip McCracken, quoted in Gene Johnston, “Guemes Sculptor Phil McCracken Has One-man N.Y. Show,” Anacortes American LXX, Mar. 24, 1960.
Image: War God, 1960, Philip McCracken (American, b. 1928), cedar, leather, brass, steel, 41 ¾ x 14 5/8 x 12 ¾ in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Seattle Art Museum Guild, 63.89, photo: Natali Wiseman, © Philip McCracken.
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Beneath the Surfaces: Conservation and Care at the Olympic Sculpture Park

Stroll through the Olympic Sculpture Park on a summer day, and you’ll find yourself immersed in an overload of the senses. The Puget Sound scents the air around Alexander Calder’s towering sculpture, The Eagle, with a salty freshness, while the waves below lap in the wind. Uninterrupted sunlight warms the curving, concrete benches of Roy McMakin’s Love & Loss to the touch. Bike commuters coast along the Elliott Bay Trail, an urban artery connecting bustling downtown Seattle and the neighborhoods to the north. But while visitors enjoy the natural and manmade beauty of the park, the outdoor sculptures on view are constantly under attack by the very elements that makes the park so special.

This coalescence of elements within the Olympic Sculpture Park provides a different sensory experience when your job is to preserve its works of art. SAM’s Chief Conservator Nicholas Dorman explains, “It’s a pretty aggressive environment out there. When the sun does shine, it’s unimpeded and bounces off the Sound, creating very intense light levels. Unhindered wind also comes through, carrying salt and lots of pollution. All of these elements break down the sculptures’ materials over time.”

Love & Loss

Care for each sculpture in the park requires attention to a range of factors that include its materials and fabrication, the artist’s or foundation’s intentions, and SAM’s curatorial and exhibition design philosophies. It’s easy to understand that the illuminated ampersand in Love & Loss requires upkeep in order to keep glowing. However, even its concrete benches and paths are prone to deterioration. Once a sculpture requires intervention, the conservators must consider many questions before deciding on a solution. Liz Brown, SAM’s Objects Conservator, describes, “When I’m looking for a treatment system, I have to keep in mind everything from how the public might interact with the piece, to the artist’s intent, to how the sculpture and the materials we apply are going to react to the environment.”

Coating the surface of Love & Loss is one part of its conservation treatment. When the conservators found that the original acrylic-polyurethane coating wasn’t performing well within the interactive environment of the installation, Brown worked with artist McMakin to replace it with a water-borne acrylic paint designed for pools, which she reapplies every year in order to preserve the aesthetic he originally envisioned for the piece. By comparison, sculptures painted with matte, highly pigmented paints, such as The Eagle and Tony Smith’s Stinger, are susceptible to damage by human touch because oils and contact more easily mar and break down the underbound coatings. The park’s proximity to the Puget Sound also brings the problem of chloride corrosion, making the coatings’ maintenance essential to the preservation of the metal sculptures.

As summer approaches, much of the conservation work at the park moves from behind-the-scenes to more publicly visible processes. Brown will soon begin cleaning all of the art and treating areas where corrosion has appeared. Several larger projects will also take place. This year, she hopes to manage refabrication of the Love & Loss ampersand and to determine a painted surface that will work for that portion of the sculpture in the long term. The next time you’re at the park, sitting on Love & Loss may feel a bit different, knowing more about the care that lives both within and beneath its surface.

—Erin Langner, Freelance Arts Writer and Former SAM Adult Public Programs Manager

This post is the fourth installment in a series of stories exploring the history of the Olympic Sculpture Park in celebration of its 10th anniversary. Over the course of this year, we will continue reflecting on the Park’s evolution over the past decade.

Images:  Photo: Benjamin Benschneider. Love & Loss, 2005-2006, Roy McMakin, American, b. 1956, mixed media installation with benches, tables, live tree, pathways and illuminated rotating element, Overall: 288 × 480 in., Olympic Sculpture Park Art Acquisition Fund and gift of Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2007.2, photo: Benjamin Benschneider, © Roy McMakin. Stinger, 1967-68 / 1999, Tony Smith, American, 1912-1980, steel, painted black, 6 ft. 6 in. x 33 ft. 4 1/4 in. x 33 ft. 4 1/4 in., Gift of Jane Smith, 2004.117, photo: Paul Macapia © 2006 Estate of Tony Smith.
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