Celebrate Black History Month With Five Artworks by Black Artists on View at SAM

Every February, the United States recognizes Black History Month with a specific theme. In 2024, the theme is African Americans and the Arts.

African American art is intricately woven with influences from Africa, the Caribbean, and the lived experiences of Black Americans. In celebration of the rich history of Black Americans in the arts, we’re reflecting on five artworks by historical and contemporary Black artists in the museum’s collection which visitors can currently see in our galleries. Plus, scroll to the bottom of this post to learn about a few ways you can celebrate Black History Month this February and all year long!


Mitchell’s Point Looking Down the Columbia, 1887
Grafton Tyler Brown

Grafton Tyler Brown (1841–1918) was one of only a few Black Americans who made a living as an artist before the 20th century, first as a topographic artist and a lithographer and later as a landscape painter. Brown’s parents were freedmen living in Pennsylvania, but Brown decided to move West for greater freedom and opportunities in the 1850s, as many African Americans did. In the 1880s and 1890s, Brown traveled around the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, painting and selling images of his surroundings. This serene scene of the Columbia River, titled Mitchell’s Point Looking Down the Columbia and on view in American Art: The Stories We Carry, depicts smooth, reflective water framed by rocky cliffs, rolling hills with patches of trees, and distant mountains. The few Native American figures situated in the foreground serve more as indications of the remote-ness of this place, rather than detailed observations of particular Indigenous peoples.

Gwendolyn Knight, 1934–35
Augusta Savage

Augusta Savage (1892–1962) studied sculpture in New York and Paris before opening her own art school in Harlem, New York in 1931. She was devoted to sharing her skills and resources with her students and mentored many young Black artists including Gwendolyn Knight, depicted here, and Knight’s husband Jacob Lawrence, both of whom would later live in Seattle. This portrait depicts Knight in her early twenties with careful attention paid to her facial features and gracefully pulled up hair. Savage gifted this portrait bust to Knight, which she kept until her death in 2005 and bequeathed to the Seattle Art Museum, allowing this rare and fragile plaster work to survive while many of Savage’s other works did not. You can learn more about this bust and Augusta Savage’s artistic career in this 2016 SAM Object of the Week blog post and take an up-close look at  its intricate sculpted details in American Art: The Stories We Carry.

Wounded Eagle No. 10, 1963
James Washington Jr.

James Washington Jr. (1908–2000) saw his animal sculptures as deeply symbolic and resonant with his spiritual beliefs. Born the son of a Baptist minister in Mississippi, he brought these beliefs with him when he moved to the Seattle area in 1941 for a job at the Bremerton Navy Yard. He felt that God was guiding him in his life and as an artist, calling him to create images that would communicate universality and truth about the world. His animal sculptures, such as Wounded Eagle No. 10 on view in Remember the Rain, showcase his close observations of the natural world, as well as his understanding of line, form, and medium. Washington was active in the arts community in the Northwest, taking classes at the University of Washington, exhibiting his work often, forming relationships with artists including Mark Tobey, Kenjiro Nomura, and George Tsutakawa, among many others, and starting a foundation for art scholarships.

In Case of Fire and In Case of Flood, 2014
Barbara Earl Thomas

In a striking and jarring confusion of black and white lines, Seattle-based artist Barbara Earl Thomas (born 1948) illustrates two related themes in this pair of linocut prints titled In Case of Fire and In Case of Flood on view in Remember the Rain. These scenes of people dealing with apocalyptic disasters—fire and flood—draw from Biblical sources, but also from folklore, literature, and Thomas’s own family history and experiences. Rather than creating scenes of pure fantasy, Thomas describes her work as chronicling real narratives from the past and our present day, compelled by the economic and racial inequity she witnesses. In a 2019 SAM Object of the Week blog post, Thomas was quoted as saying: “It is the chaos of living and the grief of our time that compels me, philosophically, emotionally, and artistically. I am a witness and a chronicler: I create stories from the apocalypse we live in now and narrate how life goes on in the midst of the chaos.” Thomas was a student of Jacob Lawrence at the University of Washington, who himself was taught by Augusta Savage, exemplifying a legacy of socially engaged and community-oriented artists.

Stranger in the Village (Excerpt), #7, 1997
Glenn Ligon

Glenn Ligon’s (born 1960) Stranger in the Village (Excerpt), #7 renders a powerful text by civil rights activist and writer James Baldwin nearly invisible by stenciling the black type on a black background and coating it with coal dust. On view in SAM’s modern and contemporary art galleries, the work’s unclear presentation of Baldwin’s words leaves viewers searching and straining to read the message. Baldwin’s essay published in 1955 recounts his visit to a remote Swiss village where he is the first and only Black person that many of the townspeople had ever met. In Ligon’s painting, the sense of hypervisibility that Baldwin describes becomes camouflaged and concealed. Ligon often uses text in his works to question the power of language, modes of engaging with visual art, and the legacy of slavery and racial stereotypes.

– Nicole Block, SAM Collections Associate

Celebrate Black History Month in Seattle with these suggested events. 

February 1–29
Call to Conscience
Take a trip to the Columbia City Theater every Tuesday through Sunday this month to explore the Call to Conscience Black History Month Museum. Organized by Rainier Avenue Radio, the converted theater celebrates the achievements of the Pacific Northwest’s Black community with exhibitions about the Seattle Black Panther Party, the Black Heritage Society, the Hartsfield Family and Slave Quilt Collection, and more.

Sundays in February
Black Ice: An American Sitcom Improvised
Unexpected Productions Improv wants you to be a part of their live studio audience every Sunday this month as they perform an improvised television sitcom inspired by Norman Lear’s iconic 1970s sitcoms. And yes, they’ll be asking for crowd suggestions throughout the show.

February 15
Keynote Program with Dr. Doretha Williams
Our friends at the Northwest African American Museum are celebrating Black History Month with a keynote speech from Dr. Doretha Williams, Director of the Robert F. Smith Center for the Digitization and Curation of African American History. In her speech, she’ll discuss the importance of Black family history in America and genealogy.

February 16–17
BE Great Celebration
Celebrate Black Excellence at this free two-day event in Occidental Square hosted by the Downtown Seattle Association. This soulful celebration will bring together Black culture, arts, music, and food with live performances by local musicians, a pop-up night market featuring Black artists and creatives, and more.

February 24–March 9
X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X
As Black History Month comes to a close, the Seattle Opera is tackling the story of Malcolm X’s life through a series of biographical vignettes. Scored by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Anthony Davis, the three-hour opera fuses elements of modernism, minimalism, and jazz to produce a riveting interpretation of one of history’s most misunderstood civil rights icons.

Photos: Chloe Collyer & Jo Cosme. Mitchell’s Point Looking down the Columbia, 1887, Grafton Tyler Brown, oil on canvas, 18 x 30 in., Bruce Leven Acquisition Fund, 2020.26.

Muse/News: Interesting Pictures, Ritual Objects, and Girls in Windows

SAM News

Here’s Margo Vansynghel of the Seattle Times with arts recommendations for December, including Elizabeth Malaska: All Be Your Mirror. The solo show features tour-de-force paintings by the 2022 winner of SAM’s annual prize for Northwest artists, the Betty Bowen Award.

“Malaska’s brushwork is at once vigorous, detailed and patterned, then loose and almost abstract or even droopy and distorted. The result is beautiful, unsettling and varied — and paints a much more interesting picture.”

“A theatrical new Calder exhibition staged in Seattle”: Don’t miss Elena Goukassian’s take for The Art Newspaper on Calder: In Motion, The Shirley Family Collection. She highlights the thoughtful curatorial choice to “frame his works as a delightfully subtle kind of performance.” ) She also mentions the playlist drawn from Calder’s own record collection.)

“These are all displayed in a newly configured gallery that features individual “stages” for the larger works, vitrines for the smaller ones and “overlook” balcony views—all with an eye towards spotlighting their theatrical nature.”

For the subscriber-only Airmail, Osman Can Yerebakan interviews the Shirleys and relays the story of the first time they heard Dispersed Objects with Brass Gong make a sound. (Are you patient enough to wait to hear it in the galleries?)

ICYMI! “Legendary Children Brought the House Down”: Jas Keimig and Susan Fried capture the magic for South Seattle Emerald.

Local News

It’s dark. Seattle Met helps with “Where to See Holiday Lights in Seattle.”

For her weekly ArtSEA post, Crosscut Brangien Davis features “art, film, and food to honor Native American Heritage Month.”

“Chehalis artist explores cultural appropriation of Native regalia”: Gayle Clemans for The Seattle Times on Selena Kearney: object/ritual, now on view at Solas Gallery.

“After shifting to a more conceptual art practice, Kearney has thought carefully about how much information to reveal in an image and how much to conceal. In this series, all of the photographs are taken in crisp detail with vivid color, as if they are beautiful documents of cheap, often offensive cultural relics.”

Inter/National News

Via Artnet: “5 Massive Pop Culture Moments From 2023 That Remind Us of Renaissance Paintings.”

Via Artdaily: The first New York solo exhibition for Natalie Ball—featuring never-before-seen works—just opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Ball was the winner of SAM’s 2018 Betty Bowen Award and her work is now on view at SAM. 

David Segal for The New York Times on Girls in the Windows (1960) by Ormond Gigli, a photograph that people keep buying and buying.

“He’s working without an assignment because he wants to memorialize those buildings, which stand directly across the street from his home studio. What he doesn’t know is that the image will become one of the most collected photographs in the history of the medium.”

And Finally

Another video from the Calder Foundation archives: The first performance of Work in Progress at Teatro dell’Opera, 1967–68.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Photo: Alborz Kamalizad.

In the Studio with SAM Gallery Artist Joe Max Emminger

In the Studio highlights the private workspaces of local artists represented by SAM Gallery. For fifty years, SAM Gallery has supported artists from across the Pacific Northwest and provided private and corporate clients with a wide range of services, from purchasing their first work of art to building extensive collections. To browse a featured artist’s entire catalogue of artwork available for rent or purchase, visit SAM Gallery on the lower level of the Seattle Art Museum.

You can find artist Joe Max Emminger painting in his studio in Magnuson Park every day. His studio is located in Building 30 in the park’s campus. This building lives a new life as SPACE (Sand Point Arts and Cultural Exchange), after its construction in the 1930s for the Navy administration. The commander of the base once visited Emminger, who now paints in his previous office.  

Sunlight enters the studio through large windows, shining onto Emminger’s wall where he has mixed, tested, and blended paint for the last seven to eight years. He considers the wall a big palette, where he can mix paint while he’s working on paintings that are attached to the wall. He works close to the paintings, believing that “creating things is a messy business, it leaves the debris of creation behind.” The large painted wall contains hundreds of patches of bright colors in splotches, circles, shapes, and drips. It serves as a beautiful archive of Emminger’s artworks and process. 

Emminger’s artworks are based on things he sees, things he cares about, and stories in his head. Each painting has a story with characters that show up. He puts the characters into paintings, then creates new characters to add in and expand the story he wants to tell. He “starts throwing some color at the work, adds it, and adds more until it makes some sense.” He says his process is like moving furniture, a continuous cycle of balancing colors to bring something new to life. Many of his artworks include recurring characters, cats, birds, butterflies, and familiar sites from around Seattle such as Pike Place Market or Gasworks Park.

View Joe Max Emminger’s available artworks at SAM Gallery on the featured sliding wall, in the 50th Anniversary Show at SAM Gallery this November, or online. Stay updated on all that’s happening at SAM Gallery by following us Instagram at @SAMGallery.

– Pamela Jaynes, SAM Gallery Specialist

Photos: Chloe Collyer.

Five Decades of Supporting Local Artists: SAM Gallery Celebrates 50 Years

This November, SAM Gallery is celebrating 50 years of supporting local artists and building relationships with local collectors. When the program began in 1973, SAM Gallery was managed by former volunteer Jackie Macrae and a team of 25 dedicated SAM docents. Through a great deal of research, many volunteer hours, and a $1,000 loan from the Macrae family, the gallery officially opened its doors to the public. Five decades later, SAM Gallery is staffed by a full-time manager devoted to art sales and rentals and several part-time employees, with additional support from the museum’s Associate Director for Retail Operations and SAM Shop team members.

Visitors browse available artworks at SAM Gallery Rentaloft in 1976, photo: Paul Marshall Macapia.

At its founding, SAM Gallery was known as the Seattle Art Museum Rentaloft and was located in the Modern Art Pavilion at the Seattle Center. In 2004, it was renamed SAM Gallery and moved to 1220 Third Avenue, a block east of the Seattle Art Museum. When the expanded Seattle Art Museum opened in the heart of Seattle in 2007, SAM Gallery moved to its current location on the lower level of the museum, within the SAM Shop space on First Avenue.

In 1973, SAM Gallery supported 86 artists and carried paintings, sculptures, constructions, photography, and conceptual art. Today, SAM Gallery supports over 50 artists from across the Pacific Northwest. The gallery carries paintings, sculptures, prints, photographs, drawings, and mixed-media works, all of which are available for rental or purchase.

Many things have changed in the five decades since SAM Gallery was founded, but its mission has remained the same: to support local artists by increasing their exposure and finding audiences for their work. SAM Gallery continues to work with corporate and private clients to help them connect with local artists and build their private art collections. SAM members are able to rent any artwork before making a purchase that directly supports the local artists who live and work in our community. Join us in celebrating SAM Gallery’s 50th anniversary at our Anniversary Party this Saturday, November 4 and Artist Reception on Saturday, November 18. We hope to see you there!

– Pamela Jaynes, SAM Gallery Specialist

Photo: Courtesy © Seattle Art Museum, photo: Paul Marshall Macapia, 1976, archive image.

Hispanic Heritage Month at SAM: Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Alfredo Arreguín

Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated annually between September 15 and October 15 in recognition of the contributions and influence of Hispanic and Latine Americans to the history, culture, and achievements of the United States. At SAM, we’re continuing our efforts to expand the representation of Latine American artists in our collection to reflect the diversity of this community in our region.

One recent acquisition we’re especially excited about is Four Self-Portraits (1995) by acclaimed Pacific Northwest Chicano artist Alfredo Arreguín. Purchased in 2022 as part of the reinstallation of our American art galleries, the painting features a tapestry of interlaced tropical flowers, birds, leaves, arabesques, and ancient symbols that camouflage four distinct portraits of Alfredo—two at the top and two more, mirrored, at the bottom—literally merging the artist with the places and cultures of his ancestry.

Before his passing in May 2023 at the age of 88, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Alfredo in his studio to discuss his self-portrait and incredible artistic career as part of our interactive Living Labels series in American Art: The Stories We Carry. Featuring dynamic voices—including artists, scholars, and community leaders—responding to artworks on view, these videos deepen visitor engagement by presenting accessible, personal, and expressive alternatives to standard museum texts. While this experience was previously only available via touch screens in our galleries, we can’t think of a better time to share Alfredo’s Living Label with the greater public.

Today, Alfredo is remembered for his astonishing signature style: exuberant, mosaic-inflected, all-over compositions comprised of motifs derived from the rainforests and Indigenous cultures of Mexico, the compositions of Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige, and the nature and topography of the Pacific Northwest. Watch his Living Label above to learn more about Alfredo’s incredible life and career, and be sure to find his portrait in our galleries during your next visit to SAM.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Photos: Alborz Kamalizad & Chloe Collyer. Four Self-Portraits, 1995, Alfredo Arreguin, Oil on canvas, Painting: 49 3/8 x 42 3/8 in. (125.4 x 107.6 cm) Frame: 55 x 43 in. (139.7 x 109.2 cm), Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Art Acquisition Fund, 2022.13 (c) Alfredo Arreguin.

In the Studio with SAM Gallery Artist Elizabeth Gahan

In the Studio highlights the studios and private workspaces of local artists represented by SAM Gallery. For nearly fifty years, SAM Gallery has supported artists from across the Pacific Northwest and provided private and corporate clients with a wide range of services, from purchasing their first work of art to building extensive collections. To browse a featured artist’s entire catalogue of artwork available for rent or purchase, visit SAM Gallery on the lower level of the Seattle Art Museum.

In the heart of Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood sits artist Elizabeth Gahan’s intimate art studio. There, hyper-saturated paintings of layered natural and built environments line the white walls. With translucent and fluid colors, crisp architectural lines, and dense textures of organic forms, Gahan’s paintings display the delicate relationship between cities and neighborhoods as ecosystems and the balance they need to thrive.

Gahan’s works are a puzzle as she develops the foreground and background separately before mashing them together. In the background, each work begins with recognizable urban imagery. To Gahan, these images serve as “a jumping off point for a creative conversation.” The images are then edited and manipulated through layers of artistic elements that effortlessly illustrate the intricacies of our natural environments. At this stage, the works look fluid and ephemeral, composed of bubbles that she said, “act as the first domino, impacting the rest of the painting.”

From these beautifully imagined atmospheric forms, Gahan adds the foreground: architectural elements drawn from existing environments. In her most recent series, the structural forms are inspired by buildings found in the Bay Area and Seattle. These added elements are familiar with their simplistic building block forms and clear lines that emphasize the geometry found in both nature and human-designed architecture. Plants, trees, and organic forms are layered atop these structures in a variety of media and textures, including acrylic gel and enamel.

When we stopped by her Georgetown studio for a visit in June, Gahan was in the process of experimenting with spray paint, an artistic medium new to the artist. This additional layer, she explained, serves to further blur the distinction between the natural and built environments emphasized across all of her paintings. No matter how many layers Gahan chooses to incorporate in a work, the final result always makes clear the interconnected nature of our urban ecosystems.

View a few of Elizabeth Gahan’s available artworks now on SAM Gallery’s featured sliding wall or online. Stay up to date on the artist’s upcoming projects at SAM Gallery—including an October 2023 exhibition featuring all new works—by following gallery manager Erik Bennion on Instagram at @atSAMGallery.

– Pamela Jaynes, SAM Gallery Specialist

Photos: Alborz Kamalizad.

Muse/News: Love Labors, Major League Art, and Take a Seat

SAM News

Victoria Valentine of Culture Type shares “15 Solo Exhibitions Featuring Black Artists” in museums this summer, including Amoako Boafo: Soul of Black Folks, which opens at the Seattle Art Museum this week. She shares a quote from curator Larry Ossei-Mensah.

“This exhibition is a labor of love and a holistic snapshot of how Amoako Boafo sees the world through his artistic practice. All who visit this exhibition—which is anchored by radical care and the celebration of Black life—will be moved and hopefully, see a little bit of their humanity embedded within the paintings in this show.” 

The exhibition also tops the list at Cultured in their weekly round-up of happenings.

Curiocity and Seattle Met both recommend Summer at SAM, and we have to agree! The annual free series of performances, art making, and more kicks off at the Olympic Sculpture Park this Thursday night.

Local News

The only thing better than a road trip is an artsy road trip! Seattle Times writers weigh in on some Pacific Northwest journeys for exploring art and music

“It’s up to us to save Black arts spaces in Seattle”: South Seattle Emerald’s Patheresa Wells reflects on the barriers facing Black art and artists, citing the stories of Sankofa Theater and Wolf Delux.

All-Star Week fever takes over Seattle: Here’s Gayle Clemans for the Seattle Times on a “Pioneer Square event [that] aims to bring baseball fans and art lovers together.”

“Seven local and national artists were chosen as the muralists, including Seattle-based artist Alexander Codd, who creates under the name A.CODD. ‘To be a part of All-Star Week is a win for me,’ Codd stated in an email interview, citing the ups and downs of being an artist…‘Similar to the Mariners, I am living an underdog story,’ he says.”

Inter/National News

Artnet’s Brian Boucher shares the “surprising side hustles” of six artists. 

“With freedom came fashion flair”: Seph Rodney for the New York Times on Africa Fashion, now on view at the Brooklyn Museum. 

Via Alex Greenberger for ARTnews: “Artist Carolyn Lazard Has a Radical Proposition for Museum Visitors: Have a Seat, and Be Comfortable.”

“When it comes to video art, seating tends to be an afterthought, if it is even present at all. But to pair with Leans, Reverses, Lazard crafted several ‘Institutional Seats,’ objects that viewers can sit on to watch the video. These seats are composed of benches sourced from the ICA itself; to these ready-made objects, Lazard added upholstery that renders them a lot more welcoming.”

And Finally

Big same: National Gallery of Art on the lighting-speed emergence of Threads.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Image: Libby and D-Lee, 2019, Amoako Boafo, oil on canvas, 62 1/2 x 72 1/4 in., Courtesy of Holly Jane Butler and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles.

Film As Art: Howard L. GATO Mitchell on Making Movies with Meaning

“I got into filmmaking not only to tell stories and to entertain, but to express myself and bring meaning to moving pictures.”

– Howard L. GATO Mitchell

In his 2018 short film Forgive Us Our Debts, Portland-based artist, director, and writer Howard L. GATO Mitchell depicts moments in life we don’t always see, interweaving the tangible and intangible to reveal “the fire beneath the ice of humanity.” The film tells the fictional story of 13-year-old Trey, who lives with his family in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.

While in Seattle in April, we sat down with GATO to talk about artistic filmmaking, the relationship shared between a director and viewer in cinema, and how Trey’s fictional story is a reflection of larger economic and political pressures affecting people across the United States, especially communities of color. Watch our interview with GATO above and experience the artist’s 15-minute film at SAM’s downtown location through August 6.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Photo: L. Fried.

Remembering Alfredo Arreguín

“Art is life. It is a vessel that allows me to express my perception of the world, my sense of beauty and my social concerns–which, I believe, are shared by many other persons around the world.”

– Alfredo Arreguín, in an interview with Artophilia

Everyone at the Seattle Art Museum was very saddened to learn of the recent passing of beloved Seattle painter Alfredo Arreguín at the age of 88. Acclaimed for his lavish, intricately patterned, and highly symbolic canvases, he was one of the Pacific Northwest’s most prominent Chicano artists. Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting Alfredo when the museum purchased his artwork, Four Self-Portraits (1995) for the collection. We were in the midst of checklist development for our major project to reimagine the museum’s American art galleries and were struck by the underrepresentation of Mexican American artists in the museum’s collection—particularly given the breadth of this community in our region. Jake Prendez, owner and co-director of Nepantla Cultural Arts Gallery, a member of our Advisory Circle for American Art: The Stories We Carry, and a wonderful resource on Seattle’s Chicanx community and its artists, invited me to his gallery to view Alfredo’s work. I was hooked. One visit to the artist’s studio later, and we were on our way to acquiring the first of his paintings to enter SAM’s collection.

Alfredo was born in Morelia, Michoacán in 1935, and was encouraged by his grandparents (who raised him) to begin painting at a young age. When he was nine, he enrolled in the Morelia School of Fine Art, eventually moving on to the prestigious Escuela Nacional Preparatoria at the University of Mexico, from which he graduated in 1956. That same year, encouraged by a local family, he came to Seattle and obtained a permanent visa so that he could attend Edison Tech (now Seattle Central College) to study English, earn his US high school diploma, and enroll at the University of Washington to study architecture. When a condition of his visa made him eligible for the draft, he entered the army and was stationed in Korea and Japan. Upon his discharge in 1960, he returned to architectural studies, eventually transitioning to interior design and, finally, the School of Art. While there, he studied alongside celebrated artists Alden Mason, Michael Spafford, and, for a time, Elmer Bischoff. After receiving his MFA in 1969, he settled permanently in Seattle, becoming a force among artists and an integral member of the local Chicanx community.

Alfredo is celebrated for his astonishing signature style: exuberant, mosaic-inflected, all-over compositions comprised of motifs derived from the rainforests and Indigenous cultures of Mexico, the compositions of Hokusai and Hiroshige, and the nature and topography of the Pacific Northwest. His work is closely aligned with American Pattern Painting of the 1970s, yet it is also deeply personal and symbolic. A series of paintings of historical figures Emiliano Zapata and Frida Kahlo, for example, pay homage to activists whose interests resonate with his own, while a body of landscape paintings encode the flora, fauna, and natural beauty that inspire him. For him, painting was a form of therapy, a flow activity to which he returned every day.

Arreguín’s singular—even autobiographical—approach is nowhere more evident than in his large number of self-portraits, of which Four Self-Portraits is perhaps the most extreme and challenging example. A tapestry of tropical flowers, birds, leaves, arabesques, and ancient symbols interlace to camouflage four distinct portraits of Arreguín: two at the top and two more, mirrored, at the bottom—literally merging the artist with the places and cultures of his ancestry. Remembering Alfredo, I find myself seeing this engrossing painting afresh, grateful that SAM now shares in the legacy of this distinguished artist. Its acquisition will shape our collection strategy for years to come, as we amplify our efforts to bring in artworks—both historical and contemporary—by Chicanx and Latinx artists.

– Theresa Papanickolas, SAM Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art

Photos: Alborz Kamalizad. Four Self-Portraits, 1995, Alfredo Arreguin, Oil on canvas, Painting: 49 3/8 x 42 3/8 in. (125.4 x 107.6 cm) Frame: 55 x 43 in. (139.7 x 109.2 cm), Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Art Acquisition Fund, 2022.13 (c) Alfredo Arreguin.

Introducing American Art: The Stories We Carry at SAM

This week, SAM will enthusiastically reopen its American art galleries, revealing new perspectives on our collection, commissioned work from celebrated Northwest artists, and paintings restored by our conservation team. But the purpose of this update is much more significant than simply presenting a new array of must-see art.

This project, funded primarily by the Mellon Foundation and the Terra Foundation for American Art, has been an energizing, collaborative, and thoughtful exploration of what American art is today. To execute this examination, we assembled a paid advisory circle of 11 community leaders and artists to provide valuable feedback as we reinterpret our collection to meet the present moment and acknowledge the evolving definition of American art.

“With inclusivity as one of our values, we felt the urgency to take the collection and hold it accountable to that mission,” says Theresa Papanikolas, SAM’s Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art.

The new galleries, titled American Art: The Stories We Carry, will present the collection thematically and across time periods and feature works by nationally renowned local and national artists long overdue for closer examination within the American context. This includes moving objects from SAM’s Native American art collection into the American art galleries—previously dominated by the work of white artists—for the first time.

“We acknowledge that we must change all aspects of our practice as an institution of privilege and one that cares for the belongings of others,” says Barbara Brotherton, SAM’s Curator of Native American Art.

Also on view will be newly commissioned works by Native artists Wendy Red Star (Apsáalooke) and Nicholas Galanin (Tlingit/Unangax̂), a themed gallery curated by Seattle artist Inye Wokoma, and a dedicated gallery for rotating series of temporary installations exploring fresh perspectives on American art. The first of these installations will feature 15 prints from Jacob Lawrence’s series The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture.

Visit American Art: The Stories We Carry at SAM’s downtown location beginning October 20 and experience a more thorough representation of the past, present, and future of American art.

– Kat Bryant Flaherty, SAM Director of Marketing & Communications

This article first appeared in the July through September 2022 article of SAM Magazine and has been edited for our online readers. Become a SAM member today to receive our quarterly magazine delivered directly to your mailbox and other exclusive member perks.

Image: L. Fried.

Our Blue Planet: Five Quick Questions with Claude Zervas

Our Blue Planet: Global Visions of Water documents the stories and histories of water in our world. Pulling exclusively from local loans and works in SAM’s permanent collection, the expansive exhibition features paintings, sculptures, textiles, and multimedia works by over 70 artists from around the world. Over the next 10 weeks, we’ll be talking with some of the contemporary artists involved with the exhibition about their artwork and the importance of water in their lives.

Born in 1963, Claude Zervas is best known for his light and video installations focusing on the topography and topology of the Pacific Northwest. In the 1980s, Claude attended Western Washington University to pursue a degree in geology and moved to Paris, France following his graduation. Although he spent many years working as a software engineer, Claude eventually decided to return to Washington and fully commit to his art practice and art production. Discover the story behind Claude’s 2005 sculpture, Nooksack, now on view in Our Blue Planet at SAM below.

1. What is your name and where are you currently based?

My name is Claude Zervas and I am based just outside of Bellingham, Washington.

2. What is the title of your artwork and how does it fit in with the themes explored in Our Blue Planet?

The title of my work is Nooksack. It’s a part of SAM’s permanent collection and has previously been on view in a couple of exhibitions at the museum. When piecing Our Blue Planet together, I think the curators thought to include my work because of its connection to one of our local waters. After deciding to include my work, I worked a bit with SAM’s conservation team to give the sculpture new life. We had to replace all of the lamps which proved difficult because the tiny little fluorescent bulbs I used are now, more or less, obsolete technology. Back in the day, they were used in scanners and back light for video displays but they’re not used so much anymore and are getting harder to find. But, I really like the delicate and thin light that they put out—nothing else really puts out that kind of light.

3. What thoughts, ideas, and/or perspectives do you want visitors to take away from your artwork in Our Blue Planet?

Nooksack stems from this really personal relationship to the Nooksack River that I had as a kid growing up near the water. And for some reason, as an adult, I still feel a kinship to it. I’m not totally sure why, but it’s a beautiful river. And this piece is an ode to the river based on my memory of it and acts as a sort of ‘thank you’ to it. In seeing my work, I want visitors to consider the bodies of water which exist around us and thank them for all that they do for us.

4. What other artworks in the exhibition stood out to you?

All of the works in this exhibition are incredible, but what really stood out to me was a quote I saw on the floor of the exhibition by Abby Yates. I don’t know why her words so deeply affected me, but they did. Just to see a voice representing the Nooksack people and the river I care about so much was a beautiful experience.

5. How do art and activism intersect? Why do you think it’s important for museums like SAM to curate exhibitions around environmental and societal issues such as water?

I’m not much of an activist but I think we can all agree on the importance of water on Earth. It’s hard to overstate considering we’re 90% water and without it we’d all be dead. It’s essential for us to continuously investigate and discuss the role it plays in our lives. Overall, I’m just pleased SAM thought it important to publicly acknowledge and highlight the various ways water impacts all of our lives—and I’m honored they decided to include my work in the exhibition.

– Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator

Images: L. Fried & Natali Wiseman.

Object of the Week: Sea Bear

At first glance, this might look like a typical trophy head found in a mountain lodge, but Sherry Markovitz has turned the conventional idea of a hunting trophy on its head in the creation of Sea Bear.

“I am after beauty, with an edge of uncertainty, vulnerability, and power,” she says of her artistic process. “I use animal metaphors to explore issues of intimacy, closeness, and separation.”1 Sea Bear’s tranquil and inquisitive stare is a powerful celebration of peace and gentleness, highlighting a species historically honored as a dynamic part of a balanced ecosystem.

As the subject matter of countless forms of creative expression, polar bears may have appeared in art as early as 17,000 years ago in the Paleolithic cave of Ekain in the Basque Country of Northern Spain. Below, two outlines resembling an adult and juvenile can be seen on the ceiling. Their elongated bodies look remarkably like polar bears. Perhaps they drifted south with pack ice off the coast of England during the icier years rounding out the Pleistocene.2 What we can be sure of is that they’ve been depicted in art and lore ever since.

Among the shared spiritual beliefs of the Inuit, polar bears are a living representation of resilience and determination, imbued with souls and regarded as brothers in a time when we did not take pre-eminence over other animals. Nanook, an almost man-like master of bears decided if hunters deserved success in their endeavors or punishment for violating taboos.3

This bear, crafted of wood, beads, shells, fabric, paint, and papier-mâché, is the culmination of intertwined memories and experiences the artist had with nature and her loved ones.

“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 her son Jake was conceived), walks alone to find the ‘root’ pieces at Discovery Park. Walking on the beach is such a drifting and wonderful activity.”4

From a distance, Sea Bear offers up the impression of a familiar creature. Its intricate and subtle beadwork appears at first to be deceptively monochromatic. A step closer, however, reveals an otherworldly figure clad in the ocean’s bounty emerges. The beads are revealed to be six or seven shades of color, like gentle eddies of ermine pebbles undulating over sand. The eye is drawn towards the shadows cast by exhibition lighting on the bear’s outstretched neck and jaw, flowing into the sinuous curves of its pelagic collar.

“I see the ‘collar’ as directional—the wood shape and 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.”5

Seattle is treasured for the water which surrounds it. From Lake Washington, fed by so many vital creeks and rivers, to the misty solitude of salt-scoured beaches along the Olympic Peninsula. Water inexorably affects our physical and cultural landscapes, it sustains and determines our way of life, and shapes our histories slowly over time like glaciers carving mountains.  Sea Bear is an opportunity to reconnect to this life-giving force, to step outside of our immediate reality and transport us to the shores of our minds choosing where we can know the peace of our own walk along the water’s edge.

See this work on view now in Our Blue Planet: Global Visions of Water at our downtown location through May 30.

– Danelle Jay, SAM Curatorial Division Coordinator

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, pages 80–81.

2 Digitized interior of Ekain, courtesy of the Society of Sciences Aranzadi.

3 C.R. Harrington, The Evolution of Arctic Marine Mammals, ed. A. Berta, Ecological Applications, Volume 18, Issue sp2, 2008, pages S23–S40.

4 Sherry Markovitz, Channel 7 News, Linda Farris Gallery, Seattle, 1992.

5 Sherry Markovitz, letter to Vicki Halper, August 14, 1991.

Image: Sea Bear, 1990, Sherry Markovitz, wood, beads, shells, fabric, paint, papier mâché, 25 x 17 x 29 in., Gift of Terry Hunziker, 90.3, © Sherry Markovitz.

Object of the Week: Yakima River at Thorp, WA, January 17, 1980

Unlike summer, with its durational heat and drought, winter in the Pacific Northwest brings with it water—and lots of it. We’re only two weeks into 2022 and we’ve seen over six inches of rain already, thanks to a deluge of atmospheric rivers.1

With water as its subject, this photograph by Johsel Namkung (1919–2013)—taken almost exactly 42 years ago on January 17, 1980—focuses on the swirling, glistening eddies of the Yakima River. One can feel the temperature of the waters—once snowmelt—merely by looking at the image. Rocks and sediment visible through the river’s crystal-clear waters are in rhythmic balance with translucent currents of refracted light and bubbles.

With a background in classical music, studying at the Tokyo Conservatory of Music and later the University of Washington School of Music, Namkung possessed a penchant for visual composition as well. However, his studies of nature are more than mere documentation, they express “the impression of sound, music, emotion or philosophy.”2 In a 1989 interview he described his attraction to the “beauty in the lowly humble clumps of, or groups of plants, and weeds, and things like that. I think that is the essence or a component of a great nature.”3

Namkung’s work will be on view in the upcoming special exhibition, Our Blue Planet: Global Visions of Water, opening March 18 at our downtown location. Showcasing a diverse range of artists and practices, the exhibition examines water’s pleasures and perils, as well as its changing role in our lives.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate


1 Seattle Weather Blog, “2022 Rainfall,” https://www.seattleweatherblog.com/rain-stats/rainfall-2022/.

2 Delores Tarzan Ament, “Namkung, Johsel (1919-2013),” HistoryLink.org, March 3, 2003, https://www.historylink.org/File/5346.

3 Archives of American Art, “Oral history interview with Johsel Namkung, 1989 Oct. 5-1991 Feb. 25,” https://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-johsel-namkung-12201#transcript.

Image: Yakima River at Thorp, WA, January 17, 1980, 1980, Johsel Namkung, Chromogenic digital laser print, 40 × 50 in., Gift of Barney A. Ebsworth, 2006.114 © Johsel Namkung.

Object of the Week: Blanket Stories

Every blanket tells a story. From their weaving structure, hems, threads, and wear, one can uncover the many unspoken stories of both the blanket and its owners, past and present.

Marie Watt is an Indigenous artist from the Seneca Nation whose practice deliberates the intricacies of history, community, and storytelling. For Blanket Stories: Three Sisters, Four Pelts, Sky Woman, Cousin Rose, and All My Relations, Watt collected blankets through an open call to the public, with some blankets coming from donations from her community. Some of the blankets have visible tags that state the owner’s name and story. These blankets hold the memories and stories of those who donated them, while simultaneously sharing personal connections, community history, and Iroquois creation stories. In the words of the artist:

“As I fold and stack blankets, they begin to form columns that, to me, hold many references: linen closets, architectural braces, memorials (e.g. the Trajan Column), sculpture (e.g. Brancusi), the great totem poles of the Northwest, and the giant conifers among which I grew up. In Native communities, blankets are given away to honor people for witnessing important life events, births, and comings-of-age, graduations and marriages, namings, and honorings. Among Native people it is as much of a privilege to give a blanket away as to receive one.”

– Marie Watt

Raised by her Seneca mother in the Pacific Northwest, Watt was taught the importance of the continuation and celebration of Indigenous culture. In Blanket Stories, she credits the Iroquois story of The Three Sisters, as one of the many sources of inspiration for this piece. The Three Sisters discusses the themes of home, community, and sharing. The three sisters, Corn, Beans, and Squash, spent their days in a field when, one day, they were visited by a young native boy. Curious about the boy, the sisters followed him home, one after the other. Discovering the warmth and comfort of the boy’s home—and because it was getting colder by the day—the sisters decided to stay and keep the dinner pot full for the boy and his family. The stack of blankets represents how the sisters rely on each other throughout the season to feed our people, highlighting the importance of food, family, and oral history within Indigenous heritage.

Living and working in the Northwest, Watt has stacked blankets so that they rise from floor to ceiling, reminiscent of the totems, or welcome figures, seen in this area of the United States. By visually and thematically connecting two vibrant Indigenous cultures from opposite coasts, Watt welcomes viewers and tells of how we are all connected through the stories that we share. Indigenous people look to the past for guidance from our ancestors, while also thinking towards future generations. These blanket stacks illustrate the histories that they hold, while also demonstrating the comfort and security that they have left to offer.

Every blanket has a story. What is yours?

– Kari Karsten, Emerging Museum Professional Curatorial Intern

Image: Blanket Stories: Three Sisters, Four Pelts, Sky Woman, Cousin Rose, and All My Relations, 2007, Marie Watt, Wool blankets, satin binding, with salvaged industrial yellow cedar timber base, 150 x 40 x 40 in., General Acquisition Fund, in honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Seattle Art Museum, 2007.41 © Marie Watt.

SAMBlog