When the Museum of Northwest Art was founded in 1981, it was dedicated to the works of the “Northwest Mystics” and the artists inspired by them.
The mystics — Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan and Guy Anderson — were the founding members of the Northwest School, an art movement that combines shadowy textures, earth tones, Asian aesthetics and natural elements from the Puget Sound area. It flourished in Skagit County beginning in the 1930s.
The last of the mystics — Graves — died in 2001. But their paintings, sculptures and printmaking inspired several generations of other well-known artists, including Leo Kenney, Richard Gilkey and Paul Horiuchi.
Works by the mystics and those who followed, including newer contemporaries, are featured in “continuum… continued,” on display through Sept. 22 at the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner.
“Everybody’s pretty excited because this exhibit is why MoNA was founded,” said Susan Parke, show curator and museum director emeritus. “I’ve sort of lived with these pieces through my work here. They’re close to my heart.”
Parke, who was the museum’s director and curator from 1990 to 2007, said she wanted the exhibit to show a visual history of Northwest art and how the Northwest Mystics tie it together. There are 54 pieces in all, including about 30 by the mystics and their successors.
“It’s always important to look at our history,” Parke said. “We have a lot of visitors in the summer who want to see the pivotal pieces that started the museum.”
One of her favorites from the exhibit is an untitled piece by Tobey (1890-1976) from 1954, featuring a style he created known as “white writing,” a composition process involving thousands of fine, interwoven brush strokes.
“Some of them are true abstractions,” Parke said. “Some of them are just mysterious, mystic paintings that the viewer can read into.”
The Northwest Mystics were thrust into the national spotlight by a 1953 article in Life magazine, “Mystic Painters of the Northwest.” They became widely known for their spiritual interpretations of Northwest life, focusing on symbols from nature, such as the diffuse light of the Skagit Valley.
Their work contrasted with the rise of bold and colorful abstract expressionism taking hold in the art world at the time, said Jan Hoy, a sculptor and one of the artists featured in the exhibit.
“The Northwest Mystics had very earthy browns and deep blues,” Hoy said. “It had its own look, even though they were all quite different from each other.”
Artists inspired by the mystics, such as abstract painter Leo Kenney (1925-2001), used moody lighting and colors evocative of the Pacific Northwest.
Hoy, 71, of Coupeville, was most influenced by Anderson (1906-1998), who grew up in Edmonds. In 2004, she curated a Guy Anderson exhibit for the Northwind Art Center in Port Townsend. She said his work was instrumental in her transition from chalk pastel to sculpture.
“He took on some deep, meaningful subjects in very simple ways and expressed things people could write books on,” she said. “I’m doing three-dimensional work, but the spirit behind it is very much the same thing. We’re on the same path.”
Hoy’s sculpture, “Crescent,” is featured in the exhibit. The cast bronze piece, made around 2006, depicts the collision of two spheres.
It’s an honor for her work to be included alongside Anderson’s, she said.
“That’s one of the best compliments I could ever have,” Hoy said.
Evan Thompson: 425-339-3427, firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ByEvanThompson.
If you go
The exhibit “continuum… continued,” featuring works by the Northwest Mystics and artists inspired by them, is on display through Sept. 22 at the Museum of Northwest Art, 121 First St., La Conner. The museum is open from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday and Monday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is free. More at www.monamuseum.org.