Cascadia Art Museum’s David Martin’s long-awaited book is now available at the museum’s store.
Martin curated “The Lavender Palette: Gay Culture and the Art of Washington State,” a groundbreaking exhibition that explored how the state’s culture was shaped by the Northwest’s gay artists.
He put together artwork by dozens of gay men and women who had to hide who they were in order to express themselves artistically in the early- to mid-20th century.
Most of the works presented in “The Lavender Palette,” which showed Oct. 23 through Jan. 6, are from private collections and had never been seen before.
Martin’s accompanying catalog — written after 30 years of research — serves as a landmark in the study of American art history. When the museum reopens in Phase 3, consider visiting “The Lavender Palette: Excerpts,” a select extension of the popular exhibition.
The book features 13 artists, all of them forgotten after their deaths: Richard Bennett, Ward Corley, Thomas Handforth, Mac Harshberger, Holland Robinson, Jule Kullberg, Del McBride, Orre Nobles, Malcolm Roberts, Lorene Spencer, Sarah Spurgeon, Virginia Weisel and Clifford Wright.
While Guy Anderson, Morris Graves and Mark Tobey were in the exhibit, they are not featured in the catalog. They were among the artists in the Northwest who garnered national attention when Life magazine published its 1953 feature story “Mystic Painters of the Northwest.”
“The Lavender Palette” catalog consists of three essays, 13 biographies, and is illustrated with artwork and photographs — close to 500 in all — that document the contributions of these marginalized and understudied artists.
Here, Martin talks about his years of research into Northwest art, how gay artists of the early 20th century had to leave the U.S. to express themselves, and how Cascadia stepped up to host the exhibit after other museums balked. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Tell me how got the job of curator of Cascadia Art Museum.
I was named the curator for Cascadia Art Museum when it opened in 2015. The museum’s founder, Lindsey Echelbarger, is an old friend of mine. I used to own an art gallery in Seattle that specialized in early Northwest art, and he was a customer. Martin-Zambito Fine Art — it’s my name and my partner’s — lasted for 30 years. Edmonds wanted to open a museum on Northwest art, and he felt that I was qualified to do that, since I’m pretty much the only expert in early Northwest art.
How does one become an expert in Northwest art?
There isn’t a class on it. Back in 1983, when my partner and I were living in Phoenix, I started collecting some nice paintings by unknown artists. I loved art, but I didn’t have any money and couldn’t afford it. But these really high-quality paintings were very cheap. When I did the research on these artists, they had really big reputations during their lifetime but then they died and were forgotten, and it turned out that they were mostly women and minorities. I just got fascinated with it and started researching artists.
We moved to Seattle in 1986, and I basically started doing the same thing. There were only a few artists that were remembered from this area — Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Kenneth Callahan and Guy Anderson — but I knew there were other artists working here, and so I just started researching by going to the library and looking at old catalogs. I looked to see who was active in Washington state, and who they studied with, and where they exhibited, and came up with tons of names of artists that no one had ever heard of. There aren’t many scholars who have actually studied the early art scene here. There’s no book that gives an accurate history of art here in Washington state. This book, “The Lavender Palette,” is my 11th book on early Northwest art. There are quite a few on the Northwest mystics, but these other more obscure artists who had big reputations during their life but for whatever reason, they were forgotten.
Which of your books were written for a Cascadia exhibit?
This is my fourth one for Cascadia Art Museum, tied with an exhibit. The others are “Captive Light: The Art & Photography of Ella E. McBride,” “Invocation of Beauty: The Life and Photography of Soichi Sunami” and “Vintage Christmas Cards by Northwest Artists.” The distributor is the University of Washington Press, and they like to have an exhibition to accompany whatever book or catalog that you’re writing because — it’s true — it sells more copies of the book. It’s the way most museums work. We have it set to release every October, a new book and a show to go along with it.
The “Lavender” show opened in October, but there was a problem with printing and the book got pushed back. We ended up having to have it printed in Florence, Italy, and then the pandemic happened right after that, and then of course, Italy was really hit really hard with it, so we had to wait. We pre-sold a lot of books from the exhibition and they’re selling like crazy right now — customers are buying 10 at a time. There are no books on how gay artists influenced a regional culture. It’s never been done in the United States, so I’m getting inquiries from all over the country.
Tell me about the artists featured in the book.
It tells about gay artists at the turn of the century, what obstacles were in their way and how they proceeded. They had really successful careers in spite of the limitations imposed on them.
What I’m trying to show in the book is that it wasn’t that these artists were mystical or whatever. They were repressed and they traveled to parts of the world where they could be themselves. Their repression because of their sexual orientation made them grow as artists and then it lasted here. It’s still what the area is known for — the Northwest School is what they would call it. That was based on a 1953 article in Life magazine.
A number of the early artists went to China — the Chinese, believe it or not, had this really nonchalant attitude toward homosexuality. It wasn’t frowned upon, it wasn’t celebrated, it was just part of life.
Then they came back here and, having the culture that they absorbed from traveling, taught it to some of the local art teachers, or it shows up in their work, these cross-cultural influences in their art. So that’s why we have unique art that came out of Washington state. It shows the early influence of artists who traveled and studied in different parts of the world. There’s nothing really like it. This is a unique regional aesthetic that developed from these artists and they were almost all gay.
I felt, as a gay man myself, that it was up to me to bring this stuff up. A lot of times if a person’s not gay, and they’re writing about the history of the artist or the biographical information, they wouldn’t be able to relate to it as much as I did. Of course, I’m not the same age. These artists were generations before me, but the repression was still similar to what I grew up with, so I really understood it.
Why did it take 30 years for you to share your research?
I’ve curated many shows for other museums and wrote books to accompany them. But before Cascadia, I couldn’t get any of the museums to let me do this show. I did a lecture at the Tacoma Art Museum about seven or eight years ago, also called “The Lavender Palette,” but I couldn’t get any of the museums to sponsor the exhibit. Everyone told me it was too controversial, that no one would fund it. I’m the only gay person involved at Cascadia, but Lindsey, the man who started it, and the board said: “Do what you want to do.” So they let me do it.
It was the biggest attendance we’ve ever had at the museum during the exhibition. A gay show in New York City mentioned it, so we got a lot of publicity and recognition for it, and now with the book coming out, it’s only just begun. It’s really because of the support of the museum and Edmonds. They really got behind it, and I’m really grateful because no one would have done it. All this study that I’ve done, all this research that I’ve done for decades would have gone nowhere.
There is some nudity in the book, and scenes and paintings that have sexual subject matter. The majority of the book is not that, but it’s something that most mainstream museums would be squeamish about. They were great here to allow me to do it. More than anything, I really want to thank this museum for doing this. They really stuck their neck out.
If you go
Cascadia Art Museum’s store, 190 Sunset Ave. S., Suite E, Edmonds, is open by appointment 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. Appointments can be made at www.cascadiaartmuseum.org/museum-store. The museum itself remains closed. Call 425-336-4809 or go to www.cascadiaartmuseum.org for more information.