LA CONNER — The last of the Northwest “mystic” artists has died.
Clayton James — sculptor, painter and important figure in Northwest art history — died Oct. 2 at the age of 98.
Born Feb. 6, 1918, in Belding, Michigan, James attended Rhode Island School of Design, where he met painter Barbara Straker. They married in 1944. Straker-James preceded him in death in 2007 after 63 years of marriage.
A conscientious objector during World War II, James spent some years in work camps on both coasts, including Camp Angel in Waldport, Oregon. The camp included a number of artists, writers and performers. Clayton and Barbara maintained friendships with these people for the rest of their lives.
The Jameses were introduced to Skagit Valley by artist Morris Graves (all three lived for a time in Woodway) and settled permanently in La Conner in 1953. They also were drawn to the town because of their friendship with painter (and Edmonds native) Guy Anderson.
About this time Anderson, Graves, Kenneth Callahan (who lived for awhile in the Granite Falls area) and Mark Tobey were featured in Life magazine’s story in 1953 about the “Mystic Painters of the Northwest.”
Clayton and Barbara James helped establish Skagit Valley as a center of the so-called “Northwest School” of art.
It was in La Conner in the early 1950s that James began to turn from painting to three-dimensional sculpture, including wood carving, cast cement and the large-scale, coiled clay and egg-shaped vessels for which he would later be known.
A winter spent in New Mexico in 1976-77 exposed James to the austere forms of ancient Native American vessels and baskets. He returned to La Conner to begin the creation of what would soon be the most powerful work of his career.
His large, hand-built vessels were built and fired in an outdoor kiln at his studio across the street from his home. In the 1980s, James turned from vessel shapes to a variety of three-dimensional clay sculpture, many of which were cast in bronze.
In the early 1990s, James returned to his original medium of oil painting and headed outside for what was to become more than two decades of plein air painting. Often accompanied by his artist friends Dederick Ward, Ed Kamuda and the late Paul Havas, James tackled the landscapes of Washington.
Clayton James’ work has been exhibited and collected widely throughout the Northwest and beyond. It was the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Northwest Art in 2002 in La Conner.
Except for a short period of nursing care at the end of his life, Clayton was able to achieve his wish to remain in his own home and studio, thanks to the devoted care and support he received from a wide circle of friends, artists and community members.
More about James is available at www.history link.org/File/5349.
By press time the memorial gathering to honor Clayton James had not yet been set.