James Washington Jr.: The Saga
posted by JEN GRAVES on MON, NOV 30, 2009 at 4:06 PM
Last week, just before Thanksgiving, I met Tim Detweiler at Woodside/Braseth Gallery to walk through The Spirit in the Stone: A Centennial Celebration & Exhibition Honoring James W. Washington, Jr.Detweiler was practically breathless. He talked for a half-hour before I got a word in, and before we even looked at the late Washington's art. The reason why: Detweiler has been buried in a mountain of fascinating stuff for the last year or so, and it's like he traveled to an undiscovered land and must. get. the. stories. out.
The exhibition does a solid job of starting things off for him, and it's a generous act by Woodside/Braseth, considering that much of the work on display is not for sale but instead either owned by the James and Janie Washington Foundation (open by appointment at 1816 26th Avenue) or owned by private collectors.Raw paintings and collages tell the early story.Making of the United Nation Charter, from 1945, shows hands turning to bone and heads to skulls. The charter was supposed to include an expansion of freedoms for African Americans after the war. But it didn't. Four years later, another painting, with thick impasto sections and also collaged newspaper clippings, drew together Washington's brutal Mississippi past with a not-as-different-as-you'd-like Seattle present (he moved to Seattle in 1944). The painting is called Democracy Challenged, and it pictures the Statue of Liberty, her torch's flame going up into a newspaper headline: "Fiery Cross 'K.K.K.' Note Found Near -- Home" beneath "House Defeats Civil-Rights Part of Housing Bill." On the other side of the painting, balancing Lady Liberty on the scales of justice, are three lynched bodies. A headline, also from the Seattle Times, dated Thursday, September 8, 1949, reads, "Mrs. Roosevelt Says: North as Bad as South in Discrimination." In addition to the daily personal debasements Washington had to endure growing up in small-town Mississippi, his father had been "disappeared" after threats from the KKK. Washington Jr. never figured out what happened to Washington Sr., even after putting a couple of Pinkertons on the case later in his life.
What's amazing is that Washington started showing his art pretty much as soon as he got to Seattle, and never really stopped. He wasn't the established, university-based, powerhouse figure that Jacob Lawrence was, but he was a constant presence until his death in 2000. And his greatest medium was stone carving. At Woodside/Braseth are several examples of his irresistible animal carvings (they're almost entirely in the round), as well as a self-portrait bas-relief he made in 1976, the same year he made one of Mark Tobey (it was the year Tobey died). This is his only self-portrait in stone.
Detweiler is the first first full-time, permanent director of the foundation—housed at the Washington home and studio, where there are still piles of granite awaiting carving—and he and a small team of helpers have been making discoveries in the archives. They found a letter from Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros inviting him to dinner (he accepted). In the crawl space below the studio they found memos from Washington's work with the Congress of Racial Equality in Seattle in 1960 (they'd demand parity, and if bosses didn't make at least a good-faith effort, they'd picket).
In 1968, Washington was commissioned by Leon Sullivan to do a series of six busts of African Americans for the rotunda of a black-owned mall in Philadelphia. (The picture above shows Washington working on the MLK bust.) The busts were vandalized by whites—actually given white-face—until they were finally removed, and then lost. Until now!
Detweiler and his team (including Susan Platt) called the mall to try to find the busts, and nobody knew where they were, so they started looking. It turns out they'd been hiding for 15 years under a stairwell, some of the white paint still on them. Thanks to Detweiler and the foundation, they've been found. They're staying in (and owned by) the mall in Philadelphia, which is being renovated.
See the show, which also includes a room of works by Washington's friends and contemporaries, before it closes December 12. More images...