The Lavender Palette: Gay Culture and the Art of Washington State by Chloé Dye Sherpe

Thursday, January 02, 2020 11:28 AM | Debbi Lester (Administrator)

“The Lavender Palette: Gay Culture and the Art of Washington State” at Cascadia Art Museum is the first of its kind. Curator David Martin seeks to document and illustrate the influence of gay artists in Washington state and outline their regional, national, and international importance. The public and private artworks and writings of these artists are on display for the first time together in this exhibition. Martin describes significance of this in his introductory statement, “While certain aspects of their creative output exist in public collections, art with subject matter illustrating their personal lives was often destroyed or weeded out in museum collections in order to preserve a sanitized version of their lives.” The show touches on many aspects, including stylistic contribution,international acclaim, the risk of persecution and imprisonment, aesthetic influences, and documentation of gay culture. However, I believe that the core strength of the exhibition is that it shares the stories and significance of these artists, and in many cases these personal narratives are being shared with the public for the first time.

There are four artists whose work is synonymous with Northwest art. Kenneth Callahan, Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, and Guy Anderson are the “big four” artists who make up the core of the Northwest School. Three of those artists, Tobey, Graves, and Anderson, are included in this exhibition. Tobey’s paintings show his experimentation with white lines, which would become his signature style. Several of Graves’ paintings from the 1930s are included and they are wonderful examples of the social realistic style. A later painting, “Preening Sparrow” from 1952, is also included. I was particularly thrilled to see Guy Anderson’s “Fisherman Dreaming of Home” from 1964 which is oil and metal collage on wood. His paintings and prints are staples in the both private and public art collections in the Northwest, but I think his mixed media pieces are especially personal because would often use materials in his immediate surroundings.

It is vital that Tobey, Graves, and Anderson be included in this exhibition, but there another dozen artists featured that will likely not be familiar to even the most devoted Northwest art connoisseur. Once the visitor has entered the galleries, the first images that the viewer sees when entering the space is a series 54 mugshots of men arrested for sodomy between 1893-1913. On a perpendicular wall, portraits of many of the artists are also installed. I was so grateful to be able to put faces to the names of artists that I was learning about for the first time. I am very familiar with portraits of Morris Graves, for example, but other artists like Thomas Handforth, Sarah Spurgeon, and Richard Bennett were completely new to me. Rediscovery has become a theme for the exhibitions at Cascadia Art Museum and it is a real benefit for the artistic community.

The galleries that hold the exhibition feel intimate and the visitor can easily stand in a position so that they can see the majority of the room. As I stood at the entrance of the largest room, I was amazed at the number and variety of artworks. Since the works are arranged by artist, it can be a wonderful visual exercised for the visitor to try to note some of the thematic through-lines as they move from artist to artist. Many themes are revealed, including interior mid-century scenes, fashion illustrations, labor scenes in social realist style, Northwest School style paintings, and more. However, the artworks most interesting to me focused on intimate subject matter and portraits. The thesis of the show is to bring the private lives of these artists to the forefront; lives that they often had to hide to varying degrees. These intimate writings and  images tell many stories including the “wedding” of Jackie Starr (“a top female impersonator at the Garden of Allah Club in Seattle” according to the exhibition text) and Bill Scott, the long-lasting professional and personal relationship between Del McBride and Clark Brott, Orre Nobles’ diary in which he describes “chats” (code for sexual experiences), and photographs of naked men in a variety of poses and displayed in the “mature content” section of the exhibition.

As stated in the introductory text, this exhibition is groundbreaking. The time and knowledge required to gather all the artworks and primary sources together in this show is staggering. I was told by the docent that there a catalog is forthcoming, but its release date is unknown at this time. There are three Coffee with the Curator events throughout the run of the exhibition and the last event is on January 5. If you want to discover artists who will likely be new to you and learn more about their concealed personal relationships and artworks, this is the exhibition for you.

Chloé Dye Sherpe

Chloé Dye Sherpe is a curator and art professional based in Washington State.

“The Lavender Palette” is on view through January 26 at the Cascadia Art Museum, located 190 Sunset Avenue in Edmonds, Washington. Museum hours are Wednesday through Sunday from 11 A.M. to 6 P.M. and on 3rd Thursdays Art Walk Edmonds from 11 A.M. to 8 P.M. For more information, visit

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