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Originally published Sunday, August 23, 2015 at 7:00 AM

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From ‘women’s medium’ to celebrated art: 75 years of Northwest watercolors

The Northwest Watercolor Society marks its 75th anniversary with two exhibitions, in Seattle and Edmonds, and with a book tracing the history of the group’s efforts to free watercolors from “secondary status” in the art world.

Special to The Seattle Times


Northwest Watercolor Society’s 75th Annual International Open Exhibition

7 a.m.-10 p.m. daily through Sept. 30, Washington State Convention Center, Level 2, 800 Convention Place, Seattle; free (

‘A Fluid Tradition: Northwest Watercolor Society ... The First 75 Years’

Exhibit opens 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sept. 12, which is also the grand opening of the museum; regular hours are 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays-Sundays and until 8 p.m. Thursdays, Cascadia Art Museum, 190 Sunset Ave., Edmonds; $10 regular admission, free on Sept. 12 but reservations recommended. See website for details (


The Big Local Names involved are mighty big: Mark Tobey, Alden Mason, George Tsutakawa and Z. Vanessa Helder (whose 2013 retrospective of “precisionist watercolors” at the Tacoma Art Museum turned most preconceptions about the medium on their head).

But it’s the lesser-known figures in “A Fluid Tradition: Northwest Watercolor Society ... The First 75 Years” who are the revelation.

“A Fluid Tradition” is the name of both a new book by Seattle art historian David F. Martin (Northwest Watercolor Society, 128 pp., $34.95) and the inaugural exhibition at the Cascadia Art Museum in Edmonds, opening Sept. 12 (see for details).

Northwest Watercolor Society is also holding its annual International Open Exhibition at the Washington State Convention Center through Sept. 30.

In short, NWWS is celebrating its 75th anniversary in several spectacular ways.

The organization got its informal start in 1939 and made it official in 1940. Its stated objective: “To promote transparent watercolor painting in the Northwest, to encourage use of the medium by artists, and to bring work of painters in this to public attention.”

The one qualification for membership, Martin explains in his lucid essay, was that artists had to have been included in a juried show at the Seattle Art Museum. (This was back in the days when SAM had far more active and expansive ties with the local artistic community.)

NWWS, like older watercolor societies in London and New York, aimed to free watercolors from their “secondary status” in the art world. While smaller and less durable than oils on canvas, watercolors nevertheless were well-suited to Pacific Northwest subject matter.

“The overlapping of transparent washes,” Martin points out, “conveyed a sense of the layered and cloudy atmospheric effects that permeate the local climate.”

Watercolors were also looked down on as “a woman’s medium,” and it was indeed women who were instrumental in the founding of NWWS. (Artist Vara Grube was the organization’s first president.)

But a number of those women — especially Helder with her sharp, gritty paintings of the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam — turned the “dainty watercolor” canard on its head.

An equal number of talented men were part of NWWS. Irwin Caplan, Neil Meitzler, Glen Alps and Charles Swanberg all created striking works, ranging from a near-abstract take on a mountain stream in winter (Meitzler) to a rowdy carnival of down-and-out souls in Caplan’s “Hooverville.” (Seattle-born Caplan was also a talented cartoonist and creator of The Saturday Evening Post cartoon series, Famous Last Words.)

Several of the men fought in World War II, including Jess Cauthorn in the South Pacific and Danny Pierce in Europe. Pierce witnessed the liberation of Mauthausen death camp in Austria in 1945 and made quick watercolor sketches of survivors on the spot.

Interviewing Pierce, who taught at Seattle University, in his later years, Martin asked, “‘How did you make art in combat?”

“Well, I sawed off the paintbrushes and the pencils,” Pierce said, “and I put them in a tobacco can.” He cut his watercolor papers down to size so they could fit in the can, too.

These were off-the-cuff works. But Pierce’s large 1962 casein on illustration board, “Young Fisherman,” strikes a balance between the figurative and the abstract that’s anything but casual.

The documentary aspect of this art doesn’t only focus on urban squalor and wartime. For anyone interested in the look of Seattle 50 or more years ago, there’s plenty that’s of interest.

Cauthorn’s “Aurora Bridge” (1951) shows tree-denuded lots on the north side of Queen Anne Hill, waiting for houses to fill them. Jule Kullberg’s “Seattle from Queen Anne Hill” (1954) is a glowing nighttime vista of the whole city before the 1962 World’s Fair changed Lower Queen Anne forever. Winifred Clifton’s “Seattle Waterfront” (1943) gives the flavor of the town when the Smith Tower was its tallest structure and the streets wound their way toward the harbor unhindered by the Alaska Viaduct.

There’s plenty of conventional calendar-pretty work in “A Fluid Tradition”: coastal scenes, rural landscapes, floral pieces. But it’s the sheer unpredictable mix of styles and approaches that makes this invigorating art history.

That varied vigor is still in play at the 75th Annual International Open Exhibition, whether it’s the spare landscape work of Tom Hoffmann (“Headland, Cloud”), the black semiabstract figures of Anita Lehmann’s “Musical Chairs,” or the dry wit of Geoffrey McCormack’s “Modern Archeology” in which an opened cardboard shipping container serves as the site of the “excavation.”

Here’s wishing NWWS 75 more years of going forward in all directions.

Michael Upchurch:


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