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Originally published December 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 27, 2008 at 1:11 AM

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Doris Chase, celebrated artist, divided career between Seattle and New York

Ms. Chase died Dec. 13 from a combination of Alzheimer's disease and several strokes, said her son Randy Chase, of Seattle. She spent her final years in Capitol Hill's Horizon House after a career divided between Seattle and New York City.

Seattle Times staff reporter

You might think of Doris Totten Chase primarily when you climb on her big, abstract "Changing Form" sculpture at Queen Anne's Kerry Park or walk past her "Moon Gates" at Seattle Center.

But those who gather at her memorial Jan. 9 will remember her as a world-renowned sculptor, painter, teacher and experimental-video director who forged an improbable career in a field once dominated by men.

"Working since 1947, toughing it out through years when many collectors wouldn't take her seriously because she was a woman, she has become one of the most distinguished and original artists ever to emerge from the Northwest," former Seattle Times art critic Deloris Tarzan Ament wrote in 1992.

Ms. Chase died Dec. 13 from a combination of Alzheimer's disease and several strokes, said her son Randy Chase, of Seattle. She spent her final years in Capitol Hill's Horizon House after a career divided between Seattle and New York City.

Born in Seattle in 1923, Ms. Chase went to Ravenna Grade School and Roosevelt High, and studied art and architecture at the University of Washington. She married in 1943, gave birth to son Gary in 1946 and son Randy in 1951. Her challenges while trying to break into the art world included a nervous breakdown after Gary's birth and coping with her husband Elmo's paralysis from polio.

Using unconventional materials that included sand and wood, Ms. Chase began painting Northwest landscapes and had her first — and well-reviewed — solo exhibition in 1956 at Seattle's Otto Seligman Gallery. As her career flourished with solo shows around the world, her abstract paintings gradually gave way to large, abstract sculptures that featured circles and arches and were made so that people could interact with them — and sometimes climb on them.

None of this came easily. "It was frustrating," Randy recalled. "There were a few women [artists], and she fought the battle for women's rights and acceptance in the arts as being legitimate and serious her whole life. Perseverance was part of her nature."

The "Northwest art establishment ... tended to treat her like a housewife with pretensions," Ament wrote. And so, already a pioneer, Ms. Chase made another bold move in 1972: At the age of 49, she divorced, moved to New York on her own and began making experimental short films. Initially combining her sculpture with dance in the films, her most notable were those in a series of films about the inner lives of aging women in the 1980s. Having settled in the famous Chelsea Hotel, she also shot a 1993 documentary, "The Chelsea," about its eccentric artistic residents.

In New York, her reputation grew like it never had in Seattle. One indication of that change was Parke Godwin's 1988 novel, "A Truce With Time," a fictionalized version of Ms. Chase's life before and during her New York years. While he was writing it, she made a film depicting her own view of their relationship, "Still Frame."

Among Ms. Chase's honors was Seattle's "Doris Chase Day," declared for the 1999 dedication of her 17-foot high "Moon Gates" at Seattle Center. She created Kerry Park's 15-foot "Changing Form" in 1971.

Randy Chase recalls his mom as "the ultimate multitasker." She worked on her art six days a week and spent Sundays on a "spiritual recharge" and a walk in the park. Her art, he said, "was her oxygen, her gasoline. She was very vibrant, articulate, and she worked hard to get what she got. There was no gifts here."

Ms. Chase moved back to Seattle full time in 2004. "Her last five years, she actually took time for herself where she was not as consumed in producing art," he said. "And finally with some friends she was able to travel in a relaxing sense and just enjoy. And that was so great to see."

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Ament summed up Ms. Chase and her unusual life in 1990: "I've come to think of Doris Chase as a walking miracle. No one ever told her some things couldn't be done, so she went ahead and did them."

In addition to her son Randy and his wife, Nancy, Ms. Chase is survived by her son Gary and his partner, Pam, of Melbourne, Australia, and three grandchildren.

A public memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Jan. 9 at the University Unitarian Church, 6556 35th Ave. N.E. Contributions can be made to the Horizon House Employee Fund, Providence Hospice of Seattle or the University of Washington Doris Totten Chase Endowment Fund.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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