Seattle-based curator David Martin has made it his business to discover and resurrect the reputations of early Northwest artists whom history has forgotten.
KUOW critic, Gary Faigin, reviews the current Whatcom Museum show of the pioneer Bellingham landscape artist Elizabeth Colborne as a case in point. Dividing her time between the Northwest and New York City, she produced a series of color woodblock prints of local landmarks like Mt. Baker and Bellingham Bay that bring a sophisticated cosmopolitan sensibility to the depiction a region still emerging from the surrounding wilderness. Her parallel career as a successful children’s book illustrator also highlights her struggles as a single, female artist in a period where few such women were able to pursue a full-time artistic path.
There are fascinating parallels between the early careers of Georgia O’Keeffe and Ms. Colborne, both born in the same region, the Midwest, in the same period – the end of the 19th Century. Two independent women making their way in a field dominated by men, both found their most important inspiration in the rugged landscape of the Western US, and both typically summered in the west and wintered in the Northeast, where they exhibited their western landscapes in New York City galleries. Both were decisively influenced by their teacher Arthur Wesley Dow, who encouraged his students to see nature not as something to be literally recorded, but as something to be reinterpreted using sophisticated principles of design and stylization, especially those embodied in the Japanese print.
O’Keeffe went on to immortality both through the exceptional power of her own work and her good fortune in meeting and marrying the most important exponent of modernist art in the country, Arthur Stieglitz, whose own Manhattan galleries gave her no fewer than 22 high-profile exhibitions over several decades. Colborne, whose gifts were more modest and output far more limited, both in scope and in size, had no such champion, and she is only known to have had a handful of gallery shows before her early death at age 63.
The uncertain state of her legacy is such that the curator of the current show, David Martin, makes clear in the catalog that he holds out the hope that more work – there are no oil painting in the exhibit, for example – and more biographical information will come to light as a result of his efforts, since he assumes that what he has so far examined is only part of her full output.
Meanwhile, we have the Bellingham show, almost entirely based on material given by the artist’s sister, and Colborne’s closest female friends, to the Bellingham Public Library after the artist’s death. The 100-odd works in the exhibition include book covers, illustrations, greeting cards, drawings, tempera paintings, and prints. Given how strong Colborne’s work is when she is allowed to choose her own subject matter, one begins to bemoan the time the artist needed to spend paying the rent with her rather cloying children’s book illustrations and greeting cards.
Left to her own devices (as she was by circumstance in the years following the 1929 stock market crash), she was a sensitive and precise observer of her Northwest surroundings, as interested in the details of a log raft or sawmill, as in the lush sprawl of evergreen boughs spiraling around the dark trunk of a giant fir. Her on-location work, always enlivened by a sure compositional touch, served as the basis for her strongest art, modest-sized multi-color woodblock prints inspired by Japanese artists like Hokusai and Hiroshige.
Several of the woodblocks themselves are on view, impressive in their own right as examples of hand carving and breaking a scene down to its basic elements. The finished multi-colored prints, many shown in several stages and variations, are remarkably effective in capturing the quintessence of the local landscape with eloquence, style, and economy. The neighboring gallery at the museum contains a contemporary landscape show meant to compliment the work of Colborne with local artists interpreting similar woodsy themes, but the catastrophically over-inclusive and crowded exhibition serves mainly to highlight the strength of Colborne’s own design and restraint.
She worked in different times. Her panoramic print of Bellingham Bay at sunset is as richly colored and poetic as a Japanese print of Mt. Fuji framed by a Tori gate, but the grid-like dark foreground contrasting with the jagged peaks of Vancouver’s Coast Range in the background is, in fact, a view of several working lumber mills. Huge black rafts of logs float in gorgeous waters whose salmon, yellow, and green mirrors the evening sky, while rose-tinted piles of lumber and smoking tent-like chimneys cluster alongside. Colborne has lovingly limned the billows of wood smoke with the white, blue, and red of the fading light; air pollution never looked so good. That the very process she is romanticizing would lead to the destruction of much that she treasured and painted is an irony that does not seem to have occurred to her; but 80 years ago the forest must have seemed so much bigger than man’s impact upon it.
Still, in her journals, she writes of her reluctance to start a fire in the cabin on Lake Whatcom she used as a summer studio, “I did not come down here to burn up trees but to paint them. But it rains, so I burn”.
The area around her cabin served as the source of much of her best work. Based on her solitary forays into the woods, close-up views of moss covered tree stumps and tangled foliage manage to convey, with a handful of colors and complete absence of shading, a sense of the lush, damp, and enclosing quality of the forest, but always with a redeeming window to the beyond and a suggestion of horizon, clouds, and sky. True to her locale, the sky is rarely blue, but grey, ochre, yellow, or red; the sun is never bright, but pale and distant, seen through a fog. Small, on-location tempera paintings with a richer palette and a larger scope than the woodblock prints, hint at possibilities of larger, more complex compositions in paint that may or may not have ever existed. Though she complains of it frequently in her journals, rain itself is never depicted; perhaps she found it unpaintable.
One is inevitably reminded of Emily Carr, working in the same period and the same region but in a far more expressionist style, or the Canadian modernist landscape artists known as the Group of Seven, little know south of the 49th parallel but sharing a similar vision of stylized regionalism, transmuting the wilderness through a modernist lens. Elizabeth Colborne, orphaned at an early age and dividing her time between vastly different realms, is a unique Northwest representative of a time in the early 20th Century when artists used modern principles to turn nature into art.