One of the Northwest’s most prolific and delightful painters, Alden Mason was influential in the Seattle art scene since the late 1940s, as an instructor at the University of Washington, an inventive stylist, and a high-profile public artist. Mason’s paintings first drew serious attention in the 1970s, with the transparent oil washes and fluid abstractions of his “Burpee Garden Series,” named for the seed catalogs of bright-colored flowers. After becoming ill from long exposures to solvent and varnish fumes, Mason switched to acrylic paint and reinvented his style, working with squeeze bottles to build patterns and stick-like figures in thick, gooey lines. In 1980 his work was selected for a project that would turn into one of Washington state’s most contentious public art debacles. Mason and university art department colleague Michael Spafford were commissioned to paint murals for the State Capitol Building, only to later have politicians decide the paintings must be removed -- after long public battles and at considerable taxpayer expense. Despite the dust-up, both artists continued their distinguished careers. In 2005, Mason was honored with a Seattle Mayor’s Arts Award. With imagery inspired by his love of bird-watching, tribal arts, and travels in Latin America and Papua New Guinea, Mason is known for the exuberance of his paintings as well as his colorful personality. Alden Mason died on February 6, 2013.
Skagit Valley Boyhood
Born on July 14, 1919, in Everett, Washington, Alden Mason grew up on a Fir Island farm near the banks of the Skagit River. As a very young child he learned about the perils of painting, when his father, Arvid T. Carlson (1892-1925), a house painter, died of lead poisoning after a long, debilitating illness, the result of working with lead-based paints. Alden was only 5 when his father called him to his bedside and told the boy it was up to him to take care of his mother. “What does a five year old boy do when you hear something like that?” he asked an interviewer in 1984 (Harrington). The answer was obvious enough: At that point his mother, Hattie Mae Mason (1894-1998), was widowed from her second husband, Nestor Mason (1893-1983), and nearly 90 years old. Alden was still doing his best to keep her happy.
A slight, precocious child, prone to illness, Alden attended the Skagit City School, a two-room country schoolhouse, where he skipped second grade and forever felt he was struggling to catch up with others. "I was always smaller than everybody else in the beginning and then later on I was always younger than everybody else, and so I was always very shy and introverted ... " (Harrington). Mason’s half-sister, Virginia Mason (now Haskens) was born in 1929.
The fields of the Skagit Valley were Alden’s playground and the wild creatures and farm animals his friends. He built birdhouses, went flyfishing, collected butterflies, experimented with taxidermy, and looked upon the natural world with wonderment. He never forgot the thrill of having a tiny swallow land on his finger for a few moments and gaze into his eyes. Mason got his first drawing instruction from a mail-order cartoon class he took when he was 12. He trapped muskrats to pay for art supplies -- a bumbling, bloody fiasco in which he also accidentally entrapped a beaver and a blue heron. One muskrat chewed off its own foot trying to escape. After plenty of trauma on all sides, Mason managed to save the beaver and the heron, but never got over the experience. “It was horrendous,” he recalled (Farr interview).
Decades later, he still felt guilty about it, but said he loved the cartoons that came of it, “with figures jumping, hopping and smooching. They were having more fun than I was. They lived in a brighter world" (Hackett).
Finding Painting at the UW
After graduating from Mt. Vernon High School and a brief stint at community college, Mason enrolled at the University of Washington intending to study entomology. But after a year or so focused on science, he wandered over to the art department to see what was happening there. As Mason explained on camera for a Seattle Channel documentary, he discovered a drawing class where all the students had easels set up in front of “a beautiful nude model.” With a wicked grin he continued: “I switched my major right away.”
But after pausing a moment for effect, Mason confessed his story was a lie. “The model was terrible looking, about 50 years old.”
In fact, it was the beauty of the Northwest landscape that prompted many of Mason’s early paintings. At the university, he was inspired by his teacher, Ray Hill (1891-1980), whose imagery -- of Deception Pass, and the hills, beaches, and desert landscapes of Washington -- fed Mason’s love of the natural world. “Of course that was wonderful and I was like, you know, here was a god,” Mason said about his instructor (Harrington).
In another favorite tale, Mason explained that the Skagit River and surrounds had long appeared to him as a soft-edged blur that he translated into his watercolor paintings. Apparently, he didn’t realize until well into college that the pleasing fogginess was the result of his poor vision. At a football game, when he couldn’t distinguish what was happening on the field, a friend handed him a pair of glasses and suddenly the world popped into focus. Mason quickly incorporated his new, sharper view of things into his artwork but his painting instructor at the time, Ambrose Patterson, apparently was not impressed. As Mason later recounted it, Patterson said, “What happened to you? You’re doing terrible paintings!” Always eager to embellish a good story, Mason wrapped this one up with aplomb: “It took me 10 years to get back to where I was before I got the glasses.” (Harrington).
Mason completed a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1945 and, continuing at the University of Washington, earned his master of fine arts in 1947. In July 1947, Mason married Donna Young (b. 1928) at the Hope Island Inn, outside La Conner. Their son, Roger Mason, was born in 1949 and recalls: “Growing up, I lived in four architect-designed houses: All were commissioned by Alden and Donna and they participated in the design. Each house had a studio. The first two houses, at the north end of Capitol Hill and in Richmond Beach, were designed by Victor Steinbrueck. The other two houses, in northeast Seattle, were designed by Charles Marsh" (Farr email).
Painting and Teaching Art
The same year Roger was born, Mason was hired as an instructor in the UW art department. Teaching did not come naturally to Mason, at least at first. He was shy and had been taught growing up not to talk to strangers. But once he overcame his initial hesitation, his true personality burst forth and he turned into a flamboyant raconteur -- or, as he has described himself, “a motormouth” who “could tell stories for hours and hours and hours” (Harrington). That energy and enthusiasm was a perfect catalyst for some students, including one whose career later eclipsed that of his teacher. Now one of America’s most esteemed artists, Chuck Close (b. 1940) gives Mason much credit for jumpstarting his career: “He kicked open doors for me,” Close said, calling Mason “one of the most generous, giving, open people I’ve ever come in contact with.” He concluded simply: “I love the man” (Seattle Channel).
Other former students include the painter Roger Shimomura (b. 1939) and Seattle artist Gene Gentry McMahon, who also worked as a teaching assistant for Mason. She recalled that his imaginative methods in class helped motivate students, particularly the amazing still lifes he’d set up. “He’d paint all the shapes white or black and create this magic installation and the students would look at the light striking it and just paint the values,” she recalled (Farr interview).
Even as Mason developed as a teacher, he was channeling much of his time into painting and travel. In 1962, he and Donna toured Europe, seeing the major art collections. They also traveled extensively in Mexico and Guatemala in the 1960s and early 1970s to visit archaeological sites and see the work of Mexican muralists. Art historian Martha Kingsbury summed up Mason’s evolving style in the 1950s and 1960s as a search “to express a certain quality of energy.” By the early 1970s he had progressed from watercolor landscapes to what Kingsbury called “the funky tendencies of the mid-sixties,” with imagery of stylized machines, plants, and other evocative shapes painted with clean edges and flat bright colors. From this pop-surrealism period, Mason developed the dynamic abstractions that came to be called the Burpee Garden series.
For his part, Mason cites his interests progressing from El Greco, Marsden Hartley, and Bonnard toward a more emotional expressiveness and his own form of abstraction. “Miro was very important to me and through that I became interested in Gorky, who does organic kind of abstractions. But I'd always been interested in this overview of the landscape, I mean landscape in the sense of water and sky and clouds and mountains. And suddenly with someone like Miro -- and later Gorky-- you begin to realize that there was this intimate, sensuous, small little bit of landscape. You look down inside of a flower and see this sensual, sexual part of the flower -- what the bee sees -- and then you could draw that. That's a landscape too, in a different scale” (Harrington).
The Burpee series grew out of Mason’s desire to make really big fluid paintings, but the medium of watercolor didn’t lend to a grand scale, so he turned to oil paint. Thinning his pigments with lots of turpentine and other solvents to make brilliant, transparent washes, Mason swooshed colors around with a brush and sponge on heavily primed canvas. Although abstract expressionism was still a dominant influence in those days, Mason saw the new work as more of a return to his roots. To him, the paintings were landscapes on a cellular level, something like rocks on the shore being tossed by the ocean. He wanted each painting to seem “like it just happened by itself and I was there coaxing it along.” he recalled (Seattle Channel).
Mason began his career showing in the top local venues of the era, including Seattle Art Museum, the Henry Art Gallery, and the Zoe Dusanne and Gordon Woodside galleries. His first New York show was in 1954 at Creative Galleries and through the 1960s, he’d also exhibited in Los Angeles, Vancouver B.C., and San Francisco.
The Burpee Garden Series and Beyond
But in the 1970s, with the Burpee paintings, Mason’s success skyrocketed. Mason took a trip to New York to visit Chuck Close and managed to attract the interest of art dealer Allan Stone, who bought all the paintings Mason had with him and offered him a show. Mason remembers that period as one of the most exciting times of his life. His paintings were making a splash in New York and Los Angeles and money was pouring in from sales. It gave him a tremendous sense of fulfillment that people loved the paintings and found them beautiful. With hindsight, though, he ventured his own opinion: “They were too pretty if anything, of course. I like things much more vulgar and wild” (Seattle Channel).
With the success of the Burpee series came pressure to produce and the long hours bent over a horizontal canvas, breathing toxic fumes finally caught up with Mason. In the mid-1970s, he became ill and his doctor recommended that he quit working with oil paint. That meant the Burpee series was over and Mason, at the high point of his career, had to reinvent his style. In addition, Alden and Donna Mason divorced in 1979. “It was my fault,” Mason said, looking back. “I had a wandering eye for a while” (Farr interview).
One day as he watched his friend ceramist Robert Sperry (1927-1998) using a squeeze bottle to apply designs to his pots, Mason got involved and began decorating pots with Sperry. He liked the speed of working that way and soon was experimenting with squeezing acrylic paint on canvas. Mason got hooked on the jittery, energetic lines he could create, the patterns that felt drawn but looked painted.
In 1981 Mason quit his teaching job to devote himself full time to painting. He had won a major commission to paint two huge murals for the Washington State Senate Chamber, each curved lunette measuring 12 by 44 feet. His UW colleague Michael Spafford was commissioned to paint a pair of murals for the House of Representatives. It was a thrilling prospect and a great honor to be selected, but if the artists had known what a public debacle awaited them, they surely would have run the other way. It turned out that after the designs had been approved by lawmakers and the murals painstakingly painted and installed, a few politicians decided that the artworks didn’t suit the décor of the building -- or at least their personal taste -- and should be removed. After years of public debate, loads of news stories, and court battles, both Mason’s and Spafford’s murals were taken down. In the end, taxpayers had shelled out more than half a million dollars, only to end up with empty walls.
“The abused Alden Mason murals that a fickle state Senate stripped from its walls five years ago have been given a far from perfect, but better home,” began a Seattle Times editorial in 1991. That’s when King County Superior Court Judge Terrence Carroll decided that Mason’s murals could be installed in the library at Centralia College. Mason was unhappy with the decision, as were many of his friends and arts administrators, who argued that because the murals were designed to fit the Senate Chambers, the work should not be hung elsewhere. Spafford’s site-specific murals eventually were installed at Centralia College as well, over the artist’s objection.
Painting, Exhibiting, Dancing
During the long period while all that played out, Mason continued to have frequent one-person exhibitions of his work in the Northwest as well as New Mexico, Texas, Nevada, Idaho, California, Georgia, and British Columbia. His last solo show in New York was in 1981 at the Charles Cowles Gallery. In Seattle, Mason was represented for a time by Diane Gilson Gallery, then, from 1983-1996 by the Greg Kucera Gallery (Kucera is a former student of Mason.) Mason exhibited briefly at the Meyerson & Nowinski Gallery before switching to Woodside/Braseth and eventually to Foster/White Gallery, which has represented him since 2003.
People close to Mason know him for his passion for health food, his unflagging energy, his love of flyflishing, travel -- and especially for his wild dancing. “That guy sure did love to dance,” said McMahon. “He made his own moves up: jivey, jumbly, a little spastic. He had so much fun!” (Farr interview). After his divorce from Donna, Mason married in 1980 to Karen Stumpf (b. 1960), an artist and former student, who was instrumental in promoting Mason’s career and as his studio assistant. Avid birdwatchers, they traveled through the upper Amazon and Andes Mountains in Peru, the Yucatan Peninsula and San Blas, Mexico, as well as Costa Rica and Panama in search of exotic species. In 1987, they divorced and from 1987-1989, Mason lived with Debra Hunter (b. 1953), also a former student. He traveled with her to Kenya, Australia, and Guatemala. In 1989, Mason traveled to Papua, New Guinea, and spent six weeks with the Huli people, a life-changing experience that ever after influenced the colors, rhythms, and imagery of his art. In 1990, Mason married Claudia Bucklew (b. 1951, now Claudia Mason). With her son, Andrew Thomas, they spent much time traveling and bird-watching in Guatemala and Costa Rica, as well as several weeks each year in Eastern Washington lake fishing. Alden and Claudia divorced in 2000 but remained close.
Mason’s work can be found in numerous private and public collections, including Seattle Art Museum, the Henry Art Gallery, Tacoma Art Museum, Portland Art Museum, Milwaukee Art Museum, and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He completed large-scale mural commissions for the Washington State Convention Center, the Sheraton Hotel, and McCaw Hall in Seattle, The Portland Justice Center in Oregon, and Renton District Court in Washington.
In 2006 Mason was diagnosed with symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, which he attributed to the years of painting with toxic materials. In 2010, Seattle Art Museum honored Mason with a retrospective. After being confined to a wheelchair, Mason no longer painted, but spent his days surrounded by art and souvenirs from his travels in Latin America and New Guinea. Until his death he continued to look forward to any adventure that came along. "I always wanted to see what was in the next place," he maintained (Farr interview).
Alden Mason died early in the morning on February 6, 2013.