The painter Richard Gilkey grew up in the Skagit Valley, attended Ballard High School, and served in World War II as a marine. He returned to civilian life traumatized, becoming a brawler and rabble rouser. Exposure to the mystical and anti-war paintings of Guy Anderson, Morris Graves, and Mark Tobey turned him to serious painting. At first he executed heroic landscapes, often using a palette knife to apply thick paint to huge canvases. A serious automobile accident in 1984 interrupted his work for three years. When he was able to paint again, his work became more interior, a record of human consciousness. Recognition was immediate, both in the Pacific Northwest and internationally. This biography of Richard Gilkey is reprinted from Deloris Tarzan Ament's Iridescent Light: The Emergence of Northwest Art (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002). Note: All quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from Deloris Tarzan Ament's interview with Richard Gilkey.
The Nature of Reality
Late in his career, Richard Gilkey wrote those words, reflecting on the body of work he had produced:
"For 50 years of working at painting and sculpture my primary interests and intentions have remained constant. The nature of reality, our relationship to the enormity of space-time, and the interaction of mankind with itself in our universe comprise my concerns. Life on our planet, formed from the very dust of exploding stars, is nurtured and sustained by the light energy of our Sun. My work intends to image universal aspects of reality and consciousness through light and form" (Janet Huston Notes).
Gilkey, a fourth-generation resident of the Skagit Valley, had deeper roots in the Northwest than any other artist of his generation. His paternal great-grandfather, one of the region's earliest settlers, had helped build dikes in the Edison area. His maternal grandfather was the bridge tender at the north end of the Swinomish Channel.
The Skagit Valley was in his very bones. Perhaps that was part of the reason he so often painted outdoors, searching out remote sites where he wouldn't be disturbed, taking along stakes to anchor his easel from winds, and an ax to hammer them into the ground.
Gilkey was born on December 20, 1925, in Bellingham. He spent the first six years of his life in a logging camp in British Columbia, where his father was a timber cruiser (identifying trees to be cut for logging operations), before the family moved back to March Point, near Anacortes.
He was 12 when the family moved to Seattle. At Ballard High School, he studied art with the outstanding, widely loved teacher Orre Nobles. Gilkey showed a modest early talent for sketching.
His brother, Tom, two years older, dropped out of school in his senior year to enlist in the Marine Corps on December 8, 1941, the day the United States declared war on Japan. Richard, a skinny 17-year-old in his junior year, soon followed suit. He stuffed himself with ice cream and bananas for a week to meet the minimum weight requirement.
As a private first class in the 3rd Marine Raider Battalion, Gilkey took part in the invasion of Bougainville in the Solomon Islands. A high percentage of his battalion were killed. Many others were grievously wounded. Richard was knocked out twice by artillery fire. He spent 10 months in the hospital before receiving a medical discharge in August 1944. His brother, suffering from shock and concussion, was similarly discharged the same year.
In later years, the condition they suffered would be called post-traumatic stress disorder, but in World War II, the term was not yet in use. Friends said the look of age and grief that haunted Gilkey's sea-blue eyes dated from his time in the marines.
Readjustment to civilian life was hard for both Richard and Tom. They told a reporter that when they found "people just concerned with themselves, you wonder if they realize that while they're short of butter and gasoline, other fellows are going without food and clothing and arms and legs" (Stewart).
Richard went back to Ballard High School briefly, but he lasted there only two weeks. He clashed with authority when he told a history teacher he'd studied all the current events he needed.
A Revelation and a Turning Point
From his early flair for drawing, he got a job designing matchbook covers. He had never really looked at art. At the invitation of Seattle Art Museum (SAM) assistant director Ed Thomas, he visited the museum for a personal tour through the galleries and stacks.
Years later, he wrote:
“The discovery of works by Anderson, Graves and Tobey in the Seattle Art Museum was a revelation and a turning point in my life. Here were paintings that addressed my concerns from very different points of view. Guy Anderson had painted the fallen parachutist, the wounded and damaged warrior, figures in rocks, in the sea and on the beach. Graves used personal symbols to indicate his feeling of the senselessness of war: birds, moons, gloves and urns. Tobey enmeshed figures, cities and worlds in threaded light and pointed to the unity of energy in all forms and deplored the egocentrism of warring nations. After meeting these artists, I gained from their encouragement, guidance and friendship" (Gilkey Statement for Guy Anderson exhibition).
Gilkey took the expedient of sitting on the front steps of Tobey's Brooklyn Avenue studio until the artist emerged in order to make his acquaintance. It was a precursor of the courage that later allowed Gilkey to seek out Picasso at his home in southern France.
Painting and Raising Hell
To support himself during the early postwar years, Gilkey worked at a succession of odd jobs, as ranch hand, merchant seaman, and setting choke as a logger. Off hours, he developed a reputation as a hell-raiser in places like the Blue Moon Tavern in the University District. Normally a peaceable man, he had a quick temper, and was prone to respond to challenges by getting in the first punch. Usually, it was enough.
He set up a studio at 95 Yesler Way, on the corner of 1st Avenue, in the area that came to be known as Pioneer Square, but which back then was still the original Skid Road. Tobey and Graves encouraged his early experimentation with art styles, showing him how things could work better in his paintings, and suggesting books to read.
Hitting His Stride
When his work was accepted into the 1948 Northwest Annual Exhibition he had begun to hit his stride. It was a period in which, influenced by Graves, he was producing bird, fish, and animal paintings. Young Bird, the depiction of a baby robin done in oil with a palette knife, is in SAM's permanent collection.
Gilkey's grandmother died in 1948, leaving him $1,000. He caught a bus to New York, then hopped a freighter to Europe, where the legacy allowed him to travel for four months, seeing master paintings in the great museums. He was especially impressed by the work of Rembrandt, Francisco Goya, and Vincent van Gogh.
The latter may have been the origin of the huge, aggressive sunflowers Gilkey painted in sharp focus in many of his subsequent canvases. A 1963 canvas, Bridge, in the collection of SAM, he described as "an awkward echo of Japanese woodblock prints, via Van Gogh."
Back in Seattle, Gilkey shared an apartment with Leo Kenney, surviving as an artist in part through the kindness of Betty Bowen, who bought groceries for the two painters, brought them portrait commissions, and brought patrons to their studios. In those days, his paintings sold for $25 or $50, and even then, people often made time payments.
In 1958, his fortunes took a turn for the better when he received a Guggenheim Fellowship for travel and study abroad. He spent the first six months in Ireland, where Morris Graves had moved, and the next six months with a family in Siena, Italy.
The highlight of the trip was an afternoon he spent with Pablo Picasso. He was driving past Picasso's home in southern France when, on impulse, he stopped by the gate and left his favorite Kowichan sweater as a gift. He had always called it his Picasso sweater because the designs reminded him of Picasso's work.
As he was turning the car around, a woman he took to be the housekeeper swung open the gate and motioned for him to come in. It proved to be Jacqueline Roque Picasso. "Picasso was a tiny man," Gilkey recalled, "no bigger than Leo [Kenney], but built like a bull. Very husky" (Tarzan, "Gilkey's Visual Poems...")
With Jacqueline as interpreter, they talked painting. When Gilkey showed Picasso photographs of some of the thirty or more chair paintings he had done in the 1950s, Picasso introduced him to other guests as "the American chair painter." One of that series, Black Chair (1957), is in the collection of the Seattle Art Museum.
Picasso climbed into the back of Gilkey's Volkswagen, opened Gilkey's paint box, examined his brushes and the palette knives, which Gilkey preferred to brushes. He wanted to know about everything Gilkey did, and how he did it. Gilkey told him about a painting he had done in Picasso's style, titled Picasso Chair. When he left, Picasso gave him a Spanish chair of carved wood and thick leather. To Gilkey's grief, it would not fit into his Volkswagen, and had to be left behind. Gilkey later said, "In retrospect, I should have taken the chair and given Picasso the car" (Tarzan, "Gilkey's Visual Poems...").
Gilkey disliked the art that was in vogue in the 1960s. Pop art seemed to him a "vacant style," and abstract expressionism appeared equally empty of meaning. He made two painting trips to Mexico, but they did not seem to influence either his style or his taste.
The Fugitive Light of the Skagit Valley
For Gilkey, nature held primary meaning. In his studio, he copied H. R. Pagels' words from The Cosmic Code: "The visible world is neither matter nor spirit, but the invisible organization of energy" (Pagels). The question was, how could it be painted?
Through the process of working, he found his interest lay in the Skagit Valley landscapes of his childhood. For years, he regularly drove 60 miles from Seattle to paint the region. His landscapes were visual poems whose moods could be felt through the medium of the paint itself, laid on with a palette knife in such palpable density that its direction and rhythm could be read with the fingers. Thick, rhythmic strokes of subdued color thrummed with energy.
The fugitive light of the lower Skagit is unlike any other. No painter has reproduced it better than Gilkey. Without being literal, he captured the essence of the Skagit delta so faithfully that on certain cloudy days, critic John Robinson observed, "One cannot drive through it without noticing how much it has come to look like a Gilkey" (Robinson).
Like Gilkey himself, the paintings were both rugged and sensitive. A river rose and disappeared into the distance, cutting through geometric sections of golden fields. The viewer's eye was swept up to a scumbled white sky of broken clouds that seemed to suggest some veil across the unknown. These landscapes held peace. Art reviewer Robert Arnold called Gilkey "a superb naturalist, one of the best in the tradition of Van Gogh and Cézanne" (Arnold).
The landscapes, often done in heroic size, proved popular with Northwest institutions in search of suitable art for public areas. In November 1974, disagreement over a big three-panel mural commission for the main branch of Peoples National Bank of Washington caused Gilkey's split with the Foster/White Gallery. (Each of the three panels measured 6 feet by 20 feet. The mural now hangs on the fourth floor of the Washington State Convention Center, in Seattle).
The gallery had mounted one-man shows for Gilkey in 1968, 1971, and 1973. Gallery owner Donald Foster asked for 40 percent of the mural's commission price -- the amount usual for art sold in the gallery. Protesting that Foster had done nothing to secure the commission, Gilkey offered 15 percent. Ultimately, they agreed on 20 percent, Foster recalls (Donald Foster).
But when Gilkey arrived at the bank a few days before the scheduled dedication of the art to check the installation, he discovered the murals were hung in the wrong sequence. He blamed gallery director David Mendoza for not being there to supervise the hanging. He ended his association with the gallery, and supervised the correct hanging himself.
Bucking the Gallery System
After that split, Gilkey's work was represented by his longtime friend, Janet Huston. Huston, who held a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Washington, was herself a painter, but rarely exhibited her work. Gilkey liked the agent system because it allowed him to schedule shows at his own convenience rather than fitting into a gallery schedule.
Huston mounted the first independent show of Gilkey's work in March 1977, at 100 South Jackson Street. The space was owned by Richard White, former owner of the gallery renamed Foster/White after he sold it. Seattle Post-Intelligencer art critic Richard Campbell charged Gilkey with selfish motives and disloyalty to commercial art galleries for his use of a private agent. Outraged, Gilkey appeared at the Post-Intelligencer the next morning to take Campbell to task. He overturned Campbell's desk before stalking out.
Gilkey bought an acre of Skagit Valley farmland in 1975, from the proceeds of his mural commission. He rebuilt an ancient one-room house that stood on the property to serve as a temporary studio and living space. Over time, he added a separate studio building.
Gilkey's Poetic Fantasy
Surreal elements had begun to enter his landscapes, symbolic of seasonal cycles. A yin/yang of poppies and fish overhung a landscape titled Ritual in Full Summer. A wheel of fish set like a sun in a violet sky in Winter Solstice. A giant sunflower advanced from behind a barn in another canvas. In still another, a black sun was formed by wheeling smelt.
Gilkey attached the name "poetic fantasy" to the incongruous objects that floated above realistic landscapes much as Marc Chagall's fiddlers and lovers hovered over housetops. The symbolic insertions got a mixed critical reception. They were never as widely appreciated as his purely realistic landscapes.
Japanese Influence, Recognition in Japan
In 1982, Gilkey's work was included in a show of Pacific Northwest artists at Osaka's National Museum of Art, along with art by George Tsutakawa, Frank Okada, Johsel Namkung, Guy Anderson, Paul Horiuchi, Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves, Leo Kenney, Philip McCracken, Carl Morris, Hilda Morris, and Mark Tobey. The artists were chosen for their interest in the Asian tradition.
For that exhibition, Gilkey wrote:
"The landscape in which I work is a rural agricultural river delta, rich with sloughs, marshes and farmland. Immediately to the East rise the Cascade Mountains, deeply forested and laced with waterfalls which flow from snow-covered peaks to rivers running seaward. The nearby rocky islanded coastline sustains ancient firs, wind-torn, gnarled and dwarfed, bonsai in nature. Mosses and lichens soften the weathered stones while mists and rain shroud the grayed landscape a large part of the year. It is a landscape very much like Japan. For me, this area has encouraged a meaningful response to Japanese culture which inspires respect for nature through art forms ... The Japanese nature spirit pervades many facets of life and becomes a celebration of nature, transformed through art. Artists have the potential to advance a heightened perception of reality and by this process enhance both art and living, which are one" (Pacific Northwest Artists and Japan).
His career took a sharp turn in December 1984. He was driving a rental car on a New Mexico vacation, with Janet Huston and Jan Thompson (1918-2008) as passengers. A pickup truck came broadside across the freeway, hitting five cars on the way into his path. Gilkey swerved to avoid the collision, and instead was hit by a semi, which smashed the length of the driver's side, sending Gilkey's head through the side window, and crushing several of his vertebrae. His two passengers walked out unharmed.
This was Gilkey's second serious auto accident. The first took place in the late 1950s, during his brief marriage to Ann Warren. He was rear-ended on an errand to bring home a basset hound puppy. On that occasion, after spinal surgery to repair his injury, he was in a body cast for several months.
After the 1984 accident, Gilkey was unable to paint for nearly three years. For a long time, even after several surgeries, he couldn't lift a brush without agony. Medication to control his pain played havoc with his concentration and fine-motor control.
The Road Back
He appealed to the Kreielsheimer Foundation for help, asking for $10,000 to finish his studio, $5,000 to buy art materials, and $9,600 to be able to paint for a year. The foundation responded, taking in exchange three large paintings, one of which was placed in Cornish College of the Arts.
Five years after the accident, he at last had an exhibition of new paintings. The show inaugurated a new gallery that Huston opened at the corner of Fifth and Morris streets in La Conner. Gilkey's new paintings were no longer in oil, but in alkyd, a nonyellowing emulsion of acid and alcohol.
The accident had given him intimations of mortality. He had begun to dwell on the nature of consciousness itself. In a painting titled The Waking, a creature is born from an egg in the midst of a maelstrom of flame. In another canvas, a moon so immense that its sides were clipped by the edges of the 4-foot panel was reflected in marshland, crossed by thick, reedy strokes of texture.
He had become enthralled with the idea of black light as a probability cloud. A quote from Lao-tzu seemed key: "Mystery and manifestations arise from the same source. The source is darkness ... Darkness within darkness, the gateway to all understanding." Of a canvas titled Winter Stone, he wrote: "Consciousness is a mirror in which energy patterns reflect nature. The Universe perceives itself!"
Gilkey's painting had entered a new era; stronger than it ever had been. His subject was no longer the land but some interior state of consciousness. Recognition was immediate. In 1990, he was selected to receive the Washington State Governor's Art Award in recognition of outstanding contributions to the art of Washington state.
He became increasingly philosophical. He copied and enlarged a 1988 quote from Richard Feynman: "To note that the thing I call my individuality is only a pattern or dance, that is what it means when one discovers how long it takes for the atoms of the brain to be replaced by other atoms. The atoms come into my brain, dance and dance, and then go out -- there are always new atoms, but always doing the same dance, remembering what the dance was yesterday."
Gilkey was 64 when he won the crowning achievement of his career. He was named grand prize winner of the Osaka Triennale 1990 Exhibition, a juried competition that drew 30,000 entries from 60 countries around the world. He received word of his win on a day in early November that he deemed "the best and the worst day of my life." At 4 a.m. the same day, he had to evacuate his Fir Island studio when a levee broke and the Skagit River overran its banks, burying the island under 9 feet of water. Gilkey had to row a skiff out to his house to pick up a coat and get the papers to fax an acceptance back to Osaka.
His winning painting, August Field, was an oil on linen nearly 7 feet tall by 10 feet wide. It depicted countless small symbols floating in a space streaming with white light. It became part of the permanent collection of the Osaka Contemporary Art Center.
His paintings went from strength to strength in his ongoing search "to image universal aspects of reality, through light and form."
Death of an Artist
Gilkey killed himself in Hemingwayesque style. On Monday, September 29, 1997, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He was already on medication for heart trouble. The Mount Vernon physician who gave him the diagnosis admitted being very negative in his prognosis.
Gilkey climbed into his 1992 Dodge Ram and began driving. He packed no clothes, and left his heart medicine behind. He took only one thing: a small revolver he'd had for years.
He drove as far as Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Some time before noon on Friday, October 3, 1997, he parked on the side of a dirt road near the summit of 9,600-foot Togwatee Pass. There, surrounded by the Grand Tetons, in a lush green meadow near a brook, he put the gun to his head. He was 72 years old.
His body was found later that day by a forest ranger.
He left behind a note from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: "This is the chief thing: Be not perturbed, for all things are according to the nature of the Universal, and in a little time you will be no one and nowhere."