Wehn, James A. (1882-1973)

  • By Fred F. Poyner IV
  • Posted 4/18/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10773
James Wehn, a Seattle-based sculptor noted for his statue of Chief Seattle, sculpted figures and medallions depicting historically significant persons. His work is displayed across the state and as far away as Chicago and New York. 

From Indianapolis to Seattle  

James Alfred Wehn was born on December 5, 1882, in Indianapolis, Indiana, the second-born of three sons. His father, John Christian Wehn, was of German immigrant descent. His mother, Clara (Sharp) Wehn had lived in Indianapolis her whole life. James had several aunts and uncles on both sides as well, with close ties with these relations remaining a constant both at an early age and in the years following his family’s relocation to Seattle in the spring of 1889.

As a young boy James was susceptible to childhood illnesses, and had survived a diphtheria epidemic while the family still lived in the 7th ward of Indianapolis. The loss of the family's infant son, Herman, convinced John Wehn to accept an offer by foundry owner John M. Frink (1855-1914) to come out West for a chance at a better life.

The family resettled uneventfully at the new Wehn homestead near Lake Washington, but only a couple of months later, on June 6, 1889, endured the Great Seattle Fire along with the rest of the city. The fire spared the home, which was located at 710 29th Avenue S. As his father helped John Frink rebuild the destroyed Washington Iron Works, the 7-year-old James earned the distinction of “Territorial Pioneer” as a new settler in the Washington Territory.

Apprenticeships and Mentors

At the age of 13, while confined to bed during one of his bouts of sickness, James was given a set of watercolor paints by a visiting nurse and encouraged to draw as a way to pass the time. He had a natural talent, and on the strength of a still life drawing became a student to a visiting painter: Rowena Nichols Leinss.

Leinss encouraged the young James to also model sculptures in clay. Following her departure from the city, he continued to work on his own in this fashion. His preference for modeling subjects from life (when possible) would continue to be a hallmark of his work in both illustration and later in sculpture. In 1896, a new opportunity to study the arts came from the Seattle Art League recently started by Will Carson and Ella Shepard Bush. While attending classes part-time at the art school, James also began working with his father at the Washington Iron Works in Seattle, learning pattern making, castings of molds, and other foundry work.

By the turn of the century and with the help of his father and uncle, James was able to secure an apprenticeship in Chicago with the studio of the German-born sculptor, August Hubert. The seven months spent working in the studio provided first-hand knowledge and instruction in how to model, mold, and cast sculptures in clay, plaster, and bronze. James then returned to Seattle, ready to start his own studio, one of the first of its kind dedicated to sculpture as a medium.

Becoming an Artist

James moved back to the family home at 29th Avenue S and used the small addition on the back of the house as a studio. Except for a brief period from 1915 to 1917, this location would serve as the sculptor’s studio his entire life. James Wehn’s initial artworks for the public were small relief plaques cast in plaster for interior decoration, and several portrait medallions and sculpture busts featuring the visages of such Northwest historical figures as Chief Leschi of the Nisqually tribe, Captain George Vancouver, pioneer Henry Yesler, and Princess Angeline. Several portrait medallions of national figures soon followed, including George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

From an early age, James had a fascination with local Native American tribes and culture. In April 1895, both he and his brother Harvey watched Angeline, daughter of Chief Seattle, walking down the street. James later remarked on it as being “what a thrill to us kids”(“J.A.W.”). It would also prove to be a formulating event for him as a future artist. Ten years later, Wehn would recall this eyewitness account in his creation of the casting mold for his portrait of Angeline (Kick-is-om-lo in Lushootseed) of the Suquamish tribe. The completed sculpture bust would be his first ever as a sculptor.

As part of his desire to render his subjects as true to life as possible, the sculptor made frequent visits to Indian reservations around Puget Sound, including the Suquamish Tribe’s reservation at Port Madison and the Tulalip reservation north of Seattle. Wehn would spend hours talking with the inhabitants, learning about the history of the great chiefs, and sketching scenes of daily life for later reference modeling reliefs in his studio.

Wehn's Chief Seattle

James Wehn’s first major art commission came in 1907, following a discussion with historian Clarence Bagley (1843-1932) about the prospect of a new statue to adorn a public fountain at the intersection of Denny Way, 5th Avenue, and Cedar Street, in Seattle. The Parks Board committee overseeing the project had summarily discarded preliminary designs that called for the Roman god Mercury as the central element. James Wehn offered a novel solution, in a proposed figure of Chief Seattle at the center of the fountain’s design.

He received the official nod from city leaders in early 1908, and spent the next five years completing the statue and its accompanying relief plaques. The work did not go without complications: one visiting Indian posing for the body of the model noticed a skull recovered from a local burial ground, and never returned. The local foundry selected to make the casting of the figure in bronze proved to be incompetent, and required a complete remodeling of the life-sized figure yet again, first in clay, then in plaster. The Gorham Manufacturing Company, with its offices in New York and foundry in Providence, Rhode Island, successfully cast a second figure into bronze using the lost-wax method, and on November 13, 1912, the city unveiled its first publically commissioned sculpture for all to see.

James Wehn was offered a chance to speak at the unveiling ceremonies. The sculpture, which incorporated a fountain into its design -- was the first ever publically commissioned sculpture for the City of Seattle. In his remarks, Wehn expressed both a sense of pride at what he had been able to provide for the community and homage to those who had helped him:

"Brother Tilikums, I wish to thank you for the honor that you have extended me today, in accepting my humble labor -- the modeling of this statue of Chief Seattle, the City’s first great Tilikum..." ("Dedication for the Chief Seattle Fountain"). 

The bronze statue showing the figure of the chief of the Suquamish and Duwamish tribes, with his hand upraised in greeting to the Alki Point settlers of 1851, was a monumental first for both Seattle and the sculptor. For the city, it was the first publically commissioned piece of sculpture ever attempted; for James Wehn, it was a testimony to his abilities as a sculptor working in the historical vein, and a precursor of great works still to come.

During his work on the Chief Seattle statue, Wehn developed a lifelong friendship with University of Washington professor and historian, Edmond S. Meany (1862-1935). It was Meany who advised the sculptor on points of historical accuracy, in terms of the appearance of Chief Seattle and for other portraits Wehn did as medallions in relief, such as one featuring the profile of Captain Robert Gray (1755-1806) and a series of plaques showing the major signatories of the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855, intended for a monument at Mukilteo.

In 1938, after Meany’s death, Wehn completed two portrait memorials dedicated to the late professor, one installed at the Sylvan Theater at the University of Washington campus, the other at Seattle's Evergreen-Washelli Cemetery.

Hardships and Tragedy

While undaunted in his pursuit of sculpture as a life choice -- "to earn a living at the only thing he ever knew," as one friend put it -- Wehn had many personal tragedies to overcome, especially in the first half of his life (Clark to Monroe, November 22, 1971). His brother Harvey drowned in Lake Washington at age 14. His mother, Clara, suffered for years after the death of Harvey, her second son to have died, and required care at home until her death in 1928.

James's first wife, Florence, whom he had married in 1915, was murdered just two years later, three blocks from the couple’s home on the west side of Queen Anne Hill (the murderer was never caught). And with the Great Depression in 1929, James struggled to both provide care for his ailing, live-at-home aunt, Mary Thiecke, while supporting his studio with irregular commissions and underfunded public art projects.

A Life in Art  

The sculptor came to regard a neighbor by the name of Mary Clark as a close friend. Besides providing timely assistance to Wehn with the care of his mother, she supported him in ways both large and small. On one occasion, she bought several new neckties for him to wear; on another, she gave him a buckeye seed to plant in the yard behind his studio. She came to know the sculptor well, even as far as his idiosyncrasies when it came to his work in the studio: 

"We all saved our worn out light bulbs for him. Then when things got too exasperating he would take one or two of them outside the back studio door and shoot them with his boyhood beebe [sic] gun! When he would finally pop one he would shout with glee, and then go into the studio and make the work fly"(Clark to Monroe, November 22, 1971). 

James maintained a close relationship with Mary Clark and with many others in Seattle, partly as a way of securing their support of his studio through referrals for new commissions. Through a network of professional contacts in academia, the business community, and government at the local and state levels, he continued to produce new sculptural works on a regular basis. This in spite of the personal losses and hardships he had endured with his family.

In 1943, James received a gift of two handmade windows for his home from a fellow artist. Both the sculptor’s admiration for the work, and his candid self-assessment in light of the gift, reflect a glimmer of optimism amidst the darkness of the hour at hand: 

"Through your generosity, I truly say, once to every man something fine comes ... It is with the deepest appreciation and my sincere thanks for these works of art which daily shall be an inspiration to me and my work. It is just things like this that makes for happiness in the monolog of this old world of ours; while happiness has not always been my lot, still I have an old Stetson hat, an Ingersoll watch and now two fine leaded glass windows; so why should I not be as happy as a Tomtit on a sugar trough?" (Wehn to “Brother Bryson”). 

In 1949, at age 67 the sculptor was remarried to Lillian Hocking, who had been a student in his sculpture class back in the early 1920s. 

Students and Colleagues

In 1919, James was invited by University of Washington president Henry Suzzallo (1875-1933) to begin and instruct the first Department of Sculpture for the University’s College of Fine Arts. Over the next five years, James taught basic-level coursework in modeling techniques and casting processes to his sculpture students. Notable among those who graduated from his classes were John Carl Ely (1897-1929), who went on to New York to continue his studies and his own work.

During the 1920s, Wehn also formed an acquaintance with another local sculptor in Seattle, Alonzo Victor Lewis (1886-1946). He and Lewis both served as judges for The Seattle Times soap carving competition in 1928 and 1929, after Wehn had left teaching at the University. Mary Clark recalled the relationship as one characteristic of James Wehn’s penchant for humor: 

"When I was trying to persuade Mr. W. to give me material for a biography for some future historian he wouldn’t tell me his middle name. There was a sculptor about Seattle at that time. One noted more for talk than work as far as we could tell. And when I heckled Mr. W. to tell he finally said ‘It’s Alonzo!’ Now that was the other mans’ middle name and I knew what Mr. W. thought of him. I never could decide whether it is his name and he didn’t like to say because the other man always used his name in full. Or perhaps more likely he just said it so I’d forget it"(Clark to Monroe, January 12, 1972). 

Despite a friendly rivalry between the two men, the sculptors collaborated on at least one sculpture project: a memorial plaque design in honor of pioneer Ezra Meeker (1830-1928).

Wehn looked upon his teaching at the University of Washington with unblemished pride. In an article about the Sculpture Department published in May, 1923, he noted that he considered both Ely and another former student -- Sylvia Borst, at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Art -- choosing to pursue sculpture as their life work, "his greatest monument" ("How Sculptors Are Started on their Careers at U. of W.").

"First Sculptor of Seattle"

James Wehn is credited with many firsts in terms of his chosen profession in the arts, which lend credence to his own claim during his lifetime as being the "First Sculptor of Seattle." He sculpted Chief Seattle, the first statue commissioned by the City of Seattle as a public artwork; he founded the first Department of Sculpture at the University of Washington; he was the first sculptor of the Pacific Northwest to be named an Officer of the French Academy of Arts (1936), and, in the same year, created the first official design for the seal of the City of Seattle. He designed the first commemorative medal issued by the State of Washington in 1953; and he served for two years on the first Municipal Art Commission for Seattle, beginning  in 1955.   

His versatility as an artist served him well throughout his career. At the beginning of 1940 and at the age of 58, Wehn was awarded membership into the Craftmens’ Guild of Washington for his design and casting work on several local architectural projects and buildings in the city. The year would also see him complete yet another first in terms of sculpture achievements on a national level, with the largest castings of relief panels in concrete ever made for a public works project. These were the triptych relief panels, designed by Architect Lloyd Lovegren and artist James Fitzgerald (1910-1973) and cast by Wehn, for the Mount Baker Tunnel’s east entrance, as part of the construction for the new Lake Washington Floating Bridge completed in 1940.

Wehn may also be the first sculptor to have performed unofficial conservation work on public statuary for the city. He repaired the plaque on the base of the William Seward statue in Volunteer Park on three occasions during his life, the first time in 1930.

Realism in Historical Figures

In sculpture, James Wehn valued realism and accuracy of physical appearance above all else. His views on the merits of this approach were passionate and formed over years of labor in his studio, but also, were the result of his fundamental beliefs concerning what was “modern art” and what constituted “historical sculpture.” James was not opposed to modern art as a recognized movement in the art world, but was quick to point out the differences between works being classified in his day as belonging to the movement, and his own work in sculpture:

"We’re going through what we call ‘modern’ art ... but, some of these things that go back hundreds of years were called modern art then. Modern art ... has its place because it puts people to thinking. Out of this comes good sometimes. You can’t do a historical portrait that is modern art ... if it’s historical, it has to be realistic. If you do it modern, it has to be called a caricature"(Johnson, 16). 

During his lifetime, James Wehn created more than 300 medallions, medals, statuary, and other sculptures. In 1967, He bequeathed his entire studio collection to the Washington State Historical Society for safekeeping. The following year, the Society made him a David Douglas Fellow for a lifetime of achievement in the field of historical portraiture.

While the majority of sculptures by James Wehn were made as local commissions reflecting the history of the Pacific Northwest, others can be found throughout Washington state as well as in Alaska, and in cities such as Chicago, Boston and New York. His public sculptures and designs can still be seen today in more than two dozen places around the City of Seattle, including half a dozen portrait plaques for the Seattle Public Schools. 

James Wehn died on October 2, 1973, at the age of 91.


Sources: Charles W. Austin and H. S. Scott, The Great Seattle Fire of June 6, 1889 (Seattle: Shorey Bookstore, 1966); Clarence Bagley, History of Seattle, Vol. 3 (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1916), pp. 1081-1082; Bagley Family Papers (1859-1932), Manuscript No. 0036-001, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries; "Chief Seattle Statue," The Seattle Daily Times, September 18, 1907; "Chief Seattle Statue Competition," The Seattle Daily Times, October 17, 1907; Mary Clark to Robert D. Monroe, November 22, 1971, James A. Wehn Papers (1929- ), Manuscript no. 2353-001, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries; Mary Clark to Robert D. Monroe, January 12, 1972, James A. Wehn Papers (1929- ), Manuscript no. 2353-001, Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries; "How Sculptors Are Started on their Careers at U. of W.," The Seattle Daily Times, May 27, 1923; Bruce Johnson, "Sculptor’s Creations Destined for Tacoma," Tacoma News Tribune, March 8, 1970, Mag. Sec., p. 16; Fred Poyner IV, The First Sculptor of Seattle: The Life and Art of James A. Wehn (North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014); Washington Iron Works, May 1, 1888- July 1, 1898, Accession No. 2000.180, Washington Iron Works records, Special Collections, Washington State Historical Society; Washington Iron Works, March 11, 1905-Nov 22, 1908, Accession No. 2000.180, Washington Iron Works records, Special Collections, Washington State Historical Society; Washington State Department of Transportation History Files: 1905-2000, Accession No. 02-A-469, Division of Archives & Records Management, Washington State Archives; James A. Wehn, “Dedication for the Chief Seattle Fountain,” November 13, 1912, James A. Wehn Papers, Accession No. 1973.86., Special Collections, Washington State Historical Society; James A. Wehn, "History of the Chief Seattle Statue," 1962, James A. Wehn Papers, Acc. No. 1973.86, Special Collections, Washington State Historical Society; James A. Wehn, “J.A.W.” (Note with artist’s monogram), n. d., James A. Wehn Papers, Accession No. 1973.86., Special Collections, Washington State Historical Society; James A. Wehn, Letter to “Brother Bryson,” June 1943, James A. Wehn Papers, Accession No. 1973.86., Special Collections, Washington State Historical Society.
Note: This source list was updated on February 22, 2016.

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