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Washington, James Jr. (1911-2000): Art as Holy Land

HistoryLink.org Essay 5328 : Printer-Friendly Format

The eminent African American sculptor and painter James Washington Jr. was a leading member of the Northwest School. He grew up in Mississippi. After working as a WPA artist, he came to the Puget Sound region in 1944 to work in the Bremerton Naval Yard as a journeyman electrician. He found exhibition space at Frederick & Nelson's Little Gallery and through that venue met Mark Tobey (1890-1976) and other Northwest artists. He places his visionary paintings and sculptures in the service of religious faith. They express the unity of God, humankind, and nature, with symbols derived from freemasonry and from the animal world. This biography of James Washington Jr. is reprinted from Deloris Tarzan Ament's Iridescent Light: The Emergence of Northwest Art (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002).

No Northwest artist of significant reputation has had more to say about the overt spiritual content of his work than James Washington Jr. "To me, art is a holy land," he has said, "where initiates seek to reveal the spirituality of matter" (Washington Interview)

Loved as a Child, Honored as a Man

James Winston Washington Jr. was one of six children born to Baptist minister James Washington and his wife, Lizzie, in Gloster, Mississippi. He dates his birth as "November 10, in the year the big tree fell down in the yard." That was 1911, but one never heard that from James, who rejected the notion of chronological age. Gloster is a verdant rural town in the southwest part of Mississippi, some 25 miles from the Louisiana border.

He was six when the Ku Klux Klan terrorized the black community with a wave of nightly beatings and lynchings. Washington felt shielded by his mother, a musically inclined woman who cared for him with fierce love, and encouraged him to discover his talents and pursue them.

Whatever his early life may have been, the citizens of Gloster got a different view of him when, in the 1990s, he was invited back as an honored citizen. The mayor presented him with a bronze key to the city. He was given the use of an unmarked police car, with the chief of police as his chauffeur. He spoke at the Gloster school, and accepted with delight hundreds of drawings by the schoolchildren. Washington State Representative Tom Foley (1929-2013), then Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, made a speech about the sculptor on the occasion of his honoring ceremony at Gloster, which was entered into the Congressional Record. A copy of the pertinent page hangs framed on Washington's wall. "It is a wonderful thing to have been born in the world under adverse circumstances and realize your potential," he said.

A Self-taught Artist

Like nearly every other Northwest artist of his generation, he was largely self-taught. No teachers inspired or encouraged his art as a child. Believing as he did that imagination flourishes under self direction and withers under the constrictions of formal education, Washington credited the absence of art in his early life as a plus. "If I'd been taught painting I wouldn't be any good. I wasn't regimented by any teacher. I had to dig up what I was about, and articulate it."

In a 1980 interview, he told writer Patricia Lucas of a time in his childhood:

"I was just a little bitta boy. I remember it well, just as clearly as though it had happened this morning. It was a hot summer morning in the bayous of Mississippi. I was sitting on the back stairs. Mother was working in the kitchen. I spotted an old shoe across the alley. I went over and picked it up and brought it back to the stoop. I took off the heel and peeled back the counter. I studied the last and played with the sole. I tore out the shoe laces and wound them around my fingers. My mother came out and wiped her hands on her apron. She sat down beside me. Two weeks later I was apprenticed to Mr. Arthur Samuel to study shoe repair" (Lucas).

He began to draw at age 12. His favorite subjects were cowboys with big hats and cartoon characters such as Andy Gump. He was an early sidewalk chalk artist, taking particular pleasure in improvising from cracks and irregularities. He explained, "I used to tell the other kids to make any kind of mark or line any way they wanted on the sidewalk, and I'd convert it into something alive and moving. I'd make their mark a necessary part of a man's head or body without altering it. Even then I could utilize and observe the possibilities of anything" (Washington Interview).

He was already an artist.

At 15, he was hired as a deckhand on the Mississippi riverboat Steamer Control. His body may have been at labor, but his heart was with the creation of art, despite his recollection that he never saw paintings or sculpture, even as reproductions, until he was well into adulthood.

In 1942, after his mother had moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, he followed there, going to work for the government in the shoe repair shop at Camp Robinson. The painting Arkansas River at Little Rock dates from that year. His paintings prior to that are soft-focus renderings of churches, such as Little Brown Church (Vicksburg) and Pleasant Green MB Church, Magnolia Avenue, both painted in 1938, with a fair grasp of perspective.

Migration to Puget Sound

He moved to the Northwest with his bride, Janie Miller, in 1944, to work at the Bremerton Naval Yard as a journeyman electrician. Almost immediately he began to look for places to exhibit his paintings. In those days, such opportunities were rare, since commercial galleries were few.

One of them was the Little Gallery in the Frederick & Nelson department store. There, in 1945, Washington exhibited a group of paintings he had done in Arkansas, in a show shared with Leo Kenney. Through that show he met Mark Tobey, who, he recalls, was advised to seek him out by gallery director Theodora Harrison. Washington became one of several students who studied privately at Tobey's Brooklyn Avenue studio in the University District.

Mark Tobey: Teacher

"Tobey never taught me anything," he later said. "That made him the best teacher I ever had. He helped his students find themselves. Brought out the best in them." He admitted at one point that Tobey "helped me in the relationship of hues leading into the focal point of a painting" (Washington Interview).

Washington recalled: "One day Tobey went over to the window and stood looking out a while, then he whirled around and came over to me and said, 'You don't have to study with me any more. In this life you either have it or you don't have it. You have it.' I told him, 'You can't get rid of me that easy' " (Washington Interview).

Washington's paintings had taken on a look consonant with the techniques and subjects of other Northwest artists. In 1947, he produced a series of tempera studies of seagulls with the chalky surfaces and feathery white lines familiar from Morris Graves's bird paintings of the same period. Since Washington denied any direct influence from Tobey or Graves, even to the extent of ever having seen Graves's paintings, we must assume the effect was osmosis.

A Community of Artists

In 1948, one of his paintings was accepted into the Seattle Art Museum's (SAM) Northwest Annual Exhibition. He became acquainted with artists Fay Chong and Andrew Chinn when his work was exhibited along with theirs at the Pacific Northwest Arts and Crafts Fair in Bellevue.

He also became acquainted with Kenjiro Nomura, John Matsudaira, and George Tsutakawa. He took classes through the University of Washington extension program with painter Yvonne Twining Humber and printmaker Glen Alps.

In 1951, an ardent desire to meet muralist Diego Rivera took him to Mexico. When the train stopped in San Antonio, waiting to enter Mexico, Washington got off to stretch his legs. "Far in the distance I could see a man approaching. I was on a high plane of consciousness, and I felt he had a message for me," he told Patricia Lucas. "As he approached, his eyes met mine and he extended his hand. 'I don't know where you're going,' he said, 'but you'll make it' " (Lucas).

Shaken by what he perceived as an oracle, Washington prayed to be uplifted in the arts as a result of the trip. In Mexico, he had dinner with Rivera at his small hotel, and met with David Siqueiros. But his inspiration lay, as it were, in ruins. He visited the ruins of the pyramids at Teotihuacán on the outskirts of Mexico City as part of a tour group, surrounded by people who took pictures of each other in front of the Pyramid of the Sun, then climbed back on the bus.

When the bus left, Washington stayed behind. Walking the Avenida de los Muertos, the path that links the Pyramid of the Sun to the Pyramid of the Moon, he was drawn to a chunk of volcanic rock some 7 inches at its longest point, and nearly as wide. He passed, trying to shed the urge to pick it up, then went back and dropped it into his bag.

Climbing to the top of the Pyramid of the Moon, he sat sketching some farmers plowing in the distance before he left. He believed he was guided by God to pick up the stone and bring it home. It was to have a profound effect on his life. But its influence took a few years to ripen.

Painter of Faith

His painting in 1952 took on an overtly religious character. Gone were the seagulls. Instead, he painted a version of the Last Supper titled The Passover, which depicts Judas looking abashed at the end of the table. The variation in head sizes and the primitive rendering of arms and faces betray more than any other painting in his repertoire Washington's lack of formal training.

In the same year, he painted Nativity Scene and Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. The latter, done in encaustic, shows Christ at prayer amid a hail of scratched white lines and a background of dark billowing trees. It is the strongest work of that series.

The Pull of Sculpture

The stone that he brought back from Mexico lay stashed in his basement, forgotten for a few years. When he thought about it again, he had an epiphany: the force he sought in art could emerge more powerfully from stone than from an image on canvas. God intended that he should be a sculptor.

He had produced a sculpture in wood, The Chaotic Half, in 1946, in which he introduced symbols including the cross, the compass, and the eye, all of which would become familiar in his later pieces in stone. The focus of The Chaotic Half is a hand depositing a vote into a ballot box, under the immense watchful eye of God.

Having little idea how to proceed in stone, he asked sculptor George Tsutakawa what kind of tools he would need. Tsutakawa said he was familiar only with the tools needed to work in his own material, steel. Undaunted, Washington bought a book on sculpture, and took it to Ambrose Patterson at the University of Washington School of Art to ask whether, in his opinion, the book was any good. Patterson said it looked good to him. But Washington found it unhelpful, with its instructions for making molds and casts. He could find no one in the Northwest able to offer guidance about working directly in stone, until a friend who worked in the naval yard told him about carbide tools and fabricated some for him.

His first sculpture was done with the stone he picked up at Teotihuacán. Using the creative vision he had once applied to cracks in the sidewalk, he saw the hint of a face in the stone. Barely disturbing its shape, he brought out features that he called Young Boy of Athens. Scholars have likened that piece and the few that followed, The King, Head of Job, and Young Queen of Ethiopia, to prehistoric Mediterranean pieces in their simplicity and the power of their expression.

The power of such simplicity became clear in 1957 with Nesting Bird, in which a beak and eyes are carved into the smooth, compact form of an oval stone that Washington tucked into the curve of a piece of driftwood. It would be hard to imagine a more quintessentially Northwest piece of art. He expanded on the idea with Young Bird of the Swamp, expressing its form with curving grooves cut into a granite oval 62 inches high by 71 inches long.

Both pieces fit into the tradition of reductive modern sculpture, but how or whether he might fit into any such academic tradition was, to Washington's mind, irrelevant. His approach was intuitive. He created Head of Job after many days of meditation, during which he read the biblical book of Job over and over, "feeling Job's destitution."

He described his working process as one of sublimating himself to the subject: "There is a condition you have to be in when you create in order to animate your work. First, be humble, and realize that you don't 'have' it; it emanates from your soul. Your body is a temple for a force you acquire. I have to synchronize with the spiritual force until I feel it oozing out" (Washington Interview).

As he told writer Regina Hackett:

"I wait until intuition moves me, and then I begin. I have to know the animal or individual before I can sculpt him. Not just know his features but feel them. I have to be him. Not until I get to the point where I am the animal can I release the spiritual force into the inanimate material and animate it. When this happens, I feel like I'm working with flesh rather than just stone" (Hackett).

His preferred material was granite, which he often found close to home. On one occasion, workers excavating for a new YMCA unearthed a 7-ton chunk of stone, which Washington paid them to move to his studio because, after passing it one day while walking in the rain, he was impressed with its "presence."

In 1962, he persuaded the American Baptist Convention to sponsor his travel to Europe, in order to ask artists from a wide range of countries how they experienced universality in their art. He traveled with a group tour out of New York for economic convenience. Prior to the trip, he wrote to the ambassador or cultural attaché of each country he planned to visit, asking them to gather a group of that country's leading artists at his hotel without divulging the intended purpose of his visit.

When he asked the artists what their concept of universality consisted of, he admits that, "Often the leader of the group wondered where I was going with it. I wanted to figure out how to acquire it. Whether or not I had it. When it would be obvious to me" (Washington Interview).

When his group passed through Basel, Switzerland, on the way to Italy, Washington remained behind for a day in order to accept an invitation to spend the day with Mark Tobey. They traded work; Washington gave Tobey a small "pocket piece" in exchange for two of Tobey's drawings.

Washington's route to the expression of universal ideas most often came through the use of symbols. "Everything we deal with is symbols, and all symbols lead to truth," he said. "Symbols can convey an emotional state beyond the capability of words." In his excellent monograph on Washington, Paul Karlstrom, West Coast regional director of the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art, speaks of the artist's "conviction that art participates in the absolute unity of creation and constitutes a 'language' which overrides human speech and intellectual discourse" (Karlstrom).

Many of Washington's symbols were drawn from Masonic rites. He was a 33rd-degree Mason of the Rite Consistory, a member of Hercules Lodge no. 17.

His animal subjects -- birds, squirrels, The Golden Calf of Dan and Golden Calf (both 1980), and Arctic Hare (1981) -- were presented on stone altars, alerting the viewer that they are to be understood as symbols with religious significance. His recurring symbols were the fish, a time-honored symbol of Christianity; the young eagle, symbolic of Resurrection and renewal. His reading of Psalms 103:5 ("Thy youth is renewed like an eagle's") indicated to him that God continually renews a man's youth. Since he did not know how many times he had been renewed, he always professed to be uncertain of his age.

Other symbols were the owl, for hidden wisdom; the ankh, Egyptian symbol of life and rebirth; the equilateral triangle, symbol of the Holy Trinity. The circle with the dot in the center represents God's presence in man. An animal emerging from an egg symbolizes birth and the renewal of life, as does his piece Phoenix Reincarnated by Fire (1980). All of the symbols have as their source his conviction that "your eyes glory in graceful colors and curves, but your soul glories in spiritual force" (Hackett).

Portrait busts of men he admired were among his favorite subjects. In 1969, he executed a series of six busts of historical figures for the Rotunda of Achievements in Philadelphia. One of his subjects was Martin Luther King Jr. He said of the dark brown stone, "By loving the stone and listening to it, I was able to strike it in such a way to bring light to the eyes and even get white in the collar" (Hackett).

Fifty Years an Artist

The Seattle Art Museum had already taken note of Washington's talent, having purchased Young Bird of the Swamp (1959) and Wounded Eagle #10 (1967). The Bellevue Art Museum staged a retrospective exhibition of his work in 1989, in celebration of his 50th year as an artist.

Washington established his studio behind his home at 1816 26th Avenue, in Seattle's Central District. In 1977, Regina Hackett described his studio in a story for American Artist:

"The studio is large, with a row of north windows just beneath the ceiling. A hazy light filters through the windows and settles in patches throughout the room, contributing to, rather than alleviating, the dense, crowded feeling of the place.

The sculptor surrounds his work area with things that interest him. There are animal skulls, stones, flowering plants, and regularly chiming clocks. He has a great deal of art. There are paintings acquired through trades with other artists and African pieces picked up during his travels: large grave standards, fetish figures, swords, and tools for celebrations" (Hackett).

Washington's studio also housed a mynah bird, which kept up a steady mutter punctuated by occasional shrieks.

Washington died on June 7, 2000, in Providence Hospital, Seattle, after a brief illness. Well before his death, his home and studio were designated a historical landmark, and headquarters of the James W. and Janie R. Washington Foundation, to provide art scholarships for teens.

Washington's aim was to:

"...show kids that the universality of life itself can be found in their talent. Whatever they aspire to do, if they work to reach proficiency, they will come into the universality. They can acquire spiritual force with the universal language of art. With that language, you can animate whatever you are doing. Without it, your work will be dead. A child of any age, given paper and pencil, will demonstrate that force. It oozes out of them. But at some point it gets educated out of them. Teachers throw the book at them and they become materialistic" (Washington Interview).

He felt strongly that "Students don't come to get something a teacher has, but to let the teacher help them find themselves, to tap the resources of their innate ability. If a teacher hasn't found himself, he can't help them." In talks to classes he liked to tell them, "Each one of you has within you a door to the universal spiritual force. If you open it, the very gates of hell can't keep you from reaching your zenith" (Washington Interview).

Sources:
Deloris Tarzan Ament Interview with James Washington Jr., November 12, 1999; Patricia Latourette Lucas, The Seattle Times Sunday Magazine, July 6, 1980, p. 9; Regina Hackett, "James Washington: Secrets in Stone," American Artist, November 1977; Paul Karlstrom, The Spirit in the Stone: The Visionary Art of James W. Washington, Jr., Exhibition Catalog Catalog for Washington's March 1989 retrospective exhibition at the Bellevue Art Museum (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1989). See also: Susan Noyes Platt, "James W. Washington Jr., Painter, Activist, Sculptor," Columbia, the Magazine of Northwest History, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Winter, 2010-11).


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James Washington Jr. (1911-2000) holding his first sculpture, Young Boy of Athens, March 1967
Photo by Mary Randlett, Copyright 2002


 
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