Washington, James W. Jr. 1909(?)–2000
James W. Washington, Jr. 1909(?)–2000
“It is a wonderful thing to have been born in the world under adverse circumstances and realize your potential,” artist James W. Washington, Jr. told Deloris Tarzan Ament in an interview for her book Iridescent Light: The Emergence of Northwest Art. As a child growing up in the segregated South, Washington endured poor education, racially fueled terrorism, and poverty. He found refuge in art. In a career that spanned nearly 75 years, Washington demonstrated the connection between creativity and spirituality. “To me, art is a holy land,” he told Ament, “where initiates seek to reveal the spirituality of matter.” Along the way the self-taught Washington established himself as one of the most important African American artists to emerge from the twentieth century.
James Winston Washington, Jr. was born in the tiny town of Gloster, Mississippi on “November 10, in the year the big tree fell down in the yard,” he recalled to Ament. (She pegged that year at 1911, but others have said it was 1909). Washington did not clarify the discrepancy because he was not fond of revealing his age. He was the third of five children born to James and Lizzie Washington. His father was a minister and a cabinetmaker, while his mother raised the children and played the accordion. Despite the hardships of being an African-American family in the deeply racist South, the Washington home was filled with spirituality and creativity. Gloster was located in a very rural area near the Louisiana border and, when Washington was around six years old, it became the focal point for a Ku Klux Klan campaign of terror. His parents shielded him and his siblings from this ugliness by encouraging them to find their inner talents. Washington recalled in an essay in A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present, that his mother “was interested in me—not just as her child—but as a creative person, and would observe whatever I did and encourage me.”
As a teenager Washington went to live with his older sister in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, a fairly autonomous all-black community. Later he credited his time there with giving him pride for the talents of African Americans. By that time he had already decided to become an artist and had begun to paint. He participated in a few local student art exhibits sponsored by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a government program designed to promote both employment and art in disenfranchised communities.
Despite his ambitions he received almost no exposure to art in the segregated Mississippi school system. However, later in life he came to believe that the absence of art in his education was a good thing. “If I’d been taught painting I wouldn’t be any good,” he told Ament. The connection he saw between creativity and spirituality superseded the need for art education. Instead he created art on instinct. He described one of his childhood pastimes to Ament, “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
At a Glance…
Born on November 10, 1909 or 1911 in Gloster, MS; died on June 7, 2000 in Seattle, WA; son of James and Lizzie Washington; married Janie Rogella Miller, 1943. Education: Mainly self-taught; completed extension courses in printmaking and painting, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Religion: Baptist.
Career: Painter, sculptor, poet. Exhibited throughout the world including one-man shows and retrospectives. Represented at several museums including the Seattle Art Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American Art. Commissioned by various clients including the Seattle Arts Commission, Safeco, the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and the Rotunda of Achievements. Lectured at Seattle Pacific Univ, Western Washington Univ, St. Mary’s College of Notre Dame, and the Center for Urban Black Studies, Berkeley, CA. Also worked as a shoemaker, a deckhand, an electrician, and a housepainter.
Memberships: WA State Arts Commission, 1959-66, 1971-76; pres, Artists Equity Assn, Seattle Chapter, 1960-61; Passover leader, Mount Zion Baptist Church, Seattle, WA, 1974-87; Masonic Lodge (33rd Degree Mason); NAACP; voted lifetime mem, Intl Poetry Hall of Fame, 1997; founder, James W. and Janie R. Washington Foundation, Seattle, WA.
Awards: Purchase Prize for Sculpture, San Francisco Museum of Art, 1956; Purchase Prize for Sculpture, Oakland Museum of Art, 1957; second place, Sculpture Prize, Seattle World’s Fair, 1962; Governor’s Arts and Heritage Award, State of WA, 1973; honorary doctorate, Center for Urban Black Studies, Graduate Theological Union, Univ of California, 1975; Honors Award, King County Arts Commission, 1984; certificate of recognition, Governor of Washington, 1984; Named to the WA State Centennial Hall of Honor, 1984; “Prestigious Award’ King County Arts Commission, 1989; studio and residence declared a cultural landmark, Seattle Landmark Preservation Bd, 1991; Editor’s Choice Award, Outstanding Achievement in Poetry, National Library of Poetry, 1993; Outstanding Contribution Award, Meany Magnet Middle School, 1997.
necessary part of a man’s head or body without altering it. Even then I could utilize and observe the possibilities of anything.”
In his late teens and early twenties Washington worked at a variety of jobs including deckhand on a Mississippi Riverboat, shoemaker, and electrician. During that time he created several pastoral paintings including Arkansas River at Little Rock and Little Brown Church. He eventually earned a maritime electrician rating and found work far from home at the Bremerton Naval Shipyards located near Seattle, Washington where business was booming because of World War II. He moved there in 1943 with his brand new bride Janie Rogella Miller. The couple joined the Mount Zion Baptist Church and soon settled into their new environment.
When not at the shipyards, Washington continued working on his art and sought out artists and galleries. He found the Little Gallery in the Frederick & Nelson department store and in 1945 had his first Seattle exhibition there. At that show Washington met famed Northwest artist Mark Tobey. Washington soon became a frequent visitor to Tobey’s studio and one of Tobey’s few private students. However, it was not a classic student-teacher relationship. “Tobey never taught me anything,” Washington told Ament. “That made him the best teacher I ever had. He helped his students find themselves. Brought out the best in them.”
The best soon came out in Washington and in 1948 he participated in his first museum exhibit, the prestigious “Northwest Annual” at the Seattle Art Museum. He also participated in the Pacific Northwest Arts and Crafts Fair in Bellevue, Washington. Through these experiences Washington met some of the most important artists working in the Northwest, including Tobey and painter Morris Graves. Washington’s paintings at this time featured small creatures and birds and included Seagull Preening, Hungry Bird, and Seagull at Sea. By the end of the 1940s, Washington was working as a housepainter. He was also immersing himself in a long-awaited art education. He took printing and painting courses at the University of Washington’s extension school and studied various schools of art. He soon developed a keen interest in the work of the Mexican muralists and in 1951 traveled to Mexico to meet Diego Rivera. During his trip he visited the pre-Columbian ruins at Teotihuacán just outside of Mexico City. There he felt compelled to pick up an eight by six inch piece of porous stone. He took it back to Washington with him, put it in his basement, and forgot about it. He soon began painting again, but instead of bird life, his new work focused on biblical themes, including The Passover, Nativity Scene, and Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Even as spirituality was being portrayed on his canvases, Washington felt a deeper spirit calling him. His attention fell on the stone he found in Mexico. “[It] kept worrying me until I went and got it, picked it up an wondered what it was all about” he recalled in A History of African-American Artists. “And then it came to me—sculpturing.” Washington later noted that during his Mexican trip he had prayed that his art become more elevated spiritually. When he realized that the stone was the answer to his prayers, he laid down his paintbrushes and picked up a chisel.
One of his first works was 1956’s Young Boy of Athens which he made from that very piece of Mexican stone. That same year he produced Young Queen of Ethiopia. A limestone figure of an African woman’s head and neck, it was a memorial to his and his wife’s ancestors. He later donated the piece to the National Museum of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Both works were created by bringing out the art inherent in the stone. When Washington sculpted, he followed the natural features of the stone much in the way he worked off his schoolmates sidewalk drawings, incorporating them into a greater whole. He acknowledged this in a quote posted on the website of the Washington State History Museum, “In my work with stone it is as if nature speaks, and I listen. Then I speak. And with the help of my hands, we speak together.” The result was seemingly simple works infused with power and life. An article on the Seattle Art Museum’s website noted that Paul J. Karlstrom of the Smithsonian hailed Washington’s ability to “bring forth the animate from the inanimate” and find the “spirit in the stone.” Karlstrom wrote an essay about Washington entitled “Spirit in the Stone” for a 1989 retrospective of Washington’s work.
Washington’s sculptures drew wide acclaim and from the late 1950s through the 1970s his work was in great demand. Notable pieces included 1957’s Nesting Bird which Ament praised for its powerful simplicity and described as “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.” Young Bird of the Swamp followed in 1959 and was promptly purchased by the Seattle Art Museum. The museum also bought Washington’s 1967 sculpture Wounded Eagle #10. In 1960 Washington had his first show in New York City, the capital of the modern American art scene. In 1962 he had his first one-man exhibition, also in New York City. He also began to accept numerous commissions from private collectors, major corporations, and government institutions. Prominent among these was a 1968 commission to create six busts of famous African Americans including Martin Luther King, Jr., for the city of Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, he served on the Washington State Arts Commission, was active in the Masons, and volunteered with the Mount Zion Baptist Church. For many years he acted as the curator for the church’s annual art show. Washington further showed his creativity by becoming an published poet during this time. In the midst of all this activity, Washington went on a spiritual pilgrimage to Europe. Sponsored by the American Baptist Convention, he traveled to several European countries where he met with groups of artists to ask them about the role of universality in their art. He told Ament, “I wanted to figure out how to acquire it. Whether or not I had it. When it would be obvious to me.”
Washington’s trip to Mexico and his European pilgrimage were physical expressions of his constant search for self. A poem he wrote explained his drive. Entitled Finding Yourself it began, “Finding your self in this life is your greatest task to perform; until you begin to make the search, you are left alone; When you decide to start, be it now or then, close your eyes to the outside world and start your search from within.” The poem is reprinted on the website www.poetry.com. On that same site Washington wrote “It is my belief that each child should be led into finding him or her self.” He and his wife Janie were so committed to that ideal that they established the James W. and Janie R. Washington Foundation, to provide art scholarships for teens. He also regularly spoke to youth at schools, libraries, and community centers. In his interview with Ament he repeated a phrase he would tell students, “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 used his art to keep his own spiritual door open. “What I am trying to say with my sculptures is that each one of us has something within us waiting to be released, and that something is spiritual, the spirit being the universality of life itself,” he said in A History of African-American Artists. The result of this practice was an incredible body of work rich in symbolism and quiet strength. His latter sculptures such as 1973’s Three Wonders of Nature, 1981’s Testimony in Stone, and 1982’s The Obelisk with Phoenix and Esoteric Symbols of Nature were monumental stone works covered with animal figures and various symbols including crosses, the Egyptian ankhs, eyes, and triangles. “Everything we deal with is symbols, and all symbols lead to truth,” he told Ament. “Symbols can convey an emotional state beyond the capability of words.” Through the use of symbols Washington felt he was finally reaching the universality that he had so long sought. It worked. The universal meanings in his art spoke loudly to an appreciative public.
Washington was praised over the years with various honors. The city of Seattle declared his studio and home a historic landmark. The Bellevue Art Museum celebrated his 50 year anniversary as an artist with a retrospective exhibition of his work in 1989. And his art continued to draw admirers from around the world. When Washington died in June of 2000, the art world mourned. However, the spirit of his creativity lives on. His work continues to be appreciated and in late 2002 the Washington State History Museum mounted an exhibit entitled Kindling the Flame of Creativity: The Life and Art of James W. Washington, Jr.
Little Brown Church, 1938.
Arkansas River at Little Rock, 1942.
Seagull Preening, 1947.
Hungry Bird, 1947.
Seagull at Sea, 1947.
The Passover, 1952.
Nativity Scene, 1952.
Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, 1952.
Young Boy of Athens, 1956.
Young Queen of Ethiopia, 1956.
Nesting Bird, 1957.
Young Bird of the Swamp, 1959.
Wounded Eagle #10, 1967.
Three Wonders of Nature. 1973.
Testimony in Stone, 1981.
The Obelisk with Phoenix and Esoteric Symbols of Nature, 1982.
A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present, New York: Pantheon, 1993.
Iridescent Light: The Emergence of Northwest Art, Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2002.
Art in America, June 1998, p. 119.
The Seattle Times, June 10, 2000.
Seattle Art Museum, www.seattleartmuseum.org/Exhibit/Archive/egypt/emania/epedia/terms/WashingtonBio.htm
The University of Mississippi, www.olemiss.edu/depts/art/MVAI/W/WashingtonJ.html
Washington State Historical Society, www.wshs.org/text/exhibit-james-washington.htm
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