First meeting of the Northwest Figurative Artists' Alliance, October 1992.
In 1992, a group of Seattle artists had been sharing modeling fees for figure sessions in the studios of Christel Kratohvil and myself, William Elston . After the sessions we would retire to the Elliott Bay Cafe, beneath the famous bookstore, to drink coffee and talk art. The artists included, besides Christel and me, Peter Malarkey , Paul Havas , Michael Parry, Terry Vinyard , and Tom Tanaka . We were generally quite excited, having just spent several hours drawing and observing the human form, and one or the other of us had usually just read about an artist that the others were unfamiliar with.
The discussion was wide-ranging and irreverent, with an occasional skewering of the current intellectual fads. We had all arrived at our particular aesthetic footholds by uncommon and circuitous means, but most of us had been painting in a figurative manner for years; Havas since the mid-60s, myself since early in the 70s. The younger painters in our group had bucked the establishment, favoring the supple and resilient language of figural conventions over the increasingly conceptual and tokenized art of their contemporaries. Malarkey had studied traditional painting techniques in Florence; Tanaka did the same at the Art Students' League in New York. We reveled in each others' company, and wondered what other Realist Rebels were lurking behind the Northwest woods.
When I lived in New York City, I had been a frequenter of the New York Figurative Artists' Alliance meetings, held at the old Educational Alliance in Tribecca. I immensely enjoyed those boistrous and unpredictable gatherings. I had also been reading about other art colonies and societies, like Skagen and Cos Cob, social aspects of a life in art that had been ignored during our own century in deference to the prevalent myth of the artist as an alienated sociopath. I had also recently read about the group of artists that gathered around Raphael Soyer in the early fifties. The artists at the Elliott Bay Cafe inevitably decided to try and formalize an artists' group around the paradigms of figurative art.
We were unaware that the idea had occurred to another group of artists in Seattle at around the same time. This group had also been sharing model fees, and had gathered regularly at the studio of Gary Faigin , a recent transplant from New York and a founder of the Academy of Realist Art. Principal among his group was the painter Lucinda Wilner . Their group had already disbanded by the time our group began casting its net, but Tom Tanaka's girlfriend Tina Carter had taken classes from Gary, and recommended that we contact him. We sent an initial invitation to as many artists as we could think of who had figurative leanings, and set a date for a meeting at my studio. Over 40 artists responded to this invitation, and the first meeting was primarily devoted to introductions and a pot-luck dinner. The Northwest Figurative Artists' Alliance was born. There were many subsequent meetings, with artists bringing work and proposals for further projects.
Shortly after the first meeting we began publishing a journal, with the generous editorial assistance of Tom Tanaka. This publication, The Northwest Journal of Figurative Art, became anxiously awaited by both member artists and anonymous subscribers alike, and eventually one of its articles found its way into Harper's magazine (no one yet knows how.) One memorable meeting featured a lecture on regional art of the thirties and forties by David Martin, co-owner with Dominic Zambito of Martin Zambito Fine Art, and a specialist in the painters of the American Scene period. David had brought slides of regional artists like Anne Kutka McKosh, Vanessa Helder and Robert Engard, artists that most of our group had never heard of, but whom we all appreciated;above all else we were deliberately and intensely regional. What was even more exciting was the guest that David had brought; Yvonne Twining Humber , a painter who had recently celebrated her 80th birthday, and who had worked on WPA murals in the 30s. She recalled for us the days of the National Academy of Design when Paul Cadmus was a student, and the WPA in Boston, where she had worked with Jack Levine. David soon became an honorary member of the group, and a principal source of information about the painters who had preceded us, and Yvonne attended the Alliance picnics and other events.
Some of the other artists that attended meetings were; Cynthia Krieble, from Central Washington University at Ellensburg; Cappy Thompson, the glass painter; Aaron Burgess; Kent Lovelace and June Stratton, of Stone Press; the painters Kurt Solmssen and Rebecca Schofield ; Terry Furchgott; David MaGranaghan; Charles W. Palmer of Spokane. We were joined by a contingent of landscape painters from Wenatchee; Jan Cook Mack , Ron McGaughey and Rod Weagant. Eventually we accumulated fellow travelers from as far away as Connecticut and Santa Fe, with artists contributing work and words to our journal.
At its height the NFAA boasted over 60 artist members, and many more subscribers to the Northwest Journal of Figurative Art. The events that the group sponsored addressed crucial issues in our own (and every) era; what is the nature and function of representation? What truth lies in an image? What psychological factors feed the figurative impulse? Of course there are no universally conclusive answers to these questions; indeed there is no universality to the manner in which the questions themselves are culturally and historically framed. The questions are more usefully contemplated as questions, with all of their potentiality intact and unspent, than for whatever tangential philosophical systems their answers might generate.
The Northwest Figurative Artists' Alliance still exists, primarily as a small network of friends who share aesthetic affinities and an interest in figurative art. Meetings are no longer held as formal gatherings, though those meetings were important to the purpose of building community. Though exhibition and lecture projects are still undertaken, they are generally done through the collaboration of individual members.
As a group, the one bond that we all share in common is a belief in the efficacy of unmediated experience. In an age that favors experience of the most indirect and fugitive sort, we have discovered that the most fundamental facts of existence can only be apprehended through direct perception; presence, temporality, and being.