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Originally published Sunday, July 17, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Visual arts

A tribute to women painters of Northwest

For an intriguing look into some of the almost-forgotten history of Northwest art, don't miss "An Enduring Legacy: Women Painters of Washington"...

Seattle Times art critic

For an intriguing look into some of the almost-forgotten history of Northwest art, don't miss "An Enduring Legacy: Women Painters of Washington" at the Whatcom Museum of History & Art. I say "almost" because thanks to Seattle gallery owner and art historian David Martin, who curated the show, the careers of a number of these women artists have been revived.

And now, with help from Martin's thoroughly researched catalog, the paintings are once again getting serious consideration.

In the 1930s, women were disadvantaged when it came to establishing any kind of career, including the arts. When a group of forward-thinking women banded together as Women Painters of Washington (WPW), they figured that together they could help one another overcome some of those limitations.

A number of the women involved over the years have been educators as well as artists, and one of WPW's missions has been to foster understanding of art through demonstrations and lectures.

The first exhibition sponsored by the group was hung in 1931 at the Women's Century Club at 807 E. Roy, Seattle (now the Harvard Exit Theater). The group later exhibited regularly at Frederick and Nelson department store and, as a 1936 photograph in the catalog shows, in front of the downtown Seattle Public Library.

Among the artists showing that year were Louise Gilbert (1900-1987), Dorothy Dolph Jensen (1895-1977) and Z. Vanessa Helder (1904-1968), all of whom figure prominently in "An Enduring Legacy."

"An Enduring Legacy" rambles through several rooms of the old City Hall that now houses the main building of the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham. The convoluted layout of the space makes a linear progression to the show difficult and some of the lighting is less than effective. Still, with so many intriguing paintings, the show triumphs in spite of the drawbacks of the location.

Now showing

"An Enduring Legacy: Women Painters of Washington, 1930-2005," noon-5 p.m. Tuesdays- Sundays through Sept. 11 at Whatcom Museum of History & Art, 121 Prospect St., Bellingham (360-676-6981 or www.whatcommuseum.org).

The largest part of the space is given over to historical paintings, some gutsy and surprising. A number of the artists over the decades have stuck with genteel subject matter, such as floral arrangements, still lifes and portraits.

But within that context crop up fantastic creations like Ebba Rapp's 1943 "Symbol of Spring" — a real breakthrough image of sprouting potatoes against a green drapery that many a surrealist would have been proud to capture. Yvonne Twining Humber's 1948 "Demolition" is another sweeping step outside of traditional "feminine" subject matter, in a strongly composed picture full of action and suggestion.

Throughout the historical portion of the exhibition, you get a sense of the trends that were shaping American art at the time. The gritty figurative style of Works Project Administration moves to a new refinement in the precision watercolors Helder made during the construction of Coulee Dam in 1940.

Cubism and abstraction get sampled and integrated by several of the artists. P.K. Nicholson, who studied under Mark Tobey, followed his lead in creating atmospheric abstractions, although, as Martin points out in his catalog essay, a few of the women were not flattered by Tobey's didactic attitude.

Martin's catalog examines the Northwest painting scene from outside the mainstream. Not only does he provide capsule biographies of each artist and her activities, but also vintage photographs of the individuals and wonderful group shots at various events that give a real flavor of the times.

Other historical photographs document plein air painting trips, luncheons and exhibitions. It's noteworthy that in newspaper photos from the 1940s and '50s, the women were still being identified by their husband's names, so Ebba Rapp, for example, was Mrs. John McLauchlan. Fortunately, that practice at least has changed.

The WPW is still active and Martin selected some works by current members to round out the exhibition. Now that women have more clout in the art world, the organization doesn't attract as daring a crowd and the contemporary works in the show don't represent the top women painters in the state today. Even back in the earlier days of the organization, some artists preferred not to be categorized by gender.

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com

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