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Originally published Monday, July 30, 2012 at 5:30 AM

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Seattle's Kirsten Gallery, home to marine art, Zen garden, turns 40

Seattle's Kirsten Gallery, home to marine art among other media, celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2012.

Special to The Seattle Times

IF YOU GO

Kirsten Gallery

11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, 5320 Roosevelt Way N.E., Seattle (206-522-2011 or www.kirstengallery.com).
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I have been a customer of the gallery and admirer of the Kirstens fo 30 years. Rick is... MORE

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Imagine Seattle in 1972.

Only 10 years after the World's Fair, it was a very different place from the burgeoning cosmopolitan city of today.

But that was where a young Rick Kirsten found himself looking for work. He'd been planning to teach history in high school but found a job as an art-gallery manager instead.

The gallery went out of business almost before he got started, and Kirsten suggested he lease the space himself and start his own gallery. This is how the Kirsten Gallery, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, came into existence.

Now imagine Seattle even longer ago, in 1958. The city must have been almost unrecognizable, but it played host to beat poets and artists like Morris Graves and Mark Tobey.

It was here that Richard Kirsten, Rick's father, was making a living as an illustrator at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Like many of his artistic colleagues, and many of his Northwestern contemporaries, Richard was drawn to East Asian Buddhism.

More unusually, he traveled to Japan to paint and study, and remarkably, with the approval of his boss, he went there for several months each year for 51 consecutive years.

In 1967 he was ordained as a Buddhist monk. He has been known as Richard Kirsten Daiensai ever since.

It was only after the Kirsten Gallery had been in business for five years, when his contracts elsewhere expired, that Richard was able to join his son's gallery. Over the years they have made a remarkable team.

Richard has no role in the management of the gallery, but he is a regular presence there. Even now, at the age of 92, you will find him there every Saturday, and his Buddhist calm, or what Rick calls his "aura," gives the place a character that visitors find irresistible.

"His spirit is still incredibly strong," Rick says. "It gives us a tremendous energy here."

That energy is reflected in the "amazing, beautiful" Zen garden that adjoins the gallery, and perhaps in Rick's business model as well.

"The formula is, 'treat your artists well and treat your customers well,' " he explains.

Rick calls the current recession "the toughest time for art galleries there has ever been." Still, he is not dismayed: "If I had wanted to make a lot of money I would not have gone into this business," he admits. "But I'm not here for that. I am here to share art with people — as an experience, and as a thing that can bring joy into their lives."

Then he smiles as he adds, "This gallery has been off the radar for its entire existence. After 40 years we still have people coming in saying they didn't know we were here."

The gallery's specialties are marine art, art glass, sculpture and ceramics. The current show, the 28th Northwest Marine Art Exhibition, runs through Aug. 28 and features works by Byron Birdsall, Joan Reeves, Dave Lucas, Grant Saylor and many others.

Robert Ayers: robertayers@mac.com

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