Artfully Edmonds: A chat with Edmonds art legend James Martin

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James Martin at home at “Donald Duck Ranch.” (Photo by James Spangler)

This article originally appeared in James Spangler’s Artfully Edmonds column in March and April 2018, in two parts. We have combined it here for the convenience of readers.

Artist James Martin will celebrate his 90th birthday soon. Martin has led a fascinating, storied life and is in all likelihood the closest thing to a living legend that the Edmonds art community can boast about.

His paintings still fetch eyebrow-raising prices on the international art market. Yet, just as there are no prophets in their own land, James Martin seems to be under-appreciated and even largely unknown around here.

In his heyday, he rubbed elbows with many of the well-known painters of his era. His work was shown in galleries and museums along side Graves, Tobey, Callahan and Anderson. He sold a staggering 65 paintings in a single show in Seattle in the late ’60s.

Included in a long list of patrons are names like Manfred Selig, (father of real estate mogul Martin Selig), Mark Tobey, Bagley Wright and Gretchen Boeing, who once said of him: “Martin is my favorite painter bar none. [Morris] Graves may be his hero, but [Martin] is mine. He’s as much a Northwest Mystic as any of them.”

Martin doesn’t seem especially interested in promoting his work. He’s still well represented by one of the preeminent galleries in Seattle — Foster/White — and seems to be content with having an annual show down there.

The Artist In Lion Suit – 2011 by James Martin

Fortunately for us, Sheila Farr, art reviewer for The Seattle Times for many years, has written a terrific book book entitled James Martin – Art Rustler at the Rivoli (2001). It’s a detailed and illuminating account of the artist, chalk full of beautiful color images of his work. I picked up a copy seven or eight years ago at the Edmonds Bookshop, and devoured it.

I’ve had Martin on my list of persons I would like to interview for as long as I’ve been writing art columns. As the list filled with names that were subsequently scratched off, I’d start a new list with Martin’s name at the top. I’ve done this several times. He doesn’t really do interviews. So I felt a bit like a lottery winner when recently an opportunity arose to sit down with Martin for a couple hours and chat.

Martin is a tall, imposing figure even in his late 80s. Although his body may be letting him down a little, his mind is still very sharp. We met at his home, “the Donald Duck Ranch” — a place he built himself right here in Edmonds. The walls are festooned with whimsical artifacts and art.

Upstairs lies the studio where he has produced and framed thousands of paintings over the decades. When things were going well, he could produce and frame a work of art in a single day.

People have suggested variously that his influences are European Expressionism, Picasso, Chagall, Tobey and Graves. Alden Mason and Guy Anderson get thrown in there from time to time as well. Clearly, Martin admired Graves, and to a lesser extent Tobey. But at whatever level they may have influenced his early work, Martin branched out and found his own unique niche.

Martin still paints every day. When he heard I’d be traveling by bus, he produced a small painting of one for me. In disbelief, I stashed it away in my bag before he could change his mind.

Martin seems to express ideas in stories — a free association that eventually gets around to answering the question.

Mona (airborne) – 2011 by James Martin

He communicates in much the same way he paints — in narrative. His undergraduate degree at the University of Washington was in creative writing after all. So it’s not a giant leap to see that his compositions are often essentially the telling of a story as well.

This means of communication made for a challenging interview at times.

He would often begin his answer with the statement “What interests me is…” and then launch into a story.

And what great stories he has.

One of my favorites is the time he was summoned to fetch some of his paintings that had not sold from a gallery in the University District.

He gathered up the paintings he had chosen to replace them and set out. When he arrived at the gallery, Mark Tobey (who was also represented there) was on hand. Martin spread his new paintings out on the floor and before he knew it, both he and Tobey were down on their hands and knees discussing his work. Tobey purchased his favorite from Martin.

As he returned to Edmonds, the paintings he had been sent to retrieve blew off the car and he found himself dashing out onto Highway 99 to scoop them back up — a memorable day some 60 years ago.

Moonlit Picnic by James Martin (1993)

Part 2 of two parts. You can read Part 1 here.

James Martin took to drawing and painting early. He had a little studio of sorts set up in the basement next to the coal room when he was a little kid. “when I saw something interesting, I’d tell my mother — ‘I’m going to paint that!’ But first I had to get the coal in.”

That was a common chore back then. The truck would pull up next to the coal chute and some lucky kid would shovel it down to the furnace. Martin’s reward for getting the coal in was painting time.

He still has that urge to “paint that!”

“I enjoy art. Art is interesting. Painting is interesting. When you do it – there’s something that motivates you. I take my work to the gallery, (well, now they come and get it) but after it’s gone, I feel like – now I have to start again.”

My first reaction to a Martin painting is an involuntary belly laugh. Aside from the amusing style of painting, there’s generally a seemingly random juxtaposition of images that short circuits my attempt to understand what I’m looking at. It’s that non sequitur that makes me laugh.

The nearest analogy I can come up with for how Martin’s paintings come together is a sort of visual jazz improvisation. First comes the germination of an idea. It’s probably no surprise to any person involved in a creative endeavor that this can sometimes be the hardest part.

The idea might manifest itself in the form of the principal focus of the piece. “Just start, don’t worry about anything,” he says. As the composition progresses, ideas come. Martin tells himself – “Yeah, put that in there… put that in there…” generally, it works out. In fact, one of my favorite things about Martin’s pieces are their compositional balance. It’s sort of ironic that he achieves that balance in such an improvisational way.

There’s a story being told in his paintings. One can hardly help trying to decipher what the story is.

Cover of James Martin – Art Rustler at the Rivoli, by Sheila Farr (2001) University of Washington Press

Phen Huang, owner of Foster White Gallery in Seattle, put it this way: “I love that his conversations are like his paintings, with the subject changing every couple of sentences or so. People delight over his sense of humor and play. His exhibitions always elicit giggles and slow people down. Like a meditation, they can spend hours pouring over his work.”

Martin has never been much of a fan of attending his own openings. He tells an amusing story of going to an opening showing his work that also promised the work of Morris Graves, which piqued his interest. As he remembers it, a gallery representative picked him up to drive him to La Conner. At one point, the driver fell asleep on the freeway and Martin had to grab the wheel to avoid crashing. “That’s the closest I’ve ever come (to being killed),” he said. Then, when he arrived, he was met with a mountain of books that he was expected to sign. He spent the entire opening sitting behind a table. When it came time to leave, he asked to see the works by Morris Graves. It turned out that it was a single very small piece by Graves sitting in the window.

In spite of all that, I imagine that if art lovers in our community were to decide to recognize Martin’s work with an exhibit today (and could provide a well-rested driver) he might go.

Maybe we could prevail upon another (unrelated) local Martin, David Martin, curator of the Cascadia Art Museum, to put a show together. After all, we have one of the most notable Pacific Northwest artists alive today right here in Edmonds. Wouldn’t it be fun to celebrate his life and work?

— By James Spangler

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