Artfully Edmonds: A chat with Edmonds art legend James Martin, plus local events

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

Part 1 of two parts

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.

(Next week: Martin’s process, and a La Connor exhibition gone wrong)

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The Quebe Sisters

Thursday, March 29
7:30 p.m.

The Quebe Sisters

Edmonds Center for the Arts
410 4th Ave. N.

The Quebe Sisters blend Western Swing, Swing Jazz and Texas Fiddle Music with multi-part close singing harmonies that transfix the audience. The trio’s vocal and instrumental performances are authentic all-Americana, at the same time respectful of the artists that inspired them the most. Grace, Sophia and Hulda Quebe are pros in a variety of genres, and shared stages with American music legends like Willie Nelson, George Strait, Merle Haggard, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Ray Price, Connie Smith, Marty Stuart, Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers, Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel, Riders in the Sky and many others.

Tickets: Call the ECA Box Office at 425-275-9595, go online at or visit the ECA Box Office.

This performance will be CART captioned for deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons, with iPads available. To reserve an iPad, call Gillian Jones, Director of Programming at 425-275-9483. ECA’s Assistive Listening System is available at all performances.

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Tom Codding – 1963 by Danny Pierce

Thursday, April 5 – Sunday, July 1

Modern Alaska: Art of the Midnight Sun, 1930–1970

Cascadia Art Museum
190 Sunset Ave. #E

Cascadia Art Museum will present works of art created by mid-century Northwest artists related to their travels to Alaska. Photographer Verna Haffer, painter and printmaker Danny Pierce, Stephen Fuller, and native Alaskan artists Bernard Katexac and Joseph Senungetuk are featured.

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God of Carnage cast.

Friday, April 6 – Sunday, April 29
8 p.m. (Sundays at 2 p.m.)

God of Carnage

By Yasmina Reza
Directed by Rick Wright

Phoenix Theatre
9673 Firdale Ave.
Edmonds (Firdale Village)

A Tony Award-winning comedy of grown-ups behaving badly. God of Carnage begins as two high-strung couples meet for a civil discussion about a playground fight between their sons. The conversation quickly escalates into a laugh-out-loud, train wreck of an afternoon among savages.

Described as “ninety minutes of sustained mayhem” by The New Yorker, the New York Times hailed God of Carnage as a “four-way prize fight” and the Chicago Tribune praised Reza’s play, calling it a “savvy and deliciously caustic new comedy.” This must-see received the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy, as well as the Outer Critics Circle and Drama League Awards for Best Play.

Cast: Debra Rich Gettleman, Phillip Keiman, Amy Gentry, and Jaylyn Green
(Contains strong language)


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Sunday, April 15
3 p.m.

Cascade Symphony Orchestra Ensemble Concert

Edmonds United Methodist Church
828 Caspers St.

Members of the Cascade Symphony Orchestra will perform in a variety of chamber ensembles. Tickets here.

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Now through May

Oso Anniversary Exhibit

Faith Community Church
10220 238th St. S.W.

Former Edmonds mayor and photographer Gary Haakensen was the county official assigned to oversee the rescue and recovery of the catastrophic Oso landslide of March 2014. Haakensen captured the devastation and damage of the event that resulted in the loss of 43 lives. An estimated 270 million cubic feet of mud descended on the community.

The photographic display will be available for public viewing through May on Sunday mornings, and Monday through Thursday by appointment.

For more information: 206-542-8883

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By James Spangler

When not actively scheming about ways to promote the arts in Edmonds, James Spangler can be found (highly caffeinated) behind the counter of his bookstore on 4th Avenue.

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