Remembering Doris Chase

She typified an older generation of artists in Seattle, and had a try-everything sensibility we no longer properly value.
She typified an older generation of artists in Seattle, and had a try-everything sensibility we no longer properly value.

Doris Chase, the multifaceted Seattle artist who died earlier this month at the age of 85, was a lovely, always-cheerful lady with big round glasses and a big, round life. She typified, for me, the kind of artist Seattle used to produce and no longer properly values.

I knew her mostly in her later life, when she was a supporter and frequent attender of events at Town Hall, two blocks from her residence in Horizon House. (Her other residence, half each year, was in New York City's famous Chelsea Hotel.) One day she invited me to her art-filled apartment to look at models of several abstract sculptures that had never been cast to full size. She was hoping to have some of them executed, and she wanted a big one placed in Freeway Park. I tried to help, knowing how popular her public art is (in part because, like "Changing Form" in Queen Anne's Kerry Park overlook, it's so climbable). But I also knew the odds were long.

Why so? Because she was from Seattle, which was going to be a strike against her with the local tastemakers. Because her public art, while abstract, was readily grasped and loved, and that form of approachable art is out of favor now. And maybe because she was over-exposed and a little old hat. We knew that if we tried to get a work of hers donated and placed in Freeway Park, near where she lived and where she very often walked, the art cops would never let it happen.

As I got to know this gracious, enthusiastic artist, I learned more about the art-making of her generation. She went to Roosevelt High School and the UW; she taught at Edison (now Seattle Central Community College). She worked in dozens of media, especially wood and metal and video. She would hang out at Symphony rehearsals in the days of Milton Katims, and sketch the musicians in the act. She loved blurring the boundaries, sometimes combining dance and sculpture and video. She had an imagination, as Regina Hackett quoted one critic, "at once delicate and massive."

Maybe she was too wide-ranging to carve out a special niche. She was not alienated from her society, though she had a impish, needling wit. She didn't know much about turning herself into a celebrity. Like others of her generation, she just worked away every day at her art, glad to be part of a provincial city that had enough distance from New York to encourage originality. These Northwest artists had a deep curiousity about the particularities of this region, with its diffused light, big bold forms, warm materials, and honest craftsmanship.

My last glimpse of her was a month ago at Horizon House, where she was gaily arranging flowers in vases, for distributing to others in the home. She had a big smile and was humming away as she happily put bright balls of color into striking patterns for others to enjoy. She didn't recognize me any more, but I won't forget her.


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