ArtSEA: For Northwest art, more is merrier at local group shows

Plus, the Seattle artist whose legacy has been lost and found.

A photo of Simon playing the zylophone, and a colorful self portrait

Left: Seattle artist Milt Simons plays vibes in his band Jasis, circa 1971 (from the Kearney Barton Collection, UW Ethnomusicology Archives). Right: Simons’ 1969 “Self Portrait” (Tacoma Art Museum)

Last weekend I experienced one of those rare and wonderful art encounters — the kind that actually causes a little impromptu gasp. It happened when I was at the Tacoma Art Museum, making a long overdue visit to the show Painting Deconstructed: Selections from the Northwest Collection (on extended view).

Originally launched as an online exhibition during the height of COVID-19, the vibrant and often surprising collection asks viewers to consider how painters approach medium, composition, color and technique. Seen together, this diverse range of Northwest artists feels buzzy and fresh — partly because everyone featured is an artist of color and/or a woman. 

ArtSEA: Notes on Northwest Culture is Crosscut’s weekly arts & culture newsletter.

Back in 2021, I had skimmed through the show online but soon lost track of it in the pandemic brain fog. In person, I thoroughly enjoyed walking slowly through the gallery and spotting work by Barbara Earl Thomas, Roger Shimomura, Gwendolyn Knight, Donnabelle Casis, Alan Lau and other regional artists past and present — many of whom I’d never heard of.

The gasp happened when I turned a corner and saw a face I’ve been looking at online over the last several months: that of Seattle painter-musician-teacher Milt Simons. Active from the 1950s to the 1970s (he died in 1973), he’s one of the stellar artists we’re showcasing in Crosscut’s Black Arts Legacies project this year. 

‘Painting Deconstructed’ at Tacoma Art Museum features an exciting array of works by Northwest artists past and present. (Brangien Davis / Crosscut)

The whole Season 2 cohort is inspiring (meet the artists we’ve revealed so far), but Simons has been a particular favorite of our team — because despite his influence back in the day, his name has largely disappeared from contemporary awareness, even in artistic circles. Writer Jas Keimig, who profiled Simons, wrote about this cultural loss in a recent essay. The mystery: How could someone this active fade away from civic memory?

Then suddenly, Simons’ “Self-Portrait” (1969) was there on the gallery wall, positioned among his Northwest painter peers. I’d seen this piece virtually in the course of research, but hadn’t realized it was currently on view. 

Here I could see the stretch of his canvas, the colorful drips he soaked into its threads. And for the first time I noticed how Simons had painted each of his fingers different hues — yellow, red, green, purple — as if he could paint a rainbow with a wave of his hand. 

It’s an emotion-filled piece by an important artist whose work merits more recognition. I’m happy that the Black Arts Legacies project is contributing to that effort. You can celebrate Simons and all the other Season 2 artists at our special event tonight (Washington Hall 6:30 - 9 p.m., tickets free with RSVP). Afterward: Go see Simons’ work in person and keep his legacy alive.

“Within Reach,” a painting with video projection by Barbara Robertson, is one of several dozen works by Neddy Award winners on view at MOHAI. (Brangien Davis / Crosscut)

Northwest artists are the focus of several strong group shows on view right now, including the Museum of Flight’s Art + Flight, which I wrote about last week. Locals can take pride (and shelter) in any of these shows when the June-uary weekend weather arrives.

The Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) is highlighting the history and industry of art with the new show Celebrating Pacific Northwest Artists: 25 Years of the Neddy Awards (through Sept. 5). Created in honor of Seattle teacher and artist Ned Behnke (1948-1989), the awards commend innovation in visual arts. 

Curator Negarra A. Kudumu has selected an electric mix of 46 past Neddy winners, including Juan Alonso-Rodriguez (blue shapes that glow from within), Barbara Robertson (cleverly architectural video projections) and Aramis O. Hamer (a fiery sci-fi landscape with sheep).

Yesterday, Mayor Bruce Harrell announced that after an expansive national search, the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture has a new director: Gülgün Kayim. Formerly an arts administrator and performing arts organization director in Minneapolis, Kayim won’t officially start until July 17. But while she’s setting up her new office she can glimpse the Northwest visual arts scene with The First 50 Years: Highlights from the Civic Collection,1973-2023, on view at the King Street Station gallery (through Sept. 7).

Hung salon-style, these varied pieces hail from the city’s collection — all acquired via the 1% for art program. The full collection contains more than 4,000 works, which rotate through public buildings and parks. The show limits itself to a mere 150, including art by Jacob Lawrence, Akio Takamori, Marita Dingus, Jeffry Mitchell, Humaira Abid and Robert "Running Fisher" Upham.

At Stonington Gallery in nearby Pioneer Square, The Power of Water (through July 29) honors the Coast Salish tradition of the Canoe Journey, when Indigenous tribes paddle to a central meeting place of celebration (this year hosted by the Muckleshoot Tribe and landing at Alki Point on July 30). There are many beautifully carved paddles to see in this show, as well as painted drums, glass sculptures, watercolors and jewelry, all by Northwest Native artists. 

Also in Pioneer Square, summer pop-up Forest For The Trees has a show called Send Flowers (at Railspur, open Saturday - Sunday, 1-6 p.m.). The theme is visual art that hums with color and you’ll find plenty by local artists including Anthony White, Brandon Vosika, Andy Arkley, Neon Saltwater and Saya Moriyasu. Located down an alley, you’ll know you’re there when you spot the vibrant purple mural by Nikita Ares.

Seattle dance company Malacarne will present “Where is home: third shore” in and around the former INS building. (Malacarne)

It’s an event-filled weekend! Here are a few more ways to spend it:

The 33rd annual Fremont Solstice Parade steps off at 2 p.m. on June 17, with the customary costumed walkers and naked bikers. You’ll find confusing floats and a hopping flea market, plus music stages headlined by beloved local bands the True Loves and Cytrus.

The Westerlies are a brass quartet whose members hail from Seattle (and blew across the country to land in New York). Their shimmery harmonies send me swooning every time. This weekend is the annual Westerlies Fest, featuring a slate of performances including a record release party at The Royal Room (June 16) and a gig with Seattle alt-jazz legend Wayne Horvitz at The Chapel Performance Space (June 17).

Inventive contemporary dance group Malacarne is presenting an intriguing site-specific performance: Where is Home: Third Shore (June 16 - 18). For this piece, the dancers and crew are all immigrants — from Italy, Israel, Japan, Thailand, the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere. They’ll perform in and around the Inscape building — the art space that was formerly an Immigration and Naturalization Center.

Finally, among the many Juneteenth events happening around the city is a weekend-long celebration at the Northwest African American Museum (June 17 - 19). Included in the lineup is a documentary film festival (June 18, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.) that explores Black history via five films, including 13th by Ava Duvernay and 1619 Project: Race by Nikole Hannah-Jones. And on Juneteenth itself: a skate party in Judkins Park.

Get the latest in local arts and culture

This weekly newsletter brings arts news and cultural events straight to your inbox.

By subscribing, you agree to receive occasional membership emails from Crosscut/Cascade Public Media.

Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors