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Native American Modern, Shared Expressions in Northwest Art

Updated: Nov 26, 2023

Cascadia Art Museum , 190 Sunset Ave. S., #E, Edmonds, WA 98020, ph: 425.336.4809, Runs until October 29. Hours: Monday–Tuesday Closed; Wednesday–Sunday 11am–5pm.

For decades David Martin has been our Northwest expert on female, gay and Asian artists of the twentieth century. In 2023, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Pacific Northwest Historians Guild. His memorable projects focus on understudied artists such as Pictorialist Japanese photographers of the 1920s, pioneering women photographers such as Virna Haffer, color printmaking and watercolors of the Northwest, particularly by women, and gay culture of Washington State.

The current exhibition “Native American Modern, Shared Expressions in Northwest Art” gives a subtle and fascinating view of intersections and shared ideas between Native and non-Native artists primarily in the 1930s and 1940s. During this time, the government art projects were acknowledging Native artists and supporting them, an abrupt turnaround from decades of suppression and efforts to “civilize” Native Americans with brutal boarding schools and cultural bans.

One of the leaders in this re-evaluation of Native cultures was Erna Gunther, a student of Franz Boas, who created the first anthropology department at the University of Washington as well as being the first director, in 1930, of the Washington State Museum, now the Burke. In the third room of the exhibition are some video clips from a series of television shows she created “Western Washington Indians Then and Now” between 1965 and 1966. She explains Native dancing, music, singing, clothing, all with great respect and knowledge.

Professor Gunther was a major catalyst for many of the artists in the exhibition both Native and non-Native.

Twohy, Julius “Land Elk” (1902-86), painting mural at children's refectory, Indian Hospital of Tacoma, 1939

The star artist is Julius “Land Elk” Twohy ( 1902–1986). The first room of this three-part exhibition is devoted to his work. Julius Twohy created a 72 foot mural The Flight of the Thunderbird, as a WPA commission in the Cushman Hospital (Tacoma Indian Hospital). The exhibition includes photographs documenting the artist painting the mural, a study, and a detailed explanation. Unfortunately, the mural was first painted over and then destroyed when the building was torn down in 2003. Much of Twohy’s work was lost as a result of arson in his studio, but the exhibition brings together a group of WPA lithographs from the Henry Art Gallery and private collections, as well as a few paintings and studies.

Twohy, Julius “Land Elk” (1902-86) Tom Toms and Drum 1939 Lithograph on woven paper, Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington

We see the thesis of the exhibition clearly in Twohy’s art. His prints combine modernist cubist fragmentation and abstract forms with Native subjects in works such as Tom Toms and Drum: the round drums convey sound, movement and rhythm. Each lithograph has a different interpretation of abstract form.

In the second room we have the Klee Wyk Studio (1951–1961), comprised of Delbert McBride, his brother Albert with his life partner Richard Shneider as well as painter Oliver Tiedman. A type of Bloomsbury approach, they created decorative items such as tiles and bowls based on their study of Northwest Coast art and culture. Martin distinguishes their work as inspired by Native motifs, rather than appropriating them, as here again we see the intermixing of modernism with, for example, Haida designs.

In the second room Bruce Inverarity created carpets with abstracted motifs inspired by Native designs. Inverarity is best known as administrator of the Washington State WPA.

The third room features a selection from Worth Griffins’ series of sixty portraits of Native leaders. Griffins paints in the traditional realist, academic style, but respectfully includes detailed observations and emotional insight into these proud people at a time when they were under enormous stress.

In this room also is African American/ Indigenous artist Milt Simons who creates abstracted Native related imagery in an expressionist style.

David Martin’s theme is that these artists knew one another through Erna Gunther and the government art programs. As Indigenous artists absorbed modernism and White artists explored Native design, the exchange was respectful and complex. Hopefully the exhibition will lead to more research on this fascinating era, when the NW art world was small, and artists of diverse backgrounds came together.


Don’t miss Hokusai, Inspiration and Influence, traveling from Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and opening at the Seattle Art Museum on October 19. At the Asian Art Museum, Xiaojin Wu, our wonderful, regretfully former, curator of Japanese Art curated Renegade Edo and Paris, Japanese Prints and Toulouse-Lautrec (until December 3). Xiaojin examines the subtle ways in which these Edo and Fin de Siecle Paris resemble each other, as well as how Toulouse-Lautrec transformed his sources from the Edo era.

~Susan Platt, PhD


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