Being a full time artist takes a passion to create, hard work, flexibility and the courage to seize opportunities when they come. Jack Dorsey possesses these characteristics, with a healthy dose of contrarianism and nostalgia/melancholy thrown in.
Jack was born at Harborview Hospital, Seattle on March 12th, 1940, to Herbert and Emma Dorsey. His mom would later tell him that he had almost been born on the Blackball Ferry that ran from Kirkland across Lake Washington to Madison Park.
Jack and his older brother Bob grew up on a little farm on fifty acres in Redmond, WA, where Microsoft’s main campus now sits. His half-brother, Chuck Bay, who would become a strong supporter of Jack and collector of his art, lived a mile down the road with his dad Charles Bay Sr.
Photo 1: Jack Dorsey in high chair, brother Bob standing, Redmond, WA home
Photo 2: Jack (left), Bob (right) Dorsey and faithful dog “Buster”, Redmond, WA home
Photo 3: Bob (left), Jack (right) with half-brother, Charles Bay Jr. “Chuck” in middle.
It was a rustic, pioneering life. Five of the wooded fifty acres had been cleared. They lived in a two bedroom house – without a proper foundation or indoor plumbing – that Herb built, and raised a few cattle and one milking cow, some pigs, chickens, and a pet Turkey. Every day Jack cranked water from the hand dug well and carried it to the house and to the cows. He and Bob milked the cow “Pansy” and chopped, carried and stacked wood for the fire, their only heat. When it snowed Jack and Bob wore gunnysacks around their old boots to keep their feet warm and dry in the snow.
Perhaps these experiences prepared Jack for his decision in 1969 to set forth on a pioneering life as a full time artist on Camano Island. They certainly made him tough and gave him a strong work ethic.
WWII was raging in Europe in 1940, and Herbert worked at the shipyards in Kirkland. Jack and Bob took the bus to Redmond elementary school (1st – 6th grades) and to the same school, now called the “Old Redmond Schoolhouse” for Junior High School (7th – 9thgrades).
Jack attended Lake Washington High School for 10th & 11th grade and Leavenworth High School for his senior year.
Jack had artistic genes and from an early age showed interest and ability in art. His mom had artistic talent, working in watercolor and fashion design at Queen High School. In school she did a WWI poster urging citizens to buy Liberty Bonds. One of her paintings, a still life in watercolor, still hangs in Jack’s home. His uncle Vic, his dad’s brother, also painted; one of his oils hung in their apartment in Seattle, and Jack remembers a Thanksgiving dinner there and gazing at it for hours. His grandmother, his mom’s mom, did a swan with Lilly pads on black velvet; unfortunately this painting was burned when a home Bert and Emma owned in Granite Falls burned down. And his grandpa on his dad’s side did stained glass windows.
By the age of four Jack was constantly drawing. He still has early drawings he did of airplanes bombing the Germans.
Sketch and Colored pencil 1 (left) : Jack was 10 and ll/12 when he drew this picture. On the back he wrote:”To Mom and Dad, Feb. 7, 1951. I cut my tip of my thumb so I am staying home from school.”
Sketches 2 & 3 (top right and bottom rights): Drawings by Jack Dorsey done sometime in Jr. High years.
He had talent too. He was made the art editor for the annual staff at Redmond Junior high and did all the lettering and ads for the annual by hand. When the annual editor looked into the “crystal ball” he foresaw that “Jack Dorsey has become a famous artist.”
Photo: Jack Dorsey from 1955 Warrior Annual, 9th grade, Redmond Jr High
One important influence in Jack’s development as an artist was his Uncle Norm and Aunt Marion. They lived above Northgate and Jack’s family went to their house many times. Grady Spurgeon, who worked as an illustrator for a printing company and who was also a fine artist, was a family friend, and many of his beautiful oil and watercolor paintings hung in their home. “He was a phenomenal artist” Jack recalls. He painted lots of windjammers and some Spanish Galleons. Jack can still remember “a striking painting of a rapids in the Cascades, another one of birches with reflections, and one of a night scene looking out over water with reflections.”
Jack met Grady. He coached Jack “when you start a painting always establish a horizon line first” and told him that he used printer’s ink for some of his underpaintings. Jack had a chance to stay with him for a couple of weeks and learn art from him; he still kicks himself that he was too shy to seize this opportunity, not knowing what he was missing.
When he was 14 or 15 years old Jack submitted a drawing to the Famous Artist Course that had famous teachers like Normal Rockwell. He was accepted to the correspondence course, but it cost $400 and his parents didn’t have the money for it. “It broke my heart a little bit that I wasn’t able to do that”, he said.
But, thankfully, he did have some good live teachers. One a Miss Cederstrom in the 7th and Mr. Goetschius in the8th grade, another, Mr. Greer at Lake Washington HS was a good instructor, which serves as a great reminder of the importance of art education and art teachers in our public schools. His family moved to Plain, WA (near Leavenworth) during his junior year, and Jack joined them there and attended Leavenworth HS for his senior year, where he again served as the artist for the annual.
Jack’s artistic abilities were also recognized outside the doors of the schools he attended. At the age of eighteen, he did technical, line-drawing illustrations for Merry Tiller, a company based in Leavenworth. They were of a meta-vach, a mobilized stretcher (the army never went for it) and an idea for snowmobiles. His mom and dad saw his artistic leanings, and one day in 1958 his dad took him to Wenatchee to meet well-known artist Walter Graham. From 1958-1963 Graham had a big influence on Jack’s art career, modeling the life of a professional artist (he made twenty-two thousand dollars one year from selling just a few of his large scale oil paintings) and offering helpful tips here and there; he even offered for Jack to come and be an art assistant to him; he didn’t take Graham up on the offer, which Jack regret to this day. Graham also encouraged Jack to attend the Art Center school in Los Angeles, CA.
Other opportunities were passed up too. The summer after he graduated from high school, he painted a storefront on the Safeway in Leavenworth and won first prize. He was offered a four year art scholarship at Central Washington College but didn’t take it up. He did, however, attend Wenatchee Valley College where he took art classes from Fern Duncan, “the worst art instructor ever” Jack recalls. Duncan gave him a D in art class.
Sketch 1: Sketch of tree in 1961, during Jack’s time at Wenatchee Valley Jr. College
Sketch 2: Sketch of Sun Basin Mill in 1961, where Jack hauled logs to from the ranch in Plain, WA
Sketch 3: Third sketch done sometime in the years 1961-1963
But by this time Jack was growing in confidence as an artist; he was selling paintings, and one day he got in trouble with his baseball coach for missing practice because he was taking paintings up to a gallery in Leavenworth.
After two years at Wenatchee Valley College, Jack transferred to Seattle Pacific College. He was drafted in 1963, but took a deferment to attend school. At SPC (now Seattle Pacific University) he took classes in sculpture, ceramics, art design and oil painting and to make ends meet sold a lot of paintings to a secretary at SPC, who appreciated His work and was his first patron, the first of many who enjoyed his work and supported him in his calling as an artist. Jack graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree. And on Easter Sunday, April 10, 1966 an event occurred that turned out to be most significant to Jack’s future as an artist.
He married the petite, beautiful, and indomitable Ann Dodgson before a handful of witnesses at her grandmother’s little, homey cabin on Camano Island that looked out onto Saratoga passage, a cabin west of the family farm. Through the woods east from the family farm was the deserted white home where they would move in just three years.
From these early beginnings we can divide Jack’s journey as an artist into three chapters: (1) launching as an artist; (2) the fallow years, and (3) the return that is still evolving.
Chapter One: Launching as an artist, 1969-1979
When Jack married Ann, he was on a path was to be an art teacher. After he completed his cadet teaching under Ms. Jean Wendell at Highline HS it was natural for him to fill her position when she went on sabbatical in 1966-1967. She returned and Jack had to find a new job. He was offered a post in the Seattle School District for $5,200 a year, but turned it down feeling like he should stay in the Highline School District. He did take the post of Art Teacher at Olympic Junior High School, making a solid $4,800 in 1967-1968. Ann worked at the Dental School at the University of WA, and sold many of Jack’s unframed watercolors to the Doctors and nurses there, who saw his emerging artistic genius; one in particular, Della Johnson, who worked in the lab, was an early proponent, a “pusher” of Jack’s work.
But instead of locking in as a teacher, Jack took another course. He went into the Christian ministry. He had taken first steps of faith as a Christian at the age of nineteen under the ministry of Rev. Otto Sather, pastor of Plain Community Church. At the age of twenty one, he had what he describes as being “born again”, from that point on his highest allegiance was to Jesus Christ. So maybe it wasn’t surprising that Jack and Ann, having paid off college debt, and wanting to do “something more” with their life (then just settle into a career in teaching), and having decided that Jack wouldn’t go back to school and get a masters to teach art in college or attend Multnomah School of the Bible for their 5th year program, and seeing the need for pastors of small churches, Jack became an assistant at Renton Bible Church under the tutelage of elderly, and conservative, Pastor Nazarenus.
Jack worked for nothing, but the church hired Ann at $100 a month to be the church secretary and they graciously agreed that Jack could continue to paint and sell his art. They rented a concrete block house in a nice little development in Renton, and made lifelong friends like the Kapioskis, Doellefelds and Hakes, (along with others). They took the young people roller skating and other like activities that Pastor Nazarenus felt were questionable but which the kids really liked. When Pastor Nazarenus offered to go out from Renton Bible Church as an evangelist and leave the church to their leadership, Jack and Ann feared they were dividing the church, which they did not want to do. At about that time another door opened.
Jack had been showing, and selling art at the Burien Arts Gallery, having been pursued by this “mover and shaker”, Dottie Harper, when he was teaching. He also had “a wonderful weekend at Bellevue Arts and Crafts Fair,” where he made $700 in just one weekend, which was “lots of money in those days.” Jack and Ann, with their baby Jason, were featured in a photo taken at the Bellevue Arts Fair in the Seattle Times titled “And Baby Makes Three”.
It was in light of the glow of this success, and the expectation of riches as an artist, that Jack and Ann decided they would be the ones who would move from Renton Bible Church; they didn’t want to be the cause of any problems. A thought came to their minds. Maybe they could move out to Camano Island and live in the vacant house owned by Ann’s father, Doc Dodgson. They inquired. Doc Dodgson and his wife, Sayre, decided that they would give each of their kids an early inheritance: Jack and Ann were given the ten acres with the little white house surrounded by high firs and cedars.
They moved onto Camano in September, 1969, and stayed that first winter across the street from their house, in a “beautiful house that belonged to Helen Bates Thompson, an old friend of family. She let them stay there for nothing. It was old, big, nice and furnished, with a big porch and beautiful view that looked over Port Susan to the Cascade Mountains in the east,” Jack remembered. When the weather was warm enough Jack painted at his art table out on the big porch.
As nice as the Helen Bates Thompson house was and as much as they loved this kind woman, Ann dreaded seeing her car come down the drive: “I wasn’t the best housekeeper and I had a baby” Ann said. So Jack and Ann were so happy to get into their own home, on what had once been the “Sunnyshore Fox Farm”, and some of the old fox sheds were still standing.
Though many people had lived in this house since its days as a thriving Fox Farm, it had sat empty for ten years before Jack, Ann and Jason moved in; all of the copper wires had been stolen. It was rustic: “there was no electricity, no water, no power, no inside bathroom. We roughed it.” Jack recalled.
And so began the years of pioneering as a family of artists. The house was next to the road, so Jack built a fence. There was no refrigerator, so a wooden box sat on the porch where they felt it was cooler. There were no disposable diapers and no washing machine, so Ann rinsed cloth diapers by hand in water that Jack hauled from Ann’s brother and sister-in-law’s farm through the woods. Once a week she went to the Stanwood Laundry mat to wash the family dirty clothes. There was no indoor plumbing, so Gerhard Doellefeld and Pete Kapioski, from Renton Bible Church, came and helped make a nice “two seater” out house. For several years, every bit of water they used was brought from the farm and stored on the porch until it was used; and every drop of water from the sink had to carry outside and dumped. But Ann and Jack were happy; it was their own house. (Eventually the 150 foot hand dug well that had formerly provided water for the house was repaired to fairly reliable working order.) They purchased an old Monarch Stove for $25, Doc and Sayre gave them their old refrigerator when they upgraded, and Ann and Jack got the electricity hooked up. Jack grubbed out alders, split and stacked firewood, and began to collect old growth Cedar blocks out of which he planned to split shakes for the house. Best of all, they didn’t have a mortgage to pay. It was all theirs! They were following their hearts dream; they didn’t expect to be poor for long.
Pioneering in this way allowed Jack to launch his career as a full time artist. And launch he did. He applied to be an art teacher in Stanwood, but the Superintendent Bob Larsen had someone else in mind, and so, with the door of teaching closed, Jack threw himself into his painting. His early watercolors are fresh, bold and lively, mirroring Jack’s youthful exuberance and emerging style in watercolor. He was accepted into his first Northwest Watercolor Society (NWWS) Show in 1971.
Jack set up his studio in the unfinished basement. The light wasn’t great, but he made do. The day his daughter April was born, March 25, 1972 he opened the big weighted door and painted the fresh snow that sat atop the cedar blocks and frosted the fir tree that hovered over them. After painting this watercolor titled “The Day April Was Born”, he put away his paints and went to Stanwood for the actual birth of his little daughter in Ann’s parent’s home with her dad the official doctor.
Eventually Jack fixed up and moved out to an old fox shed next to the house; he called it “Sunnyshore Studio” because it was on a plot of land named “Sunnyshore Acres” and because “the name sounds happy.” Those were happy years for the growing family.
Photo: Jack and Jason painting outside their house on a sunny summer day.
When asked what his business approach was during those early years Jack answers in a single word: “survival.” Providentially, even before launching into his career as a full time artist, Jack had connected to the O’Brien family who had a summer place over by his folks in Plain; they became friends of Bert and Emma, and learned about their artist son Jack. They told Jack he could display his paintings at the Turkey House restaurant they owned at the Island Crossing exit in Arlington. And they told him they would take no commission. That was in 1968. A few years later, O’Brien sold the controlling interest in the Turkey House to Gene McGovern, who franchised it and built restaurants in Eastgate, Redmond, Bellingham, Southcenter, Lake Union, Aurora and Olympia. In each restaurant Jack hung his art, each took no commission on sales. So during these years Jack had up to seventy paintings circulating at all times in the Turkey House restaurant chain.
Beside the Turkey House restaurants, Jack displayed his paintings in Galleries, at art shows, and just about anywhere that would hang them. Terri Small who ran the Redondo Beach Art Gallery south of Burien and Jenette Brooks of The Creative Eye at Friday Harbor, and Roy Meyers at the Cascadian Hotel and Mrs. Cook at the Firdale Art Center in Edmonds, Doris Rogers at the World of Art Gallery on Mercer Island, George Lak of the Die Bruder’s Gallery, Nina Burton at the La Petitite Gallerie at Crossroads Shopping Center in Burien who showed his work. His paintings also hung at the Burien Art Gallery, the Vashon Island Arts Gallery, the Barber Shop in the Bellevue K Mart, Summer’s Interiors in Mount Vernon and at the Seattle Covenant Church. Dr. William Church hung his paintings in his optometry clinic in Everett, WA. Jack was truly pounding the pavement and working hard as an artist. As Louis Pasteur put it, “chance favors the prepared mind” and when an opportunity presented itself Jack was ready.
Photos 1 & 2: Jack working in his studio in the 1970’s.
Jack’s big breakthrough came in 1972 with a solo show at the Frye Art Museum. Here is that story.
Mike Burns, who was an old friend of Jack’s from SPC days and who was also a very gifted artist, had had a show in 1969 at the renowned Charles and Emma Frye Art Museum in Seattle. Jack thought “if he can have a show there why can’t I?” and inquired about it with Mrs. Greathouse, introducing himself to her, showing her some of his paintings, and asking if she would give him a show. She said yes! This was a big deal, and Jack spent a couple of years painting in preparation for it.
Jack’s solo show, “Watercolors by Jack Dorsey” ran from December 21st through January 7th 1973. John Vorhees, arts columnist for the Seattle Times, had this to say in an article title “Realism keynotes two fine shows” on Sunday, December 17th.
“Two new exhibitions, which may have been obscured by the Christmas commotion, should be ‘musts’ for those who like realistic paintings – watercolors by Jack Dorsey at the Frye Museum and acrylics by Marshall Johnson at the Ing Gallery.”
“Dorsey’s exhibition, which can be enjoyed through January 7th, is a very large one – 50 Watercolors, a show large enough to confirm the fact that Dorsey is one more of the ever-expanding group of expert watercolorists.”
“There are the familiar subjects – rural scenes, marine scenes, snow scenes, flowers – and all of them well-painted, although Dorsey is equally adept in two different styles. He can do the impressionistic bit, and quite nicely, but I happen to like his more precise, detailed paintings better – there is a sense of illustration about them and Dorsey often approaches these scenes from an interesting point of view.”
“Best of all are those paintings that combine both elements – soft focus background with emphasis upon a realistic bouquet or plants. ‘The Grace of Nature’ is a good example, as is ‘Labor rewarded.’
“’Beyond Repairs’ is an interesting painting utilizing a boat and ‘Saved from the Mower’ is another notable painting. ‘New England Winter’ is postcard-lovely while ‘Yellow Transparents’ is a pretty yard scene. Dorsey’s work should thoroughly please the watercolor fanciers – and the prices are very reasonable.
When one considers Jack’s art log books, a show with fifty watercolor paintings is not surprising.
In 1966 Jack’s records show a total of 50 new paintings shown. In 1967 38 more were painted and shown; in 1968 another 36, and in 1969 when he officially launched as a full time artist, he painted and showed 50 paintings. In 1970, a whooping 95 paintings are catalogued, and in 1971 there is a grand total of 100.
Of course, Jack did not sell all of those paintings each year (in 1972 he sold 51 paintings of the 91 paintings he had in circulation), and his sale prices was very reasonable, averaging about twenty dollars per painting in 1966, with those numbers inching up each year. His records show Jack making a total of $946 in 1966, $1,172 in 1967, $948 in 1968, $1,445 in 1969, and $3,822 in 1970 the year he launched full time. 1971 was down $1,555 from 1970 with a total of $2,667. 1972 was up with a total of $4,279 and $1,275 of that made in the fourth quarter. At $4,931, 1973 was Jack’s top earning year until 1979, the year he transitioned to working at Boeing, when he made $4,935. Taking into account that a dollar meant much more in the the 70’s than it does today Jack’s earnings are solid and respectable; but taking into account the cost of framing these paintings and travel, one can see that it was not much for a growing family of five to exist on.
Five it was, because Jed Dorsey burst onto the scene on July 7th, 1976. Through the 70’s Jack continued to paint hard and sell as much as he could, at inexpensive prices. Looking back Jack believes that he should have changed his approach and begun to paint fewer works and asking much more for his paintings.
1979 was a big year for Jack. He had his second one man show at the Frye Art Museum, September 11-30th. He also had a show at the Blue Heron Gallery in Tacoma.The “Blue Heron has something for everyone” write up in a December 1979 issue of the Tacoma News Tribune gives tribute to Jack’s body of work:
“For the eclectic art fancier, the Blue Heron is a little slice of heaven. The Lakewood gallery shows works by artists of local, national and international repute and everything from jewelry and pottery to painting, collages, prints and sculpture. THE CURRENT who is a case in point. Although the rustic watercolors of Jack Dorsey (President of the Northwest Watercolor Society) are being spotlighted, there are plenty of examples of other forms to satisfy more abstract tastes. Dorsey’s charming scenes will appeal to everyone who’s ever had a nostalgic feeling upon encountering some old much-used object that has outlived its usefulness. For instance, Riding Days Over depicts a worn, old saddle lying abandoned in the tall grass, allowing the viewer to make up his own story about why the saddle is no longer being used. An anvil and tools are the subject of A Rare Find, and again, we are allowed to speculate about these items and their former hey day.”
Next, Jack’s “superior control” as an artist was noted in this write up on his one man show at the Franell Gallery in Tokyo, Japan in 1979:
“About 18 landscape watercolors by American northwest artist Jack Dorsey (b. 1940’s), of translucent texture and evocative of the mood, time and temperature of the scene concerned. In the main they are cool, with a feeling of the liquid in shadows, clouds and woodiness, and the paper exposed for white. It’s a difficult medium a tendency to become messy under clumsy brush. Dorsey has superior control.”
How Jack got this one man show at the Franell Gallery is the matching of a decade of his hard work with the right person at the right place. Francis Blakemore was dining at the Turkey House restaurant at the Arlington exit off I-5 when she saw Jack’s watercolors and fell in love with them. As it turned out, she was the owner of Franell Gallery in Tokyo and Jack sold out his show there.
But it was not enough. By this time the writing was on the wall. Jack wasn’t able to provide for his growing family or fix up their old home like he wanted to on his artist’s unpredictable salary. A friend mentioned that they were hiring at the Boeing Company’s Everett Plant. Jack applied and was hired as a technical illustrator. That was in 1979. What came next in Jack’s art career might be seen as the fallow years, where Jack’s art career rested like farmland that sits fallow, renewing nutrients in the soil, waiting for future harvest.