This is an excerpt from the introduction of Jason Dorsey’s new book Vintage Watercolorists of Washington. It tell’s the story behind the Vintage project.
In January 2015, Mom called to tell me she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Tectonic plates shifted. My heart opened to move home. Mom’s diagnosis confronted the fear holding me back. Jenny and I decided pull the trigger on building the studio before we knew we were moving back to WA. In September 2015, I took a call to be pastor a presbyterian church in Redmond, WA, so that I could be there for Mom and Dad. Selling our Indy home gave us enough cash to get a mortgage for the dreamed of art studio. We broke ground in December. work by Jim Spane’s crew started on March 2, 2016. We celebrated a soft-opening during the Camano Island Studio Tour in May. The December 2016 grand opening celebrated the thirty plus beaches of Camano painted by different family members. We were launched in our mission to share beauty and showcase our family of artists.
In March of 2017, for birthday we held a retrospective of Dad’s artwork over the decades. Jenny hung seventy-four paintings and three sculptures, one for every year of his life. The following week dad had a heart attack. In the afterward of the book that came out of that show, Jack Dorsey: Sketch of an Artist, I wrote:
The idea of creating a book to share the story and celebrate the art of our dad arose when Sunnyshore Studio hosted an Art Retrospective Show on Jack’s 77th birthday. On Saturday, March 11, and Sunday, March 12 (his actual birthday), 2017, hundreds of Dad’s family, friends, patrons and collectors stopped by to see the seven-seven original artworks that spanned more than fifty years of his painting and to share their love for him. It was a sweet time for Dad, and for all of us.
On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of the following week Dad didn’t feel well. At 3:30 a.m. on Saturday morning, March 18, he got up. Mom woke and asked him how he felt and he said, “Not so good.” She suggested that they go to the hospital; Dad agreed. That’s when Mom knew it was serious. When they arrived at the emergency room, Dad told the aide what had happened. He was wheeled into a room for an EKG, told that he was having a heart attack, and wheeled into another room full of nurses and doctors. They inserted a stent into an artery in the lower right region of Dad’s heart.
Thankfully the surgery was successful. And Dad feels great. He’s back at home, though he had to take it easy for a few weeks.
I wrote this in the conclusion of Jack Dorsey: Sketch of an Artist, the book we produced for this show:
So as I bring this book to completion I’m in a reflective mood. I’m aware now more than ever of the shortness of life, that our days are numbered. I’m very thankful to God for sparing my dad and giving us more time together. And as I think about Dad’s life and art, I’m aware of two things.
First, I’m aware that this book represents Dad’s tremendous creative gifts and culture-making endeavors. In particular, I’m struck by Dad’s mastery of watercolor fundamentals: his technical skill, sense of design and color, precision of brushstroke, his tight realism contrasted with loose impressionism, his ability to capture mood – most notably his nostalgia for place and the man-made objects in those places. I realize that I’m an heir of the work, indeed, the legacy of a culture-maker; of a man who contributed to the beauty and culture of the Pacific Northwest through creating artworks treasured by thousands of people.
Second, I’m aware that all of this creative, culture-making work will come to an end when God calls my dad, His son, home. One day this flurry of painting – of culture-making – by my dad will cease. No one, in no place, and at no time, will ever be able to paint the way my dad painted. I’m not saying that they won’t be able to paint better watercolors than Dad. Certainly there have been, are, and will be better watercolorists. But none of them will be the kind of painter my dad is and paint the kind of art that my dad does, for the simple face that they are not him.
As I think about the shortness of life and contemplate the artistic legacy of my dad, I have an overwhelming thankfulness to God for the creative energy and the cultural impact of my dad.”
Vintage Watercolorists of Washington
Vintage Watercolorists of Washington rose out of my desire to honor Dad, my love for watercolor, and my wish to celebrate other “vintage” watercolorists who had enriched the cultural life of Washington State. Beginning in March 2018, the plan was each year to showcase the art and share the stories of five master watercolorists. The stories would be preserved on video and in a book. The project would culminate in March 2023 with the release of the documentary videos of each artist and the coffee table book. I hoped to inspire the next generation of watercolor artists by their stories.
I had no idea the work I had given myself or what I would learn in the process.
It was subtitled “Jack Dorsey invitational” because Dad personally invited each artists who participated. Our March 2018 lineup of artists was highlighted by one of Dad’s close friends, Thomas William Jones, who lives in Snohomish. It included Mercer Island artists and friends Genny Rees and Nancy Axell and Camano Island legends John Ringer and Jack Dorsey. The 2019 list was impressive. It included master artist Jerry Stitt, who is a signature member of the American Watercolor Society (AWS) and National Watercolor Society (NWS), Nancy Fulton who lives in Normandy Park, Seiko Konya who then lived in Mercer Island, Redmond artist Sandy Langford, and Cooper Hart from Snohomish. The March 2020 show took place at the outbreak of Covid and more amazing artists including the remarkable Carla O’Connor who lives in Gig Harbor, well-known northwest artists John Ebner who lives on Camano, Tony Turpin from Coupeville, Joan Pinney from Snohomish, and Joan Reeves from Seattle. We canceled the March 2021 show due to the pandemic. The March 2022 show featured two nationally known artists: Eric Wiegardt (AWS, NWS) from Ocean Park and Deanne Lemley (AWS, NWS) from Kennewick. Other terrific artists were Kirkland artists Molly Murrah, Seattle artist Bill Hook, and Rusty Platz who lives in Bothell. I had the honor of interviewing each of these artists. I’m thrilled to share their stories with you in this book.
Each year we highlighted a legendary Washington watercolorist no longer with us. In 2018, we included a beautiful full-sheet transparent watercolor by Perry Acker. It was a scene of fishing boats covered in snow on what appears to be the Stillaguamish River in Stanwood. I had admired the painting when I had visited The Floyd, the home of the Stanwood Historic Society. Richard Hanks, who was then the Executive Director graciously loaned it for the show.
In 2019 the featured artist was Elizabeth Campbell Warhanik (1880-1968). In A Fluid Tradition, that tells the story of the first seventy-five years of the Northwest Watercolor Society, David Martin, gives an overview of Warhanik.
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Moved to Seattle in 1907. Warhanik studied at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and earned a degree in classical literature. She studied painting with Charles Woodbury at Ogunquit, Maine. At the University of Washington, she studied with Walter Isaacs and Helen Rhodes, and privately with Paul Morgan Gustin and Edgar Forkner. Warhanik was one of Seattle’s most prominent early artists. She worked in oil, watercolor, and printmaking. In addition to being a longtime member of the NWWS, Warhanik was one of the founders and the first president of Women Painters of Washington.
I was surprised to learn of a personal connection I had to Warhanik. On January 4, 2019, Jenny and I spent an afternoon at Ed and Susan Nudelman’s home in Seattle. We knew them from when I served as Assistant Pastor at Green Lake Presbyterian Church in Seattle, 1997-2002.Jenny and I had a great time catching up with them. We fed their specialty ducks, talked family, art and books.Knowing my interest in watercolor, they showed us some of the paintings of Susan’s grandmother on her mother’s side who happened to be Elizabeth Warhanik. I was impressed with her bold watercolors, and to learn how she was a real player in Washington’s early art scene. When I asked if they would allow us to show a painting of Elizabeth’s at the 2019 Vintage show they said yes!
Susie shares more about her grandmother on this video:
In 2020 I wanted to celebrated Dad’s dear friend Mike Burns (1943-1991). They attended Seattle Pacific College together. Mike went on to get his BFA from the University of Washington (1966) and an MFA in Painting at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (1969). He worked as an illustrator for The Boeing Company, Cole and Webster Advertising and the Washington National Guard. He is known for his highly realistic and romantic, simple and striking compositions, of old abandoned farms, schoolhouses and other architectural relics in Eastern Washington and Oregon. He painted in his studio from photographs he had taken. He exhibited his luminous Wyethesque watercolors at prestigious venues like the Seattle Art Museum and are in collections at the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, France; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; New Orleans Museum of Art; Seattle Art Museum; and and University of Oregon Museum of Art, Eugene. I wondered where I would get my hands on one of his paintings.
Dad was a big help. He connected me to his friends and art collectors Ken and Sarah Sundin. They visited Dad’s studio in the 1970’s and purchased art. He was a teacher and she was a nurse. He had an interest in marine art because he was in the Coast Guard. They art lovers, passionate collectors of artwork. Over the years they collected artwork by their favorite artists including Carl Christopherson, Cooper Hart, and Mike Burns, who they knew as a friend. Before the March 2020 Vintage show I stopped by their home to pick up one of Mike’s paintings. We had a delightful talk and tour of their home which is something of a gallery filled with stunning artworks. It reminded me how integral patrons and collectors are to artists.
The 2021 Vintage show was canceled because of Covid. In 2022, internationally renowned painter William “Bill” Reese was in the spotlight. Bill worked in diverse mediums including oil, watercolor, etchings and sculpture. He was best known as one of America’s premier plein air artists painting in all kinds of weather and locations. His web site says,
“Born in South Dakota and raised in Central Washington, William F. Reese painted for over 50 years. Like most everyone he started drawing at age 3 or 4 but went on to begin painting in oil at 12. After high school Reese went to study fine art at Washington State College and then on to Art Center School of Design in Los Angeles. He worked as a sign painter and a sign pictorial artist for thirteen years, in Washington, Oregon, and California while he was building a following for his easel paintings. In 1971 he left the sign business to work full time in his studio in Bellevue, Washington, where he also taught privately the art of drawing and painting.”
Dad and I drove to the Reese’s home in Auburn where his widow Frances (everyone calls her “Fran”) welcomed us. It was amazing to tour her home and to see the masterpieces by Bill and other artists and to sit at her table and hear their story. She was preparing to move to Idaho and had to downsize, including the significant collection of Bill’s art, books and painting supplies. It was a reminder that every artist has a relatively short window of time to work hard at their craft. Time flies; days are numbered.
Was it worth the work?
For the past five years I’ve given lots of time to the Vintage Watercolorists of Washington project. I’ve interviewed artists, toured their studios, documented their stories, written articles about their life, promoted and hosted an annual show. It has been a lot of work. Was it worth it? My answer is a resounding YES for three reasons.
First, it has been a joy and privilege to honor Dad and his peers by displaying their beautiful art, telling their unique stories, and celebrating their rich contribution to the cultural life of Washington. I’m aware that the window to collect these stories is closing. I’m humbled by and thankful for each artist who gave me access to their home, life and heart. Being the son of Jack Dorsey opened doors but they had to let me in. I thankful for the privilege of that access.
Second, I’ve enjoyed tracing the tapestry of watercolor in Washington. Their lives and stories – our lives and stories, I should say for I’ve been delighted to find where the thread of my story interweaves with this tribe – are like colorful threads woven into a beautiful tapestry. It was fun to track familiar threads; like interviewing fellow Camano artists and Camano Art Association colleagues, John Ebner and John Ringen; to learn the stories of Nancy Axell and Sandy Langford who were both in the watercolor class I taught through Skagit Valley College in 1993; to visit Nancy Fulton’s home and studio and reminisce how we used to take tea and muffins at the Calico Cupboard in LaConner before painting plein air; to discover that a parishioner at my first church in Seattle was the granddaughter of Elizabeth Warhinik and visit her home to pick up one of her grandmother’s bold watercolors for the 2020 show; to spend time with Dad’s dear friend, Thomas William Jones, and climb the stairs to his studio where masterpieces that I’ve admired for decades were born. What a beautiful tapestry of community and collaboration, of collegiality and friendship, of culture building and creative brilliance watercolor in Washington is.
The third came as a surprise.
I was inspired artistically. Each artist taught me something. Each opened a window into watercolor. Each shared a vista by which I could consider my own artistic calling. And each, in their own way, nudged me towards taking painting seriously. I’m not planning on leaving pastoral ministry anytime soon; painting must remain a pastime. But I do embrace how integral painting is to my calling. I’ve been painting earnestly. For example, I set out to paint one watercolor a day in 2022 of scenes along the Sammamish Rivertrail. Thus far I’ve been able to keep up with that commitment. The daily work of painting has paid off in learning–or relearning–the fundamentals, mastering technique and forging my style.I hope this book inspires you too. My aim in writing is that the next generation of watercolor artists will take up the torch of this magical medium and contribute to the cultural riches of Washington just like these vintage watercolorists have.
You can pick up your copy of Vintage Watercolorists of Washington at the “Finale at the Floyd” event on Saturday, March 11th.
Jason, you took on a monumental task and completed it so successfully. I value your long friendship and that of your whole family. Congratulations on completing this long project with the culmination on March 11th at the Floyd Center in Stanwood WA. You made 20 Vintage Artists very honored to be a part of this group! Bravo! Jason and thank you for all the time and effort you have put in to this wonderful celebration of the 20 artists you chose to feature! Nancy Axell Covenant Shores Mercer Island WA.
Thanks so much Nancy for your kind words and support all the way along this journey!