Martin, James (1928-2020)

  • By Sheila Farr
  • Posted 2/08/2013
  • Essay 10308

For much of the 1970s-1990s, James Martin was pigeonholed as an eccentric character who collected eggbeaters, lived in a funky hand-built house, and made cartoonish paintings. Yet at the beginning of Martin's painting career, in the late 1950s and 1960s, he was praised by critics and sought out by serious collectors. His work hung alongside paintings by the cream of Northwest artists in shows at Seattle Art Museum and was purchased by the likes of Mark Tobey, SAM founder Richard Fuller (1897-1976), and actor Charles Laughton (1899-1962). The odd trajectory of Martin’s career traces back to the death of his first art dealer, Otto Seligman (1890-1966), and to a drinking problem that made Martin difficult to work with. It involves some odd twists of fate, a debilitating illness, and a sensitive personality torn between creative aspirations and a blue-collar work ethic that condemned such leanings as trivial. In the 1990s art critic Sheila Farr (b. 1951), began researching a book on Martin. At that time he had no documentation of his paintings, no resume detailing his exhibition history, no records of the whereabouts of his work, and no bibliography of his reviews. To coincide with publication of the book, the Museum of Northwest Art, La Conner, invited Farr to curate a retrospective of Martin's work, which opened in September 2000 and helped reignite appreciation for an artist whose life and paintings are deeply entwined in Northwest art history. This essay is adapted from Farr’s book James Martin: Art Rustler at the Rivoli (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000).

Growing Up Working Class

Metaphors may have come naturally to James Martin, but making art went against his primary values. He grew up in a railroad family, where hard work, frugality, and earning a decent wage were a man's main concerns. His father, Wilfred Scott Martin (1896-1973), was an engineer for the Great Northern railroad, as was his father's father, Francis S. Martin, before him. Francis died at the age of 39, a victim of the great Wellington train disaster that took the lives of 98 men, women, and children in 1910. Two trains -- Francis was the engineer on No. 25 -- were waiting outside the old Cascade Tunnel for snow to be cleared, when a massive avalanche engulfed them. After his father's death, Wilfred was offered a job by Great Northern so that he could support his mother and siblings. He was 15. Later he served in the Marine Corps during World War I and, in his 30s, married Isabel Laughton (1899-1949) -- a Canadian who claimed to be a distant relative of actor Charles Laughton. The couple settled in a tiny rental house in Everett. 

Their first child, Irene, was born April 1, 1927 (d. 1995), and a year later, on April 7, 1928, a son, James Edward. When the children were in elementary school, the family moved to Ballard, closer to Wilfred's work at the railway station at Interbay. Jim attended Washington Irving Elementary and James Monroe Jr. High. While at Monroe, he spent a week at reform school for stealing a car with his buddies. "It wasn't the only one we took for a ride," he recalled with a glint of pride, "but I didn't always get caught" (Farr). During his sophomore year at Ballard High, Martin dropped out and went to work as an apprentice mechanic at William O. McKay Ford. One of his teachers, though, refused to give up on him.

A Misfit Kid

It was Orre Nobles (1894-1967), an eclectic artist and designer whose family ran a private resort on Hood Canal, where, in the summers, a salon of artists, intellectuals, and celebrities would congregate. As a teacher at Ballard High, Nobles developed a knack for spotting misfit kids with a bent for creativity. He helped nurture the artistic sensibilities of several teenagers who would later become well-known Northwest artists. Richard Gilkey (1925-1997), Art Hansen (b. 1929), and Jack Stangle (1927-1980) all passed through Nobles's classroom. 

After Martin dropped out of school, Nobles contacted the teenager's parents. "He convinced my folks to send me back," Martin says, "and for a while I would stay all day in his class, cutting linoleum blocks, doing stuff like that. I liked his honesty" (Farr). For one assignment, Martin designed and made a linoleum-cut print, which Nobles used for his personal stationery. Martin set up a small art studio in the basement coal-room at home and began spending his spare time down there. 

But even Noble's art lessons weren't enough to keep Martin interested in school. He began cutting class and hanging around downtown Seattle with a pal. Soon he dropped out again. "I was just a big dumb thug," he recalled. "I became a troublesome son to the family. My dad said, 'You gotta get a job'" (Farr). So Martin picked up work at auto wrecking yards for a while, and eventually, with his parents' prodding, finished his high school degree at the YMCA about the age of 20. After his mother's death from cancer, Martin attended the University of Washington, encouraged by his father to train for a solid profession as an engineer or architect. 

College and After

Martin tried at first to please his father, but he didn't have an aptitude for math. He enrolled in a life drawing class and set up his easel so close to the nude young woman model that the teacher admonished him, "Mr. Martin, you'll have to move back. Your view will be foreshortened." Among his assorted art classes, Martin signed up for creative writing with the novelist Walter van Tilburg Clark (1909-1971), author of The Oxbow Incident, then a guest professor at UW. Clark's influence steered Martin toward literature and he received his Bachelor of Arts degree in English on June 13, 1953. 

After he graduated, Martin hoped to make it as a writer. With expectations soaring, he sent out work to the best magazines. When the inevitable rejection notices came back, he was crushed. To support himself, he found work as a patternmaker at Boeing. Martin was good at the work, but, as in his days at Ballard High, not too consistent about attendance. The day his boss told him, "You know, Mr. Martin, you're a good worker when you're here, but you have a lot of absences," turned out to be Martin's last day at Boeing.

Becoming a Painter

Adept at making things and still painting, Martin decided to look for a job as a picture framer. The frame shop at Frederick & Nelson took him on and Martin soon got acquainted with Louise Gilbert (1900-1987), who ran the Little Gallery on the 9th floor. Gilbert asked to see Martin's paintings, and began including them in exhibits. Around that time, Martin submitted a piece to the Northwest Annual, the Seattle Art Museum's prestigious juried exhibition. The year was 1955 -- just two years after a Life magazine feature crowned Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Guy Anderson, and Kenneth Callahan as  "The mystic painters of the Northwest." Martin was accepted into the SAM show, and there he was, just like that, in the company of many of the region's most esteemed painters. There's no doubt Martin's work stood out. Among dreamy titles such as Moon over Water Hemlock, Approaching Storm, Twilight, and Lunar Pines, Martin's painting was called Radio Active Rat

Martin soon moved on from Frederick & Nelson and continued his framing career at J. K. Gill, where art dealer Zoe Dusanne (1874-1972) -- who marketed paintings by Kandinsky, Klee, Picasso, Dufy, and Picabia, among others -- sent her work. The exotic Dusanne made a big impression: "She was always dressed in lavender," Martin remembered. "Even her hair was lavender" (Farr). Then he switched again, to a job at Pacific Picture Frame, now Larson-Juhl, where Martin again had a chance to further his art education. "We did the framing for the museum ... I was really lucky, because I saw such wonderful pictures: a Vlaminck came in once, and there were all these beautiful Persian miniatures" (Farr).

Meanwhile, Martin haunted the museums and galleries and became a familiar face to art dealer Otto Seligman, whose shop was in a suite at the University district's Wilsonian Hotel. Under the guidance of Tobey, Seligman invited Martin to join the gallery. Martin recalled: "I'd go in with some drawings, unframed work, just paper, and Tobey would throw it all on the floor and go through it. He would buy a few, for $15. a piece. I asked Tobey: 'How do you price paintings?' And he said, 'Zero to a thousand'" (Farr).

Early Work

Martin had his first show at the Seligman Gallery in January 1958, with another painter, Virginia Kobler (1925 -2009). Both Seattle dailies reviewed the exhibit and gave Martin top billing. A Seattle Post-Intelligencer critic wrote, "The facile, humorous work of Martin is the best part of the show. The Martin drawings are appealing evidence this young painter will be very good indeed when his eye becomes as adult as his hand." Writing for The Seattle Times, Kenneth Callahan liked Martin's drawings more than his paintings, finding one series "excellent -- alive and vital -- in contrast to another group ... which are more decorative and superficially elegant." Both reviews noted the influence of Morris Graves on Martin's paintings.

Martin still remembers vividly the first Graves he ever saw: the 1950 Bird Calling Down a Hole. "It stimulated my imagination," Martin said. "Graves had a natural gift, but he broke some rules. He borrowed heavily from Eastern art, but he brought his own ideas to it" (Farr). The two artists never met, but, many years later, after Graves settled in Northern California, they would carry on an erratic correspondence, exchanging small gifts.

In many of his early paintings, Martin aspired to something like Graves's heightened visions of the natural world or Tobey's figures from Pike Place market scenes. But no matter how hard Martin tried to emulate the older Northwest artists, somehow he just couldn't get the mystic thing right. Martin -- who also counts Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger as heroes -- believes humor is the ultimate reality. "If you fall into the tragic trap," he says, "you've got to pick up and laugh at it. But before you can laugh at tragedy, you've got to experience it" (Farr).

A Painter of Plastic Wit

With Seligman guiding his career, and Tobey validating the work, Martin got lots of attention during those early years. He was regularly accepted into the Northwest Annual, as well as Northwest Watercolor Society annual exhibits at the Seattle Art Museum. Portland arts patron Arlene Schnitzer (b. 1929), saw Martin's work, tracked him down and invited him to join her new Fountain Gallery. He was getting plenty of ink in the newspapers, too, mostly praise. Seattle Times critic Tom Robbins (b. 1932) reviewed Martin's work in 1963, dubbing him "Puget Soundom's foremost exponent of plastic wit" and finding his "Chagall-like temperas" to be "delicately colored and fraught with fantasy." Robbins also noted Martin's wildly imaginative titles, singling out, among others, Flying with the Aid of a Saucepan, and Ghost of the Bearded Queen. He concluded his review with a pronged compliment: "One hopes that someday some modern will write a book worthy of Martin's illustration. As clever as he is with titles, perhaps he'll write it himself."

In 1971, when Robbins published his first novel, Another Roadside Attraction, Martin noticed that the book's distinctive opening words, "The magician's underwear," matched the title of a big Martin painting called Chapter II: The Magician's Underwear, which had been exhibited in SAM's 1964 Northwest Annual. To Martin, Robbins's inspiration was no accident. He wrote a letter to the The Seattle Times, saying "As a Northwest artist, one of many others who awaited criticism or praise by this former reviewer, I would like to turn the tables once and become the critic briefly." He accused Robbins of filching his title. The letter was published and Robbins fired back a heated reply to Martin, denying it. 

After his mother's death from cancer in 1949, Martin had taken to drinking. For a while, when he was working at Boeing, Martin rented an apartment behind the Wiggen & Sons Funeral Home and Crematorium in Ballard. He trashed the place. One night when he'd misplaced his key, he ripped the door off to get in -- and never put it back. Then he moved up to Edmonds, not too far from the secluded plot of forest where Morris Graves had built a house. In the mid-1960s, Martin bought the only piece of property he could afford, a cheap parcel of swampland off the main highway, where he built a funky place he dubbed The Donald Duck Ranch.

It was there in Edmonds that Martin encountered Helen Reynolds (1914–1995), a commercial photographer who ran a successful business downtown. Reynolds was more than a dozen years older than Martin, but the two had an immediate rapport. It wasn't long before the young artist "just kind of moved in with her" -- an arrangement that lasted until Reynold's death of cancer in 1995. 

Painting Lions and Others

In February 1966, Otto Seligman died and Seligman's assistant, Francine Seders (b. 1932), took over the gallery. Martin had one show after she took over the gallery, in 1967. Then another artist from the Seligman stable, Windsor Utley, (1920-1989) opened his own gallery downtown, across from the Moore Theatre on 2nd Avenue, and Martin began showing his work there. 

One day in 1967, William E. Boeing Jr. was looking for a special gift for his daughter, Gretchen, on her birthday. He decided to commission a piece from Martin, who painted  Lion with Moveable Tail. That lion became a recurrent image in Martin's work, an alter ego for the artist, inspired by a Guy Anderson lion painting Martin saw and admired at the Seattle Art Museum. 

By the early 1970s, Martin had given up painting the anonymous farmers and peasant-women of Tobey's market scenes and entered his Chagall phase, borrowing the European mystic's floating forms and depicting himself, Helen, and other people he encountered in his daily life. 

Days of Purple Skies

Those days were the peak of Martin's glory days as a painter. But without Seligman's devotion to his work and careful business sense, Martin was out of his element in the art world. His hard-drinking and inept professional behavior began to take a toll on his career, his relationships, and his health. Martin got strep throat, which he ignored until he was really sick. After a shot of penicillin he apparently had a severe allergic reaction and he recalls spending the next year basically lying on the couch at Helen's house. "I was numb on one side, the whole side of my body, like when your leg goes to sleep, but all the way up," Martin said. "And when I'd look up at the sky, it was always purple. There was a purple haze over everything" (Farr).

If nothing else, being sick forced the artist -- by then about 40 -- to take some time for introspection. It was a sobering experience. After Martin was up and back to painting, he never had another drink.

Actors and Acrobats, Freaks and Floozies

The painters of the Northwest School still inspired Martin and he pulled ideas from European modernism and the New York art scene, but the real source of Martin's mature style, which began to emerge in the 1970s, traces back to his days at Ballard High. Martin would cut class with a buddy and head downtown to the Rivoli Theatre on 1st Avenue to watch the burlesque shows. "I used to sit up front and look at those torn and dirty costumes," he recalled. "Even the women had costumes that were torn and dirty; and they all had red hair, even the clown. Some of them were hookers, I think. We were just voyeurs" (Farr).

Once Martin began to trust himself as an artist, the surrealism of those shows percolated into his paintings. Now when Martin painted a Northwest scene, it was likely to be peopled with freaks and floozies. Mysticism turned to silly putty in his hands. 

Comedy in a Painter's Eye

Over the years the style of Martin's work, his way of applying paint, changed considerably. His earliest paintings, from the 1950s, are the most delicately rendered and refined. During the 1960s, Martin turned his focus to storytelling and began to patch together his myriad influences into a unique manner of expression: he moved to bigger paintbrushes and bolder strokes. In the 1970s his imagery unraveled into a sketchy jumble of figures or architectural forms almost tauntingly incoherent, with bare, unbleached paper showing through watery paint. During those years Martin exhibited at the Gordon Woodside Gallery (later Woodside/Braseth),  then in the late 1980s, began showing at Foster/White Gallery. Since the 1980s, Martin's brushwork became more concise, his colors wilder and more saturated, and he worked exclusively on brown utility paper that was anything but archively correct.

He remained fond of the self-portrait and liked to tinker with compositions and the relationship of objects, employing a cast of actors and acrobats, freaks and floozies, artists and friends to act out his comedies. Casual as the pictures may seem, Martin created his imagery with a sophisticated eye and a poet's ability to extract the essence from every scene he encounterd. 


This essay was adapted from Sheila Farr, James Martin: Art Rustler at the Rivoli (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000); Sheila Farr interviews and telephone conversations with James Martin, 1997-2000; Otto Seligman Gallery Records, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Seattle, Washington; Orre Nobles papers, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Seattle; "Second Show," Seattle Post Intelligencer, January 1958; Kenneth Callahan, "Cartoons at Frye Are Special Kind of Art" The Seattle Times, January 12, 1958, p. 7; Thelma Lehmann "Separate Art Styles Joined in Exhibit," Seattle Post-Intelligencer March 27, 1962; Tom Robbins, "At Seligman’s Gallery, It's 'Otto in Wonderland,'" The Seattle Times, June 16, 1962, p. 23; Life, September 28, 1953, Vol. 35, p. 84; Anne G. Todd, "Martin Paintings Strange But Genial," The Seattle Times, October 5, 1966, p.6; Ann Faber, "The Wonderful World Of Artist James Martin," Seattle Post Intelligencer, May 21, 1965, p. 23; Jean Batie, "Martin’s Lions in Plain Brown Wrappers," The Seattle Times, October 20, 1968, p. 113; James  Martin letter, "From the Mailbag," The Seattle Times, May 23, 1971, p. 56.

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