Callahan, Kenneth (1905-1986)

  • By Delores Tarzan Ament
  • Posted 2/14/2003
  • Essay 5203

The Spokane-born painter Kenneth Callahan was one of the leading artists of the Pacific Northwest school. As a young painter he was exhibited in the First Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary Art at the Whitney Museum in New York. He subsequently was recognized in a breakthrough 1953 Life magazine article as one of the "Mystic Painters of the Northwest." He spent years working as a curator at the Seattle Art Museum, and when he was fired in 1952 (he had been using the museum as a studio, which a new curator found reprehensible), he continued painting and selling paintings from his studio on the south fork of the Stillaguamish River, near Granite Falls in Snohomish County. This biography of Kenneth Callahan is reprinted from Deloris Tarzan Ament's Iridescent Light: The Emergence of Northwest Art (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002).

Kenneth Callahan: Stable and Productive

Callahan was only 27 when in 1933 his work was included in the seminal First Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary Art at the Whitney Museum, in New York. In 1953, Life magazine dubbed him one of the four leading Pacific Northwest painters. He owed his emotional stability in no small part to the fact that he married well. At a time when other artists of his generation suffered through economic and relationship traumas, he enjoyed a stable and supportive home life and a job as curator at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) that gave him a measure of community prestige in addition to income. During the 1950s, he wrote art criticism for The Seattle Times. His honors included a Guggenheim Fellowship and a major retrospective at the Henry Art Gallery.

From Spokane to Montana

The son of John and Martha Ann Cross Callahan, Kenneth was born in Spokane on October 30, 1905, and spent his growing years in the small town of Glasgow, Montana. His propensity for art surfaced early. Encouraged by his mother, he began painting watercolors when he was seven, avoiding being beaten up for such "sissy stuff" only because a local Blackfoot Indian bronco riding champ, Ralph Breckenridge, also painted.

Western artist Charley Russell was an occasional visitor to Callahan's childhood home. Callahan recalled his mother dampening and ironing the cheesecloth-backed paintings in process that Charley carried in his backpack. Clearly, the artists in Callahan's young life did not hold a sense of preciousness about their work.

The young Callahan focused, naturally enough, on the people and scenes around him. His earliest pictures were scenes of working loggers done predominantly in shades of brown, in the style of social realism, which made heroic figures of working men. "Logging wasn't the subject at all," he later said. "It was the big rhythmic movement and two men dancing with each other" (Kenneth Callahan papers, 1-5).

San Francisco Days

The story of Callahan's earliest years as an artist was part of a reminiscence broadcast on California radio station KNBC in 1959, by a commentator unnamed in the surviving script. The commentator described memories of a building known as the Monkey Block, at the corner of Montgomery and Jackson streets, in San Francisco, in the late 1920s.

The narrator was the publisher of a children's magazine, which also was left unnamed. One day in 1926, his partner told him about an amazing young man named Kenneth Callahan whom he had found sitting on a grassy slope in the Presidio hills. The young man was an artist. He was hungry, and he had no place to sleep. After several months as a student at the University of Washington, he and two fellow students had struck out for California. With $100 among them, they had bought the gasping wreck of a Model T Ford, leaving themselves no money for food or gas. When their gas gave out, they stopped long enough for one of them to find a job for a day or two, to finance the next leg of the trip.

Somewhere between Sacramento and Oakland, the car died. They sold it for $2.50 -- enough to get into San Francisco, where they had parted ways. The publisher found Callahan sitting in the Presidio hills and invited him to the magazine office to draw an illustration for a story for the next issue. He paid Callahan enough to buy a meal and lodging for the night, and guided him to the Monkey Block, where Callahan got a room for $10 a month. Many other artists lived there. Their doors up and down the hall were usually open, and residents drifted from room to room, visiting.

Callahan had only one canvas, and he painted in oil. Almost every day, the publisher recalled, a different girl came across the bay from the University of California to pose for him. He worked quickly, painting a complete portrait each day. Then each night he scraped off the paint, put a fresh coat of white on his canvas, and was ready for the next day's portrait.

Callahan never sold a painting. He survived by doing occasional illustrations for the children's magazine and other commercial artwork that came his way.

His room became a favorite gathering place for artists to hold daily potlucks. One person would bring a loaf of bread; another, salami; someone else, a can of coffee (then priced from 15 cents to 20 cents a pound); and someone else, a gallon of red wine ($1 a gallon). Sometimes they had a can of beans. Half a dozen or more of them would gather there to make coffee in a coffee can on the one-burner gas hotplate, heat beans in another coffee can, and sit on the floor to eat, smoke, and "discuss life and art and our immortal souls" (Kenneth Callahan papers, 1-14).

Influences and Confluences

One day, Madame Galka Scheyer, a traveling art dealer from Europe, brought in a folio of prints and drawings by some daring new European artists, including Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Alexei von Jawlensky. She had brought them to the United States for a New York show. When the show closed, she had come to California to find a West Coast venue for them.

Callahan had never seen such art. He thought Klee a cartoonist, and Jawlensky a "strong-arm painter." He felt that total abstraction was a rejection of visual experience. But the art lingered in his mind, because the artists had given power and life to forms that had no reference to either humans or animals. "It was the first time it occurred to me that there could be good art that I didn't like," he later recalled (Tarzan).

His taste was for the elongated figures of El Greco and the work of turn-of-the-century Missouri artist Thomas Hart Benton, who painted preachers, racketeers, and striptease artists in rhythmic serpentine lines and contorted complexes of bulging muscles. Callahan's own work reflected many of those same qualities, but without Benton's overheated colors. Instead, he adopted the palette of the Ash Can School, a group that began as newspaper artists in Philadelphia and New York and that painted urban America as they found it, in dingy colors, replete with drunks and garbage.

At some point, Callahan obtained more painting surfaces than the single canvas with which he had started. In 1926, he had his first one-man show, at the Schwabacher-Frey Gallery in San Francisco. In 1927, he left San Francisco to go to sea as a ship steward -- the manner in which many young men with wanderlust and no money see the world.

Over the course of the next few years, he made trips across both the Atlantic and the Pacific. His first ocean voyage took him to Europe, where he visited museums in London, Paris, and Florence. There he discovered the art of Michelangelo, El Greco, Joseph Mallord Turner, and William Blake: "In William Blake, I found what I felt might be called a direct distinguished ancestor of mine" (Callahan, "Ruminations"). His maritime career ended when he was put ashore without pay in Waikiki for having engaged in a fistfight with another crew member. He slept on the beach and sold drawings to tourists until he was able to find working passage back to the United States and return to Seattle.

Home in Seattle

In 1930 he married Margaret Bundy, a compassionate intellectual and voracious reader who was editor of the Town Crier, a literary magazine published in Seattle between 1912 and 1937. The next year, the Callahans received a visit from Dr. Richard Fuller and his mother, Mrs. Eugene Fuller, enthusiastic Seattle art collectors who were in the early stages of building the Seattle Art Museum in Volunteer Park. The Fullers bought a number of Callahan's paintings, delighting him by paying him the then-princely sum of $500 (Callahan, "Ruminations"). The Callahans used the money for a six-month trip to Mexico, where Callahan found kindred spirits in the Mexican painters José Clemente Orozco and Rufino Tamayo, who made the daily life around them the straightforward focus of their work.

The couple returned to a settled life in Seattle, where Margaret had grown up. Their home provided a hearth and home-cooked meals to many of the region's artists through the 1930s and 1940s.

In 1933, when Dr. Richard Fuller launched the Seattle Art Museum, Callahan was hired as a half-time employee, on a schedule that allowed him time to paint. The low salary was consonant with Callahan's belief that "once you've got a job, you should limit it to making the minimum amount of money essential to living" (Callahan Papers, 1-14). After a year as museum assistant -- a job that could include any menial work around the museum -- he was promoted to assistant director, and three years later, to curator. As part of his museum job, he contributed a weekly art column to The Seattle Times. "Considering the amount of criticism I received, I was something less than a smashing success," he later said (Gray Interview).

The Seattle art community in those days was small and close-knit. Callahan recalled that he and Mark Tobey and Morris Graves used to go to the beach when the tide was out. Each one would make some flat arrangement with the driftwood and shells and seaweed they found, and the others would add something to it, to build it up. "Mark was very good at it, but Morris was extraordinary," he said. "When he added something to a piece it would immediately seem to gain a great deal of significance and beauty" (Kenneth Callahan papers, 1-5).

His work shared stylistic similarities with the work of Tobey and Graves -- broken forms, grayed colors, expressionistic brushwork, and a preference for tempera or gouache as a medium, along with a penchant for symbolism, and a spare aesthetic that owed more to Asian than to European art traditions. His mountain landscapes, drawn in ink on white paper, have much in common with Chinese brush paintings, which aim to capture the spirit of mountain grandeur rather than to replicate a precise geographical place.

Early Honors and Commissions

Callahan was 27 in 1933 -- the year his paintings were included in the First Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary Art at the Whitney Museum, in New York. Then as now, an invitation to be shown in the Whitney Biennial was the mark of being recognized as one of the nation's most promising up-and-coming artists. It was the first of four times his art was selected for inclusion in the exhibition. He also was represented in nine of the Whitney's annual exhibitions of American sculpture, watercolors, and drawings over the years.

In 1942, the year he won a commission to paint a mural for the post office in Rugby, North Dakota, Callahan took a second job. He hired on with the U.S. Forest Service for a one-man fire-lookout station in the Cascade Mountains. He returned to the job each summer, his "off-time from the museum," until the end of World War II. From his solitary time overlooking the mountains and forests, he produced a body of paintings that won critical praise in a 1946 exhibition at the American British Art Center in New York.

In the late 1940s, the panoramic landscapes he had been painting evolved into chaotic terrains of steep precipices and crystalline rocks that imprisoned tormented figures. Drawn in a filigree of ghostly white outlines, the figures appeared as disembodied spirits in a cataclysmic environment. Humanity seemed to be simultaneously melding into and evolving out of nature.

A Northwest Mystic Painter?

Callahan never considered himself a mystic, since he found his sources in nature and in the art of the past. Despite his own perceptions, however, it is easy to see mystic themes in his work. His figures seemed to strive for the divine on earth. He believed that "what most artists are trying to get at is the inner being of a person or thing, and how is it related to all other things and beings." When he worried because a New York critic had labeled him a mystic, he was advised not to worry about it but told, "If when you get back to Seattle you try to act like a mystic and paint like a mystic, then you will have to worry." (Callahan frequently quoted this advice over the years without identifying its author.)

Callahan once explained to a Boston audience:

“Seeing is the thing, seeing with the inner eye and the outer eye, seeing in the maximum possible degree the visual world around me, the flux of life, the process of forming, growth, disintegration, death, repeated in all forms. The repetition of kinds of form, movement, designs, patterns. You find this in all things, in the flow of water, sand patterns, wind currents, the muscles of men and horses.”

In many of his mid-career paintings, forms float and move in relation to each other, now crystallizing to suggest an image, now dissolving as the components drift into the suggestion of other forms. It is, Callahan said, really the way we see life.

In 1946, Francis Henry Taylor, director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote that he believed Callahan to be "probably the most American painter of our time" (Callahan chronology, Callahan papers, 1-15). In 1950, his career accelerated even further when his work was included in American Painting of Today, a major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum.

Callahan frequently offered the opinion that there is nothing a human being can do that is of greater consequence than being a painter. He believed that painting is a language through which an artist can express his consciousness of life in its broadest sense and can "make concrete the essences of things, that eternal truthfulness and permanence that lies below the surfaces of life and objects."

Making the Unseeable Manifest

Sensing relationships between man and nature and making them visible on canvas may not have translated in Callahan's own mind as mysticism, but it unquestionably qualifies. He made the unseeable manifest by painting an energy field surrounding figures, catching each in a vortex of vibrant light. His horses appear to be translucent spirit animals, connected with the animistic idea behind Horse. If he showed a man on horseback, it seemed a conveyance for a journey to reunion with the divine. He believed that there was no such thing as suitable or unsuitable subject matter; no degrees of abstraction or realism especially suited or unsuited to producing a work of art.

Politics v. Art

In 1948, Callahan entered a competition to paint murals for the Washington State Capitol Building, the Senate, and the State House of Representatives in Olympia. His proposal for the rotunda dome depicted the seven days of the creation of the world according to Genesis. He was paid $350 for ten sketches, which were kept and hung in legislative offices, although neither his entries nor any others were popular with lawmakers, who had hoped for historic scenes of Indians handing salmon to pioneers. In the end, no murals were commissioned, and the funds that were to have paid for them were somehow "misplaced."

During the years he worked at Seattle Art Museum, Callahan received job offers from three other museums. He declined not simply out of loyalty to Dr. Fuller, but because he wanted to be a painter, not a museum professional. Working at SAM allowed him to keep that priority intact.

With Dr. Fuller's permission, Callahan had a painting studio adjacent to the museum auditorium -- an area that later became the workshop of museum photographer Paul Macapia. Although Callahan carried the title of curator, much of his job still involved the physical act of crating and uncrating art and taking down and installing paintings and sculpture. In an era when traveling exhibitions were few and far between, those duties were relatively light, leaving Callahan ample time to paint.

It was his practice to put up the summer show in May, then take three summer months off to paint in his studio cabin on the south fork of the Stillaguamish River, near Granite Falls. That schedule worked for as long as Sherman Lee (1918-2008) was the museum's associate director. (Lee joined SAM as assistant director in 1948, and was associate director by the time he left in 1952 to head the Cleveland Museum of Art.) When Lee left in 1952, Dr. Fuller hired Millard Rogers (d. 1987) to replace him. Rogers, with a Ph.D. in art history, had taught at Stanford and chaired the Art Department at the University of Southern California. (He left SAM in 1961 to teach at the University of Washington, where he founded the program in art history.)

Appalled at the sight of a museum staffer using the facilities as a private studio, Rogers prevailed upon Dr. Fuller to fire Callahan. Callahan received the letter terminating his job while he was at his Granite Falls studio. Dr. Fuller's letter was accompanied by a check for two months' salary. Callahan's son, Brian, recalled that his father "was less shocked than outraged," not so much because the letter maintained that Callahan had no real expertise as a curator as because Dr. Fuller chose to fire him by mail (Orton and Watkinson).

His departure is said to have left many of the other museum staffers relieved. Although he was pleasant and thoughtful in conversation, Callahan was fully capable of being cranky and opinionated on a variety of topics.

Ironically, his loss of the museum job coincided with his recognition in Life magazine (in an article titled "Mystic Painters of the Pacific Northwest" published in 1953) as one of four notable Northwest mystic painters, complete with a color picture. Callahan liked the article very much, and liked being included in the company of Mark Tobey and Morris Graves. Privately, however, he thought Guy Anderson should not have been included (Ament Interview with Neil Meitzler).

"Fortunately I was fired from the museum, and I have to thank Dr. Fuller for this as I could have gone on under the shelter of a salary for an even longer period than I did," he wrote later. He also said, "I did not trust myself to depend on sales without risk of becoming an artist who looked at his art as a commodity, succumbing to the tendency to produce the kind of pictures I believed the art public wanted from me" (Callahan to Fifi Caner).

In 1954, Callahan applied for and was granted a Guggenheim Fellowship, which he used for travel to Europe, to visit great museums.

Over the years, he supplemented his earnings from the sale of his paintings by teaching. He had a few accomplished students, most notably Neil Meitzler and Yvonne Humber. He was a visiting artist at Syracuse University, Pennsylvania State University, Boston University, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and the University of Southern California.

Callahan worked as art critic for The Seattle Times from 1954 to 1959. He was made an associate member of the International Association of Art Critics -- the only Seattle arts writer ever to achieve that distinction. "He was a good, thoughtful, careful reviewer," according to Gervais Reed, a lecturer in art history at the University of Washington (Press Release, 1986). Reed had met Callahan in the mid-1950s, when he (Reed) was a curator at the Henry Art Gallery.

All of that was secondary, in Callahan's mind, to painting. His line could be as broad as a furrow or as delicate as a cobweb. In the 1960s, a series of India ink drawings on water-splattered paper included some remarkable renderings of insects, which stand among his most memorable works.

Callahan worked in series, exploring the facets and possibilities of a theme as if mining a lode of ore. The Crystalline World series of the 1950s gave way to a notable series of Birds and Dancers, and another of Horses and Riders. His figures combined the sculptural presence and heavy hips and thighs of Michelangelo's figures with the elongated distortions familiar in the paintings of El Greco. Callahan layered colors and figures in such rich profusion that some emerge only after hours of studying one of his more complex canvases.

Fire, Destruction, and Loss

Callahan's life changed tempo when Margaret died of cancer in 1961. Two years later, fire destroyed his Granite Falls studio, taking with it many of his paintings. The Callahans had built the cabin together, on a 145-acre parcel of land they had bought in 1946. They had split the cabin's cedar shakes from trees on the land. Callahan was visiting a village near Mainz, in Germany, when he got the news of the cabin's fiery destruction, which carried with it many of his paintings. These events signaled the end of a phase of his life. It was time for a fresh beginning.

In 1964, he married Beth Inge Gottfriedsen, the Danish-born practical nurse who had cared for Margaret, and for Callahan's father-in-law in his last illness. Kenneth and Beth moved to a house on the ocean at Long Beach. Rolling grassy dunes led from the house to the beach.

His new canvases echoed the seaweed and random flotsam washed onto the beach, rendered with a loose dark sweep of the brush blotted with a crumpled rag to pick up random fragments of wet paint, a trick learned years earlier from Neil Meitzler. Callahan overpainted the resulting voids to suggest the presence of fleeting, ghostly forms that emerge and change, dissolving into the shadows of other shapes. In the background, vivid orange whorls might swoop across the sky. Flecked explosions of color imply the penetration of another dimension.

"I customarily start with a large loose abstract pattern in color, gradually evolving this into particular form and character, working it both wet and dry," he said. "I produce a great deal. I must also destroy a great deal of work" (Kenneth Callahan papers, 1-15).

His studio walls were always lined with works in progress. It was not uncommon for him to put away an unfinished painting that was not progressing to his satisfaction, and return to it a few years later. Perhaps that was why Callahan rarely dated his paintings.

In 1972, he was commissioned to design sets and costumes for a Seattle Repertory Theater production of Macbeth. In 1973, the Henry Art Gallery mounted a major retrospective exhibition of his work. The show's catalog, titled Universal Voyage, contained an interview edited by Michael R. Johnson, who was at that time Callahan's dealer. It was the most comprehensive exhibition of Callahan's work ever mounted. In January 1976, the Foster/White Gallery mounted an exhibition publicized as "Callahan's first major one-man show in a Seattle gallery in over 20 years" -- 15 oil on paper drawings and 20 tempera paintings.

Callahan at Longacres

That same year, he accepted an invitation from an art patron who admired the way he painted horses: Morrie Alhadeff (1914-1994), who headed Longacres race track, invited him to watch the horses' morning workouts on the back stretch. Callahan was thrilled with the experience, possibly because being in the presence of so many fine horses carried associations from his Montana boyhood.

He went to Longacres every morning for weeks. He sketched energetically, producing two series of gouache and oil paintings from his sketches. One series focused on horses in the backstretch, and the other on the color and excitement of races in progress. Alhadeff was so delighted with the results that he dedicated a private dining room of the Turf Club to showcasing Callahan's work.

Doldrums at SAM

After such recognition, a 1979 Callahan exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum was disappointing. Announced as a retrospective, it was called simply a "major exhibition" after its December opening. Dr. Fuller had died in 1976 after a long siege of Parkinson's disease. Without his financial support, the museum was undergoing a difficult financial transition. One of the casualties was the museum's publication budget. No catalog, not even a modest monograph, was issued in conjunction with Callahan's show.

Seattle businessman and art collector Bagley Wright (1924-2011) had taken on the job of interim director of the museum in the late fall of 1979, after Willis Woods resigned the job subsequent to a heart attack. It was a disjointed time in the museum's history, and that was reflected in the weak mounting of the Callahan exhibition. Henry Trubner, the museum's head curator at the time, was a scholar of Chinese art. Charles Cowles, curator of contemporary art, knew New York art intimately but had scant interest in older Northwest artists such as Callahan.

Later Years

In his later years, Callahan was a familiar figure walking the ocean beach behind his home, a trim man with a short Vandyke beard, wearing a navy seaman's watch cap, picking up curious pieces of kelp or the odd bird skull to study. His studio was a wonderland of driftwood and rocks fetched in from the beach and woods, and winged creatures in lucite boxes. A microscope might be left focused on a choice pattern in a rock so that he could pause on his way past to look at it now and then.

Anyone meeting Callahan in his later years would likely have been struck by his restless hands, ceaselessly picking up and moving small items, picking at his fingernails, caressing the arms of a chair, stirring the air as he spoke rapidly. He believed firmly that "every artist needs a maximum of ego and a minimum of conceit." He said, "I think the greatest tribute anyone can give an artist is to say his or her art has given added meaning to their lives" (Callahan to LaMar Harrington).

When Callahan died on May 8, 1986, the Seattle Art Museum exhibited a dozen of his paintings from the museum's permanent collection in the Activities Room, which is not usually devoted to the display of art. It was a minimal gesture to a man whose life had been bound up with the museum for so many of its formative years, and whose art had been so long and so consistently recognized in New York's major museums.


Editor's note: Callahan's birth date, October 30, 1905, has been corrected from information obtained from the Social Security Death Index available at ( and elsewhere. The birth date fluctuates from 1905 to 1907 from source to source. Kenneth Callahan papers in the Archives of Northwest Art, University of Washington Libraries; Jane Estes, "What's Behind the Magic Brush of Kenneth Callahan?" The Seattle Times, Sunday, November 12, 1978, p. 8; Kenneth Callahan papers, 1-15, Archives of Northwest Art; Deloris Tarzan, "Callahan: Our Greatest Painter?" The Seattle Times, January 25, 1976; Kenneth Callahan, "Ruminations," Puget Soundings, May 1965, p. 19; Thomas Orton and Patricia Grieve Watkinson, Kenneth Callahan (Seattle: Museum of Northwest Art and the University of Washington Press, 2001), p. 17; Deloris Tarzan Ament Interview with Maxine Cushing Gray, Northwest Arts, October 15, 1976, p. 1; Callahan chronology, Kenneth Callahan papers, 1-15, Archives of Northwest Art; "Mystic Painters of the Pacific Northwest," Life, September 28, 1953; Deloris Tarzan Ament Interview with Neil Meitzler, June 12, 1999; Kenneth Callahan to Fifi Caner, November 13, 1964, Kenneth Callahan papers, 1-2, Archives of Northwest Art; Press release for memorial exhibition, Seattle Art Museum, May 14, 1986; Kenneth Callahan to LaMar Harrington, Henry Art Gallery.

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