42 The Journal
Senior Lifestyles • October 5, 2010
Local artist has thriving career at age 91 By Katherine Luck
Alden Mason has been many things in his life: university professor, painter, mentor and world traveler. This year, at age 91, he is the focus of two major art shows being held in Everett and Seattle. An internationally renowned artist, Mason lives at the Ballard Landmark Retirement Community, located not far from his art studio. Though confined to a wheelchair and affected by exposure to toxins in his paints, Mason’s career as an artist is thriving. Born in Everett in 1919, Mason’s early days didn’t point to a career as a professional artist. “I grew up in the Skagit Valley on a farm with 30 head of cattle that had to be milked every day,” he recalled. He also had bad eyesight that went undiagnosed Seattle Art Museum will exhibit Alden Mason’s for years, giving him a blurry notion work beginning in November, including of the world around him. “Billy” (1986). He was introduced to art while in school. “The person next to me was drawing these wonderful figures — funny of the images of fruitful plants found in figures jumping around. I asked him, ‘How’d the Burpee seed catalogs that were popular you learn to do that?’ He said he’d sent away in the farm country of Mason’s childhood. for a cartoon drawing course. So I — against “They show pumpkins as big as a house. my better judgment — used some money to They almost make a joke out of it,” Mason buy some art supplies. This was the Depres- explained. The young artist then suggested sion, remember.” When the mail order art that Mason name the painting series after supplies arrived, “I sat in the stairwell and the seed catalog. “I said, ‘People will think got some cardboard and that was my first I have acid reflux!’” he recalled. “I finally agreed, and it was the best thing I ever did.” painting experience,” he recalled. Later in life, Mason was forced to give up When Mason enrolled in the University of Washington, he initially majored in zo- painting with oils due to an allergic reacology due to the urging and monetary con- tion to the paint fumes. He began using tribution of a relative. When he switched acrylics, which altered his style but not his his major to art, he lost his relative’s good artistic influences. Birds in particular have will and financial support. He worked in a figured prominently in his art throughout boarding house to pay his way through col- the decades; especially what he calls the lege, receiving a BFA in 1942 and an MFA “spirit bird.” “When I was in New Guinea for four in 1947. Mason became an instructor at the UW weeks, [the locals] were telling a story,” he School of Art two years later. He gradually recalled. “All of a sudden, a bird sang outestablished a reputation for himself, both side. They all jumped up with their bows locally and nationally. Though his style and arrows and rushed outside. It was midevolved over the decades, the natural world night. … They told me, ‘That was a spirit remained one of his greatest influences, he bird that brings a message from the dead to the living.’” said. Following that incident, Mason began In the 1970s, Mason began experimenting with watercolors and oils and hit upon incorporating his idea of what a spirit bird a style that brought him unparalleled rec- might look like into his paintings. “I never ognition. His Burpee Garden series of saw the spirit bird. I only heard it,” he said, paintings got its unusual name when “a looking down at his wheelchair. “That idea young artist came out here and saw the of free flying became important to me. I paintings. He said they were very organic didn’t realize some day I’d be like this. The and cellular,” Mason explained. Continued on page 43 > The abstract paintings were reminiscent
The Journal • Senior Lifestyles
sharing Mason’s studio, she’s been told that some people see his influence in her art. However, “Someone said ‘I can kind of see where you’ve influenced Alden a little bit,’” she said. Mason and Simonson have been featured in an exhibition together once before in Yakima. Mason recalled overhearing someone saying to Simonson during the exhibit, “‘I know Alden is supposed to be the important artist, but I like your work more.’ I said, ‘That’s nice!’ I can afford to give a little away.” Mason will be on his own for an upcoming exhibit at Seattle Art Museum (SAM), opening Nov. 6 and running for nearly a
Photo by Katherine Luck
Painters Alden Mason and Karen Simonson share an art studio in Ballard and a special friendship. < Continued from page 42
ability to walk is marvelous.”
Mentoring the next generation
Today, Mason’s apartment home is dominated by a selection of his paintings, which hang on the walls alongside art and handicrafts from his travels to Africa, Mexico and New Guinea. Though he can no longer walk, he can still paint. And he does so thanks to some dedicated younger artists with whom he shares his Ballard art studio. One of them, Karen Simonson, considers Mason her mentor. She met him through a drawing and painting program she was taking at the University of Washington Extension in 2005. She learned that Mason’s work can be seen at museums around the Puget Sound, including the Henry Art Gallery, Tacoma Art Museum and the Mu-
seum of Northwest Art, as well as in public spaces such as McCaw Hall, the King County Administration Building and the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Seattle. “When I first met Alden, he pointed me to all these places. When I met him, I didn’t understand the body of his work,” she said. It wasn’t long before she decided to become his assistant. This fall, Simonson is doing more than sharing a studio with Mason: The two are currently sharing an exhibit at the Arts Council of Snohomish County Gallery in Mason’s birth town of Everett. “All the paintings I’ve done [that are] at the show were done at the studio,” she said. Like Mason, Simonson’s style involves inventive ways of mixing media, layering acrylics and oils to create unusual shapes and forms on the canvas. Since she began
“Moments: Alden Mason, Steve Klein and Karen Simonson” is on exhibit through Nov. 4 at 1507 Wall St. in Everett. Visit www.artscouncilofsnoco.org/gallery.html for more information.
October 5, 2010 43 year. The installation will feature Mason’s work from SAM’s collection, which spans almost his entire career. When asked which of his works he’d select for this retrospective exhibit, Mason said he doesn’t know. He’s not sure that an artist should pick the work for their own show. “There are four or five kinds of paintings that I’ve done in my life. There are some masterpieces out there that have never been seen,” he said. Even as he looks forward to his upcoming show at SAM, Mason can’t resist “giving a little away” to Simonson. “For people who want to start a collection, the prices of her paintings are so low,” he said.