“How can you understand an artist's work if you don't understand their life?” posits David F. Martin: freelance curator, historian, activist and author.
The same can be said for Martin’s recent book, “The Lavender Palette: Gay Culture and the Art of Washington State,” which explores how gay and lesbian artists influenced the Pacific Northwest’s art scene in the early 20th century. To better understand this book and its impact, it helps to understand the author/historian behind it.
Martin is a self-taught freelance curator and historian. In 1981 he moved to Phoenix with his partner and began volunteering at a gay support hotline in his free time. Martin soon became president of this hotline, where they began receiving calls about what some people were then describing as “gay pneumonia.” These calls became so numerous that Martin started a new, separate hotline for what would eventually become known as AIDS. Martin sometimes appeared on TV as well, working to help educate the public about the crisis.
And then the KKK firebombed the hotline’s office, twice. They made it very clear that if anybody involved in the hotline valued their lives, they’d get out of town.
So Martin moved to Seattle.
“This is my life I’m writing about. I’ve lived through these times,” he explained about “The Lavender Palette.” “I really started being infuriated with people who had no connection talking for me, talking about our lives. I feel like, if you want to know this history, you should hear it from a gay person.” So Martin set out to curate “The Lavender Palette” exhibition several years ago and write the first study of how gay and lesbian artists helped to shape a region’s culture.
Martin says often if an artist didn’t have family or children, they’d “disappear” completely with time. And when it comes to gay and lesbian artists, after they died, embarassed families might tamper with their legacies. “They took their love letters and destroyed them or threw them out, and anything to do with the art that looked like homosexuality or whatever, they would destroy them. We were really lucky here in the Northwest that a lot of the artists’ families didn’t do that.”
In his work, and in the book “The Lavender Palette,” Martin hopes to “sort of avenge them in a way, make it right.” Unlike some traditional art institutions that obscure gayness in the hopes of keeping museum goers comfortable (for instance, referring to life partners or lovers as “friends”), Martin and his contemporaries at the exhibit’s home, Cascadia Art Museum, understand the importance of knowing an artist’s personal life and how it helps to contextualize their work.
“What made them create?” he wonders, “What made them want to be artists in the first place? How did their having to hide who they were, or not hide, which is even more interesting in that era — how did that affect their art? Why did they do certain subjects? What did they show in certain exhibitions?”
For the very same reasons it was so important to write this book, Martin had a difficult time finding a home for it.
The art world can be ultra conservative, especially when you take into account the demographics of who funds museums. Martin approached many institutions with his idea but was turned down numerous times, as many major museums wanted to “stay out of trouble.”
“The Lavender Palette” exhibit eventually showed at Cascadia Art Museum in Edmonds, Washington, just north of Seattle. Martin said, “After I was asked to be the curator at the museum, I said right from the beginning: If you want me here, I need to be able to do this show. The board said to me, ‘You do what you want to do. We have faith in you; your track record’s been good. Do what you want.’ And they backed it a hundred percent.”
Once the book was backed financially, Martin got to work discerning which artists could be included in the book.
“It was difficult because some of the artists that I’ve studied died before I was born. I could tell you, ‘This person was definitely gay.’ But I felt like I could only include artists if I had definitive proof that they were gay. I didn’t want to use things that are hearsay. I restricted myself only to people that I had a hundred percent proof,” Martin said.
One example of definite proof of someone’s sexual activity is shown in a grim grid arrangement of mugshots in the book, Martin said. These photos are of men who were convicted of sodomy and crimes against nature. Many of the men spent 10 or more years in prison in Walla Walla, Washington, doing manual labor. Looking into the eyes of these men, many of whom are visibly scared or angry, serves as a stark reminder of the lives lost or wasted to oppressive systems and reminds the reader of what these artists were living through and up against.
Martin was thorough in his research, finding some artists easier to write about than others. For instance, Martin knew ceramic artists Virginia Weisel and Lorene Spencer personally, so had access to all the kinds of resources needed to accurately depict their art and lives.
These sorts of connections are customary in LGBTQ+ communities and influence culture in ways that are sometimes overlooked. Take artist Thomas Handforth, for instance. Martin is particularly intrigued by him because so much of Handforth’s work and story was influenced by his ability to travel and connect with others in ways his straight counterparts may not have been able to. He came from Tacoma in the early 1900s and eventually studied in both New York and Paris. He was known for his etchings, and his works were showcased in major salons in Paris.
“They were able to travel and connect. If you were a gay person back then, you would go to a city and you would have instant family. It must’ve been the same for people like Thomas Handforth. They went, and there were enclaves of gay people who had located the section in Paris or this section of China where they felt they were family because of their sexual orientation. They had all of these things in common and bonded. This is what really fascinated me — that they were able to interact with some of the great artists of the day.”
Handforth wasn’t the only artist whose travels influenced the Pacific Northwest art scene. In “The Lavender Palette,” Martin discusses how areas like Japan and China had less oppressive attitudes toward homosexuality than the United States during the early 1900s, so many artists traveled to those areas for a taste of freedom. Martin said, “They came back here and they were sharing what they learned with local artists. Sumi brush painting in Japan, weaving in China ... and now there’s a lot in common. It really influenced the culture here. We’re still defined by this — what they called the Northwest school. It wasn’t mysticism; it was them. It was their sexual orientation and being outcasts basically forced to travel, and then bringing all of this back. Some of them ended up being teachers. It created the culture. And that’s what the book is about: the creation of the culture.”
In preserving and uplifting these legacies, Martin is helping to create culture himself. A culture where important stories aren’t lost — where artists who don’t fit into the mainstream are celebrated for their differences, not despite. And where younger generations of LGBTQ+ people can open “The Lavender Palette” and know they have a history and that they’re not alone.
Read more of the June 23-29, 2021 issue.