Michael Dailey, a prominent Seattle painter and teacher who died Sunday at 71, taught generations of students at the UW's School of Art. His work, often characterized as landscape-inspired abstractions, hangs in dozens of collections, both private and public.
It sounds like a paradox, to be sure. But Michael Dailey, a prominent Seattle painter and teacher who died Sunday at 71, insisted he fell in love with art not because it came easy to him, but because it did not.
“I always took art in school,” Mr. Dailey said. “I was fascinated by it … because I did not understand it. Other subjects were easier for me, but art was the one thing I couldn’t figure out.”
His remark to former Seattle Times art critic Robin Updike was relayed in “Michael Dailey: Color, Light, Time, and Place, Selected Works, 1965-2007” distributed last year by the University of Washington Press.
Mr. Dailey’s paintings, often characterized as landscape-inspired abstractions, celebrate light, color and form. His work hangs in dozens of collections, both private and public, and he taught generations of students, serving on the faculty of the UW’s School of Art from 1963 to 1998.
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“He’s one of the best painters the Northwest has seen,” said Seattle gallery owner Greg Kucera, who knew of Mr. Dailey’s art long before he signed up to take an independent-study course from him in the late 1970s. “He charted a linear path through his work, but wasn’t afraid to take it on some twisting, winding turns.”
Francine Seders, the Seattle gallery owner who has represented Mr. Dailey’s work since the mid-1960s, said he could capture the essence of a sunset, a dawn or a brooding storm. “I look outside and see the sky a certain color and I think, ‘That looks like a Michael Dailey painting.’ “
Seders said Mr. Dailey is regarded as a key member of the “second generation” of Northwest artists, influenced by — but not imitating — the sometimes mystical quality of work by noted “Northwest school” artists Morris Graves, Mark Tobey, Kenneth Callahan and Guy Anderson, who predated Mr. Dailey by a couple of decades.
Mr. Dailey’s interest in art dates to his childhood in Des Moines, Iowa, where his father, a police officer, bought him a painting kit and encouraged him to do still-life scenes.
At the University of Iowa, he earned his bachelor’s degree in art and completed a master’s of fine arts in 1963, the year the UW offered him a teaching position, initially as a lecturer on a course designed to give nonart majors a basic understanding of the arts.
Although he’d never been to the Seattle area before taking the job, it was as if the region’s moody, colorful landscapes already existed in his soul, said Linda Dailey, his wife of 49 years.
“He loved light, but not like the harsh light of, say, the Southwest.” Mrs. Dailey said. “He liked the more understated, muted tones, the blues, the greens, the browns, the yellows.”
Mr. Dailey, in a description of his own work on Francine Seders’ gallery Web site, said, “I change and rework a painting over and over again until it feels right … The image changes many times as the painting evolves and I quite literally don’t know where I am going until I get there.”
Michael Spafford, a contemporary of Mr. Dailey’s on the UW faculty and a fellow “second generation” artist, said Mr. Dailey had the ability to teach without being dictatorial. “He would listen to his students and help them do what they were trying to do.”
Mr. Dailey’s diagnosis with multiple sclerosis in the 1970s eventually prompted him to shift from oil painting to acrylics, to have less exposure to harsh chemicals. Although acrylics are regarded as more challenging, particularly for achieving subtle blends of color, Mr. Dailey developed a style that sometimes made it difficult for an observer to tell the medium.
As MS limited his mobility, he switched from 6-foot wide canvasses to easier-to-manage, easel-sized works. But even as it took longer for him to complete a painting, Seders said, his late paintings still show “the strong hand” of a vibrant artist.
A major exhibition of Mr. Dailey’s paintings was held last year at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art at Willamette University in Salem. It was followed early this year by a rare two-gallery show in Seattle, in which Kucera displayed early works by Mr. Dailey and Seders showed newer ones.
Among the many museums and other institutions whose collections include his paintings are the Seattle Art Museum, Tacoma Art Museum, Museum of Modern Art in New York, Portland Art Museum, Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner, Bank of America, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Swedish Hospital Medical Center, Paccar Inc. and Safeco Insurance Companies.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Dailey is survived by a son, John Dailey, and daughter, Susanne Kelly, both of Seattle, and two grandchildren. No memorial event is planned.
Linda Dailey describes her husband as obsessed with his art, a man who spent as much time as possible in his studio, even as he was weakened by MS and, in recent months, pancreatic cancer.
“He was always painting in his head,” she said. “Even in his last hospital stay he was still sketching out plans for another painting.”
Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or firstname.lastname@example.org