Seattle painter, printmaker and teacher Michael Spafford, whose work inspired both passionate admiration and occasional controversy, died Saturday at the age of 86. The cause was lung cancer, according to his son, Spike Mafford.

One of the most respected artists in the Seattle art scene, Spafford was the subject of a highly unusual joint exhibition mounted by three major local galleries in 2019, and the simultaneous publication of a monographic book, “Michael C. Spafford: Epic Works.” 

Spafford decided early in his career on both his subject matter and his approach. Over almost 60 years, his work — which included paintings, prints and watercolors — was devoted to interpretations of classic mythology, depicted in bold, highly stylized silhouettes. Faces typically lacked features; hands often had no fingers, and color was at times eschewed in favor of simple black and white.   

What his art did have, in a manner that could at times be almost overwhelming, was a cacophony of bodily conflict, with figures entangled in battles whose exact interpretation was often left to the imagination of the viewer. One particular focus was the Labors of Hercules, which Spafford revisited time and time again. The Greek hero’s epic struggles against giants and beasts provided a perfect outlet for the artist’s love of compositional drama, where forms merge and dissolve into each other, like a field of war hidden by dust and smoke. 

It might have been the very ambiguity of the imagery in the Labors that led to the most painful episode of Spafford’s career. Commissioned by the state of Washington to paint the series as an enormous mural to decorate the House chamber in the state Capitol, Spafford’s artwork, installed in 1981, became the focus of a bitter controversy, denounced by a handful of vocal opponents as too modern, or too unsavory, leading to numerous legal battles and their eventual removal to an auditorium in Centralia College, much to the artist’s dismay.   

The fate of another major Spafford mural had a happier ending. Five giant panels depicting the fall of Icarus decorated the side of an elevator shaft at the Kingdome from 1979 until its demolition in 2000; the artworks were eventually reinstalled on the side of a King County parking garage in downtown Seattle, where they remain to this day. 

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Spafford was also a noted and popular instructor at the University of Washington, where he taught for 35 years.

“His art will live on through the generations through artists who were inspired and influenced by him,” said Cascadia Art Museum curator David Martin, a leading authority on Northwest art. 

Spafford was born on Nov. 6, 1935, in Palm Springs, California. His interest in mythology traced back to his Latin class in high school, when he did his first classically inspired artworks, according to the artist’s profile on HistoryLink.org. Spafford met his wife, the artist Elizabeth Sandvig, when they were students at Pomona College; they were married 63 years. Sandvig and their 4-year old son accompanied Spafford to Italy in 1967, where they lived for two years courtesy of the prestigious fellowship known as the Prix de Rome. Italy in general, and Rome in particular, was a perfect locale for the artist to further his education in the classics. Returning to Seattle in 1969, Spafford continued his association with both the UW and the Francine Seders Gallery; Seders represented his work for a half-century.

In 1965, Spafford and his wife purchased a large, rambling house in Montlake that served as a sort of urban art colony. Besides the artist and Sandvig, the house is also home to Spafford’s son Mafford, a photographer; daughter-in-law Lisa Dutton, a filmmaker; and two grandchildren, all of whom survive him. 

The relationship between Spafford and his son was particularly close; besides sharing a domicile, they were also frequent collaborators, exhibiting together and creating joint pieces with Spafford painting on top of his son’s photographs. 

“My father was in our house, working, right up to the week before he died,” said Mafford. “Of course, he encouraged my interest in the arts, but he also gave me room to decide what I wanted to do.”

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Reviewers were enthusiastic about Spafford’s work, noting that his painterly approach embodied in its rough, conflicted surfaces the very stresses it strives to depict, and finding a contemporary relevance in his epic subject matter. 

In his website’s artist statement, Spafford himself wrote, “By selecting these ‘stories’ I feel free to make paintings that look the way I want my paintings to look, that is to say assertive, graphic and confrontational.”

“You rarely find an artist who is as truly unique as Michael Spafford,” said curator Martin. “He has made a substantial contribution to our regional culture with his own distinct visual language.”

The family suggests donations be made in Spafford’s name to any nonprofit supporting the arts. In accordance with the artist’s wishes, no public events are planned.