Tobey’s donation of 30 lithographs helped create the Pike Place Market Historical District.
THE POSEURS in Jean Sherrard’s “now” photo are members of a new creation: the Pike Place Market Historical Society. By studied accord, the members have concluded that Mark Tobey, the celebrated artist posing beside the artfully stacked Red Delicious apples in our “then,” prefigured their position. Both are standing at the cusp of the ground floor of the Market’s Sanitary Market Building and the sidewalk on the east side of Pike Place. At the top of their circle, Market merchant Jack Mathers, holding a crab, joins the historians. This fishmonger-musician has been stocking and selling at his steaming Jack’s Fish Spot since 1982.
Tobey arrived in Seattle in the early 1920s, hired by Nellie Cornish, a respected piano teacher, to build a visual arts department for her namesake school, then primarily admired for its music and dance programs. In his early 30s, Tobey brought with him from New York City success working as a magazine illustrator. It was long before he was honored worldwide with solo shows and awards, including the Grand International Prize at the Venice Biennale of 1958.
Tobey was largely self-taught and quick to revelations. Most important of these inspirations was his “white writing,” a flat and floating atmosphere made from squiggles and brush strokes influenced by Asian calligraphy and much else. By the testimony of his students, Tobey also was a volatile mass of pedagogic pizazz, at once attracting and repelling. An early student, Viola Hansen Patterson, confessed, “He was full of tremendous energy, such energy he’d bowl you over — almost blow you out of the room. I did take three lessons with him, and then I caved in. It was too much for me.”
A Post-Intelligencer photographer snapped Tobey in the Market portrait, which is held at the Museum of History & Industry. MOHAI photographer Howard Giske assigns it a deliberated date. “That photograph of Mark Tobey was dated July 1961 by the P-I staffers, but he seems overdressed for July … the dates recorded for the P-I photos are often the file date and not creation date, so maybe just say 1961.”
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Kate Krafft, second from the right in Sherrard’s circle of Market historians, has studied Pike Place Market and written about Tobey’s fondness for the Market and the importance of his activism in its preservation.
“In 1939 and 1940, he spent many of his days in Pike Place Public Market sketching produce, architecture and particularly the people of the Market. Between 1941 and 1945, he completed a distinctive series of pictures in tempera paint that were based on the prior Market sketches, combining figurative work within the abstract-like maze of daily Market activity. In 1964, the University of Washington Press published ‘Mark Tobey: The World of the Market,’ a volume that included many of his Pike Place Market sketches and studio paintings with an introduction expressing his deep affection for the Market.”
Krafft continues, “Late in the hard-fought, seven-year-long campaign to ‘Keep the Market,’ Friends of the Market mounted a public initiative campaign. The campaign needed to finance television spots but lacked the necessary funds.”
The famous artist previously had donated 30 lithographs to the Friends. This gift served, Krafft concludes, as collateral for “a bank loan that funded the subsequent television ad campaign. The November 1971 public initiative was approved by the citizens of Seattle, thus creating and preserving what is known today as the Pike Place Market Historical District. Mark Tobey described the Market as, ‘a refuge, an oasis, a most human growth, the heart and soul of Seattle.’ ”