HOW COULD A pioneering Seattle artist — a woman who trained at The Art Students League of New York, and who became a nationally acclaimed portrait painter and miniaturist — be almost completely erased from history?
That’s the question that led me down the rabbit hole of this story.
I stumbled into it by chance last year, while writing a story for University of Washington Magazine. In a Zoom interview with Chief Justice Steven González, about recent portraits commissioned for the state Supreme Court, I learned that there was a group of older portraits hanging at the Temple of Justice in Olympia — but nobody there knew who painted them or how they got there.
Curious, I checked around and couldn’t find any records of the artworks at the relevant state agencies. That drove me crazy. It wasn’t until I contacted the Washington State Archives that I got a breakthrough — not from official records, but from an old story in The Seattle Times. It turned out that the first three portraits had been commissioned for the court in 1914, and the artist was a woman: Ella Shepard Bush.
I phoned my friend David Martin, curator at the Cascadia Art Museum in Edmonds, who has done more research on early Northwest artists than anybody. But even David didn’t have a lot on Bush. So, I started following every thread I could find. I combed through hundreds of newspaper and periodical mentions. Those led me to archives and museums around the country. I pestered curators, librarians and historians; checked catalogs, census records, death records, old maps and old books — keeping a hotline open to the stellar librarians at Seattle Public Library.
At each step of the way, the mystery around Bush’s life and career grew deeper. And when I learned that some of Bush’s historic portraits had recently been discarded … well, that’s where the story begins.