Visual

By the Artist, for the Artist

An afternoon with Clayton James
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Years ago, when Maggie Wilder lost her studio, the renowned Northwest artist Clayton James offered up one of his out-buildings for her to use as she saw fit for her own creative endeavors. And, although she stayed for months, he refused to take a penny in return.

James’ penchant for generosity is one of the many reasons Wilder—who now owns and operates Gallery Cygnus in La Conner—is more than happy to host occasional shows and sales for the longtime Skagit Valley resident, who’ll turn 95 in February.

Wilder says she first met the painter and sculptor in 1977, when a friend who’d purchased one of James’ huge pots brought her to his studio to pick it up.

“When we arrived, she asked him what he thought she should do with it,” Wilder says. “She meant, ‘Where should I put it?’ He said, ‘Dig a hole in the earth and bury it. Then dig it up in 100 years.’ I knew we would be friends! We’ve shown together in many group shows over the years. He’s been a tremendous presence in the Northwest art scene, but remained a very humble and community-based artist. He almost seems unaware of his stature.”

Those who come to see the show Sat., Jan. 26 won’t go away disappointed. Although James likely won’t be on hand to greet visitors and make the gallery circuit (he’s not fond of crowds, and his hearing’s not what it used to be), approximately 20 paintings from past decades—some of which have never been shown publicly before—and one bronze sculpture will be on display and for sale.

And although the event continues throughout the afternoon, Wilder says that those who are hoping to see the works of the master will want to show up as close to noon as possible. Once a piece has been purchased, you see, the buyer is free to take it with them, meaning the one-day sale could turn out to be “more like a 30-minute show.”

It’s also worth pointing out that Wilder isn’t pocketing a dime from the results of the exhibit. In a karmic move that likely hearkens back to the days James welcomed her into his community of artists, Wilder says he’ll be getting all the funds from the day’s proceeds. This is the second time she’s hosted a sale like this for James, and, if it’s anything like the first event, most of the pieces will be gone by day’s end.

“The mission of Gallery Cygnus includes events like these,” Wilder says, noting it is indeed unique for a gallery to forgo commission on sales in order to support an artist.

Wilder also points out that James is still a working artist—albeit one who moves a little more slowly than he used to. She also says he loves to discuss what makes a good painting, and remains involved with his art.

“The more intimately acquainted I become with both the man and his work, it’s apparent there’s a seamless quality there,” Wilder says. “He is one of the most forgiving people I’ve ever met. And his paintings, sculptures too, have this quality of peace about them. There’s a glow and a tranquility that many of us aim for, and he delivers it. 

“His life and his work are a real testimony to the power of living thoughtfully, simply and elegantly.”

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