Quintessential Skagit

Treasure hunting at River Gallery

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

You must be resourceful to find the River Gallery on Landing Road, just south of La Conner. From a low ridge, the gallery looks out over mysterious, forested hummocks forming islands in the Skagit flats, where peaceful sheep and black and white cows graze. On my visit, it stood in glorious sun, backed by billowy, white clouds.

Formerly a small commercial greenhouse, the gallery is the creation of Silvia Strong. For a dozen years it has been a magnet for creative artists and the sophisticated local population who appreciate quality art. 

The present show features work from 32 contributors, but honors, in particular, three distinguished Skagit artists: Clayton James, Maggie Wilder, and Marty Rogers.

A painter, potter and sculptor in the northwest for seven decades, James (born in 1918) was close to Morris Graves, Guy Anderson, and Paul Havas. His “freshness of vision” and a lifelong refusal to conform to society’s expectations have allowed him “to produce a body of work as notable for its simplicity as for its originality,” according to Iridescent Light: The Emergence of Northwest Art author D.T. Ament.

Given pride of place are several of James’ powerful oils on wood panel. “Spring Cotton Wood” conveys the unbending spirit of the trees. The massive landforms of his “Looking Across the Methow Valley,” are modeled with broad, confident brush strokes.

Maggie Wilder, also a prolific painter and co-owner of the distinguished Cygnus Gallery in La Conner, where she has been a fixture since the 1970s. Her “Summer Meander” is a meditation of sunset colors on field, water and sky; “Dusky Yonder,” a lovely, monochromatic, expressionistic work.

Marty Rogers is considered one of the major watercolor artists in the Pacific Northwest. In her very free, expressive technique, she lays down layer upon layer of color to achieve rich, complex shading. Her scenes of lighthouses, chairs, chickens, goats, barns, flowers and cows are light and playful.

The works of many artists have squeezed into this show. Joan Enslin’s impressionist images of nature couldn’t be nicer. Her brushwork is relaxed, her color choices wide and sound and she makes good use of negative space.

Christine Troyer paints harmonious and restful scenes of Skagit fields, mountains and watercourses. Her “Magenta Walk” is fireweed, beautifully abstracted. Nancy Fulton’s many still lifes—in which reds and blues predominate—are gentle, subdued and satisfying. The naturalistic wildlife studies of Sallie Lynn Davis are extraordinary and detailed—see her astonishing “Coming Home: Snowy Owl.”

The effervescent Jennifer Bowman is represented by a number of dramatic forest scenes: no one else can pile as much color and drama into a portrait of trees. And if one canvas is too large for your space, chances are she’s made an almost identical composition on a smaller scale.

I had overlooked the work of Norwegian Rolf Oversvee, until the miniatures on cards and tiles caught my eye. The naïf, whimsical boats, trucks, houses, people—and ocean waves with the heft of granite—work so well on a tiny scale I brought home a pocketful.

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