Skagit Scene

In the Valley of Mystic Light


What: In the Valley of Mystic Light book reading and signing

When: 1 pm Sat., Dec. 9

Where: Museum of Northwest Art, La Conner

Cost: Suggested donation is $5

Info: or

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

One of the attributes of the Skagit “mystic” artists has been their bare-bones lifestyle. And so, recently at La Conner’s Skagit County Historical Museum, four artists were asked how living off the grid influenced their art, and did they accept the label of “mystic?”

Claire Swedberg, co-author with Rita Hupy of In the Valley of Mystic Light, moderated the panel discussion. Karen Summers chose splendid examples of the leading artists’ works for the eponymous exhibit.

Each artist acknowledged being inspired by the early “Northwest Mystics,” especially the unconventional Guy Anderson. On view is one of his “mysterious” paintings that portrays a dozen levitating nudes that are dreaming, wrapped in separate cocoons. Did he foretell this band of followers?

Sculptor and poet Bo Miller recalls that in 1971 booze and drugs were free. But as a serious artist, he chose a simple life because in the “unstructured time beyond senses and intellect,” the muse would know where to find him. 

Ralph Aeschliman found his way into art through studying Chinese painting. He’d been selling in Seattle, but abandoned the city—where, he believed, others valued only novelty at the expense of tradition and good technique. In 1965 the Skagit beckoned, offering an “almost Chinese landscape.” 

Inspired by Anderson and Mark Tobey, Aeschliman squatted in a floating cabin on the river, fishing and gathering wild food, determined to become an artist even if it meant starving to death. His ink drawing of moorhens, “October Surprise” (1979), documents an experience of satori in nature.

Another panel member, Thomas Wood, enjoyed the friendship and encouragement of older artists John Cole and Clayton James. One day, on Wood’s suggestion, they motored down the Skagit to spend the day sketching Ika Island. The tide went out. As the youngest aboard, it fell to Wood to drag the boat and his friends back home through the mud.

Allen Moe admits to being “almost a poster child for living off the grid.” Before finally settling on Guemes Island, he homesteaded in the Alaskan Brooks Range. But don’t call him a “mystic.” For Moe, nature is the great mystery, and he’s always sought to be embedded in it.

The gallery honors Tracy Powell with photographs of his outdoor sculptures, including the famous “Maiden of Deception Pass.” Also recognized is the Swinomish woodcarver Kevin Paul, a lifelong part of the La Conner community. 

The late Bill Slater was one of the Skagit mystics, living on the coast in a home-built house and spending a lot of time with wooden boats. His style may be compared to that of Guemes painter Max Benjamin, who eventually favored pure abstraction. In Slater’s very abstract-looking “Sabine,” (oil, 1987) a second glance reveals the river imagined as a goddess up whose garments the salmon gamely ascend to spawn. 

Nor is Jesus Guillen overlooked: A self-taught artist who was encouraged by Anderson and Clayton James, he painted memorable canvases of farmworkers and flowers, including, in 1970, the colorful muralist portrait of men and women harvesting strawberries.

Please note that the print version of this article contains the wrong location information about a related book talk taking place Sat., Dec. 9 at La Conner’s Museum of Northwest Art. The event will occur at MONA, not at the Skagit County Historical Museum.

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