Native Son

The life and art of James T. Pickett


What: Pickett House Tour

When: 1 pm Sun., Sep. 10

Where: 910 Bancroft St.

Cost: By donation

Info: (360) 733-5873 or

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Pencils and paper were scarce commodities on the remote Mason County homestead where James Tilton Pickett grew up, but that didn’t stop him from drawing.

Instead of filling sketchbooks and stretched canvasses, he committed his lines to a variety of repurposed barnyard materials. Charcoal on hand-split cedar planks became his primary medium. And when he needed to add some flourish, the juice of crushed blackberries sufficed.

As Jimmy matured into adolescence he was forced to grapple with the repressive attitudes and societal strictures of white supremacy that prevailed throughout mid-19th century America, including the Pacific Northwest.

Even though he was recognized as the legitimate son of a distinguished Civil War general, his physical appearance marked him as a “half-breed” in the eyes of many bigoted neighbors and peers.

Conflicted by his heritage, Jimmy turned increasingly inward and began to channel his emotions through poetry and other self-expressive endeavors—a pursuit his white foster parents were happy to facilitate.

By all accounts, it worked. And eventually he began to paint. Seascapes and landscapes were his primary focus, but he wasn’t afraid to try his hand at the occasional still life or portraiture when the muse struck.

When Jimmy matriculated at Union Academy in Olympia as a 19-year-old underclassman in the fall of 1876, his studious nature and artistic skill set were duly noted by instructors who helped him secure employment as a design and penmanship instructor for local primary school students.

While attending the academy, Jimmy boarded in the house of Calvin Hale (a master boat builder from Maine who was appointed Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Washington and Idaho territories) and Mrs. Hale (a teacher at his college). He earned his keep by digging stumps, setting out trees, building fences, making axe handles and doing whatever other sort of labor-intensive farm chores needed to be done.

Meanwhile, in his spare time, he immersed himself ever deeper into the surrounding landscape looking for new subjects, textures and perspectives to capture. He drew scenes on campus, portraits of other students and intricately detailed depictions of sail-borne ships and merchant steamers that plied the burgeoning trade routes of Puget Sound.

After fulfilling his three-term requirement at Union Academy, Jimmy was able to attend an art institute in San Francisco during a period when the evocative “open air” techniques of the French Barbizon School were inspiring luminaries like Albert Bierstadt and William Keith to paint “more realistically” from direct experience.

Forced to leave the institute due to lack of funds, Jimmy found employment, first as an artist with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and then with the Portland Oregonian, where he functioned as an artist/reporter and ad copywriter.

He continued painting seafaring scenes, landscapes and portraits—many of which can be found still gracing the walls of museums today (his drawing of Bellingham Bay in 1888 is exceptional in its detail and perspective and an oil Painting of Mt. Rainier is on display at the Whatcom Museum).

On Aug. 28, 1889, Jimmy succumbed to a combination of typhoid fever and tuberculosis and was buried in Riverview Cemetery near a spot he visited often to paint pictures of Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens, and sunsets over the Columbia and Willamette rivers.

James T. Pickett was born in Bellingham on Dec. 31, 1857 in the house that his biological father, Captain George E. Pickett, allegedly built for his mother—a young Native American woman thought to be of Haida and/or Tlingit descent who died soon after giving birth to him—and which still stands today. It’s the oldest house in the city and the oldest house still standing on its original foundation in Washington state.

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