If Richard C. Gilkey had been born in New York, he likely would have hung out in ’40s and ’50s at the famous Cedar Tavern, trading stiff drinks and art debates with the likes of Jackson Pollock and the other talented, rebellious, groundbreaking young artists of the day.
Mr. Gilkey instead was born in Bellingham, and his career as one of the Pacific Northwest’s most admired and acclaimed artists was spent between the Skagit Valley and Seattle, with regular ramblings through Europe and Mexico.
He hung out in Ireland with the movie director John Huston and painter Morris Graves. He once tracked down Pablo Picasso in the south of France and so charmed the famous painter that Picasso tried to give the young Mr. Gilkey a chair as a gift. When he was in Seattle, Mr. Gilkey spent time drinking and talking with other artists and poets at the Blue Moon Tavern, the rambunctious bar that was the University District’s equivalent of the Cedar Tavern.
Mr. Gilkey, 72, died Friday [October 3, 1997] in Wyoming after a long bout with heart disease and cancer.
Known mostly for his luminous landscapes of the Skagit Valley, he was considered a younger member of the Northwest School, a group of artists who first brought national attention to the Seattle art scene in the ’40s and ’50s with their somber, understated, philosophical paintings about the land and spirituality. Graves and Mark Tobey were the most famous of the so-called “Northwest mystic painters.”
Mr. Gilkey’s paintings are included in most museum collections in the Pacific Northwest. There is also a triptych of his on display on the fourth floor of the Washington State Convention and Trade Center.
Early on in his career Mr. Gilkey also painted still lifes, flowers and abstract compositions, according to his longtime friend and dealer, Janet Huston. “But he read a lot, and he was always very interested in metaphysics, the nature of the universe, and Eastern philosophy,” said Huston. “And all that came out in his paintings.”
When novelist Tom Robbins briefly wrote about art for The Seattle Times in the ’60s, he once described Mr. Gilkey as a painter who “can examine a skunk cabbage with more insight than most artists can muster for a gathering of angels.” Critics throughout his career were impressed. Former Seattle Times critic Deloris Tarzan Ament described a 1992 show of Mr. Gilkey’s paintings as “muscular work,” some of the best of his career.
Mr. Gilkey never went to art school. At 17 he joined the U.S. Marines and fought in some of World War II’s toughest Pacific Theater campaigns. He returned form the war transformed by the horrors he had witnessed, said longtime friend Jan Thompson. “He was severely wounded emotionally,” said Thompson. “It stayed with him all his life. Luckily, as soon as he returned he met (painter) Guy Anderson and Morris Graves, and his life changed. They molded him and he became an artist.
“He was terribly funny,” said Thompson. “Also very private, and wild. He lived a wild life. He traveled a lot to Mexico, but he always came back here.” A sign of his wild side, she said, was the time he found Picasso, rang the great man’s door and left him a sweater and piece of artwork as gifts. Picasso invited the young artist in and tried to give him a chair in return, though it wouldn’t fit on top of Mr Gilkey’s Volkswagen. A precious memento of the meeting was a letter written in colored pencil that Picasso later sent to Mr. Gilkey, Thompson said.
Even when he lived in Seattle he would rent studios in the Skagit Valley to work in, said Thompson. Most recently he had lived in Conway, in a small house with a studio.
Mr. Gilkey is survived by a stepdaughter, four nieces and a nephew. A celebration of Mr. Gilkey’s life will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. Oct. 19 at the Janet Huston Gallery, 413 Morris St. in La Conner. Remembrances may be made to the Museum of Northwest Art, Box 1132, La Conner, WA, 98257.