Wes Wehr

Witch Doctor

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Early last month, only days before he had planned to celebrate his 75th birthday with a gathering of close friends at the Nordic Heritage Museum, Seattle painter and paleobotanist Wesley Wehr died of a heart attack.

I met Wes eight years ago at the tiny Reflex office in Pioneer Square. As I walked through the door one afternoon, I saw a small, peculiar-looking man with a thick head of white hair and large, black-framed glasses sitting at my desk. At first glance I thought he was a homeless person who had somewhat randomly wandered upstairs to chat with any available, unoccupied person he might find there — a frequent occurrence in that part of town. Once we began talking, I immediately recognized that he was a Seattle character of the old school. His low, barely audible voice gave this away, as did the familiar smile and silent laughter that punctuated his phrases.

He had come to tape an interview about the artists who made Seattle their home during the 1950s. Many of the names — Tobey, Graves, and Anderson — were well-known to me. Others, such as art dealer Zoe Dusanne and artist Helmi Juvoven, were not. And while I had read a good many poems by Elizabeth Bishop, I had no idea she spent an unhappy, rain-soaked year teaching at the UW. Wes had also know my own favorite professor, poet Kenneth O. Hanson, who had lived on the Ave in those days. Over the next few hours, I was treated to a wealth of stories about my hometown. In the years that followed, this conversation continued whenever I saw him.

Wehr is not easily described in a cultural context where art is defined by genre and accomplishment in terms of career. Wes' life was not bound by such modern constructs; he was a figure for whom there was no separation between art and science, no difference between the life of the artist and that of the individual whose mind is engaged with the surrounding natural world. It is an approach that would have been as much at home among the pre-Socratic philosophers as it was along University Ave.

His interests are best understood by examining the wide network of friendships he developed during the course of his life; his legacy revealed through the accounts of the many people he influenced and inspired. Like the ancients, conversation was his medium. At the memorial service, it was unique to hear someone eulogized by artists and scientists alike for his contributions to their work and success. One paleobotanist who spoke called Wes 'the great cross-pollinator."

Wehr is often invoked as a quintessential Northwest artist himself. His small paintings are both landscapes and abstract meditations. As we look into the misty layers of gray oil paint, we may notice a horizon and often even a figure in the distance. Anyone who has spent time on the coast or in heart of the peninsula will recognize the blurring of the real and the imagined that occurs in such a natural setting.

As a Northwest artist, though, Wehr may someday best be remembered for the writings he published late in his life. If there is any work that can be regarded as a kind of treatise on Northwest aesthetic sensibilities, it would have to be the second chapter of his book, "The Eighth Lively Art". Titled "Out of Nature: Mark Tobey's Art", this twenty page section is a collection of recalled conversations with Tobey about the relationship between artistic creation and the observed order of the natural world. I immediately thought of these passages when I looked at the fossil specimens brought to the memorial services.

Although Wehr recounts these conversations in a casual and humorous manner that is all his own, this chapter belongs to a literary tradition that includes Plato's "Dialogues" and "The Analects" of Confucius. The accomplished master imparts his wisdom to the protégé, who functions as a stand-in for the reader. Here, however, the protégé is the first person narrator who looks back upon these conversations from the vantage point of his own old age. Whether observing crystalline rock structures and fossils at the UW Natural History Museum or the produce and fish at the Pike Place Market, Tobey awakens the younger man to "the virtuosity of nature, these intricate revelations of the artist's eye."

Despite its impressive pedigree, the literary construct of this book is simply a writing down of what Wes himself did each day when he imparted his own knowledge and experience to younger individuals like myself. I will miss the openness and generosity of spirit he carried with him wherever he went, regardless of who he was about to meet.

A few days after the service, I did a long series of studio visits with the students who will be graduating from the UW M.F.A. program this month. Still thinking of Wes, I felt sorry that they would be starting their careers without him around.