Photo by Peggy Sturdivant 
BHS Foundation Art Committee Member Alice Rooney at Wall of Recognition.

At Large In Ballard: Recognizing Art

By Peggy Sturdivant

There’s a Wall of Recognition on the first floor of Ballard High School with photographs of alumni who have distinguished themselves in the outside world. Their work may have been in laboratories, film studios, universities, libraries and museums. But the headshots don’t give a hint to those whose creations are around the corner and up the stairs. The high school school’s walls are home to a permanent art collection by major artists, many of them alumni.

Matthew Kangas, Class of ’67, independent art critic, BHS Foundation Art Committee member and the man leading a tour after the final bell of spring semester 2016 said as a matter of fact, “This collection is pretty much all masterpieces.” The remarkability of such a collection in a public high school is over the heads of the students, “’literally’ as teenagers are so fond of saying, but in this case, yes, literally above their heads, hung over the lockers and corridor breaks.

The Orre N. Nobles Art Collection is named for a charismatic teacher in the Art Department from 1924-1953. The Ballard High School Foundation learned there was money in the construction budget of the new building to acquire art. An Art Committee was formed, which included 4th generation Ballardite, C. David Hughbanks ’54, Matthew Kangas, and Alice Rooney ’43, Allied Arts Founder and director emeritus of Pilchuck Glass School. They moved swiftly to commission certain pieces and set in motion a juried process in order to feature the works of alums, local artists and pieces that represent the culture and history of Ballard.

I crashed the tour Kangas was leading for fellow Ballard Landmark residents of Alice Rooney. Even as Kangas took the group through 60+ pieces it was also a working meeting as he and Rooney discussed new installations. She loves the very big walls, “and the light is good.” She hadn’t planned to attend any more meetings or do fundraising after she retired from Arts Administration…but then came this opportunity at her alma mater. These are now her treasures.

As part of the tour Kangas provided a video for later viewing, made by award-winning filmmaker, Michael Harris of Baby Wild Films. I wish I’d seen it before the tour because now I want to return and examine the pieces with the voices of the artists in my head.

For example James Martin ’45 shared that he was a “troublesome youth” for whom class trips in Orre Nobles’ Green Nash to visit the art departments at other high schools were a highlight. He said he preferred giving away his work to selling and endowed every male figure with his own large nose. He concluded, “I can’t praise Ballard enough now that I’m out of there.”

Linda King Brooks ’63 spoke of bold colors that allow “confusion in my paintings” and of some 300 black-and-white photographs that she and classmate Sandi John Tomlinson ’63 took in the old school. A photograph of a window and radiator are in the new library, reminding her of the “top boys” who hung out there.

The collection continues to evolve. The Art Committee uses grants and private donors, “No private taxpayer money,” Rooney assures. Many of the artists, particularly the alumni, have donated their works or willed them to the foundation.

For those who know big names in art, dating back to Margaret Benson Harding, ’29 the collection which hangs above the lockers or at the turns in the stairwells boasts very big names: Jacob Lawrence, Gwen Knight, Alden Mason, Brom Wickstrom, Dale Chihuly, Joan Stuart Ross, Carl Hasse…they have all lived, worked, connected or depicted Ballard in some manner.

Joe Reno ’62 still lives within walking distance. His piece “Warm Spirit Brings Light…Golden Gardens” faces west on the second floor. The artist, musician, and bonafide Ballard character recalls walking home from football practice and then down to Golden Gardens. He said there’s a forlorn quality to the piece as he thinks of all the friends from that time who are now gone. The oil painting is meant to be seen from a distance and it spans the hallway. In that June light it could not have been more perfectly placed as the janitor cleared the end-of-school detritus and future graduating classes were probably already at Golden Gardens.

The works are in oils and tempura, torn paper and ink. They are on a piece of 9’x12’ recycled Douglas Fir and Masonite. They were etched, carved, cut by varied artists such Brom Wickstrom, holding the paintbrush in his month since he was paralyzed, and Chihuly who likes to “squirt things while playing music loud.” The titles are on plaques mostly unnoticed by hundreds every school day, whispering names that should be shouted. “Ballard Primeval Forest,” “Diva” “Shakespeare’s Four-Poster Bed.” “Great Rocky.”

Who knows if the students notice the figure of Adolph Hitler in British artist Michael Lawson’s “Department Store” or even the work itself, although Kangas takes in stride a spitball in one corner. “Tree of Knowledge,” made of 17 rare woods and one of two sculptures in the collection, was once draped in toilet paper, “But that doesn’t happen anymore,” Kangas said. The art is on permanent loan to BHS but insured and maintained by the Foundation.

At the far end of the west wing we stood and looked at John Moilanen’s “Olympic Mountains and Puget Sound” and then back at Reno’s “Warm Spirit Brings Light…Golden Gardens.” As though to signal time to return to the natural world so beautifully captured inside Kangas bid a quick adieu and slipped out an exit door to catch a bus. One of the Ballard Landmark visitors said to Rooney, “Let’s go Alice.” But even as Rooney used her walker to return to the bus she recognized a spot that was crying out, at least to her ears, for sculpture.

Anyone interested in seeing the collection can contact BHS Foundation Executive Director at rjlee@seattleschools.org

Reach Peggy at peggysturdivant@gmail.com

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