Everything is Illuminated*
By LLyn De Danaan
December 15, 2013
On the Occasion of Mary Randlett’s show at Salon Refu
Curated by gallery owner, Susan Christian
There are many articles and interviews available on internet and elsewhere that detail Mary’s work as a photographer in the Pacific Northwest. Her images appear in dozens of University of Washington Press books. Her own recent books, Landscapes with the poetry of Denise Levertov and The Car that Brought You Here, a tribute to Richard Hugo (with text by Frances McCue), are readily available.
Because there is so much in print about Mary, I choose to be more personal today. Mary is my friend. And I’m very proud to say this. She likes to sit, perched upon my deck or stairs, and watch the changing light on Oyster Bay. Our relationship, however, is much more than that. I’d been circling her for years without knowing it. I might have met her many times in the past, but, unfortunately for me, didn’t.
I knew of Mary’s photography not long after arriving in Seattle in 1966. My landlady, Jo Small, introduced me to the work of Tobey and Graves and Callahan and Tsutakawa during my graduate school days. She had a few of their paintings on her walls and I visited Tsutakawa’s fountains. She told me lengthy stories about the Northwest school while quaffing homebrew and in between chapters of Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. Paul Robeson 78 rpm records played in the background as we alternatively chatted and studied. I wasn’t only reading anthropology; I was being introduced to a culture, an era, and a way of seeing the world. I met Richard Gilkey through a friend who took me to his fastidious studio in an old warehouse not far from the locks in Ballard. The friend let me keep a Gilkey painting of Lummi Island on my wall while he was off doing fieldwork in New Guinea. How many times I hoped he’d forget it! No luck.
These were all painters whom Mary had photographed and knowing about them gave me an appreciation of her splendid portraits and a basis for conversations with her about them much later.
Mary met many artists and writers through her mother, Elizabeth Bayley Willis, a noted curator who among other things is credited with introducing contemporary Japanese folk art to the West. She was a distinguished art curator in Seattle, San Francisco and later served as a United Nations consultant for Indian textiles.
Through my Seattle connections, I met Murray Morgan, a historian friend of Mary’s. He wrote of her work that, ”she has made imperishable moments when drifting mist seems snagged by the tops of firs, when moonlight lies on channeled water.” Mary photographed Murray from a precarious height, the old Tacoma city hall clock tower if I remember correctly.
She photographed Seattle movers and shakers such as Victor Steinbrueck when “Friends of the Market” organized and worked to preserve that Pike Place icon. Oddly, I was working just below the market and involved more than tangentially in that campaign through my job at the Puget Sound Governmental Conference.
Sometime during that period, I saw Mary Randlett’s work at Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island. She did a number of both landscapes (evocative images of the gardens) and portraits of the Bloedels. These are featured in albums and publications from Bloedel. But her history with that magnificent house and its gardens is much deeper. Her grandparents, the Bayleys, had a house on Agate Point and during visits to them, Mary became close friends with “Skippy” Clarke, a step granddaughter of the Collins family that built the magnificent Bloedel mansion. Mary still delights in memories of summers rowing and fishing with “Skippy” and meeting Mrs.Collins for the first time. “Skippy”, sadly, passed away just this past week.
So I had been circling Mary for a long time…just barely missing her.
Then I spent a day with her on the Virginia V and we both circled Bainbridge Island on the old steamer, the last of the operable Mosquito Fleet ships. I still didn’t know her personally then but knew who she was via all these near misses, so I watched her, took a few pictures of her taking pictures, and sidled up to talk with her. On another cruise, much later, she stood beside me and pointed out what she saw—helped me to see through her eyes.
That brief hello in the waters off Bainbridge was just that. It was through our mutual friend, Jo Ann Ridley that we became friends. Jo Ann was Mary’s friend from way back and they had collaborated on, among other things, a book about the San Juan Islands. Jo Ann was a good writer and editor and we met through a writing club at Sage Bookstore in Shelton. We began having tea or coffee occasionally at her home not far from mine. Mary dropped by sometimes when I was there and we had great talks about Seattle. We talked about Zoe Dusanne, the subject of Jo Ann’s book in progress. We even talked about Amelia Earhart. To be honest: they talked and I listened.
Jo Ann passed away suddenly in February 2012. We had no warning. Her loss was a blow to both of us, though more deeply felt by Mary. Jo Ann was one of Mary’s life long pals, one with whom she shared a lot of memories and people, and one whom she sorely misses. Her death left a big hole in Mary’s life and I regretted not having her in mine longer.
Mary and I saw much more of each other after Jo Ann was gone and I came to relish her visits and our conversations. We exchanged letters and cards and she talked to me about how she thinks about the Northwest and its skies and mountains. She brought me books and articles she thought I’d enjoy. We talked about the paintings on the walls of her home. We even talked about her enlarger. We made a video recording of those discussions and placed them with her papers in University of Washington Special Collections.
There have been many books and photographs and stories to share since. She keeps me informed of her intellectual life. Not long ago, she sent me a Xeroxed image of a Paul Kane 1847 painting, “Crossing the Straits” with comments and questions. “Amazing..those early painters…the beautiful paintings they turned out…” she wrote. She wanted to know more about the watercraft used by Native Americans then, about navigation, and about what else Kane saw and documented. She sent me articles about the great “Bretz’s” flood, a phenomenon that interested her and one she thought would interest me. We talked about Ruth Kirk and Richard Daugherty. She worked to get Jo Ann’s book on Zoe Dusanne known to the world(Jo Ann’s last book, still in manuscript form when she died, was about an amazing African American art dealer in Seattle…one of the first to show people like Klee and Chirico to Seattle.) We fussed together when University of Washington turned the book down.
She sent and still sends me poetry: “The Imaginary Iceberg” by Elizabeth Bishop: “…We’d rather have the iceberg than the ship although it meant the end of travel..although it stood stock still like cloudy rock and all the sea were moving marble.” “Year of Meteors” by Walt Whitman: “As I flit through you hastily soon to fall and be gone what is this change, what am I myself but one of your meteors.” Indeed. This poem was accompanied by a clipping about the recent attempt to identify the meteor. The news clipping had inked underlining and insistent arrows, noting things to which I should attend. She sent notes of encouragement for my own work. She sent a copy of a photograph she made of Jacob Lawrence ascending a staircase. The photograph echoes Lawrence’s self portrait. That painting references Charles Willson Peale’s Staircase Group, considered by some to be “the first major original painting in American art.” This packet of information and copies of images presented a challenge to me to follow connections, influences, and to do the historical research. Lawrence did. Mary did. Nothing by accident.
I learned about other photographers like Cunningham and Gilpin from her/bought books/studied them. And then she sent her friend James McGrath’s Poem for Laura Gilpin, Photographer dedicated to Mary Randlett photographer. Jim was a founding faculty of the Institute for American Indian Art. He knew Gilpin and clearly appreciates Mary. She loves this poem so I want to read it to you today.
Poem for Laura Gilpin, Photographer
–for Mary Randlett, Photographer
by James McGrath 15, January, 2009
She was the tripod on the Camino
And in the arroyo near Rough Rock.
She stood headless under her black cloth,
Focusing on a trail of dust
Following the Navaho sheep
Or Old Lady Tallsalt washing
Her dishes with a single cup of water.
Laura was the generosity on the Camino
And on the mesa near San Ildefonso.
She stood headless under the black cloth,
Focusing on the light-splotched adobe walls,
Where shadows of dancers were a frieze,
Of undulating, whispering mystery
Or pausing between strokes of her shutter
To share fry bread and hot coffee.
She was the camera-eye of a goddess.
She gave vision to those who would greet her
With her glass-eyed lens that mirrored
The warmth of her garden flowers opening
In the snow when the leaves of her
Cottonwoods had fallen to mulch.
She has left behind the gifts of her
Black and white memories in books,
On the walls of hogans, adobe houses,
Museums and on the underside of clouds.
I only need to look up into a winter-filed sky
To see her-cloud woman-focusing
On the earth, where she danced
Under her black cloth.
*from the title of Jonathan Safran Foer’s book here used as a reference to Mary Randlett’s work.
Mary Randlett at Bloedel circa 1968