City / Visual Art
An Interview with Art History Itself: The Painter, Champion, and Designer Rolon Bert Garner
by Jen Graves
on Tue, Feb 5, 2013 at 2:46 PM
Rolon Bert Garner is Seattle art history. He's getting up there in years, and this is the last painting he made, a few years ago. It's huge. Who knows how many more he'll make. See his paintings at the Virginia Inn through April 10.
Depending on your age, you either can't imagine Seattle art without Rolon Bert Garner, or you've never heard of him. He was at the heart of it starting in the 1960s and didn't leave the city until 2000, when he moved with his dying wife to Whidbey Island, where he himself was diagnosed with COPD and congestive heart failure. His condition keeps him from being able to talk for too long, but he agreed to an interview and we made a go of it for around 40 completely enjoyable minutes by phone. While you're reading this, picture him not at home on an island, but holding court in one of the several bars he haunted back in the day.
For those new to his story (and here's a written history), Garner spent his entire life getting shows for local artists. He was a behind-the-scenes artist. He didn't curate, he built. He was both a champion/enthusiast and a wildly talented exhibition designer (to this day, he will come into the home of a friend and immediately envision precisely how all the art would best be hung).
He hung art in galleries and museums, he hung it in bars and cafes, he hung it in temporarily empty buildings and studio apartments—he'd have hung art from electrical lines in the streets if he could have. He had his fingers in every interesting project of his time, often as one of its inventors: And/Or, Bumbershoot, Seattle Art Museum, Artech, more.
He always quietly continued making his own art, but it hasn't been seen in any concentrated way for decades. An exhibition is now at the Virginia Inn, Seattle's proto-art bar.
When was your last solo show? You mean a whole solo show? Gosh. Oh good lord. Um, geez, probably ’79, when I had a retrospective. That was at And/Or. I was just leaving at that time. I was the visual arts director there from when Anne Focke and I co-founded it—she’s the head of things, of course. Shortly after that, I had a little show at Evergreen State College. I was teaching there then. Since then, I’ve just been included in group shows occasionally. But previous to that, I haven’t had a gallery since Jimmy Manolides’ gallery in Pioneer Square in the 1970s. His gallery turned into something called Nickel Cigar, then he gave it up and moved to Ocean Shores. He’s still out there, and not only that but the damn fool has got religion, I can’t believe it. He’s supposed to be Greek Orthodox and he’s going Lutheran on me. His father was a judge in Seattle. He was a big part of the Greek community. Before I moved to Washington, his father [Evans Manolides] was known as the hanging judge. If you even got caught with a roach in your ashtray in the car, you were going up, so, he was a toughy. But he and Jimmy did not get along, so…
Bert's naked ladies above the bar at the V.I.
What brought you to Seattle, and from where? I was managing the Fountain Gallery in Portland, Arlene Schnitzer’s gallery.
Are you from Portland? I was raised down in the Willamette Valley. Eugene-Springfield area. My family was dustbowlers is how we got there. And somehow, some way, Dr. [Richard] Fuller [the founder of Seattle Art Museum] was looking for a new designer for the Seattle Art Museum, so I got a call. … They were looking for someone to deal with the new things. It was the winter before the summer of love. There were all these strange people wandering around Volunteer Park with their flowers and coming in and dropping off the flowers and their voodoo dolls and the museum people didn’t know what was going on. Dr. Fuller was a Victorian gentleman who had started the museum and given it to the city. And at the time, Ginny Wright was head of the [museum’s] Contemporary Arts Council, and what Ginny and Bagley were doing was quite incredible, so it was a chance to work with both of them. There were two places: the big house on the hill and the pavilion gallery at Seattle Center.
So I had two places to work: Asian art on the hill and contemporary art at the Seattle Center. I was the designer. I took over from a long line of, well, you’ll have to excuse me, the name slips my mind. But it was Kenneth Callahan before that—oh, Neil Meitzler, that’s who it was, a fairly known painter, he came before me. So I ended up at the museum and worked for them for two years and, at that same time, the doctor hired Anne Focke. And she wanted to travel in Europe for a year, and he said, ‘Well, I’ll pay for your year in Europe and you’ll come back and work for us.’ At that time, she was the education person. And we met there and continued to whatever.
Whatever? Well, I got divorced, and we got together. And soon, we had so much going on in our own home that we knew we had to do something of our own, so we started something called And/Or, which was a term that Lucy Lippard used in her books—she was a hero and still is. Lucy just had a show in [Brooklyn] that I would have loved to have seen. The name of the show was the name of the book, something like a 20-word title, I’ve just always called it ‘Conceptual Art in the Age of Change,’ but then it goes on and on in Lucy’s style. Anyway, we started looking, and we found a place and opened a place called And/Or [in the Capitol Hill location that’s now Oddfellows]. We were getting tons of money from the National Endowment for the Arts until the time that they sent Marcia Tucker to investigate us. At that point, she was the curator at the Whitney [Museum of American Art in New York]. They sent her to investigate could we possibly have poetry, music, neighborhood activities, children’s things, art, literature—could we possibly be doing all these things we were getting money for? And she found out, yeah, we were. So we were kind of 24 hours a day there for a number of years until I was worn out, and Anne finally broke everything down into umbrella organizations and closed up shop. Previous to that, we did what is now known as Bumbershoot.
So you started Bumbershoot. Anne and I did, yeah. At that time it was called Best of ’71 or ’72, whatever year it was. That’s covered in Walt Crowley’s book Rites of Passage. … Because of all of our work at the museum through the center, people knew us, so we could do pretty much anything we wanted at that time because the place was dead. At that time, we ran for nine days—two weekends. Now it’s only one weekend. We had everything from polka bands wandering around for the few older folks on the grounds to, we had 35 artists from Canada, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, and Northern California staying with us to do pieces.
Did the artists actually stay with you? Yeah, well, we lived in a horrible house that had been deserted.
You were squatting? No, no: Anne went to the city and found out who owned it, and we got into it. There was rooms we couldn’t use because there were toilets falling through the floor. It was up on the corner of Broadway and Alder. There was a children’s daycare center right there in front, and then right behind that there was this giant old house which is certainly gone by now, and there was this little lot, little tiny lot behind it, so there was lots of sleeping bags, and it was 24 hours a day for 9 days straight.
I would come home and pour another two or three packages of spaghetti into the pot, and then wander back to the Center grounds, and catch a couple hours sleep in the little office they gave us upstairs. We always had something going on. The people who run it now, One Reel, they were a vaudeville show and we had them for the first year. We had Claes Oldenburg put up a giant inflatable faucet.
Claes Oldenburg's 1972 drawing of a faucet over Lake Union.
Is that where that drawing comes from that’s now in SAM’s collection, of the faucet over Lake Union [by Oldenburg]? That’s where that drawing comes from. The faucet was up on top of the roof.
On top of what? It’s the food court now. It was the armory to start with.
The Center House. Yes! It’s been a long time. We had Larry Heald at that time who was doing—if you want a visual reference—album covers for the band, oh, what’s their name, it will come to me in a second—plus, we had these giant inflatable black and white worms that hung off of the Space Needle, and we had everybody there to photograph it, and thank god, because the wind had come up that day and it only lasted like eight minutes. Oh, the Youngbloods. That’s the band.
When did you move out to Whidbey? Ninety-nine, 2000. My wife was dying, and she wanted to get out. She didn’t want one of these things of dying in front of her friends. It was seven years of cancer, five years of ovarian and two years of lung. We thought we had it solved one time, we’d gone to the doctors again and they said ‘Hey, you’re clear, you’ve made it,’ and we got home and there was a call from the hospital and they said, ‘We’d like you to come in tomorrow—we’re seeing something else here we’d like to look at,’ and lo and behold, it was lung cancer. And there is a very strange thing, praying for lung cancer, that it’s not the ovarian cancer that has traveled. So we sold the condo and sold Two Bells Tavern—
How long had you owned that? We had that for 20 years. And we moved here. And she passed in 2001. And I was getting over that and getting everything done, of course—all the crap that goes with that. Within a year of that, I was getting myself together with my passport to visit friends in Mexico and—such things as this—a little trip to the doctor and I was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and COPD. And so, nothing to be done for either one of them. So they won’t give me a date, but… [laughing]. Which—I don’t know whether that’s good or bad.
Who organized this show at the Virginia Inn? Apparently—excuse me just a minute [coughing]—I’ve been hanging out alone for quite a while, and a couple of old friends apparently got together and realized I needed some help one way or another, and sort of started putting things together. Patrice [Demombynes, Virginia Inn owner] and I have been partners since... well, he was the first man I met in Seattle. He was living in an attic above a couple of old red diaper children, wonderful young couple whose parents were old communists in Seattle. And we became friends and have been tight ever since, through all the guerrilla shows we’ve done together. So He and Jimmy [Fotheringham] took over the V.I., which I’d been familiar with for a long time because I’d known the bartender at the Comet Tavern, of course, and she’d worked there in ’49 or something, so I’d be down there with all the old gentlemen occasionally and suddenly two young men bought the place and all hell broke loose—the old guys didn’t know what to do.
This one time, the guys are absolutely sure that Jimmy and Patrice are queer. They weren’t taking to the change. So I asked Jimmy if he still had his Polaroid in his car, and we just took a picture of every one of them and put it up behind the bar so they felt at home. But they were a group of people that are gone now. They were the old sailors living in the market. They were a wonderful, wonderful group of people.
Except for the queer-hating. It wasn’t that they hated them, they just didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t get anybody really hateful. It was just, ‘When I come downstairs, where am I going to hang out?’
At what point did you start Artech? I started Artech in ’58-’59, something like that, though the way it exists now and the whole organization, I mean, that’s different—I started it as a one-man band in Portland. Just myself and whatever artist needed help that day to hang a show in a church basement. You have to remember that there was no galleries and such. People in Portland and Seattle were basically showing in furniture stores. I started trying to get people shows. I started working for a friend at the Two Bells to get people in. I worked there nights to fund a gallery—I was a bartender. And one time, myself and my numerous gay friends were there [at the Two Bells], and a couple came in, and everybody’s wondering who is this little Bellevue wife, and I said I had no idea, but she showed up the next day and said ‘Look, I bought the place and I’m firing everybody but you,’ and in a year or so, that was my last wife who just passed, Patricia Ryan. So we were together there for 20 years until we came here.
The announcement for your Virginia Inn show says you’ve showed something like a thousand artists over the years, in galleries, bars, and guerrilla shows. At least. We had one huge gallery in the market, which is all architects’ space now. It was a two-floor space but it was vacant and we were able to get it for two months to be able to do something, and I can’t remember how many artists we had in that show, probably 40. That would have been in the late ’70s, early ’80s. And then we had the Garner/Demombynes Gallery, right off of Dexter behind Girls Girls Girls. It was a friend of ours’ studio, a huge, beautiful studio, and he was moving to New York and he wasn’t quite sure about things, so we said, ‘We’ll take over the rent and turn it into a gallery until you’re sure, so we ran it as a gallery for two years and showed a number of people.’
Where else did you put up shows? I’m just really proud that I was able to make a living my whole life in the art world without cheating anybody. In the old days—galleries were a little, well… you never knew whether you were going to get paid or not. Things were not as tight as they are now, let’s say. But yeah, Patrice and I did a number of shows. I hung all the shows at Foster/White [Gallery] for 21 years. Nineteen years at the Frye Museum in the old days before it changed. The Hines Gallery, Richard Hines’ gallery—for however many years he was in business. There were shows that came up, and Artech, you have to do a lot to keep a young business going. One of our big clients was Nordstrom, and so we covered all their fashion shows, laid out the risers, trucked them in and out, and oversaw any of the designers’ dresses coming in and any of the furs that were coming in. So those kind of things that you are not particularly proud of and you do not have on your bio, but the things that kept you alive during those days—there are a number of those crazy kind of things. Red Robin! Shipping tons of Red Robin stained glass all over the world as they began to expand.
Rolon Bert Garner's version of the English comic-strip character, Carol Day. He made this painting in 1969, and it's the earliest piece in the exhibition at the Virginia Inn.
When did you find time to make your own paintings? When are the paintings in this show from? I think the earliest one is ’69, and the latest one would be 2010-2011. There’s nothing from 2012. The earliest one is called Carol Day and it’s a bust of a female saying “Oh my god, I hope that’s got rid of him for the evening.” Carol Day was an English comic-strip character kind of like Mary Worth was here. I just took a panel and played with it a little, exposed a breast, moved things, like one does when one’s making a painting. The latest one is The Ninth Hour, which is the large crucifixion painting. It’s the huge painting. There are three females and they’re all on crosses.
Where did that one come from? I’ve been working with the muses, of course there’s always three of them, and I just started thinking about the fact that the hill must not have been used just for Jesus and the rest. There must have been a lot of other things that came before that, and one of the things must have been females. So I played with it. You get a girl-next-door female and the right-now female in the center and the one on the right you’ll note has snake eyes and is blue and is a little futuristic and maybe a dream.
All your paintings are so bright. Where does your color style come from? Just being anti-Northwest for years and years and years. [Laughing.] I’ve just never understood why someone here would paint their house the green of the trees. There’s enough green here! There’s enough blue! Paint your house purple! Just loll in color. It lightens you in every way. It lightens your mind, your heart, your eyes.
Is your home like that? Well, I have purple walls. Yeah. It’s been that way for a number of years since the good old days of supergraphics, when the entire bathroom was one enormous American flag that wrapped around everything except the porcelain.
Do you tie your style to American Pop? To Warhol and John Wesley? Yeah, Andy is one of my heroes. Wesley, which you mentioned—and I’m always surprised when people do, because few do—he’s a freaking genius. But there’s a great space there between paintings that would have come previous to ’69 because I was doing all performance pieces and conceptual works, of which none of them have ever been shown.
Really? Can you tell me about any of them? I showed in a show of photography next to Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, and we were both in a back room and had to be marked adults-only, which wasn’t unusual. I’d helped Jimmy Manolides do a show of ceramics at his gallery, of little boxes with little people in them that had little penises. Anyway, this was a series I did after [ventriloquist] Edgar Bergen died, and I call them The Death of Charlie McCarthy, because he willed Charlie McCarthy [his dummy] to the Smithsonian and, let’s face it, there’s gotta be one million things in the Smithsonian that’ll never be seen again, so I did this series.
I worked nude all the time—I was nude, because I was kind of into the female thing at the time of, there are no male nudes and why not? [The Charlie McCarthy photograph that got marked "adults-only"] was my torso with a Charlie McCarthy puppet laying next to an erect penis, with gauze wrapped around a lot of things.
That sounds confusing. Who owns the penis? I do. Well I don’t much any more, but I’m old, I’m old.
And what about performances? They were all private. Let’s see—there used to be a magazine called Performance and they were the only people that ever covered my stuff. I never did it for audiences, well, a couple of times, but almost all of them were private and were only photographed. A lot of them were in the And/Or space nights between shows, when I could do things in the space.
What happened in the actual performances? There’s one of them where I’m wearing leather pants and a giant horsehead and I’m in hay and I’m attempting to make myself into a Picasso.
Why? I had been looking at some of his early drawings and I really liked the things about the horse and the bull and I got the horse head from a production of Equus—Empty Space [Theatre] had just finished a show and the costume was available. At that time, Empty Space was right across the street from the Comet, so right around the corner from And/Or, so we did a lot together.
There’s another performance that was outside and had to do with the horrible problems that were going on in South America at the time. I’ve got a little fire burning and I’m burning the outline of South America into my chest.
Is there still a scar in the shape of South America on your chest? I don’t think so. I had to work fairly fast. I was using twigs off of a tree that were all in the campfire. I would take them out and use them to trace this on my chest.
Did it hurt? Ah, not too bad, because you’re concentrating on what you’re doing. I was very disturbed by much of what was going on in South America at the time, and in that I was not a joiner or a protester, I kind of did it in my own way. Sometimes people [respond to world events] in quiet ways that you don’t know happened and you may never know happened. But maybe your grandmother did something that is keeping you safe, my dear, for the rest of your life.
So anyway, there’s tons more, but I’m sure as I start to babble… I’m just another one of the washed-up artists that’s happened all over the world. Which is not saying I wouldn’t do it all again, but it’s just saying not everybody gets famous. Not everybody is Jeff Koons. But it’s worth it.
Thank you for taking the time to talk for so long. I know it’s not super-easy to breathe. Well, you caught me right after I took my inhaler. Take care. You take care, because that’s the most important thing.