- Courtesy of the artist
- IF WHITING TENNIS COULD ONLY HAVE ONE PIECE BACK It would be this 6-by-8-foot painting Document (1995), a copy of a 17th-century map of the English massacring Pequots.
It's been more than a week now since a Budget rental truck full of art headed to a museum exhibition was stolen from a hotel parking lot at Aurora and 145th. (Original story, follow-up, and police list of stolen artworks.)
As far as we know, there are no leads yet. This morning, I got to speak to the artist, Whiting Tennis, by phone. He said he talked to Hiro Yamashita, the SPD detective assigned to the case, on Wednesday, and learned that the SPD was considering getting the art information to the FBI in case the thieves tried to get the art across state lines. But it was hard not to be discouraged—the detective had two other Budget rental truck cases put in front of him since this one and that in addition to the usual work, Tennis said. (Note to consumers: Right now, you may want to consider not renting one of Budget's brand-new 16-foot trucks; apparently, thieves like them.)
Here's the rest of our conversation about what it feels like to have your work stolen—but not the good way.
WT: I always had this fantasy of getting stolen off a museum wall. I thought that would be the most flattering thing that could happen to you. But not in this case—that's not at all what happened. I just think I got unlucky. And to just think, "Oh, they left it in an alley somewhere?" That just makes me nauseous. I can't imagine what they think when they open that back door and go, 'What the fuck is this?' But the cop said, "You'd be very surprised what there's a market for." I asked him, and he [says] what they've seen over the years is that there is someone out there who'd probably get into having hot art. I don't know. I was gonna maybe call him again today.
JG: What's the worst part?
WT: If I could get one thing back instead of getting any insurance money at all, I would probably do that with the Document painting. It's something that I made when i was living in New York and I had a studio in Dumbo. It took, like, months, and then I showed it at Susan Grover [a gallery in Seattle] in 1995, and it just got lost in that show; I don't think that piece got the attention it deserved.
It's a verbatim copy of a document, of an etching they included in a book printed in England in the 17th century. There was a massacre of, I think it was the Pequots. They were an Indian tribe resisting the colonies, and holding out in this swamp. I guess the Naragansett helped tip them off about where this fort was, so in the middle of the night, the army hiked down through the swamp with the Naragansett scouts and they set this fort on fire. As the Indians came running out of the fire, they just shot them.
I took each element of the map of this thing and blew it up like 18 times. It's a drawing of the palisade and the colonists outside it shooting with their guns, and inside it shows all the longhouses they have. Everything is like seeing the fort from above, but in this style where it's like you're both seeing from the side and the top. That's what they would do at that time: they would put two perspectives in each map.
I made a woodblock for each part of the image that I could. The original image itself is only like maybe 8 by 12 or 11. It folds out of the book and it has creases where the folds are, and I put those in the painting.
When it showed at Susan Grover, people weren't so interested in what it was because it was so weird. But the reason I was excited about doing this show now [opening next month at the Hallie Ford Museum at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon] is they were interested in doing more contemporary stuff but I also got them to include this painting. It has been sitting in a friend's house for 10 years, but it was going to be the first thing you hit when you come into the show.
I used to do all this history work, and now I don't do that work anymore, and I think it's interesting as an art viewer that you would see something so different early on, trying to make the connection or the string between doing that work and this more anthropomorphic stuff. I just thought it made the show more interesting and complicated and personal and real.
It's the one that is the most heartbreaking because if that never comes back to me, I mean, I was definitely planning on having that in my house, you know, when I'm older. My collection is made up of stuff people don't really want and then I become really attached to it, I look at it and go, "I'm so glad to have my ugly ducklings." So there's an emotional element to this.
I'm not looking for any kind of publicity. I don't want pity, I don't want any of that stuff—that's the embarassing part of it. You listen to what people go through, this is nothing. But there is this interesting angle.
JG: Are you just sitting around thinking about this, or what?
WT: No! I'm still working on this painting for the atrium of the show down in Salem. They still have to make up three walls [since the theft]. But the windfall is that I got an extension for this big painting I'm working on. I've been taking all the papers that I made—a big file of prints and painted papers—and now I'm using them like a grandmother with a quilt. I have the woodblocks all the way back to 1995, so somewhere in that painting, there will be paper that's printed with all those Indian dudes running around. If I was gonna do a walkthrough of the show, I was gonna say, "Remember that thing you saw in the first room?" Now there's nothing going back to the history.
JG: You don't have anything else from that time?
WT: I don't have anything on that size. It was like 6 by 8 [feet]. It was a wall. It was a total wall, like, in your face. And then another weird thing is that I've always had this idea in my head that when I'm old—again, I'm already old—but that I would have this show of big paintings. Every other year or third year, I make one really big painting, and I've kept a list in my head ever since the Civil War paintings of the big works. And now I'm down two. Because Document was one of them and Blue Hamburger was one of them. Both of those I saw in this show, not like a retrospective, but like a series of the big paintings for when I'm ancient. My list was getting close to 10 and then the quilt I'm making would be one. So those fuckers, that show has been totally compromised.
JG: I'm sorry this happened to you, Whiting.
WT: I went to a party last night and every single person came up to me and said something, and I was so grateful in a way that everyone's so supportive. That's cool. I don't want to diminish the value of that. But of course the case is a whole 'nother matter—whether it finds its way back. I'm just keeping working.
With any information about the whereabouts of the art, call Detective Yamashita at 206-684-8945. Greg Kucera of Greg Kucera Gallery is offering a reward; contact him at 206-624-0770.