An art history
by Hannelore Sudermann | © Washington State University
Worth D. Griffin stepped off the train in Pullman in the fall of 1924 to find Washington State College’s art department barely four years old and with just one other full-time faculty member. Prior to that, the only art instruction offered was painting lessons for students with the pocket money.
But Griffin had come to help teach design and creative composition and build a program. The Indiana native had studied commercial and fine art in Indianapolis and at the Art Institute in Chicago. In addition to working as a magazine illustrator, he trained among American realists, artists focused on rendering unidealized scenes of daily life. His advanced studies were with portraitists including Wayman Adams and Charles Hawthorne. In Griffin, that training would surface in his paintings of scenes and people he encountered around eastern Washington: Pullman’s grain elevators, local homesteaders, Native Americans, and landscapes.
Many students today may have never heard of Griffin. They wouldn’t know that he stayed for 34 years. He taught painting and drawing. He served as chairman of the art department. He pushed the school to offer a master of fine arts degree. He co-founded a summer art colony in the 1930s. And he expanded the school’s course offerings to include sculpture, pottery, jewelry design, interior design, aesthetics, etching and lithography, mural painting, and art history and art appreciation.
But who was this man, and how significant was his contribution? Those were the questions of Dave Fitzsimmons ’71, a cousin by marriage on the hunt for more of Griffin’s story.
Fitzsimmons got caught up in the hunt a few years ago when a painting by one of Griffin’s early Washington State students and colleagues, Clyfford Still, appeared on the Antiques Roadshow television program. To the surprise of the painting’s owners, and many in Pullman, the work was valued at a half million dollars. The piece, an eastern Washington scene, was painted in 1937 while Still was teaching art at Washington State College and before his style changed to the abstract expressionism for which he later became famous.
Learning about Still and his Pullman connection started Fitzsimmons wondering about his own family. His mother’s cousin Vivian Kidwell had graduated in fine arts in 1929 and stayed on for a graduate degree. She taught in public schools and later became part of the art colony in Nespelem on the Colville reservation that Griffin and Still co-founded in 1937. She married Griffin in 1938.
Fitzsimmons had grown up surrounded by paintings by Griffin and Kidwell. His mother and his aunt, Sharon Seegers ’58, were their heirs. He also ended up with an assortment of Griffin’s drawings and paintings. Fitzsimmons invited me to come see them at his home in Pendleton, Oregon, and do my own research into Griffin.
I arrived to find a few surprises. The first was a simple charcoal portrait by Griffin of Clyfford Still, likely done during the time he worked at WSU. It was tucked in with several other portraits Griffin had sketched of students.
The second was the person of Bob Brumblay, the son of WSU’s former athletic director Robert Brumblay ’28. “They had a strange relationship based on the fact that my dad was the student and Griff was the professor,” says Brumblay. “But they were both from Indiana.” In 1928, Griffin painted a wedding gift for Brumblay and his wife Hallie (a sorority sister of Vivian’s), a landscape that for decades hung in their home.
When the Brumblays returned to Pullman in 1949, the couples became close friends. As further evidence, Brumblay proffers another painting. “This Griff painted for my dad as a winning of a bet on a football game,” he says with a grin. It was Washington State versus USC. “If it came to pass that Washington State won the game, Griff would paint my dad a picture. If they had lost, my dad would paint Griff the picture. Well, you can see who won.”
Griffin often shared his work, using his paintings to build friendships not only for himself, but for the art department and the University.
In the mid-1930s, President E.O. Holland and the Board of Regents offered Griffin a leave of absence with salary and expenses to travel and paint 50 portraits of well-known eastern Washington people, including newspaper publishers, and business leaders like Frank T. Post, president of Washington Water Power. All of the 50 or more paintings were close to life size and “were made in homes, offices, hotel rooms, school buildings, or wherever convenient working space could be found,” according to a museum description of the works.
Many of the initial subjects led to new ones. “I think he became very intrigued and followed this tree that led from one person to another,” says Keith Wells, curator of the WSU Art Museum. It also led Griffin to look around eastern Washington for more locals to paint.
After that first year, Griffin asked for more time and support to paint various Indian tribal leaders in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. “Many of these people were well beyond middle age and represented customs, habits of living, and dress that were fast fading from the contemporary scene,” wrote Griffin. That effort led him nearly 180 miles north and west of Pullman to Nespelem on the Colville Reservation where in 1937 he and other teachers guided students in painting tribal members in ceremonial regalia.
That first year, Vivian Kidwell was invited from her teaching post in Wenatchee to help. She was a skilled and recognized artist in her own right. While earning her master in fine arts, she had been awarded two Carnegie scholarships to study at the University of Oregon. Then she taught art in Walla Walla, Ellensburg, and Wenatchee.
She was her own person, says her cousin Sharon Seegers. Even as a child, she would go her own way, regularly getting into mischief. She had a dog named Ole who would growl at her mother whenever she tried to discipline Vivian. Her childhood precociousness carried through to adulthood. “You could say she was an eccentric,” says Seegers, who keeps many of Kidwell’s papers and both artists’ paintings in the home she shares with her husband Raymond ’58 in Olympia.
Seegers remembers attending Kidwell and Griffin’s wedding, which was held at the Marcus Whitman Hotel in Walla Walla. “I was about six,” she says. “And Vivian wore a blue velvet dress.” And Griffin, “was pretty picky about how he looked. He was always a little bit formal.”
“They were very well-suited,” says Seegers. “I don’t think they could have gotten along better with anyone else.” They settled into a creative and productive life in Pullman, where they bought a duplex and Griffin worked on campus while Kidwell taught art in the Pullman School District.
“She was a real health-food person—long before it was in style,” says Seegers. Her husband laughed, adding that Griffin didn’t exactly embrace the effort. “Griff would call and say, ‘Would you like to go hunting or fishing?’” he says. “Then we’d stop on the way and buy all this junk food.” It was hard to tell if he was more interested in hunting or in getting to eat something unhealthy, he says.
The Seegers’ house is a gallery of work from both artists. A dark Kidwell landscape hangs in the dining room. Several of their watercolors hang in the den. And a colorful Griffin abstract, a departure from his normal style, hangs opposite the front window in the living room. While not strongly interested in abstract art, Griffin experimented with it. “He told us to enjoy an abstract painting, you’d have to find a focal point to get into it,” says Sharon Seegers. Her husband points to an area in the lower right near the signature. “Start here,” he says. “He thought that was a good point.”
Most of their papers and artwork stayed with Kidwell’s family. And while proof of Griffin’s contributions may be thin in the University’s archives, the vault of the Art Museum holds overwhelming evidence of his influence. The very first shelves are packed three levels high with more than a hundred of his paintings, primarily his portraits of settlers, community leaders, and Indians.
A few of these men and women were never photographed, and very little has been written about them. But for Griffin and the art colony students, they dressed up and were recorded. The brief histories he supplied on the back of his paintings are rare biographies of his subjects. “A quiet, unpretentious person,” he writes of one. And on another, the portrait of Yakama Chief Job Charlie Cowash, he notes: “A striking personality with long white hair and the ruddy complexion of a very young man.”
“I think they are probably more historical than art historical,” says Wells of the paintings. But between Griffin’s pieces and the pieces from the collection of WSU President E.O. Holland, they became the foundation artworks of the WSU museum’s collection.
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