For 52 years, the Junior League of Seattle has sought to “ignite minds through art” with their Northwest Art Project. Founded by educator and civic leader Dee Dickinson, the project provides youth with access to art, a venue for critical thinking and conversation that encourages discussions that might not otherwise be facilitated in school.
The project was founded in response to a growing deficiency in arts education following budget cuts. It targets schools that do not have any art programs at all or whose existing programs could use additional support. Because slideshows do not offer the full experience and understanding one gets from seeing artwork in person, the Northwest Arts Project currently tours more than eighty pieces of juried artworks by Pacific Northwest artists. The original, museum-quality pieces are accompanied by an extensive, state-approved curriculum designed by Halinka Wodzicki of the Henry Art Gallery. This curriculum—and the project as a whole—is intended to inspire critical thinking and expose students to artistic thought, complementary to the more linear thought learned in mathematics and sciences. This blend of approaches helps today’s and tomorrow’s thinkers develop alternative solutions, which is quite necessary in our developing society.
Just as art has progressed in the last fifty-two years, so has the project’s collection through donations and strategic acquisitions. The artwork represents multiple mediums, styles and forms by artists including Jacob Lawrence, Mike Spafford, Marita Dingus, Juan Alonso, Glen Alps, Alden Mason, and Parks Anderson. The first piece in the collection was donated by Kenneth Callahan, an artist who truly embodies the school of Northwest art. The pieces are chosen by jury based on both visual appeal and message—an important component when developing lesson plans and discussions around each piece.
I first came into contact with the Junior League of Seattle and their efforts through an event at the Henry Art Gallery, featuring Francine Seders as a key speaker. Although this event was framed for adults, it was easy to see how influential and exciting the Northwest Art Project’s traveling collection is to the youths it reaches. Ashley Baerwaldt, the Junior League’s President, documents how the “eager participation, thoughtful interpretations, artworks, poems, stories, dances and dramatizations continue to surprise both docents and teachers of these children.”
To learn more about the Junior League of Seattle and the Northwest Art Project, I participated in one of the training sessions at the Bellevue Arts Museum and interviewed Nicole Kupchik, the vice chair for the Northwest Art Committee. There I learned about the “Building Blocks of Art as Elements of Art” and the “Abstraction of Form.” These training sessions allow Junior League Seattle members and docents to communicate the ideas of the artwork and the program clearly to the students. In addition to these training sessions, members experience unique visits to artists’ studio spaces, providing a deeper understanding of the creative process. The Bellevue Art Museum has previously exhibited the entire eighty-five-piece collection, showcasing the efforts of the Junior League of Seattle in one space. The collaboration with the Bellevue Art Museum allows the Junior League of Seattle to strengthen its outreach within the arts community on the East Side.
My conversation with Nicole Kupchik helped me define a central idea of the project that is sometimes not easy to tack down. The idea of Northwest artists as a group—and the defining features of their art—is often difficult to describe. Some artists such as Jacob Lawrence are not from the Pacific Northwest but are traditionally associated with Seattle as a cultural hub. Kupchik explains, “The influence of the Pacific Northwest defines the art, not just where the artist is from.” Her appreciation for the local arts community is apparent as she describes the free spirit of our region’s art, how its soulful qualities and ties to nature give artists and their work a unique appeal.
It’s clear that The Junior League’s attention to the arts and its efforts to cultivate an understanding of what it means to be Northwest art for future generations of Seattleites are vital to our cultural well being and identity. With the goal of reaching over 20,000 children throughout King County this year, the Junior League of Seattle is clearly an organization devoted to bettering the future of arts in Seattle.