Native design, 1950s craft

A SLICE OF ART HISTORY: Indian design met arts-and-crafts sensibility 50 years ago at the Klee Wyk studio on the Nisqually Flats, as a state history museum exhibit shows

April 3, 2011 


    What: ”Klee Wyk: Artists on the Nisqually Flats”

    Where: Washington State History Museum, 1911 Pacific Ave., Tacoma

    When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. third Thursdays of the month through Jan. 30, 2012

    Admission: $6-8; children 5 and younger get in free

    Information: 253-272-3200

In a tiny gallery at the back of the Washington State History Museum, a small, quiet moment in time has been captured. It's a time when the Arts and Crafts movement was still alive, when Northwesterners were just rediscovering Indian art, and when the Nisqually Flats was home to artists instead of the thundering lanes of Interstate 5.

For about a decade, four South Sound artists ran the Klee Wyk studio, making and selling artwork inspired by both modern design and Indian handicrafts. That artwork, echoing a more peaceful era, is now on exhibit in the history museum’s back gallery.

Klee Wyk was founded by brothers Del and Bud McBride (Cowlitz/Quinault) in 1953, on the Nisqually Flats about four miles south of Fort Lewis. Born in the Olympia area, the McBrides grew up with stories of their Indian heritage, which included a great-grandmother who had been present at the signing of the Medicine Creek Treaty.

Del had attended art school at the Art Center in Los Angeles, where the Arts and Crafts movement was still in full swing. Del took those sensibilities – an emphasis on the handcrafted and on smooth and functional design – and merged them with what he had discovered of Northwest Indian artistry: painter Emily Carr’s work in Vancouver, B.C., and ethnographic objects he had drawn as an assistant in the University of Washington’s anthropology department. Developing an artistic style that incorporated Indian motifs and crafts with modern aesthetic, Del and Bud created a live-work studio on the site of a traditional Nisqually lodge to make and sell that art: Klee Wyk, named after Emily Carr’s Indian name.

“We experimented to see what people were interested in,” recalls Richard Schneider, a ceramicist who joined the McBride brothers and their cousin Oliver Tiedeman in 1956. “We hoped that that would lead them into understanding the designs and where they came from.”

In the flyer announcing Klee Wyk’s opening, the studio’s goals were clear: “Northwest design, preservation of vanishing Indian handicrafts … a high standard of design … and a sales outlet.”

This merging of good design, Indian art and saleability speaks clearly from every object in the “Klee Wyk” museum exhibit. Del’s work ranges from designs of birds and people on delicate table-top tile murals to blurry, impressionistic paintings of totem poles and abstract gouaches that use native lines in a Paul Klee-like geometry.

Others in the group had a similar aesthetic. Schneider’s “Eye” mosaic table blends a lidded Indian tear-drop shape with the open simplicity of Arts and Crafts texture. There are woodblocks for printing fabric in orca and raven designs, and a case full of the pottery by Schneider and Bud McBride: hens and jugs with a hint of the lean lines of Native Northwest design.

The whole room, lit with a soft yellow light, speaks of a quieter era when craft was of primary importance.

“(The Klee Wyk artists) were not self-consciously using their art to explore or underscore their Indian identity – they were more interested in design, plain and simple,” says curator Maria Pascualy.

“They didn’t feel a need to prove to anyone who they were or their pedigree. Del and Bud … maintained a more complicated understanding of identity than we have had in recent times.”

They were also unusual in their own time, says Schneider, forerunners to an era when many artists, such as Preston Singletary, were solely devoted to contemporary Indian art. “There were people working at it around the edges, but not very many dedicated full-time,” he recalls.

Klee Wyk art was popular: Collectors and regular folk bought paintings and wind chimes, and commissions included a mural recently restored at West Seattle High School.

“Klee Wyk’s legacy is that they lasted as long as they did and that they were able to make a living selling good solid design to the public,” says Pascualy.

By the mid-’60s, however, Klee Wyk was running out of time: The interstate freeway was slated to run its southbound lanes right over the studio’s land. There was some talk of relocating, but each member had a different dream: Del McBride went on to curator positions at the Eastern Washington State Historical Society and the State Capital Museum, while Tiedeman didn’t want to keep it going, and Schneider and Bud McBride set up their own pottery studio on Orcas Island.

Del McBride died in 1998, but Schneider, now 83, still lives with Bud, 84, in the Nisqually area, and most of the objects in the show are from their collection. And after a 10-year break from making pottery, Schneider’s starting to get back into it.

“This time I can do what I want, not sit down and think, ‘We’ve got to make so many of these today to keep going,’” he says.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568

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