UW Tacoma at peace with donation of Picasso art

The University of Washington Tacoma now has an original Picasso drawing hanging in its library, courtesy of Tacoma peace activist the Rev. Bill “Bix” Bichsel.

In a ceremony April 30 that honored Bichsel’s life and commitment to peace and justice, Picasso’s 1953 line drawing “La Visage de la Paix (The Face of Peace)” was offered up by the Jesuit priest on behalf of the reconciliation group he led to Japan in 2009. But how that group got hold of the artwork, valued at $60,000, is a result of a peace connection stretching back to the artist himself.

“We’d gone to Japan in 2009 to express our sorrow for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” explained Bichsel, who’d organized the group of 18 mostly Puget Sound-area travelers for what they called The Journey of Repentance.

“When we first got there, we were met by the Japanese Peace Committee. There was a lot of gift exchanging, as is common in Japan. We just brought over simple things like dream-catchers and scarves. But they gave us this tremendous piece of art. We didn’t realize just what it was at first.”

What it was, in fact, was a Picasso original. The French artist – known for his anti-war sculpture and drawings of doves, a peace symbol – had drawn and given it to the Japanese Peace Committee when he visited and joined them in 1953. The drawing depicts a dove with a serene human face on its body.

“It had deteriorated a little,” said Karen Havenaar, a member of the interfaith tour group who had been taking care of the drawing until it was presented to the UWT on Monday. “The JPC had just kept it in a simple folder. As soon as they gave it to Bix, I grabbed it; I knew he’d just give it to someone right away. He’s like that.”

Back in Tacoma, Havenaar contacted the Picasso Foundation and discovered they charged $1,400 for an appraisal, something the group couldn’t afford. Instead she got the work appraised by former Tacoma appraiser Andrea Moody, who assessed the value at $60,000. Havenaar had the drawing framed in museum-quality glass and stored it quietly at her house for safe-keeping.

“I didn’t talk about it,” she said.

Meanwhile, the group talked about what to do with it. They approached staff at the Tacoma Art Museum, who weren’t particularly interested, and finally decided to offer it to the university, to honor the Japanese who lived in that area of downtown prior to the World War II internments. The university also was involved when the Japanese Peace Committee visited Tacoma in 2004.

“It was an easy decision to make,” recalled UWT Chancellor Debra Friedman. “I was stunned. This is an exceptional and beautiful gift to the university community. It celebrates both art and Father Bix’s extraordinary life given to peace activism. And it will enrich the life of the students here.”

Friedman waited until Bichsel was released from the jail term he’d been serving as a result of his protests last year at the Bangor Naval Base before holding the April 30 presentation ceremony at the UWT library. UWT professor Michael Honey, a friend of Bichsel’s and a labor rights historian, offered comments on the priest’s life and work and sang one of his favorite songs.

“I feel very elated” that they have the Picasso, Bichsel said. “We’re very happy to be connected with them. They’re on their own pursuit of justice and peace.”

The artwork now hangs high in the library, safely out of reach.

“This is a beautiful symbol of an international artist who stood for peace,” Bichsel said.