Alden Mason

Alden Mason (1919 - February 6, 2013) was a widely traveled American painter, particularly noted for his controversial murals.
Mason first began serious artistic pursuits when he arrived at the UW in 1938. "I did them [watercolors] so easily and everybody has so much trouble with watercolor."The most attractive properties of watercolor for Mason were the same that made the medium difficult to master: fluidity of paint and permanence of each brush stroke. For Mason, watercolor allowed him to improvise, sketching and at the same time painting the final composition. Though his teacher and mentor Hill exemplified how to properly paint landscape, Mason’s pursuit of watercolors steadily moved away from his own small controlled landscapes to larger, free-style abstractions.

 As early 1970 passed, Mason’s craving to work on a substantially larger scale than watercolor enabled him to make the switch to oil paint. He diluted his oils with Damar varnish and achieved large paintings that translated the glassy, pooling nature of watercolor into large-scale color-field paintings. This achievement marks the beginning of the famed Burpee Garden Series which takes its name from the Burpee Seeds catalog Mason grew up with as a kid. He felt the way the colors of oil paints merged on the canvas had a direct correlation with the growth and germination of seeds as they became plants. With this series Mason finally started getting the attention from New York he had always wanted. In 1973 Mason went to New York City with his Burpee Garden Series at the invitation of his longtime friend and past student Chuck Close.[9] At this time Mason became acquainted with Alan Stone, an art dealer in New York who represented his work through the late 1970s. The Greg Kucera gallery later described these works, saying....


    "With their audacious color, surprising scale, and exuberant abstraction, they represent a break with the drably colored or poetic narratives that had typified painting here following the advent of the Northwest School… In the paintings titled the ‘Burpee Garden’ series Mason produced six by seven foot paintings in a color range not previously seen in the Northwest. Created from 1970 to 1976 this short period produced some of the most influential and groundbreaking works ever made in Seattle."

 Work on the scale of the Burpee paintings was not sustainable for the artist. Mason would often start a painting at 9 a.m. and work it all the way to the finish at 2 a.m. early the next morning. In addition to painting, Mason spent time on large drawings with oil stick and graphite on paper. With these he experimented, washing down his hard edged lines using turpentine and mostly imaging large heads. Round-the-clock painting stints left Mason exhausted physically and emotionally. Another serious problem with the Burpee series was the adverse effect on his health. Poor ventilation and too many hours spent breathing varnish fumes threatened Mason’s lungs and nervous system. Soon he was collapsing on a regular basis and was advised by his doctors to stop using oil based pigments.

 When Mason left oil paint behind in the mid-1970s, his first thought was "can I do the same thing in acrylic that I did in oil?"To develop his ideas, he spent some time working on large paper pieces in search of his voice with this new medium. His works on paper during this period were drawn with a chopstick dragging acrylic paint and painted with thin, gestural washes on paper that had been painted black. The first acrylic works on canvas were done in a similar fashion to the oil Burpees; he poured thin acrylic paint onto horizontally oriented, white primed canvas hoping to produce the same effects the Burpees had realized.
By the 1970s Mason had abandoned white backgrounds and began his work by painting black over the entire canvas or sheet of paper, then proceeding with the rest of his painting. This process gave the desired pop to the brilliant acrylic colors he was using. The artist began chopstick drawings on black grounds and followed with drawings of softer colors during the Squeeze Bottle period. Mason's drawing at this time took on a different feel also, as he began testing with oil sticks washing his marks with turpentine and smudging them to create a filmy watercolor feel

 By the mid-1980s Mason started painting with squeeze bottles exclusively; it seemed he had finally found a way to combine his drawing with paintings, and the Squeeze Bottle series was born. Using a squeeze bottle and slightly diluted acrylic paint, Mason drew in raised lines and the overall feeling of each work became tapestries of acrylic paint. In some groups, Mason mixed gold, copper, and silver metallic into his colored paints producing canvasses that looked like they were woven together with metallic threads of color. At this time, his travels to Mexico and Central America influenced the iconography of his image with either patch worked blocks of design like a mola, or overall patterns like Mexican rugs. They also incorporated figures from his drawings, be it critters from the Skagit Valley or portraits of his immediate friends and family. After a trip to New York in the 1980s where he saw a large exhibition of Mark Rothko’s work, Mason’s color changed to become darker and more brooding for a short time.

 As the decade progressed into the 1990s, Mason branched out from Big Heads and began including the full body in his paintings. Mason’s work at this time lets his figures literally dance. The sketchy black outline of each character gives the feeling that they are jiving to Mason’s symphony of texture and color. Once again experimenting with acrylic paint application, Mason took the raised line of the Squeeze Bottle pieces, his drawings, Big Heads, and a chop stick;[11] combining them so that his line was less precise and his drawn characters were most important. Mason sketched with the chopstick on canvas, smudging the black or white line and adding splashes of vibrant color; he then filled in the backgrounds with a monochromatic palette on a scale averaging 60" x 50". Figure focused work occupies Mason throughout his later career and the mid to late 1990s found Mason expressing his interests and hobbies in paint. His studio is "chock-a-block with bird watching books, some tribal carvings from halfway around the globe, and a couple of framed carcasses of six inch long bugs."[5] For Mason, each painting told a story; be it of his travels friends, family, or of the lore of his home region the Pacific Northwest.
2013 – death

The free-formed garish figures and spirit birds of Mason’s earlier works made their transition to contemporary pieces; this time dressed up in a brand new medium. Ever experimental, Mason’s contemporary work is based on earlier work with new additions. Contemporary works are composed on a foundation of watercolor in the style of Burpees. This watercolor peeks through thick oil stick and India ink which form windows in the shape of big heads, whimsical writing and characters from farm days past. Mason's last work covers the entire paper with design. "Each new painting promises to better translate his observations into a painterly language…I am [continually] reminded that his lack of complacency keeps him vital." Mason died on February 6, 2013 in Seattle, Washington. He was 93.Wikipedia

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