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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 26, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 34
Memorial art show honors Robert Thurman
Arts & Entertainment
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Memorial art show honors Robert Thurman

by Kat Humphrey - Special to the SGN

The Robert Thurman Memorial Retrospective ends its run on August 31 at Art/Not Terminal Gallery. Thurman helped found the non-profit, artist-run gallery in 1988. After he came out the following year and was later diagnosed with AIDS, his focus shifted away from the gallery and exhibiting his artwork, though he continued to paint and to fill nearly a thousand sketchbooks with pen and ink. The gallery continues in its 22nd year; Bob passed away in January at age 63.

The name, Art/Not Terminal, distinguished the gallery from the former bus terminal in its original location. The double meaning was intentional, and is relevant in relation to the retrospective, which showcases about one-fifth of the large body of artwork that survives Bob. The gallery is also part of his legacy. It features work of artists of all skill levels, and is run entirely by volunteers.

Art/Not Terminal is currently situated in the Denny Triangle, where downtown, Belltown, and the South Lake Union neighborhood converge. The memorial show is in the cavernous, 1,800-square-foot Subterranean Room. Through August, this space is dedicated to Bob, and presents 30 of his paintings - mostly oil on canvas, five small bronze sculptures, and four of his hundreds of sketchbooks. In an alcove at the top of the stairs leading down to the show there is also one small, spare line drawing of a male nude in a contemplative pose.

Sizes of the work in the exhibit range from a five-inch-long bronze hand to a four-foot-high geometric abstract on canvas. Subject matter covers a similar span - urban scenes, still-lifes, portraits, sensuous and sensitive nudes and semi-nudes, abstracts, and spirited representatives from the realms of reptiles, fish, and canines. One long canvas filled to its borders with snapdragons was possibly painted on Bob's outdoor easel. His experiences as a Gay man and as a child who spent his first years of school in Japan seem to infuse several elements of the show.

Many who knew Robert Thurman hadn't known he was an artist, and many who did had never seen his work. He reached adulthood with a seventh-grade education, and in 1980 got a diploma from Seattle University, which he hung on his bedroom wall beside the diploma of his spouse.

According to some of Bob's résumés - which chronicle his public artistic endeavors in Seattle - he majored in fine arts and did further study in bronze sculpture over the course of three years at Pratt Fine Arts Center. In 1983, he attended life-drawing sessions at Pratt, the University of Washington, and the Fremont Arts Center. In 1984, he led life-drawing sessions at Pratt. From 1984 to 1990 he began donating, exhibiting, and selling his artwork. He sold work at auctions at Pratt, St. Joseph's School, and Holy Names Academy. He exhibited work at Art/Not Terminal, Fremont Gallery, the gallery in Broadway Market on Capitol Hill, Fast Forward, the café AFLN (which stood for A Frilly Lace Nightgown), and Benham Gallery, in a show that featured additional media outside of its usual photography focus. Bob's family also recalls his show at the Elliott Bay Book Company café in the early '90s. He sold work through some of these venues and to private collectors, including sculptures in bronze and terra cotta, and paintings and drawings, including a commission for 150 color drawings for a motion picture storyboard. One résumé notes his influences as Marvin T. Herard, Nickolas Damascus, Louise McDowell, and Ronald Greenberg. His primary aims are stated: 'To become an artist who is able to match skill and creativity in expressing a deep sense of unity with the desires, fears, and hopes of others.'

Some visual influences for Bob are suggested through specific pieces of his artwork. In addition to his major in fine arts, his education included participation in stagecraft and ballet classes. One of the bronze sculptures in the show is a male ballet dancer, mostly nude, with an elaborate mask. In relation to one of the smaller paintings, a visitor to the show wondered if a reflective-seeming element in this abstract was related to a large chrome bumper from an old car. The source for that painting isn't known, but Bob did have an intense interest in cars, and collected toy cars and used car parts as inspiration for abstract elements in some of his work. In a three-foot-high painting of a reclining male nude in the show, the robe that is loosely draped around the figure appears to be kimono-influenced. He reportedly loved to go to Uwajimaya, the Asian grocery and gift store, just to look at the kimonos.

There are a few instances in the work that seem to possibly relate to the process of coming out. They combine elements of camouflage and masking along with an underlying vitality. The painting of the man used as the image on the poster and postcard for the show includes a beret that may be military camouflage. Intentionally or not, it could be part of a poignant portrait of, among other things, the era of the military's 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy.

The idea for the show evolved at a memorial gathering for Bob held at Richard Hugo House. It was organized by one of Bob's coworkers and close friends at the Central Co-op grocery store. Bob worked at the co-op for more than 10 years, and that community became a second family for him. He was deeply beloved at the store - his gentle nature, insightful support, and affection were profoundly valued. For disclosure purposes it should be said that this writer is a long-time customer ('member-owner') at the co-op, and attended the memorial gathering to support friends in that community who were grieving. Since Bob had seniority for the past several years at the store and didn't work weekends, this writer hadn't had an opportunity to get to know him during her weekly food-shopping trips. She wanted to learn who this man was who had had such an effect on so many. She was moved to organize the show, and through the course of many conversations with Bob's family in order to select the work and provide some context for it, amassed more information she felt would be appreciated by a broader audience - hence this article.

Many contributions of time, skill, financial, and in-kind support from individual and organizational entities in the community made the exhibit possible. The details of what goes into such a project are rich in themselves. People from the co-op and the gallery - and a few individuals from outside those contexts, including Bob's family - volunteered to help with graphic design for the postcard, poster, ads, website, text panels, and other graphics; photographing the work and taking a (pending) video of the show for the website; preparing the paintings with wires to hang them; refurbishing the bases of the sculptures; repainting the pedestals, display case, and some areas of the gallery walls; lighting design; addressing and mailing postcards; preparing inspired, homemade food and presentation for the opening and Belltown Art Walk receptions; packing, transporting, hanging, and taking down the work, including for a trial run to determine what work would be shown and how it would be laid out. Gifts were made of or toward the printing of posters, packing and display material, food for the reception, ads, and general expenses. A couple members of the gallery were frequent sources of miscellaneous assistance. The collective character of both the co-op and the gallery made for a powerful combination of forces. Bob's family said that such a show would have meant more to him than anything else. It has been a pleasure for many involved to be able to make that happen.

By his spouse's account, Bob's comfort with his sexual identity was strengthened in part by his art-making, his work community, his family, his neighborhood of Capitol Hill and the Gay community there, therapy, The Gay and Married Men's Association, and reading widely (among many other topics) works by and about individuals in the LGBT world - the poet Rimbaud and the playwright, novelist, poet, and essayist Jean Genet to name a couple. He read Seattle Gay News (which is carried at the co-op) regularly, and attended Pride and other related rallies with his family consistently.

Bob was married with two children when he came out. It was a tumultuous, difficult time. He had had a deep desire for two children, and he and his wife Kathy had endured four early-term miscarriages over seven years before their second daughter was born. Bob and Kathy shared a solitary nature, and neither was interested in starting a new long-term relationship with someone else. They didn't want to end their friendship or their support of each other or their family unit. It was a great relief to Kathy to understand Bob's sexual orientation, and how that explained many of the strains on their relationship. They did separate for a couple years around this time, in part because Kathy didn't want to be in the way of Bob developing a committed relationship with someone else. But they continued to naturally spend a lot of time together, and at Bob's insistence, she ended up moving back in. She was supportive of his being actively Gay, and they developed a unique and unconventional context for their relationship. Kathy says they were physically affectionate with each other the way siblings or friends are, more so in some other cultures. They shared many interests and values, spent much time together enjoying films and concerts, etc., and had many extended conversations. Bob was as 'out as could be,' and his AIDS was general knowledge to most all who knew him. He became a vocal supporter of Gay rights. Kathy has had a history with the feminist group Radical Women, and Bob and Kathy supported each other's primary causes. They identified as 'informal socialists,' valuing 'sharing and cooperation over accumulation and competition.' This orientation was strengthened by Kathy's 26 years of employment with the welfare office.

Bob worked many jobs before being a grocery clerk and buyer at the co-op, such as janitor, slaughterer of cows (his least favorite occupation), dishwasher in a nursing home, and househusband. He and Kathy lived mostly in one-bedroom apartments, and in two-bedroom apartments when they were also housing their daughters. In all these spaces, there was always some room carved out for Bob's art-making. The one time he had a separate studio was for six months in 1988, when he rented one with two other artists in Pioneer Square. They opened their studio to visitors during every First Thursday Art Walk.

One job Bob held briefly, for about a year, was between the time he came out and when he learned he had AIDS. He did household chores for people with AIDS through the Fremont Public Association, now called Solid Ground. The contrast between the many medications and side effects those AIDS patients had to suffer through and Bob's considerably smoother and extremely successful ongoing treatment marks a landmark shift in that cultural and medical history. Bob had signed up for a counselor with Northwest AIDS, but was so improved after his first year of treatment that he didn't feel he needed the service.

Bob died of a heart attack in his sleep. Kathy said that in the morning he was in his usual sleeping position in his bed, with a peaceful look on his face. She thought he was still asleep, but he didn't wake up. It is a solace to many that such a peaceful man had such a seemingly peaceful exit, and that his last years were so relatively contented. His desire for children was fulfilled again in his final year, with the birth of his first grandchild - his youngest daughter's son - who carries Thurman as his middle name.

Many who knew Bob - and now some who didn't - carry a part of him with us as well.

The Robert Thurman Memorial Retrospective continues through August 31.

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