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 Richard Charles Gilkey  (1925 - 1997)

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Lived/Active: Washington/Wyoming      Known for: mod still life, landscape, animal, bird

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Bellingham, Washington, Richard Gilkey became a painter of landscapes, inspired by his roots in the Skagit Valley where he was a fourth-generation resident. His paternal great-grandfather, one of the region's earliest settlers, had helped build dikes in the Edison area. His maternal grandfather was the bridge tender at the north end of the Swinomish Channel. He spent his early childhood in a British Columbia logging camp where his father marked trees for cutting. Then the family moved back to March Point, near Anacortes, and when Gilkey was 12, he moved with his parents to Seattle. He first studied art at Ballard High School with a popular teacher named Orre Nobles.

During World War II, Gilkey was in the Marine Corp, where as a private first class in the 3rd Marine Raider Battalion, he took part in the invasion of Bougainville in the Solomon Islands. Many in his battalion were killed and others seriously wounded. He was knocked out twice by artillery fire and spent 10 months in the hospital before receiving a medical discharge in August 1944. Both he and his brother, also in the marines, had shock and concussion. Persons close to Gilkey said that he never recovered from that period in his life, which today would be called post-traumatic stress disorder.

Returning to civilian life, he was unsettled and rabble rousing. He took a succession of odd jobs including that of ranch hand, merchant seaman, and logging. He drank heavily and hung around bars including the Blue Moon Tavern in the University District. His quick temper got him into many fights. However, his life turned around when he encountered the politically inspired, anti-war paintings of Guy Anderson, Morris Graves and Mark Tobey in the Seattle Art Museum. Because of these artists, he was inspired to do serious fine-art painting.

Years later, he wrote that this exposure "was a revelation and a turning point in my life. Here were paintings that addressed my concerns from very different points of view. Guy Anderson had painted the fallen parachutist, the wounded and damaged warrior, figures in rocks, in the sea and on the beach. Graves used personal symbols to indicate his feeling of the senselessness of war: birds, moons, gloves and urns. Tobey enmeshed figures, cities and worlds in threaded light and pointed to the unity of energy in all forms and deplored the egocentrism of warring nations. After meeting these artists, I gained from their encouragement, guidance and friendship" (Ament Interview, Gilkey Statement for Guy Anderson exhibition).

To meet Tobey, Gilkey sat on the front steps of his Brooklyn Avenue studio until the artist came out. (Gilkey later did the same thing with Picasso in southern France). As a result a friendship developed, and Tobey and also Graves became very encouraging of Gilkey's work and guided him in new directions.

Gilkey's first serious painting in his "new" life was heroic landscape, done with a palette knife and thick paint on huge canvases. In addition to landscape painting, he also did abstractions, often using black and white based on the ancient Chinese philosophy of opposites, yin and yang. Much of his work was based on scientific curiosity rather than intangible, philosophical exploration, and he challenged himself with questions about the universe.

In 1958, he went back to Europe, having earned a Guggenheim Fellowship to paint for six months in Ireland where Morris Graves had gone and for six months in Italy. There he found landscape subjects that reminded him of his native Skagit Valley. He returned to that area and in 1975 built a home and studio there. However, he was in an auto accident in 1984 in New Mexico and was unable to work for three years. Following that period, his painting was even more introspective and focused on human consciousness.

Gilkey killed himself in 1997 when he was 72 years old. He had been diagnosed with lung cancer and had heart trouble. Overcome by Depression, he drove to Jackson Hole, Wyoming and on October 3, 1997, parked near the summit of Togwatee Pass and shot himself in the head.

His body was found later that day by a forest ranger.

"He left behind a note from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: 'This is the chief thing: Be not perturbed, for all things are according to the nature of the Universal, and in a little time you will be no one and nowhere.' " (Ament)

Biography by: Sonia Kazanjian, 1997
Deloris Tarzan Ament, Interview with the Artis


Unpublished Notes in possession of Janet Huston; Anne Stewart, "Brother Veterans: It's Tough Learning to Be Civilians Again," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 13, 1945; Unpublished Statement for Guy Anderson exhibition at Seattle Art Museum, June 14, 1996; Deloris Tarzan, "Gilkey's Visual Poems Evoke Moods of Northwest," The Seattle Times, March 30, 1980; Heinz R. Pagels, The Cosmic Code: Quantum Physics as the Law of Nature (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982); John S. Robinson, "A Harsher Gilkey," Seattle Weekly, May 1989; Robert Arnold, "Traveling Through Richard Gilkey's Landscapes," Argus, February 10, 1978, p. 12; Deloris Tarzan Ament Telephone Interview with Donald Foster, May 18, 1999; Pacific Northwest Artists and Japan, exh. cat. (Osaka: National Museum of Art, 1982).
By Deloris Tarzan Ament , March 13, 20

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