Spafford, Michael
Michael Spafford

Birth Date: 

1935

Michael Spafford was a young art student at Pomona College in Claremont, California, in 1956 when a car accident put him out of commission for months. When he returned to school, he found another young artist in the studio space that he had been using. Her name was Elizabeth Sandvig. She offered him some carrot sticks. It was the beginning of a relationship that would include marriage, in 1959; relocation to Seattle when Spafford joined the art department at the University of Washington, in 1963; and a collective body of work that would make them one of the most celebrated couples in the Northwest arts community. Their artistic styles are markedly different: it's been said that nothing he paints is personal, while everything she paints is. He is better known than she is -- partly the result of a controversy over a commission for the State House of Representatives in the 1980s -- but both have been much honored, and their work is included in some of the Northwest's most important collections, public and private.
Divergent Paths
Spafford and Sandvig traveled widely divergent paths before intersecting in that studio space at Pomona College. His began in California, where he was born and raised. One of his earliest career goals was to become a cartoonist. He put himself through school by working as a commercial artist. Sandvig was born in Seattle but grew up in Washington, D.C., and Mexico City, the only child of an adventurous single mother. Her childhood included private art lessons and frequent trips to museums. She says the first painting that had a real impact on her was the expressionistic "Arab Song," by Paul Klee (1879-1940), in the Phillips Collection, a modern art museum in Washington D.C. Spafford jokes that "the first thing that I thought was wonderful was a Pogo cartoon" (Karlstrom).
For the most part, Spafford has focused on one subject as an artist, painting various iterations of Greek and Roman myths. "I have never painted anything that has anything to do with my life," he says, "unless you want to really stretch it and say that I think of myself as Hercules or Perseus" (Karlstrom). In contrast, Sandvig has found subjects in everything from weather to dreams to circuses to birdsong to turtles. She has experimented freely with style (abstract to figurative and back again) and media (polyester resin, wire mesh, acrylic gels, oil stick, monotypes, oil on canvas -- even, at one point, bread dough). The one consistency is the personal nature of her art. "Most of the things I paint have to do with my life in some way," she says (Tate interview).
Spafford explains the differences between the two this way: "Basically my intelligence as an artist is reactive. I had one idea in 1958 and I've been reacting to that same idea ever since. Elizabeth, on the other hand, her artistic intelligence is basically creative." She is "much more creative than I am " (Karlstrom).
What they have in common is an independent spirit and a willingness to challenge convention. Spafford had hardly settled in at the University of Washington before his work became a target of controversy. His "Rape of Europa" was pulled from display at the Bellevue Arts and Crafts Fair in 1967 after a few visitors complained that it was "obscene." His "Twelve Labors of Hercules," installed in the House chambers in the State Capitol Building in Olympia in 1981, was almost immediately covered with draperies and later removed because it offended some legislators. Undeterred, he continued making the kind of art he wanted to make. "I'm not the least bit interested in making things that other people are necessarily going to like," he told one interviewer (Reno).
While less controversial, Sandvig, too, has demonstrated the same kind of independence. Spafford once told her that she was "unteachable," meaning it as a compliment. Art critic Regina Hackett says she has "made a career out of being contrary" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 13, 1996). Sandvig says she has always shrugged off criticism from others. "Whatever anybody said, it just sort of went right through me and I didn't pay much attention," Sandvig says. "Maybe I've always been that way" (Karlstrom). 
California Boy
Michael Charles Spafford was born on November 6, 1935, in Palm Springs. He was the middle of three sons raised by an imaginative mother (Sarah Alice Maloney) and a remote father (Lynn Spafford, a businessman). He grew up in a series of small towns in the greater Los Angeles area. He traces his interest in mythology to a Latin class at Riverside High School. One of his first artworks was an elaborate drawing of the Roman underworld, based onMetamorphoses, by the poet Ovid.
Spafford enjoyed cartooning and had a facility for graphic arts. He was still in high school when he was hired to work part-time on lettering and ad layouts for an advertising agency in Riverside. He continued at the agency after graduating from high school, in 1953, and while attending Riverside Junior College and then Pomona College. At one point he considered a career in the field of commercial art. "I think I could have easily stayed in Riverside, California, for the rest of my life, joined the Junior Chamber of Commerce and the Toastmasters and done all the same sort of things that my boss did," he says (Karlstrom).
In 1956, during his second year at Pomona, Spafford was driving on a part of Route 66 known as Foothill Boulevard when his 1949 Ford was forced off the road and down a steep hillside. He was thrown from the car and ended up wedged between two large boulders; the cartwheeling car ended up on the boulders above him, dripping gasoline onto his face. His skull was cracked, a lung punctured, and all the ribs on one side broken. He spent several weeks in the hospital and missed the rest of the semester while recuperating at home. When he returned to school, he was driving a 1952 MG, thanks to an insurance settlement. And when he went to the studio space that he had been using, he found that it was occupied by "this stranger -- a very attractive stranger" (Karlstrom).
Mexican Idyll
Spafford had a strong academic record at Pomona (he graduatedmagna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa) and had been encouraged to pursue a doctorate in art history; but he was also a highly skilled artist. Sandvig says no one at Pomona, including the faculty, could draw live models as well as he could. He wavered between art history and painting as a career. Sandvig, too, was uncertain about her future but had learned, from her working mother, the importance of having some kind of marketable skill.
They went on to graduate school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the fall of 1959. Spafford had a full scholarship in art history at Harvard University; Sandvig pursued a teaching certificate in art at Radcliffe College (the women's affiliate for what was then all-male Harvard). After a year, Spafford decided that art history wasn't for him. He and Sandvig moved instead to Mexico City, joining Sandvig's mother, where they could live cheaply and devote fulltime to their art.
In Mexico, Spafford had the opportunity to study at first hand the masterpieces of the Mexican muralists; their use of bold, often brutal imagery became a strong influence on his own style. He also developed what would become a characteristic pattern: taking a particular theme (drawn usually from Greco-Roman myths) and painting various versions of it over a number of years. He found universal messages about the human condition in classic stories about Icarus, Europa, Leda, Hercules, and others. His goal was to distill the essence of the story, put it into abstract visual terms, and pass its energy on to the viewer. "Actually, I'm sort of stubborn and I have very little imagination, and I have this inner conviction that if I do the Greco-Roman mythology enough that I'll eventually get a painting that'll last beyond my lifetime," he once said (Karlstrom).
Meanwhile, Sandvig was making monotypes and monoprints and selling them to tourists in the Jardin del Arte, an outdoor art market held on Sundays in the historic center of Mexico City. One of the tourists who stopped by one day was William E. Steadman, director of the art gallery at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He invited her to show her work at the gallery. "There is a magical charm and excellence in Elizabeth's monoprints," he wrote in the exhibit catalog. "Hers is a talent so unique that I am certain the world of art will welcome her with open arms and much heraldry."
Both Sandvig and Spafford had solo exhibitions at the Mexican-North American Cultural Institute in Mexico City in 1962. In reviewing Spafford's work, Mexican art critics commented on what seemed to be the young painter's preoccupation with death. "Spafford's paintings have no atmosphere because there is no air, no life because the figures have no breath; they have no emotions because they are already dead," wrote one. "As spectator you may not like it, but if you are honest, you must concede the craftsmanship, the uncompromising sincerity, the vision which this painter injects into these ruthless, hopeless, seared constructions of our time" (Joysmith).
Settling in Seattle
The young couple gave up the expatriate life in Mexico after the birth of their son, Michael Andrew Spafford (who later in life changed his name to Spike Mafford and became a prominent photographer), in 1963. Spafford accepted an offer to teach in the University of Washington's School of Art. The couple bought a large house in the Montlake neighborhood, near the university. In 1965, Sandvig's mother retired from her job in Mexico City and joined Sandvig, Spafford, and their toddler son in Seattle.
Spafford made his first mark on the Seattle art scene by winning a $500 first prize in the 1964 Pacific Northwest Arts and Crafts Fair, held in Bellevue. The judge was George B. Culler, director of the San Francisco Museum of Art. Culler described Spafford's entry, titled "Origin Myth No. 10," as "an extremely powerful painting presented with great force and direction." He added that he "had no trouble making up my mind about that award." Spafford also won a $100 first prize in the drawing category. In his report about the fair, novelist Tom Robbins, then a writer for The Seattle Times, said Spafford was "one of the few U.W. professors to display any originality and strength in the annual faculty show last winter" (The Seattle Times, July 26, 1964).
In January 1965, Spafford had a solo show at the influential Otto Seligman Gallery (which became the Francine Seders Gallery when she took it over in May 1966). Again, Seattle critics were impressed. "This is a strong, almost brutal show," wrote one. "The values, however, do not lie in shock but in a well-documented journey toward a new experience of the eye, linked to an old experience of the mind" (Faber). Later that year, Spafford received a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation grant, a national award given to promising young artists.
Spafford's first brush (as it were) with controversy came in the summer of 1967, when his "Rape of Europa" was removed from the annual Bellevue Arts and Crafts Fair because some people found it offensive. Kemper Freeman (1910-1982), developer of Bellevue Square (the venue for the fair) and a member of the fair's board of directors, claimed that 16 people had filed complaints with the Bellevue police department. However, the assistant chief of police told a Seattle Times reporter that the department had a record of only one call, from the operator of Uncle Harold's Key and Cycle Shop, who said he thought the painting was vulgar. In any case, Freeman ordered that the painting be withdrawn.
It was an embarrassing situation for the fair's organizers. Freeman had acted unilaterally, without consulting other members of the board, one of whom was Spafford himself. Spafford was not only a member of the board and a previous winner of the fair's top prizes, he had just been awarded the prestigious Prix de Rome fellowship for study in Italy.
Interlude in Italy
Spafford and Sandvig, with their young son, spent the next two years in Italy. It was a crucial period of development for both artists. Spafford was assigned a large studio, with 40-foot ceilings, at the American Academy in Rome. Freed of the responsibilities of teaching, he had more time to concentrate on painting. His work became larger and more experimental in shape, and he began using diptych and triptych formats to explore the interrelationship of narrative elements in his subjects.
He said later that he thought the experience of living in a foreign country helped increase his powers of observation. "When you're in a different culture you notice more," he said. "Artists have to train themselves to see. The best ones just notice more" (The Weekly, March 4-10, 1987).
Spafford also said that the question of fame became less important to him during his time in Italy. "In Rome you are presented with thousands of products of artists who centuries ago were involved in the ego anguish of trying to achieve recognition and you realize that it doesn't make any difference in the long run," he wrote in a 1970 essay. "When you see a strikingly beautiful painting by someone you've never even seen mentioned in a detailed survey of art history, you realize it is the work itself and not the baggage that goes along with it that is important" ("Impressions and Perspectives").
Sandvig, too, developed in new directions as a result of living in Italy. Lacking a large studio space of her own, she began working on small sculptures. She said later she was motivated in part by a need to do something "completely different" from the work being done by her husband. With sculpture, "There was no chance of anybody mixing us up. No possibility of any kind of comparison whatsoever" (Karlstrom).
For most of the next two decades, Sandvig concentrated on sculpture. She found inspiration in the ephemera of daily life. She became interested in working with screening material after repairing a screen door, and in bricks after replacing mortar on a brick wall. She made clouds out of wire mesh; waterfalls out of polyester resin; wall hangings out of copper screening. In one series, she daubed silicone gels onto mesh screens or Plexiglas panels -- sometimes spelling out words, sometimes just making squiggles that reminded some viewers of amoebae. Light filtered through the screens or panels and cast shadows on the walls behind them. "Using materials that emphasized a sense of layered transparency, I attempted to create a shifting visual energy affected by light and position," she said (Sandvig, 7).
Promoting Public Art
After returning to Seattle in 1969, both Spafford and Sandvig became involved in the campaign to increase financing for public art in Washington state, working primarily through The Artist's Group (TAG). Spafford was a founder of TAG, in 1971, and served as its president in 1974. The organization was among those that lobbied for laws requiring that 1 percent of the construction budget for public buildings be used to acquire and maintain public art. King County and the city of Seattle adopted One Percent for Art ordinances in 1973; the state followed suit in 1974.
Public art should not be regarded as "a frill to be doled out after everything else has been duly considered," Spafford argued. "Even people who never think about the visual arts are affected by the designs and energies of their environments. To allow these environments to be second-rate is a crime against the people" (Puget Soundings).
The Seattle Arts Commission purchased the work of 31 Northwest artists during the first full year of funding under the One Percent ordinance, in 1975. One of the purchases was Shadow Wall, a sculpture made by Sandvig from aluminum and polyester screening. It was installed in the Municipal Building. Sandvig notes, with wry amusement, that in 1981 it was mistaken for construction debris during a remodeling project and hauled off to the dump.
Spafford's first venture into public art came in 1978, when the King County Arts Commission asked him to create a mural for the then-two-year-old Kingdome. He deliberately chose an obscure corner of the massive stadium; he wanted a site that would be a destination -- not something that could be casually seen (and therefore largely ignored) by anyone coming to a game. He worked on the design in the fall of 1978, after he and his family had left for a one-year sabbatical in Mexico; it was fabricated and installed after he returned.
Tumbling Figure -- Five Stages (an interpretation of Icarus falling from the sky) was installed on the gray concrete side of a five-story Kingdome elevator shaft in December 1979. It consisted of five black aluminum parallelograms, 12-feet square, stacked vertically, each with a male figure cut into the center, plunging head down sideways and diagonally. Spafford said he was "very, very pleased with the way it worked out" (Karlstrom). It graced the elevator shaft until 2000, when the Kingdome was demolished and the mural was put into storage. Five years later, it was moved to a new home, on the side of a King County parking garage at 6th Avenue and Jefferson Street.
Herculean Controversy
In 1980, Spafford won a commission to paint four murals in the House chambers in the Capitol Building in Olympia. His primary theme was the "Twelve Labors of Hercules." Spafford thought it was a perfect metaphor for the conflicts and challenges of lawmaking. "It fit so beautifully -- in my mind -- that I couldn't see any reason why it would be considered inappropriate," he said later (Karlstrom). The 12 labors would be depicted in two facing, half-moon sets along the sides of the room. The third mural would be a large fire-breathing Chimera, installed on the back wall. For the front of the room, above the speaker's stand, Spafford planned a version of Icarus, the mythical figure that became a symbol of hubris by flying too close to the sun with wings made of bird feathers and wax.
Spafford's proposal was selected by a jury that included architects, arts educators, and arts patrons. In an interview with the jury, he made a point of mentioning his reputation for controversy. His work had been shown in many galleries and museums since the dust-up over the Rape of Europa at the Bellevue Arts and Crafts Fair, and it had often provoked strong reactions. For example, the images that were reproduced in the announcement of a show at the Francine Seders Gallery in December 1968 were so upsetting to one self-described "art collector and patron" that she mailed it back. "I am returning this invitation to you as I find it so repulsive and degrading that I don't want it in my home," she wrote (Andrus). "I was very, very careful to tell the jury that that a lot of people didn't like my work," said Spafford. "And they said they didn't care" (Karlstrom).
Spafford was awarded the commission in September 1980. His UW art department colleague Alden Mason (1919-2013) was hired at the same time to create two murals for the Senate chambers. Both artists displayed drawings of their proposals during a reception in Olympia, after the selections were announced. No legislators attended. The Hercules murals were installed on the north and south walls of the House chamber in July 1981. At that point, they set off an uproar. Some legislators saw sexual overtones in the stark, monochrome images. Others thought they were too modern for the stately capitol. Still others wanted the money spent on social services rather than art. After months of debate, the House voted to cover the panels with draperies. Meanwhile, it cancelled the remaining two murals (a judge later ordered the state to pay Spafford the $35,000 it owed him for the unfinished work).
"Basically I did what was expected and then I got punished for it," said Spafford (Tate interview).
The battle over the murals lasted for years and involved numerous legislative hearings, extensive media attention, a major lawsuit, and considerable taxpayer expense. The murals were uncovered in 1989, after seven years of being hidden behind curtains, but four years later, they were taken down from the walls and put into storage, at a cost of $162,000 -- nearly double what the state had paid Spafford to create them. The two murals that Alden Mason had created for the Senate chambers had been removed earlier, on the grounds that they were too abstract for their setting. Altogether, the legislature spent about half a million tax dollars on murals for the House and Senate, including legal expenses, and ended up with bare walls.
The Spafford and Mason murals were eventually resurrected and installed at Centralia College, although both artists said they would rather see the site-specific works destroyed than hung in another location. The college acquired the Mason murals for its central library in 1991. The Hercules murals were installed in the college's new performance hall two years later. Spafford refused an invitation to attend the unveiling ceremony and said he wished he had never created the murals in the first place. College officials acknowledged his concerns but defended the murals' preservation and display. "These are irreplaceable pieces of art that were purchased by the taxpayers of the state," said Don Frey, spokesman for the college. "I believe the public has a right to be able to see them" (The Seattle Times, September 3, 2003).
Vindication for Spafford
Spafford continued to teach, paint, and exhibit his work throughout the period of contentiousness over the murals, and beyond. The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) bought a Labors of Hercules diptych that he had painted in 1977 and included it in a retrospective of his paintings, drawings, and collages in March and April, 1982. Critic Matthew Kangas called it "a gesture of institutional support" at a time when Spafford's own labors as an artist were under fire (Art in America). Another gesture of support came from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, which gave Spafford a coveted $5,000 visual arts award in 1983 and included his work in an academy exhibit in New York that year.
In 1985, Spafford stepped into the public art arena for a third time, accepting a commission to create a piece for the Seattle Opera House. Departing from his usual Greco-Roman theme, he producedThirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, based on the Wallace Stevens poem of that title. The work consisted of 13 panels, one per stanza. "The results vindicate the original Olympia jury's faith in him," Kangas wrote after the dedication ceremony in December 1986 (The Weekly).
The Seattle Art Museum honored Spafford with another solo exhibit in 1986. In an essay written for the exhibit, Bruce Guenther, curator of contemporary art at SAM, called Spafford one of the Northwest's most original and compelling artists. "Drawing on the imagery of myths such as Hercules, Icarus, and Leda and the Swan, Spafford has created a body of work of rare intelligence and power," he wrote. "His vision is a timeless one, conveying both an affirmation of life and a deep awareness of mortality. Spafford's paintings are provocative, emphatic statements that haunt memory" ("Michael Spafford").
Spafford returned to the Hercules theme again and again over the years, producing more than 60 versions, including (in 1987) a series of woodblock prints. The series was the first piece of art acquired for the Microsoft Art Collection.
Another sign of vindication for Spafford came in 1991, in a retrospective at the Bellevue Art Museum. Among the 25 artworks on display was the Rape of Europa, which had been yanked from the Bellevue Arts and Crafts Fair 24 years earlier.
Mutual Admiration Society
Both artists have been showered with awards, including, for him, one from the Flintridge Foundation in Pasadena, California, in 2005; and, for her, the $10,000 Twining Humber Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement from the Artist Trust in Seattle in 2007. (She spent part of the award money on a trip to Hawaii, which inspired her next series of paintings, on turtles.) The entire family, including their son, photographer Spike Mafford, received the Mayor's Arts Award in 2006.
"I don't believe I could have chosen a more satisfactory career," Sandvig said in accepting the Twining Humber Award. "To think that one can spend one's days moving shapes and colors around, trying this way and that way until they look the best you can make them ... and then changing your intentions without having to please anyone else ... . What a wonderful process. It is my way of answering the unspoken questions that abound in everyday life" (Art Source).
As of 2013, the two are still living in the art-filled Montlake home they bought nearly half a century ago. Spafford, bespectacled and mustachioed, is articulate but low-key and self-effacing. He shuns publicity and disdains what he calls "the cult of personality." Sandvig, described by one writer as "a tiny white-haired person with a round fairy-godmother face" (Smallwood), is poised, self-assured, and gracious. One thing they share is mutual admiration. "We're fortunate," Spafford says. "Other artistic couples, there can be tension that can destroy a marriage. There can be jealousy. But as far as I can determine, we don't have any of that" (Tate interview).
They exhibited their work together for the first time at the Francine Seders Gallery in 2009 -- the year of their 50th wedding anniversary. "Essentially, what these two have in common is what matters most," wrote Regina Hackett, in a review of the show. "For each, every painting is the first, last and most important. They might fail, but they never call it in. Children of modernism, they continue to rise to their own siren call, the commitment year in and out to make it new" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 27, 2009).

Sources:
Paul Karlstrom, oral history interview with Michael Spafford and Elizabeth Sandvig, September 2-4, 1992, Archives of American Art website accessed November 2013 (http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-mich...); Cassandra Tate interview with Michael Spafford and Elizabeth Sandvig, Seattle, November 20, 2013; Joe Reno, "Vision Interviews Michael Spafford," Vision: A Review of Northwest Visual Art, Winter 1985; Regina Hackett, "Elizabeth Sandvig's 'Bird Song' Show at Seders Bursts into Color," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 13, 1996, p. 22; Martha Kingsbury, "Elizabeth Sandvig: Current Work, Past Context," exhibit catalog, Francine Seders Gallery, November 1991; Ellen Humes interview with Elizabeth Sandvig, Seattle, 1972, in Elizabeth Sandvig Spafford Papers, University of Washington Special Collections; William E. Steadman, "Monoprints by Elizabeth Sandvig," exhibit catalog, University of Arizona Art Gallery, December 8-31, 1962; Toby Joysmith, "Ideas Exchanged, New Values Born in Mexican Art," Mexico City Collegian, May 24, 1962; Tom Robbins, "Panaca Fair Is One of Biggest, Best," The Seattle Times, July 26, 1964, p. 41; Ann Faber, "Young Painter Offers Astounding Experiment,"Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 13, 1965, p. 16; Matthew Kangas, "The Thinking Person's Northwest Artist," The Weekly, March 4-10, 1987, pp. 29-30; Michael Spafford, "Impressions and Perspectives," Northwest Art News & Views, January/February 1970, pp. 8-9; John Voorhees, "Acrylics, Sculpture Work Well at Seders," The Seattle Times, November 10, 1970, p. C-6; Elizabeth Sandvig, I Surprise Myself: The Art of Elizabeth Sandvig (Seattle: Francine Seders Gallery / University of Washington Press, 2007); Spafford, "TAG," Puget Soundings, October 1972, pp. 20, 34-36; Mrs. W. Wyman Andrus (Diane D. Andrus) to Francine Seders, undated note, in possession of Francine Seders; Ralph Thomas, "Controversial Murals on the Move," The Seattle Times, September 3, 2003, p. A-1; Kangas, "Michael Spafford at the Seattle Art Museum," Art in America, November 1982; Kangas, "The Opera House as Art Museum," The Weekly, December 31, 1986-January 6, 1987, pp. 32-32; Bruce Guenther, exhibit essay, "Michael Spafford," Seattle Art Museum, January 9-February 2, 1986; Hackett, "Tacoma Art Museum Scores with Exhibit of Teamwork," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 17, 1991, p. C-12; Deloris Tarzan Ament, "Sandvig Show will Energize You," The Seattle Times, April 24, 1988, p. L-4; Sheila Farr, "Flights of Fancy," Ibid., June 24, 1999, p. 23; "Elizabeth Sandvig, 2007 Twining Humber Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement," Art Source, Summer 2007, p. 4; Lyn Smallwood, "Paradise Reimagined," Seattle Weekly, February 16, 1994; Hackett, "Differences and Similarities Emerge When Viewing Art by Husband and Wife," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 27, 2009, p. 23.

By Cassandra Tate, December 14, 2013

 

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