Q: At Washington, you studied with George Tsutakawa. What was that like?
ReeL: Yes, in the required water color class we had the choice of either the usual British and American water color society approach, which I found consummately boring, or Tsutakawa’s class, which was a formal “way of the brush” traditional sumi-e, or classic Japanese ink-paining class.
Q; You chose sumi-e. Hadn’t Tobey also studied sumi-e?
ReeL: Yes. This brush technique was a core part of the approach of the Northwest School painters, especially the “flying brush” techniques, where a bold, broad scumbled-like swath of color was sought, and transferred well to the heavier Western paints. It was more of a mentality, not a strict application. Tobey was formally trained in it, but when you look carefully and at the full breadth of their work, you’ll see it is there in the brush work of Morris Graves, especially in his work in the 40s, and in the mature work of Guy Anderson and Kenneth Callahan, and of course in the work of the second generation with Tsutakawa and Horiuchi. None of these artists was interested in preserving any sort of tradition. They were looking for ways to break out of the formal languages and approaches of the American and European art schools.
Q: So they looked East to non-Western sources.
ReeL: In part, yes. But in a way, Seattle is very close to Northern Asia., it’s part of the Pacific rim. One has to remember that for me, growing up in Seattle at that time, in casual conversation when someone said “East” they meant Asia, not New York. New York was the “East Coast” — if you didn’t add the word “coast” people would assume you were talking about Tokyo or Singapore or something like that.
Q: So to go to the East, you went West, and the West was East of you. Growing up and coming from the Bay Area, I can appreciate that.
ReeL: Yes, for us the East was West, and the West was East.