Partner Leo Kenney
Blue Moon Tavern, 712 NE 45th St, Seattle, WA 98105
Richard Charles Gilkey (December 20, 1925 – October 3, 1997) was an American painter, often associated with the 'Northwest School' of artists. During his long career he became one of the most acclaimed painters in the Pacific Northwest, with an original and highly distinctive style. He was particularly well known for his landscapes depicting the Skagit Valley in western Washington. Morris Graves called artists Jan Thompson, Richard Gilkey, and Ward Corley, the playful Otters; with them he was loving, funny, generous, and intense loyal, and they all rallied to his care if necessary.
Gilkey was born in Bellingham, Washington, on December 20, 1925, the son of Charles Gilkey (1886-1970) and Freda Layton (1897-1983), and spent his first six years in British Columbia, Canada, where his father worked in the logging industry as a timber cruiser, identifying and marking trees to be cut down. The family then returned to Washington's Skagit Valley region (where Gilkey's paternal great-grandfather and maternal grandfather had been early residents), living in March Point, a small town near Anacortes. When Richard was twelve, his family moved to Seattle, where he and his brother Tom, who was two years older, attended Ballard High School. There he enjoyed art classes with Orre Nelson Nobles, and showed an aptitude for sketching. This would be his only formal art education. On December 8, 1941, the day after the Pearl Harbor attack, Tom Gilkey enlisted in the Marine Corps, and Richard, at age 17, soon followed suit. He served in the 3rd Marine Raider Battalion, and was in heavy fighting on the island of Bougainville during the Solomon Islands campaign. Wounded multiple times, he was discharged in August, 1944. He attempted to complete his education at Ballard High School, but left after two weeks.
Gilkey worked a succession of jobs, including sailor, ranch hand, and logger, while at the same time developing both an interest in art and a reputation as a barroom brawler. A private tour of the Seattle Art Museum offered by assistant director Ed Thomas had a profound effect on him, leaving him particularly moved by the works of Guy Anderson, Morris Graves, and Mark Tobey.
With their encouragement, he opened a studio in Seattle's Skid Road area. In 1948 a $1,000 inheritance from his grandmother allowed him to spend four months touring the great museums of Europe; he was especially impressed by the works of Rembrandt, Francisco Goya, and Vincent van Gogh. Returning to Seattle, he spent the next few years developing his painting style while living in a small apartment with fellow painter Leo Kenney. He also became a fixture at the Blue Moon Tavern, the locus of Seattle's 'Beat' counterculture, near the University of Washington. In 1954 Gilkey, William Ivey, Ward Corley, and Jack Stangle were featured in a four-man show at the Seattle Art Museum.
In 1982, Gilkey's work was included in a show of Pacific Northwest artists at Osaka's National Museum of Art, along with art by George Tsutakawa, Paul Horiuchi, Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves, Leo Kenney, Philip McCracken, Mark Tobey, and other artists chosen for their interest in the Asian tradition.
On a day in early November that he described as "the best and the worst day of my life," Gilkey, 64, was named grand prize winner of the Osaka Triennale 1990 Exhibition, a juried competition with 30,000 entries from around the world. At 4 a.m. the same day, a levee on the Skagit River broke, flooding his Fir Island studio. Gilkey had to row a skiff out to his house to pick up a coat and the acceptance speech he'd written to fax to Osaka.
In September 1997, Gilkey, who was already having heart trouble, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Shortly after the diagnosis, he drove to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Some time before noon on Friday, October 3, 1997, he parked his pickup truck on the side of a dirt road near the summit of 9,600-foot Togwotee Pass in the Grand Tetons, and fatally shot himself. He was 72 years old. His body was found later that day by a forest ranger. He left behind a note quoting 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."
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