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1 Painting in Collection

Margaret Tomkins


Works in Select Public Collections

Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, CA; Seattle Art Museum, WA; Art Institute of Chicago, IL; Whatcom Museum, Bellingham, WA; Tacoma Art Museum, WA; Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, Spokane, WA; Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, Washington State University, Eugene, OR

Selected Recent Exhibitions

Show of Hands: Northwest Women Artists 1880-2010, Whatcom Museum, Bellingham, WA, 2010

Margaret Tomkins 1975-1981, Bellevue Art Museum, WA and Cheney Cowles Memorial Museum (today Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture) Spokane, WA, 1982


Show of Hands: Northwest Women Artists 1880-2010 by Barbara Matilsky , Whatcom Museum, Bellingham, WA, 2011

Margaret Tomkins, 1975-1981, exhibition catalog, Bellevue Art Museum & Cheney Cowles Memorial Museum, 1982

Margaret Tomkins: Exhibition of Paintings, catalog, Henry Gallery, Seattle, Washington, 1962

Other Resources

Oral History Interview with Margaret Tomkins by Bruce Guenther, June 6, 1984, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Museum:

Born 1916 Los Angeles, CA
Died 1988 Lopez Island, WA

Margaret Tomkins was central to establishing Modernism in the Northwestern United States in the 1940s. She is recognized as an accomplished abstract painter whose leadership and outspoken activism influenced Seattle’s early art scene.

Tomkins was born and raised in Southern California. After attending boarding school in California she received a BFA and a MFA from the University of Southern California in 1938 and 1939 retrospectively, taking summer classes at Chouinard Institute. Upon graduating, she relocated to Seattle where she accepted a teaching position as an assistant professor of art at the University of Washington. She was the only woman on the art faculty. She worked there for only one year, from 1939-40, but returned twice, in 1962 and 1972, as a guest professor.

In 1940 Tomkins married painter and sculptor James FitzGerald. From 1941-42 she taught art at the Spokane Art Center as part of the Federal Art Project of the WPA. FitzGerald had been named director of the Center. In 1942 the couple returned to Seattle and during WWII FitzGerald worked at Boeing and Tomkins raised their three young children. At this time both artists were working in ceramics as well as painting and Tomkins did her first works with egg tempera.

Tomkins art was introduced to the nation at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York where she presented a watercolor landscape. Her first solo exhibition was at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) in 1941. Influenced by the strong contrasts of the northwest’s landscapes, Tomkins work moved from a realistic regionalist style to more organic, gritty surrealist work. Her paintings from the 1940s were lively surreal narratives where trees, sticks and bone-like forms and figures dominate the canvas, suggesting an alternative reality. Her palette is dark with spots of bright color. In 1947 she was included in Abstract and Surrealist American Art, an important exhibition on surrealism, at the Art Institute of Chicago. That same year she had an exhibition at Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco which traveled to the Seattle Art Museum.

The vertical format of the untitled work in the Wolfson Collection is composed of interwoven organic shapes and lines. It was done as Tomkins’ art was in transition, moving away from surrealist biomorphism to more organic abstractions, a direction that she was to pursue through the 1950s. The vertical, figurative nature of Untitled where geometric shapes, triangles and circular forms sweep upward is reminiscent of the creatures that occupied her early surrealist narratives. Untitled’s dark blue background is seductive and the spots of red and yellow serve to move your eye through the canvas. Scratching through the paint was a technique that was also used by fellow Northwest painter Morris Graves and the white traces are reminiscent of Mark Tobey’s “white writing.” It is difficult to know who influenced who as the Seattle art community was small and fairly isolated and, while Tomkins refused to be associated with what came to be known as the Northwest School, there is no doubt that the artists were looking at each other’s work.

Tomkins participated in a number of SAM’s Northwest Annual exhibitions and the museum purchased works from these shows, but she became frustrated with the museum’s emphasis on the group of artists that would come to be known as the Northwest School—Mark Tobey, Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan and Morris Graves—who Tomkins denied any connection to. She felt their claims of mystical inspiration were frivolous. In the 1950s she and FitzGerald went so far as to boycott SAM’s exhibitions to protest the power that Ken Callahan had as SAM’s curator, a regional critic as well as a fellow artist. This lack of willingness to be associated with the artists who were receiving national attention may have hurt Tomkins reputation. Still today many in the Northwest regard her as under recognized.

In 1948 Tomkins and FitzGerald purchased land on Lopez Island in the San Juan Islands where they built a studio and summer home using found and recycled materials. Their life on Lopez was challenging as they grew their own food and lived without electricity.

Tomkins desire to create a counterpoint to the “established” art scene in Seattle manifested in the creation of Seattle’s first artist run gallery, Artists Gallery, in 1958. Louis Bunce, William Ivey, Manuel Izquierdo and Alden Mason along with Tompkins and her husband provided an alternative to the “Northwest School.” During the 1950s Tomkins exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and in the Whitney’s annual exhibition of contemporary American painting in 1953. A 1959 fire destroyed the artist’s Seattle studio along with a great deal of artwork which was a setback for her exposure and activity.

In 1960s Tomkins shifts from using tempera to oil paint and settles into the abstract approach she is recognized for today. Transformation remains a major theme as shapes move and morph in her canvases. By the early 1960s, she had largely abandoned color for black, white and gray, and the agitated energy of her previous work was gone. Her later work demonstrated a more contemplative state. The vertical format is evident again where she employs sumi ink to build up sections with an irregular patterns that twist and intertwine.

In a 1964 interview with Bruce Guenter, then curator of Seattle Art Museum, Tomkins spoke about her relationship to surrealism in the mid 1940s stating that she approached her work thinking about the process of metamorphosis. She was interested in “the changing possibilities of mentally and physically the objects we look at, depending on how you view them.” “ It was in that “transfer of energies from a material object into a more intuitive objective” that motivated her work. Over the decades as Tomkins explored various stylistic approaches, she continued to layer organic forms and abstract shapes into patterns that suggested movement and altercation.

When FitzGerald died in 1973 Tomkins chose to remain in their remote home on Lopez Island. Her work in the 1970s and 1980s softened and became more formalized. As she became more aware of environmental concerns her pastel canvases suggest the muted landscapes of the northwest’s rain. In 1977 she had a retrospective at Washington State University at Pullman. In 1988 Tomkins had a stroke which robbed her of her ability to speak but she continued to paint and in 1993 Foster White Gallery in Seattle hosted a large exhibition of her work.

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