The man behind the art

To get a take on John Braseth, long-time Seattle art dealer and Capitol Hill resident, consider this: When Paul Horiuchi died in 1999 at age 93, it was Braseth, then 40, who gave the eulogy at the great artist's service.

Horiuchi had lived a quietly heroic life - creating works of intense, elegant beauty - a life which, uprooted because of Horiuchi's Japanese ancestry, included a sometimes dangerous Odyssey through the interior of the Western United States during World War II.

Horiuchi lived long and knew many people. Still, it was the relatively youthful Braseth who was chosen to stand up and deliver his friend's farewell.

"I have a lot of respect for older people," Braseth acknowledges in his modest, down-to-earth way. Horiuchi, Braseth says, "might have been the most gentle person I ever met."

Braseth, 46, is one-half of Gordon Woodside/John Braseth Gallery, one of Seattle's oldest and most respected galleries. He started in the business at 18 and became a partner at 20. He's known, represented and/or exhibited the work of many of the Northwest masters, including Guy Anderson, Morris Graves, William Ivey, Mark Tobey, Kenneth Callahan, Hilda Morris and James Washington, Jr.

Braseth's regard for older people includes 88-year-old artist William Cumming. Braseth describes Cumming as "my best friend."

On Thursday, Oct. 6, Woodside/Braseth Gallery, which moved last spring to 2101 Ninth Ave. will unveil a show of Cumming's recent work.

The show marks a noteworthy moment in Northwest art history. Deloris Tarzan Ament, in her book "Iridescent Light," wrote: "No one has been more eloquent about light as the origin of Northwest art than William Cumming."

Author of the classic "Sketchbook: A Memoir of the 30s & the Northwest School," teacher, raconteur and one of the later Northwest masters, Cumming has suffered a series a strokes in the past few months.

Still, Cumming is expected to attend the Oct. 6 exhibit opening, which will feature 50 works painted within the past three years . Braseth once persuaded the artist to pick up his brush in the 1980s when he had all but stopped painting.

The West Seattle kid who entertained thoughts of becoming a priest - "In some regard this business has replaced that," he says - discovered his destiny earlier than most.

"I'm the same person at 18 as I am today," says the husband and father of two children. "There's been so much to learn. You come to work fresh everyday."

In telling stories about the Northwest art scene and "that Golden Company" of artists, as Cumming phrased it in "Sketchbook," Braseth, who maintains a healthy sense of humor, muses: "I'm starting to sound like an old timer. It's scary."

'The greatest gift'

Born in West Seattle in 1959, Braseth grew up in a family of 10 kids. He attended Catholic elementary school before entering public middle school. These were his halcyon days. The beach and parks and woods were nearby and there were neighborhood kids to play with. The bang of the screen door - another sibling coming in or going out - supplied the soundtrack to what he remembers as "a magical childhood."

"It was an innocent time," Braseth recalls, "a different time in Seattle." Braseth's childhood idyll didn't last beyond his early teens, however.

His father was a mortgage banker who tended bar at night to keep things going. He died when Braseth was 15, about the time his mother was hospitalized with symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

Foster homes followed.

After attending an alternative high school Braseth transferred to West Seattle High School for his senior year where he played running back.

He remembers himself as a sensitive, religious kid and an athlete who was divided, if not confused.

"There was a bigger world out there beyond the classroom and athletics," Braseth recalls.

At 18, he went to work part time at Woodside Gallery on Capitol Hill answering the phones and greeting people. Gordon Woodside, who is still involved in the business, founded the gallery in 1961 at a time when support for the art scene in Seattle was threadbare. When he joined the gallery in the late 1970s, Braseth remembers, "We were like a museum. No one bought. People are now educated."

Two years after going to work for the gallery, Woodside made the 20-year-old Braseth his partner.

"He saw in me a potential to be a dealer because of my enthusiasm," Braseth says. "I think you'll be good for this business," he recollects Woodside telling him, and adds: "It's the greatest gift I've ever been given."

Hard worker, strong inventory

In the 1980s, Braseth asked Woodside about William Cumming, who had stopped painting to teach and write his book.

"He's the best of the best," Braseth remembers Woodside telling him, "but you'll never get him to paint."

Braseth arranged lunch with the older man.

"Lunch didn't go well," Braseth says. "He was skeptical of the art market."

In a gutsy move, Braseth bought a Cumming painting and sent him the money.

"I told you I could sell your paintings," he informed the artist.

"I've known John since the earliest days of Woodside/Braseth," says Marshall Hatch, a prominent local art collector and benefactor of the Seattle Art Museum. "John and I have become friends. I have great admiration for him. He's probably the hardest worker I've seen in the business. He's personable, a fine human being. I'm 87. We have a lot in common outside of the art world."

Hatch points out the Cumming connection:

"Bill Cumming is producing in a major way," he says. "John has a lot to do with that. He encouraged him. He really feels for his artists."

Seattle artist Ginny Ruffner agrees.

"He's extremely genial and very hard working," Ruffner says. Braseth's gallery has represented Ruffner for the past eight years. "As an artist, you really need someone who loves your work and respects the artist. I do think it shows both in the ways he treats artists and collectors. It's not a sales job for him."

Indeed, the art business is a business with a difference.

"The marriage between the collector and an artist is a serious one," Braseth says. "And you get to be part of it."

Braseth has stories of the old days and masterpieces by Graves and Anderson secreted in storage. And the gallery continues to support strong contemporary artists. And now Braseth has his friend Bill Cumming's exhibit ready to open.

Sometimes he takes stock of it all.

"Periodically I'll sit down and have a drink," Braseth says. "I get enthusiastic about it. It's been such a long journey and it's such a short journey."

William Cumming Exhibition, Oct. 6-29. New paintings and works on paper by William Cumming. The Oct. 6 reception is 5:30-8:30 p.m. 2101 9th Ave.

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