November 22, 2022

How the Artistic Legacy of Dr. James and Janie Washington Continues to Inspire

Tucked away on a tree-lined street in Seattle’s Central District sits an unassuming bungalow obscured by large shrubs. Through a small front gate, visitors will find what LaVerne Hall calls a “living time capsule.” The home belonged to the world-renowned Black sculptural carver, author, and activist James W. Washington, Jr. and his wife, Janie Rogella Washington.

Today, the bungalow, a backyard studio, a greenhouse, and artist-designed landscape are preserved as the Dr. James and Janie Washington Cultural Center. Hall is among those responsible for overseeing the site as president of the Board of Directors at the James W. Washington Jr. and Janie Rogella Washington Foundation.

“When you walk into the house, you just have a feeling or a sense that the Washingtons are still there,” says Hall. “There are so many memories.”

Two people standing in front of a home with maroon trim

photo by: The Washington Foundation

James W. Washington Jr. and Janie Rogella Washington standing in front of their home.

View of books within the Washington Library

photo by: The Washington Foundation

A view of the library inside the Dr. James and Janie Washington Cultural Center.

The site is one of the newest additions to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios (HAHS) program. Each new addition celebrates the diversity of the United States’ artistic heritage. The inauguration came at a pivotal moment for the James W. Washington Jr. and Janie Rogella Washington Foundation as it prepares to launch new programming.

The Artist Behind the Home

James Washington Jr. was born in Gloster, Mississippi. He was the son of a Baptist minister and a dedicated mother and housewife, who encouraged him to pursue his artistic talents. While his mother supported him in his creative pursuits, James received no formal training. But later in life, he interpreted this as beneficial: “If I’d been taught painting I wouldn’t be any good,” he told writer Deloris Tarzan Ament in an interview for her book Iridescent Light: The Emergence of Northwest Art. “I wasn’t regimented by any teacher. I had to dig up what I was about, and articulate it.”

James began drawing and painting as a teenager. He later worked as an artist for the Federal Art Project, a Works Progress Administration program that employed more than 10,000 artists who created a significant body of public art between 1935 and 1943.

In 1944, James and his wife Janie Rogella Washington (neé Miller) moved to the Puget Sound region, where they would spend the rest of their lives. James thrived in this environment, thanks to the support of his wife and the flourishing Northwest School art movement. He exhibited alongside Leo Kenney, trained under Mark Tobey, and orbited other Seattle-based artistic giants like Fay Chong and Andrew Chinn.

A Living Time Capsule

James spent the height of his career working out of a studio behind his home in Seattle’s Central District. He and Janie filled the studio and home with art and trinkets collected on their travels. They stocked a home library and archive with thousands of books and treatises on topics including art, philosophy, the natural sciences, and religion. They designed the landscape surrounding the home as well, curating spaces to provide sanctuary and inspiration across every inch of the property.

The City of Seattle designated both the home and studio as historic landmarks in 1992 while James and Janie were still alive. The couple was invested in ensuring their treasured home would be preserved beyond their eventual deaths, so they established the James W. Washington Jr. and Janie Rogella Washington Foundation in 1997 to oversee the site’s preservation and shepherd their legacy.

Hall, who knew the couple during their lifetime from the Mount Zion Baptist Church, where all three were active members, was one of the earliest members of the foundation’s board of directors. She says that James and Janie were both involved in every step of establishing the foundation and outlining a vision for the future of their home. “They believed that a woman walks beside her husband, together as one,” explains Hall, “and so decisions that were made were mutual decisions.”

A former greenhouse was transformed and housed an altar above which hung a prayer flag consisting of rubbings from book covers in the Washington Library

photo by: Ken Wagner

A former greenhouse was transformed and housed an altar above which hung a prayer flag consisting of rubbings from book covers in the Washington Library.

Thanks to the Washingtons’ thoughtful planning, the Dr. James and Janie Washington Cultural Center continues to support artists and others in the community decades after their death. The couple passed away in 2000.

“This is a rare example of a preserved home of an African American artist, that is now open to the public—and rarer still that plans for that legacy were spearheaded by the artist himself,” says Valerie Balint, director of HAHS. “It is incredibly intact, from the physical site and buildings to the material culture, down to the individual artworks and the extensive archive.”

Inspiring a New Generation of Artists

Today, James and Janie Washington’s home continues to offer inspiration to many through various programs, including artist- and writer-in-residence programs. Hall says that James Washington believed anyone could create, and the artist and writer in residence programs reflect this ethos.

Washington believed that “God breathed his creative breath into all of us, and that is the message that we try to convey when anybody comes to the [cultural center],” says Hall. “Here is this gift that the Washingtons left [for visitors] to meditate, reach within, and see what it is God has in mind because you also have that creativity and can create.”

Egg-shaped rocks, broken egg shells, branches and found wood on an altar at an artist studio

photo by: Ken Wagner

The altar was a wrought-iron plant stand onto which numerous rocks found on the Washington property were arranged. Among these rocks one could find more than one rock bird. Along with the rock birds, egg-shaped rocks, broken egg shells, branches, and found wood adorned the altar.

Carletta Carrington Wilson, a literary and visual artist, says she felt possessed by a creative spirit during her time as an artist-in-residence at the Dr. James and Janie Washington Cultural Center in May 2011. During her residency, Wilson kept a daily journal and created four mixed media installations across the property, which touched on themes from the Washingtons’ lives and Black history, including the transatlantic slave trade, the American Civil War, and religion and spirituality. She says her goal with the installations was to honor the Washingtons and their legacy.

During her residency and on separate visits to the cultural center’s library and archive, Wilson also wrote poems and essays inspired by the Washingtons and their space. She was particularly inspired by the library and wrote a poem comprised entirely of book titles taken from the collection. “I just got so enthralled with the idea of the intelligence of the Washingtons that I felt that I needed to do that,” she says. These written works form the basis of a forthcoming book titled A Poem of Stone and Bone: The Iconography of James W. Washington Jr. in Fourteen Stanzas and Thirty-One Days.

Honoring a Legacy of Inclusion and Creativity

Besides its artist and writer in residence programs, the James W. Washington Jr. and Janie Rogella Washington Foundation engages in various other forms of outreach and engagement, including mounting exhibitions, offering workshops, hosting community conversations, and leading tours. Hall says the foundation’s board of directors is now preparing to ramp up programming after curtailing on-site activities during COVID-19 shutdowns.

Each program is designed to engage and bring together people of all ages and backgrounds. “One of the dictates from the [Washingtons’] last will and testament was we have to be inclusive,” says Hall. “Because that’s who they were. They were inclusive.”

A space- on the top level of the studio that includes a collection of objects: a skull, a tusk, a beehive as a place of memory

photo by: Ken Wagner

On the top level of the Washington Studio, there is a small space footsteps away from shelves of books on art and artists. This space also included an installation of animal skulls, a beehive, an owl, an ivory tusk, the skin of a giant snake, and other items of interest that are meant to illustrate what is lost to history.

One new program that the foundation will launch this year is a time capsule, where visitors will be invited to place written letters or small objects that represent “the community as it exists today,” says Hall. Participants will also be invited to reflect on the Washingtons’ place in the community. Those who knew the Washingtons will be encouraged to share personal stories. The capsule will be stored on the property and opened in 25 years, ensuring the Washingtons’ legacy of inclusion and creativity will continue to be celebrated for decades to come.

Balint says projects like this and the foundation’s work, generally, speak to the power of preserving historic artists’ homes and studios: “It’s about historic legacy, but it’s also about contemporary relevance, and where those two things can meet for the public to engage with.”

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Marianne Dhenin is a historian and journalist covering social and environmental justice and politics.

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