Inside Alden Mason's Head -- One Of The Northwest's Most Prolific Artists Shares His View Of The World

One of Alden Mason's favorite photographs of himself is tacked to the wall of his Western Avenue art studio.

Taken in 1989, it shows Mason in one of his trademark fedora-shaped hats, a kerchief around his neck, and binoculars slung over one shoulder bandolier style. As the lush tropical foliage in the background attests, the shot was taken in a jungle. Flanking him are two New Guinea tribesman in flamboyant ceremonial headdresses that look like plumed pyramids.

The warriors' necks and bare chests are adorned with strings of beads and colorful neck pieces. Their faces are painted bright yellow, about the same shade as the cover of a National Geographic magazine. Though Mason was nearly 70 when the photo was taken, and looks not much like Harrison Ford, Hollywood couldn't have dreamed up a better publicity shot for an Indiana Jones film.

Mason chuckles as he points to the yellow faces of his two companions. "That's Grumbacher's cadmium yellow medium," he said, referring to a well-known brand of yellow oil paint used by artists. "We brought it for them. They usually make their own yellow. I wonder if they ever got it off." Beguiled by life

At 76, Mason is one of the Northwest's most enduring, prolific and consistently inventive senior painters, even if - as his forays into the jungle and his vigorous personal life suggest - he pursues life and art like a man half his age.

Easy-going, self-effacing, quick on his feet and equally quick to make a joke, he has little of the aging master about him. His studio is chock-a-block with birdwatching books, some tribal carvings from halfway around the globe, and a couple of framed carcasses of six-inch long bugs native to Southeast Asia.

It is also filled with new paintings. He has always been prolific. And since his retirement from the University of Washington art department 15 years ago, he has, if anything, become even more so. His current show of new works at the Greg Kucera Gallery is at once high-spirited and contemplative, the work of a person who's been on the planet long enough to have developed a highly focused point of view, while remaining beguiled by life. It's an enviable trick.

And when the show at Greg Kucera comes down at the end of this month another exhibition of Mason's recent work will go up at the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham. The Whatcom show will include his acrylic paintings on canvas as well as works on paper. Mason will give a slide show and talk at the Whatcom Museum on Oct. 22.

One of the things he misses about teaching, says Mason, "is that I don't have an audience to tell stories to anymore. So if you come to the slide show, you'll hear all of them."

Actually, Mason tells plenty of stories in his paintings, which are often biographical. A group of paintings a couple years back was called "The Courtship Series" and coincided with the courtship of his third wife, Claudia, who happens to be about 30 years younger than Mason. To the marriage she brought her then 5-year-old son. Mason has an adult son from a former marriage who is now an anthropologist, a career choice that Mason thinks may have been influenced by Mason's habit of taking his son along with him on trips to exotic lands.

Many of the paintings in his current show have to do with his '89 trip to New Guinea, where he and a sculptor friend lived with the Huli tribe for six weeks. The Hulis are considered one of the most technologically primitive peoples left on the earth, and Mason tells stories of bow and arrow battles between warring tribes and nights spent listening to village elders tell stories.

The image of a black bird that pops up in many of the current paintings refers to an incident from that trip.

"We were in some smokey hut and these guys were telling us their stories and it was going on for hours," said Mason. "Finally, it gets to about midnight and a bird sang outside and everyone got quiet and said it was the spirit bird here to warn them not to tell tribal secrets."

He never actually saw the bird, and doesn't know if it was black. But the spirit bird made an impression on him, partly as a symbolic creature and partly because he has a fondness for birds anyway. Mason's an avid birdwatcher and has taken trips to places such as Costa Rica, Northern Australia, and the Amazon rain forest to find unusual birds and unusual people.

"Tribal art, bird-watching and painting all go together," he says. Though he many years ago traveled to Europe to look at the great works of Western art history, he has no particular interest in going back. He's drawn to tribal cultures, where the immediacies of life and death are closer to the surface. He's `deadly serious'

His paintings reflect his passions. They've been described as looking like primitive or "naive" art. They're also frequently called whimsical and cartoonish, though he winces when he hears this. Though they're figurative, the figures are highly abstracted.

"To me, the paintings are deadly serious," Mason said. "They're not meant to be humorous at all . . . I'm trying to make them look as real as they can be."

One reason his work strikes some as cartoonish is that for the past decade Mason has painted by using acrylic paint squirted out of squeeze bottles. After years of using oils, he developed allergic reactions to the chemicals in oil paints. So he switched to acrylics, which have a bright, sometimes rubbery sheen about them, especially when applied thickly. His choice of bold, contrasting colors also remind some of a cartoon palette. To others the bold colors suggest the ochres, blacks and white of cave paintings or shamanistic tribal art.

His are paintings about people and spirits traveling through both the natural and magical world. It's no wonder they have a surrealistic edge. Why the big heds?

Along with canvases that include magical animals and human figures, Mason is known for his huge "heads." These are always big paintings with, often, a face on either profile of a giant, blocky head that takes up nearly the entire canvas. Inside the heads are figures of animals, people, scenes from the natural world. He finds the interior of a human head, metaphysically speaking, a fascinating subject.

"People ask, `Why heads?' " said Mason. "Because everything you ever think, or dream or fantasize about, it's all in your head."

Kucera, who took painting classes from Mason 20 years ago at the UW, says that in their talk about the "primitive" look of his paintings, people often overlook Mason's talent for composition.

"He paints very strong, very elegant compositions," said Kucera. "And that's always been important to him. In class he talked about the play of color, negative and positive space."

John Olbrantz, deputy director of the Whatcom Museum, says that Mason's work is "clever, very inventive. He has a real strong sense of composition, he's a strong colorist and also a marvelous storyteller." Hooked on art at UW

A native of Everett, Mason spent his youth flyfishing, and bird- and bug-watching in the Skagit Valley. When he went off to the UW in the '40s, he intended to study entomology. But after a couple of art courses, he was hooked. He graduated in art and went back later to earn a master of fine art degree.

He was soon asked to join the UW art faculty, where he says his first job was teaching watercolor painting to architecture students. In those days he was using watercolors, and was having shows of watercolor landscapes at the Seattle Art Museum by the late '50s.

By the '70s he had switched to oil painting, and was making big, delicately colored abstract works that had little to do with the so-called Northwest School of subtle grays and browns favored by contemporaries Mark Tobey and Morris Graves. His painting caught on nationally, and in the '70s and early '80s he was being included in lots of prestigious shows around the nation. He also had one-man shows in New York.

These days he's in the midst of moving from a condominium to a house in Ravenna, and, as always, painting new works. And he says he constantly thinks about traveling. Though he acknowledges being influenced earlier in his career by the work of painters Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Joan Miro and Pablo Picasso, now his biggest influences come directly from other cultures.

"The most fantastic body decoration is in New Guinea, " he said. "I see these kids (in Seattle) with rings in their noses and blue hair and that's nothing. They should go to New Guinea and see the real thing." ----------------------------------------------------------------- Viewing Mason's work

"Honeymoon Series," paintings by Alden Mason, are on view at Greg Kucera Gallery, 608 Second Ave., through Sunday. Hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Sundays 1 to 5 p.m.

"Alden Mason," a show of recent work at the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, 121 Prospect St., runs Oct. 21 through Jan. 14. Hours are Tuesdays through Sundays noon to 5 p.m. Mason will give a slide show and talk at the museum at 2 p.m. Oct. 22.