Late potter Richard Fairbanks’ collection is given new life
December 13, 2011
By Emily Baer
Local woman blends her art with that of her late husband
Twenty-five years after her husband — potter and best friend Richard Fairbanks — died at the height of his career, Issaquah painter Dixie Parker-Fairbanks embarked on an artistic journey to blend her husband’s revolutionary ceramics with photos of his Scandinavian architectural muses.
Her method: collage work. Her motive: well, it’s twofold.
Akin to the likes of many great artists before him, the strength and depth of Richard Fairbanks’ body of work only gained widespread recognition — at least in the States — posthumously.
In 1989, feeling drained, lonely and saddened that her husband’s voice had been silenced just as it was gathering an audience, Dixie began uncovering her husband’s exhaustive collection of ceramic art.
When the task was completed, she looked out over a sea of pottery that stretched from her Issaquah house to the far end of her lawn.
“Beyond the sadness and sense of loss of him, the overwhelming feeling was that something significant must be done with this collection,” Dixie said of the experience in an Ellensburg article in Artifact, a Seattle art magazine.
Preserving an artist’s memory
Since then, she has been working to preserve and make available for viewing Fairbanks’ collection, and to educate the public regarding his impact on Northwest art. Aided by her fellow board officers, Dixie began the Richard Fairbanks American Potter Foundation in 2004 to achieve her aforementioned goals.
“By remaining within a strict and narrow area of studio practice (handmade functional pottery), Richard Fairbanks attained the heights of artistic expression and plumbed the depths of international cultural references,” Seattle art critic Matthew Kangas wrote in a biography of Fairbanks. “His oeuvre, here carefully chronicled, proves that great variety and beauty may be achieved within the humblest and most time-honored forms: a cup, a pitcher, a plate, a bowl.”
Combining couples’ work, reviving romantic memories
While Dixie’s newest project spotlights Richard’s achievements and is certainly consistent with her foundation’s goals, it is also a vehicle through which she is able to revisit the romantic relationship she had with her husband.
In several pieces, Dixie fills and adorns cutout photos of Richard’s pots and vases with bright yellow-and-red flowers. In others, she places a purposefully designed ceramic next to the Scandinavian structure whose lines Richard drew from.
“I’m real careful not to distort or overwhelm his pot, but enhance it in these collages,” she said.
Dixie’s materials come from an accumulation of papers, fabrics and clippings she and her husband gathered during their tours through the United States and Europe.
The result is a unique unification of 2- and 3-D mediums, of a student and her teacher and of current and past work. To those who know the Fairbankses’ past, the collages tell a love story.
“I find my work is romantic,” she said. “I found that painting was so painful when he died. I was so angry. As I’ve confronted and dealt with it through his work, I can now speak about the romantic connection that we had.”
A love story begins
Born in Yakima, Richard studied under French potter Paul Bonifas at the University of Washington before becoming an assistant to Spanish potter Antonio Prieto as a graduate student at Mills College in California. He landed his first university position at Drake University in 1956 — the same year that Dixie entered her sophomore year at the Illinois college.
Though a painter at heart and with little interest in pottery, Dixie took Richard’s sculpture and design classes. The two spoke when they saw each other on campus, but their conversations were few and far between.
In 1959, Richard began his formative year abroad in Finland on a Fulbright Scholarship. There, he was invited to the Arabia Manufacturing Firm, one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of pottery and bathroom fixtures, as one of 15 artists in the company’s art department. Also during that visit, Richard met world-renowned potter Kyllikki Salmenhaara, thus beginning their long and artistically significant friendship.
By the time of Richard’s departure from Finland, Dixie was working in Wisconsin as the assistant of education at the Des Moines Art Center. She assumed they had “kind of said goodbye forever.”
In 1965, having spent the previous five years once again working at Drake, Richard decided he wanted to see more and flew back to Finland. Instead of returning home to Drake at the close of his trip, he called Dixie and landed in Des Moines.
“He sat with me and was real flirty when we went to get a coffee,” she said. “I said, ‘I don’t know how to take you anymore, Richard.’ And he said, ‘Why don’t you take me for life?’ We smoothed things out and got married the next year.”
A love story ends
The couple soon moved to Ellensburg, where they remained for the next 20 years.
Richard worked as a professor at Central Washington University. The two shared a studio at home, and held shows and studio sales.
“I call it idyllic,” Dixie said of their time in the small Eastern Washington town. “Our interest was work. We shared an interest and traveled. We were very frugal so we could. It was just a passion for us. We wanted that experience.”
The Fairbankses made three tours through Europe, one of which Dixie later documented in her book “Silent Sunflowers.” They drew ideas from European folk art.
On the last night of a trip to the Midwest in search of American folk art, Richard lapsed into a seizure.
“After a long, terrible story, it turned out he had a brain tumor,” Dixie said. “It was the worst form of brain cancer. Because he had seizures, he wasn’t able to speak. He was in intensive care the last seven months.”
Confronting the pain, cataloging the collection
In an interview this summer for an article about Northwest art featured in the new hospital, Swedish/Issaquah, Dixie — whose painting “Bucharest Bouquet” is on display in the new facility — talked about the solace she believes art provides to ill patients.
“One of the things we did in the evening was take [Richard] around to look at the artwork, to get out of the sterile room,” she said. “I hung one of my flower paintings in his room and the doctors all came and looked at it. It gave them a pause from their work.”
Though Dixie’s collages have allowed her to reconnect with the memory of her husband, she said she wouldn’t describe her latest work as healing.
“People use the word ‘heal’ and I say, ‘There’s never going to be any healing,’” Dixie said. “Every milestone that [the Richard Fairbanks American Potter Foundation] has is such a reward. It’s so sad he’s not here, but then I think, ‘Oh, but he is.’”
The foundation has four significant museums interested in acquiring parts of the large Fairbanks ceramic collection and educational archive. Those include the Tacoma and Nordic Heritage museums, the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona, Calif. The first three accepted major Fairbanks pieces in the early 1990s, when the project was in its beginning stages.
Dixie is negotiating with the Arabia Museum in Helsinki, Finland’s National Craft Museum and a Japanese museum to exhibit her new collages in conjunction with previous exhibits of Richard’s ceramics and Dixie’s paintings. Once those plans are finalized, the foundation will begin communicating with American museums and galleries, especially in the Pacific Northwest, who own and have exhibited Richard’s pieces.