Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Michael Fajans, 1948-2006: Painter left his mark on Seattle's public art


Influential Seattle painter Michael Fajans, 58, was killed Monday morning when his motorcycle collided with a car as he was merging onto the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Fajans, the only fatality in the accident, was transported to Harborview Medical Center by firefighters.

Michael Fajans
Artist Michael Fajans sits in front of part of his mural in the Seattle federal courthouse in this file photo from 2004. He painted real people and their professions.

Richard Andrews, director of the University of Washington's Henry Art Gallery, called Fajans' death a "great loss," and said the artist was "very influential in the development of the public art scene in Seattle, from the 1970s to the present."

Among his most successful projects is his massive set of murals in the U.S. Courthouse in Seattle, titled "Three Sets of Twelve," a meticulous celebration of the jury system.

In a profile of Fajans by Kathie Werner in the Seattle P-I two years ago, she wrote that although the panels of the courthouse mural "may at first look like photographs, they're the result of a complicated creative process. ... The soft, lustrous folds of the camera repairman's work smock (in the murals) look like silk -- the result of Fajans' meticulously airbrushed painting of acrylic on cherry wood. The red fabric of the architect's skirt and jacket took 30 layers of paint to achieve its velvet texture."

Born in Philadelphia, Fajans grew up in New York City and graduated from Antioch College in 1970 with a bachelor's degree in art and dance. He was a dancer in New York until a knee injury caused him to focus on painting.

His painterly skill was prodigious, and he used it in the service of exactitude. If he painted a bird, he considered each feather. When he painted a chair, he absorbed the stresses in its construction.

From exactitude, he achieved mysterious resonance.

"There's always something magical in his depictions," Andrews said. "And he chose to use that magic in the public arena."

He's best known for his paintings of people. He was fascinated by the way light falls on flesh, the way clothes fold around their wearer, how habitual expressions leave traces. Although his portraits could be radically unflattering, he painted them as containers for spirit, painting the spirit by inference.

Besides painting, Fajans loved his son, Pepper, his life partner, Cathryn Vandenbrink, volleyball and his motorcycle.

Vandenbrink met Fajans 20 years ago, after signing up for a volleyball class he was coaching.

"He was a terrible coach," she said, "way too hard on everybody. He loved volleyball too much to see it played badly."

Vandenbrink never learned to play, but the coach liked her anyway. "We'd stand in the same room, and our bodies would vibrate," she said.

On the wall of his studio were photos of Bob Dylan, whom he liked, and cartoons of George Bush, whom he despised.

One sign read, "I'd rather be blacklisted." There were plenty of photos of Pepper, a skateboarder who attends Sarah Lawrence College, and a few of Vandenbrink, including one of her nude on the same motorcycle he was riding in Monday's accident, a huge BMW R1150RT.

"He sent that photo out one year as his Christmas card," she said.

In 1998, he painted former Gov. Mike Lowry's official portrait, which hangs in the foyer of the governor's office. When asked about the painting at its unveiling, Lowry said: "I think the artist did a good job. The only problem is it looks like me."

Writing in The Oregonian, Randy Gragg called the portrait a stark contrast to the standard-issue portrait, which is largely nostalgic, tradition-bound and moribund. Fajans mixes pop with an almost technocratic attitude toward paint, he wrote.

Other murals Fajans created can be found at the Port of Seattle, Sea-Tac Airport, the Pike Place Market Child Care Center and on the ferry Sealth.

Vandenbrink said there will be a party to celebrate Fajans' life, but "it's too soon to think about it yet. He's only been out of my life for half a day."

P-I reporter Hector Castro contributed to this report.