UW News

October 13, 2014

Northwest artists, writers, arts advocates in ‘Mary Randlett Portraits’

UW News


"Mary Randlett Portraits" was published by UW Press in September.

“Mary Randlett Portraits” was published by UW Press in September. Pictured here is art advocate Betty Bowen.Mary Randlett / UW Press / courtesy UW Special Collections

Frances McCue is a senior lecturer with the University of Washington English Department and a writer in residence with the Honors Program. She worked with well-known photographer Mary Randlett to create a book featuring portraits of Northwest artists, writers and arts advocates. “Mary Randlett Portraits” was published in September by UW Press. McCue answered a few questions about the work.

Q: How did this book come about?

A: Mary and I worked together on “The Car that Brought You Here Still Runs,” my book about the poet Richard Hugo and the Northwest Towns that he wrote about. That collaboration came from a glint in the eye of Pat Soden, then the director of UW Press.

Pat said: “I want you to work with Mary Randlett. You two would get a kick out of each other.” Pat is a great artistic matchmaker. I loved working with Mary. The more I got to know her, the more I saw that the scope of her work was phenomenal. Then, Rachael Levay, the wonderful publicist at UW Press, suggested that I do this portraits book.

Mary likes working so it was easy to convince her. Sometimes, I’ve said that the whole project was an excuse to hang out with Mary. And, hang out we did — for two years in Special Collections and in her garage, rifling through prints. We had a lot of half-finished sandwiches laying around.

Q: Several featured in this book are or were members of the UW community, including Theodore Roethke, Jacob Lawrence, Nelson Bentley, Colleen McElroy, Charles Johnson, Shawn Wong, Richard Haag, Wesley Wehr and others. How did you decide who to include?

A: We had these criteria: 1) we wanted to focus on artists, writers and advocates of the arts; 2) we wanted the photographs to be compelling, exposing some essence of their subjects and 3) we wanted to include people whom Mary had loved and worked with or who provided a window into the range of work being done in this region.

Q: You wrote an essay to accompany each of the subjects of the book. Would you tell a bit about your research process? 

A: I spent a lot of time reading whatever articles, books, blogs and essays I could find about the people whom we chose. Then, I dug into the rich world of Special Collections — a place where Gary Lundell, reference specialist, and Nicolette Bromberg, visual materials curator, really helped me find some fantastic prints of Mary’s and letters to and from some of the people in the book.

Frances McCue, left, and Mary Randlett. Photo by Greg Gilbert.

Frances McCue, left, and Mary Randlett.Greg Gilbert

Special Collections is a treasure trove; it’s a great hangout and the people who work there are immersed in the history of our region. Gary, for example, was a friend of Wes Wehr‘s and of Helmi Juvonen‘s — two artists whom I wrote about.

Then, there were the drives with Mary herself. To get her talking, you really have to be driving. She loosens up and tells great stories when she is on the road. So, I hung a tape recorder from the heating vent in the dashboard, and off we went. I love the material from those interviews and Mary’s quotes appear throughout the book.

Checking the facts, confirming memories — all of that happened with as many of the folks as I could reach and with a great assistant on the project, Shannon Foss. Shannon is an undergraduate in the Honors Program and a genius at collecting citations.

The last part, and one of the most important, involved my own speculations about the compositions of the photographs themselves. I looked and wrote and devised reactions and theories about the portraits as art.

And, I got some terrific help by asking Barbara Johns, the fabulous art historian, and Sheila Farr, one of our region’s great art critics, to peruse my work. As Richard Hugo once said, “A good teacher can save you 10 years.” Barbara and Sheila certainly saved me from years of flailing and I’ll be forever grateful to them.

  • “Mary Randlett Portraits” also features an afterword by Nicolette Bromberg.