Michael Spafford, an artist, painter, and art educator best known for his work in Seattle, passed away last weekend at the age of 86. Spike Mafford, his son, said that lung cancer was the cause of his sudden demise. He was born in Palm Springs, California on November 6, 1935.
When he was in high school, he started drawing classically influenced works, as per the artist’s HistoryLink online page. While attending Pomona College, Spafford and Elizabeth Sandvig met and got married; they have been together for 63 years. In 1967, Sandvig and their 4-year-old son joined Spafford to Italy for a two-year residence under the auspices of the coveted Prix de Rome scholarship.
The city of Rome, in particular, was an ideal location for the artist to continue his studies in classical literature. In 1969, Spafford returned to Seattle, where he maintained ties to the University of Washington and the Francine Seders Gallery, which has represented his work for more than 50 years.
Since then, he has established himself as a key figure in the Western art world as a painter and printer. While at Harvard, he was influenced by his courses in art history (especially the epics), and subsequently by graffiti artists while he was living in Mexico, his focus has been on Greek and Roman mythology.
It’s little wonder that he produced such extensive series as The Iliad, The Odyssey, Labors of Hercules, and other stories about Europa, Romulus, and Remus. With no modeling, the figures are reduced to flat shapes and patterns that have been stylized to the extent of abstraction.
Spafford made up his mind early on about both his subject and his method of presentation. Over the course of over 60 years, he produced paintings, prints, and watercolors that represented traditional myths via the use of highly exaggerated silhouettes of human and mythological figures. Many of the characters lacked characteristics; hands had no fingers, and black and white were commonly used instead of color.
A cacophony of corporeal war was what he had, and it might at times be nearly overpowering, with figures embroiled in fights that the spectator was left to interpret. Spafford devoted a lot of time and attention to the Herculean labors. Greek hero’s battles against monster and beast gave a suitable outlet for the artist’s love of artistic drama, in which shapes blend and disintegrate into one other like a field of combat shrouded by dust and smoke.
The ambiguity of the images in the Labors may have contributed to Spafford’s most difficult period in his life. As a result of an outcry from those who thought Spafford’s series was too modern or unsavory for their taste, Washington state commissioned the artist to paint a massive mural for the House chamber of the state Capitol, which he did in 1981 and which sparked a bitter legal battle and ultimately resulted in the series being relocated to an auditorium at Centralia College, well to the artist’s chagrin. He has since seen his works sell and receive positive critical acclaim.
A special bond developed among Spafford and his son, who lived together and often collaborated on projects together, including a painting that Spafford did on top of one of his son’s pictures. As Mafford put it, “My father remained at our home, working, up until the week before he died. It’s safe to say dad supported my desire to pursue the arts, and he also let me make my own choices”.
Spafford’s family encourages charitable contributions in his honor to any organization that supports the arts. No public activities are scheduled in line with the preferences of the artist.
Photo Credit: “I love flower so much…” by Thai Jasmine (Smile..smile…Smile..) is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0