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Friday, March 22, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Outspoken Seattle painter Margaret Tomkins dies

Seattle Times art critic

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With her long, dark hair, strong features and lean body, pioneering Northwest artist Margaret Tomkins made an indelible impact on most people who saw her. Known as a fine painter and an outspoken personality, Ms. Tomkins died of heart failure last week in Arizona at age 85.

"Her whole life was art," said Seattle actress Marjorie Nelson, who with her late husband, Victor Steinbrueck, had known Ms. Tomkins for more than 40 years.

Nelson recalls seeing Ms. Tomkins' work before she met the artist. In fact, Nelson bought the first Tomkins painting she ever saw, on impulse, dazzled by it.

Ms. Tomkins is best known for her abstractions, which started as intricate patterns of organic forms in an earthy palette that linked her to the Northwest School — a connection she strongly denied. Her earlier work had a surrealist bent with brooding landscapes as backdrops for mysterious tableaus.

The paintings are "concerned with quietude, inner penetration and shifting levels of dimension," Ms. Tomkins said in 1977. "They have no inner theme."

A Los Angeles native, Ms. Tomkins earned a master-of-fine-arts degree at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1939 and a year later married sculptor James FitzGerald of Seattle. She taught briefly at the Spokane Art Center, where FitzGerald worked as director, and then the couple moved to Seattle.

Ms. Tomkins taught at the University of Washington for several years. At the time, she was the only woman on the art faculty. In 1941, the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) honored her with a one-person show. She was frequently included in exhibits across the country at such institutions as the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and the Whitney and Metropolitan museums in New York.

She was a compelling painter, and her admirers agreed that she should have achieved greater recognition for it in the Northwest. Her work is seldom exhibited these days, and she has not had a comprehensive museum exhibition for many years.

"I think part may have been of her own making," said her daughter, Miro FitzGerald. "She chose not to be seen as a mystic. She really related to New York."

In fact, Ms. Tomkins and her husband boycotted SAM exhibits in the 1950s in protest of the power fellow artist Kenneth Callahan wielded as a curator for the institution and as a critic. Callahan contributed art reviews to The Seattle Times and was one of the artists Life magazine chose to spotlight in an article on "The Mystic Painters of the Northwest."

Twenty years later, Ms. Tomkins lambasted SAM in an interview, saying: "The museum doesn't support Northwest artists. ... They have some great shows, but they need a freight bill to prove it's great art."

Ms. Tomkins and her husband "were feisty — both of them. Feisty, strong, opinionated and kind of wonderful," said her friend Jan Thompson of Seattle. "Margaret was a good strong painter — a lot better than so many that got famous."

In 1959, a fire destroyed the FitzGerald home and studio on Capitol Hill, and all the work of both artists went up in smoke. The loss was estimated at nearly $250,000 and included a 27-foot metal-and-glass screen that FitzGerald was building for the Seattle Public Library.

When FitzGerald died in 1973 of bone cancer, Ms. Tomkins took over the work of completing her husband's commission for a 6,000-pound, 11-foot-high bronze fountain. She told a reporter she had lost 10 pounds in the process but saw the piece through to installation at Waterfront Park, outside the Seattle Aquarium.

For most of the past several decades, Ms. Tomkins devoted herself almost solely to her painting, showing only sporadically and rarely making appearances in the city. She lived a Spartan life, alone at her bluff-top house on Lopez Island in the San Juans. She and FitzGerald had built the house together as a summer place, incorporating stones from the beach, big windows salvaged from downtown Seattle buildings and enormous 30-foot beams.

In 1988, Ms. Tomkins suffered a stroke, which took away her ability to speak or read, but she doggedly continued to paint. Her last exhibition, in 1993 at the Foster/White Gallery in Seattle, was greeted as a breakthrough show, with Ms. Tomkins returning to a figurative style.

Thompson visited Ms. Tomkins at Lopez and was amazed by the late paintings.

"I was terribly impressed with the very last things she was doing," Thompson said. "She could hardly eat lunch because she was looking at her painting. She'd wobble up to it and put another stroke on it. She was obsessed."

Her acerbic personality may have been a drawback to Ms. Tomkins in promoting her paintings. "It does take a bit of socializing to develop a personality that people adhere to," Miro FitzGerald said. "She relied on the work."

Ms. Tomkins completed a painting just a month before her death, in Arizona, where she was being cared for near the Sedona home of FitzGerald and her husband, Bill Watson. But until it became impossible for her, Ms. Tomkins lived and worked on Lopez Island.

"She lived there for probably 30 years with no electricity until shortly before the end," FitzGerald said.

Her daughter also recalled that a few years ago, wizened and with long, gray hair, her mother made an appearance at the Four Seasons Olympic Hotel for a fund-raiser for the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle and was photographed by artist Spike Mafford.

"She never liked the photographs because they made her look too glamorous," FitzGerald said.

Besides FitzGerald, Ms. Tomkins is survived by another daughter, Gala Muench; a son, Jared FitzGerald; and a granddaughter.

Memorial contributions may be made to Lopez Center for Community and the Arts, P.O. Box 291, Lopez Island, WA 98261.

Sheila Farr can be reached at sfarr@seattletimes.com.

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