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Seattle Art Museum (SAM)

Frances Wismer Baker Blakemore

Photo: Elizabeth Mann

Frances Wismer Baker Blakemore

American, 1906 - 1997

“Artist – Farmer – Gallery Owner.” This is the three-fold title which Frances Blakemore (1906-1997) often used to refer to herself. Although the middle portion may have little to do with the Seattle Art Museum, the other two—her roles as artist and gallery owner—led her to develop the important collection of Japanese prints she and her husband Thomas Blakemore (1916-1994) donated to the museum. Their contributions to the Seattle Art Museum reflect a wide range of interests, from her own Japan-inspired prints to Japanese prints both traditional and modern, to an array of textiles, ceramics, and other functional pieces. Her complete biography, An American Artist in Tokyo: Frances Blakemore, 1906-1997, by Michiyo Morioka, details Frances’ life-long relationship with Japan.
Frances’ connection with SAM began as a student of art at the University of Washington from 1925 to 1935, where she worked closely under the printmaking professor Helen Rhodes. During her ten years as a student, she established herself as a rising young artist in Seattle. She exhibited at the Northwest Printmakers’ Annual under her maiden name Frances Wismer, winning two purchase prizes, and was extensively noted in the Seattle Times for her participation in the arts community in Seattle. The first Northwest Printmakers’ Annuals were held at the Henry Gallery (starting in 1929), but moved to SAM once the museum opened in 1933. At the time, Helen Rhodes was the president of Northwest Printmakers. As such, she and Dr. Richard Fuller, founding Director of the museum, served on the jury every year for the Annual, and often both Helen and Dr. Fuller would organize or jury such art events in Seattle. It seems likely Dr. Fuller became acquainted with Frances through her teacher, Helen, perhaps as early as Frances’ first Purchase Prize win, in 1929. Although their exact relationship is unclear, Frances impressed Dr. Fuller enough that when she went to Japan in 1935 after graduating, she brought a letter of introduction from Dr. Fuller naming her as “one of the leading Seattle Artists.” Even after leaving, she continued to be an active member of Northwest Printmakers.
Frances worked in Tokyo as a painter and English teacher for five years, until the eve of World War II. In a time when Westerners were quite rare in Japan, Frances attracted many friends with her enthusiasm for life there. These early connections set the foundation for Frances’s life-long ardor for Japanese prints and crafts. Within two years of arriving in Japan, Frances was well integrated into the Tokyo arts community, contracting with an established publisher to produce at least two sets of full-color prints in a traditional workshop. She also befriended Yanagi Soetsu, the leader of the Mingei folk arts movement, through whom she gained an appreciation of Japanese ceramics and textiles, and was introduced to traditional artisans. During the war, she lived in Honolulu where she used her knowledge acquired while living in Japan to create the visual component for American propaganda leaflets dropped on the Japanese.
Frances returned to Japan in 1946 to work in the Civil Information and Education Section of the General Headquarters of the American occupation. While there, she was responsible for assembling creative exhibitions to educate the Japanese on living in a modern democracy. The printed material produced by the Education Section caught the attention of Japanese print artists, at whose behest she wrote Japan’s first guide book for silkscreen printing. Over the course of six years at the CI&E, her responsibility expanded to include the organization of exhibition events for cultural exchange in the form of the America Fair in Japan (1950) and the Democratization of Japan exhibit in San Francisco (1951). These experiences established her reputation as an influential participant in the Japanese arts.
When the occupation ended in 1952, Frances remained in Tokyo, transferring to the American embassy’s department of Information Services as an exhibition officer. One of her first projects was the Modern Prints exhibition, in collaboration with Oliver Statler (widely considered to be an expert on Japanese history and culture, and the donor of over a thousand prints to the Art Institute of Chicago) and Annemarie H. Pope of the Smithsonian’s Traveling Exhibition Service, which introduced modern Japanese prints to the West. The exhibit traveled throughout the United States, including Yale University and Indiana University Over the course of her five years at the embassy, Frances further developed her connections with artists.
In 1957, Frances retired from the embassy to focus on her own art, showing in a number of solo exhibitions in Japan. And in 1965, she joined Frances Bushell and Nell Adams as a co-owner of the Fran-Nell Gallery (later Franell Gallery). The gallery originally opened in Tokyo’s Hilton Hotel, soon moving to the TBR Building, and in 1973 moving to the prestigious Okura Hotel. The Franell was unusual for seeking out unknown artists, focusing on prints (a “minor” art), including numerous female artists, and allowing artists to set their own prices. Frances was the leading public voice of the Franell, organizing exhibitions, as well as lectures and meet-the-artist receptions. She was influential in the development of many modern Japanese printmakers’ careers, recognizing their talent early on. Quite a few of Franell’s artists submitted prints to the Northwest Printmakers’ Annual, winning Purchase Prizes and the honor of having their prints grace the cover of the Annual’s booklet. Their participation in the Northwest Printmakers’ Annual was undoubtedly influenced by Frances’ connection with the organization. While working at the Franell, Frances introduced a broader audience to Japanese artists in her book, Who's Who in Modern Japanese Prints. Frances’ extensive collection now comprises a significant portion of the modern Japanese prints for both SAM and the Henry Gallery.
Her continued enthusiasm for the Mingei folk arts led Frances to acquire an extensive collection of Japanese ceramics, textiles, textile stencils, and other folk crafts, later donated to SAM, the Henry Gallery, and the Burke Museum. During her time in Japan, Frances traveled extensively to rural locations of folk art production, and likely was privileged to purchase much of her collection directly from the artisans and their successors.
The source for the large number of late Edo (19th century) prints in the Blakemore collection is unclear. However, for much of her time in Japan, such works could be acquired rather inexpensively through antique shops and shrine markets where many antique dealers sold their goods at low prices. The market at Nogi Shrine in Tokyo is particularly known, to this day, for the variety and quality of ukiyo-e prints sold.
Frances met Thomas Blakemore in Tokyo, and the two were married in 1954. Thomas was a practicing lawyer in Tokyo for over thirty years, and in the 1980s was decorated with the Order of the Sacred Treasure Third Class by the Emperor for his extensive contribution to writing the Japanese constitution and legal system during the American occupation after World War II. Although the collection clearly highlights Frances’ interests in Japanese art, Thomas shared in her enthusiasm for Japan and its culture.
In 1988, the Blakemores returned to Seattle, where they founded the Blakemore Foundation to support the study of Asian languages and arts. Their 1998 donation to SAM consists of a pair of six-panel folding screens, twenty-nine works of decorative art, folk crafts and textiles, and one-hundred six woodblock prints and modern works on paper, dating from the early eighteenth century to the mid-1970s, plus one hanging scroll of Chinese calligraphy attributed to the Kangxi emperor (1662-1722). The wide variety of works included in the collection reflects Frances Blakemore’s long and wide-ranging enthusiasm for Japanese art.

Hattie Branch, March 2012
  • American
  • prints
  • Seattle, WA
  • Chelan, WA
  • Pana, IL

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