The expressive and delicate colored woodblock prints created by Washington State artist Waldo Spore Chase (1895-1988) during the early decades of the twentieth century are absolute manifestations of the maker’s philosophical beliefs. Chase was a social rebel—a staunch critic of commercial industrialism, he sought out a lifestyle in which he could escape the trappings of modern consumerism and dedicate his life to studying the beauties of the natural world.
Born in Seattle, Washington in 1895, Waldo was the eldest of four children and, like his younger brother Wendell Corwin Chase (1897-1988), possessed an early attraction to producing art. Upon graduating from Seattle’s Queen Anne High School in 1915, Waldo enrolled in several classes at Seattle College (now known as Seattle University) in order to earn a teaching certificate for art. By 1921, he was instructing students within Washington State’s Mason County on the artistry of basket-making and poster design, and, the following year, teaching on the Skokomish Indian Reservation.
As Waldo approached his late twenties, however, he became more and more frustrated with the ways society was being transformed with industrialization. Around 1923, with his brother Corwin at his side, Waldo opted instead for a life of simplicity, physically challenging “The Man” by forsaking their careers (Corwin left behind his job as an urban planner/city engineer) and living amongst the evergreen trees that blanket the Pacific Northwest in handmade Plains-style teepees designed by Corwin and, later, in a rustic, and simple Japanese-style cabin he handcrafted out of Northwest cedar. Feeling a spiritual connection to nature, both Waldo and Corwin sought a way to utilize their artistic capabilities to conjure up a form of romantic nostalgia for the unurbanized past and reclaim a sense of “lost nature.” A woodblock printing method developed in Japan and popular across America at the time became their voice, particularly for Waldo, who, unlike his brother, would rarely experiment outside of his preferred artistic medium of printmaking throughout his artistic career.
The Arts and Crafts movement, which had originated in England during the late Victorian period (ca. 1850s) and reached a pinnacle of acceptance in Western Europe and the East Coast of the United States during the 1890s, faded from popularity in most of the United States with the social, economic and cultural shifts that accompanied World War I (1914-1918). The ideals and stylization of the movement, however, continued to thrive in the Pacific Northwest into the Depression years (1929 into the late 1930s).
Waldo, who was the brainchild behind the brothers’ venture out into the wilderness of Western Washington, clearly was inspired by the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement—the movement’s ideals rejected mechanization and instead embraced materials and products based on beauty and fine workmanship. The woodblock printing method, which inherently required multiple steps from point of inception to final product to create, was a leading mode of artistic expression during the Arts and Crafts movement. According to Corwin’s account of the brother’s early years of living in the wilderness, the two commenced their undertaking of learning how to create woodblock prints “in the Oriental manner” in June of 1924, “carving [their] own designs [of the Pacific Northwest] on blocks of wood using this simple craft method which required no expensive press.”
Utilizing the a 1916 instructional book written by Morley Fletcher, Wood-block Printing as Practiced by the Japanese, Waldo and Corwin spent their time living upon the Pacific Northwest’s giant mountain—Mt. Rainier in Washington State—and teaching themselves the basics of Japanese woodblock printmaking. Waldo and Corwin were quick studies and, in a matter of months, they learned how to absorb the principles and artistic expression of the Japanese method and expand on the building blocks to incorporate a delicate touch and emphasis on light that was more a reflection of Impressionist painting than Japanese sensibilities. According to a description of the brother’s inspiration that appeared within the pages of a December 1924 edition of The Seattle Times, the “Chase [brothers] were impressed by the beauty of the ancient Chinese and Japanese color prints, and…they began experimenting along similar lines, endeavoring to portray the mysterious and austere beauty of this great fourteen-thousand-foot Sentinel of the Cascades [Mt. Rainier] as the Japanese artists have portrayed the myriad aspects of Fujiyama.”
Within two months of first picking up the printmaking process, in August of 1924, the brothers sold their first woodblock print to Edmund Meany—a noted professor of History at the University of Washington and fervent mountaineer—while the professor was hiking in Glacier Basin on Mt. Rainier. By early December of the same year, the brothers were headlining their “Chenuis Color Prints” of Mt. Rainier printed on imported Japanese paper at the Archway Bookstore on 3rd and Pike Streets in Seattle. The Seattle Times relayed the meaning behind the brother’s name selection for their woodblock creations: “The word ‘Chenuis’ is the original Indian name of one of the minor peaks of Mount Rainier. The beautiful Chenuis Falls are well known to the thousands of visitors to the Rainier National Park.”
During the 1930s, Waldo’s prints were displayed within a number of local art galleries, and he gave multiple woodblock printmaking demonstrations within Seattle art stores. Waldo continued to produce artwork and embrace a simplistic life amongst the trees of Washington State until his death in 1988, and, within the last several years, his talents have become reevaluated and brought to the forefront amongst collectors of Arts & Crafts-period woodblock prints and artwork.