photo by arthur s. aubry (who himself passed on earlier this year), via earl brooks
We all knew he was going.
He’d had chronic COPD for many years. At his last Seattle public appearance, in early 2013, he’d looked frail, and had trouble talking for long periods of time.
But it was still a total bitch to learn that he’d died this last Monday morning.
Like many people commonly grouped as “’60s generation kids,”Rolon Bert Garner was already past his teens before the Beatles came to our shores. He’d grown up in Eugene to parents from Oklahoma. In Portland he’d cofounded Artech (a long-running regional art-supply and framing chain) before he came here to work for the Seattle Art Museum, circa 1969.
He was one of the original instigators of Bumbershoot in 1971, and one of the creators of its visual-art component (then a much bigger part of the festival than it is now).
He was involved with the multi-disciplinary arts center and/or (1974-84).
He curated and designed exhibits, installations, and temporary “pop-up spaces.”
He installed exhibits (choosing which pieces went where) at the Frye Museum and many local galleries.
He helped produce private events, including fashion shows for Nordstrom.
With Virginia Inn owner Patrice Demombynes, Garner pioneered the idea of art exhibits in local bars. (He and Demombynes had their own gallery space on Dexter Avenue for a couple of years.)
He continued to curate art on barroom walls as a co-owner of the Two Bells Tavern (with wife Patricia Ryan, who passed in 2001). He’d been a bartender there before Ryan bought the place circa 1982, then married her in 1984. Under Ryan and Garner, the the rundown little bar on a low-foot-traffic stretch of Fourth Avenue became the virtual living room for the then-burgeoning Denny Regrade arts community. When Ryan’s cancer got too bad for her to continue running it, they sold it and retired to the country.
Garner was also an artist in his own right.
His last show of paintings, a career retrospective at the Virginia Inn two and a half years ago, was full of bright colors, underground-comix-esque lines and curves, and an old hippie’s lifelong interest in semi-abstracted nudes.
And he was a conceptual artist. With Ken Leback, he created the public-art piece Equality (a grid of Monopoly-style houses) on north Beacon Hill.
I’d been going to the VI since 1981, and to the Bells since at least 1985.
I knew Garner as a smart, soft spoken, often funny presence.
After I started MISC as a column in the old ArtsFocus paper, he supported and encouraged my work. (It took me years, though, to convince him I wasn’t just making up the things I wrote about in it.)
He did so many things, in so many places, that it was hard to imagine a local arts scene without him.
And it still is.