Doris Totten Chase (1923-2008) was a bi-coastal artist – engaged in and well recognized in New York City for her groundbreaking video and film projects, and equally regarded in Seattle for her sculptures, woodwork, and paintings. Born in Seattle WA, her passion for art emerged early in life. She began her limited formal studies in art at the University of Washington, studying art and architecture, when she met and married a young naval officer named Elmo Chase.
After having her first child, Chase became seriously ill – an experience she later ascribed to “doing everything except what [she] wanted to do, which was to paint.” She began to study painting in earnest and gained modest recognition from the start of her painting career when one of her paintings was accepted into the Northwest Annual Exhibition in in 1948. When her first child was three and she was pregnant with her second child – at the same time building the family’s new home (for which she was the architect) – her husband contracted polio. During his period of near-full paralysis, Chase understood that she had to be the breadwinner and in 1951, she began teaching painting at Edison Technical High School, now Seattle Central Community College. The renowned art collector, Virginia Wright, was one of her first students.
Chase would continue to develop her vision and skills as a painter, using bold blocks of color and form – inspired by Northwest Native American basket weaving and wood carving- to capture the people and images of the Northwest, especially landscapes and street musicians. Gaining recognition as a talented young Northwest artist, but finding the local arts world viewed her as a housewife with pretensions, she began to travel to gain experience and freedom, spending time in Japan, New York and three summers as a fellow in the late 1960s at the Huntington Hartford Institute in California.
Over time, her style and form of expression evolved from painting, to painting on wood, to carving and then sculpture. With each medium, she would increasingly create interactive features – hinged works or modular and “nestled” works – and would also evoke totems and ritual utensils, items and icons drawn from the rich Northwest native cultures.
In 1968, Chase’s life as an artist would change dramatically when Mary Staton, a dancer, used some of Chase’s wooden circles carvings in her choreography. This would engage Chase first in incorporating movement into her art works, and then in creating filmed/video versions of her works using various interactive elements, including dancers and commissioned music. During this period, Chase created Circles II, a film that pioneered color separations to show dancers and sculptures as color forms, and the use of time lapse so that trails of light followed the wake of dancers’ arms and legs.
Chase would create numerous video and filmed works, including a series of 30-minute video dramas regarding older women’s autonomy: the first, titled By Herself – Table for One (1985), starred Geraldine Page in a voice-over monologue of a woman uneasy about dining alone, followed by Dear Papa (1986), and A Dancer (1987). Her 1988 work, Still Frame, featured Priscilla Pointer and Robert Symonds. Sophie (1989) featured Joan Plowright as a woman who has just left her philandering husband. Perhaps her most prescient video was Glass Curtain (1983), in which actress Jennie Ventriss anguished over her mother’s mental and physical deterioration from Alzheimer’s disease, the very disease that would take Chase’s life in 2008.
In her last years as an active artist, Chase lived in New York but split her time with Seattle, where some of her largest, most graceful, and most iconic works of public art can be found: the 15-foot high Changing Form on Queen Anne Hill – one of the most climbed-over, sat-upon and posed-in-front-of artworks in Seattle – and the four-piece, 17-foot-high Moon Gates at Seattle Center. She began works in glass, sometimes combining it with steel, expressing the view that glass was “painting in an new medium.”