Elizabeth Bayley Willis

Elizabeth Bayley Willis, 101, noted champion of the Northwest School of art, died June 30 at Island Health and Rehabilitation Center.

She was born May 9, 1902 in Somerville, Mass., the first child of Frank Sawyer Bayley and Mary Eulalia (Bass) Bayley. The family moved to Seattle in 1907, and later included brothers Emery Perham Bayley, Julia (who died at age 5), and Frank Sawyer Bayley, Jr.

After graduating from Queen Anne High School in Seattle, she attended a private boarding school for girls in Boston, where she often visited the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, learning about and enjoying the arts of Asia, particularly India.

She attended Mt. Holyoke College for one year, returning to Seattle to complete her B.A. at the University of Washington.

She married Cecil Durand Willis in 1923, and was divorced in 1938. She visited England that year on an English Speaking Union scholarship. Upon her return, she studied with artist Lyonel Feininger at Mills College, then in Seattle with Mark Tobey and Morris Graves.

From 1938-1943, she taught at Garfield High School in Seattle, and at Bainbridge High School.

She was an associate at the Willard Gallery in New York, 1943-1946, where she promoted the work of Tobey and Graves.

From 1946-1948, she served as the second curator of the University of Washington’s Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, where she brought to the job a sense of the gallery’s importance as the only museum in town.

She served as the curator of the San Francisco Museum of Art from 1948-1950 before becoming the Acting Assistant Director of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. There, she continued her efforts to export the Northwest School, organizing the Legion’s retrospectives of Graves (1948) and Tobey (1951).

In 1951, she embarked on a new career: helping preserve the folk arts of Japan, India, Taiwan, Vietnam and Morocco.

The core of the Henry Art Gallery’s collections of Japanese pottery and Indian textiles was collected by her. After befriending Dr. Soetsu Yanagi of the Tokyo museum, author of “Folk-Crafts of Japan,” Willis asked Dr. Yanagi whether he could lend anything from the museum’s collection for an exhibit at the Henry. Museum items could not be lent, so she borrowed a sum which Dr. Yanagi used to purchase a collection; it showed first at Mills College in 1951, where she was studying art history. The show was circulated for seven years by the Western Association of Art Museum Directors before coming to the Henry at the tour’s end, where most of it was placed on loan.

Her accomplishments from this period include: consultant in decorative arts, products and marketing in Mingei Kan, Tokyo, 1951-1952; Expert Member of the United Nations Technical Assistance Board for Taiwan, Vietnam, India and Morocco, 1952-1959; textile exports consultant, India, 1955-1957; researcher on the tribes of India’s northeast frontier, especially arts and textiles, 1959-1964, textile arts of India, and folk arts of Mingei, Japan.

She was the author of “Travel with Dr. Soetsu Yanagi in his Kingdom of Beauty,” “India! In the Footprints of the Raj,” “A Hard Act To Follow,” as well as unpublished journals on Japan and India.

Her collections of artifacts, pottery and textiles from Tibet, Bhutan, India, Burma, Japan and Morocco are now in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution; costumes, pottery and textiles from the same countries are in the permanent collections of the Henry Art Gallery and the Washington State Museum. Her library of books pertaining to her work are at the Henry Art Gallery; her journals and memorabilia are in the archives of the Suzzallo Library, University of Washington.

Her connection to Bainbridge Island began in 1907 when her family purchased a waterfront parcel north of the Agate Point “Mosquito Fleet” boat dock and built a summer cabin. She and her brothers acquired an appreciation of nature while playing in the woods and on the beach, an appreciation passed on to her own daughters as they grew up during the late 20s and 30s.

She wrote a children’s book about the beach creatures found at Agate Point, incorporating scientifically accurate information in her story at a time when such simplified information was not available in children’s books. The book, “Little Bay Creatures,” published by Binfords & Mort in 1938, included detailed drawings by her friend, Mary Erckenbrack Hennessy.

In 1941, she built her home on the family’s property at Agate Point, where she and her family enjoyed and protected its natural wooded setting during her many years living there.

She is survived by her daughters Mary Randlett of Olympia, Betsy (William C.) Lawrence of Bainbridge, and Pamela Price of Otis, Ore.; 13 grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren and six nephews. She was preceded in death by a daughter, Priscilla “Petrie” Willis Baldwin Coleman of Whidbey Island, and by her two brothers, Emery and Frank.

At her request, no services will be held. Memorial donations may be made to the Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, P.O. Box 351410, Seattle, WA 98195-1410, or to the Bainbridge Public Library, 1270 Madison Ave. N.