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Watch: Preston Wadley

The influential art teacher uses books, found objects and photography to provoke thought and shift perception.

by Jas Keimig / June 2, 2023

Artist and longtime Seattle teacher Preston Wadley believes in the importance of engaging your brain with art. (Video by Tifa Tomb)

Preston Wadley’s art books look like artifacts excavated from the soil of a distant planet.

Composed primarily of found objects and vintage photos, the artist’s sculpted, repurposed books are covered in a rusted metal patina that makes them appear to weigh hundreds of pounds.

In these pairings of objects and photos — a jigsaw puzzle facing a photo of a Black woman, a toy-sized Statue of Liberty head next to an image of a steamship — he cleverly comments on race and the history of photography, encouraging viewers to create their own meaning.

“Think of your eyes as ears because I’m trying to talk to you,” he said during a tour of his Bellevue Arts Museum show, Abstract Truth, which runs through October 8, 2023.

Wadley’s multimedia practice — photography, sculpture, installation — amalgamates his civil rights-era upbringing and his deep interest in the ways photography can impact perception of self and history.

Born in 1952, Wadley grew up in Los Angeles as a kid who loved to draw and paint. His childhood years were a period of major political and artistic upheaval in the city. The 1965 Watts Rebellion rocked Los Angeles, as Black people demanded racial justice. Black artists like Noah Purifoy and John Outterbridge addressed that unrest and began experimenting with assemblage and sculpture as a new way to reflect and express themselves politically.

As a young person living through that moment, Wadley wanted to contribute to the conversation through his own art.

“When I started making art in anger, so to speak — metaphorically — I thought about photography,” he says. “Photography was such an important aspect of life at the time, and photography seemed really interesting to me because of its evidentiary power. You can’t take a photograph without being there, and that was really appealing to me, being witness to life.”

In the early ’70s, at the encouragement of teacher and legendary artist Charles White, Wadley enrolled in the University of Washington’s arts program to learn from another legendary artist and teacher, painter Jacob Lawrence.

“He was a great role model as far as what a real artist looks like and what a real artist thinks about,” says Wadley, now 71.

After getting two degrees in painting — a BFA in 1975 and an MFA in 1977 — Wadley shifted back to photography and spent a decade working as a medical photographer at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Taking pictures of surgeries, medical anomalies, microscopic organisms and doctor portraits, Wadley “really learned how to be a comprehensive photographer.”

Alas, it wasn’t the art he’d dreamed of making. “I had to work my way out of it,” he says.

In the late 1980s, Wadley quit that job and eventually secured his first grant from the Seattle Arts Commission to make a documentary. In 1989, Wadley accepted a teaching position at the Cornish College of Arts, where he’d spend the next 30 years shaping generations of Seattle artists.

As a professor, Wadley focused primarily on developing his students’ unique voices and means of expression. “I’m not trying to make students a mini-me, I’m trying to make them an effective them,” he says. “If you’re a student, I want your work to look like only you could make it.”

Over his teaching career, Wadley has continued to show work at places like the Henry Art Gallery, the Center for Photography at Woodstock in New York and Photographic Center Northwest, and has had work acquired for the permanent collections at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art and the Portland Art Museum. Since retiring in June 2020, now professor-emeritus Wadley has had even more time to concentrate on his own artistic practice. But for Wadley, life itself is an artistic endeavor.

“I don’t do nothing but art: I think about art, I read about art, I make art, I teach art,”  he says. “It’s all part of the same continuum.”

Authors & Contributors

Jas Keimig

Jas Keimig

Black Arts Legacies Writer


Preston Wadley

A headshot of a man looking into the distance

Visual artist, educator

(b. 1952)

Artist website

Artist social links

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