AN EARLY LOUIS B. AKIN PAINTING


23 May 2021

 Louis Benton Akin, grandchild and son of 1852 Oregon Trail travelers, was born in Corvallis, Oregon, on 8 June 1868. Before long, he moved with his parents to Forest Grove, and then into Portland. His mother died when he was only three, and his father when he was twelve. He spent the rest of his childhood living in Portland with his uncle, Francis (“Frank”) Akin, first working in the family shoe and clothing store, and then in a large sign writing shop. He did so well at the sign shop that, in 1889, he opened his own business. Demand for his creations was so strong that, within six months, he had to rent additional facilities and hire more workers.

   When not at work, Louis was likely to be in the southern Washington Cascades, somewhere near Mt. St. Helens. Sometimes with his cousin, Otis Akin, but often alone, he hunted some, trapped some, and fished a lot. He had a cabin at Merrill Lake, on the southwest side of the mountain, where he would spend weeks on his own, with his dog Antler for company.

   He and cousin Otis climbed Mt. St. Helens at least twice. A climbing party they were part of in July 1888 almost reached the top, but were turned back “within about 200 yards” by a crumbling rock wall they thought unsafe to attempt. In August 1892, he and Otis – and Antler – made it all the way, and Louis left this note in the summit register:

 “The Indian wears his moccasin,

the white man wears his gaiter;

I have no shoes left on my feet,

I need an elevator.”

 Louis is given credit for suggesting the name Mazamas for the Northwest mountaineering club – mazama being a name for the mountain goat - and the name was adopted by the club in 1894. Later, he designed the Mazamas logo, still employed today.

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   Apparently, Louis had long-term aspirations to do more with paint than turn out commercial signs. It is said that a cousin – who had taken art classes – helped him with perspective, when he was young, and was trying to paint a study of kittens in a box. He was a member of the short-lived Portland Art Club (1885-1887). A long-time friend, Robert L. Warner, remembered that Louis painted while alone at his cabin at Merrill Lake. About 1897, with few opportunities for serious painting available in Portland, he moved to New York, and enrolled in the Chase Art School. He stayed only about six months before deciding to try to succeed with his self-taught skills. He worked for a number of years as an magazine illustrator before finally getting a commission to paint in 1903. From then until his early death in 1913, he became well known and well respected with his art.

  With his background and outdoor interests, you might conclude that Louis Akin gained his artistic success with paintings of the Pacific Northwest. You would be wrong. Almost all of his preserved art work is of the Hopi Indians of Arizona, and the Grand Canyon. Some mountain paintings survive, but they are the result of 1909 and 1910 visits to Glacier National Park and British Columbia. I only know of one Cascades painting, and it is in our possession.

 

   

  The painting, purported to be of Mt. St. Helens on a moonlit night, was signed by Louis Akin on 12 June 1900, and on 18 June was presented to Clarence Crane and Stella Howard at their wedding in Boston. Louis was at the wedding. Clarence and his brother, William B. Crane, were friends of Louis in Portland, before Louis moved to New York and Clarence moved to Boston. Clarence and Stella were my wife Sally’s maternal grandparents. The painting was passed to Sally’s mother, Calista, and then to Sally. It has been with us since the 1970s. If (as it appears) the painting was completed when it was signed, Louis painted from memory, or perhaps from sketches he had made previously.

  Were there other Akin paintings of the Northwest? His friend, Robert Warner wrote in 1913: “I cherish in my own home many of his sketches in pen and in oils, covering a period of twenty years.[1] Twenty years would include Akin’s time in Washington State. Perhaps other friends had hidden treasures, also. However, it is interesting to note that no Northwest paintings were mentioned in reviews of the exhibit friends arranged for him in Portland in 1907.

   There are three existing Akin paintings that I know of from 1900: ours, and two pastoral studies, “The White Picket Fence” and “Woodland Shore.” These are the earliest paintings by several years that I could find records of.

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[1] Warner, R. L. 1913. Louis Akin – nature lover. Forest and Stream 80:231-232.


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