Myra Albert Wiggins: A Life in Studios

By Lilly Thies ’26

          When you think of the modern artist’s studio, an image may come to mind. Walls filled with art, probably a few different seating options– some chairs, some poufs, maybe even a swing. A drawing desk. Maybe some tools for mixed-media or textile art. Instruments. Paint splatters. As it turns out, the artists’ studio in the Progressive era wasn’t too different– a personalized treasure trove filled with items that inspire creativity. And, same as now, artists back in the day would carve out their own little corners where they could be creative, no matter how inconvenient the physical space. The desire for a personal space to create art was very much alive, and especially for female artists– bringing to mind Virginia Woolf’s idea of a “room of her own”.

          Myra Albert Wiggins (1869-1956) was an artist who spent her life between the Pacific Northwest, where she was born and where she raised her family, and New York City, where she went to school at the Art Students League of New York. Her parents encouraged her artistic capabilities both because they recognized her natural talent and because a cultural prowess in the arts was expected of upper-class progressive women at the time. Many of her personal belongings and art are stored in the Pacific Northwest Artists’ Archive in the Willamette University Archives. Although she is mostly known for her oil paintings, which won her a series of awards, her photographs display the quieter, more intimate moments of her life and offer a glimpse into the studio of a Progressive-era artist.

Wiggins’ Salem Studio. Pictured are the piano, center, and spinning wheel, to the left. (Box 9, Folder 4)

Some of Wiggins’ earliest photographs stored in the Archives show her studio in Salem, which she used from the 1890s through the 1920s. The studio was said to be a barn on the backside of the Wiggins family property on Winter street, near where Salem Hospital is now. The barn looks a bit ramshackle from the outside, but the inside is truly remarkable. The space is light and airy, with sun-faded rugs on the floor that brighten up the space. There is an incredible amount of art everywhere– recreations of Greek nude statues, ceramic pots tucked in among the rafters, paintings and photographs and spindly wooden furniture. One gets the sense just looking at the photographs that this place was used constantly and was well-loved by Wiggins, a safe place for her to separate her life as a mother and homemaker from her life as an artist. Not only does she have an impressive collection of visual art, but one corner of the studio features a piano and a spinning wheel. Though Wiggins was primarily a painter and a photographer, perhaps inspiration would have sometimes come to her in the form of a short melody or a textured fabric. Or perhaps these items were heirlooms, furniture meant to inspire creativity in the same way as the paintings and artifacts that covered the walls. Either way, it is clear that Wiggins decorated her space with her art in mind. She had sources of inspiration everywhere she looked, and she gave herself freedom to experiment with whatever medium her creativity demanded.

Wiggins’ improvised studio in Toppenish. Her daughter Mildred is pictured, left. (Box 9, Folder 5)

          The next studio Wiggins inhabited was behind her second family home in Toppenish, Washington, where she moved with her family after her husband Frederick began a new business venture. The photograph is entitled “My Improvised Photo Studio in our Alley, Toppenish, 1929”. Improvised is a good word for it; the structure is nearly falling apart, open to the elements, naught but a few pieces of fabric draped across a few pieces of wood. But Wiggins clearly was determined to have her creative space– her “room of her own”– and we can see in the photograph a stool that was present in pictures of her Salem studio, as well as a copper pitcher and a striped rug. Her daughter Mildred appears in the picture, wearing a Dutch headscarf, which Wiggins asserts to be a family heirloom. Even though this photo may just have been intended to document the changes in her life, Wiggins’ creative eye seems to be omnipresent. Her studio space was a crucial part of her process, and even the most run-down structures could harbor her creativity and give her the space she needed to thrive.

The exterior of Wiggins’ Seattle studio space at Lovelace. (Box 9, Folder 6)

The final glimpse into Myra’s studio space in her later life is a photo taken in Seattle, Washington, where she and her husband moved in 1932 and lived out the rest of their lives. The image shows the Lovelace studio building in downtown Seattle. It is, by far, the most lavish studio space we have seen in Wiggins’ photographs so far, with well-maintained topiary and even a fountain. The image also features Wiggins standing in front of the building, looking very pleased. At this point in her life, she had received a good amount of notoriety for her paintings and photographs, and must have been very proud that she could afford a studio of such high quality without the help of her family or husband. There are no photographs in the collection of the interior Wiggins’ studio space, but past evidence of her decoration indicates that there would have likely been the same bohemian inspirations and heirloom furniture as there had been in the past.

          Throughout Wiggins’ photographs, we can see somewhat of an evolution as she faces both life and career changes. From a barn behind her house in Salem, to a shack in Toppenish, to a lavish private studio space in Seattle, Wiggins maintained her creative spirit and sources of inspiration, allowing the art of others and different mediums to help her create her own art. Although she may have not always had the ideal studio environment, she was able to create a space in which she could surround herself with art and nurture her creativity. 100 years ago seems like forever, but the lives of artists back then were more similar to our modern reality than some would think, where creating art was a priority which overcame all the transition periods of life, and where, for women like Myra Wiggins, the studio could be a space that was really, truly theirs.

The Myra Albert Wiggins Papers collection is housed within the Willamette University Archives & Special Collections, providing an invaluable research resource. A portion of this collection has been digitized, offering convenient online access to diaries and notes related to Wiggins’ Color Talks. For more information, please contact the Archives at

Unacknowledged Legislation: Mark O. Hatfield’s Favorite Poem

by Mike Chasar, Professor of English

Mark Hatfield and Antoinette Marie Kuzmanich Hatfield

Judging from the contents of his personal library, former Oregon Governor and U.S. Senator Mark O. Hatfield (1922-2011) doesn’t appear to have had much time for poetry. Now displayed in sixteen locked cases in the “Hatfield Room” of the university library named in his honor, his personal library contains only fifteen or so books of poetry—not even a quarter of a shelf’s worth—most of which bear no evidence of having been read. They are no well-thumbed, well-worn volumes. Their spines are uncracked. Their margins are bare. They almost sigh with relief when you open them.

When Hatfield’s Senatorial papers were opened to the public on July 12, 2022, there was no reason to expect anything different. Correspondence and speeches? For sure. Floor statements, bill drafts, press clippings, and newspapers from his time on the Hill? Absolutely. Scrapbooks, sound recordings, and memorabilia? You betcha. When archivists discovered the poem “A Treasure” in and among these items, therefore, it came as something of a surprise. More surprising, though, was that archivists didn’t discover just one copy of “A Treasure” but a ream of three or four hundred copies of the poem reproduced on cardstock deliberately yellowed to look like an old document or perhaps a piece of parchment. It may not turn out to be the only poem in Hatfield’s papers—the process of cataloging them all is still ongoing—but it’s quite possibly the most important poem in his life.

“A Treasure” was written by Hatfield’s spouse Antoinette Marie Kuzmanich (her initials “AMK” follow the text in the manner of a byline), and a short preface ostensibly by Hatfield and set off from the poem by a common font that contrasts with the calligraphic font of the poem’s text explains, “Some years ago Antoinette shared this message with me and now I would like to share it with you” (figure 1 below). Here is the poem in full:

Friendships, like a chain of gold,

     have many links

Each dependant on the other

Each necessary to the whole man

Some links are weak

     Yet none the less desirable

Some links are small

     They must not be overlooked

Those that are broken

     May need repair

Thank God for those strong links,

     Though not perfect, endure,

Because they are pure

     And weather acid tests

These must be cherished

Their value is not determined

     By size, or shape, or state

They are priceless when they are old.

(Figure 1)

For the typical English professor (me, for example), this does not look like a very good poem—or, at very least, it’s a confusing poem. The possible spelling error in the third line (“dependant” is the British not American way of spelling “dependent”) and … er … let’s call them the “inconsistencies” in the text’s punctuation are just the start of it. More confusingly, the poem frequently signals in one direction but goes in another. For example, the indented lines indicate that this will be a type of conventionally formatted ballad with a consistent meter and rhyme, but the poem doesn’t follow through with those promises: the indentations come in irregular intervals, the meter (if there was an attempt at meter) is irregular at best, and there are some instances of rhymes but no discernable rhyme scheme. Led by words like “gold” and “friendship,” as well as the overarching metaphor that compares friends to links in a gold chain, the poem situates itself in the language of well-meant sentimentality and cliché common to Hallmark greeting cards (listen to how “pure,” “perfect,” and “priceless” alliterate with each other and reinforce the verse’s greeting-card orientation). In contrast, the phrase “acid test” feels remarkably jarring and out of context, both conceptually and acoustically. From the perspective of the creative writing classroom, the resulting mix feels like something of a hot mess and not at all something one would advise reproducing by the ream to share with hundreds of people as the preface and copies suggest was the case.

I want to argue with that English professor, however. What if all of the text’s potentially objectionable features are in fact part of the poem’s point? If the poem’s metaphor focuses on the weak links, broken links, and imperfect links in friendship, then don’t the poem’s various imperfections back that up or put that message on display at the level of the text? In fact, if the “value” of a friendship, as the poem explains, “is not determined by size, or shape, or state” but by age, then perhaps the poem’s value shouldn’t be assessed in terms of size, shape, or state, either—including the inconsistencies, errors, and imperfections to which I’ve called attention. Indeed, if we approach “A Treasure” from this point of view, then its imperfections and weak links represent and express the imperfections of human friendship in a way that brings the poem’s “form” and “content” closer into alignment than a more “perfect” poem could do. Moreover, the document’s physical emphasis on age—the look of distressed paper, the font that looks a little like yesteryear’s handwriting, and the very fact that Antoinette gave Hatfield the poem “some years ago” and yet it finds itself in Hatfield’s hands again and again—feeds right into the value system that the poem does promote: poems, like friendships, “are priceless when they are old” no matter their imperfections.

That Hatfield would latch onto a poem for its ability to create social connections—here it not only “links” Mark to Antoinette, but promises that every reader who receives it might also be linked to that “chain of gold”—makes total sense when we look at the poetry in his personal library, where a fair number of Hatfield’s poetry books have been autographed or inscribed in ways that make the book’s exchange an act of social rather than literary relations. Ronald H. Bayes inscribes Dust and Desire to the Hatfields as a couple, “with best regards from an old friend.” (I, for one, can’t help hearing in “old friend” the “old” at the end of Antoinette’s poem.) This Precious Earth comes “compliments of Mrs. F.J. Landers,” and Aleutian Interval gets delivered “with the best wishes of his friend Harry J. Larsen” (again, back to the subject of friendship). When Maine’s Senator William S. Cohen sent along a copy Of Sons and Seasons, he did so for “an outstanding leader and legislator whose only standard has been the pursuit of excellence.” Even Hatfield’s tiny, 1920s-era, 3×4-inch copy of Walt Whitman’s Memories of President Lincoln, published by the Little Leather Library Corporation, ends with this spirt of connection:

Camerado, I give you my hand!

I give you my love more precious than money,

I give you myself before preaching or law;

Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me?

Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

Doesn’t “Song of the Open Road” (first published in 1856) sound like Whitman is extending his hand of friendship across time to become one more link in the gold chain of “A Treasure” that is measured by age (“as long as we live”) and made increasingly valuable by virtue of its aging (“more precious than money”)? Improbably, perhaps, even the slight imperfection of the uncapitalized letter “w” at the beginning of the second question (“will you come travel?”) is part of how Whitman’s friendship “links” to Antoinette, which is part of how she links to Mark, which is how Mark links to every reader who takes the poem when extended.

There’s something charming about this act of giving out imperfect poems and using them to broker friendships, isn’t there? When I imagine how people communicate in Washington D.C., it’s certainly not via poetry. By legal brief, yes. Expert testimony, too. Maybe even dead drops in a public park or clandestine meetings at night in a parking garage. For that reason and more, the very idea of Hatfield going around pressing copies of “A Treasure” into the hands of senators, congressmen, lobbyists, aides, and perhaps even presidents is all the more appealing. In 1821, British poet Percy Shelley famously called poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” I wouldn’t be surprised if Hatfield—and Antoinette—could have told us a thing or two about it.

Mike Chasar is on the English faculty at WU and is the author of Poetry Unbound: Poems and New Media from the Magic Lantern to Instagram (2020) and Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America (2012), both from Columbia University Press.