Larson and art student
The Larsons at Russ' 100th birthday party
Just months before Whitworth celebrated its 100th year in Spokane, J. Russell "Russ" Larson, a longtime associate professor of art at Whitworth, celebrated his 100th birthday, on Nov. 21, 2013.
Larson majored in art at the University of Washington, where he met his future wife, Joan, also an art major, and John Koehler, a future Whitworth art professor. The UW named Larson the Outstanding Senior Art Student for 1939-40, and he finished his undergraduate degree while designing signs for Able Sign Co., in Seattle, where he went on to become a partner.
Larson and Joan married in 1941. During World War II, Russ worked as a patternmaker for Lake Washington Shipyards. The Larsons then moved to Spokane, where he was a designer and sales manager for Brown Industries, a commercial-trailer manufacturing firm. He had a strong desire to teach, however, and enrolled at Whitworth to earn a master's degree in education and art.
At Whitworth, Larson encountered Koehler, who joined the faculty in 1945 at the behest of President Frank Warren. Warren had noted a void in the arts in Spokane and had begun working to formalize and grow Whitworth's art program. The college soon recruited Larson, who joined the faculty in 1947 and completed his master's degree four years later.
At the time, Whitworth's art department resided in Westminster Hall's cramped daylight basement. Larson drew up remodeling plans, and he and Koehler tore down walls to fashion a more suitable space for their students. As the department continued to grow, Larson designed three large art classrooms and faculty offices for the daylight basement of Cowles Memorial Library, which had been built in 1948. Once again, Larson and Koehler took up hammers and saws to complete construction, with the help of Whitworth's maintenance crew.
When the library needed its basement space, Larson designed a remodel for a government-surplus building on campus, to house both the art and math departments. (The science program, which had occupied the building, relocated to the new Eric Johnston Science Center in 1966.) Larson also designed Whitworth's first exhibit space, which he named the Koehler Gallery in honor of his friend and colleague, who had died before the revamped building was completed.
During these years, Joan earned a bachelor's degree in education at Whitworth and taught art and drama at Fairwood Elementary and Mead High School. She and Larson also built three homes from his plans, which were influenced by the style of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Their first home's unique features gained notice that resulted in Larson being commissioned to draw plans for more than 300 houses in Washington and Idaho.
Larson also designed neon signs for Baldwin Sign Co.; remodels for Knox, Westminster and Mission Presbyterian churches, in Spokane; plans for three new churches in rural communities and for a pots-and-pans factory; and the interior of McEachran Hall, Whitworth's administration building.
In his 34 years at Whitworth, Larson taught nearly every art course the college offered, including drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, pottery and jewelry, and he taught art to education majors. He also studied art for two summers at the Instituto Allende, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
The Larsons' eldest son, Jay, is a retired metallurgical engineer who is now a metallurgy consultant and the owner of three businesses. Their son Jan graduated from Whitworth in 1967, and is an art professor emeritus at Pacific University; he continues to show his works throughout the Pacific Northwest. Larson and Joan are also the proud grandparents of six successful adults and 10 greatgrandchildren (and they're just as proud of their progeny's spouses).
In 1987 the Larsons moved to Fountain Hills, Ariz., where they lived in their own home for 26 years. They now enjoy living in the Fountain View Village retirement community, whose residents voted the couple king and queen for Valentine's Day 2014.
In a fitting celebration of Larson's centenary, his paintings were exhibited for five months in the village's Beth Shafe Memorial Gallery. He also received proclamations from President Barack Obama and from the governor of Arizona, along with a hand-delivered proclamation from the mayor of Fountain Hills, in honor of a long, well-lived life.