Legacy of Walla Walla artist opens at Sheehan Gallery

J. Frank Munns, who died in January, left more than 500 works on paper and canvas, numerous sketchbooks and almost 100 sculptural elements.


"Chariots" J. Frank Munns Collection


J. Frank Munns was about as Southeastern Washington as they come.

Born in Walla Walla in 1943 to the Munns-Bergevin farming clan that had long lived in the Palouse, his early relatives included French trappers who settled in the Valley.

But Munns the artist, the academic, the anthropologist, the archaeologist, historian and traveler was also of many worlds.

Exhibit information

‘Of Myth & Memory: A Retrospective of Selected Works of Artist J. Frank Munns’ runs Monday through Dec. 14 at Sheehan Gallery on the Whitman College campus.

Daniel M. Forbes, gallery director will give a curator talk at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 19 in Olin Hall Room 130.

Exhibit hours will be extended to noon-7 p.m. during Whitman’s family weekend Oct. 25-26, with a cookies and coffee reception 3-5pm.

And, as his paintings and sculptures for which he is best known attest, he seemed to have even otherworldly connections.

Sinuous sculptures of painted animal skulls mounted on wood stick frames wrapped in string and other fibers and ornamented with beads are among his hallmark three-dimensional phantasmagoria.

Images in his paintings, such as “Chariots” and “Primal Deer Scream,” are of a similar, mythic mind.

Munns the man died in January a few weeks shy of his 70th birthday, but a sampling of his life’s creations will be shown in an exhibit called “Of Myth & Memory: A Retrospective of Selected Works of Artist J. Frank Munns.”

It opens Monday and runs through Dec. 14 at Whitman College’s Sheehan Gallery, which Munns directed from 1976-83.

“He was a rare individual, equally at ease discussing Greek myths and philosophy with academics as he was talking cattle and wheat prices with jean-clad farmers,” according to a biography provided by Whitman College.

Whether he was walking Folsom Street in San Francisco or having lunch at Walla Walla’s Blue Mountain Tavern, he never seemed out of place.

He could shift from a deep conversation of spiritual substance to a ribald joke in a moment, relishing the significance of both in human existence.

A 1961 graduate of DeSales Catholic High School, Munns left Walla Walla to attend a Jesuit novitiate in Oregon, according to the biography. He left the novitiate and obtained a bachelor or arts in classics from the University of Washington, then went to Indiana University and earned masters’ degrees in Latin (1968) and classical archaeology (1973).

Munns returned to Walla Walla and taught ancient history, anthropology and French at Walla Walla Community College.

In 1976 he accepted an appointment at Whitman College as a lecturer of art history and served as director of Sheehan Gallery.

It was at Whitman where Munns found his artistic mentor, Professor Richard Rasmussen, who ignited his desire to seriously undertake a studio art practice of his own.

In the early 1980s Munns, during his free summer months, attended the San Francisco Art Institute and in 1982 completed master’s of fine arts in painting and sculpture.

The following year he embarked on creating his own productions, a primary focus for the rest of his life.

His early art career mainly delved in sculpture and performance, with his artistic choreographies drawing heavily on mythic themes and ritual practices.

One of his early performances took place in the wheat fields of Walla Walla. Observed by locals unschooled in the arena of performance art, the “pagan” air of Munns’ outdoor “sacrifice” gave rise to rumors that he was involved in dark spiritual practices, according to the biography.

These works also were produced in a number of venues in the San Francisco Bay Area, where they were well received.

Throughout the 1980s and into the ’90s, Munns had a number of museum and gallery exhibitions in Washington and California. His work was also featured in an exhibit entitled “Other Gods: Containers of Belief,” which toured nationwide.

His work eventually moved away from public aspects of performance and installation to become a more private production, a personal ritual of sorts, shown to others only occasionally, according to the biography. In his last decade, dividing his time between his home in San Francisco and his residence in Walla Walla, Munns’ studio practices focused primarily on drawing and painting.

When he died, Munns left a legacy of more than 500 works on paper and canvas, numerous sketchbooks and almost 100 sculptural elements.

Selected from Munns’ personal archive, “Of Myth and Memory” focuses primarily on the artist’s two-dimensional works, but also includes brief excerpts of previous sculptural installations and recorded performances.


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