BOOK BEAT | Eastern Washington landscapes, John Keeble's new novel and a strong book of poetry

The Oct. 20 closure of the Tacoma Art Museum’s (TAM)“Austere Beauty: The Art of Z. Vanessa Helder” means the only way to relive that outstanding exhibit is through the book by the same name, authored by David Martin and Margaret Bullock. 

The latter is TAM’s curator of collections and special exhibitions. Martin, of Martin-Zambito Fine Art on Capitol Hill, has made it his life’s mission to bring neglected early 20th-century Northwest artists back into the public eye.

Helder (1904-1968), primarily a landscape watercolorist, deserves rediscovery. She was born in Lynden, Wash., to a pioneer family with esoteric interests: Z stands for Zama, derived from a North African town where Hannibal met his defeat in 202 BCE and a place, Martin tells us, “said to be a region of advanced spiritual development.”

As the saying goes: auspicious beginnings.

Helder did her time in New York City and returned to this state to become an important player with the Women Painters of Washington. Hired by the Works Progress Administration, she executed numerous Northwest landscapes, especially east of the mountains. Helder’s iconic “Coulee Dam — Looking West, 1940,” which captures the masculine wonder of the place, illustrates the book’s cover.

For those who’ve ever asked: Where are the landscape painters of the coulees and buttes, small towns and lonely railroad sidings east of the Cascades? Helder is part of the answer. 

“Austere Beauty: The Art of Z. Vanessa Helder, by David Martin and Margaret Bullock, from University of Washington Press. 128 pages; 65 color illustrations. $24.95 paperback.

Not the standard biography

Poetic biography can be risky: Too often, the poetry and biography restrict each other.

Much-honored poet and novelist Bill Tremblay, who spent three decades teaching in and directing the MFA program in creative writing at Colorado State University, has tackled the genre in “Magician’s Hat: Poems on the Life & Work of David Alfaro Siqueiros.” 

In an accumulative sequence of poems that reveal the inner and outer life of the Mexican muralist, Tremblay pulls off the feat triumphantly. His book is an intense immersion experience and lights up regions of the soul beyond the reach of standard biography: “A nursing nun drew back the curtain./His father, boxed in a clear-plastic oxygen tent./Tubes led to phlegm-clogged lungs./The taste of incense in the room put Siqueiros/in a white communion suit walking out of church/for the last time sickened by the stench of sanctimony.” 

“Magician’s Hat: Poems on the Life of David Alfaro Siqueiros,” by Bill Tremblay, from Lynx House Press. 84 pages. $15.95 paperback.  

A ‘heart-racing’ thriller

John Keeble, professor emeritus of creative writing at Eastern Washington University and author of four novels, including the admirable “Yellowfish,” has a heart-racing, new novel, “The Shadows of Owls,” a literary thriller about a female marine biologist whose research jeopardizes the building of an oil pipeline in Alaska’s Chukchi Sea. Not incidentally, her work also puts her family at risk. 

Keeble knows the Northwest from the marrow, and he knows the oil industry: He’s also the author of a nonfiction work, “Out of the Channel: The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in Prince William Sound.”

“The Shadows of Owls,” by John Keeble, from University of Washington Press. 381 pages. $28.95 hardcover.

MIKE DILLON is former publisher of Queen Anne & Magnolia News. To comment on this story, write to

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