Up and down the West Coast of North America, Asian influence abounds, presenting countless opportunities to indulge in cultures from across the Pacific. From creating Japanese origami in Balbao Park in San Diego to strolling through outstanding Chinese gardens in Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, British Columbia, to exploring the Russian village of Sitka, Alaska, the world’s largest continent has left indelible marks all over the Canadian and U.S. shores.
One place that encapsulates nearly the entire continent is the Seattle Asian Art Museum, my destination on yet another rainy day in the Emerald City.
Nestled in the sprawling Volunteer Park, the museum is housed in a striking horizontally oriented 1933 Art Deco building—a designated Seattle landmark that was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2016. Flowerboxes, patches of green, and a few sculptures occupy the expansive terrace before it, which also affords a view of the iconic orange-topped Space Needle peeking over the park’s treetops.
Passing by the two Bactrian camel statues facing each other, I entered the museum, built originally as the home of the Seattle Art Museum until the Asian Art Museum moved in in 1994. After a three-year renovation, restoration, and expansion, the museum reopened in 2020 to showcase the best collection of Asian art in the Pacific Northwest.
Just over a dozen galleries branch off from the central Fuller Garden Court. Organized by themes such as clothing, literature, nature, birth and death, and worship, rather than by geography, the galleries showcase an impressive collection of historic and contemporary art from China, India, Iran, Japan, Korea, Turkey, the Himalayan region, Southeast Asia, and the Asian Pacific islands.
That diversity ensures that you can view everything from Buddhas sitting in the lotus position created centuries ago in multiple countries to the Japanese Flower Ball from 2002, with emoji smiley faces in the center of colorfully petaled flowers.
As I strolled around the museum, I was treated to 19th-century Korean wedding robes and a 20th-century headdress from Borneo, a Vietnamese vase from the 15th century, Japanese kakemonos, and the 14th-century Nepalese copper Indra (Lord of Storms).
Some of the objects soon began to attract my attention more powerfully, such as the 11th-century Indian sculpture of the Hindu god Vishnu that takes an anthropomorphic form: a wild boar head topping a human body.
An 11th-century sandstone sculpture of Mahavira, the sixth-century Jain ascetic who taught that one must follow the ways of non-violence, non-attachment, non-stealing, truth, and chastity in order to achieve spiritual liberation, is surrounded by other tirthankaras (saviors and spiritual teachers), topped with a pair of smiling elephants, and rests on a pedestal supported by two lions with their tongues dangling out of their mouths.
Guardian, a gilded bronze and pearl statue from the Chinese Ming dynasty, is both a fine and fierce piece of art, from the guardian’s elaborate crown to his footwear, which could almost pass for modern sneakers with two-inch soles.
I particularly enjoyed the collection of Chinese snuff bottles, perhaps my favorite part of the museum’s collection. These tiny vessels, just a couple of inches tall, were originally produced during the Qing dynasty for the emperor and his inner court to store and tote around powdered tobacco. They come in all forms, from cylindrical to double gourds to those shaped like elephants or oxen. Their materials range from amber, brass, and enamel to copper, glass, and porcelain. I marveled at the exquisite details that attest to the pain-staking efforts artists like the early 20th-century Ma Shaoxuan took to produce such fragile yet durable and practical pieces of art. Every pine needle, every fold in a sage’s robe, every dragon scale, every feather of a bird painted on the bottles is so clearly defined that I wondered how many of these artisans lost their eyesight from such a fine and laborious task. And I was more appreciative than ever that I still had mine to enjoy these treasures.
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