How does a construction worker follow his passion for art? Though it sounds like the setup for some oafish punch line, it’s a question Scott McCallum, who once spent his hours calibrating factory equipment, has pondered ever since he came across a voluptuous Vargas pin-up from 1945 and, with genuine appreciation for the craft behind the curves, thought, “You can own this?!” That same spirit of happy revelation carries over into McCallum’s Art of Illustration gallery (1307 First, 254-9100), which by some kind of cosmic alignment sits across the street from the Seattle Art Museum and next door to the Lusty Lady. Inside is an appropriate hybrid of what’s considered culture and what you might guiltily admit you’d rather be looking at.
McCallum’s gallery, the result of his “hobby gone awry,” houses a rotating collection of original paintings that served as everything from calendars to cover art. With pieces from magazines and advertising that date all the way back into the late 19th century—wonderful glimpses of a time before computer graphics—he finally reached a point where he knew he needed to share something of the treasures he’d been tracking down for the past 10 years. “It was becoming apparent that I was working for the artwork,” he says. “I wanted to see if the artwork could start working for me.”
He opened in March of this year with several eye-popping Vargas originals, but the space is also a permanent home to vivid imaginings from children’s books, pulpy romances, and fantasy novels, which are, he notes, “the only things left that are done by hand.” May’s show wraps up with one wall of award-winning children’s illustrator Richard Jesse Watson’s luxurious temperas for The Waterfall’s Gift (Watson will be signing books this Saturday at 4 p.m.) and another revealing the unsullied swoon of Ed Tadiello’s Harlequin romance covers from the ’70s and ’80s.
The resplendent storybook offerings are great, but it’s the stuff on the back wall that gets you—visions of squeaky-clean couples clinching with serene passion in the moment just before things really get going. McCallum says the Harlequin highlights had some pleased European visitors searching to describe their appeal. “We have a German word for this,” they explained, asking for the proper translation, “kitsch?” McCallum, laughing next to titles like Corporate Cowgirl and, better, Mistletoe Man, answered, “We have the same word here.”