The University of Washington, Tacoma now has an original Picasso drawing hanging in its library, courtesy of Tacoma peace activist Fr. Bill “Bix” Bichsel. In a ceremony last Monday that honored Fr. Bichsel’s life and commitment to peace and justice, Picasso’s 1953 line drawing “La Visage de la Paix (The Face of Peace)” was offered by the Jesuit priest on behalf of the reconciliation group he led to Japan in 2009. But how that group got hold of the artwork, valued at $60,000, is a result of a peace connection stretching back to the artist himself.
“We’d gone to Japan in 2009 to express our sorrow for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” explained Fr. Bichsel, who’d organized the group of 18 mostly-Puget Sound travelers on what they called ‘The Journey of Repentance.’ “When we first got there we were met by the Japanese Peace Committee. There was a lot of gift exchanging, as is common in Japan. We just brought over simple things like dream-catchers and scarves. But they gave us this tremendous piece of art. We didn’t realize just what it was at first.”
What it was, in fact, was a Picasso original. The French artist – known for his anti-war sculpture and drawings of doves, a peace symbol – had drawn and given it to the JPC when he visited and joined them in 1953. The drawing depicts a dove with a serene human face on its body.
“It had deteriorated a little,” says Karen Havenaar, a member of the interfaith tour group who looked after the work until it was presented to the UWT last Monday. “The JPC had just kept it in a simple folder. As soon as they gave it to Bix I grabbed it; I knew he’d just give it to someone right away. He’s like that.”
Back in Tacoma, Havenaar contacted the Picasso Foundation and discovered they charged $1,400 for an appraisal, something the group couldn’t afford. Instead she got the work appraised by former Tacoma appraiser Andrea Moody, who assessed the value at $60,000. Havenaar had the drawing framed in museum-quality glass and stored it quietly at her house for safe-keeping.
“I didn’t talk about it,” she says.
Meanwhile the group talked about what to do with it. They approached staff at Tacoma Art Museum, who weren’t particularly interested, and finally decided to offer it to the university, to honor the Japanese who lived in that area of downtown prior to the WWII internments. The university had also been involved when the JPC visited Tacoma in 2004.
“It was an easy decision to make,” remembers Debra Friedman, UWT chancellor. “I was stunned. This is an exceptional and beautiful gift to the university community. It celebrates both art and Fr. Bix’s extraordinary life given to peace activism. And it will enrich the life of the students here.”
Friedman waited until Fr. Bichsel was released from the jail term he’d been serving as a result of his protests last year at the Bangor Naval Base before holding Monday’s presentation ceremony at the UWT library. UWT professor Michael Honey, a friend of Fr. Bichsel’s and labor rights historian, gave comments on the priest’s life and work, and sang one of his favorite songs.
“I feel very elated (that they have the Picasso),” said Fr. Bichsel. “We’re very happy to be connected with them. They’re on their own pursuit of justice and peace.”
The artwork now hangs high in the library, safely out of reach.
“This is a beautiful symbol of an international artist who stood for peace,” said Fr. Bichsel.