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Sunday, January 19, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Capturing vintage Spokane: Artist finds new focus after wife’s death

Images of Spokane’s past beckon Mike Forster, an artist who found his way back to creativity through a lens.

It was difficult for Forster, 72, to do any art after the death of his longtime wife, Dorothy, in 2017. He also suffers from back pain and is hard of hearing. Friends sometimes drive him around.

When Forster started taking photos with his digital camera by fall 2018, he became intrigued by decades-old Spokane homes and other icons. He captures them with unusual angles and lighting, and the results have grown into what he calls Vintage Spokane Photos.

“I’m gradually coming back to art,” Forster said. “I’m also a painter, but I got into this photography because of space. It doesn’t require much space, and I found it really satisfied a creative urge.

“I take photos of classic icons in Spokane and old buildings. We have so many old buildings and homes here that I’m trying to capture in a different light. They speak to me.”

He is scheduled as a featured artist to display his work during January at New Moon Art Gallery, 1326 E. Sprague Ave.

When he selects a certain photo to add to his collection, Forster sends it to a Midwest business to have it placed on a canvas. Images range from an unusual angle of the Spokane County Courthouse to the “Benny & Joon” movie home location in the Peaceful Valley Neighborhood.

He’s also captured antique cars, barns, bridges and even raindrops on a window in the forefront of downtown Spokane buildings.

Among Forster’s favorite subjects are Spokane’s older homes from the early 1900s. He likes to find old Craftsman, Victorian and other stately residences.

“I’ve found some eclectic but beautiful old homes,” he said. “They just talk to me. There were huge families that grew up in these homes and died. What a heritage the owners and builders left for generations to still enjoy.

“I take the photos, and no one really knows I’m taking the photos, although at the ‘Benny & Joon’ house, she later said, ‘I saw you taking a photo of my house. That photo is wonderful.’

“I go out when it’s pouring rain. I don’t like taking photos in midday sun. I go out either in the morning or afternoon. I really like taking photos on nasty days because I can see the color in there.”

Forster was driving with a relative on a “dull, cold morning” when he noticed how filtered light fell on the windmill building at 11th Avenue and Perry Street, so he snapped a picture that’s now in the collection. Built in 1929 as part of the Cambern Dutch Shop, the building is still in use.

A Spokane Valley resident, Forster learned about art at a young age. He went to Spokane Falls Community College, then the former Fort Wright College for a bachelor’s degree in fine art.

His career was spent mostly at the former American Sign and Indicator Co. as a graphic designer and senior artist. He did artwork on his own but mainly made his artist’s living at that company.

“That was a really good start to learn my trade, and I worked there for about 20 years. Family came first.”

The company headquarters was moved from Spokane in 1990, so after that Forster said he worked for SFCC’s building and grounds facilities. After retirement, Forster did art projects, but he said it was difficult after his wife’s death. She also was an artist.

“Dorothy, she was a better artist than I ever hope to be,” Forster said. “I lost my wife of 45 years; that I still haven’t gotten over. It’s difficult for me to say, ‘Hey, get happy.’ I have to go out and work to get happy, so I go out and do this (photography).”

He realized other people were interested in his photos after posting images to a Facebook group called “You’re probably from Spokane if you remember.” His image of the Paulsen Center building received more than 500 likes.

Forster said he uses a couple of older photo editing programs at home. For his Sony A65 camera, he mostly uses a 17-70 mm wide angle lens.

“My camera’s old and my lenses are old, but it doesn’t mean inferior,” Forster said.

“I know a lot of photographers have to update all the time, but I’ve generally felt I don’t need anything to take a better picture. It’s like giving an artist a room with canvas and paints. If he’s good, he can use it. If he’s not, it doesn’t matter how much he buys.”

In taking a photo of a home near Monroe Street, he noticed an orange light on the porch, and then later saw the color reflected in a front window. “I like details in shadow areas. You’ve got to urge the details to come out.”

He points to the detailed architectural features in older homes, including dormer windows and wide porches.

“You can put a swing in there and have tea,” he added. “I’m also working on photographing old barns because a lot of them are disappearing.”

But a still-life might grab his attention, as well, such as one he took of a mailbox and warning signs for “No trespassing” and “Beware of dog,” with green vegetation in the background.

Forster also enjoys taking photos in downtown Spokane. People pass by its old buildings every day perhaps without noticing them anymore, he said. Walking around, he’ll see a sudden shift in sunlight that reflects and bounces from one structure onto another building.

“I think, there is a photo,” he said. Forster doesn’t think he’s seen another Spokane County Courthouse image quite like his.

“It doesn’t show the grounds, and the clouds behind it were nasty, but I was facing north with some ambient light hitting it, so I took a couple of shots. Then the lighting disappeared. I started working on it at home and thought this looks different than any other courthouse pictures I ever saw.”

“I’m more interested in the processing of the view to show the viewer a different take on it. I want to give viewers more of an artistic view of something that’s been around for a hundred years, and people can see it differently.”

He said his friend Jane Mark is “200%” instrumental in helping him display and sell some of his photography recently. In October, he hung some of his work for about two weeks at Pocket Bar in downtown Spokane. There he sold one 16-by-20-inch image of a South Hill home.

Forster then sought out New Moon Art Gallery because he said he likes the eclectic mix of art there. He also felt encouraged by people in the Facebook group that’s focused on Spokane memories.

“I have to order more prints because more people want them,” he said.

He has about 20 photographs on canvas with more on order. The pieces sell for $40 to $75 when he can display the work because he doesn’t have a website to sell pieces. Mark will hang some of his photos in December at the Otis Hardware store in Otis Orchards.

As far as iconic images he’d still like to capture, Forster said he hopes to do so from some rooftops.

“I’d like to sneak into some of these buildings downtown and get on the top floors and see what we can see.”

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