Police seek suspect in art heist

Ralph Slatton’s etching “Best Friends” was one of the four pieces stolen from the Whidbey Island campus of Skagit Valley College. - photo courtesy of Sharon Hall
Ralph Slatton’s etching “Best Friends” was one of the four pieces stolen from the Whidbey Island campus of Skagit Valley College.
— image credit: photo courtesy of Sharon Hall

Oak Harbor police are still searching for a suspect, possibly an unenlightened art critic, in a theft at the Whidbey Island campus of Skagit Valley College. And they need the public’s help.

The incident was reported March 23, when a maintenance worker discovered the art work’s frames were left strewn in Hayes Hall at the college’s Whidbey Island campus. The etchings, which had been hanging in a hallway, are gone.

Detective Mike Bailey with the Oak Harbor Police Department described the four stolen prints as “somewhat bizarre,” with depictions of caged and bound animals.

“That would be my only guess why these were taken and others were not,” Bailey said of the art’s content.

Artist Ralph Slatton donated the pieces to the college in 2000, after a request from his long-time friend and colleague, art teacher Sharon Hall.

For years, Hall has accepted student donations to buy campus art, many of which are housed in the Hayes Hall corridor near the Oak Harbor Library. Today, they’ve amassed over 100 prints.

Slatton’s early donation was intended to jump-start the collection. The etchings were valued at about $350 a piece.

“When I heard about it, my stomach dropped. I really can’t believe someone did that,” Hall said. “This is a personal thing for me.”

Hall also stated the artwork itself may have had something to do with the theft, but said the message was likely misconstrued.

In his biography, Slatton states, “People who view my work often respond with opposite reactions. Some experience laughable narration of animals, while others detect more sinister themes.”

In his stolen etching of “Best Friends,” Slatton depicted two dogs facing each other in round, ball-like cages.

“The concept was that they were exactly alike in every way, except for color. They wanted to be friends, but they couldn’t because they were carrying around cages,” Hall said. “It was allegorical.”

Hall suspects someone may have mistook the etchings for some sort of animal cruelty.

The theft took place over the college’s spring break, but Detective Bailey said Hayes Hall was open because it houses the public library. There were no video cameras in the hallway, but police collected fingerprints.

Hall said it would’ve taken quite a bit of force to pry the prints from the wall. The frames were 18 by 24 inches, and were attached with brackets.

The slot to remove the etchings was small, and they were secured with clips.

“I don’t think they could’ve come out of their frame in one piece,” Hall said.

When Slatton received word about the theft, he offered to search for extra copies of the prints. If he can, he will replace them, Hall said.

“Almost every student I’ve talked to is sad about the pictures being gone. Some thought they were a little out there, but they really did like them,” Hall said. “It’s a big loss for everyone.”

For any information related to the case, Detective Bailey can be reached at 360-279-4600.

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