Friday, December 12, 2014

Studio Visit with Paul Komada

Want a perfect recipe for abstraction?

Mix Video, Stumps, Dancers, CMYK, Painting and Circles.

Described as "the region's most exciting practitioner of abstraction," Paul Komada doesn't just approach a project like To Be Alone Together from one angle, but seems to examine such a task through a prism, with a colorful and multifaceted result.

Paul was given the diminutive and interchangable Doris Chase sculpture Ad Lib Moon to respond to with his work. It is a simple block of oak, carved into 5 circles that nest into each other and can be displayed apart or together (appropriately enough). Knowing that Paul bridges the art-craft divide in his world, including sculpture, painting, video, knitting and sewing (and probably much more), I eagerly anticipated my studio visit with him to see a magician's workshop in action.

Having a spacious and well-organized space in the TK Building in Pioneer Square, Paul and his family live and work at the hub of Seattle's art scene. In order to create a working studio for Paul within their home, they built a small room in one corner of the loft, what I call the Orchid Oasis. There was no painting actively happening in the space during my visit, but the floor is splattered and streaked with every color of paint. Along one wall were the knitted, framed works, in the center of the space was a large table with a sewing project for MadArt's MadCampus and along the entire back of the room were shelves upon shelves of orchids.

The Orchid Oasis

We struck gold by giving Paul Doris Chase to work with. He immediately noted that he felt a kinship to her for a couple of reasons. First of all, being raised in Seattle for a portion of his childhood, he attended Roosevelt High School, the same high school attended by Chase. Second, despite being more well-known for her large sculptures, Paul was inspired by Doris's early work in video, since he, too, has been experimenting with the medium.

So how does that recipe go again? Dancers in circles. CMYK video. Painting stumps.

For a recent exhibition at Prole Drift, Paul stationed himself and his canvases in front of a green screen and painted on top of a collection of photographs as they moved into the screen. The images overlap in his painting as abstraction that has its origins in the landscape. The show received excellent press and not just for his experimental painting, but for his knitted paintings as well, which I nominated for a City Arts Artwalk award later that summer.

Formalist's Agony open studio at Prole Drift

But back to the landscape. Like the rest of us Northwesterners, Paul is tied to this place and its ever-changing moving parts. We are hyper aware of our surroundings and when an old building is replaced by a new shiny one, we notice. Paul had been seeing stumps around Seattle and Vashon - stumps that are the remains of hundred year old trees that were chopped in an instant for new development. For To Be Alone Together, Paul took hundreds of photographs of these stumps and narrowed them down to a select few to use for his green screen painting method. The stumps relate to Doris's sculpture in materiality and texture.

The handy thing about a stump is that it is also a circle. Doris was clearly obsessed with the circle. They are ubiquitous in her work, so Paul decided to make the painting of the final stump one large circle, large enough that someone could fit inside the diameter of the circle if they walked right up to it. In Doris's video, Circles II, she has dancers outstretched in her circle sculptures rolling back and forth across the stage.  This video was done in CMYK, so Paul decided to only use those four colors in his stump painting, with an allowance for white.

What we are gifted with at the end of this tightly knit creative process is a painting that is throbbing with color in innumerable layers. This may be crazy talk, but if Paul's painting was a portal, I would walk into that juicy circle of reds, yellows and blues and walk out the other side as one of Doris's dancers, wearing a sleek leotard and a bob haircut.

Paul working on 4 Chase, as depicted in this still from the video that accompanies the work in the exhibition

Does Paul prefer to be alone, or together?
Decide for yourself by visiting his work and the rest of the exhibition before it comes down, January 4.

Can't get enough of Paul?  Be sure to take a peek at his latest array of projects at  For a delightful essay on Paul's work by Jim Demetre (with more views of him in his studio), visit the recently launched Vignettes website.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Studio visit with Wendy Orville

To say that Wendy Orville is a bit of a sky-gazer, is probably an understatement.  Wendy’s studio walls are tiled with photographs in which the camera’s lens was most often pointed skyward.  You’ll find images of rivers and marshes and other bodies of water that capture the sky’s reflection, but mostly, it’s all about the sky.  Wendy finds the ever-shifting light and clouds mesmerizing and the immensity of the sky profound.

Framed monotypes in Wendy's studio.

Having moved from the expansive landscape and saturated blue skies of northern New Mexico to the misty forests of the Puget Sound region about 20 years ago, Wendy was struck by the sense of being enveloped by tall evergreen trees and dense cloud cover.  Here, the sky is less readily accessible, but more nuanced.  You have to seek it out, finding openings in canopies and cloud cover, or to access it at the edges, the seaside or on mountaintops.

I joined Wendy in her Bainbridge Island studio in early September.  Outside it was grey and wet, but her workspace was bright, warm and welcoming, much like Wendy herself.  A painter turned printmaker, the centerpiece of her studio is an etching press that she uses to make monotypes.  Around the perimeter are glass slabs for rolling out ink, brayers, ink cans and cotton rag paper.  In addition to printing, Wendy spends a considerable amount of time photographing and drawing.  Working across media allows Wendy to study the forms and relationships between shape and value in particular clouds and skies. 

Wendy adjusting her Takach etching press in preparation for printing a monotype.
The monotype plate in progress.
Wendy’s prints appear deceptively simple and viewers often mistake them for black and white photographs.  These people are not looking closely enough, and, they are most certainly missing out. 
Wendy begins to draw into an inked plate.
Her prints are built from many layers of rolling gradations of black ink across plexiglass plates, blotting, wiping and scraping ink and then re-rolling.  Wendy repeats this process several times before printing the plate.  The sense of depth and atmosphere that she creates is astounding.  You may find Wendy’s work to be quiet or contemplative with a soft poetry.  At the same time, her images are bold.  They hold great weight.  Her prints are about power and mystery and the very depth of being able to feel the wind rustle through your hair or the sudden coolness as a cloud casts a momentary shadow across a section of your arm.

Norie Sato, Edged Out (1982)
When we visited, Wendy had already completed her response to Norie Sato’s Edged Out (1982) from the Museum of Northwest Art’s collection: a pair of black and white monotypes entitled Sky Diptych (2014).  She found the process of working in dialogue with another work of art to be both stimulating and meaningful.  At the same time, the experience was a challenge.  Or, perhaps, it was this particular piece?  When Wendy was first introduced to Edged Out she asked me why we had chosen it for her.  I watched her as she looked at the piece, wrestling with how she might respond and it took her some time to connect with it in a way that she could generate new work that was both her own and in dialogue.  She identified the idea of ‘breath’ to be the connection between the two.  There is also a suggestion of anchors and borders that the two works share.  I wonder if these compositional elements function as something to hold the breath in the picture plane?  Or, perhaps, to stand firmly in place to contrast the fluidity of both breath and light?
Wendy Orville, Sky Diptych (2014)  (Photograph by Art Grice)

As we were looking at Sky Diptych Wendy asked me what I thought of it as a response to Sato’s print.  We looked at a small digital image of Edged Out and I think that I said something along the lines of ‘great!’ or ‘interesting’  (well, I think that I had more to say than that. . .), but it wasn’t until I unwrapped Wendy’s prints at MoNA and leaned them up against the wall next to Sato’s work that I really got it.  The two works breath in unison.  Or, perhaps they are exchanging the same breath, back and forth as though they are exchanging the sky.  It’s really quite moving.  You must go to La Conner and see the two works together.  The museum is open every day of the week—you have until January 4th—get going!

Wendy does consider herself a Northwest artist.  Her work is about living here and responding to the place that she lives in an unselfconscious way.  She is especially drawn to spaces with a vast and expansive feeling and she finds those here in Port Townsend and the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. The light, landscape and solitude of these places feed her. 

Finally, I asked Wendy which she preferred: alone or together?  Both.  Wendy seeks out a balance between having solitude and also feeling connected to those around her.

Wendy Orville is represented by Davidson Galleries in Seattle, WA.

You can find out more about Wendy and her work on her website:

If you are interested in learning more about making monotypes, Wendy offers workshops in her Bainbridge Island studio.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Studio Visit with Joe Freeman

This spring I attended the opening reception for the University of Washington MFA + MDes Thesis Exhibition at the Henry Art Gallery. It is an exhibition I make a point of attending each year so I can learn about the freshly-graduated emerging artists and take note of who I want to keep my eye on. 

One of the places in the exhibition I lingered the longest was in front of the textural, constructed photographic images by Joe Freeman. I marveled at how the work had been created. It appears to be of another time and place - a graphic, dark world, surreal and of the mind. The strong impression of his photography emerged again when Emma and I were selecting artists for To Be Alone Together

Wax on Paper, 2014

Since I think of print photography as needing highly specialized processing equipment, chemicals and methods that are all a beautiful mystery to me, I wasn't sure what to expect visiting Joe's live/work studio in the University District.  Upon entering, he apologized for the small space, though no apology was necessary. In fact, I was immediately impressed by his ability to use what may be a 300 square foot apartment with such efficiency. Along one whole side of his studio is custom built shelving, a work bench, camera storage and a darkroom. As much as Joe is aching to move to a larger space, in these 25 feet of horizontal space, everything he needs to process and maintain the labors of his practice has found its place. 

Because I had only just become familiar with Joe's work, and a small subset of it at that, I was especially curious to see what he would do with the prompt of the Michael Spafford piece, Three Swimmers No 1. It turns out the highly organized, tailor-made aspects of his tiny apartment find their way into his photography as well. But before we get a sneak peak to what Joe is working on, lets look at the beautiful piece of equipment he is using to do the work.

Joe with his Linhof 5x7 - note the beautiful wooden tripod -
made on Bainbridge Island!

The Linhof 5x7 is a work of art in and of itself, a design that recalls another era.  Not only does it command a particular reverence, but also complete focus - one can't rush through the process of taking the photograph. When Joe uses the camera, he said he enters a different mindset, a zen state.  With the drape over his back, alone in the landscape, time melts away and a half-hour can go by simply composing the image. Its the first time I've had the opportunity to look through such a camera, and I could immediately understand his sentiment. The image itself is upside down when looking through the camera, and Joe feels this inherent abstraction helps him pay attention to the formal aspects of the image rather than the object as we know it. 

The image above, just a beginning to the work he developed for To Be Alone Together, is his way of deconstructing a particular space and reconstructing it in a new way. It relates well to the Spafford piece in that Spafford also created an image that is flat and dimensional at the same time. By utilizing a flat focus for the entire image, and then breaking up our field of view with the string, Joe is effectively doing what Spafford does with his horizontal lines broken up by the three swimming figures.  Despite the simplicity of both images, our eyes are captured within the picture plane and move  through the image and sense of depth constructed by the artists. 

As one can imagine of someone who takes the "slow approach" to wilderness photography, Joe prefers to be alone. "Its nice having comfort when I'm working, but that gets old pretty quick, and there's this real need and desire to be completely isolated." I can see him out there in the wilderness, nimble and energetic, but with a sense of mystery exuded by his work. I imagine him cutting branches and tying strings to trees and standing under the drape of his camera, which would look pretty crazy to a passerby. I asked him if curious people tend to approach him when he is working. He said "They see me out there, typically wearing Filson stuff, because of thorns, and I've got machetes strapped to me and I've got axes, and I've got this weird hat that I wear because stuff is falling, and they tend to leave me alone."

Joe's field bag - machete not included.

Visit his new website,, for more.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Studio Visit with Emma Jane Levitt

I met with Emma on a rare, stormy summer evening. The clouds were rolling in outside her Queen Anne live/work studio overlooking Elliott Bay. As we talked over dinner, thunder rumbled in the distance, and rain threatened. Like many artists, Emma shares her living space with her work space. For a curator, visiting live/work studios are especially enlightening and a privilege to see the how personal space may be informing the work.

For full disclosure, not only is Emma a participating artist and the co-curator of To Be Alone Together, but I've known Emma for several years now, and have had the honor of being her friend as she developed as an artist. Her first solo show in Seattle was at the Center for Wooden Boats Boathouse Gallery, a new gallery effort we spearheaded together to bring more art to South Lake Union and infuse the Boathouse space with new energy. At the time she was engaged in a body of landscape photography entitled Time & Tide, a mesmerizing series of color images taken on a broken medium format camera, where the film would advance in unpredictable ways.

Union Bay, 2010
You see, Emma loves to explore our Northwest landscape and experiment and infuse the element of the unknown into her work. As I've discovered through the years, as she has immersed her practice in printmaking and book arts, she is wholly fascinated with materials and finding new and interesting ways to manipulate them, or one might say, discovering how to let them manipulate her. She is most at home in her work when she can let go of any preconceived notions of what she should be making and just play with materials to see what happens.

One section of Emma's live/work studio, where pattern and simple objects inspire
On the night of our stormy studio visit she described working as an artist in To Be Alone Together as a challenge for just that reason. The problem is that she is walking the line between curator and artist, jumping from one to the other as necessary, often within the same day. While enjoying the curatorial process very much, as an artist Emma has found it hard to break away from what she knows about the project and the Jeremy Lepisto bridge piece assigned to her, to just let herself play with materials as she normally would.

Despite working within these limiting parameters, she is pulling in a few comfortable "languages," as she calls them. For To Be Alone Together, those are paper, cyanotype, and paper folding/cutting. Drawing from the form and concept of the Lepisto glass piece, she is developing a series of works on paper that reveal her minimalist, sculptural tendencies. "I like work that is subtle and smart, where as much information as possible has been stripped away," notes Emma when describing how she felt inspired by Lepisto's luminescent bridge, that to her, looks more like a vessel underwater.

Her first ideas of cutting and folding, then adding color.
"I was really interested in the idea that I could create something out of one piece of paper, and the folding and cutting of it could generate something different…I like the secret world that exists behind the piece. I was compelled by this shape and idea of water, a bridging structure that was connected, but separated at the same time. I started to get excited about this very simple suggestion of three dimensional space."

After her first couple of experiments with an accordion fold and blue gouache, Emma decided to simplify the concept and use geometry and exacting measurements to play with circles on silky Japanese paper. (Shown below is Kitakata, one of my personal favorites). Compelled by the elegance of the sliver shape of the Lepisto piece, Emma's cuts and folds create bridges and rhythm between the circles, much like the motion of waves.
Meticulously drawn circles, and slivers of shelves
will be blue-printed with cyanotype

Next in her experimentation with these materials will be to introduce the photo/print process of cyanotype to the work. "I've been very seduced by cyanotype in the last year or two," she says. Her recent work with cyanotype in artist books and prints exemplify her ability to harness this medium and to use the brilliant blue to great effect.

One of Emma's many artist books, look for those utilizing cyanotype on her website soon.

Bookmaking projects, plants and Emma.
As usual, I am in awe of Emma's tenacity. Not only was she willing to take on the challenge of acting as both curator and artist in To Be Alone Together, (at the same time teaching workshops and still pursing her MFA at University of New Mexico) but she moved through the initial hurdle of over-thinking the work to harness her own voice and try something completely new to her practice.

As we clean up and notice the time and impending storm still brewing, I ask our final question.  "To be alone or together, Emma?"

"Ah! I've been debating this for weeks!" she says with alacrity. "Both? I think I'm an extraordinarily extroverted introvert. I need that time and space to be together, but I can't do it without the solitude. I need a good amount of personal space. More than I often give myself."

Emma's thesis work, West (for Joy Harjo), will show at Gallery 4Culture next spring.

Find out more about Emma and her artwork on her website:

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Studio visit: Michelle PeƱaloza

A poet, Michelle does not have a dedicated space for writing.  She writes at home, around town, on the bus and, more often than not, curled up in her bed.  Where would Michelle's studio be on this sunny August Sunday?  She decided on the beach and so we headed to Madison Park with towels, swimsuits and sunglasses.  And ice cream.  It is summertime, is it not?

Here is Michelle in her ‘studio’:

And while this looks pretty lovely and relaxing, I must say, interviewing a poet was a bit of a challenge.  Don't let this photograph fool you--Michelle is serious about words. She listened carefully, examining the specific verbiage and context of each of my inquiries.   If Michelle were not so delightful to be around, this would have been entirely unsettling.  Michelle, herself, is astoundingly masterful in her ability to select and arrange language.  Her poetry is smart and direct and poignant and really, truly, overwhelmingly beautiful.  Beautiful in both its rhythm and its precision, and also in the manner in which she manages to describe people, relationships, places and the reality of existence in ways that are in equal measure delightful and difficult.

Michelle thinks of her poems as dedications—not in the Casey Kasem type way—of course they are less cheesy and way more eloquent.  They are dedications to people, often to her mother, to god, to her father, to all three or to someone else altogether or to a place.  She often writes in first and second person, as though she is speaking directly to these people or giving them voice to speak through the poem. 

For the last year Michelle has been working on a project called Landscape / Heartbreak. She describes this project as a “literary cartography of heartbreak in Seattle collected and rendered through a chapbook of poems and maps.”  It’s pretty simple: people take Michelle on walks from Seattle’s Richard Hugo House (Michelle is a Made at Hugo House Fellow this year) to specific places in Seattle where they’ve had their hearts broken.  They talk about their heartbreak and the landscape along the way and then Michelle writes poems and creates maps in response to these walking conversations.

Michelle explains, “I'm interested in itineraries--poems based in movement through landscape and the way that movement leads to epiphany, meditation, and memory.  Also, I am invested in poetry as a means to process trauma; I'm fascinated by the way we form our memories within the context of our physical landscapes. How do our physical surroundings mark our internal landscapes? How do we respond to returning and traversing our landmarks? What kind of story can a city tell if this isn't just the corner of Broadway and John, but the corner where X learned that Y never really loved him? Or if this isn't just the hospital across the street from your favorite coffee shop, but the place where Z told her mother she loved her for the very last time? How does access to the narratives of the people in a city change the way we experience that city's physical landscape? “  In this way, Michelle’s current work is very much caught up in our local landscape and the ways in which its inhabitants negotiate being alone and being together. 

Michelle does not consider herself to be a Northwest poet.  Born in Michigan and mostly raised in Tennessee, the daughter of two immigrants, Michelle believes that the label of "Northwest Poet" betrays the complexity of her personal and familial history.  She considers herself to be a poet who chooses to live in Seattle.  However, having lived in the Northwest for several years now, she agrees that the place, the weather and the people have certainly seeped into her work.

For To Be Alone Together Michelle is exploring a new way to combine poetry and place.  Michelle was assigned this quote from Barbara Straker James, Curator Emeritus at MoNA:

"The Museum of Northwest Art is dedicated to the art of this region.  The idea of a "special Northwest vision" and the museum that emerged from it owes its genesis to the artists who came of age in the cultural isolation of the late 30's and 40's.  Never a school, neither wholly consistent, nor totally inclusive it nevertheless succeeded in creating a fresh language and new imagery which established a regional identity for the first time.  But time and art move on -- like rivers of the Northwest which are narrow at their source and broad as they sweep down into the valleys; art defies limitation, ignores restraints, moves on in endless flow, redefining itself, absorbing new influences, facing new challenges.  The Museum of Northwest Art reflects this flow."

Unfamiliar with much of the work that this statement refers to,  Michelle turned to the artwork itself to begin to understand the idea of this "special Northwest vision."  It is the artworks themselves, along with the museum, as their home, that Michelle will draw upon for her new work.  After visiting MoNA Michelle was particularly struck by a multi-paned skylight that illuminates the stairwell and the gallery space.  For the exhibition she is working on a new poem that utilizes the space of the skylight and takes its form from the idea of stanzas that could work alone and together. In creating this work, Michelle discussed a poetic structure called a ghazal (pronounced “guzzle”) for a starting point for her poem.

Ghazals are comprised of a series of couplets that are related, but are not sequential or in a strict narrative.  Michelle explained this poetic structure to be as though each set of lines is a bead within a necklace; each bead can be appreciated independently, but when strung together, the arrangement of beads forms a necklace.  While Michelle's poem will not technically be a ghazal, each stanza will reference one of the works selected from MoNA's collection for the To Be Alone Together exhibition.  And, barring any major technical challenges, each stanza will be installed on a panel of the skylight in vinyl lettering.  Viewers will read the poem through shadows cast on the floor by the lettering in the skylight.  The parts of the poem that are visible will change as the light shifts over the course of the day.

This is a new way of composing a poem for Michelle.  Rather than starting with language or a story, she has started with the skylight as a space and has let that create the literal and conceptual boundaries of the work.  She shared that this new approach to writing a poem is exciting.  It is also scary.  Michelle's new poem also borrows language from the titles of the artworks in the show as well as from the Modernism in the Pacific Northwest: The Mythic and the Mystical Exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum.  I’ve gotten a sneak peak at a draft of the poem and can say that I think it is phenomenal.

Finally, I asked Michelle to pick one: alone or together?  Together.
Here is the two of us together:

Thanks for a lovely afternoon in your studio Michelle!

In addition to seeing Michelle's new work at MoNA October 4th, 2014 - January 4th, 2015, as part of To Be Alone Together, you can catch up with Michelle in the following ways:

HEAR Michelle
interviewed by KUOW's Elizabeth Austen

ART Installation
Michelle will work with artist Eric Olson
Lo Fi Festival Installation @ Smoke Farm
September 6th & 7th
Arlington, WA

HEAR & SEE Michelle
Made at Hugo House Fellows Final Reading
September 22, 2015 @ 7PM
Richard Hugo House
Seattle, WA

Find out more about Michelle’s writing, readings, publications and other creative projects on her website: