My great-grandmother, Mary Gulish, immigrated from Slovakia to Youngstown, Ohio early in the last century. She’d heard some rumors that prospects were better in Cleveland. After first sending her eleven-year-old daughter on a scouting mission, she showed up in Cleveland one day with eleven kids in tow, knowing not a soul and very little English. The family got off the interurban train in a mixed immigrant neighborhood on the West Side and walked up to a random house. Mary knocked on the door. It was answered by a lady who spoke Slovak. The lady took in this stranger and her eleven children (and presumably my great-grandfather, but he’s never made it into any of the versions of this story that I’ve heard). She encouraged Mary to buy a house, advice she followed, eventually housing a rotating cast of generations of relatives and getting the family through the Depression. Hence my obsession with the American Dream.
A few months ago, a young artist from Prague, Edita Pattova, found me on the internet and sent me an email asking if I might have space to host her traveling exhibit. With much of Good Arts Building in flux, I didn’t know where we’d put her but I figured we could come up with something. Edita showed up on my doorstep last week and, while I was lacking in the traditional gigantic plate of cold cuts with which my people traditionally welcome their guests, I did welcome her and her art into my building. Naturally, she turned out to be Slovak. Her mother is from the same region as my mother’s family. It was as if Mary Gulish herself had sent her. As Edita is only traveling and not immigrating, I haven’t badgered her about buying a house yet, but there is still time.
This Thursday, the Good Arts Building welcomes Czech artist Edita Pattova, presenting Neon Dreamer, an interactive painting and video installation, on the first stop of its West Coast tour. Neon Dreamer will be up for one night only, Thursday, August 3, from 5-9 PM in the under-construction Good Arts Arcade at 108 Cherry Street.
Inspired by the neon lights of Times Square on a visit to New York, Edita created a grid of nine oil paintings depicting an imaginary American city. On it, she projects an original video game, inspired by Pac-man, which visitors can play singly or competitively, becoming the dreamers chasing their dreams, beer, money, and each other through the neon-lit painted city streets, while dodging the authorities and other hazards. I intend to play, even though I’m pretty lousy at PacMan. Please stop by if you are out for First Thursday and Seattle Art Fair.
My great-grandmother, Mary Gulish. I come by the pattern thing honestly.
Earlier this year I had the fabulous opportunity to create an art-filled birthday party for a friend and collector. Troy-Skott, who with his husband JR had bought this painting
The Magazine Women Believe In
back in 2008, was giving himself a Paris sabbatical for a big (we won’t say which) birthday. He planned to taking the time and space to immerse himself in the art and history of Paris and to make some art himself while he was there.
He wanted to include his circle of friends in the experience, so he invited them to a send-off party at which they could experience a taste of his upcoming art sabbatical. This is where I came in. He’d observed that modern art often intimidated the uninitiated, and wondered if we could do some kind of presentation and activity to make it more accessible. Together, we came up with a plan: I would give a very rapid and VERY opinionated overview of modern art history—wait, let me back up: cocktails were served first!—and then distribute canvases, paints, brushes, and one still-life object per table, give them a method to proceed, and finally let them loose making a cubist painting.
Why a cubist painting? Well, I started with the birth of modernism in the visual arts: Impressionists and their immediate forerunners were beginning to be surrounded by photography, mass printing, and other technologies. Artists became more self-conscious about the difference between an object and their own perception of it, as well as the difference between their perception of something and its representation. This begat a certain self-consciousness about looking at representations (particularly among those making the representations). The Cubists were arguably the first to represent that self-consciousness itself. The difference between the flat representation that you’re looking at and the object being represented was the subject of the painting. And the Cubists were among the more theoretical and wordy of the modern pioneers (although the Surrealists later gave them a run for their money), so they left behind pages and pages of theory that no one reads anymore, yet come in handy for teaching this stuff. Artists like Picasso found that the theory got old fast, but his early dive into those Cubist experiments made his later work possible.
I happened to have a goat skull laying around, as well as a toy accordion, both of which seemed like appropriately Cubist subjects. To keep the palettes reasonably coherent (and cubist) I pre-mixed the paint in gradations of brown, orange, green, and blue-grey. I briefly gave them a mission: Look for the shapes that represent the various planes of the three-dimensional object and outline them in black. Move one chair over. Repeat. Fill in the outlined shapes with tonal gradations of the same color.
The group’s skill levels were all over the map, time was short, my instructions even shorter, and cocktails were being served, but the results were nonetheless respectable.
Elements of Pattern class starts 7/13 in my studio.
I took the photo of a Moorish tile pattern, above, at the Alcazar palace in Sevilla during a visit to Spain several years ago. The Moors created a lot of their patterns by connecting the centers of a bunch of circles, basically dividing them into sixths, and forming a complex overlapping pattern of stars and interlocking hexagons. The hexagon theme pops up a lot in patterns both manmade and in nature. A hexagon is one of the few basic shapes that can tessellate, that is, it fits together with a bunch of its hexagon buddies with no spaces in between them.
This turtle (RIP) is sporting a pattern of interlocking hexagons, squeezed a bit to fit into his or her oval shape, complemented nicely by a fetching border pattern:
The starfish (also RIP), if you look closely, has hexagonal pattern in the skeletal structure supporting it, lines radiating from the center of each one and interconnecting the whole thing, similar to the Moorish tile design.
However, if you look from the top, the structure modifies itself a bit to reflect the radial 5-pointed shape of the animal:
This pattern of interlocking hexagons is found in many molecular structures, too. Some British designers in the early 1950’s ran with the idea, producing crazy home-furnishings textiles based rather literally on specific molecular structures. How about a dress of boric acid:
(images: Victoria & Albert Museum)
Or perhaps insulin, in which the hexagonal molecules, rather than interlock, are arranged in a half-drop pattern:
These designs and others like them were inspired by the new technology of x-ray crystallography, and were displayed at the 1951 Festival of Britain, a kind of post-war atomic-age art and science fair. You can see how they eventually gave birth to the more free-form “atomic” style.
Design by Michael Miller.
Oh look, here I am wearing it. (photo: Jo Moniz)
Elements of Pattern will dive into these matters in a hands-on way, where we’ll learn these underlying structures and use them and vary them to create original patterns. The possibilities are infinite, but you’ve got to start somewhere! Sign up HERE or contact me for more information.
Patterns—the fabrics I find and incorporate into my paintings—are such a driving force in my work that it’s inevitable that I would eventually gravitate toward inventing my own patterns. I’ve used made-up painted patterns in some of my paintings in the past. For the most part, I’d concentrated most of my attention on the motifs, the individual repeated elements, usually abstracted from things in the paintings. I’m always attracted to novelty motifs in fabric, vintage and otherwise. But pattern’s underlying structure has been a growing fascination for me. The structure and design principles of pattern are closely related to those used in composing a painting, and also have deep connections to sculpture, architecture, the decorative arts, and design of all kinds. It’s surprising how infrequently it’s taught anymore. Many of the best instructional materials I’ve found on the subject are decades out of print. The Bauhaus folks got it: The simplest motif, a circle, say, put through variations of scale, weight, and structure, can yield an infinite number of patterns that you’d be tickled to wear, cover your walls with, screenprint on a card, glaze on a pot, or compose an abstract painting around.
This summer I’ll be offering a four-week class that delves into the elements and underlying structure of pattern. I’ve developed some Bauhaus-inspired experiments that use the basic building blocks of form—there are nine!—and six scaffolds—don’t you love it when you can quantify things?!—to start hacking away at that infinite number. To boil the subject down to its very essence, the exercises will be in black and white (not even gray), and use just ink and cut paper. The goal is to become fluent in the language of pattern, to see it in unexpected places, interpret its structure, and to be able to use that heightened perceptual vocabulary in your own work.
July 13, 20, 27, August 3; Thursdays 1PM – 5PM
at my studio, 110 Cherry Street in Pioneer Square
Register here, or contact me.
In the interim, I’ll be periodically posting some thoughts and observations about patterns I encounter in my wanderings.
The Nucor Steel plant in West Seattle
Time to fess up: I became a painter partly to escape the clutches of an anarchistic theatre collective which had come to resemble the authoritarian structures that it mocked. The idea of spending hours and hours alone in a studio mixing paint seemed preferable to spending hours and hours in meetings arguing about who resembled which authoritarian structure. That was thirty years ago, and I still prefer the alone-in-the-studio scenario. About twenty years after parting ways with the theatre and a cross-country move, I started teaching life drawing to set and costume design students. Neither they nor my colleagues were aware of my shady thespian past (until now!). What makes this teaching gig a delightful one, among other things, is that I get to escape the visual art world, which I find a bit stuffy and to which I’ve never really acclimated. The irony of course is that I’m now hiding out in the theatre department, bringing my creative life, and my habitual contrariness, full circle.
One thing I’ve learned from all this genre-hopping is that visual storytelling is visual storytelling. Sometimes it’s on a stage, and sometimes it’s on a canvas (or maybe just on a napkin in a bar). In both the visual artifact and the live performance you have, basically, characters in some kind of a setting. How they are arranged and posed in their places tells you some, most, or perhaps all, of their story. Playwrights and novelists will undoubtedly quibble, but even words are just a version of a canvas, leaving spaces in between the words for you to fill in from your own imagination.
Every year my drawing class spends most of our first quarter learning how the character, the person part of the story is constructed, how to separate what we think we know about people from how they actually look, studying human anatomy, learning to discern the shapes and forms and lights and darks. After about ten weeks of this we begin to venture out of the studio, plop a person in a setting, and see what stories arise from the collision and collaboration of model, place, artists, and even passersby.
What I’ve also learned from years of teaching this class (and other plein air classes), is how many fabulous underutilized spaces there are in a city, open to the public, with unexpected views and sometimes even tables and chairs. At the Washington State Convention & Trade Center, we had most of two food courts to ourselves, ensconced in majestic corporate modern architecture and interior landscaping, and overlooking freeway interchanges, parks, and city streets. Most people didn’t even notice the model posing perfectly still across the room from us.
Just outside the capitalist Convention Center is a socialist-brutalist-style wonder, the pragmatically-named Freeway Park. A person dwarfed by the massive gray geometry evokes a narrative of isolation, of a cog in the bureaucratic machine, or perhaps a defector.
A few weeks later, it was onward to the toxic monument to Seattle’s industrial past and hippie present, Gasworks Park. Our lovely model chose a floor-length gown for the occasion.
The big open space gave everyone a chance to get really far away from the model, and place her in a sweeping, long view of the big green cartoonish hill and city in the farther distance.
The passersby who do notice that someone in their path is holding perfectly still perhaps ask themselves the same questions we ask as we compose our drawings: Why is this person in a long black dress standing on yonder green hill? Did she walk out of a formal occasion that went bad? Is she coming, going, lost? From the future, from the past?
The colors and compositional and material choices all put different spins on the answer.
There are also large, unnamed objects that frame a figure and the landscape and seem ready-made set pieces for our little plays.
Not all of our model/actors are human. We spent one morning among the creatures of the Woodland Park Zoo, some of whom obliged us by posing out in the open where we could draw them; others lolled like lumps in trees or ponds.
At the Olympic Sculpture Park, Richard Serra’s Wake is more like an opera set. The rusty undulating behemoths dwarf the human subject but also lend her a bit of their monumentality. One could squeeze more narrative out of the situation if the model were able to interact more closely with the piece, i.e., touch it, but the Seattle Art Museum frowns on that. I have it on good authority that the artist would disagree with that policy.
Student drawings of Richard Serra’s Wave
The format, the cropping, the scale, the feeling of air or claustrophobia, even the shade of red can be interpreted in wildly different ways.
Of course, no tour of Seattle is complete without the Jetsonian kitsch of the Space Needle. Being just downhill from it, most of us were able to fit the whole thing into our drawings from the low angle. It is itself a character, giving the human character someone to play off of.