Drop-in during Kusama: Infinite Reflections

All summer long we’re activating your creative side with free drop-in studio hours every Sunday at SAM. Led by local artists and designed for all ages, the art activities taking place between 11 am and 1 pm will touch on themes and ideas behind Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors and how the artwork in the exhibition connects to their own work and process. We’ve asked each of our teaching artists to share what about the Kusama exhibition has inspired them and the art activities that they will be leading.

This Sunday, July 30, features artist Junko Yamamoto.

There are a few things that I can relate to Kusama’s work conceptually and aesthetically.  She is interested in the relationships between people and the world by creating infinite imagery of nature and our society. Kusama’s Phalli’s Field has been one my favorite installations of hers since I was young. Organic, white, phallic-shaped soft sculptures with red polka dots in a reflection mirror room create an infinite reality that gives me a chill. All of her paintings are incredible, but I’m always mesmerized by her older paintings from the 1950s to ’70’s. Repetitions of scale- or cell-like small round shapes continues almost outside of the frames. Both installations and paintings can relate to my repetitive shapes and textures.

In my work, I explore space, memories, the space between atoms, cells, between people, objects, air, stars, water and sky; the cosmic glue which holds us and the universe together. My repetitive imageries are often inspired by cell divisions or clusters of atoms. Everything that exists in this world is part of us, we are all related to one another, just like how small atoms accumulated to forms entire universe. Unity, as a whole, is my foundation.

Celeste Cooning, August 3 & 20

In the spirit of Kusama’s process-based studio practice, we’re going to make collaborative cut paper “Infinity Nets.” As this collective infinity net grows into an immersive installation, elements of form, movement, positive/negative space, light, and shadow will all come into play. 

I feel a kinship to Kusama’s emphatic nature and I strongly identify with the inherent necessity to keep creating throughout one’s life. Since childhood, I’ve always sought solace through the act of art making. Come explore the resonant power of repetition and accumulation using scissors as your drawing tool!  

Regina Schilling, August 27, September 3 & 10

Kusama has artistically given me permission to create my own world and live inside it infinitely. As a painter, I’ve been exploring invisibility using large colorful canvases to create worlds where the invisible is seen. Despite hiding, the women in my paintings are still there. It’s a world where women, daisies, jack-o-lanterns and textile structures can all exist together. Apart from working on this series, I began the publication, Hey Lady, a collection of art honoring one woman per issue. In two years, it has included hundreds of artists internationally, highlighted eight crucial women in various fields, held exhibits around the country, and created a world where women experience a creative outlet that is nurtured, validated, and celebrated. With my workshop at SAM, you’ll be able create your own world exploring your reflection, obsessions and inspiration from the exhibit by making and filling up a handmade zine!

Ellen Ziegler, July 16 & 23

My Vermilion Series is a collection of drawings searching out the interface between the psyche and its influences, between inner and outer worlds. The drawings result from my visceral responses to sensation, emotion, and reaction. The use of the color vermilion began as an investigation of childhood memory and has morphed into a practice of working with only this one color for three years. The drawings are made with acrylic forms painted on paper, which I then draw on with white marker. The circular marks transform the flat forms to three dimensions. I intend to suggest the body with its urges, transformations, and ultimate transcendences.

In a time when we are increasingly distanced from our corporeal selves by technology and stress, this work attempts to bring to the surface powerful and peculiar sensations, emotions, and reactions, so we may act authentically in this shifting world.

The projects we’re doing in the Drop-In Studio begin with the circle or dot, echoing Kusama’s extravagant use of that form. Her focus originated with the hallucinations that caused her to exteriorize her obsessions and fears. Many artists have this phenomenon in common: what would seem to be a departure from sanity or normalcy comes to be the fertile origin of our work. Standing in the center of a black field of tar paper (9’ x 20’), participants draw circles with themselves as the center. Making a mark of chalk on tarpaper is immensely satisfying and is a visceral moment of art made with the body. At the worktables, we’ll use black paper to draw on with opaque markers and circle templates, creating their own take-away artwork.

Images: Manifestation, 2017, Junko Yamamoto, 36 x 36 in., oil on canvas. Still Here, 2016, Regina Schilling, oil on canvas, 4 ft x 4 ft., photo: Regina Schilling.Over the River, 2016, Celeste Cooning, installation, screenprint on hand cut Tyvek, paint, mylar, and light. Untitled (vermilion), Ellen Ziegler, 2017, acrylic and white marker on paper, 15 x 11 in.
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Portsmouth Sofa

Object of the Week: Portsmouth Sofa

You may have noticed SAM’s regal Portsmouth Sofa making our American galleries look super comfy and inviting. With the ubiquity of couches in the US today it’s hard for us to grasp what an item of prestige this sofa would have been 200 years ago. In early 19th century America sofas were the most expensive seating furniture, and fancy ones could be had for about $35 to $46. What else could you have gotten for that price?

In the 1810s in New Hampshire, $40 would buy you

100-150 pounds of beef

or

40 bushels of beans

or

a pair of stockings ($1.25), thick shoes ($1.75), and a wool hat ($1.75), every year for 8 years

or

a sheep weighing in at 133 pounds

or

two two-year-old heifers

or

6 tons of hay.1

How long would it take you to save that up? From 1819-1821 a woman tailor worked for $.25 per day—so just about half a year’s salary later, she’d have a sofa. In 1818 a journeyman shoemaker worked eight months for $26 per month. If he could have put away a quarter of his salary he would have had a couch in the same time span. Back then, the working day started at sunrise and continued until sunset, dark, or 9 pm, so I’m sure both of them were busting their bums. That’s when a couch comes in handy!

SAM’s Sofa once decorated the home of a wealthy ship captain and merchant named George McClean, who helpfully had his name branded on the frame. This was a finely carved sofa by Portsmouth standards and would have set him apart as a man of status. After its life of use, the sofa was acquired by Ruth Nutt, an important collector of decorative arts, and a major SAM patron. From her arrival in Seattle in 1989 until her passing in 2013, Ms. Nutt was heavily involved with SAM, as a board member and committee member, as a financial supporter and art donor. In 2014 SAM was the beneficiary of her exceptional collection of American silver, which you can admire all around the inviting Portsmouth Sofa.

– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

1 New Hampshire Commissioners on Bureau of Labor Statistics, Manchester, N.H.: James P. Campbell, 1872.
Image: Sofa, ca. 1810-20, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, mahogany and birch veneer, secondary wood elm or maple, modern upholstery, 34 x 72 x 24 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Ruth J. Nutt, 2005.180
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The Western Mystery by Spencer Finch

Ephemeral Art, Lasting Effects: Temporary Installations at the Olympic Sculpture Park

Spencer Finch’s The Western Mystery portrays one of our most familiar temporary experiences: a sunset. This new installation of ninety glass panes suspended from the PACCAR Pavilion’s ceiling opened at the Olympic Sculpture Park in April. The glass panes are sixteen shades of yellows, oranges, blues, and pinks based on the hues found in the artist’s photographs of Seattle sunsets. As the glass squares subtly rotate overhead, their surfaces capture fragmented reflections of the park that fade in and out of view.

The Western Mystery by Spencer Finch

Much like a sunset itself, The Western Mystery is an ephemeral experience. Over the past 10 years, the Seattle Art Museum has hosted 15 temporary installations by local, national, and international contemporary artists. SAM celebrates the sculpture park’s 10th anniversary this summer with Spencer Finch’s installation, as well as a new sculpture by Tacoma artist, Christopher Paul Jordan. Titled Latent Home Zero, Jordan’s “interactive silent film” is experienced through a binocular telescope that integrates collaged imagery related to the migration of African American people across the US with distorted, real-time views of the sculpture park.

SAM first began installing temporary art with Dennis Oppenheim’s five, massive Safety Cones, in the summer of 2008. But, the first temporary work appeared unexpectedly in 2007, shortly after the sculpture park opened. Mimi Gardner Gates, SAM’s Director from 1994–2009, recalled, “Early on, the artist group PDL created Eaglets under Alexander Calder’s The Eagle—a nest with three little Eagles. I loved that because it was Seattle’s artists responding to the sculptures in the park. To me, that really brought the park alive.”

Blue Sun by Victoria Haven

That lively spirit returns to the park every year through the temporary projects SAM commissions. For some artists, the short-term nature of their installations can lead to experimentation they wouldn’t always attempt in a permanently sited piece. In April of 2016, Seattle artist Victoria Haven created Blue Sun, a large-scale wall drawing that was based on the path and reflections of the sun as she experienced them from her studio window in South Lake Union. “I think the process involved a sense of immediacy that gave Blue Sun an energy and an aliveness,” Haven said. “It was like a breath on the wall; it was there and then it was gone. And, there’s something beautiful about the rigor and commitment involved in creating a monumental project that exists for a relatively short amount of time.”

YOU ARE HERE by Trimpin

The sense of immediacy also played a role in Seattle artist Trimpin’s 2014 temporary sound sculpture, YOU ARE HEAR. The installation’s three listening stations were comprised of repurposed tractor seats and oversized sets of “headphones.” Visitors who interacted with the piece experienced sounds created within their immediate environment, both from mechanisms the artist constructed and the sounds that naturally occur around the park. The artist himself became immersed in the sculpture park environment as he installed YOU ARE HEAR over a period of three days.  He explained, “I noticed there were lots of regulars coming through every day and that they were noticing how something unusual was going on. It was great to have a conversation with them . . . . It was an exciting chance to engage with the public as they were walking their dogs or jogging through the park.”

The Olympic Sculpture Park offers a unique experience for both seeing and creating works of art. Just as the spinning reflections of The Western Mystery create a new perspective on the Olympic Sculpture Park, all of the temporary projects have given visitors reasons to rethink their surroundings over the last 10 years, both within the park and out in the world.

—Erin Langner, Freelance Arts Writer and Former SAM Adult Public Programs Manager

This post is the fifth installment in a series of stories exploring the history of the Olympic Sculpture Park in celebration of its 10th anniversary. Over the course of this year, we will continue reflecting on the Park’s evolution over the past decade.

Images: Installation view of The Western Mystery (detail), 2017, Spencer Finch, American, b. 1962, Seattle Art Museum site-specific installation, Photo: Mark Woods.  Installation view of The Western Mystery, 2017, Spencer Finch, American, b. 1962, Seattle Art Museum site-specific installation, Photo: Mark Woods. Installation view of Safety Cones, 2008, Dennis Oppenheim, American, b. 1938, Seattle Art Museum site-specific installation, Photo: Paul Macapia.  Installation view of Blue Sun, 2016, Victoria Haven, American, b. 1964, acrylic, 57 x 14 ft., Seattle Art Museum Commission 2016, Photo: Natali Wiseman. YOU ARE HEAR, 2014, Trimpin, German, b. 1951, three part sound installation at SAM Olympic Sculpture Park, commissioned by the Seattle Art Museum. © Trimpin, Photo: Nathaniel Willson.
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What Do You Disclose? An Interview with Denzil Hurley

Seattle-based artist and University of Washington professor Denzil Hurley’s glyph paintings are aptly titled. A glyph is a symbol. One that typically conveys an agreed upon or shared meaning. These can be the unique marks of the written word, a graphic element, or an inscription. More broadly, a glyph can be a shape or color that we understand to have an agreed upon purpose separate from language, such as a circle with a slash through it for “no,” or red for “stop.” In Hurley’s work, shape and color are paramount.  Well known for his monochrome paintings and impact on the world of abstract painting, a selection of these glyph paintings currently hang at SAM in Denzil Hurley: Disclosures, on view through November 5.

In Disclosures these paintings become sculptural by being mounted on repurposed sticks and poles. As objects, the glyph paintings become reminiscent of signs and harken back to Kazimir Malevich’s 1915 painting, Black Square which was intimately tied to social and political discussions at the cusp of the October Revolution in Russia. Deceptively simple, there’s a density to Hurley’s black canvases in his layering of the paint and in his use of materials. Spend some time in Disclosures the next time you come by SAM and consider what you derive from a redacted painting involving the form of signs and the framing of the wall. What does your understanding say about our socially constructed meanings of these symbols?

SAM: The works at SAM came out of visits to Barbados. Can you tell us about these trips? I’m thinking specifically about how they informed the material concerns of your work.

Denzil Hurley: The idea of repurposing materials arose out of observations I made over many years, and several trips there. The paintings in the exhibition were selected from a larger body of work that began around 2006–07. Each piece was thought of, and developed individually out of my interests in modular forms and structures involving squares and rectangles.

Do you see these paintings as a whole? If I think about the public protests being referenced through the work, and the “power in numbers” philosophy behind taking to the streets, do you feel that viewers can derive a larger meaning by seeing the group than by seeing a single work in the series?

I exhibited related pieces from this larger body of work in the Northwest Biennial at Tacoma Art Museum in 2009, and a Francine Seders Gallery group exhibition in 2012. I welcome the curatorial decision at SAM to select, and present the work in a particular way. It certainly serves to open up the room and bring certain referencing to the fore.

You talk about density in your paintings. In your monochrome paintings how do you use a single color to create layered meaning?

My working process and painting ideas involve color, layering, stacking, erasure and concerns with surfaces that allow individual differences to be developed and realized in each piece.

In a work such as the piece framing the empty wall, does density continue to play a part in the work?

Within the context of one piece relating to another and involving the wall, the floor, and bringing together painting ideas, sculptural form, and installation practice, it allows for conjunctions between differences.

Images: Installation views of “Denzil Hurley: Disclosures” at Seattle Art Museum, 2017, photos: Mark Woods.

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Community Gallery: Color is Everything

A window is what I wanted. A gap in the wall where light could come in and color the dim room of my world and hopefully the world of those around me. But how do you crack open a wall of bias and expectation? How do you get to the human behind the facade? The goal with Color is Everything was this very idea; to find the bridge from one person to another, a path through the forest of differences so we can embrace what makes the individual truly and beautifully individual. Longing, pain, love, desire; So much binds us to one another beyond things like religion, gender choice, or race. I wanted to photograph individuals that not only celebrated what made them unique but even further—used that as a source of their power. But differences scare people. So often we see something unlike what we understand and it is seen as dumb, threatening or foolish. That is why I attempted to open the window of joy in all the people who participated in the project. I wanted their joy to shine brighter than anything an observer could find bias against. Because in a time of cultural tension, amongst all the things that bind us, why not choose joy to let some light in?

Behind the Scenes shooting Color is Everything

To do so was not hard. It was a simple recipe of music, dancing, and kindness. Lindsey Watkins helped choose the wardrobe from the outfits the individuals brought from their own closets. From that we chose color combinations in the backdrops. It wasn’t until later that I was honored to be put in touch with Imani Sims who took the project to the next step of tapping into the actual recipe of what gave everyone their own personal joy. When given the opportunity to exhibit the project I knew that scale was important. Joy, no matter what the recipe, is not small, it is a force writ large against the darkness and I wanted the joy of these amazing individuals to be imposing and fully immersive.

Color is Everything installed in the Community Gallery

This project was co-curated by David Rue and Priya Frank of Seattle Art Museum.

– Stanton Stephens, Photographer

Color is Everything is on view through July 30, 2017 in the Community Corridor Art Gallery. Stop by to see work by these large-scale photo portraits for free through the end of the month!

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Object of the Week: Wheat Field

Joyeux quatorze juillet! As our French friends celebrate La Fête nationale, we’re looking at a painting by Paul Camille Guigou, an artist we categorize as French—although he really identified only with the region of southern France called Provence, where he was born and spent much of his life. His story illustrates that national identity is complex and nuanced, and being French—or American, or anything else—means different things to different folks.

Guigou was immensely proud of Provence. Its landscape, inseparable from the unique quality of light that illuminates this part of the world, inspired nearly all of Guigou’s paintings. A reclusive type, he would wander the hills near town by himself, a solitary figure seeking communion with his muse. On his hikes Guigou would make a point of going to out-of-the-way spots where few had visited, and where the views were unknown. The un-fame of these places seems to be part of what drew Guigou there; by visiting and painting them, he was drawing attention to something he knew was special and yet somehow overlooked. We can read his visions of rural Provence as a kind of journalism, enlightening those who wouldn’t see it for themselves.

Guigou’s program as an artist involved more than producing realistic, flattering pictures of places that were meaningful to him. He painted during the 1850s and 1860s, a period when France, under Louis-Napoléon, made efforts to naturalize its southern citizens, who had maintained a sense of cultural independence and local pride. Much of the Provençal cultural heritage revolved around the language spoken there, langue d’oc. Guigou and many others who cherished the region’s culture and history saw the government insist that French, and not the local language, be spoken in Provence schools. The threat to their language was a literal and symbolic one, and for Guigou, part of a larger problem in the lack of appreciation for Provence’s identity. Meanwhile, the industrialization of the area exacerbated Guigou’s sense of cultural loss. With his paintings, he became an advocate for the land, its people, and its story.

In Wheat Field, the artist’s heartfelt connection to Provence shines. Waving strands of golden wheat, warmly lit from above, and enlivened by flecks of red and blue, fill the center of the painting. Three working figures wading into the field honor the region’s agriculture. Rugged hills loom above quiet valleys. Guigou is a very textural painter, leaving nothing refined or smooth, visibly preferring a coarseness evocative of the country. I love the little footpath that he includes on the left. This unassuming trail seems just the type he would have sought out on his painting excursions.

Poet and activist Frédéric Mistral, who had been a fellow champion of Provence with Guigou, wrote in 1908:

I consider Paul Guigou the greatest painter of Provence. No one could paint better than him the luminosity of our beautiful land, the rugged poetry of its rocky and powdery soil. With great sincerity of vision, he made a truthful and faithful portrait of his little nation. He does not yet have the place in the world of art which he deserves, but that will come.¹

Anything but a detached observer, Guigou makes no attempt to hide his nationalistic affection for his subject. His way of romanticizing Provence will be too sentimental for some, but I appreciate that he clearly loved what he painted. He felt it worth recording and celebrating, especially in the face of cultural domination and industrial intrusion.

– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: Wheat Field, 1860, Paul Camille Guigou (French, 1834-1871), oil on canvas, 25 3/8 x 45 13/16 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Corydon Wagner, 60.49
¹Quoted in Paul Guigou: 1834-1871. Exh. Cat. New York: William Beadleston, Inc., 1987.
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Docents Defined: Celeste Ericsson

Get more intimate with SAM’s collection by becoming a docent! Docents will learn about our global collection of artwork and then share their knowledge and passion for art with a diverse range of visitors. No experience necessary! SAM docents have a wide range of reference points and experiences that they each bring to the art in SAM’s collection and that is what makes our public tours so unique. Making room for new perspectives is how we continue to offer engaging and informational tours throughout the year. Here’s a chance to get to know Celeste Ericsson, just one of our many docents who volunteers their time at the museum. Are you interested in becoming a SAM docent and leading tours of the museum? Apply now! Applications are accepted through July 12 and new docents start training in fall 2017!

SAM: Tell us about yourself. Why did you become a docent?

Celeste Ericsson: I’ve always loved art museums ever since I was a child growing up in New York City. My favorite New York museums were/are the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cloisters. I have always been interested in history in general, and in symbolism/iconography. As an illustrator and a graphic designer, a knowledge of art history and art movements both inspires me and helps me to communicate in my artwork.

What’s the best part of being a docent?

I get to share my interests with others, and I love doing it with kids. I’m constantly adding their insights to my tours. I do like talking with adults also. In order to communicate clearly, I have to figure out the most important things I believe about art and art philosophy. And in order to make things relevant I need to figure out the connections and the contexts for the art I’m touring so that the pieces do not become disembodied objects. In other words my docent work clarifies my own understanding of art.

What work of art is your favorite to tour?

The works of art that are my favorite to tour definitely differ from the works I’m personally drawn to. I’m drawn to the Archaic Greek Antefix with Medusa or Akio Takamori’s Blue Princess. For art to tour I liked Cai Guo-Qiang’s Inopportune Stage One, definitely a favorite before it was deinstalled last winter. Aesthetically, I found it horrifying, but it tells the story of art so clearly. I can’t think of even one class that it did not connect to, or who failed to figure out the story of a car flipping and exploding.

I’m finding that kids are really drawn to John Grade’s Middle Fork also. My favorite description from a third grader is that it looks like a Jenga game.

What’s your most memorable touring experience?

My favorite touring experience lately was Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series for kindergarten, no less. I hadn’t expected the kids to get it, but the themes of having to leave home and everything familiar, and the theme of fairness really resonated with them. They created the most amazing drawings afterwards. A couple were very personal, and the kids were kind and appreciative of each other’s creations.

What advice do you have for people considering applying to the docent program?

This is a hard one to answer, but I’d say to be in it for how art can be inspiring. Really try to find those paths of wonder and fun for the kids. Discover your own genuine voice. Finally, it’s great to not take oneself too seriously, and to have a sense of humor.

– Kelsey Donahue, Museum Educator, School & Educator Programs

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Summer at SAM Celebrates 10 Years of the Olympic Sculpture Park

It’s the 10th anniversary of the Olympic Sculpture Park and Summer at SAM is bringing you entertainment and activities around art at the park, all summer long. Mingle, make, and move until the sun goes down over the Puget Sound. Inspired by SAM’s special exhibitions, Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors at the Seattle Art Museum and installations by Christopher Paul Jordan and Spencer Finch at the Olympic Sculpture Park, Summer at SAM explore place-making, cultural confluences, and learning from our local environment.

Like the sculpture park itself, all Summer at SAM programs are free, open to the public, and all-ages. So check us out Thursdays and Saturdays, July 13 through August 31 and get active in your city with concerts, art making, food trucks, and fitness. In their own words, get to know two of Summer at SAM’s partner organizations for events such as the Kickoff next Thursday, July 13 from 6–8 pm produced in partnership with Black & Tan Hall and our Saturday art activity led by artists of the Lion’s Main Art Collective.

Black & Tan Hall, is the premier cultural event space that the south end has been waiting for. Its unique business model with over 20 community partners has given birth to a consensus-run establishment that prioritizes healthy, delicious food, fair pay to artists, and quality events. We want to give you a reason to dress up for a night on the town.

Our upcoming partnership with SAM gives Seattle a small taste of what Black & Tan Hall will be producing when our doors open at the end of the summer. Chef Tarik Abdullah will be serving his eclectic North African inspired dishes made with fresh Northwestern ingredients on the lawn, while bands like New Triumph, Peace & Red Velvet, and the Mockingbirds light up the stage with hip-hop afro-caribbean beats, and DJ Toya B keeps the crowd lively throughout the evening.

Black & Tan Hall will be open for breakfast during the week, brunch on the weekends, and dinner with select music, theatre, film, and dance events. We are also available for private rentals, and co-producing opportunities. We are “the people’s” establishment for diversity, community, creativity, and simply a good time!

– Black & Tan Hall

Lion’s Main Art Collective is a Seattle-based community of queer and trans artists that showcases innovative interdisciplinary art. Participating artists are excited to present From the Foundation, an installation created from fabric and wood exploring private and public experiences of home. Combining screen printing, photography, painting, text, and zines, this project is takes a cumulative approach by gathering images and reflections from individuals in the LGBTQ+ community. Trinkets, pictures, recipes, and stories are screen printed on the walls entwining personal experiences into a communal web.

Lion’s Main is excited to partner with SAM and bring together communities through visibility and engagement. Park goers are invited to share their own stories and reflections. What does home feel/look/taste like? What do you keep from past homes? What memories and sensations do you associate with it? Visitors are invited to write their experiences on fabric which will be sewn together to create a “ceiling.”

Participating Lion’s Main artists

Sofya Belinskaya, a Ukrainian-born visual artist, creates works on paper that oscillate between dreams and reality. She is compelled by the void, magical realism, and emotive narratives. She is a teaching artist and organizer based in Seattle.

Jax Braun is a poet/writer, biologist, crafter, and performance artist. Their works are informed through the structure of biological worlds and dwell on interpreting personal histories and experiences.

KEM_C is a Seattle-based printmaker/tapemaker/clubscum, specializing in etchings, screenprints, & VHS tapes. Ask her about a cozier alternative to safe/r spaces.

Sequoia Day is a Seattle-raised queer arts organizer, photographer, painter, and full spectrum doula. They are drawn to the soft places that exist in people and home. Their work often touches on care, debris, and maintenance in the home space, and what spills forth from the places we build and inhabit.

Emma Kates-Shaw is a fiber/found object/tattoo/paint/pen/pencil worker, fascinated by light, time, space, and the beauty of the early early morning.

Markel Uriu is an interdisciplinary artist in Seattle. Her work explores the quiet intimacy of inner worlds, feminine labor, impermanence, and the unseen. Drawing from mythology and rituals, she explores these concepts through ephemeral botanical narratives and two-dimensional work.

Established in 2013, Lion’s Main Art Collective is a non-profit organization curating multidisciplinary events and festivals, including Transience at King Street Station (2016), QTONE Shorts in collaboration with TWIST: Seattle Queer Film Festival (2016), and Othello Quartz Festival at John C. Little Park (2016). They have received funding from the Office of Arts & Culture and the Pride Foundation. Past partnerships include Henry Art Gallery, Gender Justice League, Gay City, and Three Dollar Bill Cinema.

– Sofya Belinskaya

Photo: Robert Wade. Photo: Tarik Abdullah.
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The Adoration of the Magi

Object of The Week: The Adoration of the Magi

SAM’s painting by Francesco Bassano of the Adoration of the Magi contributes to several different stories in art history: the Italian Renaissance, Venetian painting, and religious art, among others. By situating this work where it is, in our Emblems of Encounter installation, we’re encouraging folks to look at the painting through a particular lens, focusing on its inclusion of two figures with dark skin: the magus that takes a central place in the painting, and the smaller page who stands behind him.

Why are these figures here? What role do they play? What do they reveal?

By the time he painted this work, Francesco Bassano could rely on established traditions attached to the Adoration story that would tell him what symbols to include and how to compose his picture. This prominent biblical story had been referenced by countless artists over several hundred years and had become codified in European visual art. Still, it wasn’t until the years between the middle of the 14th and the middle of the 15th centuries that artists working in what is now Germany and the Czech Republic initiated the trend of depicting one magus with dark skin.¹ The motif of the African magus in visual art developed out of Medieval writings that allegorized biblical stories: scholars at that time understood the three magi, or wise men, who appear in the Book of Matthew as symbols for the three known continents—Asia, Africa, and Europe. A writer known as Pseudo-Bede would make the not unreasonable corollary that the African magus was dark-skinned.² This black magus made his arrival in Italian painting around the mid-15th century, importantly coinciding with growing interaction between Europe and Africa: trade, missionary efforts, and of course, the importing of slaves.

Similarly serving to fill the scene with visual interest and to illustrate the burgeoning diversity of the painter’s world, a group of sweetly rendered animals attends the scene. The caravan of worshippers arrives on the backs of camels, donkeys, and horses. A furry monkey surveying the scene, a pair of handsome dogs, and a regal peacock complete the menagerie. The movement of the painting, enforced by the swooping line of the caravan, leaning figures and gestures, directs our eye to the figures of the infant Jesus and mother Mary. Their whiteness is the standard against which the African magus and his page are made to look different.

Though Bassano’s painting reflects a one-sided perspective, it seems to me that it could hardly have been otherwise. The painting records a historical moment when people were interacting across cultures and across continents with more frequency than ever. The appearance of the black magus in the larger theme of the Adoration shows one people group attempting to make sense of an increasingly complex and diverse world, folding new revelations into their existing understanding of things. In such pictures, we see a European effort to “reassert order and to avoid an ontological abyss,” says historian Peter Mark. “By fitting the African into an existing Christian iconography, European artists were incorporating the Black man into their familiar view of the world.”³

– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Image: The Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1575, Francesco Bassano (Italian, 1549-1592), oil on canvas, 61 5/8 x 81 5/8 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of the Clarence A. Black Memorial Collection, 50.76
¹ Stefan Goodwin, Africa in Europe, Vol. 1, Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2009; 148.
²Joseph Leo Koerner, “The Epiphany of the Black Magus Circa 1500,” in The Image of the Black in Western Art, Vol. III, Pt. 1, Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Press, 2010; 10-11.
³ Peter Mark, “European Perceptions of Black Africans in the Renaissance,” in Africa and the Renaissance: Art in Ivory, Exh. Cat., New York: Center for African Art, 1988; 30.
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