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Get to Know SAM’s New American Art Curator, Theresa!

Give a warm SAM welcome to Dr. Theresa Papanikolas who joined SAM’s staff last month as our new Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art. Theresa is an expert in 20th-century American art who will oversee the development, research, presentation, and care of SAM’s collection of American art and connect it to the contemporary moment. “We’re thrilled that Theresa has joined us,” says Kimerly Rorschach, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO. “She’s an inspired curator who will continue to build on the wonderful American art program started in 2004 by Patricia Junker.”

Theresa comes to SAM from the Honolulu Museum of Art, where she served as Deputy Director of Art and Programs and Curator of European and American Art. She previously held positions at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; National Gallery of Art; Rice University; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. We asked her a few questions so you can learn a little more about what she has planned for SAM’s American art collection in the near future!

SAM: What are your first impressions of Seattle?

Theresa: Well, I got here in December, late at night, although it might have been at about 5 pm. The thing that struck me the most is how early it got dark in the middle of December. I thought I would really struggle with that, but it was no problem. I find Seattle to be such a warm and welcoming city and I’m just so happy to be here.

What has your experience of the art community been so far?

I’ve just started to explore it. I’ve found the immediate community around the museum to be highly professional and very engaged in what’s going on in the world, the art world, and Seattle. Everyone, from the curators to the support staff, is here because they love the museum and they support art. That, to me, has been very energizing. The larger art scene—I’m just starting to get a handle on it.

What do you have planned coming up at SAM?

Right now, I am working on an exhibition that will focus on and celebrate the recent acquisition of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Music – Pink and Blue No. 1, a gift from Barney Ebsworth. One of my long-range plans is to reinstall the gallery of American art to tell the story of American art in a way that seems relevant to a contemporary audience and reflects a diverse and multifaceted America.

Tell us about the Georgia O’Keeffe installation!

It’s scheduled for spring 2020. It will be a small show, about 20 works that will look at a moment in O’Keeffe’s early career where she was practicing abstraction rather than flower and desert scenes. I think visitors will find it interesting that she practiced abstraction. This installation will include pretty significant loans.

You’ve focused on O’Keeffe in the past, can you talk a little more about that?

I have done two O’Keeffe exhibitions that reflect time she spent in Hawaii. The Honolulu Museum of Art, where I previously worked, has five O’Keeffe paintings that were all painted in Hawaii. She went there on commission from an advertising firm to do pictures for Dole pineapple juice ads. I was told that she hated Hawaii and was there for only a short period and couldn’t wait to go back to New York. But looking at the pictures, I could not believe that she did not like Hawaii. In the short time she was there she made a connection with the landscape and the things she saw and discovered there. So, I decided to do an exhibition of her work in Hawaii. I was also looking for major artists to show in Honolulu to drive audiences for the museum, and I found out that Ansel Adams had also gone to Hawaii, 20 years after O’Keeffe. He and O’Keeffe were friends. So, I  organized a show of these two artists, both of whom relate to specific places in their work—O’Keeffe with New Mexico and Adams with California and the Southwest—to see what happens when they find themselves in an environment with which they are not familiar, to explore how they developed a sense of place with their work. The show was called Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams: The Hawaii Pictures. It opened at the museum in 2013 and it traveled to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. A few years later, I was guest curator for Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawaii for the New York Botanical Garden. In the installation at SAM, I’m excited to focus on an earlier moment in O’Keeffe’s life.

Let’s talk about the collection a little bit.

I’m really looking forward to looking more deeply into the American art collection. I was familiar with SAM’s collection from afar in Honolulu and it has a lot of gems and potential for growth. There are several collectors in town that are dedicated to American art. That’s part of what the reinstall of the collection is—find what is out there, in term of SAM’s collection and local collections, and put together something that speaks to Seattle, American art, and the museum.

Walking around the the American art galleries, is there anything that has jumped out at you?

Certainly Albert Bierstadt’s Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast. It’s just so romantic and big and dramatic. It sucks you in and is obviously a popular piece. I want to build a show around it. It is particularly interesting that the piece tries to evoke a sense of place even though the artist did not visit the location. So, I’ve been thinking about a 19th-century landscape exhibition. One thing that really strikes me about the gallery is the disconnect, the clear separation between the 19th century and the modernist galleries. I have been trying to think about ways to bridge that connection and create more continuity in the chronology of American art.

As an art lover, what else are you excited for at SAM?

I am thrilled about Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer. The way Jeffrey’s work treads on all these different areas: identities, communities, is very interesting to me.

Is there anything else that you want to share? Your new favorite restaurant or…?

Well, I will say that I have been having fun building a wardrobe from scratch. It’s a very different mode of dress in Hawaii—we don’t even wear coats. I live in First Hill so I’m so close to everything and walkability is great. I haven’t had to drive my car once in the two months that I’ve been here!

Photo: Natali Wiseman
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Muse/News: Manyness at SAM, nuclear paintings, and the Whitney list

SAM News

Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer is now on view! The Seattle Times featured photos from opening events in their print edition, and Seattle Met, The Stranger, Crosscut, Seattle Gay Scene, and new-to-Seattle art blog The Eye all wrote up the exhibition. What they’re saying:

“Like a Hammer has a manyness, a simultaneous quality that instead of diffusing into some fractured postmodern identity coheres into something singular.” –Stefan Milne

“His practice is largely informed by the ‘in-betweenness’ of the fixed points of identity. And there it blossoms.” –Jasmyne Keimig

“The artist has created a kind of gumbo of new associations, igniting things as disparate as old song lyrics and ab-ex white-boy modernism and indigenous craft with the most vital and urgent of sensations.” –Casey Arguelles Gregory

Seattle Met has their eye on another SAM show, highlighting the upcoming Gentleman Warrior: Art of the Samurai as one of “14 Seattle Events to Catch This Spring”.

Carrie Dedon, SAM’s Assistant Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art, contributed her thoughts on painter Sam Gilliam to this Artsy editorial in honor of Black History Month looking at “The Most Influential Living African-American Artists.”

Local News

Crosscut’s David Kroman and Dorothy Edwards follow Doug Latta during his last delivery of the Seattle Weekly; the paper announced this week that after 40 years, it will cease publication.

Special to the Seattle Times, Becs Richards sits down with Jody Kuehner, AKA Cherdonna Shinatra, to discuss her show DITCH, now on view—with daily performances!—at the Frye Art Museum.

The Stranger’s Jasmyne Keimig reviews Nikita Ares’ solo show of “so-bright-they’re-nuclear” paintings in Sugar Babies Only, now on view at Specialist Gallery.

“Bright, vivid, frenetic hues take precedence above all in her paintings, the oiliness of the pastels are rich, creamy, and dirty. They give off their own heat, resembling the energy she puts into it. There’s no tedium to it nor perfection, just like her.”

Inter/National News

Here’s one more celebration for Black History Month: Hyperallergic’s Jasmine Weber asks seven notable arts figures to name Black artists overlooked by the canon who they cherish.

This year’s Venice Biennale will host Ghana’s first national pavilion. It’s designed by celebrated architect David Adjaye and will feature work by John Akomfrah, El Anatsui, and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye.

The 75 participating artists in this year’s Whitney Biennial were announced this week; the list includes Jeffrey Gibson and Disguise artist Brendan Fernandes.

“To its curators, the 2019 biennial feels very much like a product of its time, with artists ‘grappling with questions about race, gender, financial inequality, gentrification, the vulnerability of the body,’ said Ms. Panetta. But she added that the work in the show mostly strikes a tone that’s less ‘agitprop-like or angry’ than one might expect in 2019. ‘It’s really work that feels more productive, forward looking, with a kind of optimistic and hopeful tenor to it.’”

And Finally

Alert: The Prince Estate has released a library of Prince GIFs. You’re welcome.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Manager of Public Relations

Image: Installation view Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer at Seattle Art Museum, 2019, photo: Natali Wiseman.
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Muse/News: The hammer hits, post-analog art, and fun at Frieze Los Angeles

Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer opens this Thursday! Seattle Magazine features the exhibition as part of their spring arts preview; the story also appears in the March print edition.

“The resulting collection is a riot of color and texture that playfully draws the viewer into a world—the experience of another human being—impossible to ever fully know, but commanding one’s full consideration anyhow.”

Nancy Guppy included Like a Hammer and the community celebration on Thursday in this New Day NW segment highlighting local arts happenings.

Fashion: Turn to the left! SAM’s own Priya Frank and David Rue are both one of “7 Seattleites in outfits that say something” in this KUOW piece by Marcie Sillman and Megan Farmer.

Local News

How’d your Oscar ballot turn out? Add to your Oscar trivia with Brangien Davis of Crosscut’s story on Margaret Herrick, a former librarian in Yakima who ended up becoming the first female executive director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Special to the Seattle Times, here’s Gayle Clemans on the importance of artist residencies in an inequitable Seattle; she visits Mount Analogue and the Jacob Lawrence Gallery.

The Stranger’s Jasmyne Keimig also explored the residency project Ultra Light Beams at Mount Analogue, noting that the work in the show “falls loosely within the genre of post-analog art.”

“Each artist presented here grapples with this meeting of the human hand and technology as we understand it today.”

Inter/National News

Allison Meier for Hyperallergic on Tamiko Thiel’s Unexpected Growth, now on view at the Whitney; in it, the artist continues her groundbreaking AR work, an example of which appeared at the Olympic Sculpture Park in 2016.

Artnet shares the findings of a report on fundraising in the arts that included some encouraging news: average individual contributions rose each year from 2014 to 2017.

The New York Times’ Jori Finkel visits the inaugural edition of Frieze Los Angeles, as well as the new Felix LA art fair; for those who missed it, Graham Walzer took lots of great photos, too.

“’I don’t ever remember Frieze New York actually being fun — and this was,’ he said. ‘My sense is this will be the first of many Frieze fairs out here.’”

And Finally

This one goes out to all my fellow southpaws.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Manager of Public Relations

Image: CAN’T TAKE MY EYES OFF OF YOU, 2015, Jeffrey Gibson, Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians/Cherokee, b. 1972, high fire glazed ceramic, repurposed tipi poles, wool, acrylic paint, wool blanket, glass beads, artificial sinew, copper jingles, and nylon fringe, 72 × 29 × 38 in., Collection of Vicki and Kent Logan, image courtesy of Jeffrey Gibson Studio and Roberts Projects, Los Angeles, California, photo: Peter Mauney.
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SAM Connects Jeffrey Gibson to Community for Free

We are excited about Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer opening in just a few short days and want to make sure you know all the free and discounted ways to see this new, colorful, and exuberant exhibition!

Artist Jeffrey Gibson is of Cherokee heritage and a citizen of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. He grew up in urban settings in Germany, South Korea, the United States, and England, and his work draws on his experiences in different cultural environments. In his artwork, Gibson creates a new visual language from familiar items associated with Native powwow, such as glass beads, drums, trade blankets, and metal jingles, which are overlaid with markers of queer club culture as well as the legacies of abstract painting. The inspiration and community of dance clubs and pop music reverberate throughout his work.

Mark your calendars with these opportunities to see this visionary contemporary exhibition where powwow meets pop culture meets punching bags.

We are kicking things off on February 28 with a free Community Opening Celebration from 5–9 pm. The museum will be open late for free so that you can spend plenty of time looking at Gibson’s art in the galleries and still take in the many activities of the evening such as dance performances by Marco Farroni, music and storytelling with The G’ma Project artists Nijuana Jones and Che Sehyun, art making with local artist Philippe Hyojung Kim, and tours led by Jaimée Marsh, and Iisaaksiichaa Ross Braine—all for free!

Also on opening day, Jeffrey Gibson will be in attendance and offering a free talk and screening of new video works. Don’t risk it, reserve a free ticket for Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer and Next Steps at 7 pm on Feb 28!

SAM also offers free and discounted passes to visit our special exhibitions for community organizations or colleges and universities. Find out more and fill out our form to get yours today!

First Thursdays, tickets are to see Like a Hammer are half off and the museum is open late. Swing through on March 7, April 4, or May 2.

First Fridays, seniors get half-off entry to Like a Hammer. If you’re 65+, mark your calendar for March 1, April 5, or May 3.

We’ve also go special deals for teens to pay $5 for a ticket to Like a Hammer through our partner organization TeenTix. Oh, and kids 12 and under are always free!

We also offer free entry to caregivers accompanying a visitor, employees of other museums, gold or flash card holders, and members of the press with ID. Check out our FAQ for more information and other ways to get discounts!

While we’re at it, did you know that it’s always suggested admission to visit SAM’s collection galleries? These are just a few ways SAM connects art to life!

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Muse/News: Melancholy smiles, love letters to dance, and Swizz Beatz’s art collection

SAM News

Last week, SAM announced the launch of the public phase of a $150 million campaign to support all aspects of the museum’s mission. To date, the campaign has raised more than $125 million towards its goals. Artnet and Patch.com shared the news.

Armon Mahdavi of UW Daily with a lovely look at The Magic Lantern of Ingmar Bergman, the museum’s centennial celebration of the legendary Swedish writer-director, curated by Greg Olson, SAM’s Manager of Film Programs.

“Olson was seated near me during the showing, and after the film finished, we exchanged glances. ‘I hope we’ll all be alright in the end,’ he said to me with a melancholic smile.”

Local News

The Jacob Lawrence Gallery at the University of Washington is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Crosscut’s Mason Bryan speaks with Michael Spafford, Barbara Earl Thomas, C. Davida Ingram, and others about the artist’s legacy.

Crosscut’s Aileen Imperial with another great video story, this time featuring six local dancers—including David Rue, SAM’s Public Engagement Associate—performing love letters to their art form.

Bones! Feathers! Forklifts! Brendan Kiley of the Seattle Times gets a behind-the-scenes look as the team at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture move their collection into its new “inside-out” digs.

“The coolest thing I found? I don’t want to admit it,” he said. “Mostly evidence of my co-workers from decades ago—someone had been sitting at a desk, smoking while working on specimens, and used one of the shells for an ashtray! They should give it a label: ‘archaeological tool used by museum employee 30 years ago.’”

Inter/National News

Andy Battaglia of ARTnews on the (very sad) news that gallerist Mariane Ibrahim is closing her Seattle space and moving to Chicago. Pam McClusky, SAM’s Curator of African and Oceanic Art, spoke with Andy, noting that “She couldn’t be a more distinctive catalyst for international art.”

Artnet’s Henri Neuendorf reports on the reaction from the arts community to the big news that Amazon has abandoned plans to establish an HQ in New York City.

M.H. Miller of the New York Times Style Magazine profiles producer Swizz Beatz on how he created interest in contemporary art in the hip-hop world—and how he is bringing change to the art market itself.

“Over the past 20 years, he and his wife have built one of the great American collections of contemporary art, and he has quietly become one of the art world’s most important power brokers, a singular advocate for artists in an industry that often exploits creativity for the sake of the bottom line.”

And Finally

Parkland survivors, one year later.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Manager of Public Relations

Photo: Jen Au
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Muse/News: Porcelain secrets, lost speech, and an art-world skewering

SAM News

Sammy the Camel headed out on a sunny Tuesday to sell copies of Real Change as part of the paper’s #VendorWeek celebrations.

Sammy got tips from vendor Darrell Wrenn, an autograph from Stone Gossard, hugs from a friend, and some civic conversation with Governor Jay Inslee (that was totally random! We just ran into him!).

The Stranger’s Jasmyne Keimig takes on Taking Tea and “porcelain’s deadly secrets” in the current edition’s feature story.

“Porcelain ‘is way more robust than you initially think it is,’ the artist said the other day at the museum. ‘You can drop it and it bounces.’ That elicited nervous laughter from the staff. But Partington’s genuine appreciation for the material is clear. Taking Tea activates the space in a way never done before.”

Our upcoming exhibition, Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer, is highlighted in arts previews from Seattle Met, The Stranger, and ParentMap.

Local News

Newsletters are the new podcasts: Crosscut launches their arts & culture newsletter, highlighting Cherdonna Shinatra at the Frye, Aaron Dixon at NAAM, and more.

But videos are still going strong: Crosscut also shares their complete 4-part series featuring Susie Lee and four elements of art: clay, water, glass, and light.

And sometimes videos play on a thing called “broadcast TV.” Here’s the latest episode of Seattle Channel’s ArtZone, featuring Quenton Baker, Tres Leches, and a remembrance of Robert C. Jones.

“The aim of this project was to locate a kind of lost speech.”

Inter/National News

First The Square, now Velvet Buzzsaw: The art world is once again skewered on film. (Mostly this is an excuse to share this video of the film’s director hilariously skewering a word.)

A painting by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun sold at Sotheby’s for $7.18 million, making it “the most expensive painting by a pre-modern era female artist ever sold at auction.”

One of my favorite recent pieces of cultural writing: The New York Times’ Wesley Morris on “racial reconciliation fantasies” such as Driving Miss Daisy and Green Book.

“Not knowing what these movies were ‘about’ didn’t mean it wasn’t clear what they were about. They symbolize a style of American storytelling in which the wheels of interracial friendship are greased by employment, in which prolonged exposure to the black half of the duo enhances the humanity of his white, frequently racist counterpart.”

 And Finally

The polar vortex comes for Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Manager of Public Relations

Photo: Rachel Eggers.
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Best in Show: We Love Lynda Swenson’s Artwork

You probably assume that most people working at an art museum are pretty into art, but what you might not realize is how many of them are artists themselves. A trip to SAM’s community gallery to see the SAM Staff Art Show, on view through February 3, is a great reminder of the talent that fills not just the galleries of our museums, but the administrative offices as well. Make sure to walk all the way to the end of the first-floor corridor to see the work that won our hearts and the most votes during the Staff Art Show reception. What you’re looking for is an indigo diptych by Lynda Harwood Swenson. Her piece, Sticks and Stones 1 & 2 (Lapidation), contains a lot of tension while also feeling calm and contemplative. Give it a good long look the next time you visit.

Lynda is the Art Studio Programs Senior Associate at SAM. She’s the mastermind behind our free Drop-In Studio events on First ThursdayS and summer Sundays and the interactive art-making activities that SAM offers through our education and public programs. She also recently became a member of Shift Gallery in Pioneer Square where you can see her work in a solo show February 7 through March 2.

SAM: When did you begin making art formally? Were you always working in print media? How did you arrive at it?

Lynda Swenson: I was lucky that I went to a high school that really valued art and art making and my art teacher in high school was a printmaker. She introduced me to the medium and I really fell in love with it and continued working in printmaking through college and most of my adult life.

The title of this piece brings a lot of context to the work about both the topic and materials. Can you expand a bit on the meanings you are playing with?

In choosing the title, Sticks and Stones 1 and 2 (Lapidation), I was thinking about all the negative rhetoric directed at women in the last few years. Because the image is a photogram of stones, I thought it was a really simple way of telling the viewer what they were looking at, as well as what my intention was. Adding the word “lapidation,” which means stoning a person to death, where no individual is held responsible—is suggesting an awareness that this is still happening in places and, metaphorically, it happens in our society all the time.

You said the women in this work are not based on actual people, how did you decide to depict them?

The women’s heads in the work are from a found image from a magazine, I think they were carved wooden heads (I don’t know who the artist is). I manipulated them through a copying process and then the transfer process. I really wanted to depict women from many ethnic backgrounds, even subtle skin color differences mattered in the work.

How are the white lines and shapes created? Are these traces of your process?

The white lines are part of the cyanotype process, they are a byproduct that is sometimes left behind on the paper, or in this case on the vellum, it may be from minerals in the water used to rinse the chemistry out after exposure.

The stones that you used in this work, are these actual stones? Where did they come from?

Yes, the stones are real and were from my yard. They were laid very neatly on vellum sheets that were covered in a cyanotype chemistry and exposed to light—the white parts of the image are where the rocks laid and the blue is where the chemistry was exposed to the sunlight.

Tell us about Shift Gallery, the artist-run gallery you joined this year.

This is currently the 15 year anniversary of Shift Gallery. It’s an artist-run space in the Tashiro Kaplan building on 4th Avenue and Washington Street, near Pioneer Square. Shift is a great venue with a mission of supporting Northwest artists of diverse media and rigorous content. I feel like it’s a great launching pad for Seattle artists to show their work.

What else are you working on right now? Where else can people interact with your work?

I have a solo show opening on February 7 at Shift, running through March 2. I also have work on view at the Coos Art Museum, in the West Coast Ink and Print show in Coos Bay Oregon until February 9.

– Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, SAM Content strategist and Social Media Manager

Images: Photo: Natali Wiseman. Sticks and Stones 1 & 2 (Lapidation), diptych, 33 x 22 inches, cyanotype photogram with image transfer on vellum, photo: Art Grice
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Muse/News: Awards, enchantments, and a lullaby from Rita Moreno

SAM News

Last week, SAM announced that Aaron Fowler is the recipient of the 2019 Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence Prize. Fowler will receive a $10,000 award, and his work will be featured in a solo exhibition at SAM in fall 2019. ARTnews, Culture Type, Artdaily, Artnet, and Hyperallergic were among those who shared the news.

“Seattle, prepare to be enchanted by Gibson.” The Seattle Times’ Brendan Kiley takes a “Look Ahead” at February events, recommending our upcoming exhibition, Jeffrey Gibson: Like a Hammer.

Local News

The Seattle Times debuts an occasional series that asks, “How do they do that?” Up first: Moira Macdonald tries to understand the en pointe balancing poses in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty.

“It’s OK Not to ‘Get’ Art” The Stranger’s Jasmyne Keimig reminds us in this review of the Danny Giles show at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery.

Seattle Met’s Stefan Milne previews the durational performance piece Cherdonna Shinatra: Ditch, one of three shows opening at the Frye tonight.

“We call her MomDonna, this huge sort of matriarchal ruin in the space. MomDonna is in the space as if she’s been there for thousands of years seeing humans just keep trying.”

Inter/National News

Who else was obsessed with the sculptures created by the character Fonny in If Beale Street Could Talk? Artnet’s Sarah Cascone goes behind the scenes to learn how they did it.

This week in journalism: The New York Times reports that the building housing the Newseum in DC has been sold, and about 1,000 media workers at Buzzfeed, HuffPost, and Gannett were laid off.

Hyperallergic on the portraits of Hugh Mangum, now on view at the Nasher Museum of Art. His glass plate negatives were rediscovered in an old barn and offer a compelling look into turn-of-the-century American South.

“In the scratches, cracks, fingerprints, and delicate color shifts that surround and sometimes cover the sitters’ faces, we are looking at portraits of individuals through the unmistakable portal of time.”

 And Finally

Here’s Rita Moreno singing “It’s You I Like” accompanied by Mister Rogers.

Image: Derion, 2018, hot tub cover, wood, children’s cotton and nylon coats, cotton balls, enamel paint, acrylic paint, broken mirrors, theater seats, concrete cement, 115 x 95 x 28 in. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer. Image courtesy of the artist © Aaron Fowler.
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Native Interpretations of Land: Art Encounters at Olympic Sculpture Park

Every year brings the creative process of local artists to the Olympic Sculpture Park through our artist-in-residence program, Art Encounters. This year Christine Babic (Chugach Alutiiq) is working away on SKIN SEWERS at the PACCAR Pavilion. Babic—in collaboration with her mother, artist Mary Babic (Chugach Alutiiq), and Alex Britt (Nansemond, White)—is combining performance and installation to create a site-specific experience that explores the gap between contemporary and traditional Indigenous works. Art Encounters are a chance to learn about the practice of making art while participating in experiences that respond to the Olympic Sculpture Park and the Seattle region. This year you can get involved by dropping into one or both of the Art Encounters on January 25 and February 22, from 7–9 pm.

SAM: I love this description of this as an intestinal window into a shared history. I was wondering if you could elaborate a little bit upon on the connection to land, skin, and history in Skin Sewers.

Christine Babic: Since this residency is at the Olympic Sculpture Park, we wanted to talk about land and what land means for Indigenous people. Through SKIN SEWERS, we’re trying to get a sense of generational gaps and what the spectrum of generations think of land and its meaning. For both my mom and I, who are from Alaska, we’ve talked about subsistence as being the first thing that comes to mind when we think of land—the resources and gifts of the land.

Mary Babic: I was raised in Seattle. I really did not know what Alutiiq meant. I knew I was Alutiiq and I knew I was German. When I moved to Alaska in 1980 I realized I was immersed in Chugach Alutiiq culture. So, I wanted to learn everything I could about my background. I started sewing woods, firs, leathers, and started beading. Friends in the area shared a lot about utilizing the resources we had and living off the land. Not only would you use a seal for its meat (which is very high in iron), but you would also use every part of it. You wouldn’t waste anything. You were always grateful. You would always thank the animal for giving itself to you. That was one thing I learned right away about subsistence. So, I started sewing with the fur. I also learned how to clean the intestine and to blow it out and make things out of it.

Christine: It’s an interesting material because it’s a waterproof material, and it’s semi-opaque. And it has this simultaneous fragility and strength to it. You get it wet to sew with it and then it dries. It can be used as rain jackets. Seal intestine was also used for death masks. It was a kind of protection—a spiritual protection. Not only from the rain and weather but this spiritual protection that comes with using these materials. So, there’s a lot of dualities when using these materials. For us, it’s not only an experiment in Indigenous materials but also this spiritual connection to our culture. Doing these things that your ancestors did—these are Indigenous materials and we are Indigenous people. Only Indigenous people can source seal. They’re protected under the marine mammal protection. The materials used in SKIN SEWERS are synthetics, but we’re going off of tradition and what our ancestors used. When people are displaced from their land, there’s no access to the materials that we’ve always used. Practicing culture and making artwork is part of cultural evolution and is important to us as Native people—SKIN SEWERS is not an answer, this a conversation.

What kind of materials will be involved in this performance?

Christine: For this, we’re using a synthetic intestine which is collagen, pig intestines, and fish skin. So, inner skins and outer skins. Seal intestines is much harder to get. Something I’m addressing is the evolution of Indigenous material and how we use these things in place of seal gut. In my grandmother’s generation, there was a lot of Americanizing going on so she never wanted to be a Native. She wanted to be as assimilated as possible because there was so much racism happening. When my mother moved back to Alaska she was able to relearn our culture and reclaim these things and identities as Native. My mom raised me as a Native person so those ideas are what I’m referencing. I can carry my Native-ness with pride but there is a gap culturally for us, generationally, because my grandmother did not have that option. Through these materials, there’s a lot of acknowledgment happening.

You’ve mentioned learning traditional sewing techniques from your mom. Have you two collaborated creatively before? What does your collaboration looks like?

Christine: Always. In every show, my mom helped. This is probably our first official collaboration. My mom is inspired by tradition, so she’s really obsessed with researching how our ancestors used to do things. I really like performance art and contemporary art. Bringing parts of what my mother taught me into a contemporary context and working together allows me to make performances out of things that you may not necessarily think are performances, like sewing. This lets us look at them in a different lens—that’s interesting for me.

Mary: You definitely take me out of my comfort zone. I do tend to be more traditional in my artwork and I have been working on a curriculum for Chugachmiut Heritage Preservation that teaches about traditional artwork and how to make clothing. I’m working on that project right now. Working a little more contemporary with the material has definitely opened my eyes. The fish skin that we have in the show, we made a non-traditional and traditional tan. We’ve used brains from the deer and some of that is in the window that we have on display. We also did a non-traditional tent which was using glycerin and rubbing alcohol and that I have a video on that I hope to show during the presentation as well.

Have you collaborated with Alex Britt before?

Christine: No, but I really am a fan of their work. They’re very image-based and a photographer. I always liked how they explained their relationship to the body and land. Bringing in different Indigenous perspectives is important to SKIN SEWERS. Obviously, there is such a wide spectrum. Alex’s photos will be a part of the installation. So, I think it will just kind of show the distances and the different ways we think about land and Native perspectives.

When people come to your Art Encounter, what should they expect to experience?

Christine: This is an active installation, where people can move freely about and get close to the materials and watch how we work with the materials. You’ll get a sense of how our ancestors used and talked about these. We’ll also have texts about the duality of materials and how we want to continue to use them and bring these materials and traditions wherever we go and think about them as they evolve. We’re going to have a demonstration to inflate the pig intestine. This is similar to the way that ancestors used seal intestines—blowing them up, drying, and cutting them. The labor that goes into using them, how much time and care goes into the work—the performance parts of SKIN SEWERS are an act of care and respect for the material, the land, and our tradition. The process is valuable and beautiful, using these materials involves being meticulous, careful, and loving. We come from people who are sewers, who sew skins. SKIN SEWERS, as a project, is really to highlight how important the action is and not just the finished object. I wanted to show other people the performance through the physical actions and what that looks like.

For the third year of our winter Olympic Sculpture Park artist residency, we changed things up a bit. Unlike the last two years, this year’s artist was not selected through an open call, but selected in collaboration with yəhaw̓, an exhibition celebrating the depth and diversity of Indigenous art made in the Pacific Northwest. Curated by Tracy Rector, Asia Tail, and Satpreet Kahlon, yəhaw̓ opens at King Street Station March 23, 2019. You can see more of Christine Babic’s work when it opens! We’ll see you there.

– Chelsea Werner-Jatzke, SAM Content Strategist and Social Media Manager

Photo: Jessa Carter. Photos: Nina Dubinsky
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