All posts in “Object of the Week”

Object of the Week: In Case of Fire

In Case of Fire is striking. Disorienting and surreal, the black-and-white landscape unfurls into the supernatural. A tree is anchored in a sea storm, a larger-than-life raven is perched on the remains of a sinking home, mythical creatures and human figures are scattered against scenes of disaster.

Just as the flames and embers of fire possess movement, this linocut—a print carved onto linoleum block—captures the turbulent motion of winds, hills, plateaus, and water swirling in waves across the surface. This fantastical presentation is of an apocalypse. Yet, despite the chaotic and apocalyptic imagery, In Case of Fire feels intuitively familiar. The fragmented images are contained in a single frame, and recall the nature of dreams with their strangely linear order of otherwise disconnected events and forms.

Seattle-based artist Barbara Earl Thomas is a storyteller. Though born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, Thomas remains deeply connected to her Southern roots: Thomas’s parents had “left behind family and friends and a history rooted in slavery and sharecropping to take up 1940s war jobs.”[1] As an art student at the University of Washington, Thomas studied under Jacob Lawrence, who remained her close mentor and friend until his passing in 2000.

The composition and dramatic scope of In Case of Fire is inspired by folklore, myths, Biblical tales, and magical realism, drawing on the storytelling traditions passed through generations in Black history. An active figure in writing, arts administration, and public art commissions, Thomas maintains a social responsibility in her artwork. She invokes issues of inequity and injustice across communities and writes, “It is the chaos of living and the grief of our time that compels me, philosophically, emotionally, and artistically. I am a witness and a chronicler: I create stories from the apocalypse we live in now and narrate how life goes on in midst of the chaos.”[2]

Rachel Kim, SAM Curatorial Intern

[1]Upchurch, Michael. “Barbara Earl Thomas’ Linocuts Blend the Surreal with the Lyrical.” The Seattle Times, Apr. 12, 2013. https://www.seattletimes.com/entertainment/barbara-earl-thomasrsquo-linocuts-blend-the-surreal-with-the-lyrical/
[2] “Barbara Earl Thomas.” Claire Oliver Gallery. https://www.claireoliver.com/artists/barbara-earl-thomas/
Image: In Case of Fire, 2014, Barbara Earl Thomas, linocut, 24 × 36 in., Modern Art Acquisition Fund; Gift of John D. McLauchlan in memory of his wife, Ebba Rapp, by exchange, 2017.14.2. © Artist or Artist’s Estate

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Object of the Week: A Feast

As we continue through summer, a season known for family dinners, picnics, and midnight feasts, food becomes a large figure in our lives. Many are connected to it on an intimate level through memories and desires. Painted on a massive sixty-foot scroll, A Feast (2001) by Li Jin dramatizes this deeply important role that food plays in everyday life, specifically in Chinese life and culture. The scroll begins and ends with an essay in light ink calligraphy, written by the artist’s friend, detailing the cultural significance of food. He bookends both essay halves with the declaration that you must “eat as much as you can.”

Juxtaposing this essay, Li Jin offers a sumptuous feast for the eyes with many paintings of dishes and ingredients. He not only gives us plates of steamed crab, sandwiches, and hotpot, but he also presents pig and chicken heads with whole onions and skewers of radish. Combining raw ingredients with more gourmet dishes, he fashions a work that at once showcases the relationship between the Chinese people and food alongside a dazzling display of the consumption of food.

Surrounding these loosely painted images in bold colors, simplified Chinese characters march through the space detailing many different recipes of foods not depicted. Through this unconstrained method of painting, paired with calligraphy, the scroll becomes more alive with action and realism. In the words of the artist, “the scroll could have been lengthened indefinitely. The continuous presentation of food simulates a real feast, where tables can be added to accommodate more dishes.”[1]

Born in 1958 in Tianjin, China, Li Jin’s work has continually evolved as he reflects upon the ways in which people connect to nature and his attempts to represent life in an honest and lifelike manner.[2] His work in A Feast capitalizes upon these enthusiastic and unapologetic qualities as he crafts a world where everyone is invited to the table to join together and eat as much as they can, a philosophy fitting for the possibilities and simple joys of summertime.

Emma Ming Wahl, SAM Curatorial Intern

[1] “A Feast,” SAM Collection Online, last updated December 2012, http://art.seattleartmuseum.org/objects/30404/a-feast?ctx=a1efcea2-91cb-470f-a4a4-d9d18c33d912&idx=0
[2] “Li Jin,” Inkstudio, last updated 2019, https://www.inkstudio.com.cn/artists/63-li-jin/overview/
Image: A Feast, 2001, Li Jin, ink on Xuan paper, 33 x 708 5/8 in., Partial gift of Meg Maggio and the Courtyard Gallery, Beijing and partial purchase with funds from Rebecca and Alexander Stewart, John and Shari Behnke, and the Modern Art Acquisition Fund, 2003.119 © Li Jin
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Object of the Week: Four Seasons series: Indian Summer

In Indian Summer, a bucolic scene is obviously staged. There is a printed mountain backdrop, a cut-out cardboard deer, fake plants, and Western-themed props strewn across a manicured bed of Astroturf. The Native artist Wendy Red Star sits poised amid the artificial flora and fauna. She wears traditional Apsáalooke (Crow) regalia and stares stoically into the distance.

Indian Summer is from the larger photographic series Four Seasons, which includes Fall, Winter, and Spring. When I first viewed Indian Summer, I was reminded of bright, color-saturated storefronts with eerie mannequins and design sets—frozen behind walls of glass. In Four Seasons, Red Star plays on the commercialism of Native identity and satirically recalls the dioramas of Native people exhibited at natural history museums.

Red Star was raised on the Apsáalooke (Crow) reservation in Montana, and received the Seattle Art Museum’s Betty Bowen Award in 2016. Through reclamatory, unsettling, and playfully witty art that is also collaborative and intergenerational, Red Star dismantles the narratives of Natives by white photographers, archives, and media: depictions that remove Native agency and preserve stereotypes of Natives as stoic, passive, and distant.

In an interview with SAM, Red Star reflected on her role as an artist and cultural archivist: “Native voices have historically been silenced, unable to explain or even place our own narrative within the larger society. As a Native person I have witnessed the lack of inclusion for Native artists in particular in the contemporary art world, many of whom struggle for inclusion in important exhibitions.”

“Also troubling is a prevailing but antiquated expectation of what Native art should be, whether from the 19th century or the 21st. This leaves many Native artists feeling segregated into categories of “traditional” work and without a place in the contemporary art world. I consider my practice and the act of annotating, revealing, and erasure a reclamation of my own history and identity. The act is so much more than a rejection of the colonial gaze, it is a deliberate act to take authority and rewrite histories in humanist way.”

This week, fireworks, barbecues, patriotic fanfare, and heavy traffic usher in another 4th of July holiday. Prior to yesterday’s processions at the White House, Trump had tweeted “It will be the show of a lifetime!” ensuring more tanks and military planes. In the wake of continued injustices toward immigrants in this country, it remains precisely that: a show. Ongoing histories of racism, genocide, nativism, and imperialism get to masquerade as nationalism under a venerating sheen of red-white-and-blue. On the cultural archive of Native experience and presence, Wendy Red Star removes and probes these veneers of unaccountable histories—dismantling and rewriting false colonial narratives to engage Native voices past, present, and future.

Rachel Kim, SAM Curatorial Intern

Images: Four Seasons series: Indian Summer, 2006, printed 2016, Wendy Red Star, Archival pigment print on Sunset Fiber rag, Sheet: 23 × 26 in. (58.4 × 66 cm), Image: 21 x 24 in., Gift of Loren G. Lipson, M.D., 2016.13.4. Four Seasons series: Fall, 2006, printed 2016, Wendy Red Star, Archival pigment print on Sunset Fiber rag, Sheet: 23 × 26 in. (58.4 × 66 cm), Image: 21 x 24 in.. Gift of Loren G. Lipson, M.D., 2016.13.1. Four Seasons series: Winter, 2006, printed 2016, Wendy Red Star, Archival pigment print on Sunset Fiber rag, Sheet: 23 × 26 in. (58.4 × 66 cm), Image: 21 x 24 in., Gift of Loren G. Lipson, M.D., 2016.13.2, ©️ Wendy Red Star. Four Seasons series: Spring, 2006, printed 2016, Wendy Red Star, Archival pigment print on Sunset Fiber rag, Sheet: 23 × 26 in. (58.4 × 66 cm), Image: 21 x 24 in., Gift of Loren G. Lipson, M.D., 2016.13.3, ©️ Wendy Red Star.
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Object of the Week: untitled (cosmos)

As the first official week of summer comes to a close, a palpable shift has taken place. With longer days and later nights, more time is already spent outdoors, whether on a porch, patio, or campground. Personally, summer often equates with more time spent looking at the night sky, along with a whole host of other associations—certain smells, foods, activities, and feelings.

In untitled (cosmos) by William Cordova, a fragmented expanse of black space is peppered with stars and planets, evoking the universe. Closer inspection reveals that among these celestial bodies are also archaeological artifacts and other suspended objects. Functioning then as a fictional astronomical and astrological map, it references the relationship that ancient cultures, such as the Inca, had with the cosmos—determining, or at least heavily informing, human events and actions.

Like the act of observing the night sky, the fragility and fugitive nature of this photographic map—held together by mere electrical and scotch tape—serves to remind us of our own ephemerality, and perhaps even make space for the contemplation of time and space, spirituality and identity.

Born in Lima, Peru, Cordova moved to Miami at an early age. He later lived in Houston, Chicago, and New York, but Peruvian cosmology, Andean architecture, and his personal history continued—and continue—to inform his work. Often working with found and discarded materials, Cordova’s varied and multimedia practice also means to address the economies of certain materials and objects, “challenging the functionality of art as a purely aesthetic pursuit.”[1]

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection & Provenance Associate

[1] “William Cordova,” Sikkema Jenkins & Co., https://www.sikkemajenkinsco.com/william-cordova.
Image: untitled (cosmos), 2006-09, William Cordova, exposed photo and paper collage, electrical and scotch tape, 61 × 86 in., Gift of Dennis Braddock and Janice Niemi, 2018.15. © Artist or Artist’s Estate
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Object of the Week: Tangerine (Mandarine)

Crisp contours and soft, natural lines form a focus: a fruit—a tangerine—hanging on its stem, framed by four leaves and suspended against a backdrop of white. There are no colors, fine details, or surrounding imagery that confirm it is specifically a tangerine. Yet there is an impulse to see from minimal curves a familiar shape, the ubiquitous form of tree-bearing fruit. From this abstract presentation, the tangerine exudes simple elegance and playful whimsy.

This piece by Ellsworth Kelly is one of 28 lithographs from Suite of Plant Lithographs, published in 1966. As a medium, lithography involves etching a smooth stone and using the repelling properties of oil and water to transcribe images onto paper. In addition to tangerines, the series includes lithographs of various flowers, branches, seaweed, leaves, and other fruits.

Since his passing in 2015, Ellsworth Kelly remains an influential force in Minimalism, Hard-Edge painting, Color Field painting, and Postwar European abstraction. From an early age, Kelly was drawn to the bright watercolor studies of birds by James Audubon. During World War II, Kelly was enlisted into the Ghost Army, a regiment of artists tasked with developing camouflage strategies and inflatable tanks to confound enemy troops. From this wartime experience, Kelly deepened his understanding of abstract colors, forms, and shadows. 1

On his artistic process, Kelly reflected, “I’m constantly investigating nature – nature, meaning everything,” and noted, “I think that if you can turn off the mind and look only with the eyes, ultimately everything becomes abstract.” 2

Tangerine (Mandarine) is visibly different from Kelly’s more recognizable pieces, including this painting from SAM’s collection, White Curve V (1973). Kelly’s work is often recognized by its geometric patterns and shapes punctuated by bold colors and hard lines.

Despite these labels, Kelly transcends them. In White Curve V, the composition initially appears to be flat, simple, and non-representational. Another reading reveals a striking similarity to a close-up of the moon and sky. The color block curves appear to be moving, as they follow natural processions of receding or expanding horizons and seas.

Kelly once said, “I think what we all want from art is a sense of fixity, a sense of opposing the chaos of daily living, What I’ve tried to capture is the reality of flux, to keep art an open, incomplete situation, to get at the rapture of seeing.” 3 From Kelly’s admiration and curiosity for the natural world, it is through his art we are encouraged to see our realities with eyes of wonder and reverence.

– Rachel Kim, SAM Curatorial Intern

1 Rachel Gershman, “Ellsworth Kelly: American Painter and Sculptor.” ©2019 The Art Story Foundation, https://www.theartstory.org/artist-kelly-ellsworth.htm

2 Rachel Gershman, “Ellsworth Kelly: American Painter and Sculptor.” ©2019 The Art Story Foundation.

3 Holland Cotter, “Ellsworth Kelly, Who Shaped Geometries on a Bold Scale, Dies at 92.” New York Times, Dec. 27, 2015.

Images: Tangerine (Mandarine), 1964-65, Ellsworth Kelly, lithograph on Rives BFK paper, 35 1/4 in. x 24 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 67.46, © Ellsworth Kelly. White Curve V, 1973, Ellsworth Kelly, oil on canvas
93 1/4 × 91 1/8 in., Gift of Virginia and Bagley Wright (by exchange) with funds from the Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund and with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts, 76.10, © Ellsworth Kelly.

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Object of the Week: Man and Girl at Crossing

Born in Harlem in 1919, Roy DeCarava came of age amid the flourishing artistic activity of the Harlem Renaissance. Trained as a painter, he would not take his first photograph until the late 1940s, and even then it was to assist his painting practice. However, DeCarava soon turned exclusively to photography, using the medium to produce a record of everyday Black life in Harlem.

In 1952, DeCarava became the first Black artist to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship in photography. A series of photographs—“subdued pictures of everyday Harlem existence, from intimate family moments to street play and subway gloom”—were made using the grant, and would eventually be published in 1955 with accompanying text by Langston Hughes in The Sweet Flypaper of Life.[1]

DeCarava, also a musician, would go on to photograph many jazz greats like Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Thelonious Monk, seeking to create a visual equivalent of jazz’s improvisational structure and off-time beat. The artist considered the camera, like the piano, to be an instrument of expressive potential, and mobilized it as a tool. The relationship he saw between jazz and photography hinged on the belief that “in between that one-fifteenth of a second, there is a thickness.”[2]

For the artist, photography was a way to counter his observation that “black people were not being portrayed in a serious and artistic way.”[3] As a result, his images illustrate ordinary Black life perceptively and immediately. His pictures are thoughtful and considered—often exploring light and shadow to assist in his subtly dramatic compositions.

In Man and Girl at Crossing from 1978, we see just how sensitive DeCarava was to the quiet and contemplative moments that surrounded him. It’s an uneventful scene—a man and a young girl wait to cross Schenectady Avenue in East Flatbush. Brooklyn had seen a rainy day that day, and the gloom sits heavy on the wet cement and asphalt. Framed by the crosswalk and sidewalk before them, the two figures are powerfully silhouetted—paused in a still moment of togetherness before continuing on their way.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collection & Provenance Associate


[1] Alan Thomas, “Literary Snapshots of the Sho-Nuff Blues,” In These Times, March 27–April 2, 1985, 20.
[2] Randy Kennedy, “Roy DeCarava, Harlem Insider Who Photographed Ordinary Life, Dies at 89,” New York Times, October 28, 2009, accessed June 13, 20169, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/29/arts/29decarava.html.
[3] Randy Kennedy, “Roy DeCarava, Harlem Insider Who Photographed Ordinary Life, Dies at 89.”
Image: Man and Girl at Crossing, 1978, Roy DeCarava, gelatin silver photograph, 13 x 8 15/16 in., Gift of the American Telephone and Telegraph Co., 82.61 © Roy DeCarava
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Object of the Week: Fountain

Situated beside the sublime glass and steel edifice of the Seattle Public Library Central branch stands Fountain of Wisdom (1958–60), designed by George Tsutakawa. This piece was the artists’ first public fountain commission after a prolific career as a painter, sculptor, and teacher in the Pacific Northwest. Within the Seattle Art Museum’s collection is Fountain (1971), a bronze metal sculpture that helps tell the story of Tsutakawa’s unique Japanese-American experience.

Tsutakawa was born in Seattle in 1910 and spent his early years in Capitol Hill, not far from Volunteer Park. At the age of seven, like many American-born kibei, he was sent to Japan for an education in Japanese art and culture. When he returned to Seattle a decade later, he studied sculpture at the University of Washington and spent his summers working in the Alaska canaries. Drafted into the US Army during World War II, Tsutakawa returned to UW as a graduate student on the GI Bill. Soon after, he began his teaching career in the School of Art.

During the mid-1950s, artist Johsel Namkung introduced Tsutakawa to a book called Beyond the High Himalayas. Included were descriptions of ritually stacked stone structures accumulated by travelers at mountain passes as private and public spiritual offerings.[1] The influence of these obos proved to be profoundly impactful on Tsutakawa, forming the basis of much of the rest of his life’s work. After creating a series of abstract wooden sculptures, Tsutakawa translated obos into metal sculptures and public fountains.

Fountain stands over five feet tall and is composed of a single vertical axis that holds a stack of abstract forms: a footed base, a pronged shallow bowl, intersecting parabolic-shapes, and a hallowed ovoid. It is easy to imagine this sculpture as a fountain, water flowing over and through the bronze forms; the symmetry adding to its geometry.

From 1960 until his death in 1997, Tsutakawa designed and fabricated over 70 fountains. His work can be found all along the West Coast, as well as in Washington, DC, Florida, Canada, and across Japan. Fortunately for Seattleites, a crowd-sourced map has been created to help us locate this important artists’ public works.

– Steffi Morrison, SAM Blakemore Intern for Japanese and Korean Art

[1] Kingsbury, Martha. George Tsutakawa. Seattle: Bellevue Art Museum and University of Washington Press, 1990.
Image: Fountain, 1971, George Tsutakawa, welded sheet bronze, 65 x 37 x 45 in., Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Langdon S. Simons, Jr., 86.276 © George Tsutakawa Estate
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Object of the Week: Twins

The work, Twins, created by photographer and video artist, Sue De Beer (American, born 1973), depicts two entwined twin teenage girls. De Beer’s work examines the internal conflicts of high school-aged girls—a period of both happiness and great terror. De Beer describes Twins as a “depiction of an impossible situation, a companion who is not an other; a state of pure completion, the strength and horror of desire without fear.”[1] What makes this work even more interesting is that De Beer portrays her subjects through her own likeness. Rather than a pair of identical twins, this image is a digitally-manipulated photograph of the artist herself. Using her own body to explore the identity of others is a technique the artist utilizes, to great effect, in other work, like Two Girls and her seminal video work, Making Out With Myself.

In her correspondence with Seattle gallerist Linda Farris (American, 1945-2005), De Beer explains:

“Much of my work takes place at high school age, a time of heightened experience, and often a time of ‘first’ experience: sexual experience, drug experience, intellectual experience. High school is the first time since birth that your height has stabilized, when your mind had learned enough to begin to analyze information, rather than just accumulate it. You have all of the physical equipment you will carry with you for the rest of your life, but it is all so new and unfamiliar, your agony and pleasure is heightened by the newness of being ‘complete,’ fully formed, and yet blank, without experience.” [2]

Twins, along with two other De Beer works, more visceral and violent—Two Girls and Untitled, from Heidi 2—came to SAM as part of the ContemporaryArtProject gift. CAP was the brainchild of Farris, who assembled a group of private collectors that were willing to share their private spaces with challenging images and objects. Farris selected daring new works that touched her very personally and passionately. In 2002, this group graciously gifted this work to SAM. The thirty-three artworks in the CAP collection include painting, photography, and video unified by a strong feminist perspective with an overarching theme: identity as a complex convergence of the cultural, social, and sexual selves.[3]

Learn more about the 33 works from the ContemporaryArtProject.

– Traci Timmons, SAM Senior Librarian

Image: Twins, 1998, Sue de Beer, color digital C-print, 35 13/16 x 49 3/8 in., Gift of the ContemporaryArtProject, Seattle, 2002.15 ©Laura Parnes
[1] Paul M. Smith, “Identity Paradox – Austin Museum of Digital Art,” Amoda.org, 2002, http://www.amoda.org/events/exhibit-02/.
[2] Email correspondence between Sue De Beer and Linda Farris, July 3, 1999.
[3] Seattle Art Museum and Tara Reddy Young, SAM Collects ContemporaryArtProject (Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 2002), 8, 9, 40.
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Object of the Week: Crow

In 2016, the Seattle Asian Art Museum invited acclaimed Japanese artist Tabaimo to study the museum’s collection and curate an exhibition. The resulting presentation, Tabaimo: Utsutsushi Utsushi, was based on the concept of utsushi, which literally means “copying or paying homage to a master’s work.” Tabaimo selected several historical objects from SAM’s Asian art collection to present alongside her own work, some of which she produced specifically for the show. The last gallery of the exhibition featured the museum’s beloved pair of 17th-century Crows screens and Tabaimo’s response, a video installation that imagines new possibilities for the screens’ depicted action.

The subject of the Crows screens is a murder[1] of black-feathered birds set against squares of gold leaf. Descending en masse from the top left-hand corner of each screen, the crows wind their way down to a rocky crag along the bottom edge. In photographs of the screens, the birds appear as silhouettes, though an in-person viewing reveals the unique texture of each creature’s feathers, eyes, beak, and claws. The dynamism of the scene is created through the movements of the individual crows. In some places, they fly towards each other, suggesting an impending clash; in the upper right-hand corner, two birds take part in a midair tussle; and even those grounded crows spread their wings, look about, and caw. 

In Tabaimo’s video utsushi of Crows, the birds are flattened into black silhouettes floating against a background of gold squares. Here, the squares take part in the action too. One by one, they sink into the pictorial space revealing rectangular hollows into which the feathered-beasts fly. An exhibition text explains:

In Japanese culture, it is a custom to tidy things up at the end of an event. Crows are often associated with untidiness because they look for food among garbage and create litter. Tabaimo does not intend for us to leave the gallery with a clear understanding of the exhibition, but rather, she would like to invite lively discussions by ending it in an ambiguous way, just as the crow brings untidy debris.[2]

– Murphy Crain, Asian Art and Gardner Center Coordinator

[1] Not a killing! A group of crows is called a murder.
[2] Tabaimo: Utsutsushi Utsushi exhibition brochure
Images: Crow, 2016, Tabaimo, single-channel video installation, 4 min. 10 sec., Asian Art Acquisition Fund, 2017.5 ©Artist or Artist’s Estate. Crows, early 17th century, Japanese, pair of six panel screens; ink and gold on paper, 61 9/16 x 139 5/16 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 36.21.1.
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