IKAT, not IKEA, is now on view at the Seattle Art Museum. The surprising similarity in appearance of these two words came up a few months ago when fonts for the exhibition’s marketing campaign creative were reviewed. But how different they actually are is why it’s worth seeing this exhibition.
Walking through IKEA is the ultimate contemporary shopping experience. It provides everything you need for an entire home to be outfitted—except the clothes—and it is all made by machines in a swift industrial manufacturing practice that strives to be as affordable as possible. Its aesthetic does rely on designers who add individual creativity to the company, but the handmade is missing.
Walking into galleries of Ikat: A World of Compelling Clothis a chance to take a break from a world of manufactured reality and be surrounded by the intimate sense of cloth exquisitely made for very distinct purposes. The exhibition was curated by Pam McClusky, SAM Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb Curator of African Art, and can only be seen at SAM.
However, as a first step, you need to understand what ikat is. Given how few people weave themselves, ikat might be considered a strange term from the past that is hard to connect with. To help recognize the thought and dedication that ikat requires, the exhibition features an entire gallery designed as a loom to walk through by contemporary artists Roland and Chimani Ricketts. From this immersive moment, you’ll embark on a world tour of ikat cloths, sometimes being greeted by garments, although most are of minimal tailoring, honoring the integrity of the fabric as it comes off the loom.
Textiles from Japan include futonji (bed coverings) and kimonos for adults and children as well as the Noh theatre. The Japanese cloths have a similar palette to those from Africa, indigo being prevalent, but the designs from numerous regions of Africa on view are distinct, with variegated stripes and medallions featured on cloths and dramatic robes. Indian and Southeast Asian ikats introduce cloths that are relied upon for ritual observations. Cloths from Uzbekistan are filled with flowing arabesques and exuberant designs in brilliant colors, including a robe of silk velvet which seems to come from a textile paradise. European ikats from 17th- and 18th-century France serve as a reminder that hand woven traditions faded away with the coming Industrial Revolution. And American ikats will include ponchos from the south and recent works from Santa Fe.
As we expect the urge to touch and feel cloth to emerge, we’ve created a cart just outside of the galleries’ entrance with threads and samples of ikats available for handling. And SAM Shop has set up adjacent to the galleries to showcase cloth made by artists who use natural dyes and woven processes that have a sustainable impact on our world. This spring, be immersed in the global reach and powerful beauty of this exceptional art form.
This article first appeared in the February through May 2023 edition of SAM Magazine and has been edited for our online readers. Become a SAM member today to receive our quarterly magazine delivered directly to your mailbox and other exclusive member perks!
“Our approach is based on direct experience—a way of development outward from an inner core; something of the same process that nature uses in the creation of a tree.”
– George Nakashima
This Saturday, March 11, the Gardner Center for Asian Art and Ideas at the Seattle Asian Art Museum will welcome architect and woodworker Mira Nakashima as part of the 2022–2023 Saturday University Lecture Series. Mira, daughter of celebrated American architect, master woodworkers, and thinker George Nakashima, will discuss her father’s influence and legacy as the founding figure of the 20th century American studio art movement.
As the creative director of George Nakashima Woodworkers, Mira continues her father’s legacy by integrating his deep appreciation and reverence of nature with her own warmth, unmatchable prowess, and ingenuity in incorporating contemporary sensibility into his philosophy. In her upcoming talk, Mira will explore the development of her father’s lesser known spiritual spaces and articulate the ways in which they emphasize his philosophical and personal formation as an architect.
In anticipation of this fascinating lecture, Haley Ha, SAM Manager of Public Engagement at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, caught up with Mira to discuss what visitors can expect to see, learn, and experience this coming Saturday.
HALEY HA: You are the current creative director of Nakashima Woodworkers. Can you tell us a little bit about your days as the creative director?
MIRA NAKASHIMA: First of all, ‘creative director’ is a term I borrowed from a friend of mine who heads a chamber music group, as I didn’t know what else to call myself. When I first started in 1970, I was the general ‘gopher,’ doing everything from typing up orders to driving the truck to raking leaves, etc. As time progressed, I learned how to make the shop drawings, got to work in the shop making small objects, and accompanied my father to the sawmill. Following my father’s stroke, I began supervising the work in the shop, and after he died, I had to be responsible for conceptual as well as working drawings. There was always something to be done maintaining the buildings, grounds, and machinery, so that became a part of my job too. And after my mother died, someone had to keep an eye on the accounting. As it was a bit overwhelming for one person to do it all effectively, we hired both a manager and an assistant designer which made life more complicated, but better. As ‘creative director,’ I oversee the creation of all the furniture made here, but I am just one of the many people devoted to preserving our history and craft tradition. I usually have a hand in selecting and pricing wood for every project, create the conceptual and sometimes shop drawings, oversee the final cut lines, base and butterfly placement, and sign each piece before it leaves the shop.
HH: Your father is considered one of the most celebrated woodworkers and architects of the 20th century in the US, Japan, and across the world. As a woodworker and architect in your own right, what do you consider to be the challenges and blessings of carrying out Nakashima’s legacy today?
MN: My father studied architecture at Fontainebleau, France, worked in the office of Antonin Raymond in Tokyo from 1934-38, and was sent to Pondicherry, India in 1936 to build a reinforced concrete building, so he had deep roots in many cultures and countries of the world.
His furniture practice grew in the aftermath of World War II, embracing and manifesting Japanese aesthetic ideals during a time when they were not socially accepted and slowly making his mark along both US coasts. In 1963, my parents sent me to Tokyo to attend Waseda University where I earned a Masters in Architecture. My father went on to join the Minguren group and earned the Third Order of the Sacred Treasure from the Emperor of Japan in recognition of his cross-cultural activities in 1983. After his passing in 1990, his work became ‘vintage’—a part of the renewed interest in 20th-century design worldwide. Auction houses began selling his work both locally and internationally, leading his fame to spread.
It has been a challenge to live up to my father’s legacy and to continue the work as he hoped we would. With his book The Soul of a Tree, originally published in 1981, generations of woodworkers have been inspired to take up the practice, and indeed, to copy his designs. We strive to preserve his original methodology and mindset by working from the pile of wood he collected during his lifetime and hiring younger craftsmen and designers to learn the Nakashima way. Fortunately, we have been able to keep Nakashima alive and well, and we will do our best to keep it going beyond my lifetime.
HH: Your family was forcefully moved alongside over 12,000 incarcerated Japanese Americans to the Minidoka Camp in Idaho when the war broke out. Could you tell us about how this period impacted your father, his work, and your family?
MN: I was a baby when we were incarcerated. My mother was traumatized by the relocation while my father made friends with a highly skilled Japanese carpenter named Gentaro Hikogawa. Gentaro taught my father many that he would not have otherwise learned in developing his craft. Fortunately, in 1943, my father’s employer in Tokyo, Antonin Raymond, had moved to Bucks County and offered to sponsor my father to work on his farm so we did not stay in the camp as long as our other relatives. While in Idaho, my father’s friend, artist Morris Graves, carefully kept our meager belongings in Seattle and returned them all to us when we moved to Pennsylvania to start our new life. My father prophetically called the move a “New Hope” and found many artists in the area to call his friends. He called the incarceration “stupid” but said that eventually, “the wounds healed over and left no scars.”
HH: As we know, your father’s sense of spirituality deeply influenced his practice. You’ve previously been quoted as saying that for him, work “was a spiritual calling, a form of prayer.” Can you tell us about a bit more about the relationship between his beliefs and practices and explain a bit more of what you’ll be focusing on in your talk this Saturday?
MN: When my father was working on the reinforced concrete building for the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in India, he learned that physical labor was “karma yoga,” no less a yoga than meditating, praying or chanting all day. There, he and the other workers devoted their time to creating a hitherto unimagined place of beauty and peace. When he visited France’s Chartres Cathedral in the 1930s, not only was it an astounding space because of its incredible engineering, beautiful sculpture, and stained-glass windows, but also because it was built over several centuries by people from all walks of life whose only intent was to create a sacred space for the glory of God. In Seattle, my father converted to Catholicism and developed a deep kinship with the Benedictine monks and their monasteries. He volunteered to assist them in not only designing, but helping construct their remote chapels by gathering materials, building technology, and hiring local craftsmen.
HH: While he considered his work as a spiritual calling, his reverence for materials was remarkable yet practical. For example, could you tell us how kodama—the Japanese belief of offering a second life to a tree—became a central belief to his practice and how it bore the iconic aesthetic of Nakashima Woodwork?’
MN: I do not think the concept of ‘offering a second life to a tree’ is particularly Japanese, but in Shinto, Druid, Native American, and other so-called ‘primitive’ belief systems, inanimate objects like trees, stones, and water are respected not merely as ‘dead’ objects, but as living examples of the Creator. Perhaps my father’s connection to trees was fostered by his early days as a boy scout where he spent long weekends hiking throughout the Pacific Northwest and sleeping amongst the trees. In Japan, the forces and forms of nature are respected, honored, and integrated into everyday life. So, it is perhaps this practice which found voice in the Nakashima aesthetic.
HH: The Nakashima estate in Pennsylvania became a National Historic Landmark in 2014. I’m envious of your beautiful home and curious to know what it is like to live in a space with such powerful intention, art, and legacy?
MN: To me, this is simply the home where I grew up and have worked all of my life. I didn’t realize it was anything special until I returned from my first trip to Japan in 1966, and not until I wrote my book in 2003 that it became clear how groundbreakingly bold the architecture was for its time. It is indeed a responsibility to maintain the property, and to allow limited access so that it does not suffer from too much traffic, while encouraging and educating people about its history. I do not live on the original property, but in a house across the road that my father built for me in 1970, so it is an easy commute but also provides some distance to the place I now call home.
HH: In our ongoing Saturday University Lecture Series, we’ve been exploring the different notions of sacredness within built environments amid our ongoing climate crisis. There seems to be a sense of reverence, deeper recognition, and ecological thinking that is rooted in your father’s practice. Would you agree?
MN: My father built each of his buildings with a sense of economy and ecology that was way ahead of his time. From working in Japan, he instinctively knew the principles of kimon—in Chinese, feng shui—including the auspicious positioning of buildings and usage of the rooms according to its geography, path of the sun, seasons, and source of water on the site. He selected each site because of its south-facing slope and built most of the buildings along the brow of a hill, intentionally leaving an open slope and field in the center. All of his buildings have large expanses of glass to the south, and their carefully proportioned roofs overhang to keep the rooms cool with cross-ventilation in the summer and warm in the winter with solar gain.
On the Pool House, built in 1960, he installed a series of water pipes along the rooftop as a way to heat the shower water by passive solar energy when no one else was even thinking of that. His last building, the Reception House, built in 1975 during the first oil crisis, has a plenum and fan system behind its Franklin stove-like fireplace to heat the entire house. There is also a cook-top on the fireplace hood and an oven compartment in the wall of the fireplace like the old Bucks County farmhouses. There is even a large sunken Japanese bath with water heated by a wood-burning boiler imported from Japan. We are currently working with the University of Pennsylvania to create an overall campus plan which will minimize our dependence on fossil fuels in the future by installing both passive solar and geothermal energy sources, and of course, increasing insulation and minimizing air infiltration without destroying the original design concepts. It’s bound to be an exciting challenge!
HH: Lastly, what kind of legacy would you like to leave behind to the next generations of woodworkers?
MN: Harvest materials sustainably and replant as many trees as possible. Know and respect the woods local to your area and use them whenever possible. Learn to do honest joinery yourself. Do not imitate forms, but create your own. Remember that less is more; don’t complicate things just to be different.
– Haley Ha, SAM Manager of Public Engagement at the Asian Art Museum
Most visitors to Seattle artist Joseph Steininger’s Pioneer Square studio are mesmerized by his walls of spray paint. On one wall, the full cans are sorted by tone and color in an organized grid system. On the opposite wall, empty cans fill open spaces, surrounding completed works. Like Joseph’s artworks, the studio’s colors are vibrant and draw attention.
Steininger’s artistic process begin with a photograph. All of his paintings originate from photos he has taken in cities around the world. Many capture landscapes in Seattle and New York City, but others include scenes from cities such as London, Florence, and Portland. For his next big trip, Joseph plans to travel to and photograph Tokyo, Japan.
Once he has decided on a photograph, Steininger digitally designs stencils based on his selection. Each artwork typically requires 14–24 stencils. He digitally color matches the stencils, prints them, and cuts them by hand with an exacto knife. Cutting the stencils is time intensive, taking up an approximate 95% of time it takes to complete a single canvas. He spray paints the stencils on panels, one layer at a time, to build an image with depth and intricate detail.
Steininger’s work is inspired by street art culture and his background in printmaking. He began his art career as a relief printmaker and implements these methods across his artworks. His art often shows urban scenes, including graffiti, infrastructure like bridges and water towers, and rail yards or train stations. Up next for the artist? Commissions for the Washington State Convention Center and Avenue 55. Plus, he’ll be participating in the celebration of SAM Gallery’s 50th Anniversary in November 2023.
Check out his artwork in person or online now at SAM Gallery and discover more featured gallery art and artists by following @AtSAMGallery on Instagram.
In honor of Black History Month, Object of the Week will feature artworks from SAM’s collection that explore Black art and artists. Black lives matter every day of the year, but this month is a particular opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments and legacies of Black leaders in civic and cultural life. Exploring and reflecting on the past and present of Black lives is one important way to continue to imagine better futures. Here’s the final of four reflections from four different SAM voices on one artwork and what it means to them.
Black History Month is the perfect time to envision a new world, one that is governed by empathy, equity, and justice.
Through her multi-year project, ChimaTEK: Virtual Chimeric Space (2015–16), New York-based artist Saya Woolfalk invites viewers to imagine a new reality. When you step into her virtual utopia, it invokes the spirit of the Empathics, a fictional race of women who can alter their genetic makeup and fuse with plants. Their world centers around the divine feminine, and their superpower is the ability to unite with the plant and animal kingdoms.
Woolfalk’s immersive installation was acquired by the museum in 2017 and is now on view as part of Lessons from The Institute of Empathy. There, her dynamic work is in dialogue with works from the museum’s African art collection, along with thought-provoking “empathy lessons” from the Empathics to guide your experience. Her aesthetic produces a resonance that stirs the soul. The choice of African symbols and rich colors, the incorporation of digital media, and the inclusion of sculptures that resemble spiritual totems create a hypnotic experience that transports audiences into an imaginative world. Deific figures speak to you through the movement of the images in the backdrop, evoking a sense of wonder and awe. The result is that through the exhibition, you also fuse with empathy and sense the etheric euphoria that comes from authentic connection.
Today, the immersive world portrayed in ChimaTEK is more relevant than ever. Society, from farmers to financiers, is being forced to examine business as usual. For example, the concept of regeneration, from regenerative agriculture to regenerative capital, exposes the harmful impacts of creating monocultures, being extractive, and being reductionist (on the soil and on the human soul) and offers a powerful alternative. These new approaches are proving that mimicking the ways of nature—embracing diversity, interdependence, and cooperation—are reversing the climate crisis, restoring plant and animal health, and providing the conditions for abundance, thriving, and flourishing in our businesses, institutions, and relationships.
Lessons from Woolfalk’s Institute of Empathy, like regenerative models, remind us that humanity is a part of nature, not apart from nature. That the result of a true union with nature can produce a sea change: a society where everyone resonates with the frequency of empathy. The Institute reminds us that nature’s language is love.
As Black History Month concludes and we transition from winter to spring, let’s reflect on our collective future and imagine a world governed by indigeneity (the fact of originating or occurring naturally in a particular place). Let’s respond to Woolfalk’s call to action to create a future that is inclusive, just, abundant, and flourishing. Let’s fuse with nature and shape our world, empathetically.
– Falona Joy, President of SNP Strategies, Inc. and SAM Trustee
Photo: Natali Wiseman.
Celebrate Black History Month in Seattle with these suggested events and additional resources.
In honor of Black History Month, Object of the Week will feature artworks from SAM’s collection that explore Black art and artists. Black lives matter every day of the year, but this month is a particular opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments and legacies of Black leaders in civic and cultural life. Exploring and reflecting on the past and present of Black lives is one important way to continue to imagine better futures. Here’s the third of four reflections from four different SAM voices on one artwork and what it means to them.
Twenty eight days a year isn’t long enough to commemorate hundreds of years of Black history that has shaped the world we live in. The contributions to the United States by Black Americans is everlasting; even the White House was built by Black Americans, free and enslaved. Every February, American institutions pay respects to the brave Black Americans for fighting an almost impossible battle against white supremacy to advocate for the value of Black life. Celebrated are the many contributions that have been made by Black culture: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., jazz music, the invention of peanut butter, and more. Many Black Americans find it is hard not to feel like these recycled acts aren’t performative when ushered right back into that impossible battle on March 1. This anxiety and dissociation is captured so authentically in a short film currently on view in SAM’s galleries through August 6, Howard L. “GATO” Mitchell’s Forgive Us Our Debts (2018).
Based in Portland, Oregon, GATO is an award-winning American director. GATO showcases his unique point of view as an Afro-Panamanian along with the tangible and intangible intricacies of his identity in his artwork. His universal theme is to depict what isn’t seen. GATO’s multi-disciplinary talents in painting and filmmaking make his work a full sensory experience. This 15-minute narrative film is about a young Black 13-year-old boy named Trey, who is struggling to make sense of the hate he was born into. Riddled with stress and anxiety, the almost disorienting video truly captures the chaos of being a Black person in America living in poverty. Between tender family dynamics and unsettling visuals, Mitchell gives viewers a sense of the helplessness that is left behind from the impact of racism.
Every day, Black people fight to live peacefully and prosper. As a teenager, Trey is learning how to become a man from his father, who teaches him how to be tough through the power of his fist. With generational trauma instead of generational wealth as a legacy, Trey’s coming of age is complex. A good education, livable income, providing for your family, and pursuing your dreams: none of these are presented options as for Trey. Being a young teen, it’s heartbreaking for Trey to accept these harsh truths, when he would likely prefer to live as the average American teen as portrayed in the media: discovering themselves, having fun, and getting a good education.
Society is telling Trey that he’ll always be seen as a criminal without resources or opportunities for a better life. He is forced to carry burdens passed down hundreds of years that cause him to grow up disadvantaged and affect his mental health negatively. Yet he also has to reconcile his love for his family and the hope they instill in him to live better than them. The familial responsibility along with the current and constant visualization of Black boys and men being murdered by police doesn’t allow Trey to stay in the naiveté of adolescence. There isn’t much difference from Trey and Trayvon Martin, and the film makes that clear in the shot of an officer with a “G. Zimmerman” name tag.
Racial tensions and inflation have increased tremendously over the past few years. With so many outlets and resources of information, America is more divided than ever on how to improve the quality of life for its citizens. Black Americans, and especially Black Americans living in poverty, are still having to overcome institutional racism while overt racism is on the rise. Many white Americans will denounce racism and claim allyship. Having liberal beliefs, online activism, and celebrating Black History Month, while commendable, isn’t enough. Young Black children similar to Trey continuously live in that perplexing reality regardless if people decide to vote blue or red. What can be done to help Black citizens all year?
Forgive Us Our Debts can be seen as a call to action for non-Black Americans to get involved in Black disenfranchised communities and organizations, whether it be volunteering, teaching a free class, or helping a local community center. It’s key to think about what Black history means and what can be done all twelve months of the year. Black Americans have to think about it every day, whether they want to or not.
– Karly Norment Meneses, SAM Marketing Coordinator
Photos: Forgive Us Our Debts, 2018, Howard L. Gato Mitchell, American, digital video, 15 minutes, Courtesy of the artist.
Celebrate Black History Month in Seattle with these suggested events and additional resources.
In honor of Black History Month, Object of the Week will feature artworks from SAM’s collection that explore Black art and artists. Black lives matter every day of the year, but this month is a particular opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments and legacies of Black leaders in civic and cultural life. Exploring and reflecting on the past and present of Black lives is one important way to continue to imagine better futures. Here’s the second of four reflections from four different SAM voices on one artwork and what it means to them.
There are images that have become synonymous with the pandemic years: boarded shop windows, deserted streets, protests, and tear gas, to name a few. Seattle was a center for it all, and there remain some remnants of that turbulent first year of the pandemic around the city. Still, we possess a collective anxiety. We have bruises on our hearts and souls from the images of violence and injustice; The feeling of powerlessness that came from being trapped inside and glued to our screens. It wasn’t safe to go out, but inside was a cycle of mania.
These feelings are aggressively and powerfully rendered in Untitled Anxious Bruise Drawing (2021) by Chicago-based artist Rashid Johnson (b. 1977). He portrays the anguish, frantic energy, and damage of the upheavals of 2020 with sustained, forceful brush strokes until the paint thins to a faint wisp. A series of boxes with confused, startled eyes. Mouths blurred in motion. Oscillating from dense to light, black and blue. The unraveling chaos is contained by rough edges, where strokes of paint find their way out of bounds. With the same curatorial intent of modern media, we’re viewing a selection of the multitude of blue cells. All wavering, unnerved, and anxious. There’s more beyond what we see; truths we have yet to acknowledge.
The unjust experiences of Black people in America continues to be a bruise on the national consciousness. It’s often difficult to talk about or relate to, although art can provide a conduit. With Untitled Anxious Bruise Drawing, there’s a possibility of relation, of realization, and even relearning. Johnson boldly carries the torch proclaiming that the arts have a role to play in confronting the past for a better future.
In honor of Black History Month, Object of the Week will feature artworks from SAM’s collection that explore Black art and artists. Black lives matter every day of the year, but this month is a particular opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments and legacies of Black leaders in civic and cultural life. Exploring and reflecting on the past and present of Black lives is one important way to continue to imagine better futures. Here’s the first of four reflections from four different SAM voices on one artwork and what it means to them.
In January of 2016, I began working at the Seattle Art Museum. It was like going to a new school—I felt ready with an open heart, looking to shake up my norm, help me step out of my comfort zone, and provide me with something that I didn’t know how to express with words quite yet. After 16 years of working at the University of Washington, I left the stability of what had become a predictable world and delved right in. Part of this terrifying new world that I was immediately immersed in included giving a public tour for Free First Thursday, talking about artworks in our collection that I loved and connecting them to my life. My background was in communications and American Ethnic Studies, and so art was something I knew and loved, but not from an academic perspective. It seemed like everyone at SAM knew so much more than me, but I have always tried to lead with authenticity and leaned on that to guide me.
The artwork I knew I wanted to end the tour with that night was my favorite in our collection: Hair Portrait #20by Mickalene Thomas. The beautiful Swarovski crystals, the powerful face depicted over and over again, the magnitude of its size… all of those things drew me. I wore a sequined top so I could match. The piece stood out. It was so much different from everything else I saw at SAM and so different from all the neighboring art in that gallery. It felt… like me at that time. I felt so out of place, with such a different perspective and aesthetic from everyone else. But I kept remembering that that was why I was hired: to beat to my own drum and do things the way I do them. Hair Portrait #20 brought me comfort, and it reminded me that it was okay to do things differently, to stand out unapologetically and shine brightly, as a beacon of hope, light, and realness.
Thomas’s work continued to come back to me over the years, reminding me of the valuable lesson that MORE is MORE and not to be less in order to make others more comfortable. In 2018, the museum presented Figuring History: Robert Colescott, Kerry James Marshall, Mickalene Thomas, exploring the work of these three pivotal Black artists. By then I was feeling more comfortable at SAM, and it helped that I had my colleague David Rue, who had become my SAM soulmate. He and I started working at SAM the very same day, and we had a similar love for all things bright, extravagant, beautiful, and authentic. David helped me feel so much more comfortable in my skin, and when Figuring History opened, it meant so much to both of us. We brought everyone we knew and created programming and partnerships that are still talked about in our community today. We reveled in the glory of Thomas’s muse, Racquel Chevremont, and dreamed of what it might be like to be someone’s muse (David has since pretty much become EVERYONE’s muse so there’s that!).
After years of working from home, I recently made the commitment to spend more time in SAM’s galleries in order to inspire my own creative practice, which is a big focus for me this year. And lo and behold, I ran into an old friend: Hair Portrait #20, back on view again as part of a reinstallation in the modern and contemporary galleries called Reverberations. Immediately, I broke out into the biggest smile, thinking of all of the times that that piece made David and I feel like we were home. There she was: a continued beacon of hope. These last seven years have been the best of my life, and I continue to live unapologetically, unwilling to take shit, and more willing to shine bright like the Swarovski crystals that Thomas interweaves into this room-filling artwork. Getting to see a whole new generation of folx also experience the piece for the first time is the greatest joy. A few weeks ago, the UW Sisterhood Initiative came for a visit, and there was a gorgeous impromptu photoshoot in front of that pivotal piece. The mission of SAM is to connect art to life, and this piece provides exactly that: an opportunity to feel seen, and not just tolerated but acknowledged, celebrated, and seen. Unapologetically.
– Priya Frank, SAM Director of Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion
Photo: Jen Au.
Celebrate Black History Month in Seattle with these suggested events and additional resources.
With his first solo SAM exhibition, Limited Liability, coming to a close in a few short weeks, 28-year old Seattle artist Anthony White woke up bright and early one December morning to meet Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art José Carlos Diaz in the galleries of his exhibition before the museum was open to the public. Sitting around the retro lunchroom table—the centerpiece of SAM’s 2021 Betty Bowen Award winner’s gallery—the two spoke about the response he’s received to Limited Liability, the meticulousness of his practice, queer representation in art, what’s next for Seattle’s rising star, and what it means to artistically render this moment in time.
Read the full interview below and experience Anthony White: Limited Liability at SAM’s downtown location before it closes Sunday, January 29.
José Carlos Diaz: I want to start off here by thanking you and SAM curators Catharina Manchanda and Carrie Dedon for putting this exhibition together. Limited Liability was the second exhibition that opened after I joined SAM in July 2022, and it’s been a joy getting to know you and to see visitors interact with your paintings. So, my first question is: What has been the response to this exhibition. What have you observed? What have you heard visitors say while seeing your artwork at SAM?
Anthony White: Overall, the response has been great. I think people are excited to see work like mine in an established institution. My work is vibrant and modern, and I think it can be refreshing to see in a museum gallery. It’s always fun to see people stumble on artwork they weren’t really expecting to see at a museum. I will say, everyone is infatuated with my age. I didn’t expect I’d receive so many comments about that.
JCD: Did they think you were older?
AW: Yeah. Generally, people are surprised that someone my age is able to do this.
JCD: It’s definitely incredible that someone your age has a solo exhibition at a major regional museum.
AW: Totally, but it’s still incredibly surprising to me. And a lot of people did reach out to say that it was nice to have something that they could relate to. There were a lot of people that would identify with certain symbols and objects that came out of very specific time periods. It’s really cool to see how my artwork connects with people, even if in the smallest degrees.
JCD: That’s great to hear! Many people may not yet know this, but SAM actually acquired one of your works from this exhibition. The artwork that the curatorial team and the board approved is UNTIL THE END OF TIME (2022). It was really important to our team to acquire this particular artwork because it really reflects the diversity within SAM’s collections, but it’s also a representation of an artist who is living and working in Seattle. But, as a curator myself, I was curious how you’d like to see your artwork displayed and used in the future when you visit SAM? Maybe in a different context? With similar or different artworks? Is this something you’ve thought about?
AW: First, I want to say how excited and honored I am to have my artwork in SAM’s collection. It’s an incredible way to be connected to this institution for a long time. But I do often find myself thinking about what happens to artworks that end up in collections. I think most institutions either keep their works either independently displayed somewhere or they pull it into a group installation to give it additional context. My hope is that UNTIL THE END OF TIME is shown alongside other artworks at SAM that tell the stories of time.
JCD: Would you be interested in seeing it integrated into the European galleries, as having a conversation or even challenging the Old Masters?
JCD: I think that’d be a really fun conversation to have! Many of the European artworks in SAM’s collection capture a specific moment or time in history. With your artwork alongside these other pieces, I think they’d be talking about the same exact things but across vastly different time periods. I love it!
AW: I think there are endless opportunities for my artwork to interact with historic artworks throughout SAM’s collection. It’s fascinating to see how our interpretations of everyday life have changed over time.
JCD: Plus, it’s the first artwork in the collection featuring Kim Kardashian.
AW: She should be honored. Someone tell her!
JCD: I was so thrilled that you’ve gotten so much press from this exhibition. But what’s made me the most proud is seeing all of the national press you and SAM have received about the work that’s being done in Seattle in showcasing LGBTQ+ art.
That being said, the work I find myself gravitating toward the most in Limited Liability is JOYRIDE (2022). Because you have such a deep visual archive, I was blown away when you revealed—at least to me—that the format of this painting is based on Picasso’s Still Life With the Caned Chair (1912), which was a really groundbreaking moment for Picasso. But then, looking deeper at your painting, this idea of a joyride, it has such a coded language specifically around queerness and blackness; It’s almost like a special language. Walking up to this painting—even as someone who works at the museum and has seen it many times—it’s clear that there’s so much joy in it. So, I wanted to ask you to elaborate on your use of coded or visual languages throughout your art.
AW: Yeah, I think JOYRIDE offers people a way of getting to know me, my practice, and my experiences that my other works may not do so much. There is a slightly discreet symbolism and language that I’m using in this work and that has led to the invention of an entirely new way of speaking within my practice, I think.
I don’t like to spoon-feed people and give them only one way to see, think, and interpret my work. For example, JOYRIDE includes a sticker that says ‘cruisin’ that can be interpreted in two totally different ways. You could either think about it within the context of hard culture and vehicle cruising, or think about it as speaking toward a homoerotic experience, activity, or participatory event. So, the decision to interpret pieces and little details like those throughout my work is ultimately up to the viewer.
JCD: I can definitely see the nature of the symbolism you’re talking about. I think there’s also this playfulness with the inclusion of the Lisa Frank stickers and the young anime woman in red. And, in looking at all the works in this gallery, I think you once told me that you make one self portrait per year. Is that true?
AW: It is true.
JCD: Can you talk about the origins of this tradition? How is your process of depicting yourself different from that of the rest of your work?
AW: Every year, there comes a month where I feel an unrelenting need to get my feelings and the way I’m seeing myself onto a canvas. It’s been a very strict practice that I’ve had for the past five years. I think it’s just as important to depict myself within a specific period of time as it is to depict the cultural objects and symbols that define it.
My self-portraits are also a bit more dramatic than my other works. I feel more comfortable and honest with the subject since it’s myself. In HYPNOSIS (2022), I’m lying horizontally on my stomach, staring deep into the void.
JCD: The void being the cellphone.
AW: Yes, It’s that constant endless rabbit hole that we all get sucked into these days. I think this was a pretty daring piece to execute and I didn’t want to inaccurately represent someone else with a piece like this.
JCD: The subject is you but I think the work is really representative of all of us today. It’s a beautiful piece.
You’ve had many people ask you about your complex process. When I first saw your work, I thought they were textile-based. They almost looked like quilted pieces of material—even your self portrait. I know you’ve talked about your use of melted coils of colored plastics quite a bit but I think it’s a very revolutionary medium—I think it’s called polylactic acid. The device you use to paint is very meticulous too. You’ve mentioned that it can take over a hundred hours to complete a single painting.
AW: It can. Sometimes longer.
JCD: But you’ve also previously mentioned that there is a sort of intuition to creating your paintings; that it’s an organic process. How do you balance the strict boundaries of using polylactic acid with your organic, or intuitive, process?
AW: There are definitely some set boundaries with the process. The methods I use to melt the plastic and draw lines on my canvas are very specific. But, there’s also this sort of synthetic or artificial nature to it that I find complementary to what I want to represent on each panel. That was really fun to stumble on at the very beginning of my practice. Although everything is very systematic, there’s a natural intuition that comes into play the more I work with this medium. Like an oil painter, I create my own palette for each work.
JCD: Your use of this medium is incredible. There’s an intense satisfaction that I think everyone receives from seeing your work in person. Have you faced any challenges with the digital life of your work? It’s interesting because you source so much content from the digital world in your art, and now that art is part of our collective digital archive. Is this something you’ve thought about?
AW: There are challenges with not being able to translate my works accurately in a digital image. As we move forward in our technological world, there may be a time when our methods of documentation of works such as my own are displayed differently. But there is so much satisfaction with seeing my, and all, paintings in person.
That’s not to say I want my work to be an exclusive viewing experience—I want anyone and everyone who wants to see my work to see it! But, I’ve heard many people say they had no idea of the meticulousness of my art until they saw it in person. Only then do they understand how much complexity there is within each of my works. You can see the evidence of my hand, every line that I make, what direction I led my pen, and the decisions I made with every mark.
JCD: I never like to ask an artist what inspires them, but I can’t stop myself this time. What is actually inspiring you right now?
AW: At this specific moment? A lot of podcasts.
JCD: I wouldn’t have guessed that.
AW: Of course, my main influences are social media, but a lot of the things I listen to while working are podcasts about white collar criminals, corporate fraud, technological advances, and the state of the world. All of my canvases are inspired by what I’m listening to and my perception of the direction our world is headed in, but I think that does change over time. One day, I want to be able to look at the archive of my work and pinpoint precise moments of my life. I’ll create a timeline by identifying certain symbols and objects across every work.
JCD: But that’s not to say your work itself is dated. It captures specific moments in time but has longevity in its interpretation.
AW: And the world moves so fast, too. So, I think it is accurate to say that some of my works are dated. Certain objects pictured within them are already obsolete.
JCD: It’s interesting to think how future scholars will interpret the artworks being made during this period in time, especially yours. That’s the dream, right?
AW: Yes, but I think they should be a bit more concerned with the state of their existence. There’s a meme I recently saw that said if you showed somebody back in 2000 how much content we consume now, they would have a meltdown. It’d be so overwhelming. Our past selves would be stunned by the pace of life today. Hopefully, it slows down in the years to come but you never know.
JCD: I’ve never thought about that.
You have an exhibition coming up, Extended Warranty at Greg Kucera Gallery, opening in January. It sounds like you’ve got no plans of slowing down in 2023. So what’s next? What can the public expect to see in that exhibition and what else are you working on in the coming year?
AW: Yeah! That’ll be a smaller exhibition than Limited Liability, but it’s sort of an extension of thought that resulted from building the body of work that’s on view at SAM. As this exhibition opened, I was still thinking through these ideas of materialism and digital culture and wanted to extend them into the exhibition at Greg Kucera Gallery. So, both exhibitions—Limited Liability and Extended Warranty—explore similar threads. I have these trains of thought that I’ve been exploring since I became an artist and I want to continue seeing them out in the months and years ahead.
The new year brings new art… and lots of it! We’re so looking forward to an entire calendar’s worth of must-see exhibitions across all three of our dynamic locations and can’t keep it to ourselves any longer. Read below for a sneak preview of what’s to come at SAM over the next twelve months!
“There will be something for everyone at SAM in 2023,” says José Carlos Diaz, SAM Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art. “The exhibition schedule includes rich displays from the museum’s collection as well as a global array of dynamic art and programming from places such as Indonesia, Ghana, Japan, and right here in the Pacific Northwest region. 2023 welcomes not only a new year but also the 90th anniversary of SAM, which first opened to the public in June 1933.”
Kicking off the year, SAM’s modern and contemporary galleries now play host to Reverberations: Contemporary Art and Modern Classics. This array of art spotlights recent acquisitions and includes many works going on view for the first time. With works by artists such as Andy Warhol, Joan Mitchell, Mark Rothko, and Ruth Asawa, contemporary artists Senga Nengudi, Laura Aguilar, and Mickalene Thomas, and emerging artists Dana Claxton, Woody de Othello, Naama Tsabar, and Rashid Johnson, this collection installation explores the idea of ongoing artistic exchange. Many of the works on view are by artists of color and many are by women artists, reflecting the museum’s ongoing commitment to diversifying the collection and the perspectives we present.
On March 9, SAM will open Ikat: A World of Compelling Cloth, presenting an immersive exploration of the complex textile created in regions around the globe. The exhibition will feature over 100 textiles made from the 12th century to the present including kimonos, furnishings, robes, and other cloths from Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. A large-scale installation by contemporary artists Roland and Chinami Ricketts that offers the experience of walking into an ikat will also be on view.
Summer brings Soul of Black Folks, an exciting touring exhibition and the Seattle debut of Ghanian artist Amoako Boafo (b. 1984). One of the most influential artistic voices of his generation, Boafo is known for vibrant portraits that center on Black subjectivity, Black joy, the Black gaze, and radical care. Co-organized by the Museum of the African Diaspora (MoAD) and Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Soul of Black Folks will present over 30 works created between 2016 and 2022.
Later in July, the Seattle Asian Art Museum will debut Renegade Edo and Paris: Japanese Prints and Toulouse-Lautrec, exploring the cities’ early 20th century artistic and social transformations. Through nearly 90 prints drawn from SAM’s Japanese prints collection as well as private holdings of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s artwork, this exhibition offers a critical look at the renegade spirit in the graphic arts in both Edo and Paris, highlighting the social impulses—pleasure seeking and theatergoing—behind the burgeoning art production.
Finally, the fall will see SAM celebrate the works of Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849) with Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence, from the Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, opening October 19 at SAM’s downtown location. Thanks to the popularity of the instantly recognizable Great Wave—cited everywhere from book covers and Lego sets to anime and emoji—Hokusai has become one of the most famous and influential artists in the world. This touring exhibition organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), takes a new approach to the work of the versatile master, pairing more than 100 of his woodblock prints, paintings, and illustrated books from the MFA’s collection with more than 200 works by his teachers, students, rivals, and admirers.
Other 2023 highlights at SAM include the solo exhibition of 2022 Betty Bowen Award winner Elizabeth Malaska; the SAM debut of artist, director, and writer Howard L. Mitchell—also known as GATO—whose 2019 film, Forgive Us Our Debts, tells the fictional story of Trey, a terrified 13-year-old Black boy who lives with his family in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood; large-scale sculptural works at the Olympic Sculpture Park 365 days a year; and so much more.
With so much in store for 2023, we can’t wait to welcome you back to SAM soon!
– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations & Lily Hansen, SAM Marketing Content Creator
“Paradise Camp imagines Fa’afafine utopia that shatters colonial heteronormativity to make a way for an Indigenous worldview that is more inclusive and sensitive to the change in nature.”
– Yuki Kihara
Eight years in the making, the exhibition Paradise Camp by interdisciplinary artist Yuki Kihara explores colonial histories, intersecting gender issues, and ecological crisis with rigor, humor, and flair. Comprising 12 tableau photographs featuring a cast from Fa’afafine—Sāmoa’s traditional third gender—communities, Kihara’s work summons the late 19th-century French artist Paul Gauguin and his works from “French Polynesia,” which are believed to have been inspired by Sāmoa. Paradise Camp was just presented at the 59th International Venice Biennale, where Kihara became the first Fa’afafine and Pacific artist to represent New Zealand.
Before her artist talk on December 10 as part of the 2022–2023 Saturday University lecture series, Haley Ha, SAM Manager of Public Engagement at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, interviewed Kihara about the ideas and process behind Paradise Camp, the impacts of climate change in the global south, and the meanings embedded in her grandmother’s kimono.
HALEY HA: You were selected to represent the Aotearoa New Zealand Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale before the pandemic started. What was your vision for Paradise Camp when you started, and how did it change?
YUKI KIHARA: I was lucky to shoot the photographs for Paradise Camp in March 2020 in Sāmoa just before the global lockdown. Around mid-2020 there were numerous articles published in the global north that described Sāmoa and neighboring Pacific Islands being a “safe haven” from the COVID-19 pandemic, due to our geographical isolation during the global lockdown. Part of this perception is embedded in the Western legacy that continues to view the Pacific region as an untouched “Paradise” that masks ongoing colonial violence. The idea of the Pacific region as “Paradise” was heightened every time COVID-19 numbers were climbing at apocalyptic levels in the global north.
The global lockdown was in a way a blessing in disguise because it gave me a gift of time to work on post-production and the editing of the exhibition catalogue for Paradise Camp while being isolated.
HH: Can you tell us how the notions of “paradise” and “camp” came together? Covering the white walls of the New Zealand Pavilion with the oceanscape and extravagant tableau photographs, there seems to be a clear visual sensibility that you frame as “camp aesthetic.” Is there a story you want to tell with this exhibition?
YK: The origin of “Paradise” derives from the biblical story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, which forms the foundation of how the West sees itself as being heteronormative where these ideas were imposed upon “others” through the process of colonialism. However, the idea of colonial heteronormativity is questioned by the research conducted by Sāmoan American artist and writer Dan Taulapapa McMullin, who found missionary accounts dating back to 1896 which described Sāmoa’s origin story of the formation of the first humans, who were a male couple; one is transformed by the gods into a woman. This story of gender transformation is something that resonates with how gender is understood in Sāmoan culture, which traditionally recognizes four genders.
HH: For this edition of the Saturday University series, we have delved into the ecological landscape of our time and its challenged built environment. You’ve shared in an interview about your experience of flood in Sāmoa and living through its rapidly changing landscape. How did these experiences shape your artistic practice?
YK: The Pacific region has become synonymous with images of unpolluted and vacant white sandy beaches that are constantly re-created by the tourism industry. They are also commonly featured on screensavers of millions of people around the world, becoming ironic and cliché in popular culture. However, those clichéd images of white sandy beaches are real places in Sāmoa with real people who’ve lived there for generations, faced with real life issues such as climate change, given that almost 80 per cent of Sāmoa’s population lives along the coastal areas. Scientific data shows that the global average for sea level rise is 2.8–3.5 millimeters a year, compared to Sāmoa’s sea level rise measuring up to 4 millimeters a year. In Paradise Camp, I wanted to juxtapose fact and fiction in order to drive home the reality of climate change from a Fa’afafine perspective.
HH: We’ve been navigating the extreme climate of our time and belatedly acknowledging the disproportionate impact of the ecological crisis on Indigenous peoples and marginalized communities. In your view, how does gender play a role in engaging with ecology and the environmental crisis?
YK: Climate change impacts all of us. 80% of the Sāmoa population lives alongside the coastal areas including Fa’afafine community. But it has a particular kind of impact on marginalized communities, particularly on the Fa’afafine community because there are things that impact us more than others. And this is what I wanted to highlight in Paradise Camp, to talk about Fa’afafine experience with climate change.
HH: Your Kimono series tells a tale of speculative fiction and imaginative histories, but also of our present and perhaps our near future. Can you tell us about this work and the サーモアのうた (Sāmoa no uta) A song about Sāmoa? How did you first conceive this idea and developed it?
YK: In 2015, I came across an old kimono owned by my late Japanese grandmother Masako Kihara where the color of the kimono reminded her of Siapo, a hand-made Sāmoan backcloth made from the Lau u’a (paper mulberry tree). This was the initial inspiration to bring together textile traditions from Sāmoa (tapa) & Japan (kimono) into a cross-cultural fusion to create a series of ‘siapo kimono’ where kimono made from Samoan tapa cloth are presented as sculpture. The title of the series is adapted from a popular Japanese song entitled ‘Samoatou no uta’ in Japanese meaning ‘A song from Samoa.’ Music textbooks for elementary school students in Japan feature the song. The work aims to reframe the Vā [relation] between Japan and the Pacific and specifically Sāmoa, taking an Indigenous interpretation of trans-Pacific identity, gender, and history, while referencing my own interracial Sāmoan & Japanese heritage as a point of conceptual departure.
– Haley Ha, SAM Manager of Public Engagement at the Seattle Asian Art Museum
Images: Two Fa‘afafine (After Gauguin) from Paradise Camp series, 2020, Yuki Kihara. Courtesy of Yuki Kihara and Milford Galleries, Aotearoa New Zealand. Artist Yuki Kihara at her Paradise Camp exhibition presented at the 59th Venice Biennale, 2022. Courtesy of Yuki Kihara and Milford Galleries, Aotearoa New Zealand. Photo by Lukas Walker, 2022. Two Fa‘afafine (After Gauguin) from Paradise Camp series, 2020, Yuki Kihara. Courtesy of Yuki Kihara and Milford Galleries, Aotearoa New Zealand. Genesis 9:16 (After Gauguin) from Paradise Camp series, 2020, Yuki Kihara. Courtesy of Yuki Kihara and Milford Galleries, Aotearoa New Zealand. Installation view of ‘サ–モアのうた (Sāmoa no uta) A song about Sāmoa’ Phase 2: Fanua (Land),2021, Yuki Kihara, presented at the Aichi Triennale, Japan in 2022. Photo by Ayako Takemoto.
Tooba (2002) is a 12-minute video installation by Iranian-born artist Shirin Neshat. Projected on two opposing screens, it centers around the image of a woman inside a tree, within a walled garden in the midst of a desert landscape. The woman disappears into the tree as a crowd of men approach, in what appears to be a kind of pilgrimage. As with much of her work, Neshat uses the grammar of traditional narrative filmmaking (her cinematographer Darius Khondji regularly works with Hollywood filmmakers like David Fincher and the Safdie brothers) to tell an allegorical story with poetic open-endedness. The combination gives Tooba the spiritual yet earthly feeling that is present in much of her work.
Originally, Neshat intended to film in Iran. In a making-of documentary she said, “we made many steps toward it… and then it was blocked [for] whatever reason.” The “whatever reason” is most likely the Islamic Republic, the theocratic regime that has governed Iran for the past 43 years. Any film, performance, or otherwise public artwork made in the country has to be vetted by its Ministry of Culture, which must be convinced that the work isn’t critical of the regime or its particular brand of politicized Islam.
It’s not hard to imagine why Shirin Neshat, whose work has repeatedly dealt with the gender apartheid inside Iran, would have a hard time getting a stamp of approval from the Ministry of Culture. The video itself is based on a novel of the same name by Iranian author Shahrnush Parsipur, who spent years as a political prisoner inside Iran. Parsipur now lives in exile, as does Neshat.
Brought into SAM’s collection in 2015, Tooba was on view in Be/longing: Contemporary Asian Art at the Seattle Asian Art Museum until July 2022, which is about when I started my position as a SAM photographer. One aspect of my job is to walk the galleries and take photos of museum visitors looking at the art. As an Iranian-American, I get a thrill noticing people examining Iranian artifacts in the museum’s collection because there are so few instances in the US where Iranian and Middle Eastern culture are visible.
I wonder what goes through people’s minds when they see “Iran” written on wall labels and how they reconcile that name with the typical images of “Iran” from our media: scowling men in foreign-looking religious or military garb, the leaders of the Islamic Republic. The Iran of today is cloaked behind those men and the opaque politics of nuclear negotiations.
That is until September 2022.
On September 13, Mahsa Jina Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman, was detained for allegedly not complying with the regime’s compulsory hijab law—all women in the country must cover their hair and wear loose clothing that hides their bodies. She was reportedly beaten while in custody and died three days later. Amini’s death sparked a wave of country-wide civil disobedience, led by women who marched into the streets and defiantly refused to wear hair coverings. After eleven weeks of demonstrations, the movement shows no signs of slowing down. The number of women with free-flowing hair in public grows every day. To me, every one of them is an Iranian Rosa Parks daring to assert her own worth—often hand-in-hand with women who cover their hair but who fight in solidarity for the choice to do so.
The song ends with the cornerstone chant of the movement: “woman, life, freedom.” Three words which when taken together, indicate that freedom for anyone is impossible without freedom for women. And so, if Iranians are successful, we may be witnessing what Shirin Neshat has called the “first female revolution” to overthrow a government.
This is a government with no room for song (for women, literally).
And so Shirin Neshat ended up filming Tooba in Oaxaca, Mexico and kept the setting of the video nondescript. This gives her work a universality that it probably would have lacked had she filmed in Iran. Neshat’s adaptability as an artist aside, the decision on filming location should have been hers to make and not one she was backed into by a theocracy that has banned her from working in her homeland. As people outside of the country use their freedom to continue raising awareness over the long history of oppression in Iran, how many Shirin Neshats are inside the country right now—rather than making art, desperate to find a missing friend? How many Shahrnush Parsipurs will never make it out of political prison to write a book that would inspire the next Tooba? And how many more Shervin Hajipours will risk their lives to sing?
Growing up in Seattle, I spent many years skipping school on the first Thursday of every month to wander the ever-changing exhibitions at SAM, picking out my favorite paintings and developing a personal relationship with them. I always knew that I wanted to be a part of creating the magic that happens when you enter a museum and experience the way one artwork can transform your perspective on the world and yourself. Through my internship at the museum, I was able to get closer to recognizable and historic artworks—many of which I have been enamored with for years—than I had ever imagined I would, as well as getting to intimately investigate, work with, and develop new relationships to new pieces in SAM’s collection.
Like a child being pulled away from a candy shop, as my Emerging Arts Leader Internship at SAM concludes, I want to look back on how transformative and fascinating working with the conservation team has been as I focused on conservation projects at the Olympic Sculpture Park and on objects in the museum’s reinstallation of its American art galleries, which debuted this October.
In the ever-increasing heat of Seattle’s newfound summer, I spent days running around the Olympic Sculpture Park with Senior Objects Conservator Elizabeth Brown as we treated the various sculptures that inhabit SAM’s outdoor location. This work ranged from re-waxing Louise Bourgeois’ Father and Son, to painting Alexander Calder’s The Eagle, to treating George Rickey’s kinetic sculpture Two Plane Vertical Horizontal Variation III. I was struck by the public’s fascination with our process, stopping on their strolls with their Australian Shepherds to inquire about what we were doing. I would stop—blow torch and wax in hand—and explain these routine art treatments. These interactions made clear to me that the public is invested in the art around them, and that this work contributes to dialogues on accessible art.
The conversation around what it means to work in conservation tends to be slim outside of the museum sphere, and I believe it’s a majorly overlooked aspect of the processes artworks go through before they are sent across the world to various museums, acquired from collectors, or have been sitting on display for months. How do we interact with artworks in a way that will allow them to be experienced in the future? Conservation is a field that combines investigation in so many different directions: the hand-skills needed to replicate the movements of practicing artists, the chemistry knowledge that informs how to interact with various materials, and the knowledge of art history that is needed to investigate the unique mechanisms of every artwork. My understanding of how multifaceted conservation is has grown immensely during my time here at SAM.
Working at SAM has also revealed to me how museums and other art institutions can work toward greater equity. As part of my internship, I attended a few sessions of the American art project’s advisory circle, a group of 11 members of the community who advised on the reinstallation. These sessions were eye-opening. I was able to see and be a part of how SAM is working to eliminate an echo chamber of only museum staff in reflecting how communities would like to be represented themselves in the galleries.
I will look back longingly on my experience, wishing I could use the XRF machine (essentially a handheld X-ray) one more time or attempt to clean a 19th-century elevator screen using a CO2 gun with Objects Conservator Geneva Griswold and fellow conservation intern Caitlyn Fong again. I will forever cherish being able to work so closely with objects from around the world. Becoming so personal with the art that I grew up visiting in the museum and investigating it on a whole new, and sometimes molecular level, has been one of the greatest learning experiences I could have imagined.
In concluding my internship, I look forward to seeking out more opportunities in the conservation field and to make sure that the art that touches us can be seen for years to come.
– Rosa Sittig-Bell, SAM Emerging Arts Leader Intern in Conservation
2022 has been a record-breaking year for floods across the planet, enveloping both urban and rural areas in East Asia, Southeast Asia, and the US. This frightening fact leads us to wonder: How do we adapt to accelerating changes of climate and crisis?
In the nineteenth-century, Japanese polymath Minakata Kumagusu combined research in anthropology and local forms of knowledge to learn about the natural world. He campaigned to preserve local forms of knowledge while the Meji government favored European forms of academicism. And he did so as a scientist and a participant in local forms of knowledge.
Today, we find like-minded contemporary researchers and activists pioneering in the same spirit, gallantly moving through our challenged landscapes, cities, and neighborhoods while centering the work of local communities and their embodied knowledge of floods. Dr. Luisa Cortesi, Assistant Professor of the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, Netherlands, experienced one of history’s most disastrous floods while conducting research in North Bihar, India between 2007-2008. During her multi-year stint in the region, she reexamined the ecological systems of the river and the riverine land to better understand floods and the complex interconnections humans share with nature. Her academic contributions to natural disasters, floods, and resource access have won her many awards, including the 2017 Eric Wolf Prize in the field of Political Ecology, the PRAXIS award for outstanding achievement in translating anthropological knowledge into action, and the 2017-2018 Josephine deKarman fellowship.
On Saturday, November 12, Dr. Luisa Cortesi invites visitors to learn about her travels in the North Bihar region while expanding our knowledge of flood frequency, considering the connections between water and its surroundings. In advance of this third lecture in our 2022–2023 Saturday University Lecture Series, Haley Ha, SAM Manager of Public Engagement at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, spoke with Dr. Cortesi about her background, her thoughts on the equity of knowledge, and what you can expect at her upcoming talk.
HALEY HA: Tell us about your background. What led you to your current field of study?
DR. LUISA CORTESI: I grew up in small-town Northern Italy. To be precise, I grew up in the enclave of the racist party Lega Nord during the years of brutal rhetoric against Southerners, and partially in the South, from where my mother had migrated. In the North, I was considered a Southerner and was discriminated against beginning in kindergarten. In the South, I remained an outsider associated with Northern racists. This was probably why I started questioning the meaning of ‘community’ very early on. Not only did I realize I did not belong anywhere, but, more expansively, the categories of ‘us’ and ‘them’ never made any sense to me.
I remember my parents as unconventional, critical, outspoken, and possessing a passion for social justice. Despite living in a hostile setting, they refused to consider themselves victims or superior to anyone but treated their situation as analytically as possible. Now that I think about it, their discussions, stemming from very different cultural contexts, were fertile terrain for an anthropological initiation.
HH: How has your background influenced your research interests?
LC: A factor that certainly influenced my current research was my lifelong reverence toward water. In the south of Italy, where we would visit my mother’s family for a few months each year, running water was available only in the very early hours of the morning, which influenced our day-to-day life greatly. Whenever we would travel north to south or vice versa, we would always stop at the main river in Italy, the Po, just to admire its magnitude and revel in its grandiosity. I also lived through different floods and other water troubles that inspired my future research. For example, I remember walking through a mud flood accompanied by a major blackout during my college years—although these were nowhere near as catastrophic as the major floods I lived through while in India.
HH: What was it like working with diverse communities in the North Bihar region of India?
LC: I have traveled in and out of India in different capacities since I was 21. I feel I came of age in India. While with local NGOs and local communities in the region—not through international organizations or funding agencies—I experienced several major floods, mostly by myself while possessing coarse language skills and important academic responsibilities. Living through those floods, instead of accepting the first opportunity to leave the region, as well as the development of ethnographic skills of connection and understanding, enabled my acceptance in those communities. I feel deeply indebted to the people of North Bihar for what they have taught me. North Biharis, regardless of their formal education level, are not only experts on matters of disastrous water as my talk will explain, but are barefoot philosophers in their own right. This is particularly the case for Dalit and Tribal communities, whose experiences of discrimination are atrocious, and yet whose wisdom in all matters of life and environmental management is unmatched.
HH: What actions or approaches have you found to be successful in helping to break through the silos of social and natural science, as well as western and traditional knowledge?
LC: Every scientist has a specialized interest. It’s not easy to keep up with one field of research, let alone multiple. But in order to succeed, scientists need to develop deep relationships with others and a thorough understanding of those individuals collaboration would be useful. My training was unique in that it combined cultural and environmental anthropology with environmental studies and water sciences. I personally do not believe in a hierarchy of knowledge, nor in the opposition that exists between western versus traditional knowledge. Have you ever tried learning a language later in life? If so, you realize that this new knowledge is neither ‘western’ nor ‘traditional.’ Rather, it is both embodied and theoretical, and explicit and tacit at the same time. As humans, we must all deal with the challenges of the environments in which we live. Dividing knowledge of these environments will not elicit change.
HH: Can you elaborate on your thought on the issue around equity of knowledge?
LC: Poverty is not only about purchasing power and/or access to services. It is about the right to knowledge, and the protection of this knowledge not only from those who want to appropriate it, but also from those who want to cancel it. Without knowing how to go about in this world, we are reduced to pieces in a machine, dependent on the words of those in control, and unable to stand on our own, both as individuals and as place-based communities.
HH: How do you spend your free time?
LC: I have a lot of passions! I love learning new things, even if I’m not always successful. I recently began playing rugby, which I intend to continue as soon as my team members’ patience sticks extend long enough for me to internalize the sport. I also like to experiment in the kitchen, creating new unexpected combinations for seriously eccentric tastebuds. I am smitten by combined colors, but find myself most drawn to knitted textile designers. I spend at least one day per week outdoors, generally hiking, listening, or ocean gazing—it functions as a reset.
But I am also passionate about a side of my work I don’t get to do as often as I’d like: applied anthropology. This looks like joining a community (broadly intended, including an organization) and figuring out how to help it with its challenges. I work pro-bono involved with organizations focused on water and environmental disasters because that is what I am most competent in. More broadly, I enjoy the challenge of combining analytical and organizational skills to support a set of people in reimagining their habitat or work.
HH: At the Water Justice & Adaptation Lab, you use the term “water justice.” Could you define it and explain how it fits into the realm of environmental justice?
LC: In my experience, environmental justice, while useful at a policy level, is too vague in its applicability to water problems. To live with water requires a specific set of expertise: the knowledge of where excess water is stored, where to find more of it, and how to distinguish different waters for different usages. Being formally trained in the water sciences through my Ph.D. helped me to understand the water knowledge of those with whom I lived through water disasters and who deal with water problems on a regular basis. So, the term ‘water justice’ intends to combine and cross-fertilize the knowledge of local communities, scientists, and policymakers on an even epistemological scale.
– Haley Ha, SAM Manager of Public Engagement at the Seattle Asian Art Museum
Photos: Luisa Cortesi, Water Justice & Adaptation Lab.
As I write this, the first wave of visitors have finally experienced American Art: The Stories We Carry. This major reinstallation of our American art galleries has been two years (at least!) in the making and is the product of the work of a mighty team of collaborators, funded by generous grants from the Mellon Foundation and the Terra Foundation for American Art.
The multiple crises of recent years, together with the museum’s commitment to equity, inclusion, and diversity have made it essential that we question and dismantle the biases and myths that have historically driven—whether intentionally or not—our understanding and presentation of American art at the museum. As a curator of American art with a degree in European art history and a career in museums from Houston to Honolulu, I know well that the art of the United States does not begin and end with the oceans that define its coastal borders. Indeed, American art is as multilayered as America itself. More a collective of regions than a homogenous whole, the geopolitical expanse now known as North America is home to numerous clearly identifiable, yet often intersecting, communities, each of which is mirrored in equally layered artistic traditions and cultural practices.
To reflect and respond to the many-sidedness of American art, when embarking on this project we knew we needed to set aside art historical chronology and instead consider constellations of artworks from many different time periods and traditions. We immersed ourselves in the museum’s storage vaults, unearthing works that had not been exhibited in years—or, in some cases, ever—and contemplating the counterpoints they offered to the better known, classically canonical examples ordinarily on view in the museum’s American art galleries. These works speak volumes about the history of art at SAM and in this region, and they shed light on the communities that have been historically excluded in traditional narratives of American art.
My use of the word “we” is intentional: Barbara Brotherton, SAM’s Curator of Native American Art, has been with me on this project every step of the way as a powerful ally in determining what American art can and should be at SAM. Over her 20 years at the museum, she has always been aware that Native American art is American art. Together, Barbara and I sought points of intersection between these two branches of the museum’s collection and for the first time envisioned a space in which they would intersect. Our work has been bolstered by a host of individuals—three artists, four interns, 11 advisors, and just about every museum department—all of whom brought knowledge that not only greatly enriched the project, but also established a collaborative model that will continue to shape exhibition planning at SAM.
All of us are delighted to share The Stories We Carry with you! In our new galleries, you will see old favorites alongside new and unexpected surprises that show how ideas persist across time and space and how history resonates in the present. And you will find curatorial interpretation (labels and wall texts) together with video clips from artists and experts—“living labels”—whose wisdom and perspective adds nuance to the objects on view. I’m also thrilled by the in-depth exhibition website, which brings you into the process with a project timeline, quotes, photos, and inspiring videos featuring our collaborators sharing their perspectives.
The Stories We Carry has definitely been a rich and rewarding journey. We invite you to now make it your story.
– Theresa Papanikolas, SAM Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art
This week, SAM will enthusiastically reopen its American art galleries, revealing new perspectives on our collection, commissioned work from celebrated Northwest artists, and paintings restored by our conservation team. But the purpose of this update is much more significant than simply presenting a new array of must-see art.
This project, funded primarily by the Mellon Foundation and the Terra Foundation for American Art, has been an energizing, collaborative, and thoughtful exploration of what American art is today. To execute this examination, we assembled a paid advisory circle of 11 community leaders and artists to provide valuable feedback as we reinterpret our collection to meet the present moment and acknowledge the evolving definition of American art.
“With inclusivity as one of our values, we felt the urgency to take the collection and hold it accountable to that mission,” says Theresa Papanikolas, SAM’s Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art.
The new galleries, titled American Art: The Stories We Carry, will present the collection thematically and across time periods and feature works by nationally renowned local and national artists long overdue for closer examination within the American context. This includes moving objects from SAM’s Native American art collection into the American art galleries—previously dominated by the work of white artists—for the first time.
“We acknowledge that we must change all aspects of our practice as an institution of privilege and one that cares for the belongings of others,” says Barbara Brotherton, SAM’s Curator of Native American Art.
Also on view will be newly commissioned works by Native artists Wendy Red Star (Apsáalooke) and Nicholas Galanin (Tlingit/Unangax̂), a themed gallery curated by Seattle artist Inye Wokoma, and a dedicated gallery for rotating series of temporary installations exploring fresh perspectives on American art. The first of these installations will feature 15 prints from Jacob Lawrence’s series The Life of Toussaint L’Ouverture.
Visit American Art: The Stories We Carry at SAM’s downtown location beginning October 20 and experience a more thorough representation of the past, present, and future of American art.
– Kat Bryant Flaherty, SAM Director of Marketing & Communications
This article first appeared in the July through September 2022 article of SAM Magazine and has been edited for our online readers. Become a SAM member today to receive our quarterly magazine delivered directly to your mailbox and other exclusive member perks.
SAM is now in search of passionate and outgoing volunteers to help in all aspects of the museum’s operations. SAM volunteers support the museum and its programming through their love of sharing art experiences with visitors, staff, and each other. Volunteer responsibilities include welcoming visitors at SAM’s downtown location, leading tours at the Olympic Sculpture Park, making art with families at the Seattle Asian art Museum, researching our collections, and more!
But, don’t just take it from us, hear it directly from a SAM volunteer! Kimber Bang, a longtime volunteer with over 1,300 hours of service donated since 2013, about her experiences as a SAMbassador, libraries volunteer, and member of SAM’s Volunteer Association Executive Committee spoke with SAM about why everyone should become a SAM volunteer.
Being a SAM volunteer for the past several years has led me to develop a new appreciation for museums and how they operate. Having no previous or formal arts education, it is a rare and enriching educational experience to receive training by SAM curators and staff on ongoing exhibitions and installations. The staff are always very friendly, knowledgeable, and helpful, and I always look forward to coming in and seeing their familiar faces. It’s been a treat to engage with visitors and staff while roaming the galleries and being one of the first to see all of the fabulous art on view.
As a volunteer, I also hear about upcoming programming before anyone else and get to attend for free. It is easy to plan ahead and join in in all of the great activities the museum has to offer. I have attended several events including SAM Remix, Party in the Park, curator lectures, and opening night celebrations. I encourage everyone to consider becoming a SAM volunteer and immerse themselves in Seattle’s arts community.
– Kimber Bang, 2013–2022 SAM Volunteer
– Danie Allinice, SAM Manager of Volunteer Programs
Priya Frank, Director for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, and Jason Porter, Kayla Skinner Deputy Director for Education and Public Engagement, are both inspiring and passionate leaders at the Seattle Art Museum. But they have something new in common: they are both recently published authors of their first books! From independent publisher Rowman & Littlefield, their books explore topics related to their expertise of engagement and equity. Here, they talk about their books, the partners they worked with, and why they wanted to take on the daunting task of creating guidebooks for the museum of the future.
PRIYA FRANK: Jason, I don’t know about you but publishing my first book was intense! And so rewarding. Why did you want to do your book?
JASON PORTER: The idea for Museum Education for Today’s Audiences: Meeting Expectations with New Models came all the way back in 2016 during a phone call I had with my co-editor, Mary Kay Cunningham, when I lived in San Diego. We were both working closely with teams of museum educators and grappling with the challenges of training educators in the myriad ways we wanted them prepared to lead groups, hold space for difficult conversations about topics such as race and decolonization, and meet the needs of diverse learners. It had been more than a decade since a similar book of techniques, tools, and methodology had been published about museum education, so we thought it was time for a new one.
Our focus for this book was primarily on how current visitor needs and interests have shifted our thinking about creating programs, training staff, employing technology, serving diverse audiences, the labor of museum work, and evaluation. We sought out museum educators who had experiences in multiple disciplines, represented locations across the country, and served at various levels of responsibility and leadership to think about how their current practice reflected current audience needs. We invited these practitioners to share practical strategies, program examples, and innovative techniques that would provide museum educators with provocative ideas, resources, and tools to improve their work with audiences.
Phew! OK, tell me about why you wanted to do your book.
PF: I did it because I never imagined myself doing it. I didn’t know anyone else that had edited a book before, and it was something that scared and thrilled me at the same time. When Theresa Sotto (my co-editor) told me about the project and asked me to co-edit this book with her, I couldn’t say no! To have two women of color, daughters of immigrants, at the helm of something so potentially powerful was a draw that I couldn’t refuse. Also the field of equity, diversity, and inclusion obviously exploded over the last few years, and as a practitioner I wanted to capture this moment and recognize the work and people that are paving the way for museums of the future. That’s how From Small Wins to Sweeping Change: Working Together to Foster Equity, Inclusion, and Antiracism in Museums came to be.
But let’s get into the stuff they don’t tell you when you write your first book. What were some of the challenges in being a first-time editor or in editing this book during such turbulent times?
JP: I think the biggest challenge was time: having a full-time job, a family, being politically active, supporting friends and family during the stress of the pandemic, all of which had to be balanced with the required “butt in seat” time I need to read the chapters over and over again, communicate with authors and editors, and write two chapters ourselves. It was difficult at times. Plus, we had engaged (and gotten commitments from) authors in January 2020, so when the pandemic went into full swing, we had a number of people who’d lost their jobs or had to move home to take care of family members, and others who felt the topic of their initial article was likely to not be relevant to readers with museums closed and all sorts of programming on hold. Thankfully, we had a lot of support from our own families and from our authors, who found ways to pivot, graciously received our feedback, and met deadlines (mostly!) so we could pull the book together. But I think I will probably never do it again! What about you, what were your challenges?
PF: Saying yes to something you have never done before means you don’t know what you don’t know…until you are in it! One of the most difficult parts was realizing the inequities that are so entrenched in the publishing world. The amount of hours, labor, expertise, money, blood, sweat, and so many tears in trying to figure out how to do this without much support was disheartening. But it forced Theresa and I to figure it out, take on what we could, let go of what we couldn’t control and take it step by step. It brought us closer, and she will forever be someone that I treasure and hold as a dear mentor and friend.
JP: OK, back to the fun stuff. What topics or subjects were addressed in the book that you feel are highlights of the project?
PF: Gosh, I feel so connected to each section of the book in a different way, for different reasons. But the way in which we organized it feels like there’s a little something for everyone, and although museums are the focus, we intentionally wanted to make it accessible for folx working in other fields to also be able to find value in it as well. When we went through all of the proposals, the book began to organically emerge because we ended up with proposals that related to five different areas, and that’s how we organized the book. I think what’s beautiful is that this book offers a range of learning about how different groups have approached their DEAI work and how it’s truly the small steps that lead to big change. And we centered the voices of BIPOC museum professionals, which has not been done before. Because we are the ones most often catalyzing real change!
What were the highlights for you?
JP: The field of museum education is reckoning with how to remain relevant in light of rapidly shifting demographics of audiences, competing leisure-time activities, and the expansion of virtual learning formats and digital tools. Perhaps more importantly, as institutions that people trust to tell the truth, we feel called to create learning experiences that acknowledge and respond to the urgent issues of our times—racial justice, climate change, migration, issues of equity and access—and to use our established collections and formats to do so.
Some of the ways these ideas are addressed in our book include Melanie Adams’s and Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell’s chapter about Critical Race Theory as a guidepost for museum programming. The chapter offers an approach for educators working with communities and wondering how to make museum work relevant and centered in lived experiences for BIPOC audiences. Similarly, Teresa Valencia’s chapter makes a case for cultural competency as a central museum education tool in working with communities. Beth Redmond-Jones’ chapter touches on issues of museum access for neurodivergent visitors, and Jayatri Das’s and Mikey Maley’s chapter provides a variety of ways for educators to think about brain science and learning in creating museum programs.
Ultimately, the ways we educate within and beyond the museum setting have evolved in response to knowledge of how our audience learns, human development, and societal transformation. Museum education is no longer monolithic, with a typical tour or classroom activity as the sole methodology that facilitators use to engage visitors. Our book tried to grapple with many issues that reflect a field in transition and start the conversation among educators about how they can incorporate these ideas in their own settings.
I think a lot of this will relate to my next question… In 2020, lots of museums made commitments toward racial justice and Black Lives Matter. How did your book respond to this and the other crises in the field?
PF: I feel like this book is almost like a time capsule of what has happened over the last few years in terms of equity work in museums. Many of the stories told were things that were in place prior to 2020 but were activated and grown after summer 2020. And it’s fascinating to see the approaches that different museums took and the care with which staff mobilized from all positions of power in an effort to make change happen from where they were. That is reflected throughout the book and is represented through efforts written about by the Discovery Museum, the Pacific Science Center here in Seattle, and the National Gallery of Art. The book also recognizes the challenges of this time, the tensions of power dynamics, structural and institutional inequities that can slow growth and progress, and the toll that it has taken for the staff that are taking on this work, many of them being BIPOC staff (this book is 60% BIPOC authorship).
What about you?
JP: Because of the timing of our book’s publication schedule, we were in the writing stages with authors at the beginning of the pandemic and into the summer of 2020. We had some difficult conversations during that summer about whether we should pull the plug on the project completely, ask for an extension to reevaluate the chapter topics, or simply press on. We wound up making the case to the publisher that we needed to give the authors more time to incorporate what was happening in the world into their chapters. Many were already talking about racial justice, but after that summer, the role of museum work having a role in anti-racism emerged more pronounced in their chapters. Additionally, many authors pivoted toward talking more about the digital techniques they were using during the pandemic to remain connected to their audiences and about the labor and equity issues that educators were facing as museums made financially-based decisions to cut or furlough staff.
Now with the book published, I’m thinking about how the experience of working on this book will influence our work at SAM. What do you think?
PF: It’s incredible to see how it already is! The beauty of being a co-editor is reading each chapter multiple times over so the lessons stick with me. When I’m thinking through a situation I’m struggling with, inevitably my mind comes back to the book and the thoughtful ways that the authors are doing the work from where they are. I also now have a powerful built-in network of change-makers in museums all over the country! That is truly priceless. We might all have different approaches, but our values align. I’m also fortunate that the book is a platform and tool to start accessible conversations about what equity work tangibly looks like.
How about you? How do you think your experience will impact your work here?
JP: The best part of being an editor for a group of authors is that you spend a lot of time immersed in their ideas. Like any other reader of this book, I was provoked by the authors’ ideas to reflect on my own practice and question my own thinking about museum education. For example, there’s a chapter about a partnership between an art museum and a medical school which has inspired me to think about ways that SAM might serve trainees in health care fields as well as a chapter encouraging educators to think expansively about professional development, which has provided me with a number of ideas that I try and implement with my team. Mostly though, and I say this with humility, the experience of working on a project like this (similar to any public sharing of your work or your ideas) can boost your confidence and provide you with the sense of accomplishment that can buoy you in the midst of your imposter syndrome or the tough moments when you feel stymied. I keep a copy of the book on my shelf, not to show it off during Zoom calls (okay, not ONLY to show it off during Zoom calls!), but to remind me that someone thought enough of my knowledge of this work to support me in writing a book about it, so I must know something! And at SAM, where everyone works so hard and so passionately, it’s nice to have something tangible to put my hands on when I could be wringing them in exasperation, to remind me that I, too, have something to say.
One sunny Saturday in June, the Seattle Art Museum’s Chase Open Studio, which has been mostly closed for the past two years due to COVID-19 safety precautions, sprung to life. Convivial sounds echoed in the hall, people greeted each other exuberantly, the marble staircase produced perfect clacking noises as tiny, shiny shoes jumped down them, and photographer Holli Margell made gentle coos to get the attention of little models and their family members.
The scene was a photoshoot celebrating Seattle-area tribal communities and urban Indian communities. More than 70 mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts, grandmas, and children came from near and far to sit for a portrait. The models dressed in a variety of clothing from traditional regalia to a t-shirt and jeans. Some posed alone while others gathered in multi-generational groups of as many as 10.
These stunning portraits of Native women and youth will be integrated by Apsáalooke artist Wendy Red Star into a commissioned artwork for American Art: The Stories We Carry, SAM’s updated American art collection opening on October 20. The reinstallation expands the vision of how art depicts the American experience, with Wendy Red Star’s artwork serving as a welcome to visitors at the entrance of the American art galleries.
“At the core of Wendy Red Star’s artistic process is engagement and community,” says Barbara Brotherton, SAM’s Curator of Native American Art. “She foregrounds the voices of others as a means of revealing the complexity of Native identity.”
This shoot, and the examination of the definition of American art, are examples of SAM’s equity goals in action. SAM relies on its collection, exhibitions, and artists to reflect its institutional values of fostering equity and inclusion throughout the museum and its local community.
“At Wendy’s photoshoot, the Seattle Art Museum came alive with people sharing their stories—where they come from, who their ancestors were, special things about what their families are involved with,” says Brotherton. “It felt like a moment of connecting and healing after the long, challenging time of the pandemic.”
– Kat Bryant Flaherty, SAM Director of Marketing & Communications
This article first appeared in the October 2022 through January 2023 article of SAM Magazine. Become a SAM member today to receive our quarterly magazine delivered directly to your mailbox and other exclusive member perks.
The first time I came to the Seattle Art Museum was in 2020. I was just starting my Master’s program at the University of Washington and I was missing home more than ever before. The first time I walked through Cosmic Beings in Mesoamerican and Andean Art, I was looking for home. That searching is what guided me to apply for the Emerging Arts Leader Internship—I wanted to help to create a bit of home for myself and other Latin Americans when they visit the Seattle Art Museum.
From the very start of my internship, I knew I wanted to bring contemporary art and music into the space to reinvigorate the gallery. Ancient art often feels far away from contemporary life, particularly for those from a diverse community that has lived through several colonizations, displacements, and major transformations.
One of the biggest questions I had in starting this internship was scale—how much could I reasonably do over two months? Having worked in museums and non-profits now for over 7 years I know how important this question is. I had and continue to have a lot of ideas for the space, but I am very conscious of being one person that can only do so much. The initial part of my internship was spent getting to know the Seattle Art Museum and dreaming up what can be done, what has been done, and what is possible.
Eventually, and with a lot of help from my supervisors Pam McClusky, Barbara Brotherton, and Ramzy Lakos, we scaled my project to focus on one artwork in Cosmic Beings in Mesoamerican and Andean Art. I chose a Mayan work,Relief Panels (Door Reveals) (ca. AD 550-950), because it is positioned at the center of the exhibition. Originally being a lintel (a horizontal support in a doorway), it would have been one of the first artworks someone would have seen when entering a palace or temple. Around this one work, I developed a smartphone tour, a verbal description, an in-gallery presentation, a new wall label, and educational resources for the piece.It was important to me to create and explore a variety of different ways for visitors and staff and to connect with the work and show how ancient artworks can be activated.
An important part of developing this interpretive content for Relief Panels (Door Reveals) was consulting with other experts. Mary Miller, Meghan Rubenstein, and Virginia Miller were invaluable in the help and enthusiasm they provided. For the smartphone tour’s music, I brought in Juan Francisco Cristobal, my friend, former colleague, and Q’anjob’al Maya UCLA Ethnomusicology doctoral candidate. I also selected two paintings from the Arte Maya Tz’utuhil collection, available online as part of the Latin American Cultural Center’s Maya Spirituality: Indigenous Paintings 1957–2020exhibition.
Another key part of my research was conducting an expansive review of work in the Northern Maya area during the Late Classic Period in topics varying from architecture to ethnobotany. There were a lot of moving parts in this project and learning how to balance everything was an interesting challenge that I would not have been able to do without the support of SAM staff.
The opportunity to engage with an artwork that is a part of my heritage has been one of the most meaningful experiences of my internship. Hope, pride, identity, memory, and healing are just a few words that come up for me; they are integral ideas that underlie everything I created. I hope that I made my community and family proud, and that the content I developed for Relief Panels (Door Reveals) can serve as a bridge to inspire all of SAM’s visitors. I hope everyone visits Cosmic Beings and spends time with its art, engages with the smartphone tour, and considers how the art connects to the thriving Latin American community today.
– Lena Ishel Rodriguez, SAM Emerging Arts Leader Intern
In July, the Seattle arts community lost an influential leader, dedicated arts advocate, and SAM Honorary Trustee, Thomas Walker Barwick (1929–2022). For almost 50 years, Tom was a generous supporter within the SAM family, joining as a member in the 1970s and serving as a Trustee since 1992. From his leadership in founding SAM’s American art program to his continuous wise counsel, Tom’s unshakable commitment transformed SAM into the institution it is today.
As a prominent collector in American art, Tom approached his collection with a scholarly passion and an instinct for the extraordinary. Alongside his late wife Ann, he spent half a century acquiring seminal works from 19th and early 20th century American artists. Together, the Barwicks were a pioneering force, always eager and determined to connect Seattle and SAM with great art.
Tom was instrumental in the acquisition of some of SAM’s most iconic American works, including Raphaelle Peale’s Still Life with Strawberries and Ostrich Egg Cup and Albert Bierstadt’s stunning landscape Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast. In 2007, Tom solidified American art’s legacy at SAM for years to come by endowing the program’s curatorship as the Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art.
“Tom’s passion for and dedication to American art was a driving force behind the formation of SAM’s American art program,” said Theresa Papanikolas, SAM Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art. “He had a remarkable ability to connect people with the artists he loved. His eye for quality and significance was keen, and his personal art collection is exquisite. Tom was a great friend to the museum, and his legacy lives on in our continued commitment to American art.”
With endless enthusiasm and remarkable generosity, Tom uplifted our community with the art that inspired him. We are forever grateful.
SAM’s Gardner Center for Asian Art and Ideas presents the 2022–23 season of the Saturday University Lecture Series, with nine talks by leading scholars exploring the social power of architecture. Renée Cheng, Dean of the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington and a catalyst for advocating diversity and inclusion in the field, kicks off the series on Saturday, September 10 at the Seattle Asian Art Museum with a discussion of cultural identities and their expression in the built environment. Haley Ha, SAM Manager of Public Engagement at the Asian Art Museum, spoke with Cheng about her background, why equity matters in architecture, and how architecture can respond to ecological concerns.
“Space and culture are interconnected—they shape and reflect one another. When we understand the cultural messages conveyed via sacred architecture, we become aware of how those messages are heard differently depending on cultural identity.”
– Dr. Renée Cheng
Haley Ha: Tell us about your background. How did you first become interested in architecture?
Dr. Renée Cheng: I grew up in the Midwest—the daughter of a painter and an engineer—and in so many ways architecture is something of a combination of the two. I always enjoyed making things when I was a child. I did a lot of painting and sculpture, but it was messy stuff. It wasn’t like a kit of Lincoln Logs or Legos; it was clay and paint and messy things that were much more open-ended in what they would lead to. So I wouldn’t say that it was a straight line to architecture by any means. I actually considered medicine at one point, but I grew into really understanding my passion for making things and making beautiful things.
Later, I started realizing that it had to do with spaces, not objects, and my focus shifted over time to be increasingly oriented towards people and the collaborative ways that you have to work to build buildings. I became more interested in the interaction between people aligning around shared goals for occupied spaces and the use of space and places.
Ha: How would you describe your work and research to someone who has never heard of the ideas you explore?
Dr. Cheng: I am an architect and I maintain my license, but I don’t build buildings. I don’t design buildings. I teach those that will be building buildings. I also study the field itself and look at ways that it could be more innovative and beneficial to more people. There’s a lot of the stereotype of an architect like Frank Lloyd Wright in a cape, working for wealthy clients, or even, you know, primarily working for a limited number of people. I am really trying to promote an idea of architecture that positively affects more people, the idea that a well-placed window to a view or a sequence of spaces that allow you to be part of a group ceremony can elevate the spirit. It’s something that an individual might be able to do, but working together with others, really understanding the different points of view that go into making a space that works for more than one person, creating a space that’s large, larger than what one person can build is really what I what I look at in in my work.
It was not a practice in the same way that an architect would practice in an office, where there are buildings that you can show and point to and say we did that; but it’s more of a development of programs and looking at ways that the entire discipline and profession can change. My work has been primarily US-based, but I look at a lot of international examples, often in terms of the way they incorporate new technologies or legal structures of financing that allow for different ways of working. So it encompasses more than just the practice of architecture itself.
Ha: You’re an advocate for diversity and equitable practices in the field of architecture and built environments. Can you briefly describe built environments in both research and practice? And what role does diversity, equity, and inclusion play in it?
Dr. Cheng: Built environments really include all of the areas that are not natural, that are actively built by shaping of land and the infrastructure. It includes smaller-scale spaces, rooms like where you woke up this morning, with a particular light condition and orientation, or the transit you use for shopping or working. The room that you were in, the living structure, the transit, the infrastructure were all planned. It’s part of a city that was planned.
Volunteer Park was planned and laid out in certain ways to emphasize or enhance certain aspects through the choice of what to plant. Some of it might have been growing here and preserved, and others might have been added. So there’s all those aspects of what makes up our built environment. They were all planned, designed, and executed. Someone had to figure out how to pay for it, had to logistically make it happen, and get all of the permissions to make sure that it would work and function in the way that it was intended.
So, what role does diversity, equity, and inclusion play, when you think of that broad definition of built environments? Historically those designers were hired by a small group of people, often very wealthy, and the input was usually fairly limited. And so in the end you ended up with some really beautiful spaces and places for sure, but also certain decisions that really negatively impact communities—often communities of color—whether it was in the placement of highways or the general economic investment in affordable housing. You had a lot of communities that were left out and negatively impacted by architecture. And so what I have worked for is to find ways to include more voices, to include more factors. When we consider what is good design and to find ways that we can accomplish them effectively, not only economically but with sustainable and good practices.
Ha: In the past, architecture has been viewed as a male-dominated field. As an Asian American architect and a woman of color, what challenges have you faced in the field?
Dr. Cheng: There is a definite stereotype of architecture as a male-dominated field and definitely the dominant culture is white males; if you look across the leaders and award winners, they tend to be white men, especially in America. In my experience as a Asian American architect, I’m the first woman dean of the college. I’m the first person of color. But I’ve also been the first or often the only designer or practicing architect in a group of academics, academic architects, or woman in a very dominant technology-related field. So, quite often these are even more white male dominated than the general population of architects. I’ve definitely experienced being the only woman in the room. This can have some positives in that you get noticed, and some negatives in that you get scrutinized, or you sometimes feel like you’re speaking for an entire group and can be tokenized.
I’ve been committed to increasing the number of women in architecture in particular since I was in school. I had an experience when I was in graduate school, where our class was composed of about 30% women who went on to do amazing things like become firm leaders, these women were just really incredible. And there was a time in our graduate studies where there were no women faculty on a fairly large faculty group. And we talked to the dean about this, and his response was: there were no qualified women to hire for teaching, and that statement was so shocking to me, and made me renew a commitment that I think I hadn’t articulated before then to change that by setting up systems and programs that mentor and initiate faster pathways through the education and the professions for women and other identities that were underrepresented in the field.
A lot of the work that I do is centered on the experience I had in graduate school, of feeling like there’s got to be another way. It’s not that there were no qualified women. It’s that they were not easy to find, or that they weren’t retained, promoted, and made visible. Because I knew that my female classmates had a lot to offer. We were probably losing a lot of amazing input as well by not having the role models to help us succeed in our field.
Ha: What are some of the biggest challenges for ecological issues of our time, and how can architecture play a role in solutions?
Dr. Cheng: Worldwide, buildings are forty percent of the energy consumption and they can make up eighty percent of what goes to our landfills through construction and demolition processes. You can say that you know buildings and cities bear a disproportionate share of energy consumption, and also they have a disproportionate responsibility of being a solution to the problem.
Let’s use embodied carbon, for example: the carbon that is used while you produce a building, maintain a building, and disassemble a building. It’s actually a more sophisticated way of thinking, not just of the cost of your electric bill for your air conditioning. Or consider a materials decision, and how much transportation it takes to transport this piece of wood from a place that maybe doesn’t have natural forests. Would concrete be a more economic, ecologically, and carbon-reducing choice? So, it gets pretty complicated, pretty fast, but the overall impact of the development on sustainability and climate is really pretty clear. Architects, building contractors, real estate developers, and landscape architects, we all bear a disproportionate responsibility for climate solutions, because the product of our work bears a disproportionate share of the energy consumption.
Ha: This Saturday University lecture series is focused on sacred spaces in urban settings; I’m interested in the collaborative work between UW’s College of Built Environments and the Nehemiah Initiative for faith-based congregations and the communities they serve in the Central District. It seems to have been vital for these places to survive the socioeconomic challenges in the historically black neighborhood. Can you tell us more about this collaborative effort and how this initiative played a role?
Dr. Cheng: This project is a multi-year commitment to the Nehemiah Initiative, which is a group of Black churches in the Central District of Seattle who are working together to promote their beloved community. Our college hosts a series of studio classes where students work with church leaders and community members to study the potential for church property to be developed in ways that provide housing and community spaces that can support the Black community.
We have an interdisciplinary team of faculty and I teach about the intercultural aspects of working across differences. The differences that I focus on for the class include disciplinary differences in how an urban planning student and a real estate student might think about the best use of the land. It also includes how our students can work with a Black faith-based community while bringing in their own experiences and expertise in respectful and effective ways.
– Haley Ha, SAM Manager of Public Engagement at the Asian Art Museum
Photo: Renée Cheng, dean of the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington. Image courtesy of Sean Airhart, NBBJ.
In the Greenwood neighborhood of Seattle, artist James Ellingboe has built a beautiful artist studio in his garage. The studio is filled with a wide array of machines and tools, custom-built to create sculptures inspired by math, science, and the natural world from a variety of materials.
Ellingboe has always built things, initially starting with found materials. He learned to weld during high school and created his first metal sculpture in 2004. He now commonly works with mild steel, stainless steel, bronze, and wood, and just recently began creating artworks with clay. He is constantly seeking new ways to manipulate materials in order to give form to his ideas.
Ellingboe’s sculptures explore botanical and scientific themes, often relating to cellular structures and cellular organisms. Examples of this can be seen in the sculptures in his Diatom series. The rounded sculptures in this series are a geometric manipulation of an abstracted form inspired by single-celled organisms called diatoms. The large-scale sculptures from this series are unique, while the smaller-scale sculptures are created in a limited edition of five works and sold at SAM Gallery.
Another series of artworks, titled Fractals, is created from the repetition and manipulation of a simple shape to describe the space inspired by molecular geometries. An artwork from this series, Emergence, is inspired by perennial plants breaking dormancy. The green leaves of the plant are formed by repeated triangles, reaching upwards. He creates artworks like Emergence as a unique monumental sculpture at seventeen feet tall, as well as a limited edition of five smaller sculptures standing at eight and a half inches tall. Another artwork from this series, Nebula, is inspired by nebulous cloud formations in space. Blue triangles are repeated to echo the giant clouds of dust and gas. The large-scale sculpture is fifty-two inches tall, while the limited edition smaller-scale works stand small at thirteen inches tall.
Added in January 2022, James Ellingboe is one of the most recent additions to SAM Gallery’s artist roster. His large-scale and small-scale sculptures will be featured at SAM Gallery this October alongside artworks by Harold Hollingsworth. See his artwork on view at SAM Gallery in the coming months or browse his SAM artist page to get a sneak peek at what’s to come.
This week’s SAM Object of the Week was written by University of Washington student Ji In following a presentation given by SAM Assistant Curator of South Asian Art Natalia Di Pietrantonio to the class “Gender and the Hindu Goddess” in the spring of 2022. This essay has been edited from its original form by SAM staff for brevity but the overall content remains the same.
Painted in 1986 by Baua Devi, Kali, as the title explains, is a portrait of the Hindu goddess Kālī. Most recently on view in Embodied Change: South Asian Art Across Timeat the Seattle Asian Art Museum, this artifact is a medium sized painting made on paper with ink and color. This essay will explore the format and iconography of the painting that illustrates the goddess’s benevolent yet captivating assertion of power by focusing on the gaze depicted in the portrait. Stylistically, the painting belongs to Maithili art. Historical background on the art style, including a brief biography of Baua Devi, will help explain the significance of Maithili art which has given female artists renewed identities and empowerment adding special elements of power to this painting.
The format of the painting—ink and color on paper—and its technical features, bring out the intensity of Kālī’s gaze focused straight at the viewer, lending an aspect of assertiveness. The painting depicts the face of the goddess colored in vibrant and saturated colors. The range of colors Devi uses is limited to a palette of white, black, and dark blue, filling most of the painting to depict the goddess’s skin. Meanwhile, the colors pink, red, and yellow are used as accent colors to bring out certain features like the outline of the goddess’s eyes and lips. Kālī’s features are made up of mostly thick and bold lines, except for the bindi/tikkā on her forehead, suggesting her third eye, elaborated with fine lines of black ink. The overall simplicity of this painting with bold strokes and a limited range of color, allows the viewer to easily focus on the essential aspect of strength in Kālī’s glare that Baua Devi portrays.
The iconography depicts the goddess lacking the typical visual features of Kālī and mainly focuses on the eyes and her benevolent assertion of power. Some elements of Kālī’s typical characteristics are portrayed in this painting, such as her deep black and blue skin, as well as her three eyes. However, the painting lacks a lot of other features associated with the goddess. Kālī is recognizable as a fearsome and destructive female deity, often visualized holding a sword and a severed head, wearing a garland of skulls and a skirt of arms, and with her tongue protruding and dripping blood.1 Baua Devi’s painting lacks these features and focuses only on the goddess’s face with no hint of ferocity. Her typical menacing appearance is replaced with a smile aimed toward the viewer. Normally, a scary portrayal of Kālī’s distinguishable characteristics is important as Kālī’s is known to lead people to liberation, moksa, allowing people to face their fear and the uncertainties of life, while enabling them to be conscious overcome realities.1 At the same time, Kālī still had benevolent elements with iconography of her right hand in a mudra hand gesture that grants boons and assures her people to not fear.1 Such shows how it is only the physical appearance of Kālī that might be unsettling, because Kālī is compassionate to those who worship her and grants them something beyond what this physical world can offer. And possibly, Baua Devi wanted to focus more on such a benign, yet still powerful aspect of the goddess.
Stylistic Composition of Mithila Art
As mentioned previously, the main stylistic composition of this painting is that this artwork is done in Maithili/Madhubani style. Not only the fact that this painting is done by Baua Devi, who is a renowned Maithili artist, there are detectable elements of the Maithili style painting such as bordering of the painting, and usage of bright natural pigmented colors. The artwork has a painted frame that borders around Kālī’s depicted face in a pink and yellow zigzag pattern. Such framing pattern is typical in a lot of Baua Devi’s work and that of many other Maithili artist. The bright colors of the painting can also be a clue to distinguish the work to be Maithili art, which appears to be done intentionally to maintain the original style of this art. In an interview with The Better India, a digital media platform covering popular news, Baua Devi emphasizes the importance of maintaining authenticity by keeping the traditional style of using twigs, fingers, and natural pigments of colors like black from charcoal, yellow from turmeric, white from rice, blue from indigo, and saffron from marigold.
History of Mithila Art
The history of Mithila art and its various associated artists—like Baua Devi—comes from an ancient cultural region of India, located in the Northeastern part of Bihar, made up of small rural villages.2 This art form originated from their wall art depicting images of various Indian epics of many deities in people’s personal homes. Such paintings were done by a particular practice known as Bhitti chitra where Maithili women painted on the walls and floors of their mud homes.3 It also served a common social purpose which is to summon gods to bless newly married couples with love and fertility.4 In the same interview with The Better India, Baua Devi also said, “According to the custom, all the women in the village gather during a wedding or a special occasion to draw complex geometric and linear patterns on the walls of the house. The art would usually be scenes from mythology and nature as symbols of love and prosperity.”2 This art was originally very personal, kept only as a regional cultural practice, and wasn’t known to a much greater public. Carolyn Brown Heinz, a professor of Anthropology at California State University Chico, noted on such seclusion of the art until a fateful event of earthquake in 1934 that hit the area and exposed many of the wall paintings to be seen by several people, including William Archer who was a young British official visiting the area to assess the damage.4 Archer was amazed at images of the vibrant colors of goddesses with various features of the deities like water lilies, snakes, and the sun in natural pigments painted in the interior of the houses. Sometime after, a drought in 1966 prompted an urgent need to improve the economy in the area. Chair of All-India Handicraft Board, Pupul Jayakar who was aware of beautiful images of Mithila’s wall art, sent an artist, Bhaskar Kulkarni to Madhubani (city in the Mithila region) to look for female artists of the Mithila to produce paintings on a paper, that could easily be sold. Baua Devi was one of many female artists who were recruited. Heinz highlights how such movement of the art from wall to paper as medium brought many changes to the region and its people. First, it fulfilled its main goal by bringing significant economic relief, especially in the impoverished area of Bihar. Mithila art also became known to a much wider public like tourists and foreigners, bringing a cultural awareness of Madhubani, a region previously rarely visited, which brought a significant change to the artists. Most of the well-known Maithili artists were women. These female artists, who used to make no profits from their art works, now became the main source of income to support their families. Being in a fairly patriarchal society, such an art movement empowered these women by allowing them to gain greater respect and support, and to contribute greatly to not just their families, but to the greater region of the location with its economic and cultural growth.
History of Baua Devi
Baua Devi was also one of the female artists who became successful after contributing to the transfer of Maithili art on paper. She was born in Jitwapur village in Bihar and was taught Maithili art as the usual tradition by her mother when she was 13.2 Her talent was discovered by Kulkarni, the artist sent to recruit Maithili artists, when she was 19 after her infant’s death and was suffering from a physically abusive husband. Kulkarni influenced her art to change from typical Maithili art form to a place where she can be expressive of her thoughts. He advised her to freely paint out of her imagination.3 Such teaching might explain the unconventional portrayal of this painting of Kali. However, his advice to the Mathila artists might have also influenced the deterrence of traditional aspects of Maithili art. Heinz also noted how one negative impact from the movement to paper was that the art might have lost its religious meanings in order to better cater towards foreigners who have no interest in knowing its significance.4 This raises concern about the authenticity of Maithili style art and that it only focuses on the elaborated and visually appealing aspect of the artwork to attract the public’s interest. However, Baua Devi’s artworks testify to how the artist still appreciates and maintains the traditional aspects of the art by continuing to portray Hindu deities and conserving traditional art technique methods like using natural dyes in her art work, while not being limited to add her personal identity through abstract elements as well. She is now an incredibly successful Maithili artist who is recognized all across the world. Devi has won many awards such as the National Award in 1984 and Padma Shri in 2017, and her work is sold in various countries across the globe like the United States, Spain, France, and Japan.5 With such success, this new form of Maithili art has given Devi a new identity and freedom in various aspects. She found the freedom to express her thoughts through her paintings, and to no longer be subjected to patriarchal bondage. Devi often discusses how she can’t choose her favorite painting because she views Madhubani painting as her identity and says, “All my paintings are amalgamations of customs, history, and love.”2 Her statement shows how she believes the Maithili paintings have given her a new identity that has connected her with history.
The artwork Kali made in ink and color on paper depicting the frontal profile of goddess Kālī lacks typical iconographic features to instead focus on the goddess’s intense gaze and benevolent yet dominant assertion of power. The Maithili style of painting, and Baua Devi’s own personal story together embodies the theme of female assertion of power. Kālī being the goddess with power of time, lives as the goddess to many from the ancient times of Vedic era to contemporary period among Maithili artists including Baua Devi.
– Ji In, University of Washington Student
1 Foulston, Lynn, and Stuart Abbott. Hindu goddesses: beliefs and practices. Sussex Academic, 2009. “Behind Painted Walls: The Story of Baua Devi & Mithila Painting.” Sarmaya, March 26, 2019.
2 “Painting Is My Everything: Art from India’s Mithila Region – Exhibitions – Asian Art Museum.” Asian Art Museum, May 4, 2020. https://exhibitions.asianart.org/exhibitions/painting-is-my-everything-art-from-indias-mit hila-region/.
3 Rinder, Lawrence. Baua Devi and the Art of Mithila. University of California Berkeley Art Museum, 1997. https://bampfa.org/program/baua-devi-and-art-mithila-matrix-175.
At the dawn of world history God gives life to the first humans under a luminous pastel sky. This small panel, painted around 1510 by Renaissance artist Bartolomeo di Paolo, known as Fra Bartolomeo, is titled TheCreation of Eve and is currently on view in SAM’s European art galleries. While the religious content of this picture, based on the book of Genesis, would have been immediately recognizable to its prevalently Christian audience in 16th century Italy, the way Fra Bartolomeo chose to visualize this biblical story sheds light on Renaissance ideas around the role of women and the arts in early-modern western society that can still inspire us today.
At the center, Eve rises from the side of a sleeping Adam, reaching for support as she prepares to take her first step into the world. Her right hand is met by the Creator’s, who lifts and blesses her—his fluttering cloak and the motion of his feet indicating forward movement. His commanding presence contrast with her crouched pose and unstable balance, highlighting her suspended state of becoming. Scholars have termed this way of depicting Eve’s creation “emergence iconography” to stress the image’s departure from the Genesis text, where the first woman is said to have been modeled by God from a rib taken from Adam. The challenges to a naturalistic and efficient representation posed by that plot led artists to evolve this solution, which was interpreted most famously by Michelangelo in the Sistine ceiling just a few years before Fra Bartolomeo painted this picture.
In addition to emphasizing the corporeality of Eve’s body, softly modeled to accentuate the underlying structure of bones and muscles and imbued with the illusion of gravity, Fra Bartolomeo’s composition offers a visual translation of the first woman’s role as a companion and an equal to Adam that early Christian theologians had formulated in their interpretation of scriptures. They reflected on the fact that in Hebrew (the original language of Genesis) the term tsela used in the creation passage meant both “rib” and “side,” focusing on the latter translation to argue for the equality of man and woman, whose union they intended as the basic unit of human society.
This idea materializes in Fra Bartolomeo’s Creation of Eve, unique among Renaissance depictions of this popular subject matter for combining the creation episode with a group portrait of the first family (Adam, Eve, and their children Cain and Abel are featured in the middle ground) and a cityscape in the distance to signify the modern accomplishments of their descendants. Sixteenth-century Florence—where this picture was likely painted—was a city-state whose strong tradition of independent self-governance and artistic excellence were a point of civic pride for artists and patrons alike.
Here, the omission of the episode of The Fall that traditionally followed the creation of Eve in most Genesis cycles also suggests our artist’s intent to celebrate humanity’s achievements rather than emphasize the consequences of the first sin. In this respect, God’s physical hold on Eve’s hand may evoke the Renaissance trope of the artist as a divinely inspired creator, further exalting the intellectual potential of the visual arts.
While this picture offers a limited representation of humanity that reflects the ableist, heteronormative canons of its time, it also speaks to present-day concerns around bodily autonomy by reminding us of a time when Renaissance humanism affirmed confidence in the human potential to achieve greatness through free will, and in the dignity and beauty of the human body.
– Gloria de Liberali, SAM Guest Contributor & Art History Ph.D
As the wind picks up at the Olympic Sculpture Park, American artist George Rickey’s Two Plane Vertical Horizontal Variation III (1973) uses the natural elements to transform from a still sculpture to a mesmerizing experiment in movement, allowing us to consider how that movement can in turn create its own forms.
Rickey’s kinetic sculptures come from an amalgamation of life experiences and technical skills. He was born on June 6, 1907 in South Bend, Indiana; his father was an engineer, setting the stage for the technical foundation that would become a pertinent aspect of his future work. Rickey went on to temporarily reject engineering to study history and eventually art, becoming a history teacher and painter. During and after World War II, he was majorly influenced by the work of Alexander Calder, Naum Gabo, and David Smith among others.
During the 1970s, Rickey began using flat planes in his kinetic sculptures, burnishing the stainless steel planes in order to create luminosity. He rejected motorized mechanics; instead the planes are able to create motion through the combination of weight, design, and ball bearings inside of the bearing housing. The laws of physics and the unpredictability of the natural world are his tools of choice.
Two Plane Vertical Horizontal Variation III is inspected and treated annually by SAM’s conservation department to ensure that Rickey’s vision remains in motion at the sculpture park. In 2022, the sculpture was cleaned, examined for stability, spot treated to maintain an even and uncorroded exterior, and the access panels were opened up to inspect the stability of the rods and bearings. The sculptures at the Olympic Sculpture Park, including Rickey’s, require constant care to withstand weather, constant movement, and exposure to the Puget Sound’s salty water.
As a part of my Emerging Arts Leader Internship in conservation, I am working alongside SAM conservators to examine, record, and treat a number of SAM collection works, focusing specifically on the outdoor sculptures in the Olympic Sculpture Park. It is very special to have the opportunity to work directly with sculptures that I have spent years studying or admiring. I’m glad to have contributed directly to the preservation and future enjoyment of modern and contemporary public art.
– Rosa Sittig-Bell, SAM Emerging Arts Leader Intern
When a male colleague coined “so good it could have been made by a man” as a shiny new art-descriptor, artists Dawn Cerny and Victoria Haven weren’t so keen on its uptake.
Cerny and Haven met in Seattle in 2012, when Haven was working on a show at SAM on view concurrent with ELLES: Women from the Centre Pompidou, Paris. Cerny had expertise in printmaking, and Haven had a story to share: at the show’s opening event, a male painter they both knew told her not only that her work was “so good it could have been made by a man,” but “that he was mystified (with a tinge of pity) that it had been relegated to a show of work by women.”
The comment prompted the pair to collaborate, under the witty moniker DAFT KUNTZ, to reframe his words (both literally and figuratively). Without adding their own commentary, the artists ask us to consider: Should we interpret it as an underhanded compliment or a reminder that artistic and intellectual achievement is still measured by male accomplishments?
Perhaps the two are not mutually exclusive. SO GOOD IT COULD HAVE BEEN shares a certain arresting visual quality with the iconic Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into The Met. Museum? 1989 poster by the Guerilla Girls (the data for which has since been updated and is, spoiler alert, just as abysmal). The works are conceptually similar in their use of jarring statements that force the viewer to reflect on social structures, presented with bold text and graphic imagery. A component of Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met? that is often overlooked, however, is one essential word: modern. It was not the case that 5% of all of the art in the Met Museum in 1989 was created by women, rather, only 5% of the art in the galleries of modern art was created by women. A common refrain in response to criticisms of male hegemony is the classic “it was a different time,” and “that was then, this is now.” It may be true that the times they are a-changing, but Cerny and Haven remind us that we still have a ways to go.
“We all know the [women] artists that most people are able to list off automatically, right? The list usually goes a little something like…Georgia O’Keefe, Frida Kahlo, Dorothea Lange, etc. And they are all fantastic women artists worthy of such recognition! But there’s so many more out there. Our goal at SAM is to share a wider range of women that may not be as well known, including women of color and more contemporary artists, all from our collection.“
Relegating the exclusion of women to the past both excuses the history of male superiority in art and minimizes the exclusionary tactics that contemporary women artists face. SO GOOD IT COULD HAVE BEEN admonishes the very present imbalance and asserts a new way forward. The top text, “so good it could have been,” is hopeful and earnest. “Made by a man” is tacked on below like an official stamp; it’s a dark cloud, a swift gut punch expelling the air from once hopeful lungs. But it’s a necessary evil, because only by understanding the imbalance can we move toward a future where women artists are celebrated without being measured by male accomplishments. And perhaps, if we’re lucky, even be let into the Met fully clothed.
SO GOOD IT COULD HAVE BEEN is notable in another way: it is a collaboration between two past winners of the SAM’s annual Betty Bowen Award, an unrestricted cash prize for a Northwest artist to further their career. Dawn Cerny and Victoria Haven are both previous Grand Prize recipients of the Betty Bowen Award: Haven was awarded the prize in 2004, the two artists came together to create SO GOOD IT COULD HAVE BEEN in 2015, and Cerny went on to win the Grand Prize in 2020.
So who will be next? The 2022 Betty Bowen Award is currently open for applications through Monday, August 1 at 11 pm PST. The winner receives an unrestricted cash prize of $15,000 and a solo exhibition at SAM. For more information and to see a list of past winners, please visit visitsam.org/bettybowen or email email@example.com.
– Johnna Munsen, Betty Bowen Award Administration Intern
Image: SO GOOD IT COULD HAVE BEEN, 2012, DAFT KUNTZ, Collaboration between Victoria Haven and Dawn Cerny, silkscreen on paper, 33 1/2 × 26 in. Gift of Matthew Offenbacher and Jennifer Nemhauser with funds from the 2013 Neddy Award in Painting, 2015.2.1.
Indigenous Matrix: Northwest Women Printmakers, now on view through December 11 in SAM’s third floor galleries, was a year-long journey, the culmination of my thesis project for the University of Washington Museology masters program. Overseen by Barbara Brotherton, Curator of Native American Art at SAM, and Kathryn Bunn-Marcuse, Curator of Northwest Native Art at the Burke Museum, the curation process involved many hours of reflecting on and researching how Indigenous women artists are represented within museums. Western museological practices have on the whole lacked recognition of the importance of women within Indigenous communities, but women have always been a driving force of their creative practices and creations.
I came to this topic because I am Seneca, an Indigenous Nation located in Western New York. Growing up, I was immersed in the creative expressions of my people and was taught the importance of artistic freedoms and legacies. It was not until I graduated high school that I started putting together the pieces of how our artworks carry our stories and culture, aiding in the revitalization and celebration of who we are. Coming into the museological field, my goal is to highlight and promote Indigenous culture through the arts. With great thanks, that is what I was able to accomplish working with SAM over the past year to curate this exhibition.
For the exhibition, I selected works by Pitseolak Ashoona, Francis Dick, Myra Kukiiyuat, Jesse Oonark, Susan Point, and Angotigolu Teevee. Our women have continued to drive many aspects of life for Indigenous communities across the world, yet only in recent years have we seen museums and galleries approach working with a feminized view of Native arts. The purpose of this exhibition is to create a learning environment conducive to promoting woman-centered Indigenous narratives and to educate the public on histories and cultures that they may have yet to encounter. Bringing contemporary Indigenous art into an institutional setting helps reframe harmful historical narratives and highlights Native women’s current lived experiences through research that is informed by traditional knowledge and community revitalization efforts.
With this exhibition, I hope to impact the future of Indigenous peoples who work and exhibit within museums and more specifically, art institutions. This work breaks down some of the barriers that many Native peoples face when working with art institutions. As the first exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum to be curated by an Indigenous female-identifying student, Indigenous Matrix is a small—but significant—step in creating more institutional accessibility for emerging museum professionals and Indigenous curators.
– Kari Karsten, SAM Emerging Museum Professional Curatorial Intern
Historically, Americans have celebrated July 4—the day in 1776 when the 13 colonies liberated themselves from the rule of Great Britain—as its national independence day. Many people living inside the borders of this country during that time, however, were not free.
Juneteenth—celebrated every year on June 19—is a national holiday celebrating the day Black Americans were granted their freedom and status as human citizens in the United States. A common misconception exists that slaves were freed with the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 or at the end of the Civil War on April 9, 1865, but the reality is southern states rejected Union laws and kept their slaves in the dark about their freedom in the hopes that they could still win the war. Some states, such as Delaware and Kentucky, remained in a state of rebellion and continued to allow slavery. As one of the most remote southern states with a low Union presence, Texas served as a refuge for slave owners—a place to hide enslaved Africans from in hopes of keeping what they considered to be their “property.” Texas saw an influx of over three times as many slaves after the proclamation was issued. It wasn’t until Union Major General Gordon Granger arrived on the island of Galveston, Texas on the morning of June 19, 1865 and read the following words that many enslaved Africans found out about their freedom:
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
From these words, Juneteenth was born.
Still, this day in history did not end the practice of slavery entirely. Thousands of accounts from Black Americans document their continued enslavement beyond Juneteenth—some not freed until as late as the 1960s, forced into labor and isolated from the advocacy being done through the Civil Rights Movement. Despite how complex this history may be, the freemen of Texas migrated throughout the United States, going North in an effort to unite their families ripped apart by the slave trade, carrying with them the importance of June 19, 1865.
From Local Celebration to National Holiday
Juneteenth is the longest running African American holiday. While celebrated by the Black community since the first holiday on June 19, 1866 and through the Reconstruction Era, Jim Crow, and beyond, this holiday was not adopted by White Americans who have historically refused to acknowledge or fund this celebration. Many history textbooks did not educate students on Juneteenth and many Black Americans living in northern states did not grow up celebrating it. Juneteenth’s history prevailed through sheer will and a fight for representation. Black activists have been fighting for Juneteenth to become a paid federal holiday for decades. It was only on July 17, 2021 that US President Joe Biden finally signed the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, declaring Juneteenth an official federal holiday.
Black Americans have historically used Juneteenth as a day to reflect and mourn for what their ancestors lost as well as to celebrate how far they’ve come and how much they’ve prospered despite the persistence of racism. There is no right way to celebrate Juneteenth, but many black families get together, throw a barbeque, and eat red foods like a red velvet cake and strawberries alongside soul food staples. The red foods are eaten as a representation of the blood and sacrifices inflicted as a result of slavery.
While the declaration of Juneteenth as a federal holiday is a step forward in recognizing the resilience of Black Americans, there is more work to be done. The systemic challenges brought on by slavery continue to persist, including the racial wealth gap, disproportionate rates of incarceration, persistent health disparities, and police brutality. The United States still has a very long way to go in providing true equity to everyone living within its borders.
Commemorating Juneteenth as an Ally
How do you respectfully commemorate Juneteenth? As a white American or non-Black ally, Juneteenth is a day to confront this country’s horrific past and critically analyze the space you occupy. Repercussions of the slave trade still exist to this day, but there steps everyone can take to promote a more equitable society.
Read below for a list of ways to get started:
Reflect on Institutional Racism: How are white people contributing to systemic racism and how do they want this country to evolve? This holiday is a great opportunity to think about racism and privilege. Allies can research the history of slavery and learn more about the origins and persistence of institutional racism.
Learn About Black Culture and History: Study works by Black leaders, artists, poets, and activists. Juneteenth can be used as a time to challenge internalized white supremacy and have uncomfortable conversations with oneself and others.
Support Your Neighbors: Show appreciation for the achievements of your fellow black citizens and support black businesses and organizations working to uplift black communities in America.
Read a Book:
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Written By Himself by Olaudah Equiano
The Autobiography of Malcolm X byAlex Haley and Malcolm X
Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 by W.E.B. Du Bois
Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South byDeborah Gray White
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? By Beverly Daniel Tatum
White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
Check out this list from the New York Public Library with books for kids to learn about and celebrate Juneteenth
Juneteenth is a time for remembrance and healing. Americans can pay respects to the past and the enslaved Africans that built this country. Visit the Seattle Art Museum’s downtown location to see exhibitions and installations which reference this history.
In her installation at SAM, 2021–2022 Betty Bowen Award winner Lauren Halsey shows artworks in which proud declarations of Black-owned businesses intermingle with images of Egyptian pyramids, the Sphinx, and pharaohs and queens, all drawn from a personal archive Halsey has developed through research and community interactions.
Looking back 500 years, one can see the late 15th century as a major turning point in history. When Portuguese navigators first arrived on the shores of West Africa, the two continents of Europe and Africa began interacting in new ways. After a very brief period of mutual respect and commercial exchange, European traders quickly moved to exploit the region’s natural resources—including human labor—which became the basis for the massive slave trade that eventually affected twenty million Africans. The ten works of European and African art in this gallery, dating from the end of the 15th century to the end of the 20th, have been selected from SAM’s collection as examples of these interactions over time.
Three Empathics have moved into Seattle Art Museum and are a central feature to the latest installation imagined in our African art galleries. Now a part of SAM’s permanent collection, the Empathics have surrounded themselves with works from our African art collection as a way to help visitors awaken their own empathy.
A Path Forward
Hopefully, these resources can provide some guidance and insight as you celebrate Juneteenthand learn about the significance of this holiday to Black Americans. Black people have been fighting for centuries against white supremacy and oppression. However, true equity can only come when white people renounce their privilege against Black people and other people of color. All Americans must lend a hand to take action and spread knowledge to end the oppression that continues today.
“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
– Nelson Mandela
– Karly Norment Meneses, SAM Marketing Coordinator
Alexander Phimister Proctor was an American artist renowned for his bronze sculptures depicting the western frontier. Toward the end of 1896, he received the prestigious Rinehart Scholarship to practice in Paris on a three year contract. The scholarship committee commissioned Indian Warrior for the Rinehart Prix de Paris Collection.
In the fall of 1895, Proctor traveled to Glacier National Park in Northwestern Montana and stayed at a Blackfeet reservation where he studied two Blackfeet men. He started the cast for Indian Warrior there, and later finished it in New York and Paris. The model for the figure was a man named Weasel Head, while the horse was owned by a mutual colleague named Dixon. A New York lawyer, Dixon allowed Proctor to borrow the horse for the piece.
Proctor brought the lessons he learned in Paris to his practice of American naturalism. In Paris, he absorbed the Beaux-Arts style which upheld classicism in sculpture. As for the naturalistic element, he was interested in depicting realistic scenes from the American West. In this piece, the figure sits calmly above a trotting horse in action. Where they are going is beyond what the viewer knows. Yet, the figure’s spear draws itself parallel to the nape of the horse in a way that honors the spiritual connection of the two main subjects. Personal interdependence lies in the body language of them both: proud and secure.
Proctor’s appreciation of Native American culture is a layer of protection provided to historically white Western artists. Proctor’s privilege lies in his freedom to determine Native Americans worthy enough to sculpt. The concept of the Noble Savage stems from this privilege and calls this artwork into question. Indian Warrior does not find a hold in contemporary Native American representation-nor does it attempt to. It functions as Proctor’s own interpretation of Natives existing within their culture and doesn’t leave room for further understanding.
Folding back these layers does not detract from Proctor’s artistic excellence. He was a master of his craft. Augustus Saint-Gaudens, a fellow acclaimed American sculptor and friend to Proctor, knew this. Theodore Roosevelt, a continued supporter and avid commissioner of Proctor’s work, expected it. Yet, this piece is only poignant because of its subject matter. The way in which the horse and Weasel Head are both stopped in a moment in time. Admiration can fill the subsequent space. But admiration is nothing without reflection. And reflection is nothing without the impulse for more. To follow this piece to where they are going.
The responsibility of responding to Native American monuments lies with every person that views Indian Warrior. These snapshots of moments in time are a careful reminder of what it means to be valiant beyond the circumstance. Proctor’s technical excellence in Indian Warrior is made possible by who he is representing. This work is emotive and communicative because of the history it depicts. It is not Proctor’s touch that carries this work, but the themes that it reflects on Native Americans being represented by white mainstream artists. If there are accolades to be given to this work, its honor should be in the identity of Weasel Head, and the legacy of Native American heritage. Where is the horse taking Weasel Head? Or where is Weasel Head taking the horse? Beyond the space of the Seattle Art Museum, to the future in sight, for all to see.
– Moe’Neyah Holland, SAM Emerging Arts Leader Intern
Since 1985, Seattle Public Schools has held the Naramore Art Show to share the works of its arts students and to celebrate their achievements with their community. Floyd A. Naramore, whose name is honored by this exhibition, was a visionary architect who invested deeply in his community and in the education of students. He designed over 22 schools, including Roosevelt, Garfield and Cleveland high schools, and several middle school buildings.
The Naramore Art show is an annual tradition celebrating the excellence of the middle and high school artists of Seattle Public Schools (SPS). From Ingraham to Chief Sealth International High School, SPS is represented by some of the most imaginative and thought-provoking artists in this city. Throughout the works of art that make up this show, you can see COVID-19’s impact on schools, the arts community, and youth. But there is also so much hope for the future and human connection as well. As a proud partner in Naramore, Seattle Art Museum values the voices of young people, and we hope to empower youth to continue their growth as artists and people through community building and creative learning.
This year Naramore will once again be a virtual gallery on the SPS Visual & Performing Arts website and includes over 200 works of art by students from across the district. The exhibition will be on view through June 30 and can be accessed online here! Additionally, students are invited to continue sharing artwork they’ve created at home during quarantine on Instagram with #artistsofsps. Although this year’s exhibition is virtual, we look forward to hosting the exhibition at the museum next year.
You are also invited to join us for a virtual celebration of these student artists on Friday, May 6 at 6 pm. No registration is required to tune in on YouTube, stream on the Seattle School District webpage, or view on SPS TV Channel 26.
We are so grateful to these young artists and ask that our community take a moment to experience their visionary work.
– Yaoyao Liu, SAM Manager of School & Educator Programs
Image: Hannah Sheffer, West Seattle High School, Naramore 2021.