As a high school junior in 2017, I volunteered at the Seattle Asian Art Museum’s library and caught a glimpse at the inner workings of an arts institution. I never would have known that five years later I would come back to SAM and partake in the Emerging Arts Leader internship. Before becoming a SAM intern and as a recent college graduate, I struggled to identify a career direction and academic pursuits. While I was deeply drawn to the museum world as an outsider and a visitor, I was yearning to discover suitable career paths and learn about professional museum experience so that I could make well-informed decisions for my future.
Throughout my ten-week internship, I learned how to write object labels. I found myself using research skills that I developed in college to get acquainted with a group of Mithila paintings, despite my lack of familiarity with South Asian art. From speaking with professionals in SAM’s curatorial and education departments, I was able to better understand and keep in mind the intended audience of my descriptions. By the conclusion of my internship, I was pleasantly surprised by my evolving skills as a writer and in expanding my knowledge of Mithila art and Hindu iconography.
Another invaluable part of this internship was the opportunity to connect and conduct informational interviews with members of the museum, including museum professionals, docents, and other interns. While there seems to be an invisible pressure of figuring everything out in one’s 20s, I learned that each person arrived at their point in life and their position at the museum through a unique path. Many of them reminisced that they too did not know what they had wanted to pursue at my age and where they would end up. It is okay to slow down and take time to discover oneself. As I continue to discover my career path and academic directions, I was extremely grateful to everyone who shared their life story with me and offered guidance.
Shadowing both frontline work and behind-the-scenes work gave me different perspectives on viewing a museum’s relationship with the public. Behind the scenes, I witnessed the intricate measurements of displays and objects; I sat in on meetings that discussed exhibit rotations months in advance. On the museum floor, I observed docents translating curatorial visions for the public and was left in awe of their ability to recognize a visitor’s familiarity with SAM with just one look. Getting a glimpse of both sides of the museum allowed me to better understand a visitor’s typical museum experience and create labels that allow them to take new information away from their visit. The docent tours and visitor engagement sessions I took part in demonstrated how public tours are not one-sided lectures, but rather a continuous conversation among visitors, docents, artists, and curators. To put my skills and reflection to use, I crafted my final in-gallery tour on the Inari Worship Spirit Foxes from the museum’s collection while prioritizing audience engagement and participation.
As my SAM internship comes to a close, I have begun to set new goals as I look forward to attending graduate school and finding even more ways to stay involved in the art world.
– Doreen Chen, SAM Emerging Arts Leader in Curation
What do late 18th- to 19th-century Edo (present-day Tokyo) and late 19th-century Paris have in common? This was the question Xiaojin Wu, SAM’s former Curator of Japanese and Korean Art, wanted to explore when she began developing Renegade Edo and Paris: Japanese Prints and Toulouse-Lautrec, her final show for SAM that can only be seen at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. She found intriguing parallels between Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints and paintings and the work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901). The result is this vibrant exhibition about a shared renegade spirit that flourished in both cities’ urban and artistic cultures.
Both Edo and Paris were facing a multitude of challenges to the status quo from the rising middle classes. In Edo, townspeople pursued hedonistic lifestyles as a way of defying the state-sanctioned social hierarchy that positioned them at the bottom. That mentality contributed to a booming urban culture, which facilitated the massive production and distribution of ukiyo-e (often translated as “pictures of the floating world”). Many of these pictures arrived in France in the 1860s, a time when the French art world and its society at large were undergoing substantial changes. Fin-de-siècle Paris, like Edo before it, saw the rise of anti-establishment attitudes and a Bohemian subculture. Entertainment venues such as the iconic Moulin Rouge emerged in the Montmartre district. Meanwhile, Toulouse-Lautrec and his contemporaries searched for fresh and more expressive art forms, and they found much needed novelty in Japanese prints.
Toulouse-Lautrec was indebted to Japanese prints, in particular to those by Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806); he was often referred to as “Montmartre’s Utamaro.” While many are familiar with the story of Lautrec and his peers drawing inspiration from Japanese prints, this exhibition uncovers the shared subversive hedonism that underlies both Japanese and French prints. Through around ninety choice works drawn from the Seattle Art Museum’s Japanese prints collection as well as loans of Toulouse-Lautrec’s work, this exhibition offers a critical look at the renegade spirit inhabiting the graphic arts in both Edo and Paris, highlighting the social impulses—pleasure-seeking and a rising celebrity culture—behind a burgeoning art production. It is the first time the Seattle Asian Art Museum offers a double take on Japanese and French art in one exhibition—be ready to take it all in!
This article first appeared in the June through September 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!
SAM’s Gardner Center for Asian Art and Ideas presents the 2023–24 season of the Saturday University Lecture Series, exploring various topics loosely inspired by the exhibition Renegade Edo and Paris: Japanese Prints and Toulouse-Lautrec at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. Dr. Gregory Levine, a professor in the history of art at UC Berkeley, California, kicks off the series on Saturday, September 9 with a discussion about a peculiar Buddhist sculpture in the Bay Area forests. SAM spoke with Levine about Buddhist visual cultures,investigating archival discoveries, and the emergent field of arboreal humanities.
SAM: What can we expect to learn about in your upcoming Saturday University lecture?
GREGORY LEVINE: A decade or so ago, I came across a black-and-white photograph of a quite peculiar and large statue of a Buddha preserved in the Bancroft Archive at the University of California, Berkeley. The photograph is startling. It shows this statue——constructed in the late 19th century by a group of American, self-styled “renegades”—in a North American old growth forest but without surrounding architecture. Who would think, right? The photograph was taken not far from Berkeley, across the San Francisco Bay. What’s going on in this photograph, I wondered, what’s the story here? Who made this statue, why, and—since it is not immediately recognizable in the Bay Area today—what’s become of it? How does this statue’s particular story, as we recover it today, inform the sorts of stories (art historical, historical, religious, and social) we tell about Buddhism and Buddhist visual cultures, be they stories told in religious spaces, museums, domestic, online, or retail spaces? What happens when some of these stories are more complicated than they seem—not simply fascinating but troubling? How do we respond in ways that acknowledge the different pasts and presents of art and visual culture, and imagine and work towards just and inclusive futures?
SAM: It sounds like we’ll learn and also leave with many fascinating questions to ponder. My next question: Academic research often involves travel. Is there a travel experience related to your lecture topic that you could share with us?
GL: I came across this photograph not by chance but by casting out my search net widely for images of Buddhist sculpture preserved in the University of California’s digital collections and un-digitized archives (and elsewhere). I didn’t have to travel far to see some of the actual materials firsthand; the Bancroft Archive resides in the building adjacent to where my faculty office is located. The archive included other images of Bay Area Buddhas, but for this particular statue in the forest, I found myself on the road traveling across the Richmond Bridge to Marin County, to Muir Woods National Monument, and into fascinating conversations with rangers, archaeologists, and others at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Additionally, I managed to gain access to the archive and photographs of the San Francisco Bohemian Club, which “thickened the plot” in more ways than one.
I learned a great deal as well from my often naive conversations with forest ecologists and Native American scholars—and doing so, I got a sense of the multiple histories that entangled and continue to entangle this peculiar statue and its forest (a homeland), and of the need to critically engage those different histories together in a practice of art historical ethics and care. As this also suggests, this was a “travel experience” that took me rather far from my previous research and into less/unfamiliar disciplines and knowledge systems—I count this distance covered (and more to go) as a gift, a chance to (re)shape my own learning and to acknowledge others in their expertise, communities, and commitments.
SAM: The Seattle Art Museum is home to nearly 25,000 works of art. What’s one artwork from the museum’s collection that resonates with you (or connects to your topic)? Why?
GL: I am obviously drawn to the museum’s works of Japanese Buddhist wood sculpture, and of particular interest to this talk—in terms of iconography and form, to some extent—is the 18th-century statue of the Buddha Amida and the 12th-century Amida. The trick, however, is to view the museum’s statues in a kind of dialogue with the statue I present in the talk—not to somehow fully reconcile the two but to explore how visual forms proliferate, and may alter, slip (up), as they move across cultures and historical, social, and visual spaces, for various reasons and to various implication (take Sherrie Levine’s Fountain II (Buddha), for example.
SAM: What’s a book you’d recommend to those interested in learning more about your lecture topic?
GL: One book only? Argh…that’s a tough one! Given the modern context of the topic and its convergence of Buddhism, modernity, and North America, I’d suggest (and admittedly the following are academic books): David McMahan, The Making of Buddhist Modernism (2008). If I can sneak in two other titles, they’d be: Joanna Levin, Bohemia in America, 1858-1920 (2010) and Jane Iwamura, Virtual Orientalism: American Religious and American Popular Culture (2010).
SAM: Is there anything we didn’t ask that you want to share with the public in advance of your talk?
GL: It’s more a matter of what I haven’t mentioned. This talk is part of my effort to explore environmental humanities, and in particular to try to shape what I’ve come to think of as arboreal humanities. Doing so with specific attention to visual representation—how the visual arts in particular (historically, culturally, expressively, and politically diverse), are not only materially and ecologically interrelated in a simple sense with the “natural world” but are vitally important to how we understand, feel, and act, and what we value in our human and more-than-human differences and interdependent being.
Of course there is now an immense amount of vitally important (and diverse) writing on ecological interrelation as engaged in the humanities and social sciences, multi-species theory and legal frameworks, environmental justice—writing that is scientific, Indigenous, anti-capitalist, philosophical, literary, in public health, archival as well as activist, etc. etc.…—and situated into what one writer recently termed our planetary ecological derangement (aka the Anthropocene or, for some, the Capitalocene). How do those of us who focus our interests, attention, expertise on the visual arts bring these conversations into our sensory, aesthetic, and cultural experiences and our critical and ethical engagements with the arts and visual worlds and their makers/communities? What are the overlooked as well as emergent and possible visual worlds that we as artists, viewers, critics, historians, curators, educators, and beyond can elevate or envision that will act directly and with care towards each other, human and more-than-human?
– Jason Porter, Kayla Skinner Deputy Director of Education and Public Engagement
Originally from Rhode Island, I spent countless hours roaming the galleries and storied halls of Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), soaking in all of the art, and hearing new concepts. I wondered if one day I would be someone whose artwork would be up on those walls. I thought about how I could be a part of creating these special places for others. From there, I attended the San Francisco Art Institute where I obtained my BFA in Printmaking and was selected for the Arion Press Bookbinding Apprenticeship. I recently moved to Seattle for this internship from Portland, Oregon where I was the recipient of the Undergrowth Educational Print Fund, a studio scholarship program at Mullowney Printing Company. I had the opportunity to work closely with several well established artists over the course of both these apprenticeships such as Enrique Chagoya, Marie Watt, Jeffrey Gibson, and Kara Walker. As I move forward in my career, I am eager to find ways to incorporate myself into the local book and print arts community in Seattle.
Admittedly, I felt scared and scattered during my first few weeks at SAM, trying to find my place while putting my best foot forward. When I was first asked to consider the personal and professional goals I hoped to achieve, I only had questions for myself about what I wanted to do and about what I wanted to try next. Is working in a museum for me? Is conservation something I want to pursue further? Do I want to or need to go back to school? These questions shaped my conversations at SAM, and I am so thankful for the support from the conservation department as I confronted these uncertainties.
While at SAM, I learned about the education and career paths of other conservators and museum professionals. It was eye-opening to see how conservators at SAM build connections and community with other artists and academics. As I focused on conservation writing and object preparation for future gallery rotations, I am now more excited than ever to take my newfound skills into my future endeavors in the art world, whatever they might be.
I believe the path to a better world is through respect for art, the skill of craft, an understanding of people, and a recognition that art has a powerful role to play in supporting a hopeful transformation of the world. The ways in which I see SAM aiming for equity within the entire organization has been inspiring. To have this symbiotic relationship between my personal artwork, my passion for historical objects, and my political convictions is why I continue my work in uncovering hidden histories and sharing my knowledge with others.
It’s bittersweet as my Emerging Arts Leader Internship comes to a close. My experience at SAM has been nothing short of life-changing and my work with the conservation team has been a dream come true. I will always look back on this experience and my time with Geneva, Liz, Nick, and fellow intern Caitlyn fondly. I hope one day again I might have the chance to color match tissue to an object for repair, attempt to reattach a broken handle on a cedar bark purse again, or write one last condition report. I will forever cherish being able to work so closely with objects from around the world. Forming such a personal relationship with the art that I grew up enamored by and considering it in a completely different way has been one of the greatest learning experiences I could have ever hoped for.
– Samantha Companatico, SAM Emerging Arts Leader Intern in Conservation
This spring, Tanya Uyeda joined SAM as the museum’s inaugural Senior East Asian Paintings Conservator. A leader in conservation practice, education, and research, Tanya assumes responsibility for the care of SAM’s East Asian painting collection, focusing on conservation treatments and sourcing the necessary specialized materials and tools.
Her appointment also marked the start of regular activity in the landmark Atsuhiko and Ina Goodwin Tateuchi Conservation Center, which opened as part of the renovated and expanded Seattle Asian Art Museum in February 2020. The center is one of only a handful of museum studios nationwide dedicated to the comprehensive treatment of East Asian paintings, and the only studio of this type in the western US.
Tanya comes to SAM with over 28 years of experience in art conservation, including over 20 years as a conservator of Japanese paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Born in Eugene, Oregon, Tanya received a Bachelor of Arts in East Asian Studies: Japanese Language and History from Oberlin College and earned a Master’s Degree in Preservation of Cultural Properties from Tokyo University of the Arts. She also trained at an elite painting conservation studio in Tokyo. She is one of only four American conservators of a similar background working in a US institution, as there are no conservation training programs for East Asian paintings outside of Asia.
Just a few months into her tenure at SAM, Marketing Content Creator Lily Hansen spoke with Tanya about her short- and long-term goals, what members can expect in her upcoming Up Close With Conservators talk this fall, how she’s adjusting to Seattle, and more.
LILY HANSEN: Welcome to SAM! After spending more than 20 years in Boston, how are you adjusting to Seattle?
TANYA UYEDA: It seems I arrived in Seattle at the best time of year—I’ve really been enjoying this spectacular summer weather! I’ve settled into a home in the Ballard neighborhood and have been getting it ready in anticipation of my family relocating from Boston later this fall. It’s been so nice to explore the Ballard Farmers Market every Sunday and recently took a weekend jaunt over to Bainbridge Island. I also have extended family in the area, and it has been lovely to be able to reconnect with many of them.
LH: How does it feel to be named SAM’s inaugural Senior East Asian Paintings Conservator?
TU: I feel very honored to be chosen for this important new position. Before arriving at SAM, I worked at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which houses one of the most important and comprehensive collections of Japanese art in the US. Most of my work on the Japanese painting collection supported large-scale touring exhibitions that were shown primarily in Japan.
I am looking forward to continuing this work at the Seattle Asian Art Museum and contributing to the preservation of, and scholarship on, the museum’s East Asian painting collection. I can’t wait to share my insights with members and visitors alike, and to support the care and appreciation of these important artworks throughout the entire Western Pacific region.
LH: What are a few of the goals you set for yourself in taking on this position?
TU: Since assuming my role, my immediate focus has been setting up the Tateuchi Conservation Center as a fully functioning conservation studio. The renovation of the Seattle Asian Art Museum included the creation of this beautiful new workspace, necessary infrastructure such as work tables, sinks, light tables, and fume hoods. The tatami mat flooring and low work tables are what you would see in a traditional Japanese scroll mounting studio, and is what I am accustomed to from my training.
In addition to the basic conservation equipment, East Asian paintings require highly specialized (and expensive!) materials and tools, such as handmade paper, woven textiles, decorative fittings, and various types of brushes, adhesives, pigments, and dyestuffs. Many of these necessary items are imported directly from Japan and China, and are becoming increasingly difficult to source due to the aging out of the artisans that produce them and a lack of younger craftsmen to replace them.
For example, there is a type of paper called “misu-gami” that is produced in the Yoshino region of Japan and provides the flexible inner structure of Japanese hanging scrolls. However, there is now only one papermaker producing it. I will be relying on the generous cooperation of conservation colleagues in Japan and the US, as well as suppliers and craftspeople, to support me as I work to outfit the Tateuchi Conservation Center and carry out the treatments we intend to complete.
LH: The Emerging Arts Leader Internship Program is an integral part of SAM’s mission to connect art to life. This summer, you welcomed Alexa Machnik as your first Emerging Arts Leader Intern in Conservation. What has it been like working with Alexa? Do you intend to take on more interns in the future?
TU: I was very fortunate to meet Alexa and convince her to spend the summer with me in Seattle before she begins a fellowship with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art this fall. As a Mellon Foundation Fellow at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University and a fourth-year student in the university’s MA/MS program in art history and conservation, she also has extensive working experience at institutions such as the Yale University library and Metropolitan Museum in New York.
The primary focus of Alexa’s internship has been to work alongside me in building eight new karibari, or drying boards, for the studio. These boards are an essential component of every East Asian painting conservation and mounting studio. They consist of a wooden lattice undercore and feature up to 11 layers of handmade paper pasted in specific configurations on either side to provide a sturdy and breathable, yet lightweight surface for stretch drying and flattening artworks during treatment. It is a time consuming and physically demanding task, and I am grateful to have Alexa’s assistance! Building the boards is also excellent training in the use of brushes and knives, different thicknesses of paste, and the preparation of various types of handmade paper. She is also helping me process an important series of artworks gifted to SAM at the bequest of longtime benefactor, the late Frank Bayley III, as well as designing new display apparatus for upcoming gallery rotations at the museum.
My hope is that the Tateuchi Conservation Center will serve as a training resource for future conservators of Asian art, as coursework in East Asian painting conservation is not an area of study offered in North American or European graduate conservation programs. Training in this field is still largely apprenticeship-based, taking place in private studios across Japan, China, Taiwan, and Korea. As a result of their unusual formats, Asian paintings require dexterity, specialized tools, refined aesthetic sensibilities, and linguistic, cultural, and historical knowledge. In the US, the field tends to attract students with a background or interest in paper conservation. These include so-called pre-program students (those seeking admittance to North American conservation programs) or recent graduates from these same programs. Occasionally, students with academic or practical training from Asia are considered as well.
LH: This fall, SAM will launch Up Close with Conservators, a members-only lecture series offering an in-depth look at the conservation work taking place at the museum. For the inaugural lecture, you’ll be in conversation with SAM’s Jane Lang Davis Chief Conservator Nick Dorman. What can SAM members expect to hear in your discussion with Nick?
TU: Up Close with Conservators is an exciting opportunity to highlight the individuals who make up SAM’s conservation team and to share the details of our work with the public. We chose to title the series “Up Close” because much of our work begins with a close examination of the objects. We look forward to educating members on the works of art in our care, sharing our discoveries, explaining how we assist the museum’s curators in interpreting the artistic intent of each artwork’s creator, and articulating how best to handle, store, and preserve art for future generations.
In our lecture, Nick and I will discuss the museum’s long journey to establish the Tateuchi Conservation Center at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, and what the role of this new resource will be for the understanding and preservation of the important East Asian collections in the West Coast region. I will also be giving a brief overview of the kind of work that will take place in the studio, and what conservation of East Asian paintings looks like. It will be my first opportunity to speak to SAM’s members and is sure to be a engaging conversation.
Two weeks ago, we shared the news that Amada Cruz is stepping down after serving as SAM’s Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO for the past four years. Today, we are pleased to announce that former director Kimerly Rorschach has agreed to serve as SAM’s interim director and CEO. Rorschach retired in September 2019 after seven years of leadership at SAM as the Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO. Rorschach will begin in early September, allowing overlap time with Cruz prior to her departure in early October, to ensure a seamless transition.
“We are delighted to welcome Kim back to SAM, a place she loves and led with great vision and care,” says Constance Rice, Chair of the Board. “The museum flourished under her leadership, and we are grateful that she will bring her deep knowledge of SAM and her many relationships with trustees, donors, staff, and larger arts community to bear in this moment.”
Kim is a highly regarded leader with 25 years of experience as a museum director. During her tenure at SAM, Rorschach planned and oversaw an extensive renovation and expansion of the Seattle Asian Art Museum, a project that brought SAM’s 1933 historic Volunteer Park building up to 21st-century structural and environmental standards and reimagined the presentation of its celebrated Asian art collection. She led a successful $150 million fundraising campaign for SAM, which included $50 million for the Seattle Asian Art Museum project. She also launched DEI initiatives at the museum and diversified the exhibition and acquisition programs. Exhibitions devoted to Kehinde Wiley and Yayoi Kusama, among others, attracted broad new audiences to the museum.
When I first applied to SAM as an Emerging Arts Leader Intern, I felt lost. Having moved here from California just a few years before, I felt lost in Seattle and lost as a recent graduate of the University of Washington’s Certificate Program in Museum Studies trying to figure out how to navigate the job market in this new world affected by COVID-19. I needed a way to break back into the museum scene after its brief lapse following museum closures, and in doing so I wanted to experience a new field as I explored Seattle’s arts scene for the first time.
I saw SAM’s internship posting while scouring museum websites and online job boards, and was intrigued by how this opportunity stressed the importance of achieving a thorough understanding of the many roles available within a museum setting and how they all connect. I had never previously worked in a larger museum setting—most of my experience in San Francisco had been with organizations made up to fifteen people—and was excited to learn how a museum of much larger size functioned on a daily basis.
In applying for an Emerging Arts Leader internship at SAM, I wasn’t sure which department I would be best suited for. I wanted to experience a part of museums I had not yet before, and was aided by those I interviewed with on which department that may be. Eventually, we landed on the Development team. This department is composed of several different roles that all aim to bring in additional revenue and maintain funding. I worked most closely with Sarah Michael, SAM Director of Institutional Giving.
In the galleries I had previously worked in, the Development team was be made up of one or two individuals who oversaw all donor, sponsor, and member relationships. But in an organization as large as SAM where the collection, space, and scope of everything is nearly quadrupled, ‘institutional giving’ has an entirely different meaning.
In addition to the work I was doing as part of the Development team—prospecting new potential corporate members, contemporary art funders, and other exhibition or event specific sponsors; creating sponsor reports to be sent out to already existing partners of the museum; working in Tessitura and Raiser’s Edge and learning how to navigate other related sites and programs—my internship included a few other elements that provided the well-rounded experience I was originally searching for. I had the opportunity to meet with, and interview, many amazing staff members occupying a variety of roles across multiple departments within the museum—some of which I had never even considered pursuing. Interns were also tasked with giving a gallery presentation towards the end of our 11 week program. For this project, I picked two ceramic works on view in Pacific Species to research and study, then connected museum staff to help me structure a comprehensive 20–30 minute long presentation in the galleries.
Through this variety of separate tasks and opportunities, I felt connected to the museum as a whole and the many teams that work together to make it function. I was introduced to so many people who had experienced that same overwhelming feeling of finding your place in the arts world, whether they had years’ worth of experience or not, and learned of many new positions that weren’t covered in the many articles, papers, and textbooks I had read in school.
There were times during my internship that I still felt a little lost—wondering what I was going to do after it was finished and how I was going to make the transition from part time internship to full time employment—but I no longer felt alone. I had others with me who knew exactly what I was going through because they had been there too. Now, my uncertainty no longer feels scary, it feels exciting.
This experience has reawakened my love for museums and reminded me why I decided to pursue a career in this industry. As I move forward in my career, I will remember my time at SAM fondly as the experience that got me back on track to an exciting future in museums. I am incredibly thankful to SAM for this opportunity and everyone that I met along the way.
– Brie Silva, SAM Emerging Arts Leader in Development
In the Studio highlights the studios and private workspaces of local artists represented by SAM Gallery. For nearly fifty years, SAM Gallery has supported artists from across the Pacific Northwest and provided private and corporate clients with a wide range of services, from purchasing their first work of art to building extensive collections. To browse a featured artist’s entire catalogue of artwork available for rent or purchase, visit SAM Gallery on the lower level of the Seattle Art Museum.
In the heart of Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood sits artist Elizabeth Gahan’s intimate art studio. There, hyper-saturated paintings of layered natural and built environments line the white walls. With translucent and fluid colors, crisp architectural lines, and dense textures of organic forms, Gahan’s paintings display the delicate relationship between cities and neighborhoods as ecosystems and the balance they need to thrive.
Gahan’s works are a puzzle as she develops the foreground and background separately before mashing them together. In the background, each work begins with recognizable urban imagery. To Gahan, these images serve as “a jumping off point for a creative conversation.” The images are then edited and manipulated through layers of artistic elements that effortlessly illustrate the intricacies of our natural environments. At this stage, the works look fluid and ephemeral, composed of bubbles that she said, “act as the first domino, impacting the rest of the painting.”
From these beautifully imagined atmospheric forms, Gahan adds the foreground: architectural elements drawn from existing environments. In her most recent series, the structural forms are inspired by buildings found in the Bay Area and Seattle. These added elements are familiar with their simplistic building block forms and clear lines that emphasize the geometry found in both nature and human-designed architecture. Plants, trees, and organic forms are layered atop these structures in a variety of media and textures, including acrylic gel and enamel.
When we stopped by her Georgetown studio for a visit in June, Gahan was in the process of experimenting with spray paint, an artistic medium new to the artist. This additional layer, she explained, serves to further blur the distinction between the natural and built environments emphasized across all of her paintings. No matter how many layers Gahan chooses to incorporate in a work, the final result always makes clear the interconnected nature of our urban ecosystems.
View a few of Elizabeth Gahan’s available artworks now on SAM Gallery’s featured sliding wall or online. Stay up to date on the artist’s upcoming projects at SAM Gallery—including an October 2023 exhibition featuring all new works—by following gallery manager Erik Bennion on Instagram at @atSAMGallery.
With deep gratitude and sincere appreciation, we bid farewell to Amada Cruz, SAM Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO, after four years of leadership at the museum.
Amada joined SAM in September 2019 and led the museum through what may be one of the most challenging periods in its 90 year history: the global COVID-19 pandemic and sudden closure of its three sites. Thanks to her tenacious leadership throughout this time the museum prioritized supporting its staff and created online experiences for the communities it serves to continue to engage with the museum. As the pandemic abated, her focus shifted to carefully reopen its sites to the public while maximizing the safety of both staff and visitors. SAM came through it stronger, with steady financial recovery, the return of audiences to its galleries and programs, and a renewed commitment to its mission to connect art to life.
Although the global pandemic was the undercurrent during much of Amada’s time at SAM, it did not define her tenure. During these unprecedented and complicated times, her achievements have been many. Under her leadership the museum ushered in many significant new initiatives and reached milestone moments including:
In July 2020, the museum created a board-staff Equity Task Force to respond to the urgency of the moment and align around support for Black lives. This task force worked to establish a set of priorities across all departments and build a roadmap for the museum to be more equitable, diverse, and inclusive museum. In 2021, that task force became a board committee to shepherd these ongoing efforts.
In August 2020, SAM’s first-ever Director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion was identified. This executive role shapes the museum’s priorities, partnerships, communications strategies, and audience-engagement efforts to move SAM towards a more equitable future.
SAM’s acquisitions strategy brought in even more works by Black, Indigenous, and artists of color as well as women into its global collection.
The transformation of SAM’s American art galleries, funded primarily by a $1 million grant from The Mellon Foundation. An unprecedented collaboration among SAM curators and staff, artists, and advisors from the Seattle community, the project deepened the museum’s commitment to inclusive exhibition-planning practices and debuted as American Art: The Stories We Carry in October 2022.
Two major collections of modern art and supporting funds came to the museum, transforming its already stellar holdings of modern art:
The Friday Foundation, celebrating the legacy of Seattle philanthropists and collectors Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis, gave 19 iconic works of Abstract Expressionist paintings and sculptures in 2021 as well as a total of $14.5 million to support various museum initiatives over the course of 2020-2021. The works went on view in 2021. The gift included the creation of The Richard E. Lang and Jane Lang Davis Acquisition Fund for Global Contemporary Art.
And in April 2023, a gift of 48 major works by Alexander Calder was made by longtime museum supporters Jon and Kim Shirley. The gift of the Shirley Family Calder Collection is supported by a $10 million endowment and an annual financial commitment from the Shirley’s to support Calder-related exhibitions and research. The works will debut in November 2023 in Calder: In Motion, The Shirley Family Collection.
“The Board of Trustees want to express our sincere gratitude to Amada for her leadership at SAM,” says Board Chair Constance Rice. “Amada’s achievements have been many. In addition to steering SAM successfully through a global pandemic, the museum came through even stronger with spectacular exhibitions, landmark gifts of art and funding, and an expanded commitment to equity across the museum. SAM faces a bright future thanks to her leadership during these immensely difficult times.”
This fall, Amada takes the helm at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (SBMA) as the Robert and Mercedes Eichholz Director and CEO where we know she will bring the same dedication and vision to SBMA that she did during her time at SAM.
Amada will continue at SAM in her current role through the first week of October providing museum leadership the time and opportunity to collaborate on a smooth transition plan.
Thank you, Amada, for your steadfast leadership of SAM the past four years. You are leaving SAM well positioned for a bright future. We wish you much success and fulfillment in Santa Barbara and know you will take SBMA to new heights like you did SAM.
The Seattle Art Museum could not have entered my life at a better time. In July 2022, I had “retired” from my professional ballet career and was planning to move to Seattle with my partner. I was in the precarious situation of moving to a new city and changing careers at the same time. I have always loved museums, and knew I wanted to be a part of this world in my second career—I just didn’t know what specific part I could play. One day, I stumbled across a blog post written by a SAM intern. In her post, she described how she was able to gain valuable work experience in a world class art museum while discovering how she could see herself fitting into the broader museum space. The opportunity sounded too good to be true, but a bit more research led me to the application for the museum’s Emerging Arts Leader Internships, and I applied right away. I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to join SAM!
Skipping to my first day at SAM, I was placed in the Education and Public Engagement Department working alongside the wonderful Erika Katayama, SAM Associate Director of Interpretation. She explained the ins and outs of her role and laid out the projects I would be working on. This included writing interpretive stops for the museum’s smartphone tour and verbal descriptions of artworks for low/no-vision visitors. This would kick off my three month dive into verbal descriptions, accessibility, and the relationship between visual art and the blind community.
How does a museum make visual art available to those who are low vision or blind? The COVID-19 pandemic greatly reduced the amount of tactile surfaces available to touch in an environment where touching was already discouraged. Audio guides provide background information on the art but typically do not explicitly relay the content of the art. That being said, much of what sighted people glean visually can be conveyed with words. That is where verbal descriptions come in. Verbal descriptions help to create a mental image of an artwork through a detailed narration. Visual art is a misnomer—so much more goes into art than paint on a canvas. Art can be appreciated in an equally valuable way through the other senses. SAM’s commitment to providing these options to visitors is a vital step toward making the museum a more accessible space. A significant part of my internship was spent researching and writing verbal descriptions for artworks on view in American Art: the Stories We Carry and Chronicles of the Global East. Completing this work grew my knowledge of what goes into museum accessibility significantly and changed the way I interpret art. Though SAM has tens of thousands of artworks in its collection, I am glad to have made even the smallest dent in increasing its accessibility to the public.
I am so proud to resume my work with accessibility by continuing to work at SAM over the next few months. This fall, I plan to attend grad school and find my place within the world of libraries, museums, and archives. I can’t wait to see what comes next for me.
– Isabel Amador, SAM Emerging Arts Leader Intern in Education and Public Engagement
Founded in 2007, the Seattle Art Museum’s Teen Arts Group (TAG) is an intensive internship program designed to cultivate the voices of diverse high school-aged youth who share a passion for the power of art and building community. TAG members meet monthly between October and May to learn about the many unseen sides of an art museum, develop leadership skills, plan Teen Night Out, and create their own art in new and familiar mediums.
As part of TAG, members are expected to complete a year-long project emphasizing the creation, curation, or discussion of art. While some TAG members opted to collaborate on Home Is Where the Heart Is, a teen art exhibition currently on view at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, three of the teens—Lila, Cris, and Smriti—decided to team up to create a zine they titled TAGZEEN.
Inspired by the community they call home, these adventurous teens set out across Seattle to highlight sights, food, and fashion that any teen can enjoy! Together, they left no stone unturned, exploring new and known Seattle staples; swimming through seas of people, petals, and felines; and examining teen fashion trends and their historic parallels.
Browse the zine below and be sure to check out a few of the sights and scenes the TAG teens recommend!
– Cristina Cano-Calhoun, SAM Museum Educator for Youth Programs
Over the decade between my very first lab tour at the Seattle Art Museum and my SAM Emerging Arts Leader Internship in Conservation, I learned that the scope within which conservators work is much larger than the lab. My earlier internships took place in private practice home studios, on-site projects, and archaeological fieldwork. During my EAL internship, I did numerous preventive conservation projects in collections spaces, shared workspaces, and the galleries. As SAM’s first IAIA Collections Care Intern, I am excited to share about the IAIA and the projects I’ve worked on!
The Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) is an intertribal college in Santa Fe, New Mexico. As a non-Native conservator whose work intersects with collected Indigenous objects, I enrolled in its museum studies online certificate program to study museum history and contemporary practices. Over the past two years, I participated in class discussions and learned from stellar professors on the best practices in navigating collections and curatorial work. This last semester I successfully hustled for an in-person internship for credit with SAM Senior Collections Care Manager Marta Pinto-Llorca.
Preventive conservation is like preventive medicine: appropriate and timely care intended to slow deterioration. This includes monitoring objects’ condition, using safe storage and display materials, managing indoor climates, emergency planning, surface cleaning, and pest management. Preventive care review included shadowing SAM Collections Care Associate Vaughn Meekins on his weekly gallery cleaning rounds.
On my days at the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park, I supported periodic gallery rotations of scroll paintings and textiles. Marta trained me to handle boxed scrolls and to safely unbox, unroll, roll, and box Japanese hanging scrolls. SAM Senior East Asian Paintings Conservator Tanya Uyeda taught me specific terms related to Japanese scroll paintings which added to my vocabulary for condition reporting paper and textiles.
Over many downtown work sessions, I condition mapped William Cordova’s massive mixed-media assemblage Untitled (Cosmos). Cordova intentionally applied dust, unstable collage adhesives, and non-archival tape in his artwork, so it was important to create a detailed condition map before going on view later this year. To mitigate risks during installation and display, I gently tested delaminating collage papers with an air puffer and collected runaway pieces in labeled bags.
Working with invisible disabilities is tough and I’m grateful to my community for sharing collective ambition to build a culture of caregiving: for people and for art. Thank you to SAM for giving me the space to cook up my first public education session! For my EAL intern gallery talk, I introduced the subject of preventive conservation to colleagues and visitors alike, and pantomimed how to dust frames, objects, and casework. I loved fielding questions and teaching skills people can use to care for art in their own homes!
– Jennifer Beetem, SAM Emerging Arts Leader Intern in Conservation
This July marks my one-year anniversary at SAM and June was my first Pride in Seattle. I even had the honor of walking the parade with the city’s Consulate of Mexico. As a gay professional of Mexican descent, this is all a big deal for me!
In my role as the museum’s deputy director for art, I work among so much art, and every day I’m actively discovering captivating items within the SAM collection. Thinking about LGBTQ+ artists, I was surprised to learn that the collection has a print of The Fleet’s In (1934) by gay artist Paul Cadmus. He created this work on paper in response to the censorship of his painting of the same subject. In it, a raucous group of sailors enjoy shore leave while in Manhattan. The original painting, commissioned through the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) during the Great Depression, caused quite a stir in its day. So much so that it was removed from view for what Naval officers and critics considered “outrageous” for the behavior depicted in the work: the figures, many from the LGBTQ+ community, merrymaking with the featured service men. A queer celebration appropriate for Pride Month! The original painting is part of the Met’s collection, and you can learn more about it here.
To this day, the painting has had limited exposure but it is well known within queer art history. The print version, like the one in SAM’s collection, is important because it was intentionally created by Cadmus in an act of rebellion to disseminate the image and prevent its censorship. He would even credit the uproar with making his work more well known during his life. The work may have garnered a negative response, but the image itself carries gay culture, much of it coded and strategically placed by Cadmus, during a period when homosexuality was illegal. The print at SAM is interesting because it was gifted to the collection in 1944 by the founder of our museum, Dr. Richard Fuller. Could he have known about its notoriety and importance before gifting it to the museum? To more surprise, we also have a 1937 photographed portrait of Cadmus by Carl Van Vechten in the museum collection.
Reflecting on the collection during Pride Month, I sought other queerness currently on view in SAM’s galleries and by gay artists. Pop artist Andy Warhol has a strong presence in the museum; he even came to the museum for a solo exhibition in 1976. His large painting of the musician Elvis Presley as a young gunslinger heartthrob immortalized in silver is not only a reference to the future but to the reflective aesthetic of his famed studio the Silver Factory. It was an inclusive space for its day and a beacon for anyone who felt different, including members of the LGBTQ+ community. Some individuals who stood out even took on a role as “Superstar” of the Factory for their beauty, personality, or talent. While Warhol’s universe tended to focus around himself, his impact on popular culture included making queerness more visual, and many artists today follow in his footsteps.
Everywhere you turn, the museum also has a younger generation of queer artists on view: Mickalene Thomas’s large bedazzled painting, Chicano artist Laura Aguilar’s evocative and haunting black-and-white photography, Native American multidisciplinary artist Jeffrey Gibson’s beaded punching bag with the phrase “If I Ruled the World” in colorful plastic beadwork, Jacolby Satterwhite’s projected video work about his mother and Ballroom culture, Kehinde Wiley’s portrait featuring a Black subject in a classical style and Nick Cave’s maximalist soundsuit. There’s a recent acquisition by Naama Tsabar, an Israeli artist (and friend) whose practice includes intimacy and contact through the tactile materials that she uses, sculptures she builds, and evocative sonic performances. In my previous role at The Andy Warhol Museum, I hosted a performance of hers in conjunction with the exhibition Fantasy America. Titled Stranger, it comprised a double-sided guitar and two nearly physically identical women (the artist and Kristin Mueller) struggling through a non-verbal but acoustic conversation. Many of these artists I have followed for years and have even met. Having them in the collection is so inspiring and special for Seattle.
Although marginalized peoples enjoy this honorary month of acknowledgement, the support in this city is ongoing and Pride Month felt the most festive during a time of nationwide hate and oppression against LGBTQ+ people. In addition, I’ve met so many people, including colleagues at SAM, who are also part of the community or dedicated allies. We work across many departments in the museum and it’s clear we really care about the community in Seattle. Pride Month has passed, but the visibility and support of LGBTQ+ artists has and will continue at SAM.
– José Carlos-Diaz, SAM Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art
Earlier this year, volunteers across all the Seattle Art Museum, Seattle Asian Art Museum, and Olympic Sculpture Park came together to celebrate another incredible year of service at SAM. Hosted by the Seattle Art Museum Volunteers Association Advisory Committee (SAMVA-AC), the 2023 Volunteer Soirée honored the landmark accomplishments of some of SAM’s longest-serving volunteers.
Of the many awards handed out that evening, none were as significant and surprise-filled as the Dorothy C. Malone Award. Established by the SAM Board of Trustees in 1989, the award is given to an exceptional volunteer who exemplifies the highest standard of dedication and service to the museum.
Dorothy “Dottie” C. Malone is a significant part of SAM’s history, having invested 63 years in the museum as a staff member and volunteer. She treated the museum as her family, taking a warm and personal interest in the staff, volunteers, and operations of the museum. She cared deeply and held the museum to a high standard of excellence. Her concern for volunteers, which she called “the backbone of the museum,” combined with her own dedication and commitment, inspired the Board of Trustees to establish this award in her name.
This year’s recipient of the Dorothy C. Malone Lifetime Achievement Volunteer Award is Shawna Bliss. A volunteer for over 24 years, Shawna currently volunteers in our docent program and has consistently contributed to the development of gallery learning across all three SAM locations. Born and raised in West Seattle, Shawna is the oldest of five siblings and discovered a passion for education at a young age. She received her bachelor’s degree in education and psychology from the University of Washington and completed her master’s in education at the University of Utah.
The following years saw Shawna traveling with her husband, Don, throughout the United States and Australia before settling into a long term home in Bremerton to raise their family. For many years, Shawna commuted from Bremerton to Seattle to volunteer at SAM, becoming one of the museum’s most prominent supporters. Family gifts often included museum memberships, invitations to view exhibitions and programs, and one-of-a-kind items from SAM Shop. She encouraged her siblings and children to visit SAM and often brought her parents downtown to explore the museum’s galleries.
Following our celebration of Shawna and her continued contributions to SAM, we asked her about her time at SAM and any advice she’d offer prospective volunteers. Read below to see what she had to say!
SAM: How did you learn about the opportunity of becoming a SAM volunteer? What was the process like for you to join?
Shawna Bliss (SB): I learned about the opportunity of becoming a SAM volunteer at an education job fair held in Seattle before the start of the 1999 school year. A SAM representative was promoting SAM’s education programs and volunteer opportunities. I completed a volunteer application, had an interview with SAM’s Manager of Volunteer Programs, and was hired to assist a SAM educator in the Art Studio.
SAM: What is your favorite memory of being a SAM volunteer?
SB: I have so many favorite memories of being a SAM volunteer! What keeps me at SAM year after year are the opportunities to work with, and learn from, other volunteers, SAM staff, and museum visitors.
SAM: Were you surprised to receive the Dorothy C. Malone Award? What was your reaction?
SB: I was totally surprised! 2019 was the last year SAM held its Volunteer Soirée, so I came to this year’s soirée expecting to celebrate “our” return to SAM. I was not expecting any of us to be personally recognized!
SAM: Why should people consider becoming a SAM volunteer?
SB: Do you like making new friends? There are many volunteer opportunities at SAM, all of which give volunteers occasions to meet and engage with like-minded people, including other volunteers, SAM staff, and visitors.
Do you like learning about art, artists, and connecting art to the lives of visitors? If so, there is always much to see, read, and think about at SAM.
Do you like SAM and support its mission, vision, and values? SAM volunteers do! Young or old, just getting started or having volunteered for decades, all of us take pride in representing SAM as we serve in our volunteer roles.
SAM’s Teen Arts Group (TAG) is an intensive internship program for high school-aged youth who are interested in leadership, eager to learn about themselves and the world through art, and want to make SAM fun and engaging for teens. This year’s cohort of future art leaders met once a week from October 2022 to May 2023 to create art, learn about the many unseen sides of an art museum—including exhibition conceptualization, curation, and conservation—lead public gallery tours, and plan Teen Night Out. As we close out another school year, we asked a few of this year’s members to share a bit more about TAG’s purpose and their favorite memories from their year at SAM.
Let’s start with the basics: What is TAG and what did you do as a TAG member?
TAG is all about community to me. Essentially, we work toward our collective goal of making events, activities, and opportunities for teens at the museum. My favorite aspect has been hosting art making activities at influential spaces such as the Seattle Symphony and the Gates Foundation. I was surprised to learn that we get the opportunity to tour the museum after hours and have direct access to staff across a range of departments at SAM. This included folks from Public Programs, Education, AV, Curatorial, and Exhibition Design.
My favorite TAG meeting was when we got creative in how we announced the call-for-artists for our teen exhibition, Home is Where the Heart Is, on view through September 17. We drafted, directed, and filmed a skit that served as one of our core advertisements on social media. It was really fun to work together and come up with a product that we thought would be interesting for teens our age!
– Nivedita Raj, 17
An integral part of TAG is planning and overseeing the museum’s annual teens-only celebration, Teen Night Out. What was this process like? What was your favorite part of putting this event together?
Planning Teen Night Out was an exciting journey filled with creativity and teamwork. We brainstormed themes, curated an array of activities, and transformed the museum into a vibrant space for teenagers.
My favorite part of Teen Night Out was watching the museum come alive with colors and people. Seeing the galleries turn into immersive environments was truly magical, and it showed the power of our artistic expression. The most rewarding thing was witnessing the impact of our efforts on the teenagers attending the event. Their laughter, curiosity, and awe reflected how art can inspire and touch hearts. It was a priceless reward to see their newfound appreciation and the spark of inspiration in their eyes.
Teen Night Out was more than a party. It was a chance to explore, create, and connect. I think in that evening we helped to bridge a gap between generations, making young voices heard and fostering a sense of belonging in the museum. By opening the doors of the art museum to a new generation, we painted a brighter future. Together, we showed that art has the power to transform lives and unleash boundless potential.
– Kaz Jennings, 16
This year marked your second year as a TAG member. What advice would you offer any teen thinking about joining TAG?
This was my second year as a TAG member and I have genuinely loved every moment. A word of advice I would give to future TAG members or any teen looking to work with and around art is to just take it slow. Being in a program like TAG there is a lot of information being presented to you every meeting and a lot of opportunities for you to take advantage of. Just remember to pace yourself through those opportunities. You don’t have to take on every elective task that applies to your pursuit of the arts outside of TAG. Balance is essential.
Enjoy learning and watching your peers learn with you; I promise your resume and experience are already cool enough. I mean, you intern at SAM so you have to be cool! Take time to build connections with SAM staff and the other TAG members. They are cool people, you are cool people. Surround yourself with cool people!
If I could go back and give myself some advice before I joined TAG it would be that there is not one way to be an artist or someone who enjoys art. There are all kinds of personalities and people in TAG and everyone brings something unique to the table. Everyone is an important member of the team, myself included!
– Mori Peña, 18
– Cristina Cano-Calhoun, SAM Museum Educator for Youth Programs
In honor of Pride Month, SAM Blog features reflections by SAM voices on artworks from the collection that explore LGBTQIA+ art and artists. Queer lives matter every day of the year, but this month is a particular opportunity to celebrate histories of joy, advocacy, and resistance.
In Det lika olika/The Same Diﬀerent, a 2018–2019 solo exhibition at Sweden’s Moderna Museet Malmö, contemporary German artist Rosemarie Trockel interrogated viewers with a single question written on a small piece of paper: What is it like to be what you are not?
SAM’s collection features Trockel’s Bibliothek Babylon (1997), a photographic screenprint on transparent red Mylar. In it, the subject sits at a library table surrounded by books, wearing only cords of rope that outline where clothing seams would fall on the body. The title, in Trockel-fashion, asks to be picked apart: “Babylon” the Greek, Latinized form for “city of Babel.” In Abrahamic tradition, the Tower of Babel is a bastion for humanity and explanation for the world’s languages. One would have to guess that Trockel means to contrast this with the biblical Babylon (a woman atop a seven-headed beast, meant to personify promiscuity).
“[Trockel] started in Germany in the 80’s. It was a male-dominated art world she lived in and tried to make herself visible, which was not that easy. So she inﬁltrated the art world with materials that perhaps did not belong to that male art world. Such as wire, wool and knitting instead of painting… Many have said or read her art as feminist. And I think, yes there’s a truth in this, but there is so much more.”
– Iris Müller-Westernmann, Curator, Det lika olika/The Same Diﬀerent.
The purpose of the title is to conjure religious and historical fears regarding femme people’s pursuit of knowledge and bodily autonomy. The use of rope—a ﬁber—invites us to consider whether the subject is liberated or restrained in their nakedness. For this image, the total edition consists of 60 screenprints: 25 on red, 20 on yellow, 15 on clear, as well as 25 artist proofs. The tone of each varies in how the subject and the books’ covers are accentuated and made readable.
In other works, Trockel deftly uses medium to talk about women as creators of art subjugated to the realm of the underappreciated “craft” and the household. “Woman,” also, as a narrowly deﬁned and restrictive category. Much of Trockel’s body of work incorporates clothing and textile that’s often unisex in appeal until stretched, conformed, and gendered by the wearer. Reﬂecting on reuniﬁcation years, Trockel’s series of masks, Balaclava, are a commentary on gender roles, women’s muteness, and the necessity for radical action. Trockel herself has at times rejected the title of “artist” or referring to her work as “art.”
“In Trockel’s art, the mixing of the idealized feminine with the mundane is a potent means of raising consciousness about the ways women have come to be classiﬁed and evaluated…
…Without question, the body and what has been designated as ‘woman’s work’ are powerful signiﬁers… to blur the division between genders and to suggest the foundering of the traditional ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ connotations associated with dress.”
– Sidra Stich, Art Historian
Another who took inspiration in literary metaphor is Argentine thinker and librarian Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986). In his 1941 short story The Library of Babel, Borges imagines a theoretical library containing all knowledge. The dimensions of such a place are impossible, but its books would contain letters and punctuation in every possible combination. Meaning, if searched for long enough, you could ﬁnd a copy of this blog post, a transcript of any conversation, and even the details of your own death.
In 2015, writer and coder Jonathan Basile tried exploring the implications of this by describing the library through algorithm. On his website, enter any text you like: a favorite memory, a bold lie, a list of groceries. You’ll then be pointed to the room and book where, in an ontological sense, it’s already written. Not all things in the library are true and few pages are legible. But is it not helpful (and terrifying) to know your thoughts have already taken form? What, read back, would feel the most validating? What might Trockel, wishing to be “free of the binary system,” write? It’s already there to be found, of course.
Here’s one final resonance: The 2017 German television series Babylon Berlin invokes “Babel” to depict the last days of the Weimar Republic as a time of extravagance, danger, unrepressed art, and sexuality. These are the oft-forgotten “golden twenties” preceding totalitarian rule and the burning of books and libraries. Of things lost: the signiﬁcant shift away from traditional roles for the Neue Frau (“new woman”), as well as a wealth of research on identity and gender-aﬃrming care.
Celebrate Pride Month in Seattle with these suggested events:
Fri Jun 23 Trans Pride Seattle Produced by Gender Justice League, this event in Volunteer Park will feature music, performances, food trucks, and educators.
Sun Jun 25 Seattle Pride Parade The official 49th annual Pride Parade! Join in the fun or grab a spot in the grandstand. Say hi to SAM’s LGBTQIA+ affinity group who will be marching together.
Aug 17–20 Pacific Northwest Black Pride 2023 in Columbia City Celebrate the 6th year celebrating the Black LGBTQIA+ community with workshops, a health festival, music performances, parties, and more.
– Travis L., SAM Event Security Officer
Travis (they/them) is a mixed-media artist working in the realms of history and romanticism. They were recently featured in The Process Project and currently have work on view in the group exhibition Freedom at Gallery B612 through July 21.
References: Rana, Matthew. “What Is It like to Be What You Are Not? Rosemarie Trockel’s Diverse Practice.” Frieze, 31 Oct. 2018. Issue 200. Drier, Deborah. “Spiderwoman: Rosemarie Trockel.” Artforum, Sept. 1991. Vol. 30, No. 1. Stich, Sidra. The Aﬃrmation of Diﬀerence in the Art of Rosemarie Trockel. 1991. Phillips. “Bibliothek Babylon (Trockel).” Artsy, June 2019. Auctions. Edition Schellmann—Fifty Are Better Than One.
Art has always been a passion of mine. I have been drawing and painting since I was a kid, and as I grew up, I knew art needed to be an ever-present aspect of my life, no matter the capacity. I have had some significant figures that helped me come to that conclusion: teachers, mentors, and so many more. With their influence, I came to recognize my path in life: to help people realize their own love of art, just as others did for me. The journey to this point was not without its difficulties, perhaps even a bit tumultuous. Yet, it’s what led me to teaching art classes and, most importantly, my internship here at the Seattle Art Museum.
Being at SAM has been a dream. I truly never expected to be here. During the application and interview process, I admittedly was not the most confident. Had I done enough to deserve to be here? But, I knew if I spoke to my passions, I had a chance. Teaching has always been my way of helping to foster creativity and artistic passion in kids at developmental ages, but being at SAM has allowed me to contribute to something bigger. I have had the opportunity to be a part of an institution dedicated to connecting art with the public and to be a part of a curatorial department that informs, educates, and inspires people through all facets of art—I couldn’t imagine a better place to be!
Seeing all that goes into what makes a museum function successfully has been an education in and of itself. It has been amazing to see the cross-departmental collaboration at work, and to be a part of it. To have conversations with staff across departments and learn more about their contributions to the museum has been one of my favorite parts of this experience thus far. In particular, my conversations with the education, interpretation, and public engagement teams have been so impactful, especially with my mentor. From him, I’ve been able to learn more about what each team is doing in the realms of accessibility and further connecting the public to the work that is displayed in the museum. I have even been given the opportunity to contribute research and content to a few artworks at the Seattle Asian Art Museum and build upon the educational materials already available for them. That kind of experience—to have my contributions be a part of the museum in a permanent capacity—is what I want to continue to do, to leave my mark.
Thankfully, the work that I have done within the curatorial department has given me that chance. I have worked on presentations for exhibition proposals, formatted labels for objects, researched artists for interviews and future exhibitions, imagined my own exhibition, and developed an in-gallery presentation. But, one of the most rewarding parts of this experience has been connecting my conceptual exhibition with the development of my in-gallery presentation because of how personal it became for me.
When I was assigned to curate a potential exhibition featuring ten items from SAM’s collection, I wanted to use this chance to explore my heritage and learn more about the available Filipino art and artifacts. I am incredibly proud of my culture, and it has always been disappointing to see how Filipino art and culture is rarely showcased or discussed in the greater context of Asian culture and history, even though it is incredibly rich and multi-faceted. Even in higher education, where I’ve taken classes dedicated to the history of Asian art and culture, the curriculum usually centers on China, Japan, Korea, and India. And I can imagine most people think of those countries, as well, when they think about Asian culture in general.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t much variety or depth in the artworks from the Philippines at SAM, but there was one set of figures that stood out among the rest: the bulul figures from the Ifugao people of Northern Luzon. Researching these objects provided me with a new direction to take my project. I decided to focus on Indigenous cultures and spirituality throughout the islands in the Pacific. After learning more about the history of the bulul and the Ifugao, it was clear that prehistoric and indigenous Filipino cultures and traditions were more akin to other Oceanic and Austronesian Indigenous cultures found in regions like Micronesia, Polynesia, and Melanesia, with their spiritual beliefs centered on honoring the earth and ancestral relationships. That belief system has been appointed the term animism by western cultures and it is the perspective in which all things—animate and inanimate objects, places, and creatures—possess a distinct spiritual essence.
With these findings, my conceptual exhibition focusing on the important bonds between visual traditions and spiritual beliefs in Indigenous cultures across islands in the Pacific took shape. In my gallery presentation, I wanted to spotlight the bulul figures, the Indigenous culture of the Ifugao people, and its similarity to the cultures of other Pacific Islands, all a divergence from the more discussed modern history of the Philippines (i.e., Spanish colonization, American occupation, and Philippine independence). All I wanted was to share with people the ways that Filipino culture is special, and now I can.
I cannot begin to describe how excited I am to share the research I’ve done so far. It has been such a fulfilling experience to be able to learn more about the history of my culture in the context of art, and being here at SAM has given me the opportunity and the resources to do just that. I am extremely grateful for what this internship has provided me in terms of exploring my passions and building upon what I have already learned. I feel as though I have just scratched the surface as to what I can accomplish here at SAM and I am itching to see the contributions I can make at SAM in the near future.
I’d like to thank SAM Intern Programs Coordinator Samuel Howes for helping me adjust and transition into this internship; to SAM Museum Educator for Digital Learning Ramzy Lakos, for being such an amazing mentor and for our stimulating conversations that I always looked forward to; and, of course, to SAM Susan Brotman Deputy Director for Art José Carlos Diaz—I couldn’t have asked for a better supervisor and mentor.
– Alexa Smith, SAM Emerging Arts Leader Intern in Curation
In honor of Pride Month, SAM Blog features reflections by SAM voices on artworks from the collection that explore LGBTQIA+ art and artists. Queer lives matter every day of the year, but this month is a particular opportunity to celebrate histories of joy, advocacy, and resistance.
Many of us have seen T-shirts or bumper stickers that say “the first Pride was a riot,” referring to the 1969 Stonewall uprising when LGBTQ+ patrons of a small bar and queer space in the NYC neighborhood of Greenwich Village fought back against persistent police abuse and discrimination. This sentiment—meant to serve as a reminder to those of us who gather each June for parades, drag shows, Betty Who concerts, and all-night parties—reinforces the truth that the oppression of LGBTQIA+ people in this country and around the world is still something to fight against.
In considering the history of Pride, I was reminded of the work of Laylah Ali, a contemporary American painter whose artwork is in SAM’s collection. Her painting Untitled (1999) is a part of her Greenhead series. While it might not seem like the most obvious choice to reflect on in honor of Pride Month, it felt appropriate for 2023 given all that it says about conflict, aggression, violence, and uncertainty—especially when perpetrated against the vulnerable populations of our society.
This painting, like many in the series of more than eighty gouache paintings, poses more questions than it answers. The figures are of indeterminate gender identity; their dress, skin color, and size are basically identical; and the series of actions enacted by the figures are merely gestures, leaving it up to the viewer to interpret exactly what is going on.
Much of the action in this particular artwork is about conflict, social pressure, disagreement, and the inherent risk those difficult experiences pose to our health, bodies, and feeling of safety. Ali’s figures are in one frame arguing with one another, and in another, one figure dominates the others, and in the final panel, the two figures look up, off into the distance, awaiting what appears to be some powerful force that has come to threaten or destroy them.
Gay Pride means different things to different people. As I’ve been out of the closet longer and longer, I’ve recognized that while there are certain constants—Dykes on Bikes, very loud house music, so many crop tops, and desperate corporate merch just to name a few—still, each year the celebration exists in its historical context. I remember particularly poignant Prides in the ʼ90s when AIDS was still ravaging the community and also in 1999, the year after Matthew Shepard was murdered and people marched in support of hate crime legislation and violence prevention. In the mid-aughts, queer people serving openly in the military was on everyone’s minds and workplace discrimination was a major issue. Then there was the fallout of the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016 when violence against LGBTQIA+ people took center stage and when repressive state-sponsored “bathroom bills” tried to limit trans people from using the restroom of their choosing. Each year, there is something specific to fight for, and 2023 is no different, which is why this work by Laylah Ali seemed so timely to share.
It is not an understatement to say that the issues facing the queer community are existential. In many states across the country, trans people, non-cisgendered people, LGBTQ-identified educators, gay parents, drag queens, and even artists, teachers, librarians and health care professionals wanting to speak honestly about queer life, are under threat from state and local governments attempting to legislate away our existence. The level of rancor is at an all-time high; the discourse is no longer just about difference or personal freedom, but about criminalizing our choices, bodies, and speech.
Laylah Ali’s Greenheads series speaks directly to these threats. Look at the anguish in the figure’s faces: the fear and the fury. These figures remind us that the disagreements and discord that can cause us to attack one another and attempt to limit each other powerless are in the end likely to harm us all.
I don’t mind the language of violence as it applies to Stonewall; it’s a useful way to discourage complacency and inspire activism, especially for those people who were long left out of queer history. And maybe it’s the most appropriate descriptor for this year’s Pride—to call it a riot or a battle, to remind members of our community and our allies that we are, in fact, in a fight for our lives. But Pride, which may always be about the fight, is also about the simple act of visibility: riding the float in a parade, waving your rainbow flag, holding your loved ones’ hands while walking down the street, or presenting the gender identity that makes you feel whole. Our very existence may be the most powerful fight of all. The efforts to curb our speech, to make it impossible to get health and mental health care for trans people, especially kids, and the regulation of books in our schools is all a part of a plan to make LGBTQIA+ people go away, to be quiet, to disappear. Since those are acts of violence, maybe it’s appropriate that we meet it with a fight.
– Jason Porter, SAM Kayla Skinner Deputy Director for Education and Public Engagement
Celebrate Pride Month in Seattle with these suggested events and resources.
Fri Jun 23 Trans Pride Seattle Produced by Gender Justice League, this event in Volunteer Park will feature music, performances, food trucks, and educators.
Sun Jun 25 Seattle Pride Parade The official 49th annual Pride Parade! Join in the fun or grab a spot in the grandstand. Say hi to SAM’s LGBTQIA+ affinity group who will be marching together.
Aug 17–20 Pacific Northwest Black Pride 2023 in Columbia City Celebrate the sixth year celebrating the Black LGBTQIA+ community with workshops, a health festival, music performances, parties, and more.
My first experience with the connective power of the arts was through music. As a child, melodies and lyrics—both new and passed down through generations—shaped my identity and created ties between myself, my family, and my community. In visiting museums like SAM, I feel the same connection to art that I do to musical compositions. With its own harmonies, dissonances, and rhythms, visual art provides me with meaningful experiences and a sense of belonging.
As I grew up, I became increasingly determined to weave the arts into my future career. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in art history, a minor in music, and building skills through museum volunteering, I was offered the opportunity to join SAM as the Public Engagement Emerging Arts Leader Intern. I was thrilled to start 2023 at my local museum, and I was eager to step into a new area of museum work.
My first day as a SAM intern was surreal. After passing through the staff entrance and finding my place in the fifth-floor offices, I realized my perception of museums was about to change. As part of the public engagement team, I focused on data collection and developing evaluation tools for museum events. I created several post-event surveys intended to collect meaningful feedback that offered a more thorough understanding of SAM’s audience.
Through this research and data collection, I was able to take a deep dive into the goals and values of events and discover the many ways SAM connects with its community. Among them is SAM Remix. SAM Remix is more than a party, it’s an evening dedicated to celebrating art, artists, authentic expression, and community connection. Behind the scenes of the event’s contagious energy are defined goals and aspirations outlined by the public engagement team. I saw a passionate desire to engage with local contemporary artists and strong efforts to reflect the diversity of Seattle’s artistic community through the event’s talented lineup. This experience has inspired me to incorporate community-focused goals into my work’s natural rhythm. I am now driven by questions of how all events can better engage and represent their audience, and ensure every attendee feels welcome, safe, and included. Community events are as vital to the museum as the exhibitions themselves: they truly play a part in connecting art to life. My last day at SAM was filled with heartfelt goodbyes and as a Remix volunteer, the perfect way to witness the result of months of hard work.
Outside of my role on the public engagement team, I was encouraged to connect with staff members across departments and felt the museum valued my voice. As an Emerging Arts Leader Intern, I was able to explore the various facets of the museum by attending and contributing to meetings, shadowing volunteers, witnessing the installation of Ikat: A Compelling World of Cloth, and having the opportunity to write and give a public tour. The tour was one of the most personally impactful parts of my internship. Making room for creative interpretations and passionate research, I was asked to share our perspective on art, leadership, and museum work.
Through this opportunity, I was able to revisit my connection to music, a part of my identity that connects me to many of the works on view, including Mark Rothko’s Untitled (1963) and Naama Tsabar’s Transition (2019). I felt honored to be able to share my own research and perspectives, tell personal stories, discuss the intersection between music and art, and to use my platform to amplify messages I consider important.
Looking back on my time at SAM, I have come to realize that this institution is not static. SAM is alive and possesses a desire for growth and change. Although evident across all departments, I saw this most in the public engagement team’s efforts to put the interests and needs of its community at the forefront of its work. From planning community events like SAM Remix to highlighting the voices and perspectives of emerging arts professionals, SAM has instilled in me an excitement for the future of museums. I am grateful to take with me not only a strengthened skillset, but also ambition, hope, and a passion for public engagement into the next stage of my career.
As my internship (and this blog post) comes to an end, I would like to thank the public engagement team. To Jesse and Jason for their continued guidance and support; to Yaoyao, Erika, and Carrie for offering their perspectives, encouragement, and career advice; and to all of the incredible interns I was able to work alongside, but especially Teagan and Zak.
Finally, thank you to SAM for giving me the opportunity to do what I love and for creating a space that allowed me to form meaningful connections to both art and other museum visitors.
– Emma Johnson, SAM Emerging Arts Leader Intern in Public Engagement
Despite achieving a legacy as one of the 20th century’s preeminent figures in architecture, many remain unaware of Louis Kahn’s substantial achievements across South Asia and their embodiment of his deeply held modernist artistic ideals.
On Saturday, June 10, SAM’s Saturday University Lecture Series will host curator and archivist William Whitaker for a discussion on Kahn’s many travels to South Asia accompanied by rare images and documents from the Kahn Archive at the University of Pennsylvania. In advance of his talk, SAM Manager of Public Engagement Haley Ha spoke with Whitaker to understand what made Kahn’s architectural vision in South Asia so noteworthy.
Haley Ha: You were trained as an architect and currently serve as a curator of the Architectural Archives at the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design. Can you tell us about your role and explain a day in your life as an archivist?
William Whitaker: I see myself, in part, as a teacher who uses collections to educate young architects and landscape architects about thinking and developing their ideas through design. Looking at the drawings of an architect like Louis Kahn can reveal much about their individual talent and way of working, but also about their collaborations with others in the drafting room, on the job site, or in conversation with their clients. The big idea is that thinking through drawings helps you to understand what is good, what is really good, and most importantly, the difference between the two. I meet with high school and college students to talk about and think through topics such as “taking notes on site.” We do this over a large table packed with archival collections: artist sketchbooks are always a favorite, but photography and other techniques also inform and reshape the understanding of place—and these techniques are not always visual! Archives provide an essential tool for understanding why things are the way they are, so incorporating the archive into public exhibitions and tours to a broader public is important to me and the work that I do.
HH: How did you first encounter Kahn’s work? What about it caught your interest?
WW: You can learn a lot from Louis Kahn. His way of working was a struggle that remains visible in his writings and lectures, as well as in the histories of the clients and staff who worked closely with him. His work was also consequential in reinvigorating architecture and its connection to history, place, and the craft of building. He brings a wonderful sense of the human element into his architecture with the expectation that places have the potential to profoundly impact the people who use them.
As an architecture student in the late 1980s, Kahn’s work was often discussed so I knew there was something to learn by looking at his work and understanding his collaborations with engineers, landscape architects, and clients. The first building I ever saw that he designed was the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California (1959–67). A friend and I drove through the night from Albuquerque, New Mexico to see the building and it was a life changing experience. Working toward my Master’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania opened up the possibility of working in the Architectural Archives where Kahn’s papers and drawings are kept. I’ve been there 30 years now and continue to learn from his work on a daily basis.
HH: This month’s Saturday University lecture presents a rare opportunity to engage deeply with Kahn’s work in South Asia. Can you tell us about his time in Asia and the lasting impact it left on him and his legacy?
WW: Between 1947 and his death in 1974, Kahn traveled extensively across the continent where he worked as an architect across India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Nepal, and Israel. Meanwhile, back at the University of Pennsylvania, his “master’s studio” was comprised of 68 students from Thailand, India, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia. In Japan, at the Katsura Imperial Villa, Kahn experienced the deep interrelationship between a building and its landscape, including the magnificent ways the elements of nature—from light to wind and sound—are modulated to inform or shape the human experience.
HH: Kahn, unlike many of the Western architects working in Asia at the time, engaged deeply with the social and political fabric of the cities he worked in and considered their existing architecture, histories, and cultures when drafting his designs. How will these concepts be explored in your Saturday University lecture?
WW: There are distinctions to be made between buildings that serve and support a civic purpose and those conceived of as drivers of economic development. Kahn saw his work as supporting “institutions” important to the development of individuals and their ability to realize their own worth—places to learn, places to assemble, or places that honored human endeavor. It was Kahn’s search for a deeper purpose in architecture that continues to be relevant to this day and serves as the foundation of my lecture.
HH: While Kahn belonged to no particular faith, he was drawn to religious sites and left behind many sketches of ancient temples, churches, and mosques. How do you see the notion of spirituality or the “sacred” manifest in Kahn’s work?
WW: I think you can see it in his appreciation of the everyday. Kahn has an amazing eye for such moments and this is made clear in his notion that, “A city should be a place where a little boy walking through its streets can sense what he someday would like to be.” I would point to the study carrels in his library at Phillips Exeter Academy, the candle niches of the Hurva Synagogue, or the monumental steps at the Four Freedoms Park as expressions of how an individual becomes aware that they are part of something much larger than themselves.
HH: Visitors to Kahn’s works have been quoted as having something close to a ‘spiritual experience’ while occupying his spaces. Can you explain what Kahn meant when he said that the “building is a living thing” and how this may explain visitors’ experiences at his sites?
WW: Kahn based the conception of a building on human desire and providing a platform to support the impulse to express. As such, his buildings are an expression of human experiences and feelings. Here, Kahn is thinking in non-technological, non-practical, and non-physical terms–in his words this is “silence.” Those human impulses are then brought to “light” through all the circumstantial aspects of building–this is the brick and mortar, budget and code, and client and user part. For Kahn, the success of a building—what he thought of as “an offering to architecture”—was to be found in the structure’s ability to evoke an essential aspect of humanity. That he spoke to a brick is a well-known detail of Kahn’s persona (“You say to brick: ‘What do you want brick?’ To which brick replies, ‘I like an arch.’”). Behind that dialogue is an acknowledgment of human ingenuity, living traditions, working with materials, and more.
HH: Lastly, if you had to choose, which of Kahn’s sites would you recommend visiting to those who travel to South Asia?
WW: This is a difficult question to answer—it’s like asking someone who their favorite child is! It is also difficult because for various reasons, Kahn’s works are difficult for the public to access. If one can manage to access the Capital Complex in Dhaka, I’d put that at the top of any list. But I would also say that there are places where Kahn ventured–the Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri, the “pols” of old Ahmedabad, the Stepwell at Adalaj, or seeing the landscape of Dhaka along the Buriganga River—that can shed light on his thinking. All are well well-worth a visit.
Hear more about Louis Kahn’s travels to South Asia from William Whitaker, Curator and Collections Manager at the University of Pennsylvania Weitzman School of Design, on Saturday, June 10 at 10 am at the Seattle Asian Art Museum in the final lecture of the 2022–2023 Saturday University Lecture Series. Tickets are still available—get yours now!
– Haley Ha, SAM Manager of Public Engagement at the Asian Art Museum
A museum board does many things: provide oversight and support for the institution’s financial and operational health, offer guidance and insights based on their professional expertise, and represent the museum within the community and the broader world. SAM’s board trustees are an impressive bunch, serving as leaders across many fields including the arts, education, technology, and the law, but they are also community service allstars, giving their time and resources to support SAM’s mission to connect art to life.
It’s really exciting, then, when our board members are recognized in their respective fields or tapped for their leadership. Recently, two significant appointments to Presidential Committees were announced by the White House. President Biden announced the appointees to his Committee on the Arts and the Humanities; on the star-studded list that includes Lady Gaga, George Clooney, and Shonda Rhimes is Kimberly Richter Shirley, a SAM trustee since 2011. The news was announced around the world, including by the New York Times and the Hollywood Reporter.
Per the White House, this committee “advises the President and the heads of U.S. cultural agencies on policy, philanthropic and private sector engagement, and other efforts to enhance federal support for the arts, humanities, and museum and library services. The PCAH will also engage the nation’s artists, humanities scholars, and cultural heritage practitioners to promote excellence in the arts, humanities, and museum and library services and demonstrate their relevance to the country’s health, economy, equity, and civic life.”
“Being invited to serve on this committee is a tremendous honor, as it recognizes the vital role that creativity and culture play in shaping our society and advancing the human experience,” said Richter Shirley. “I am very grateful and humbled to have been asked.”
Richter Shirley is a retired attorney who serves on several boards and is an active supporter of arts, education, and human services organizations. On SAM’s board, she serves on the Audit, Equity, and Finance Committees. Along with her husband Jon, she also recently made an extraordinary gift to the Seattle Art Museum of 48 works by iconic American sculptor Alexander Calder, along with a $10 million endowment and other financial support to establish SAM as a center for Calder-related exhibitions and research. Congratulations, Kim, on this exciting appointment (and say hi to the rest of the committee for us)!
Also just announced were the appointments to the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, which included SAM trustee John E. Frank. The White House notes that this committee “is charged with establishing policies relating to the museum function of the White House, its state rooms, and collections. It also works to make recommendations on acquisitions for the permanent collection of the White House and provides advice on changes to principal rooms on the ground floor, state floor, and the historic guest suites on the residence floor of the White House Executive Residence.” This is Frank’s second time serving on the committee, he last served from 2016–2018.
Frank is the Senior Vice President and Chief Public Affairs Officer of Illumina, Inc. He is also a collector of French decorative arts and an art history hobbyist. In fact, he recently sourced a chair from the original suite of furniture made by Pierre-Antoine Bellangé and purchased by President Monroe in 1817 to refurnish the White House after it was burned down in 1814. Frank purchased the chair in coordination with White House curators and donated it to the collection. The Bellange suite of furniture is now in the Blue Room of the White House. Here’s a fascinating video from the White House Historical Association on the restoration of the Bellangé suite.
The White House is a very special place for our nation,” says Frank. “I am looking forward to how we evolve the White House collection so that every American who walks through the building can see and feel a personal connection to our shared history.”
Frank has served on SAM’s board since 2008, including tenures as Vice President (2010–2013) and Board Chair (2013–2015). He currently serves on the Collections committee, advising on new works to SAM’s collection, a role that aligns with this appointment very well. Thank you for helping keep the People’s House beautiful, John!
Congratulations and thank you again to Kim Richter Shirley and John E. Frank for your service to SAM and the nation.
– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations
Photos: Photo of Kim Richter Shirley by Spike Mafford, Zocalo Studios, LLC. Photo of John E. Frank courtesy John E. Frank.
Everyone at the Seattle Art Museum was very saddened to learn of the recent passing of beloved Seattle painter Alfredo Arreguín at the age of 88. Acclaimed for his lavish, intricately patterned, and highly symbolic canvases, he was one of the Pacific Northwest’s most prominent Chicano artists. Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting Alfredo when the museum purchased his artwork, Four Self-Portraits (1995) for the collection. We were in the midst of checklist development for our major project to reimagine the museum’s American art galleries and were struck by the underrepresentation of Mexican American artists in the museum’s collection—particularly given the breadth of this community in our region. Jake Prendez, owner and co-director of Nepantla Cultural Arts Gallery, a member of our Advisory Circle for American Art: The Stories We Carry, and a wonderful resource on Seattle’s Chicanx community and its artists, invited me to his gallery to view Alfredo’s work. I was hooked. One visit to the artist’s studio later, and we were on our way to acquiring the first of his paintings to enter SAM’s collection.
Alfredo was born in Morelia, Michoacán in 1935, and was encouraged by his grandparents (who raised him) to begin painting at a young age. When he was nine, he enrolled in the Morelia School of Fine Art, eventually moving on to the prestigious Escuela Nacional Preparatoria at the University of Mexico, from which he graduated in 1956. That same year, encouraged by a local family, he came to Seattle and obtained a permanent visa so that he could attend Edison Tech (now Seattle Central College) to study English, earn his US high school diploma, and enroll at the University of Washington to study architecture. When a condition of his visa made him eligible for the draft, he entered the army and was stationed in Korea and Japan. Upon his discharge in 1960, he returned to architectural studies, eventually transitioning to interior design and, finally, the School of Art. While there, he studied alongside celebrated artists Alden Mason, Michael Spafford, and, for a time, Elmer Bischoff. After receiving his MFA in 1969, he settled permanently in Seattle, becoming a force among artists and an integral member of the local Chicanx community.
Alfredo is celebrated for his astonishing signature style: exuberant, mosaic-inflected, all-over compositions comprised of motifs derived from the rainforests and Indigenous cultures of Mexico, the compositions of Hokusai and Hiroshige, and the nature and topography of the Pacific Northwest. His work is closely aligned with American Pattern Painting of the 1970s, yet it is also deeply personal and symbolic. A series of paintings of historical figures Emiliano Zapata and Frida Kahlo, for example, pay homage to activists whose interests resonate with his own, while a body of landscape paintings encode the flora, fauna, and natural beauty that inspire him. For him, painting was a form of therapy, a flow activity to which he returned every day.
Arreguín’s singular—even autobiographical—approach is nowhere more evident than in his large number of self-portraits, of which Four Self-Portraits is perhaps the most extreme and challenging example. A tapestry of tropical flowers, birds, leaves, arabesques, and ancient symbols interlace to camouflage four distinct portraits of Arreguín: two at the top and two more, mirrored, at the bottom—literally merging the artist with the places and cultures of his ancestry. Remembering Alfredo, I find myself seeing this engrossing painting afresh, grateful that SAM now shares in the legacy of this distinguished artist. Its acquisition will shape our collection strategy for years to come, as we amplify our efforts to bring in artworks—both historical and contemporary—by Chicanx and Latinx artists.
– Theresa Papanickolas, SAM Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art
Photos: Alborz Kamalizad. Four Self-Portraits, 1995, Alfredo Arreguin, Oil on canvas, Painting: 49 3/8 x 42 3/8 in. (125.4 x 107.6 cm) Frame: 55 x 43 in. (139.7 x 109.2 cm), Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Art Acquisition Fund, 2022.13 (c) Alfredo Arreguin.
Brightly colored artworks draw in and engage visitors in Kalina Wińska’s art studios. She works in a sunny room in the Equinox Building in Seattle’s Georgetown neighborhood and focuses on larger installation projects in a studio in Capitol Hill. In each of these spaces, Kalina’s colorful artworks create imagined worlds that explore our rapidly changing climate.
Kalina begins by pouring brightly colored media and water on yupo paper on the floor of her studio. The free-flowing quality is essential, as the media dries naturally, leaving beautiful patterns. Kalina covers areas with blocks of flat color in gouache, creating a juxtaposition of organic forms and hard edges. Kalina then begins a labor intensive and time-consuming process of layering small handmade marks. Through this meditative process, the marks accumulate to create larger shapes that resemble clouds or imagined landforms.
In creating these imagined worlds, Wińska explores how climate change is impacting our weather and adding unpredictability. She works to make this invisible concept visible for viewers, through her swirls of color and obsessive layering of marks. The tiny marks began as concentric circles of targets and have evolved into the repeated chemical symbols for the greenhouse gases methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2). The symbols are repeated thousands of times within a single work, creating larger shapes that resemble clouds, toxicity, or pollution. Each work unfolds into something unpredictable, as Wińska allows the materials to speak for themselves and develop their own layers of meaning.
See artworks by Kalina Wińska in person or online at SAM Gallery. Her work will also be on view at Meta Open Arts and the San Juan Islands Museum of Art later this summer. Learn more about SAM Gallery on Instagram by following gallery manager Erik Bennion at @atSAMGallery.
The decision to reopen the Seattle Art Museum’s Exhibition Shop on the museum’s fourth floor after a three-year closure wasn’t an easy one to make. Knowing that Ikat: A World of Compelling Cloth was heading to SAM, however, SAM Shop Buyer Renata Tatman and SAM Associate Director for Retail Operations Lindsey Dabek agreed that it was time to bring back this specially curated shopping experience and got right to work.
“We knew that the reopening of the Exhibition Shop had to be irresistible,” said Tatman. “We’re not always able to find products that have a direct relationship to an exhibition, but Ikat was different. There’s an abundance of artisans and textile artists from all over the world that we knew we could reach out to and carry their creations in the shop.”
In the shop, visitors will find textile-themed books, notecards, postcards, and magnets, but the space’s emphasis is unsurprisingly on handwoven textiles. With beautiful cloths from Uzbekistan, Japan, Bali, Borneo, Guatemala, Cambodia, Thailand, and India covering nearly every surface of the space, the shop offers museum visitors an opportunity to touch, connect with, and take home a work of art in a way that’s forbidden in the galleries.
Staying true to the themes explored in the exhibition, the products available in the shop—everything from kitchen towels and scarves to vintage kimonos and jewelry with textile elements—are woven by hand; fabrics factory-printed with ikat patterns are nowhere in sight.
Tatman also worked closely with six local artisans and designers to create special products for the store, including one-of-a-kind jackets made with ikats imported from Uzbekistan by Judith Bird, bucket hats featuring ikats from Bali by Amy Downs, a jewelry collection by Marita Dingus that incorporates small scraps of ikat textiles stitched in layers, and bundles of plant-dyed thread and linen by Kata Golda for anyone feeling inspired to create their own textiles after seeing the exhibition.
“Our customers love color, so I looked for handwoven products with striking color combinations,” said Tatman while reflecting on how she decided what textiles were worth featuring in the Exhibition Shop. “I looked for items with good workmanship, value, and intricate designs. Anyone who visits the shop after exploring the galleries will find something that catches their eye.”
The Exhibition Shop is located on the fourth floor of the Seattle Art Museum adjacent to the galleries. It is open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 am to 5 pm and is only accessible with museum admission. Browse SAM’s entire collection of handmade gifts, books, puzzles, housewares, jewelry, textiles, and more online or on the museum’s ground floor that is accessible via First Ave and open to all. Get your tickets to see Ikat: A World of Compelling Cloth and explore the Exhibition Shop through Monday, May 29!
As part of the collaborative process to reimagine its American art galleries, SAM invited Inye Wokoma—artist, filmmaker, journalist, and co-founder of Wa Na Wari in Seattle—to curate Reimagining Regionalism, a gallery that offers a distinctive new interpretation of works from SAM’s collection. Here, he shares about his experience.
A good friend recently asked about my relationship to SAM prior to embarking on my curation project for American Art: The Stories We Carry. The question took me back to my childhood; some of my earliest memories are of going to the original Volunteer Park location to see vintage cinema with my mother and sister. For years I was infatuated with one film I saw there, Alexander Mackendrick’s The Man in the White Suit (1951). The final scene is of “the man” running through the streets at night in his luminous “indestructible” suit, pursued by an angry mob of textile workers and factory bosses inflamed by industry captains. His incredible fibers begin to disintegrate in the fracas, and the anger of his pursuers evaporates in the face of his near nakedness. It was an early experience with art that critiqued capitalist oligarchs and complicit proletariats. At seven years old, I was too young to understand its clearly Marxist undertones, but my young imagination was captured by the image of the man, glowing, urgent, and gliding through the dark streets of an English city.
Subconsciously, memories of this film intertwined with my feelings about SAM, regarding it as an institution where provocative art can find a home. And it informed my curatorial approach, which was inspired by its rich interplay of aesthetic beauty, political satire, social commentary, and economic critique.
Art helps us acknowledge that no gaze is neutral. My personal and creative lens is shaped by being a Black American man and more specifically a man of dual heritage via my father’s Nigerian origins. Approaching this project, my perception was shaped by the previous galleries’ predominant themes: classical landscapes, portraits of the powerful, fetishized representations of Indigenous people, and objects of conquest. I was called to confront the roles my ancestors played in the histories these works depict without a sense that the curation was a two-way conversation between these realities. With this gallery, I wanted to upend that dynamic while avoiding a flattened protestation of America’s racial and colonial history. I wanted to be able to relay stories through my curation that included these historical truths, but were also personal and therefore infinitely accessible. Hopefully.
– Inye Wokoma, Guest Curator of American Art: The Stories We Carry
A version of this article first appeared in the February through May 2023 edition of SAM Magazine and has since 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!
Today, we have a major announcement: Thanks to the generosity of Jon and Kim Shirley, one of the most important private collections of Alexander Calder’s artworks will make its way to SAM. The gift of the Shirley Family Calder Collection includes 48 of the artist’s works and is supported by a $10 million endowment and an annual financial commitment to support Calder-related exhibitions and research.
“Calder is an artist whose work is seemingly ubiquitous,” said Amada Cruz, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO of the Seattle Art Museum. “In truth, we’ve lost sight of the enormous artistic innovations that he was responsible for—from pioneering wire sculpture to inventing the mobile—and the tremendous impact he has had on artists of the 20th and 21st century. The extraordinary generosity of Jon and Kim Shirley allows us to explore the many facets of this creative genius.”
The Shirleys’ gift will be the centerpiece of an ongoing series of annual exhibitions and programs. Beginning this November, SAM will present an inaugural exhibition featuring all 48 works from the collection, offering an extensive look into the artist’s work, practice, and life. Following this inaugural show, a group exhibition planned for 2024 will emphasize his impact and legacy in global contemporary art.
“I first fell in love with Calder as a young man, creating a passion that has only grown with time,” said Jon Shirley. “From the moment I bought my first work 35 years ago, I treasured the experience of living with Calder and from that point built my collection very intentionally. I visited the seminal Calder exhibition at the National Gallery in 1998 and soon thereafter decided to build a truly museum-worthy collection of his work. Kim and I are so happy to have found a permanent home for our collection at the Seattle Art Museum.”
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.