The first time I came to the Seattle Art Museum was in 2020. I was just starting my Master’s program at the University of Washington and I was missing home more than ever before. The first time I walked through Cosmic Beings in Mesoamerican and Andean Art, I was looking for home. That searching is what guided me to apply for the Emerging Arts Leader Internship—I wanted to help to create a bit of home for myself and other Latin Americans when they visit the Seattle Art Museum.
From the very start of my internship, I knew I wanted to bring contemporary art and music into the space to reinvigorate the gallery. Ancient art often feels far away from contemporary life, particularly for those from a diverse community that has lived through several colonizations, displacements, and major transformations.
One of the biggest questions I had in starting this internship was scale—how much could I reasonably do over two months? Having worked in museums and non-profits now for over 7 years I know how important this question is. I had and continue to have a lot of ideas for the space, but I am very conscious of being one person that can only do so much. The initial part of my internship was spent getting to know the Seattle Art Museum and dreaming up what can be done, what has been done, and what is possible.
Eventually, and with a lot of help from my supervisors Pam McClusky, Barbara Brotherton, and Ramzy Lakos, we scaled my project to focus on one artwork in Cosmic Beings in Mesoamerican and Andean Art. I chose a Mayan work,Relief Panels (Door Reveals) (ca. AD 550-950), because it is positioned at the center of the exhibition. Originally being a lintel (a horizontal support in a doorway), it would have been one of the first artworks someone would have seen when entering a palace or temple. Around this one work, I developed a smartphone tour, a verbal description, an in-gallery presentation, a new wall label, and educational resources for the piece.It was important to me to create and explore a variety of different ways for visitors and staff and to connect with the work and show how ancient artworks can be activated.
An important part of developing this interpretive content for Relief Panels (Door Reveals) was consulting with other experts. Mary Miller, Meghan Rubenstein, and Virginia Miller were invaluable in the help and enthusiasm they provided. For the smartphone tour’s music, I brought in Juan Francisco Cristobal, my friend, former colleague, and Q’anjob’al Maya UCLA Ethnomusicology doctoral candidate. I also selected two paintings from the Arte Maya Tz’utuhil collection, available online as part of the Latin American Cultural Center’s Maya Spirituality: Indigenous Paintings 1957–2020exhibition.
Another key part of my research was conducting an expansive review of work in the Northern Maya area during the Late Classic Period in topics varying from architecture to ethnobotany. There were a lot of moving parts in this project and learning how to balance everything was an interesting challenge that I would not have been able to do without the support of SAM staff.
The opportunity to engage with an artwork that is a part of my heritage has been one of the most meaningful experiences of my internship. Hope, pride, identity, memory, and healing are just a few words that come up for me; they are integral ideas that underlie everything I created. I hope that I made my community and family proud, and that the content I developed for Relief Panels (Door Reveals) can serve as a bridge to inspire all of SAM’s visitors. I hope everyone visits Cosmic Beings and spends time with its art, engages with the smartphone tour, and considers how the art connects to the thriving Latin American community today.
– Lena Ishel Rodriguez, SAM Emerging Arts Leader Intern
SAM’s Gardner Center for Asian Art and Ideas presents the 2022–23 season of the Saturday University Lecture Series, with nine talks by leading scholars exploring the social power of architecture. Renée Cheng, Dean of the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington and a catalyst for advocating diversity and inclusion in the field, kicks off the series on Saturday, September 10 at the Seattle Asian Art Museum with a discussion of cultural identities and their expression in the built environment. Haley Ha, SAM Manager of Public Engagement at the Asian Art Museum, spoke with Cheng about her background, why equity matters in architecture, and how architecture can respond to ecological concerns.
“Space and culture are interconnected—they shape and reflect one another. When we understand the cultural messages conveyed via sacred architecture, we become aware of how those messages are heard differently depending on cultural identity.”
– Dr. Renée Cheng
Haley Ha: Tell us about your background. How did you first become interested in architecture?
Dr. Renée Cheng: I grew up in the Midwest—the daughter of a painter and an engineer—and in so many ways architecture is something of a combination of the two. I always enjoyed making things when I was a child. I did a lot of painting and sculpture, but it was messy stuff. It wasn’t like a kit of Lincoln Logs or Legos; it was clay and paint and messy things that were much more open-ended in what they would lead to. So I wouldn’t say that it was a straight line to architecture by any means. I actually considered medicine at one point, but I grew into really understanding my passion for making things and making beautiful things.
Later, I started realizing that it had to do with spaces, not objects, and my focus shifted over time to be increasingly oriented towards people and the collaborative ways that you have to work to build buildings. I became more interested in the interaction between people aligning around shared goals for occupied spaces and the use of space and places.
Ha: How would you describe your work and research to someone who has never heard of the ideas you explore?
Dr. Cheng: I am an architect and I maintain my license, but I don’t build buildings. I don’t design buildings. I teach those that will be building buildings. I also study the field itself and look at ways that it could be more innovative and beneficial to more people. There’s a lot of the stereotype of an architect like Frank Lloyd Wright in a cape, working for wealthy clients, or even, you know, primarily working for a limited number of people. I am really trying to promote an idea of architecture that positively affects more people, the idea that a well-placed window to a view or a sequence of spaces that allow you to be part of a group ceremony can elevate the spirit. It’s something that an individual might be able to do, but working together with others, really understanding the different points of view that go into making a space that works for more than one person, creating a space that’s large, larger than what one person can build is really what I what I look at in in my work.
It was not a practice in the same way that an architect would practice in an office, where there are buildings that you can show and point to and say we did that; but it’s more of a development of programs and looking at ways that the entire discipline and profession can change. My work has been primarily US-based, but I look at a lot of international examples, often in terms of the way they incorporate new technologies or legal structures of financing that allow for different ways of working. So it encompasses more than just the practice of architecture itself.
Ha: You’re an advocate for diversity and equitable practices in the field of architecture and built environments. Can you briefly describe built environments in both research and practice? And what role does diversity, equity, and inclusion play in it?
Dr. Cheng: Built environments really include all of the areas that are not natural, that are actively built by shaping of land and the infrastructure. It includes smaller-scale spaces, rooms like where you woke up this morning, with a particular light condition and orientation, or the transit you use for shopping or working. The room that you were in, the living structure, the transit, the infrastructure were all planned. It’s part of a city that was planned.
Volunteer Park was planned and laid out in certain ways to emphasize or enhance certain aspects through the choice of what to plant. Some of it might have been growing here and preserved, and others might have been added. So there’s all those aspects of what makes up our built environment. They were all planned, designed, and executed. Someone had to figure out how to pay for it, had to logistically make it happen, and get all of the permissions to make sure that it would work and function in the way that it was intended.
So, what role does diversity, equity, and inclusion play, when you think of that broad definition of built environments? Historically those designers were hired by a small group of people, often very wealthy, and the input was usually fairly limited. And so in the end you ended up with some really beautiful spaces and places for sure, but also certain decisions that really negatively impact communities—often communities of color—whether it was in the placement of highways or the general economic investment in affordable housing. You had a lot of communities that were left out and negatively impacted by architecture. And so what I have worked for is to find ways to include more voices, to include more factors. When we consider what is good design and to find ways that we can accomplish them effectively, not only economically but with sustainable and good practices.
Ha: In the past, architecture has been viewed as a male-dominated field. As an Asian American architect and a woman of color, what challenges have you faced in the field?
Dr. Cheng: There is a definite stereotype of architecture as a male-dominated field and definitely the dominant culture is white males; if you look across the leaders and award winners, they tend to be white men, especially in America. In my experience as a Asian American architect, I’m the first woman dean of the college. I’m the first person of color. But I’ve also been the first or often the only designer or practicing architect in a group of academics, academic architects, or woman in a very dominant technology-related field. So, quite often these are even more white male dominated than the general population of architects. I’ve definitely experienced being the only woman in the room. This can have some positives in that you get noticed, and some negatives in that you get scrutinized, or you sometimes feel like you’re speaking for an entire group and can be tokenized.
I’ve been committed to increasing the number of women in architecture in particular since I was in school. I had an experience when I was in graduate school, where our class was composed of about 30% women who went on to do amazing things like become firm leaders, these women were just really incredible. And there was a time in our graduate studies where there were no women faculty on a fairly large faculty group. And we talked to the dean about this, and his response was: there were no qualified women to hire for teaching, and that statement was so shocking to me, and made me renew a commitment that I think I hadn’t articulated before then to change that by setting up systems and programs that mentor and initiate faster pathways through the education and the professions for women and other identities that were underrepresented in the field.
A lot of the work that I do is centered on the experience I had in graduate school, of feeling like there’s got to be another way. It’s not that there were no qualified women. It’s that they were not easy to find, or that they weren’t retained, promoted, and made visible. Because I knew that my female classmates had a lot to offer. We were probably losing a lot of amazing input as well by not having the role models to help us succeed in our field.
Ha: What are some of the biggest challenges for ecological issues of our time, and how can architecture play a role in solutions?
Dr. Cheng: Worldwide, buildings are forty percent of the energy consumption and they can make up eighty percent of what goes to our landfills through construction and demolition processes. You can say that you know buildings and cities bear a disproportionate share of energy consumption, and also they have a disproportionate responsibility of being a solution to the problem.
Let’s use embodied carbon, for example: the carbon that is used while you produce a building, maintain a building, and disassemble a building. It’s actually a more sophisticated way of thinking, not just of the cost of your electric bill for your air conditioning. Or consider a materials decision, and how much transportation it takes to transport this piece of wood from a place that maybe doesn’t have natural forests. Would concrete be a more economic, ecologically, and carbon-reducing choice? So, it gets pretty complicated, pretty fast, but the overall impact of the development on sustainability and climate is really pretty clear. Architects, building contractors, real estate developers, and landscape architects, we all bear a disproportionate responsibility for climate solutions, because the product of our work bears a disproportionate share of the energy consumption.
Ha: This Saturday University lecture series is focused on sacred spaces in urban settings; I’m interested in the collaborative work between UW’s College of Built Environments and the Nehemiah Initiative for faith-based congregations and the communities they serve in the Central District. It seems to have been vital for these places to survive the socioeconomic challenges in the historically black neighborhood. Can you tell us more about this collaborative effort and how this initiative played a role?
Dr. Cheng: This project is a multi-year commitment to the Nehemiah Initiative, which is a group of Black churches in the Central District of Seattle who are working together to promote their beloved community. Our college hosts a series of studio classes where students work with church leaders and community members to study the potential for church property to be developed in ways that provide housing and community spaces that can support the Black community.
We have an interdisciplinary team of faculty and I teach about the intercultural aspects of working across differences. The differences that I focus on for the class include disciplinary differences in how an urban planning student and a real estate student might think about the best use of the land. It also includes how our students can work with a Black faith-based community while bringing in their own experiences and expertise in respectful and effective ways.
– Haley Ha, SAM Manager of Public Engagement at the Asian Art Museum
Photo: Renée Cheng, dean of the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington. Image courtesy of Sean Airhart, NBBJ.
This week’s SAM Object of the Week was written by University of Washington student Ji In following a presentation given by SAM Assistant Curator of South Asian Art Natalia Di Pietrantonio to the class “Gender and the Hindu Goddess” in the spring of 2022. This essay has been edited from its original form by SAM staff for brevity but the overall content remains the same.
Painted in 1986 by Baua Devi, Kali, as the title explains, is a portrait of the Hindu goddess Kālī. Most recently on view in Embodied Change: South Asian Art Across Timeat the Seattle Asian Art Museum, this artifact is a medium sized painting made on paper with ink and color. This essay will explore the format and iconography of the painting that illustrates the goddess’s benevolent yet captivating assertion of power by focusing on the gaze depicted in the portrait. Stylistically, the painting belongs to Maithili art. Historical background on the art style, including a brief biography of Baua Devi, will help explain the significance of Maithili art which has given female artists renewed identities and empowerment adding special elements of power to this painting.
The format of the painting—ink and color on paper—and its technical features, bring out the intensity of Kālī’s gaze focused straight at the viewer, lending an aspect of assertiveness. The painting depicts the face of the goddess colored in vibrant and saturated colors. The range of colors Devi uses is limited to a palette of white, black, and dark blue, filling most of the painting to depict the goddess’s skin. Meanwhile, the colors pink, red, and yellow are used as accent colors to bring out certain features like the outline of the goddess’s eyes and lips. Kālī’s features are made up of mostly thick and bold lines, except for the bindi/tikkā on her forehead, suggesting her third eye, elaborated with fine lines of black ink. The overall simplicity of this painting with bold strokes and a limited range of color, allows the viewer to easily focus on the essential aspect of strength in Kālī’s glare that Baua Devi portrays.
The iconography depicts the goddess lacking the typical visual features of Kālī and mainly focuses on the eyes and her benevolent assertion of power. Some elements of Kālī’s typical characteristics are portrayed in this painting, such as her deep black and blue skin, as well as her three eyes. However, the painting lacks a lot of other features associated with the goddess. Kālī is recognizable as a fearsome and destructive female deity, often visualized holding a sword and a severed head, wearing a garland of skulls and a skirt of arms, and with her tongue protruding and dripping blood.1 Baua Devi’s painting lacks these features and focuses only on the goddess’s face with no hint of ferocity. Her typical menacing appearance is replaced with a smile aimed toward the viewer. Normally, a scary portrayal of Kālī’s distinguishable characteristics is important as Kālī’s is known to lead people to liberation, moksa, allowing people to face their fear and the uncertainties of life, while enabling them to be conscious overcome realities.1 At the same time, Kālī still had benevolent elements with iconography of her right hand in a mudra hand gesture that grants boons and assures her people to not fear.1 Such shows how it is only the physical appearance of Kālī that might be unsettling, because Kālī is compassionate to those who worship her and grants them something beyond what this physical world can offer. And possibly, Baua Devi wanted to focus more on such a benign, yet still powerful aspect of the goddess.
Stylistic Composition of Mithila Art
As mentioned previously, the main stylistic composition of this painting is that this artwork is done in Maithili/Madhubani style. Not only the fact that this painting is done by Baua Devi, who is a renowned Maithili artist, there are detectable elements of the Maithili style painting such as bordering of the painting, and usage of bright natural pigmented colors. The artwork has a painted frame that borders around Kālī’s depicted face in a pink and yellow zigzag pattern. Such framing pattern is typical in a lot of Baua Devi’s work and that of many other Maithili artist. The bright colors of the painting can also be a clue to distinguish the work to be Maithili art, which appears to be done intentionally to maintain the original style of this art. In an interview with The Better India, a digital media platform covering popular news, Baua Devi emphasizes the importance of maintaining authenticity by keeping the traditional style of using twigs, fingers, and natural pigments of colors like black from charcoal, yellow from turmeric, white from rice, blue from indigo, and saffron from marigold.
History of Mithila Art
The history of Mithila art and its various associated artists—like Baua Devi—comes from an ancient cultural region of India, located in the Northeastern part of Bihar, made up of small rural villages.2 This art form originated from their wall art depicting images of various Indian epics of many deities in people’s personal homes. Such paintings were done by a particular practice known as Bhitti chitra where Maithili women painted on the walls and floors of their mud homes.3 It also served a common social purpose which is to summon gods to bless newly married couples with love and fertility.4 In the same interview with The Better India, Baua Devi also said, “According to the custom, all the women in the village gather during a wedding or a special occasion to draw complex geometric and linear patterns on the walls of the house. The art would usually be scenes from mythology and nature as symbols of love and prosperity.”2 This art was originally very personal, kept only as a regional cultural practice, and wasn’t known to a much greater public. Carolyn Brown Heinz, a professor of Anthropology at California State University Chico, noted on such seclusion of the art until a fateful event of earthquake in 1934 that hit the area and exposed many of the wall paintings to be seen by several people, including William Archer who was a young British official visiting the area to assess the damage.4 Archer was amazed at images of the vibrant colors of goddesses with various features of the deities like water lilies, snakes, and the sun in natural pigments painted in the interior of the houses. Sometime after, a drought in 1966 prompted an urgent need to improve the economy in the area. Chair of All-India Handicraft Board, Pupul Jayakar who was aware of beautiful images of Mithila’s wall art, sent an artist, Bhaskar Kulkarni to Madhubani (city in the Mithila region) to look for female artists of the Mithila to produce paintings on a paper, that could easily be sold. Baua Devi was one of many female artists who were recruited. Heinz highlights how such movement of the art from wall to paper as medium brought many changes to the region and its people. First, it fulfilled its main goal by bringing significant economic relief, especially in the impoverished area of Bihar. Mithila art also became known to a much wider public like tourists and foreigners, bringing a cultural awareness of Madhubani, a region previously rarely visited, which brought a significant change to the artists. Most of the well-known Maithili artists were women. These female artists, who used to make no profits from their art works, now became the main source of income to support their families. Being in a fairly patriarchal society, such an art movement empowered these women by allowing them to gain greater respect and support, and to contribute greatly to not just their families, but to the greater region of the location with its economic and cultural growth.
History of Baua Devi
Baua Devi was also one of the female artists who became successful after contributing to the transfer of Maithili art on paper. She was born in Jitwapur village in Bihar and was taught Maithili art as the usual tradition by her mother when she was 13.2 Her talent was discovered by Kulkarni, the artist sent to recruit Maithili artists, when she was 19 after her infant’s death and was suffering from a physically abusive husband. Kulkarni influenced her art to change from typical Maithili art form to a place where she can be expressive of her thoughts. He advised her to freely paint out of her imagination.3 Such teaching might explain the unconventional portrayal of this painting of Kali. However, his advice to the Mathila artists might have also influenced the deterrence of traditional aspects of Maithili art. Heinz also noted how one negative impact from the movement to paper was that the art might have lost its religious meanings in order to better cater towards foreigners who have no interest in knowing its significance.4 This raises concern about the authenticity of Maithili style art and that it only focuses on the elaborated and visually appealing aspect of the artwork to attract the public’s interest. However, Baua Devi’s artworks testify to how the artist still appreciates and maintains the traditional aspects of the art by continuing to portray Hindu deities and conserving traditional art technique methods like using natural dyes in her art work, while not being limited to add her personal identity through abstract elements as well. She is now an incredibly successful Maithili artist who is recognized all across the world. Devi has won many awards such as the National Award in 1984 and Padma Shri in 2017, and her work is sold in various countries across the globe like the United States, Spain, France, and Japan.5 With such success, this new form of Maithili art has given Devi a new identity and freedom in various aspects. She found the freedom to express her thoughts through her paintings, and to no longer be subjected to patriarchal bondage. Devi often discusses how she can’t choose her favorite painting because she views Madhubani painting as her identity and says, “All my paintings are amalgamations of customs, history, and love.”2 Her statement shows how she believes the Maithili paintings have given her a new identity that has connected her with history.
The artwork Kali made in ink and color on paper depicting the frontal profile of goddess Kālī lacks typical iconographic features to instead focus on the goddess’s intense gaze and benevolent yet dominant assertion of power. The Maithili style of painting, and Baua Devi’s own personal story together embodies the theme of female assertion of power. Kālī being the goddess with power of time, lives as the goddess to many from the ancient times of Vedic era to contemporary period among Maithili artists including Baua Devi.
– Ji In, University of Washington Student
1 Foulston, Lynn, and Stuart Abbott. Hindu goddesses: beliefs and practices. Sussex Academic, 2009. “Behind Painted Walls: The Story of Baua Devi & Mithila Painting.” Sarmaya, March 26, 2019.
2 “Painting Is My Everything: Art from India’s Mithila Region – Exhibitions – Asian Art Museum.” Asian Art Museum, May 4, 2020. https://exhibitions.asianart.org/exhibitions/painting-is-my-everything-art-from-indias-mit hila-region/.
3 Rinder, Lawrence. Baua Devi and the Art of Mithila. University of California Berkeley Art Museum, 1997. https://bampfa.org/program/baua-devi-and-art-mithila-matrix-175.
“What’s up with all these rabbits everywhere?” asks Brendan Kiley for the Seattle Times’ Pacific NW Magazine. For the story, he met up with Bobby McCullough, Facilities and Landscape Manager at the Olympic Sculpture Park, to go in search of King Bunny, a resident bunny who may be responsible for a good number of the 500+ rabbits who make the sculpture park their home. P.S. Check out our video series Botany with Bobby for more stories from the park.
Crosscut’s Black Arts Legacies project, which launched in June, is still delivering. Here, project editor Jasmine Mahmoud writes about singer Ernestine Anderson, who had a voice like “honey at dusk.”
“Ernestine was jazz and blues personified — she musically participated in both worlds,” daughter [Shelley] Young says of her mother’s musical impact. “Singing the blues involves storytelling,” she continues, “and she loved telling a story.”
“[Former Seattle SuperSonic Spencer] Haywood said in an interview on Sunday that he and Russell would often dine at a Seattle restaurant called 13 Coins after road trips, and Russell would regale him with stories about the civil rights movement.”
One of the most influential Black American artists of the 20th century, Jacob Lawrence spent the latter years of his life living and working in Seattle, serving as a professor at the University of Washington’s School of Art. In 1977, seven years after his move, Lawrence painted The Studio, depicting himself in the attic of his Seattle studio. The Studio narrates Lawrence’s artistic journey of growing up in Harlem, moving westward, and his subsequent artistic development. Outside the window, Harlem tenement buildings scatter the view, connecting his relationships between Seattle and New York. In a 2000 interview, Jacob Lawrence spoke about this painting:
Yes, that’s my studio here, in Seattle. Not in this apartment, but it’s Seattle. And this is what my studio looked like going up the steps. And my neighbor, our neighbor is an architect. And these buildings back here bring somewhat of the tenements of New York. In reality, this is an empty wall. So I decided to put that back, to use that as a sort of symbol of my thinking of the big city, of New York.1
Lawrence grew up in Harlem after his mother relocated the family there in 1930 when he was thirteen years old. Wanting to encourage her son’s creative expression, his mother enrolled him in an after-school arts program shortly after their arrival in New York. Due to financial hardships, Lawrence was unable to finish his high school education. Yet, he continued to take classes at the Harlem Art Workshop, where he was mentored by the painter Charles Alston.
Lawrence’s upbringing in Harlem was one of the most formative periods of his life, and he frequently referred to those memories and experiences in his work, regardless of his geographical location. He specialized in scenes from Black American life and culture, taking inspiration from the stories of elders within his communities and transferring them into his paintings.
While best known for his paintings of workers from various professions, The Studio offers a glimpse into his work as an artist and teacher as he welcomes the viewer into his own studio. Lawrence referred to his style of painting as “dynamic cubism,” inspired by the colors and shapes of Harlem. The Studio showcases his use of vivid colors, bold linear movements, and mastery of geometric form.
– Kari Karsten, SAM Emerging Museum Professional Curatorial Intern
Unlike summer, with its durational heat and drought, winter in the Pacific Northwest brings with it water—and lots of it. We’re only two weeks into 2022 and we’ve seen over six inches of rain already, thanks to a deluge of atmospheric rivers.1
With water as its subject, this photograph by Johsel Namkung (1919–2013)—taken almost exactly 42 years ago on January 17, 1980—focuses on the swirling, glistening eddies of the Yakima River. One can feel the temperature of the waters—once snowmelt—merely by looking at the image. Rocks and sediment visible through the river’s crystal-clear waters are in rhythmic balance with translucent currents of refracted light and bubbles.
With a background in classical music, studying at the Tokyo Conservatory of Music and later the University of Washington School of Music, Namkung possessed a penchant for visual composition as well. However, his studies of nature are more than mere documentation, they express “the impression of sound, music, emotion or philosophy.”2 In a 1989 interview he described his attraction to the “beauty in the lowly humble clumps of, or groups of plants, and weeds, and things like that. I think that is the essence or a component of a great nature.”3
Namkung’s work will be on view in the upcoming special exhibition, Our Blue Planet: Global Visions of Water, opening March 18 at our downtown location. Showcasing a diverse range of artists and practices, the exhibition examines water’s pleasures and perils, as well as its changing role in our lives.
– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate
“As a woman artist on the cutting edge of her field, Cunningham’s story is an important one to tell,” says Carrie Dedon, SAM’s Assistant Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art. “She undertook artistic collaborations with Ruth Asawa and Martha Graham, and I hope viewers leave not only with an understanding of Cunningham’s innovation and experimentation, but also her collaborative and charismatic spirit.”
“‘There’s so much evidence that she embodies the ethos of a Seattleite—being adventurous, being a free thinker and really embracing nature. And being such a gutsy woman so early on,’ says Elizabeth Brown, an expert in the history of photography, UW lecturer, and former chief curator of the Henry Art Gallery.”
“‘Contributing to the rise and the presence of African American choreographers, to me that is the big legacy. Dani worked tirelessly. I don’t know what’s going to happen with all of that now that dani’s not here,’ said Donald Byrd, artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater.”
“As a Black artist, I want that freedom and liberty for people to experience my painting on their own terms, with or without having a built-in, overly structured narrative of the Black plight attached to it.”
Two feminine beacons of African futurism are now on view in Seattle. One is in the Seattle Art Museum and another arrived this spring on the University of Washington campus. Both encourage taking a moment to reflect on one’s destiny, and consider ways of approaching the future with new insights.
When chaos and disorder overtake your confidence in Yoruba culture, it is time to consult a babalawo, or “father of secrets.” The woman in the museum would appear to assist him. She kneels, just as Yoruba belief specifies that each person kneels to choose a destiny before being born. She wears only waist beads and holds a fan, showing modesty and respect. Her head extends into a long cone which is where one’s destiny is stored. The babalawo uses this divination tapper to call upon Orunmila, a deity who knows more about the hidden possibilities in your life that you are not aware of.
This is just a short summary of a highly evolved Ifa divination system, a living oracle that, in 2008, was inscribed by UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage of humanity. A video issued by UNESCO provides a brief overview with a visit to Nigeria and offers a chance to see the tapper in use.
Moving outdoors, a newly installed woman presides over a campus soon to be activated by students in their quest for new destinies. She sits, embodying calm, while her body is covered with slithering tendrils. Her face merges with a shining disc, evoking a means of connecting with unidentified essences that hover in the air, stirring questions about what lies ahead. The Seated IV (2019) is part of a group of four entitled The NewOnes, will free us, by Wangechi Mutu, a Kenyan-born artist. Her explanation about why and how these visionary women came to be is encapsulated the below video.
– Pam McClusky, SAM Curator of African and Oceanic Art
Images: Iroke Ifa (Divination Tapper), 20th century, Yoruba, Nigerian, Ivory, 15 1/2 x 1 3/4 x 7 5/16 in., Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck Collection, 68.26. The Seated IV, 2019, Wangechi Mutu (Kenyan, born 1972), Bronze, 80 1/2 x 33 3/8 x 36 3/4 in., University of Washington, Plaza of the Hans Rosling Center for Population Health, Gift of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Seattle Art Museum is open, with limited capacity and timed tickets released online every Thursday. Jasmyne Keimig of the Stranger reviews Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle, now on view at SAM.
“America’s persistence as a country and a project was not foretold. Rather, it was violently taken and sketched out, marked by slavery, genocide, war, and immense struggle experienced by those seeking their own freedom and those looking to impose their will on others. It’s a point hammered out in the rest of the series.”
“The arts and culture industry has relied on old models and underpaid, overworked people for decades. Those models weren’t cutting it even pre-pandemic, says LANGSTON’s [Tim] Lennon. ‘The old ways were not that great for a lot of small organizations, artists and culture workers, especially those from BIPOC communities,’ he wrote.”
Tessa Soloman of ARTnews on how executive roles in equity and belonging are on the rise at museums; she interviews Rosa Rodriguez-Williams at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Craig Bigelow at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, and others. The article references SAM’s appointment of Priya Frank to Director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in August 2020.
“Not all of this work requires funding—it’s about changes in procedure and process,” [Bigelow] said. “Too often there’s a default to slowing the work or stopping the work because there’s a perceived lack of funding. But this isn’t entirely about funding—it’s about will.”
While you can’t visit City of Tomorrow: Jinny Wright and the Art That Shaped a New Seattle currently, you can still experience the artful legacy left behind by Jinny Wright. Discover outdoor art in Seattle with this tour of public art acquired or commissioned by The Virginia Wright Fund. The fund was created for Jinny by her father Prentice Bloedel in 1969. Jinny stated, “Commissioning works of art for public spaces was unheard of in the late ’60s.”
Follow along to see the outdoor art that shaped a new Seattle through the initiative of Jinny Wright.
Broken Obelisk, Barnett Newman, (1963-67) University of Washington
The representation of the obelisk as broken and inverted is intended as protest and critique of power and colonial ambition. It’s as resonant today as it was in the midst of the Vietnam War when the artist created the work.
Iliad, Alexander Liberman, 1984 Seattle Center
See this piece from all angles by walking both around and through the portal of this bright red constellation of circular forms.
Moses, Tony Smith, 1975 Seattle Center
Originally commissioned as a plywood maquette in the 1960s by the Contemporary Art Council—another brainchild of Jinny Wright—the welded steel piece, coated in black paint was realized with the help of the Wright Fund.
Wandering Rocks, Tony Smith, 2016 Olympic Sculpture Park
Make sure to walk around this five-part installation for a sense of how the artist plays with volume and perspective and geometric forms.
Bunyon’s Chess, 1965 & Schubert’s Sonata, 1992, Mark di Suvero, Olympic Sculpture Park
Jinny Wright greatly admired Mark di Suvero. Bunyon’s Chess was Jinny’s first private commission made for her garden in the 1960s, while Schubert’s Sonata was commissioned by Jinny and the museum to be installed at the edge of Puget Sound.
Adjacent, Against, Upon, 1976, Michael Heizer Myrtle Edwards Park
This art by Michael Heizer combines cast concrete forms and granite slabs quarried in the Cascade Mountains.
Head to the PACCAR Pavilion and you’ll spot two more works from Jinny’s personal collection. Ellsworth Kelly’s Curve is installed on the entrance wall to the Pavilion and Roxy Pain’s stainless steel tree Split can be seen in the meadow below.
Hammering Man, Jonathon Borofsky, 1992 Seattle Art Museum
Conclude at SAM’s downtown location where the Hammering Man hammers 24/7, only resting once a year on Labor Day. This piece was commissioned for In Public: Seattle 1991 and supported by the Wright Fund.
Extend your tour to Western Washington University in Bellingham for a campus sculpture tour—Jinny’s Wright Fund brought spectacular commissions by artists such as Nancy Holt, Bruce Nauman, Richard Serra, and Mark di Suvero to campus for all to enjoy.
The Japanese art gallery at SAM’s downtown location was recently reinstalled with a focus on the Mingei movement in Exceptionally Ordinary: Mingei 1920–2020, on view through Novemeber 8, 2020. Initiated in the 1920s by the Japanese collector and connoisseur Yanagi Soetsu (1889–1961), Mingei elevated functional, everyday crafts to art objects. Since its foundation, Mingei’s broad applications range from mid-century decorative arts to contemporary designs, ceramics, textiles, sculptures, and prints, examples of which are hanging in our gallery. Prominently featured, are works by the late Seattle-based artist George Tsutakawa on loan from the George Tsutakwa Art Legacy. The Tsutakawa family share below about George’s inspiration and how his furniture fits in the installation at SAM!
George Tsutakawa began to build bronze fountain sculptures in 1961 with the installation of his first fountain at the Seattle Public Library. He eventually created 75 fountain sculptures in the United States, Canada, and Japan. The fountains reflect his intense interest in the cyclical flow of water from the heavens to earth, creating rivers and oceans that nourish life. His basis of humanity in the Shinto religion indicated reverence for life in all forms made by nature, such as trees and rocks.
Tsutakawa’s professional art career spanned 60 years. He was a professor of art at the University of Washington for 37 years. In his personal statement from The Pacific Northwest Artists and Japan in 1982, he expressed that sometime in the 1960s his travels and studies of traditional Japanese arts allowed him to reaffirm his “conviction in the Oriental view of nature school which sees Man as one part of nature, a part that must live in harmony with the rest of nature.”
Thus Tsutakawa’s furniture from the 1940s and 1950s reveals this conviction to nature within his art and serves as the starting point for his later artistic forms. Although he was a modernist, even in his furniture forms, his work relates to the Japanese Mingei movement, which is largely based on traditional and folk art.
Tsutakawa’s early furniture is functional and evokes a connection to nature through fluid organic shapes and materials.
The Tsutakawa family is currently reorganizing the artist’s collection with the hope of preserving his work and making it more open to the public as well. You can visit SAM to see Tsutakawa’s artwork in Exceptionally Ordinary: Mingei 1920–2020, on view through November 8, 2020.
– Mayumi Tsutakawa & Chyenne Andrews
Images: Installation view Exceptionally Ordinary: Mingei 1920–2020, Seattle Art Museum 2019, photos: Nina Dubinsky. Kizamu Tsutakawa
Situated beside the sublime glass and steel edifice of the Seattle Public Library Central branch stands Fountain of Wisdom (1958–60), designed by George Tsutakawa. This piece was the artists’ first public fountain commission after a prolific career as a painter, sculptor, and teacher in the Pacific Northwest. Within the Seattle Art Museum’s collection is Fountain (1971), a bronze metal sculpture that helps tell the story of Tsutakawa’s unique Japanese-American experience.
Tsutakawa was born in Seattle in 1910 and spent his early years in Capitol Hill, not far from Volunteer Park. At the age of seven, like many American-born kibei, he was sent to Japan for an education in Japanese art and culture. When he returned to Seattle a decade later, he studied sculpture at the University of Washington and spent his summers working in the Alaska canaries. Drafted into the US Army during World War II, Tsutakawa returned to UW as a graduate student on the GI Bill. Soon after, he began his teaching career in the School of Art.
During the mid-1950s, artist Johsel
Namkung introduced Tsutakawa to a book called Beyond the High Himalayas.
Included were descriptions of ritually stacked stone structures accumulated by
travelers at mountain passes as private and public spiritual offerings.
The influence of these obos proved to be profoundly impactful on
Tsutakawa, forming the basis of much of the rest of his life’s work. After
creating a series of abstract wooden sculptures, Tsutakawa
translated obos into metal sculptures and public fountains.
Fountain stands over five
feet tall and is composed of a single vertical axis that holds a stack of
abstract forms: a footed base, a pronged shallow bowl, intersecting
parabolic-shapes, and a hallowed ovoid. It is easy to imagine this sculpture as
a fountain, water flowing over and through the bronze forms; the symmetry
adding to its geometry.
From 1960 until his death in 1997, Tsutakawa designed and fabricated over 70 fountains. His work can be found all along the West Coast, as well as in Washington, DC, Florida, Canada, and across Japan. Fortunately for Seattleites, a crowd-sourced map has been created to help us locate this important artists’ public works.
– Steffi Morrison, SAM Blakemore Intern for Japanese and Korean Art
 Kingsbury, Martha. George Tsutakawa. Seattle: Bellevue Art Museum and University of Washington Press, 1990.
Having lived here all of my adult life, Seattle has played a huge role in shaping me and helping me find my voice as an artist.
I first moved to Seattle so I could study painting at the University of Washington. I lived in a downtown loft space on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Virginia sharing the building with musicians, sculptors, filmmakers, writers, photographers, and painters. I took classes from influential professors like Jacob Lawrence, Michael Spafford, and Curt Labitzke who helped guide me as a young artist.
Over the years, I’ve spent countless hours sketching in cafes around the U-district and in restaurants and bars throughout the city. I was drawn to the vibrant neighborhoods of Fremont and Capital Hill which fed my creativity and I found calm walking the beaches along the sound and nearby parks.
My paintings are a reflection of the people and places I have grown to know and love. I implement images from a variety of sources including sketches and photos I have taken around town over the years. I paint on vintage windows salvaged from local buildings being transformed. As I repair glazing or touch up the wood frames, I think about the history and stories behind the window and what was seen through the glass. I like the depth that this adds to each of my paintings.
Next time you’re downtown, stop by SAM and enjoy some time with my cast of characters on display at TASTE through August 6.
Seattle-based artist and University of Washington professor Denzil Hurley’s glyph paintings are aptly titled. A glyph is a symbol. One that typically conveys an agreed upon or shared meaning. These can be the unique marks of the written word, a graphic element, or an inscription. More broadly, a glyph can be a shape or color that we understand to have an agreed upon purpose separate from language, such as a circle with a slash through it for “no,” or red for “stop.” In Hurley’s work, shape and color are paramount. Well known for his monochrome paintings and impact on the world of abstract painting, a selection of these glyph paintings currently hang at SAM in Denzil Hurley: Disclosures, on view through November 5.
In Disclosures these paintings become sculptural by being mounted on repurposed sticks and poles. As objects, the glyph paintings become reminiscent of signs and harken back to Kazimir Malevich’s 1915 painting, Black Square which was intimately tied to social and political discussions at the cusp of the October Revolution in Russia. Deceptively simple, there’s a density to Hurley’s black canvases in his layering of the paint and in his use of materials. Spend some time in Disclosures the next time you come by SAM and consider what you derive from a redacted painting involving the form of signs and the framing of the wall. What does your understanding say about our socially constructed meanings of these symbols?
SAM: The works at SAM came out of visits to Barbados. Can you tell us about these trips? I’m thinking specifically about how they informed the material concerns of your work.
Denzil Hurley: The idea of repurposing materials arose out of observations I made over many years, and several trips there. The paintings in the exhibition were selected from a larger body of work that began around 2006–07. Each piece was thought of, and developed individually out of my interests in modular forms and structures involving squares and rectangles.
Do you see these paintings as a whole? If I think about the public protests being referenced through the work, and the “power in numbers” philosophy behind taking to the streets, do you feel that viewers can derive a larger meaning by seeing the group than by seeing a single work in the series?
I exhibited related pieces from this larger body of work in the Northwest Biennial at Tacoma Art Museum in 2009, and a Francine Seders Gallery group exhibition in 2012. I welcome the curatorial decision at SAM to select, and present the work in a particular way. It certainly serves to open up the room and bring certain referencing to the fore.
You talk about density in your paintings. In your monochrome paintings how do you use a single color to create layered meaning?
My working process and painting ideas involve color, layering, stacking, erasure and concerns with surfaces that allow individual differences to be developed and realized in each piece.
In a work such as the piece framing the empty wall, does density continue to play a part in the work?
Within the context of one piece relating to another and involving the wall, the floor, and bringing together painting ideas, sculptural form, and installation practice, it allows for conjunctions between differences.
Images: Installation views of “Denzil Hurley: Disclosures” at Seattle Art Museum, 2017, photos: Mark Woods.
Our mission statement here—“SAM connects art to life”—truly guides much of our work and many of the decisions our leadership team makes. We see art as a response to life and as something that should be accessible to everyone in their different journeys. Believing our art is relevant, we want to show people how it’s relevant. It’s why we have a blog series where we talk about our collection objects!
In the museum space, we also connect art to art. When SAM expanded in 2007, the curators made a point of bringing their permanent collection displays together in thoughtful ways. We published a book at the time, called Bridging Cultures, which outlined the curators’ thinking. If art connects to life, and if all of us who share life are interconnected, then all art is somehow linked too. Finding those points of connection can be difficult. I love wandering our permanent collection galleries because these connections across people and across time become clearer and more meaningful to me.
Mexican American artist Emilio Amero was born in Ixtlahuaca in 1901. He trained at the Fine Arts School of San Carlos, and in 1924, he worked as an assistant to Diego Rivera on a mural project at the Ministry of Education Building in Mexico City. In 1955 Amero finally realized his own mural, not in his native Mexico, but in Norman, Oklahoma, where he had taken up a teaching post at the university about a decade earlier. He worked in a wide range of materials over his career, but his work in lithography was particularly significant. So, why are three Amero paintings, including this striking Head of a Woman, hanging in our gallery of Pacific Northwest Modernism, alongside works by Mark Tobey and Guy Anderson?
From 1941-1947, Amero brought his talents to Seattle. Invited to teach at the University of Washington on a Walker-Ames Fellowship, Amero established a reputation as a skilled artist and teacher. A 1942 advertisement for a print shop Amero ran quotes Walter F. Isaacs, then director of the School of Art at the University of Washington, who calls him “one of the most able and versatile art teachers in this country.” In 1943 Amero moved to the faculty at Cornish School of the Arts. For the school’s 30th year, opening of September that year, he served as director and instructor of painting, drawing, commercial and graphic arts—joined on the faculty, as he is today in our galleries, by Guy Anderson, who taught children’s art. Not to brag on us, but we have an important collection of Amero paintings that is a monument to his time here.
Like other notable artists working in Seattle at the time, many of whom grew up in the Pacific Northwest, Amero was geographically far from the forms of Modernism developing in New York. His vision was essentially different because it was rooted in Mexico. There, Modernism developed after the Social Revolution of 1910, as artists like Amero and Rivera shrugged off what had become an oppressive European influence, looking instead to ancient indigenous Mexican art. The heritage of Amero’s native Mexico inspired his form of Modernism much like the land and peoples of the Pacific Northwest inspired Tobey and Anderson.
—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator
Image:Head of a Woman, 1947, Emilio Amero (Born Ixtlahuaca, Mexico, 1901; died Norman, Oklahoma, 1976), tempera on panel, 18 1/4 x 15 1/2 in. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 47.134, Photo: Natali Wiseman. Caption for ad: Seattle Daily Times, August 9, 1942, p. 30.