Lake Whatcom Washington, Elizabeth Colborne

Elizabeth Colborne; Lake Whatcom Washington, circa 1929; color woodcut, 16x11 inches; gift of the Bellingham Public Library.

Elizabeth Colborne; Lake Whatcom Washington, circa 1929; color woodcut, 16×11 inches; gift of the Bellingham Public Library.

Elizabeth Colborne divided her time between New York and Washington state during the 1920s, but work waned after the 1929 stock market crash. She came back to Bellingham and spent from May through October of 1933 in a cabin on Lake Whatcom to paint. From her journals we might conclude that 1933 was also an El Nina year; rain and chilly weather dominated many entries such as this one from May 8:

“I now find that since it remains so cold I have a schedule to stay late in bed reading science and planning, even to near noon. There’s a fire and lunch and paint inside while it is still warm. Then go out if it is not actually raining. This saves the eternal stoking of the fire. I said to myself that I did not come down here to burn up trees but to paint them. But it rains, so I have to burn.”

However, there is hope! On Wednesday, June 28, 1933 she wrote the following:

“The day ended in a glorious cloud show over the mountains across the lake, like a dramatic backdrop of stage scenery in its   dramatic glory. I have never seen it the least bit like that before. The sun must have set intensely to throw such a refection on the heavy clouds that floated about the top of the mountains immediately opposite. It was repeated, though with more depth of value in the lake beneath. All that was unusually blue was deep, dusky purple tinged to salmon color in the lighter part. The trees shone a yellow-green.”

Small Curtain, Michael Brophy

Michael Brophy Small Curtain, 1999, oil on canvas, 49 1/4 x 37 1/4 inches

Michael Brophy
Small Curtain, 1999, oil on canvas,
49 1/4 x 37 1/4 inches

ART IS A VISUAL MEANS of communication, but often what is not seen is as important as what is seen. Michael Brophy’s painting Small Curtain is an excellent example of how artists often suggest a narrative but leave the meaning ambiguous or hidden. Brophy sets up a mysterious scene that asks more questions than it answers. It makes us think.

Our eyes first see a red velvety curtain and a fallen tree stump. Behind the curtain is a forest. Is the curtain in the forest or is the forest on a stage? If the forest is on a stage, why? Perhaps the artist is suggesting that the audience (or viewers) are watching nature but not in it. Or – maybe that we see nature, as represented by the forest, as something to admire from a distance, something to entertain us, to add drama to our lives.

Two large trees in the foreground seem to be protective of the fallen tree. The fallen tree and the two strong vertical tree trunks just behind it visually block us from entering further into the scene. To the right, an opening exists for the viewer to enter and when we do we are pulled back by an S shape of light toward a distant background space that is full of backlit trees. If we could walk back into that space, what would we find? What would it smell like? What sounds might we hear? Or would there be only silence?

Is the curtain going up or coming down (on nature)? Is the play beginning or ending? Will we walk into the scene and become part of the play, or will we stay removed, waiting for the next act?

To me, the best art engages the viewer on many levels – sensory, emotionally, and intellectually – and is open to multiple interpretation. What’s your interpretation of Small Curtain?

— Mary Jo Maute, WM Education & Public Programs Coordinator

Union, Diem Chau

Diem Chau, Vietnamese-American, b. 1979; Union, 2008; Porcelain cup, silk, and thread. Gift of Safeco Insurance, a member of the Liberty Mutual Group, and Washington Art Consortium, 2010.53.11.

Diem Chau, Vietnamese-American, b. 1979; Union, 2008; Porcelain cup, silk, and thread. Gift of Safeco Insurance, a member of the Liberty Mutual Group, and Washington Art Consortium, 2010.53.11.

CLEARLY THE SMALLEST piece in the New Gifts and Acquisitions exhibition, Diem Chau’s Union, a tiny (just over 2 inches high) tea bowl holds its own amid much larger, bolder and more colorful works. Perhaps its minute size and simplicity is part of the attraction.

Attached atop the rim of the porcelain bowl, clay from the earth tested by fire and heat, is a scrim of sheer organza with hand-embroidered images of two hands — one male, one female — joined by a loop of red thread.

What does it mean? Diem Chau has created a tactile memory piece referencing her Vietnamese culture, her family history and the univer- sal importance of connectedness. As refugees to the United States in 1986, her family kept memories and traditions alive by storytelling and sharing contemplative moments over tea.

What makes it art? Art is always about something. If the metaphor or message intended by the artist resonates both emotionally and intellectually with the viewer the object has achieved its goal. Art does not have to be beautiful or even recognizable, but it must make a connection with the viewer.

Do you respond to this piece? Does it awaken memories of shared family times; the importance of taking tea and time with loved ones? Who might the two hands represent? Do you own a cherished keep- sake that carries special memories of places or people in your life?

David Ireland, Untitled

David Ireland, Untitled, circa 1970, Sculpture, 3 x 12 x 10 in.

David Ireland, Untitled, circa 1970, Sculpture,
3 x 12 x 10 in.

WHAT MAKES IT ART? That’s the first question one might have when seeing this untitled sculpture by David Ireland. How can a vintage book with rough lumpy concrete bookends possibly be art?

David Ireland is presenting us with intriguing questions. What does the book contain? Where did it come from? What are the world’s greatest events and can they possibly be encompassed in one small book? And why place it between concrete bookends? To me the bookends suggest either construction — like mortar holding bricks together — or like seeing the rough, usually unseen, structure of a building.

The artist is surely offering viewers a lovely contrast in textures. Nothing feels quite like an old worn leather book to our touch. To have it supported by such unromantic gritty mounds of industrial concrete creates a playful counterpoint. Might he also be poking fun at the grandiose pronouncement of the book’s title by nestling it between two pieces of the world’s grittiest material?

Mr. Ireland, who died in 2009, is best known for transforming a run-down Victorian house in San Francisco’s Mission District into a home that was also a work of art. As he peeled back layers of materials, he exposed the story of the home and its former inhabitants, venturing into the nature of time and ordinary life as he went, with materials as mundane as wallpaper scraps, wire, brooms and rubber bands. Ironically, the pieces themselves become art in the process — offering a peek at the artist’s quiet sense of humor and Zen-inspired perspective. This sculpture, part of the Whatcom Museum’s permanent collection, takes on more meaning in this context. Perhaps the book came from that house?

Over time, he became well-known and respected for his work, which was exhibited in prominent institutions such as the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Center in Washington, D.C., and Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and collected by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. We love the fact that Ireland was born (1930) and raised in Bellingham, attending Campus School, Bellingham High School and Western Washington University.

— Mary Jo Maute, Education & Public Program Coordinator

An Iroquois Dreams That the Tribes of the Middle East Will Take the Message of Deganawida to Heart and Make Peace, Gail Tremblay

Gail Tremblay An Iroquois Dreams That the Tribes of the Middle East Will Take the Message of Deganawida to Heart and Make Peace

Gail Tremblay
An Iroquois Dreams That the Tribes of the Middle East Will Take the Message of Deganawida to Heart and Make Peace

GAIL TREMBLAY’S SCULPTURE, featured in Show of Hands: Northwest Women Artists 1880-2010 and a recent addition to the Whatcom Museum collection, interprets diverse cultural influences with results that are both striking and complex. The artist, also a writer and activist of Onondaga and Mi’kmaq ancestry who teaches at Evergreen State College (Olympia, WA), cleverly recycles and reconfigures 16mm film to create unique works of art that merge traditional and contemporary ideas.

In An Iroquois Dreams That the Tribes of the Middle East Will Take the Message of Deganawida to Heart and Make Peace, Tremblay updates traditional Native American basketry and critiques a global political issue by incorporating documentary film footage from the region in question. The artist creates surprising textures and patterns with colors that reference the flag of Israel and the Kaffias (scarves) worn by Palestinians.

“I enjoyed the notion of recycling film and gaining control over a medium that had historically been used by both Hollywood and documentary filmmakers to stereotype American Indians. I relished the irony of making film take on the traditional fancy stitch patterns of our ash splint and sweet grass baskets.” — Gail Tremblay

Tremblay brings layers of content and design together in a seamless and original style that can be appreciated both formally (artistic elements) and conceptually (theme and subject matter). She invokes a hero of Native American history, Deganawida (also known as “The Great Peacemaker”) who united warring tribes and formed the Iroquois Confederacy to comment on today’s ongoing conflict in the Middle East. All of these aspects build upon and play off one another, contributing to a compelling visual and thematic work of art.

— Barbara Matilsky, Curator of Art

Angle, Drizzle and Dot, Margie Livingston

Margie Livingston,  Angle, Drizzle and Dot

Margie Livingston, Angle, Drizzle and Dot

WHEN LINES AND COLORS come together in unexpected ways, the mind often recognizes something unique. In this case, what’s surprising is not only the composition itself — which is quite intricate — but the way in which it was formulated and the fact that the artist did so outside the confines of a traditional canvas.

Margie Livingston’s unusual painting is a complex web, a network of loopy, colored lines that merge and intersect at rhythmic angles. Think about a nest, a dance, an explosion…

The title, Angle, Drizzle and Dot, suggests the artist’s process, the spontaneous motion of making this work by drizzling colors to make lines that create angled patterns and finally large, layered compositions. Why is this significant?

Every so often, an art critic claims that “painting is dead,” that it can’t be pushed any further – there’s nothing new to explore. Livingston’s work says otherwise, both in the way she experiments with paint and the compositions that result.

Certainly Livingston is not the first to explore this process, which can be traced to Jackson Pollack’s famous skeins of paint. But, whether consciously or not, the way she builds on the idea is noteworthy.

These paintings make me smile. It is fun to see ropes of color directly on the wall without a canvas support. Livingston’s activated lines cling tightly to the wall to be appreciated as pure design and texture.

How we perceive art depends on our culture and individual frames of reference. There is no right or wrong, but instead information, knowledge, and experience. As with all types of activities, the more you have, the more discerning you become. In other words, the more you look at art, the more you see.

— Barbara Matilsky, Curator of Art