Interview by Aidan Fitzgerald | Photographs by Andrew Waits


Whatever a photograph sounds like, Megumi Arai’s sound like the exact moment two people stop talking in an empty warehouse. Her photographs sound like your bed after you’ve both gone to work, they sound like waiting. Megumi’s work is figurative, but she refers to it as abstract portraiture: the faces are often obscured or turned away from the camera, draped in shadow or hidden altogether. “A lot comes out when the camera is there. But then I hide it. I know how that person looks and feels and sees, but the reason why I hide it is because each person is completely unique. By obscuring these certain elements of the human, it could become anybody. It allows people to come into the work.”

Megumi’s work delicately captures the precise moment when her subject ceases to be a person – a “self” – and becomes a gateway for us to enter into the photo. In this manner, her work investigates just what it is to be ourselves, and allows us to try out another self, if only for that moment of the photo.

Although I’ve known Megumi for years, I have never seen her in the studio. I’ve seen her shoot before, at events and such, but that’s documentation, that’s taking pictures. When she’s taking pictures she glides through the crowd, exchanges hellos with just about everybody there, hugs and laughter, gotta move on, need a shot of that guy over there.

When she’s in the studio, that’s something different. I have never seen Megumi in the studio, in her element, on a shoot, but when I ask her about it her eyes go wide and her voice gets smoother. “I don’t like to be in complete control, because it feels weird, it’s not natural and you don’t get the best photographs. But I do feel out each person, and I do generally give very specific direction. Within that direction, it’s kind of like this push and pull game. It’s practicing being able to shed control, because with each person it’s totally different, there is so many variables… the quietness on that set. I work in complete silence.”

Megumi’s methodical practice is evident in the precision and depth of her work. She works mostly with a centralized composition; each figure is balanced in the center of the photograph. Her camera seems to focus more on the texture of skin than on the skin itself. Hair becomes an abstract shape, a form entirely separate from the body it covers. The shadows hold a deep velvet black, the figures are constructed from some material more dense and dry than flesh.

“The work is less about ‘who is that person?’ and more like what does this person represent. Each person looks at the photograph or the piece and they decide the piece represents. And what they believe that piece represents says more about that person than the piece.”

A while back, I walked into Vermillion, a bar in Seattle with a large artspace in the front section. Towards the back of the gallery section, I saw two women furiously painting over a huge portrait of Megumi. Thick black paint dripped down the photo, while Megumi stood next to the performance. Members of the audience were invited to paint over the portrait. After Megumi’s face was completely covered, another portrait was revealed. She told me the piece was about rebirth, about how we let other people silence us. Our identities are not such mutable objects. They cannot be covered with paint, no matter how thick. Identity and the ideas of the self are central in her work.

“We are objects, the human body is a sculpture. I like the silent moments. I like to make silent work, maybe because I’m so loud. That is a real part of me that maybe I don’t express as much. I think that my photos explore that silence in me… going back, in my history, I didn’t have the ability to be alone. Translating that into my inability to be quiet. But my need to be alone, my need to be quiet. Wanting those things, finding great value in those things, but being so fearful of them too. And trying to recreate those things in my images.”

Serrah Russell | Scraps

Essay by Rich Smith | Photographs by Megumi Shauna Arai


“I don’t want to know the answer; I want to feel the question.” // Serrah Russell.


The halls of the Klee Building smelled of weed and bubblegum as I walked them on my way to Russell’s apartment, which, as is the case for many in a rent-hiked city, also serves as her studio. Russell has no explanation when I ask her about the funny combo of smells in the hallway, but is quick to offer water, iced water, tea, iced tea, a place to sit, anything I need. She gives me the tour. If you step out onto her balcony and look west, you can see a sweeping view of Elliott Bay, its expanse of blue, its islands and mountains that are easy to confuse with clouds. Look due north and you can see a wall of other condo windows. Living rooms with the television off. A dude in a Facebook t-shirt just standing up. Couches with nobody on them. And to the east is downtown Seattle with its pile of towers marching up to Capitol Hill. Mountains and buildings, street lamps and trees, garbage and gold.


On top of all that she’s got these amazing desk lamps that look as if they could have been recovered from a sunken ship’s captain’s quarters. It’s at this desk where she puts in most of her hours. A framed piece by Stand Up Comedy above her desk reads: “I’m Working Hard to Make Art Come Easier,” which seems to be the mantra of her newfound routine. “Every morning I force myself to sit here and work for an hour. I even allow myself to feel bored if I need to.”


She sounded like she was doing her best to hold back a Virginian accent—echoes of twang and gentry—and the hard work ethos she’s adopted reminds me of the protestant ethics pumped into the young boys and girls of my hometown in the Midwest, but she’s lived in Washington her whole life. As a conversationalist, she’s a quick talker. Her thinking is discursive—ideas fracture, and then she loops back to complete them. And its here, in the way in which the English language courses through her, where the connection between her thinking processes and her art-making process seem most apparent to me. Indeed, Russell admits to being a heady creator: “I spend so much time finding the fragments, thinking about them, matching them up, creating them, discarding them, and then repeating this process again and again.” Though an individual piece might only take a few moments to construct, so much thinking and failure precedes a given piece that each seems to hold the weight of hours of work.


In her collages Russell upends our sense of scale and of likeness: warm hands root mountains in air, pleather shares a line with lace, hotel hallways fill with turbulent water–or are they clouds? Her work reveals an eye drawn to weaving together seemingly disparate images. She’s got an eye that sees the limb in a limb, the high ridge in a window still, and the maple leaf in a Dick’s burger wrapper tumbling down the street. When she jams a log next to the wrist of a disembodied limb, she’s opening up radiances of relation between objects. In her more abstract work she delights in jamming together textures that don’t often share a stage, and playing with angles in a way that blurs the line between the image and the frame of the piece.



As far as subject is concerned, she seems most interested in exploring human experience through natural elements. “Everyone knows what a tree is. So a landscape can allow a commonality of experience, where the viewer can bring her own thing to it. I suppose I could show someone’s sad face, but I’d rather show a tree that’s degraded with all its leaves blown off.” Her generosity toward the viewer extends to her treatment of these landscapes, too: “I like that landscapes feel simultaneously solid and yet constantly in flux. It feels permanent and totally not, somehow.” By not directing us one way or another, we viewers are kept in this same kind of flux, which empowers us to take our own paths of interpretation and appreciation. In this way, her clipped and minimal landscapes give us space to create our own vast and detailed countries.


These fragments, she claims, are not worlds but are of a world. And this idea hits on another of her obsessions: absence and presence, the way in which something that’s there indicates something that isn’t there, or vice versa. “You don’t always get to keep everything, you know? But you do get to keep a part, and I’m interested in what you can tell with that little part.”


Lately, though, she’s been thinking about going big, making larger pieces that pop off the page—but she’s reticent. “I haven’t been making large pieces because I think that the “bigger equals better” thing is an idiotic idea. It’s kind of macho. But then I think, ‘Is my work smaller because of what it is, or is it because of a lack of having seen other female role models of this sort of thing?’” She shows me a version of a piece she did for Portland Center Stage, a large collage of body parts done in greyscale. Everything in the piece has its opposite pair: black and white, hard lines and soft lines, smooth and rough textures, masculinity and femininity: the piece explores the very question that worried her about making it in the first place. If she plans to continue to bring to her larger works this level of sophistication and thought, then I say blaze on ahead, sister.







Q&A Atta Dawahare


Atta Dawahare is someone we have seen out and about in Seattle, always with a smile on his face and passion for the day to day. His support and love for the arts was always of interest to us and when he contributed to the creation of this project we wanted to feature him in the beginning of a series about art enthusiasts.

Sierra Stinson: First off, tell us about yourself. What are you interested in and what do you do professionally?

Atta Dawahare: My name is Atta Dawahare and I help people grow. Professionally I am a Licensed Mental Health Counselor. I have a private practice, Union Therapy, down in Pioneer Square. I have been in business since 2002.
In my life and practice I focus a lot of my time and energy exploring inner dynamics that affect the way we perceive ourselves, our relationships and the world around us. In addition to my Master of Counseling, I also have a Master of Divinity.
SS: I would love to know how you are involved in the artistic community here, I know you have a bit of a collection going yourself and would love to know whose work you’ve collected. Who are the artists you have your eye on these days?

AD: I have been going to art galleries and concerts since I moved to Seattle in 1998. In 2012 I took a very special class at the Victor Hugo House called Writing the City. It was taught by Charles Mudede. In that class I met Amanda Manitach. Via Amanda I have met so many great artist in the Seattle area. Last year I volunteered with Crystal Barbre and Kyle Abernethy at the Art Lair in Belltown. My goal was to create a presence for growth in their community. It was an experiment that attempted to help students process what came up for them emotionally as they faced the challenges of learning to draw and paint. Art is not just a skill. Art in many ways is what allows us to connect with each other and ourselves. Having help processing these connections can be such an empowering experience.

When a new client comes into my office I always mention in the first session that my goal is to help liberate them to become more fully who they want to be. This is the gift that art has given me. Art allows me the space to more fully be myself and connect with others who are pushing beyond the preconditioned perspectives that bombard us daily. I was raised in a very fundamental christian home in Kentucky. I can not remember a time in my life when I did not know that we were to give 10% of our financial income to the church. While I no longer ascribe to religion, I have taken a powerful lesson in giving. The way that lesson translates into my life today is through supporting local artists by purchasing their work. I often think of the Smurf society. Aside from the totally bizarre gender issues going on there, I love how everyone can do what they do in society and it is cool. Like Artist Smurf. He just gets to make art. And that is it! No one expects him to do any more or less. Nowadays most artists in the city have to try to find a way to make art and survive living in ever increasing expensive society. Bottom line: Support your local artists. And do it regularly. Build it into your budget like you had one. As way of inspiration here are some of the artists I currently have works up in my home: Amanda Manitach, Crystal Barbre, Monica Rochester, Amanda Prince, Siolo Thompson, Jay Mason, Laurel Dodge, Almendra Sandoval, Kerry Confer and Maysun Dawahare.

SS: How does art interact with your every day?

AD: Art is vital to my survival and growth. I may be able to continue to breathe without art, but what would be the point?

SS: What is it about visual art that intrigues you and fuels you in life?

AD: Visual art allows me to stretch my consciousness. It takes me beyond the default norms my mind settles into. Visual art is a powerful expression of imagination. Imagination is key to psychological healing. To see beyond that which entraps our vision. Art is expression and experience. Visual art can either suddenly or subtly draw the viewer both into and out of themselves.

SS: Do you have any galleries, museums, site specific installations, sculptures, spaces in and outside of Seattle that you are inspired by which you like to frequent?

AD: As for local galleries I love what Sharon Arnold has done with LengthxWidthxHeight and now Roq La Rue. I also am really into what Tariqa Waters has going on with Martyr Sauce by Occidental Park in Pioneer Square. Both of these curators own themselves and their perspective in such a powerful and beautiful way.

SS: Have any artists currently or in history impacted your life either directly or indirectly?

AD: Growing up I was primarily exposed to internationally known artist. The first two painters I fell in love with were Georgia O’Keefe and Vincent Van Gogh. O’Keefe seduced me with her sensual expressions of nature while Van Gogh was the first painter to engage the tormented soul of my youth. His willingness to cut off his ear and the fact that he was not popular at all while he was alive really spoke to me. Artistically he inspired me on the path to seek out artist who were on the outside of main stream society and culture. Artist who create art because not creating art would be despair.

SS: If you could go to any place or event outside of the Pacific Northwest for art (performance, visual, music etc.) Where would you go?

AD: I would like to go to the Roadburn Festival in the Netherlands. I love live music. I love it loud. I love it in my face. I love it dark and intense. And while I am there I would like to visit the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. I have already been to the O’Keefe museum in Santa Fe, NM.