you are not dead

A night of visual art inspired by Wendy Xu’s You Are Not Dead (Cleveland State University Poetry Center) produced in collaboration with Vignettes.
Reading by Wendy Xu

Susanna Bluhm, Max Cleary, Jueqian Fang, Aidan Fitzgerald, Klara Glosova, Paul Komada, Francesca Lohmann, and Søren Nilsson


This event is supported by Poets & Writers, Inc

Wendy Xu

Francesca Lohmann

Aidan Fitzgerald

Departed | A Conversation with Graham Downing

Graham Downing:  hi yo!

Sierra Stinson:  Hiya!

So let’s jump right in – you’ve been away for a few days now.

GD: yes slowly approaching a week

SS:  I would love to discuss the four works you’ve created for ‘I’ll Never Understand the Difference Between Arrivals and Departures’ currently on view at Glass Box Gallery can you describe each one to someone who hasn’t been to the show?

GD:  totally, its a fairly sparse show, usually my work has to be dismantled afterwards so its a relief to create something i feel has high impact but also couldn’t fall onto someone.

SS:  haha

GD:  the show is a video, a book, a sculpture and a performance all of them discussing themes of time both moving forward, looking back and right in the middle too the heart of the show is the performance, a piece called “land of the lotuses”, represented by a calendar on the wall the performance is attempting to leave seattle and not come back for three months having been born in Seattle beating the previous record for time my body has left the city.

SS:  yes, I recall your first and (only?) artist statement you’ve written

‘Graham Downing was born, raised and plans to die in Seattle’

GD:  hahaha, thats every statement I write usually with the addition of “Graham is also sorry he never got back to your texts or emails”

SS:  hahaha and its very apparent in this exhibit.

GD:  i was born here, I’m here now I’ll always come back

that is sort of the idea

The second piece is two book ends, facing away from each other so there book pressing pressures shoot away from each other. It is called “pre birth post death”  and i love that it represents everything in time thats not myself – if that makes any sense its everything but you

SS:  exactly.

GD:  In thinking about my own future and past I realize thats even squished in between two things

SS:  I love that piece, it’s something that has come up in your practice in the past as well.

You tend to create these spaces / installations for individuals to take time in. And I feel like now you are taking your own time. You are the installation or in it.

GD:  Certainly, many of the works I have made before- specifically installation, has a sort of “crawl in this hole and see how you feel” thing going on, Here’s a whole box you can get inside, here’s a thing you can play with, I don’t really know the answer to the equation but I have the components to the problem..

SS:  haha

GD:  in this piece i think I’m crawling into the hole myself

though i kinda love crawling in the whole too

SS:  Yes. And so where does that hole / whole exist now?

What are you looking for?

GD:  oh god


i think i didn’t know until I left.

and maybe i still don’t know

SS:  Well in art practice, it can be the action that helps you find out right? I always thought so.

GD:  I knew that I couldn’t answer it until i was out here

SS:  Yes -the act of creating allows you to understand why you are creating to begin with.

GD:  like guessing felt like trying to predict the future

SS:   indeed.

so you left Seattle, to go where?

GD:  I am in Eastern Washington now, staying on a ranch in the Methow Valley – opening a store and gallery in town with my collaborator Max Kraushaar

SS:  That sounds dreamy.

GD:  it is

Today i went rock hounding and watch rushed hour

SS:  haha, sounds like the duality of being out on your own.

GD:  haha

SS:  What will the store / gallery be like?

GD:  right now were calling it an inconvenience store

SS:  haha

GD:  i sort of see it as an installation of a store

SS:  nice.

GD:  Max and I are both very interested in those glass cases at gas stations with all the whippets and lighters and sex drugs, the kind of dumb things you collect on your dash during a road trio

SS:  What every trucker might need or want.

GD:  Totally

i think that if we pursue it as a flexible installation and not a rigid store we can be more opportunistic to ourselves and the community

SS:  Definitely.

GD:  we do want to sell lighters, but i will be painting mostly and hoping to sell them

GD:  i think to answer the question of why a large part of it was to paint in a large studio in a space that would enable me to possibly sell it

SS:  So rather than simply being the city slickers out in Eastern Washington you want to integrate yourself into environment and see where you fit in the town?

GD:  Absolutely, I’m waring of using Eastern Washington as a rustic background to foreward our hip city look

SS:  Makes sense.

there aren’t many large studios in the city these days. How large of a space are you working on out there?

GD:  its a large space, like really big, i think its around 2000 square feet

SS:  wow, that’s great!

GD:  I don’t think i could throw a baseball all the way across it

though I could probably whip a penny that far

so it is that big


SS:  Haha, Nice. I can see it now

So back to what you’ve left behind. Just for a moment then we can travel back to where you are now.

What else did you create for the exhibit currently up at Glass Box?

GD:  I created a video during the install of the show called “breakdown during install thinking about leaving”

It is a just a 40 minute long loop of me having a panic attack while you and Serrah take the last show down

SS:  yeah, I’ve spoken to a lot of people about that one. It seems to really draw them in, watching you in that pink light.

GD:  the light was perfect

like heat stroke

SS:  yes

GD:  what have people said about it?

haha, its strange to have not been at the show with anyone and not know how the opening even went

SS:  Well, the opening went really well.

people took time with each piece it seemed.

Some individuals closed themselves into the video installation room and just sat with it

Watching you in the video stressing out sitting on that floor, fidgeting away

GD:  haha so good

i bet seeing me sit makes people wanna sit

SS:  definitely.

GD:  like oh yeah, i could just give up on this whole standing thing and be on the ground right now

SS:  yes – they are sitting with you. eye to eye

GD:  i think that video makes a lot of sense too because I was crying in public a lot before I left, it made sense that that vulnerability would be a part of the show

SS:  definitely, it felt necessary to me too.

GD:  but regardless that piece came about as the blunt answer to how I was feeling during the install, freak out, and we had a camera so i just sat down and we filmed it

SS:  Your presence in your absence and your last moment to really express how hard this is to do.

GD:  toootally

its my placeholder at the show

as everyone remembers me



SS:  haha

and then the autobiography.

Where you are most present in history.

GD:  Truly, for the show I knew I wanted to try and write my autobiography, not only because i want to write more and it seemed like the perfect prompt, but for the joke of everything up until the show – the last entry is “and then i wrote this, and then i left seattle”

it is almost 280 memories and stories from the last 26 years of my life starting at birth and ending two days before the show

SS:  There was a que for it at the opening,  it’s also fairly illegible if someone doesn’t know your writing, so people were helping one another in reading it aloud.

GD:  hahaha

oh god

most of it was written pressed against my knee drinking coffee so there are all sorts of stains too

SS:  And its a few notebooks right?

I had to clarify to people that none of the text was written back then from when you were a kid.

How long did it take you to write it?

GD:  Three different ones, written over the month before the show

SS:  Your memory of your childhood is so clear.

GD:  It took a month, with sporadic writing, sometimes memories would unpack other memories and it would be like a vein

SS:  definitely

GD:  i think it helped that i had been telling stories from my childhood for most of my life

so it was easy to remember these very choice moments that ive used to relate to people before

SS:  You have, I was surprised how many I actually knew.

GD:  haha

i believe it – Everyone’s heard that Frida Kahlo story

SS:  true. It’s so classic.

There is a lot of crying, confusion and self deprecation. Like any good comedian.

it’s like your stand up act

GD:  truly

so much crying

i was scared of a lot as a child

SS:  What do you think triggered that fear? Or was it just there from the beginning?

Your text makes it seem like it was always there.

GD:  Boy, I think I’ve just always been very sensitive, especially as a child

luckily I grew up in an environment where that was okay

SS:  definitely, Seattle with your family – I can see that.

GD:  it has helped my comedy for sure

i got that going for me

SS:  You’ve always used it for your advantage

vulnerability makes the best comedy.

but i feel this way with art too

Hence why this show feels poignant to me regarding your practice.

You aren’t hiding behind any smoke n mirrors, it is very raw.

Even the metaphor of the ‘land of the lotuses’ isn’t accurate, it’s the way you remember it.

GD:  haha

i like this show because it relies on zero impressive construction or material

SS:  true true

GD:  I like to create things that are emotional beyond their physical state. I think that is a big part of my comedy coming into visual art. How to take what you have and rearrange it bigger than itself

SS:  I love that idea.

GD:  It’s the same confusing way that jokes make us laugh, is why art makes us feel

SS:  indeed. So with this exhibit, why now?

You’ve had the idea to leave Seattle for a long while

but then to integrate it into a piece…and these other works too.

There are a lot of threads that have come together here.

GD:  Certainly having somewhere to go helped, a place I could go and work on things

Making it a piece was in some ways a way to paint myself into a corner and do it

i sort of wanted to trick myself into leaving

because i was afraid i never would if i didn’t.

That is the whole idea of the ‘land of the lotuses’ – it is so comfortable you never leave

I was trying to pull my face outta of the flower a bit just to see what else is out there.


It’s really weird out here


SS:  it’s always healthy to rattle your own cage a bit.

shake things up to see what you find.

GD:  Performance art is all about examining your comfort zone

SS:  Definitely.

GD:  My comfort zone is Seattle

My comfort zone is Seattle in bed

SS:  Yes. I can see that.

How do you feel about being out there?

GD:  Sometimes really scared

Like really starting to admit I’ve moved, I’m not sure I’ve done that yet.

SS:  Committed to 12 weeks.

GD:  I keep thinking things like “oh ill just grab that at art primo when im back” and things like that then realizing i wont be.

I think it is the fear many of us have (that we should let go of) that the choice we are making is not the right one (even though it has to be)

I’ve been moving around a lot lately, in the last few months and am ready for something to feel like the right choice

hopefully out here does

though it probably will.

I went for a hike today and found Eagle feathers and now I’m sitting in my studio surrounded by rubble that will be a store soon

SS:  that doesn’t sound like such a bad choice yet.

I think you can do it. But it always comes down to if you really can and want to.

GD:  yeah, I am more sure now then I was before leaving

more sure that i could

SS:  definitely. You will go through stages and that’s okay.

Well I’m wondering what else I have to ask you…do you have anything you really want to talk about?

GD:  every single parking spot in this town has oil stains

every single one

SS:  haha. I know exactly what that looks like.

I believe we will be sending a couple writers out over to you two once the studio is set up to do a studio visit.

GD:  that’s exciting to me

i cant wait for them to come!

SS:  I know what that looks like but will you still take a photo for us?

GD:  yes! should i send it now?

SS:  Yes!

GD: onnnneeee sec

GD: wait

how do i send a pic?


i emailed it to you

SS: Got it! so serious

GD:  haha, feeling serious

SS:  I understand.

GD:  If anything else i just wanna thank people for checking out the show and wish me luck! look out for info about the store in the future! Thanks!

SS:  Will do! Good luck and talk to you soon Graham!  xs

GD:  bye! x

Chandler Woodfin | Like a Crystal Clear Stream

Essay by Willie Fitzgerald | Photographs by Serrah Russell

I’m early for my interview with Chandler Woodfin, and I’m hungry and a bit woozy.

I’m at the corner of 4th and Lander in SoDo, and after an unsuccessful foray into a Greek restaurant (I sit completely alone in the restaurant for five minutes, hear people argue in the back room, leave) I walk into the massive Home Depot. I wander through the garden section, shake a trellis to check its sturdiness. Someone asks me if they can help me.

They have a small turret of cinderblocks and paving stones in one aisle and then, in the larger, open ­air section, a bunch of half­ dead fuchsias dropping browned leaves onto a pallet of marigolds. At checkout I buy a bag of honey roasted peanuts and a Snickers bar and then eat both, in about two minutes, in a different garden section, looking at spindly shade trees and sad little pepper plants.

Inside Woodfin’s studio, I’m thirsty. I still feel a little lightheaded. The studio is located on the third floor of an old factory building in SoDo, and from her windows you can see north to downtown. A train howls by every few minutes (that’s one of her favorite parts about the studio). On the windowsill are a stack of plastic cups for watercolors, a two­ inch­ tall brown plastic horse, and a Fremont Troll Chia pet, as yet unadorned with seeds. Elsewhere in the building is a woman who makes bespoke oven mitts that look like puppets. Woodfin’s got one of her newer pieces—“still a baby”—laid out on the table. It’s large, maybe four feet wide and two feet tall. It’s still skeletal, but various parts of it are already taking shape. Soft textures meet rigid lines, murky bleeds bump up against light, confident brushstrokes.

A few years ago Woodfin painted haunting oil portraits of historical figures. Then, a shift to watercolors and a period of work inspired by the Duwamish River in Seattle, where industrial runoff meets the Puget Sound. Now her work is even more abstract— calligraphic, Japanese ­influenced lines billow into more regimented, herringboned sections. I think about brickwork and climbing vines.

“Fuck Mountain,” is a swelling, lush, gloomy piece. It suggests a beautiful plant that smells like rotting meat, or like a coral reef mistaken for a cancerous growth. It’s the first piece she’s ever titled a piece with a profanity, but she seems happy with it. It is, after all, a piece about fucking—it’s about conception, the body, lust.
“Fuck Mountain” and its companion pieces are also a return to fluidity. “After my last show, I got really, really formal and really tight,” she says. “I wanted to focus on where where my work with water colors all began. And it began with conception!” That’s a nod to her son, Grey, and how he, in utero, steered her art career: when she was pregnant, she found that oil mediums like linseed oil made her feel ill. A friend recommended watercolors. Woodfin says her new work is often about the body and how “it’s beautiful and simultaneously not.”

I want to talk about the body: not politically, but biologically. The body is insane. It is complicated and free­flowing, but also orderly, logical, regimented. The bone marrow makes the blood. The blood goes through the heart to the lungs, which then takes the oxygenated blood from the lungs to all the parts of the body. When I eat, my brain releases a bunch of chemicals and I become, temporarily, a more pleasant person.

Woodfin shows me another work in progress—it’s on an approximately 30” by 20” piece of paper. The piece covers about a third of the paper, and represents, she says about 40 or so hours of work. She estimates she’ll need 90 hours, total, to finish it. Woodfin works in roughly 6×8” rectangles – she divides the piece into a grid and then focuses her attention on one little area. It takes her five hours to finish one sector. She starts each piece with an idea, often borne from one of her walks around the neighborhoods with her son. Her work used to involve hours and of research. Now it’s based more in ideas, connections, emotions. She’ll block out the general shape of the piece, but everything else—mark­making, color, line—comes improvisationally.

“I definitely work from my gut once I’ve figured out the shape. And I mean the most broad way: I know this one is going to be sort of tall and skinny”—she waves at the piece on the table—“and mountainous with a crevice somewhere in there. That’s it.”

She shows me another piece with little pieces of paper taped all over it. “I’ve recently started to cut out these unsuccessful pieces and place them on other pieces. I’ve never done this before. I went back to all my old pieces that didn’t work and cut out parts of them. I feel like I’m getting to the point where I’m busting out of the two dimensional realm, but I don’t want to leave painting. I’m trying to figure out how to solve both of these problems.”

In case it weren’t already apparent, Woodfin is relentlessly industrious, something she shares with her husband, sculptor and installation artist Todd Jannausch. The two have agreed to give each other two hours a day and one full day on the weekend to work; the rest is devoted to teaching and spending time with Grey and the family.
I leave the studio feeling, physically, better. On the train back to downtown I read a self – help book over a woman’s shoulder. The book tells the two of us that we must become like a crystal clear stream. We need to purge the negative thoughts and bitterness from our bodies. A few hours after that I’m hungry again.

CURATOR’S CORNER: The Alice Gallery

A Conversation with Julia Freeman & Julie Alexander



Julia Freeman: Hey Julie, here’s the google doc we can start working on.

Have you seen Elana Herzog’s work?  She’s in NY.  Oh goodness it’s good.  She takes old textiles and puts them into the walls and then takes them apart…at least what it looks like.  I listened to her interview on Gorky’s Granddaughter and she was spot on.  She’s big time, but would be a dream person to have in The Alice.


Julie Alexander : Oh man. She had a great looking show at Minus Space. I see her work on Facebook.


JA: This no-time-to-work-in-the-studio is starting to build up. I have so many pieces in my head right now. I have to do them to see if they’re any good. But for The Alice I want to do that show we were talking about today with Aneta Regel Deleu’s sculptures and Caroline Wels Chandler’s knit constructions. They would be awesome with Jamie Powell’s paintings and we could call the show Chocolate dipped red vines and serve chocolate dipped red vines (yuck!!).


JA: I am loving the intersection of textiles, painting, and sculpture.


JF: HAHA!  YEs!!  That would be one of the best shows I’ve ever seen if we could get all three.  Love the appetizers for the show.  Maybe there should always be some sort of food that relates to the show?   What should we do for Wrappings?  Bacon wrapped around stuffed figs?

JF: I think that’s our sweet spot, textile, painting and sculpture.  Have you checked out what Rachel Mcginnis posts on Instagram?  I think you might fall in love.


I WOULD fall in love with them except I’m not sure what I’m looking at. I can’t tell which images are process shots of another image or not. The one with the triangles is spot on though with the trim pieces and the hand embroidery. Have you contacted her about the show with Maria? I’ve received some images from her that I need to share with you. She is working on a series of small work she calls snowflakes. The name had me a tad worried that I wouldn’t like the work. Silly me. It’s Maria after all.


JA: I had tai food and now I am having too many girl scout cookies. hmmm.



that took a really loooong time to do. I bet Sharon would like Rachel’s work A LOT.


JF: Love that piece of Rachel’s.  What are you thinking we should pair well with Maria’s work?  On a different note, do you think my cat’s an artist?  These are the things she brought me yesterday.  Yes, that’s a sausage package.


Caprica’s collection, 2015



JA: Those are some good presents indeed.

So, since this is called Curator’s Corner and we are starting out on this adventure of curating together here are some questions for you. 1) What do you think we bring to the venture as a team? and 2) How do you feel about altering our “vision” to allow for more potential sales? Big questions. But also, should we do a show about what the cat drug in? I love that picture.


JA: Saw a Yevgenia Barras interview on Gorky’s Granddaughter you would like. She brings in the body and adornment and fairytales into her talk about her crusty, luscious paintings. I would love to show her work. When I think of pairing her with anyone it doesn’t work. In my mind she would play foreground to whatever else is in the room.


1. I think we use each other in a great way.  I think we are trying to a create an idea…what belongs  together to form sentences doesn’t always look or feel the same.  It’s such a delicate balance, but I feel like we are strong in what we gravitate towards. Then we work so well together knowing when something completes the sentence.  I don’t always know how this translates, but I feel like we are collaborating on installations with other peoples work.  We are making a space say something.  I think that you have taught me so much about seeing through your eyes.  What story does the edge of that paint create.  Cracks and crannies.  Surfaces and edges.  Under, over and behind.  Mazes that are fast then slow.

  1. I’m not feeling the sales component of our project.  I don’t see anyone buying art in this city.  If they do, it’s an artist or it’s for $100.00.  I don’t know if it’s worth our time or effort to try to convince or alter what we show to get potential buyers.  I’m up for applying for grants, selling t-shirts or baked goods.  I think that selling art is an old myth that doesn’t exist.  But then again, I don’t associate with anyone that has actually bought art.  Maybe I’m wrong and there is a secret community on Mercer Island that has rooms full of feminists abstract paintings made from old cloths and large collages that are about the country as a blood sucking psychotic machine.  If anyone has a room with artwork like this in it, please let me know and I will start a convent and hold regular worship.  I love to wear robes.
  2. 14.) Yevgeniya Barras.  I will check her out.  I will watch the interview today. And I think there was a gallery in Pioneer Square that had a show called Cats.  Anyone that did work about cats brought their work in.  I’m also into that.  I like presents from anyone.

4. How would you answer these questions?

5. How would you describe our space?  What we show, who and why?



JF: Lunch tomorrow?  How does noon sound?  We need to talk about the next exhibition schedule, installation and the writer.  Anything else?  Also, how the rest of the exhibitions are going.


JA: Do you think the coven of collectors on Mercer Island have a facebook page?


JA: What we show, who and why? Even the how we show! That physicality thing. A backdoor way to answer this is to question how value changes over time. I have always been interested in the underappreciated, the busboy, the maid, the gardener, the stenographer, the supporting role that is essential but unseen. And as part of that, the rot that makes the loam that nurtures the seedling. And as part of that, the slime that coats our pipes we pretend isn’t there as it builds up unseen in all those pipes everywhere. And as part of that, the races and genders and ways of thinking that go unseen, unvalued. How can we take that all in? I’m not coming from an activist perspective seeking equality. I’m not interested in a litmus test that essentialises an identity. I’m interested in a multiplicity, a simultaneity, an equality/not equality. The home screen on my phone is an install shot from USEd with Dawn Cerny’s sculptures, Ari Fish’s ladders and Lael Marshall’s yellow piece. There is a rawness in that trio of works that lets me experience the active mind of the artists and I can bounce from one piece to another and the openness and energy builds. There is also delightful domesticity and humor and distrust. This is not all about what women do but I come across it way more often in women’s art.


JA: What we bring to the venture as a team. You bring more of a narrative to the mix and broaden my vision. I have such an abstract painter’s perspective that I worry it is too limited. Blay!! You say, think and do things I would not think of. I feel like we get each other and each others work and that has is a solid base. So far, I know this whole thing would be so much less without you. Thank you.


JA: All of what we are saying points to The Alice as an extension of our individual studio practices. That is definitely the way I think of my forays into curating.


JA: Our space? Physically? It is just the right size with the right light and I thank Sharon Arnold so much for passing it on to us.



JF:  I love how you responded to these questions and is the foundation of why we work so well together.  Our base IS that we get each other and each others work, but also constantly challenge and trust each other.  I’m so appreciative that you asked me to be a part of this endeavor.  You have had and have been pursuing curatorial opportunities with a lot of success, so I was really surprised that you wanted me to do this with you.  I have never really considered curating, but once I switched my thinking and thought about it as installation art but using others pieces to create the scene…it became a really intriguing way to think.  An activity that is similar to my practice, but also more at stake by representing and supporting others and less control.  These two things are really good for me.  I also really enjoy working, talking, idea making with you.  You open me to seeing things I wouldn’t normally see or consider.


JF: The things not seen.  Is curating teaching?  As a teacher, there is such a fine balance between showing and telling.  I think every teacher battles with this.  Thinking about the unseen or the not-noticed, do we teach people how to see or do we put it in front of them?  And who are these people?  Who is our audience?  Are they the unseen?  Does the busboy, gardener, construction worker, laborer, electrician come to The Alice?  If they do, what do they think?  Are they being noticed?  My close group of friends in Seattle are not artists.  They are teachers, activists, non-for-profit workers, social workers, counselors, lawyers and again, teachers. These are all people that their profession is to share and to give.  One of my biggest concerns and worries when opening this gallery was if I was leaving them out of my world by showing work in The Alice that they did not understand.  These are very smart and capable people, but my worry was and is the production of not “getting it”  produced in gallery spaces. Continuing the long story of contemporary art vs. the working class would perpetuate itself in the gallery.  When to show and when do we tell?  Who are we connecting with?


JF: This is Helen Keller.  I have been re-reading the book I read about her life when I was 9 years old.  The book was my mom’s and doesn’t have a cover, the pages are yellow and crumbling.  This book is about how she learned to communicate, which lead to her being an activist and writer.  When I read this book as a 9 year old, it was the first time I “read” a book.  Before then, I wasn’t into reading and it was really hard for me.  The simultaneousness of me learning to read and think, while reading about her learning and thinking was revolutionary to me.  Sign language and Braille are both physical ways of thinking, communicating and learning.   Re-reading this book has really highlighted for me, my draw to physical metaphors, physical ideas and understanding through my body.  And also, the simultaneity that you were talking about in relationship to the invisible and the present merging.  I see a starting point as acknowledging the physicality of our bodies, ultimately creating empathy towards others.  I see our curating as physical in a way that acknowledges the body through looking.  I see this as a political act because bodies are politicized and   Octavia Butler coined the phrase “body-knowledge” which she used in all of her science-fiction novels and is a way of understanding how power works through the body and it’s experiences, senses, particularities, and histories leading to the embedded hierarchies of societies (my friend Kate Boyd wrote about Octavia in her dissertation and these are her words!  Thanks Kate!) Seeing materials manipulated, scale shifts, evidence of process and reaching for the illusion or the actual occupancy beyond the picture plane towards the viewers eyes and spreading out amongst the walls are all physical words within the sentences that we are trying to make together in The Alice. The haptic experience of knowing how something feels physically, through sight.


“We all walk in mysteries. We are surrounded by an atmosphere about which we still know nothing at all. We do not know what stirs in it and how it is connected with our intelligence. This much is certain, under particular conditions the antennae of our souls are able to reach out beyond their physical limitations.” Goethe, letter of 23 July 1820, quoted in Flahrty, Shamanism and the Eighteenth Century, p.173.

Anthony Sonnenberg | Hephaestus’ New Forge

Interview by Jim Demetre | Photographs by Sierra Stinson

At a storefront on the edge of Seattle’s old Georgetown neighborhood, where bars, antique stores and bike shops collide with the still flourishing remnants of the city’s industrial past, I am greeted by a large man, smiling and buoyant, who wears suspenders and a plaid shirt. The address is home to the studios of some of Seattle’s most prominent artists, but this afternoon Tony Sonnenberg is the only one at work.

Once inside, we wander past a row of identical, nondescript plywood doors behind which many significant works of visual art have been created prior to being shown in galleries and museums across the country. Entering one of these wood-grain portals, we find ourselves in Sonnenberg’s studio. Amidst the various hand tools and bags of raw materials scattered about the room, we are surrounded by a constellation of painstakingly-crafted gold metal flowers that will someday be appropriated into larger composite pieces. Right away we discover that we are in the presence of an artist who is unafraid to cross into the taboo realm of gilding the proverbial lily.

Placed upon the rough plywood shelves that stand against the walls are a series of amorphous, pumpkin-sized ceramic sculptures glazed in somber blues, greens and browns, some flecked thoroughly in gold. As we sit down, the artist’s youthful, bearded countenance bestows friendship, humanity and goodwill upon the visitor.

Nothing in today’s art world may evoke the grand tradition of European still life painting more than the overripe splendor of sculptor Tony Sonnenberg’s fecund, arresting candelabras, which resound with their ancient echoes of temporality and death. In their crumbling, burnished presences we are able to connect our own era with the observational sensibilities of old masters who once could represent the world and passage of time in a seemingly random assemblage of familiar objects. Sonnenberg’s pieces – modest in scale but monumental in feeling – are both alchemical fusions of unstable matter and contemplative subjects of accumulation, erosion and decay. While they evoke the richness of an art historical past, it is in their precarious nature that we recognize them as products of our own uncertain age – fluid, vulnerable and on the verge of disintegration.

Rounding up an array of discarded figurines and ornaments that were once created as distorted, cartoonish or oddly mannered specimens of plant and animal life (each possessing its own range of associations in both Eastern and Western art and popular culture), Sonnenberg covers, obscures, molds and forges them into new matter and form. His resulting amalgams of these now barely discernible life forms carry and transmute the combined essences of their component parts into tonally unified sculptures that are both tragic and comic; equal parts volatility and serenity.

While still in his mid-twenties, the Texas-born Sonnenburg has the somewhat wearily amused yet attentive sensibility of a mature artist and much older man. When looking at his work, all overwrought sensuality entwined with an ever-present understanding of mortality, I am frequently reminded of the 17th Century English poet Andrew Marvell and his most famous poem, with its determined, lustful exhortation to live and well-reasoned reminder of death’s certainty: Andrew Marvell: To his Coy Mistress. “Had we but world enough and time.” (Cavalier poem, Carpe Diem)

Sonnenburg’s decision to render these sculptures as candelabras further demonstrates his sophistication as an artist. As both a lover of materials and a keen investigator of genre, he refuses to engage in the tiresome debates about the definitions of “art” and “craft” that his work suggests by unabashedly turning them into functional, if outdated light fixtures. As the lit wax drips down upon his own molten forms, he takes us back to his process, methods and inspirations.