Q&A Cathy Hillenbrand

Cathy Hillenbrand is one of those people you meet and never forget. Her energy is like no one else, she is fully aware of the history and people around her grinning from ear to ear she will share it with you. An enthusiast by nature and involved in so much of Seattle’s community and future and we hope you enjoy getting to know her like we did!


Vignettes: Tell us a little bit about what you do in your work and life.

Cathy Hillenbrand: Recently I have been very involved in urban issues on Capitol Hill – 10 years ago we moved from our house near St. Joe’s (18th E. and E. Aloha) to a four-plex overlooking the city just west of Seattle Central College.  The Capitol Hill Light Rail station was being designed and planned, a three-block walk from our new home.  I was a Seattle Arts Commissioner, co-chairing the Public Art Advisory Committee.  I served on the Light Rail Review Panel for U-Link – the two stations soon to come on line on the Hill and at Husky Stadium.  When I completed my terms on the Arts Commission in 2009, I joined a stake-holder committee working with Sound Transit on public outreach around our station’s Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) on Sound Transit’s surplus property.  That led to formation of the Capitol Hill Champion which I chaired for five years – in that process I feel like I took crash courses in urban planning, transit planning, transit oriented development, the psychology of Sound Transit itself, city politics, property development, government relations. We worked with Sound Transit and the City to steward the neighborhoods’ vision for the re-development to come on top of the Light Rail Station.  I’ve also been very involved in PPUNC (Pike-Pine Urban Neighborhood Council) working with the Pike / Pine conservation overlay and developers using that incentive as they build in Pike / Pine.

I joined the board of Capitol Hill Housing in 2010, and am currently the vice-chair. Capitol Hill Housing builds and preserves affordable housing in Capitol Hill and in other areas of the city.  We do a lot of community development work in association with our housing.  Our most recently completed project is 12th Avenue Arts, a complex project which combines affordable housing, two black-box theaters, retail, office space for non-profits, and a parking garage for officers of the East precinct. As my committee work, I serve on the Capitol Hill EcoDistrict Steering Committee.

My internal life involves dreaming and other explorations of my life mission – I am in a dream group which meets monthly and dreams collectively.  I am still struggling with the desire to express my personal creativity.  I have two adult sons, one living in Egypt and one living in Montreal.   We travel to some amazing locations every year to gather our family together in one place.  My husband is a free-lance cinematographer happily busy with frequent ever-changing projects, so my work is to continue figuring my own self out, to keep strong relationships with my sons, to speak out when I am called to do so, to peel away the unnecessary, and to have compassion for my personal inadequacies!


V: Do you collect art? If so, who do you collect? What draws you to their work?

CH: I’ve never considered myself an art collector, but someone who lives with art that compels me.  My art collecting budget is negligible these days, so most of the work I own is not so recent. Some Seattle artists whose work I’ve collected and supported over time are Gloria Bornstein, Claudia Fitch, Sheila Klein and Annie Grosshans (performance, film and video).  I published art and artists books throughout the 80’s at the Real Comet Press – ‘from comix to critiques’ – another way of engaging with art and art practices.


V: What’s your connection or relationship with the visual art community?

CH:  I grew up around art – my family was very involved in the Birmingham Museum of Art (Alabama).  My personal sense was that artists had true voices, and if I wasn’t an artist, I needed to be around them.  In the 1970’s I was very involved with The Women Artists Group of the Northwest – we held an auction in 1976 to raise the money to bring Judy Chicago to Seattle to show at and/or along with her then husband Lloyd Hamrol.  That was a galvanizing moment for many young women artists in Seattle.  The Women Artist Group hung out, talked, had slide shows and potlucks, brought noted female artists of that time to Seattle.  One of my favorite events was taking Lynda Benglis to the Crystal Steam Baths.


V: Who are some of the artists you are most inspired by currently and or in the past?

CH: Sadly I’m not following art adequately these days as my energy is absorbed with the density/urbanity/affordability debate.  We did recently go see Zoe/Juniper’s durational performance at the Frye– I am crazy in love with watching Zoe move, and the quirkiness of her choreography.  Juniper’s visual installation at the Frye is fantastic.  Spending a slow Sunday afternoon at the Frye was a delicious luxury.

Artists I love, in no particular order, not just visual: Sue Coe.  Constance deJong.  Gloria Bornstein.  Claudia Fitch.  Marie Watt.  Dario Robleto.  Jeffrey Mitchell.  Carrie Mae Weems.  Buster Simpson.  William Christenberry.  Kara Walker.  Laurie Anderson. Kerry James Marshall.  Conceptual art of the 60’s and 70’s. Lauren Grossman.  On and on. Leo Berk.  It’s very individual.

I’m interested in meaning and visceral response, however that’s transmitted, in experience which moves me in a way I can barely grasp with words. I’m interested in depth, in process, in change, in perception at all levels.

V: Do you have daily or weekly rituals that you find important for you to take part in?

CH: Every morning I write down my dreams, what I remember of them.  Every day I do the Sudoku puzzle in the Seattle Times. I’m learning to circumambulate my block daily no matter what else I do, clockwise, amazing what shows up in that brief meditation.


V: What do you find to be important here in Seattle’s creative community and the world at large?

CH: What I like about Seattle’s creative community after 40 plus years of being involved in it is its resilience and its refusal to lie down.  What are people’s practices?  How do people engage in what they love?  I’m not particularly interested in the commodification of contemporary art we live with now – I am interested in the integration of art and life and how we shift consciousness on this planet.


Francesca Lohmann | Frozen Fluidity

Essay by David Strand | Photographs by Serrah Russell

Francesca Lohmann’s artistic process moves like a sea cucumber liquefying its body and pouring itself through the crevice of a rock, and then solidifying once more. Plaster, a recurrent material in her practice, operates in a similar fashion. She mixes plaster powder and water into a liquid soup that she pours into fabric casings that harden into solids over a matter of minutes. The result of these contained spills, shaped by gravity into lumps and coils, often evoke anthropomorphic, animal, and alien associations while simultaneously eluding them.

“It’s not something I dictate, it’s something I instigate,” Lohmann says, crouched near a pile of flour-white plaster coils in the open-air shed that serves as one-half of her art studio. The thick mass of sagging loops is intestinal and snake-like, resembling an enormous, petrified earthworm. “I set up a situation where something can happen within a set of parameters, then use the behavior of the material, gravity, and time to get at a result that is doing something compelling or unexpected.” Her works are at once familiar yet nameless, eliciting empathy through subtleties in scale and posture.

The other-half of Lohmann’s art studio, just a few steps away, is situated in a portion of her basement. If the open-air shed is dedicated to process, a lab for the messy activity of plaster casting, the basement is for presentation, a space for Lohmann to sit with her work. As we descend, ossified lumps dot each step like commas, sagging, slouching and slumping over the edge of each stair. They provoke pause, occupying a space outside of, but not divorced from language, that stirs viewers to guess the rest of the words in the sentence.

“Someone compared them to pets once,” Lohmann says about the lumps, which come in roughly two sizes: miniature, small enough to hold in one hand, or medium, large enough to need both hands. “I think it’s the relationship that we are so much bigger than they are, that they are maybe vulnerable. You want to protect them. People have very particular responses to different ones—about what their characters might be, or how they are feeling—which I find really fascinating because they are pretty simple gestures…. ”

Despite this indeterminacy, and the range of responses they provoke, the lumps like the rest of Lohmann’s works are utterly terrestrial. They are grounded by their overt physicality as expressed through their material properties.

In the center of the floor are a group of objects I immediately recognize, potatoes. However, upon closer inspection the potatoes are not quite potatoes, but iron-cast copies, with a thick seam running across their surfaces as a record of their making.

During her time in school, Lohmann ate potatoes almost daily. While she initially tried drawing portraits of them, something was lost in translation. She turned to iron casting, a process she calls “incredibly medieval in a really great way. Iron seemed appropriately heavy, earthy, and basic.” Rather than simply acting as a copy of a potato or a lump acting as the imprint of plaster poured into a sack, the works take on lives of their own; the copy is also an original, separate but related. This recognition opens up the idea of the interrelatedness of all things: as Lohmann says, “boundaries seem really obvious, but then you start to think about it and they become less obvious. You can’t completely separate anything from anything else.” She is fascinated by food for this very reason. Like plaster or a sea cucumber, food undergoes various state changes based on its interactions with its surroundings.

Leaning against a wall is a fairly large framed photograph of a lavender lump of taffy that is not quite liquid or solid, but a more sticky kind of in-between. Lohmann pulled the taffy by hand and left it on a table to congeal into a new shape as it slowly reabsorbed into itself. The paralysis of the photograph versus the glacial movements of the actual taffy evokes the dynamism of Baroque sculpture. Whereas Bernini’s frenzied and twisting sculptures of men and gods were caught in climatic moments of movement, Lohmann’s images of taffy and plaster objects are frozen in nearly imperceptible moments of flux. The excess of form and content in Baroque sculpture is edited away in favor of poetic simplicity.

This economy of means demonstrates the control Lohmann exercises in her practice while also providing space for chance and accident. “I am looking for moments of certainty; a recognition. What is the right form? It could be a million different ways but it ended up like that, which is what I like about the freezing aspect. Once something has set, I accept it or reject it; there is no fussing, no adjustments after the fact. It is the way it is. I like that. But it means that I produce a lot of waste…”

Lohmann’s work exists in a realm of productive contradiction, a state of frozen fluidity. Every sculpture or image is discrete, limited and finite, yet also always in the process of becoming, never simply being, even after the photograph has been captured and the plaster has dried. They are constantly in relation with all that surrounds them, turning subjectivity away from a single point and dispersing it across the complex web of relations that shapes the mundane in miraculous ways.