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.

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