It is Friday morning of Art Invitational weekend, and I am standing in front of the doors, moments away from the big reveal.
Inside, Grace Kook-Anderson, The Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Curator of Northwest Art for the Portland Art Museum is preparing to lead a tour for the dozens of volunteer docents who help make the show possible. There is a Wonka-like Chocolate Factory thrill in the air.
The doors open to gasps of delight. Each year, through the curatorial artistry of Patty Maly and Ruby Maly, the most beautiful work in the show is the show itself. Stepping into the gallery feels like entering a newly-born world. I love discovering through-lines that emerge when new work by artists from different backgrounds and art practices co-exist for an ephemeral weekend in space and time.
Leading us through the exhibit, Grace reflects on the pandemic as a universal undercurrent in our lives and how she sees different artists responding. “There is a duality to nature expressed here,” Grace observes, “decay and death, but also regeneration, re-blooming… a sense of shelter and fragility and also a sense of unfolding… and color! There is a lot of joyfulness and playfulness in this room.”
My eye is drawn to the vulnerability of Yoonhee Choi’s work. Something about the way her soy inks bleed through the layers of paper draws my awareness to my own heartbeat, tucked back behind my ribcage.
The visual language of Iván Carmona’s modernist sculptures, in saturated hues that reverberate with Choi’s, call from across the room. “Each of my works pulls the past forward into a new body for the present to see,” Carmona shares in his artist’s statement.
Flying overhead, in perpetual motion, the glass swifts and light projections of Jen Fuller’s mobile installation, “Chapman Swifts” invites us all to tilt our heads skyward, lifting our collective spirits in the process.
Themes from the show follow me home to Sitka’s coastal campus. In our November 16 Resident Talk, writer Mason Langson reads to us out loud from his current magic realism short story project, “Songs from Grace,” connecting his virtual audience through the warmth of his reading as if we are all gathered around the same hearth. Visual artist and curator Deborah Thompson shares images of “hags” and other mythological beings who invite us to “crossover” with “a foot in this world and a foot in the other." Community ecologist Dr. Sarah Thomsen transports us across oceans and time to a desert island and into the depths of Barn Owl Cave. There, she unearths over half a million bones preserved in over 12,000 years’ accumulation of owl pellets revealing the web of life.
Back in Portland, attending the awards ceremony for the Arlene Schnitzer Visual Arts Prize, which honors and funds emerging talent from Portland State University’s School of Art and Design, I am moved by class of 2021 honoree Gigi Woolery’s fabric-based artwork and wisdom. Woolery’s work, in part, explores how reclaimed textiles “…recall a demoralized body. It decays and thins like a body and is reinforced through stitching like scar tissue. Making these textile objects allows me to create at a time of isolation and scarcity. I aim to treat them with preciousness, through mending and disassembling over and again.”
In a panel discussion, when asked, why art matters, Woolery moves us all: “Starting around 2016 a lot of art students were grappling with the question, if things are so stark, what’s the point of making something pretty?... But now if I imagine going even 30 days without music or art in my life… art is where we find our will to live.”
Jordan Schnitzer, carrying on his mother Arlene’s legacy of championing emerging Pacific Northwest artists, shares his lifegiving relationship with art this way: “Waking up without being surrounded by art would be like waking up without the sun.”
After two long, dark years of waiting to host this year’s Invitational, that’s what opening the doors felt like: like rediscovering the sun.
In Thanksgiving for everyone who makes the magic realism of the Sitka Art Invitational possible, and to artists everywhere for the life-saving power of your work.