Seattle Studio Visits: Lead Pencil Studio — Part 3 of 3

Annie Han + Daniel Mihalyo: Lead Pencil Studio, Non-Sign II, 2010.

Annie Han + Daniel Mihalyo: Lead Pencil Studio, Non-Sign II, 2010.

The last stop David Abel and I made in Seattle on our studio visits was to meet with Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo of Lead Pencil Studio. They live in a self-designed concrete house a few blocks down the street from Ellen Sollod, their structure a very contemporary anomaly among the more conventional houses of Capitol Hill. Annie and Daniel, architect-trained artists, have begun to garner a national following for both their architecture and installations.

Where those two practices often come together in a spectacular fashion is in their public artworks, a recent example of which is the 30-foot-high, fifty-foot-long “non-billboard” the couple erected in 2010 at a border crossing into Canada near Vancouver. Commissioned by the General Services Administration as part of their Percent-for-Art Program, and constructed of welded stainless steel rods, the sculpture is massive yet delicate, utterly unexpected, and offers a frame for viewing changes in the atmosphere. It’s one of those works that stops you in your mental tracks (even while driving past it) because of its beauty. The empty frame creates a lacuna in which you have the time to understand its function and meaning, which is to say how we frame the world through our eyes, the windshield, and our preconceptions.

An earlier and renowned example of this negative framing, which is a central tool in the Lead Pencil kit, is from 2006, a large sculpture erected on the tall Oregon bluffs atop the Columbia River east of Portland. It faces the Maryhill Museum that sits across the river in Washington State, and is an exact spatial recapitulation of the mansion museum. Maryhill, built from 1914 through 1940, was conceived of by the man who created the Columbia Gorge Highway. It is a deeply eccentric institution that features on its grounds a life-sized recreation of Stonehenge, among other curiosities. Maryhill Double is not so much a critique of the concrete château as it is of the process of replication. It’s also a reminder of how walls enclose space within while keeping out the space surrounding them. Built simply out of scaffolding and construction netting, the sculpture was almost a building, but not quite. It there and not-there, a finished work that look like an idea in progress, and a profound delight to those who were able to view it during the three months it was up.

All of the artists whom David and I visited broadened our ideas about human creative interactions with various environments–but also demonstrated how those interactions benefit the public culture in which we live. We’ll have more to say that as we develop archives and programs that include their work.

A special word of thanks both to artist Ellen Sollod and Jim McDonald, Senior Program Officer in Arts and Culture at the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation in Seattle. Ellen and Jim helped put together our itinerary and provided introductions, and that’s part of an ecology in the arts that is a pleasure to be around, and for which the Northwest is rightly famed.

Annie Han + Daniel Mihalyo: Lead Pencil Studio, Maryhill Double, 2006. Photographs courtesy of Lead Pencil Studio.

Annie Han + Daniel Mihalyo: Lead Pencil Studio, Maryhill Double, 2006. Photographs courtesy of Lead Pencil Studio.

Seattle Studio Visits: Ellen Sollod and Steve Peters — Part 2 of 3

Ellen Sollod, Lake Washington Palimpsest series: Black River, 2008. Archival carbon print from a pinhole photograph.

Ellen Sollod, Lake Washington Palimpsest series: Black River, 2008. Archival carbon print from a pinhole photograph.

Ellen Sollod has had an artistic career that spans ceramics, photography, writing, and art and design for public places. Along the way she worked at the Visual Arts Program at the NEA, directed the Colorado Arts Commission, and ran the Seattle Arts Commission. I’ve been her colleague during many of those incarnations, and it was a pleasure to call her up about a project she had done locally, Lake Washington Palimpsest. When David Abel and I visited her home and studio in the Capital Hill district of Seattle, we were able to view some of the pinhole photographs from the project, which were based on two years of research, and involved any number of her previously honed bureaucratic skills.

Lake Washington is the second largest body of freshwater in the state, a glacier-carved ribbon lake that in the second decade of the 20th century was severely altered in order to create a ship canal from Puget Sound inland. The lake was lowered nine feet, its shoreline reduced by eight miles, 1,000 acres of wetland destroyed, and the new canal dried up the entirety of the existing outflow, the Black River. Ellen navigated the records of the Seattle Public Library, the Washington Geology Library, and the archives of the United States Geologic Survey–and that was just to find a map showing the changes. The archive of this unique project will be coming to the Museum later this year.

After lunch with Ellen, we drove over to the Chapel Performance Space, where composer/musician Steve Peters runs the experimental Wayward Music Series in the handsome Good Shepherd Center. I’ve known Steve almost since his founding of the Nonsequitur Foundation in Santa Fe in the late 1980s, and have long admired his work, which uses environmental recordings, ambient and found sound, musical instruments, electronics, and the human voice to create understated, subtle, and entirely gorgeous site-specific works.

We listened to several of his Chamber Music pieces that he started in 2005, and which are made by recording empty architectural spaces, often late at night. The empty and supposedly silent spaces–which range from museum galleries to library reading room s to freight elevators–are actually filled with architectural sound, which he minimally filters to find resonant frequencies. These create a background drone which can be overlaid with traces of found sound artifacts (a plane flying overhead, a passing vehicle, etc.). Steve then presents the work in the space where it was originally recorded, feeding back the sound of the architecture to itself.

Both Ellen and Steve in these particular works are activating spaces in time, Ellen through historical research and making apparent environmental and social chance, Steve through the elastic durations of recording and playback. After listening to recordings and checking out the old chapel where Steve runs his music series, we retired to Elemental, a restaurant where you’re not told what you’re being served, nor what the accompanying wines are. the food and dining become an experience where you construct meaning by direct interaction with the materials at hand. Which seemed an appropriate meal for the day!

Steve Peters, Alchemy, 2005, Center on Contemporary Art, Seattle, WA. Spun brass bowls with transducers attached and through which recorded voices are played, creating pure tones that resonate into the space.

Steve Peters, Alchemy, 2005, Center on Contemporary Art, Seattle, WA. Spun brass bowls with transducers attached and through which recorded voices are played, creating pure tones that resonate into the space.

Seattle Studio Visits: Lorna Jordan and John Grade — Part 1 of 3

Lorna Jordan, Terraced Cascade (Scottsdale, Arizona), 2002-2007.  This environmental artwork is also a garden and an outdoor theatre designed as a miniature watershed and abstraction of the human body. Photo by Lorna Jordan.

Lorna Jordan, Terraced Cascade (Scottsdale, Arizona), 2002-2007. This environmental artwork is also a garden and an outdoor theatre designed as a miniature watershed and abstraction of the human body. Photo by Lorna Jordan.

January 2012

I spent the days before Christmas with CA+E Research Fellow and writer David Abel making studio visits in Seattle. It’s hard to imagine a more congenial and collegial group of people than the six people with whom we met. Upon our arrival on a Thursday afternoon, we first visited environmental artist Lorna Jordan, who has worked on projects for public spaces from Arizona to Wisconsin, Fort Worth to Calgary. As is obvious by the drawings, blueprints and models in her spacious studio, her designs are informed by the marks humans make on the land, sustainability issues, and systems theory. Increasingly, she acts as much as an urban planner and architect as an artist, employing a variety of professionals in various fields to work on projects as needed.

Jordan has conceived her current work for “Central Park” in Madison, Wisconsin as “a laboratory that synthesizes nature and art, utility and recreation…. [that] manifests the expressive potential of art in an emerging eco-society.” Working as the artist within a large design team, she appeared to us to be raising the bar for how an urban park can reclaim a former brownfield through green technologies, as well as providing a unique aesthetic experience in the city. There’s an excellent interview with Lorna in the March 2011 issue of Sculpture Magazine, if you want to learn more about her work.

The next morning David and I travelled downtown to the former residential hotel where sculptor John Grade has colonized several of the ground floor rooms, converting them into a woodworking studio on a large scale. The first thing John pointed out were sections of 165-foot-long wooden beams salvaged from a 19th-century sailing ship, pieces of which will be assembled into a 65-foot-high sculpture suspended from the ceiling of Seattle’s new Museum of History and Industry. The museum is built on a pier over Union Lake, and the work, which you will be able to gently swing by the push of a hand, will pierce the floor to connect with the water below the pier. This will allow the bottom of the sculpture to slowly degrade over time. Grade, while making exquisite objects large and small, never travels far from his preoccupation with entropy. An almost surreal metaphor for this connection to time and decay were his exhibitions in 2009 and 2010 of tall white forms suspended over and then lowered into pools of black ink, which essentially melted them. Grade has also buried wooden sculptures in Washington State and Nevada to see how they disintegrate differently over time.

Evident during both visits were commitments to the integrity of concept, high levels of craft, and a desire to serve the public as well as the formal demands of their media. This would continue throughout the other visits we made, more about which in the next two posts.

John Grade, Elephant Bed (Brighton), 2009. Corn-based polymer, biodegradable methyl cellulose skins. 20 forms, 24' x 6' x 6' each. Image courtesy of Davidson Gallery.

John Grade, Elephant Bed (Brighton), 2009. Corn-based polymer, biodegradable methyl cellulose skins. 20 forms, 24′ x 6′ x 6′ each. Image courtesy of Davidson Gallery.