Catherine Person: It’s Still All Good

T.s. Flock
Posted on September 24, 2012, 11:56 pm
28 mins
Person on her couch beneath a work by Timothy Siciliano

Catherine Person on her couch. The painting behind her is by artist Timothy Siciliano.

Art can be difficult and intimidating to approach for the uninitiated. Art is meant to be universal, but there is a pervasive notion that it is really only for the elite. Some art world insiders have no desire to share their knowledge pro bono, but there are many knowledgeable artists and dealers who simply don’t know how to talk about art with those who are new to it. Despite everyone’s best intentions, exasperation is more common than inspiration in these conversations. And then there are born evangelists for art, such as Catherine Person, who has made a career of instilling others with the same love for art that she has. A friend of mine—educated, but not in visual arts—recounted his first meeting with Person this way:

“I walked into her gallery and no one was around, so I called out, and a woman’s voice came from the back, asking, ‘Could you give me a hand?’ I found her lifting a canvas much larger than she. I helped her move it, and then we just started talking about art and life. She was so unpretentious about it. She just clearly loves it.”

And later he said, “When I finally buy a piece of art, it will probably be from her.”

My friend is in good company. Many of Person’s clients came from conversations, not a sales pitch. She loves when people buy because it supports her artists, but her priority is giving people the gift of understanding and loving art the way that she does. Seattle art lovers were sad to see Catherine Person Gallery shut its doors in mid-2011 after six years and fifty shows. The last show was titled, “It’s All Good,” which was an apt motto for Person, who has happily returned to work as an art consultant. The arts at large benefit when advocates like Person can work at the street-level, but the renewed freedom has been a boon for Person herself. I was delighted to connect with her again to share her expertise and get her opinions about what Seattle can do to remain a vibrant home for creatives.

Of course, I had to ask if she missed the street-level interactivity that came with having a gallery.

“Yes, I miss the conversations with the ‘man on the street’. Having my office in a storefront gallery was sort of like having strangers and friends roaming through my living room. If someone came in, I’d nearly always stop what I was doing and talk to them about the show, the work, life, their problems,” she says laughing. “I thought about having a sign made saying ‘The doctor is in.’”

“A number of people told me they bought their first work of art from me. Converting people into art lovers is no spectator sport. I could devote the rest of my life to education and still not make a dent in Seattle. A dealer’s job is to educate.”

And so I ask, can people who just wander in become converts? Are events like art walk actually turning people into art lovers?

“Yes! And they have friends! And those friends have friends too. Mucho gusto! But this all takes a long, long time. That’s why I like public speaking.”

Catherine Person stands before a large painting by Laura Castellanos

The bold painting behind Person is by Laura Castellanos

It is impossible to capture Person’s charm and zest in quotation, so I can only say that to hear her speak about art in a lecture or forum is delightful. She can make all in attendance feel individually addressed with her personable manner. She’s had lots of time to hone this ability after decades of working in the arts in the Northwest.

In the ‘70s, Person started her career in the arts through the Bumbershoot music festivals. Over the next decade of meeting and collaborating with creatives from around the region, Person decided that she wanted to help artists make a living by selling their art. And so, with no back up plan in case her new venture failed, she set out with a large portfolio of work and called on the biggest architecture firm in town. Thus began her eighteen-year career as an art consultant.

“I’d met a lot of great people during those early years [at Bumbershoot], and along the way, learned about public relations, color printing processes, accounting, exhibition design and sales, in short everything you’d need to know to be an art consultant and later on, a gallery owner. As an art consultant, nearly all of my clients were businesses and corporations, so everything was on the level and straight up. If I had a really big project, I’d hire a driver and a big truck and drive all over town picking up work from art studios, show it at the job site—lots of work and usually worth it. If people are interested enough to want to see art, they’re usually pretty interesting to know and like having nice things around them.”

“I had my first big sale to clients of the Callison Partnership [architects] in downtown Seattle on day one as an art consultant, in June of 1987. Beginner’s luck. Nothing like that happened again for months, but that first sale gave me the confidence to tough it out.”

Some readers may have only a vague idea of what an art consultant does. An art consultant (or art rep, as they may also be known) helps clients find art that fits the needs of a space, whether commercial or residential…or public. Consultants use their knowledge, curatorial skills, and connections with artists to educate the client and find or commission the right art for them. Of course, there are other applications of these skills, too. As a consultant familiar with both music and visual art, Person had a few jobs that combined a little of both disciplines. For instance: “I once had a great gig with a non-profit. They hired me to fly around the US to interview Jimi Hendrix collectors. Now that was a surreal project.”

In many ways, a consultant does much of the same work that a gallery owner does, but it is not correct to say that a gallerist is a consultant with a storefront. Working as a consultant allows one to be more agile and direct one’s energy to a number of things at once. A gallery provides a much needed venue for artists to display and the public to enjoy a full body of work. Online commerce and media has made it easy for people to see glimpses of new work, but it is absolutely essential to stand in its presence, particularly for people who wish to collect.

“It’s hugely important to see the work, and [for collectors] to know that it’s right, the scale of it is right. I lend work so people can live with it awhile before committing. You can’t get a sense of scale on the internet. Subtle work is impossible to ‘get’ on the internet. The internet has changed how we do business. I sell from our website. I no longer accept artist slides or photos, I just look at jpegs or artist websites and if really interested, make a studio visit. Lots of people work directly from artists as most that I know have their own websites. But there will always be galleries. There will always be people who want someone like me to come over to their home or their office or corporation and guide the acquisition process. It’s too overwhelming for lots of people to choose. They don’t have time to become art connoisseurs. They know nothing about art framing and they’re not about to lose sleep over it. They rely on our educated judgment.”

Time is something that seems to come up a lot when I talk with Person, who seems to always know how to make the most of it. Her gallery consistently gave the public a look at work that combined intricate and mature construction with intricate and mature thought. When I spoke with her during her last show (a group show in which the unifying medium was paper), as we stood before a glass case containing one of Teresa Redden’s perfectly constructed orbs of intricately woven paper (quite possibly one of the most exquisite objects I have seen in my life), Person mentioned a simple but profound preference: “I like art that takes time.”

Catherine Person by her dining room table

Chic and cheerful: Person beams before a pensive painting by Jacques Moitoret.

It was a most germane idea for the show for so many reasons: paper is an ancient technology that was once used to preserve things for the ages, but now is a medium of obnoxious ephemera, a hassle. The centerpieces of the show were tree stumps composed of corrugated cardboard that artist Karen Rudd meticulously wound and carved to accurately resemble local species of lumber trees, reminding us that the material of the paper was the work of ages, the remains of magnificence. And whose “time” does it take for the art: the artist or the viewer? Redden’s diminutive works can take over 90 hours to construct, and to marvel at them takes considerably less time, but to really grasp their perfection and the care behind their creation could take some viewers an age of meditation. Time is the ultimate commodity, and thus managing it is the ultimate challenge of existence.

The great reward of art, literature, and knowledge of history is that it in fact saves time—saves us from ourselves in many ways. It crystallizes the lessons that others have learned, the wisdom that others have gathered over the centuries, provides us with a perspective that makes us better able to understand and appreciate our own time and place. The most profound art will even transport us into a place seemingly out of time, the depths of contemplation and reconciliation with what is unresolved and hostile within us. This timeless place is where art is experienced, but for many artists—especially those who are focused and meticulous—it is also where art is made, as hours slip by without notice as they work.

Of course, time alone is not what it takes to make good art. Person suggests that the artistic gift is inborn. Outside of the hypothetical realm where the axiomatic hundred monkeys have infinite time to reproduce Shakespeare, no amount of time spent guarantees that worthy work will be produced. Person has noticed one thing in common among those innately talented artists who are obsessive about their craft:

“I’ve found that a lot of completely obsessive artists are also highly intelligent. This makes them highly desirable to work with! No river too high, too wide! They’ll stop at nothing to get it right. I respect that.”

When I asked Person to name some artists whom she represents who are detail-driven, she had difficulty naming just a few, as “virtually all” of her artists have that commitment. Multimedia artist Linda Davidson was one, whose 459 6-inch sq. paintings were installed in the gallery (and were gorgeous) and are now part of the permanent art collection in the Swedish Medical Center lobby in Issaquah. Person says of Davidson, “Linda is fierce, brilliant—and has a relatively small studio, so her huge installations are created on two walls and down a corridor. She never sees the installation as a whole until its installed. The works contain nearly every medium under the sun.”

Person also praised Rachel Illingworth’s original monoprints, whose creations can take months or even years to complete. “She’ll do a few passes, and then think about her next move, like a chess game. If she runs the wrong color, the print can be ruined. But she’s masterful and has figured out how to run the paper through the press up to about 18 times. It’s amazing. And if you stand there and look long enough, you can see most of the layers.”

“Then again,” she adds, “to see Nicholas Brown’s black and white linocuts is to view perfection. His forty-by-fifty inch prints are huge, masterfully done. The detail is stunning.”

And quite simply: “Justin Lytle’s hand-pasteled book sculptures—awesome.”

Artwork by Justin Lytle

Lytle’s work was also shown in Person’s last gallery exhibit, and his cascading books were truly a uniquely compelling use of the medium.

Catherine Person Gallery was one of the many large and small galleries in the Pioneer Square district, the historical heart and in many ways the cultural heart of Seattle. The neighborhood is plagued by a number of ills that deter many businesses from opening there. Retailers, including the landmark Elliott Bay Bookstore, have moved or closed their doors. Many have stated that the city continues to shoot itself in the foot by allowing these things to happen through stubborn refusals to work with businesses about parking and traffic issues, but Person isn’t one to play the blame game. She prefers to state the somewhat bleak facts.

“Losing Elliott Bay Books was a sea change. People that used to come down and browse the bookstore, have lunch in a café and stop in to their favorite galleries quit coming. Lots of people won’t come down if there’s a sports event. Homelessness is a huge issue for Pioneer Square, but all cities have homeless. Come on! Have you been to Manhattan lately? Seattle’s homeless population is just district-centric. The city still suffers from Puritanism.”

Ultimately, the main struggle is economic, and all business must weather these austere times. Galleries are doing their best individually, but it still hard to get the word out with so little coverage of the arts in mainstream media.

“Honestly, it’s a jungle out there. The galleries have bent over backwards to have good shows, artist talks, events. But it’s very hard to get the galleries to agree on anything together. Each is a self-employed entrepreneur.”

“We still haven’t recovered from losing [art critic] Regina Hackett at the PI. She saw everyone’s shows and wrote about everyone’s shows. Now it’s so difficult to get coverage. The galleries and their artists feel like they’re doing business in a vacuum. If we got a controversial review, it actually brought in more people than a nice review. I wish we had art critics that would be…critical not for the sake of being critical but to challenge our thinking. Get some dialog going, stir it up.”

“From my own experience, if I had an exceptionally strong show, people would come. Critics would cover it. People would invest in the work.”

Catherine Person in a beaded evening dress before a painting by BJ Rakes

Painting by BJ Rakes

Person makes a good point that the loss of galleries is only side of the story. Artist studios have been disappearing, too. Feelings about the demolished 619 Building are mixed, even in the art community. The doomed building was irreparable and ready to collapse alongside the viaduct during any major quake. Person was on the Pioneer Square Preservation Board during discussions regarding 619’s future and had a few artists using spaces there. After the first meeting, she called them and asked them to start looking elsewhere, for their own safety. Even if we acknowledge that the building was a romanticized deathtrap, we must remember that it provided dozens upon dozens of artists with affordable places to work and socialize and display during the Art Walk, and there is nothing else like it in the area. Person calls the loss tragic. I asked her: If the city had to prioritize between ensuring that there are spaces for art to be shown (not just for-profit galleries) and affordable spaces for art to be made in the city, which do you think should take primacy?

“I’d go for city subsidized art studios and artist live/work space. For artists of every kind.” But… “With the city’s own financial trouble, I wouldn’t hold my breath. City Hall is very much aware of the problems in Pioneer Square. But if landlords keep rents high, what can the city do?” (On a side note, Person did say that her own landlord, Samis was very good to her. “They were there for me no matter what and they’re vey professional, great to do business with.”)

City Hall may have other problems to face, but it is not powerless to improve the quality of the neighborhood, especially while its infrastructure is in shambles during construction and demolition of the road system in south Seattle. What could they be doing to better support the galleries?

“Put a panhandling law with teeth into effect! Lower the parking rates and roll it back to 6 PM. Diversify the social services across Seattle instead of congregated in one place. Don’t let the nearby sports stadiums have games on First Thursdays.”

“About the only thing is for the city to give a cash incentive to rent to artists, musicians, dancers, writers. We have low income housing all over the city already that anyone can apply to. There are some public-private partnerships like Tashiro Kaplan. Hopefully, some more are in the works. Seattle has had a huge migration of artists leaving town for good already due to the cost of living here.”

Person remains cautiously optimistic about the neighborhood, given its colorful history on the edge. The problem isn’t the raucous nightlife or the homeless, but a lack of balance and density—density of housing and grocery stores and services that make a livable neighborhood.

“It has always been on the other side of the tracks. Always. Flophouses and cheap gin and working girls—it always was there. The worst part of now is that we’ve lost so many art studios. The bohemians balanced out the bums. Now, there’s an imbalance and I believe it will level out, but it’s a few years away. Help is coming in the form of the North Lot, currently under construction, and there’ll eventually be hundreds of new apartments there. The tunnel’s coming through; the trolley’s coming in. Street traffic will continue to be under pressure until all this gets sorted out. A lot of good things are in the works. I’m optimistic.”

These are part of the growing pains for every city. Person is pleased that Seattle has become more culturally diverse, literate, and has simultaneously retained its civic pride and natural beauty and a relatively responsive city council.

“I’m biased because Seattle’s been good to me as a self-employed woman, way back since the late ‘70s. It’s a great home base. We’re a city of hills and views, and I have a really good one. It’s easy to walk everywhere. And even though it’s bigger, you can still get some things done. My Mom wrote then City Council President Richard Conlin that she wanted the unused bus stop in front of my gallery to be public parking. We got our parking. The following year, I wrote to Mr Conlin and asked him to restore parking to Main Street, and the city put it in! Very cool.”

But if someone were to come to her and ask for advice about opening a gallery, would she recommend doing it in Pioneer Square? Yes, she would. Unequivocally. The timing is difficult, but even that could be turned to an advantage. It would depend on what kind of lease agreement the gallerist could get.

“Economic downtimes are favorable for lease agreements.” But to make it work in these austere times, “It would have to have a very economical lease payment or the business owner would need to be well-financed, or ideally both. I wouldn’t consider having a gallery anywhere but Pioneer Square, there’s warmth in numbers and having great neighbors is a comfort in intrinsic and immeasurable ways.”

“Selling art is still a thrill for me. I’ve done it for twenty-five years now. There’s still nearly nothing as good as calling an artist to tell them their work has sold. Knowing that I’m doing my part to help the art economy, to help artists make a living. The gallery was invaluable for meeting an array of very cool people. I’m grateful for the experience. I’ve loved all of the chapters in life and my current one is maybe the most fun of them all.”

T.s. Flock

T.s. Flock is a writer and arts critic based in Seattle and co-founder of Vanguard Seattle.

One Response to: Catherine Person: It’s Still All Good

  1. October 16th, 2012

    A great interview, and I just love stories about people who make art a part of living.