What’s Good in Seattle: What’s Wood in Seattle, July 10, 2014

Posted on July 10, 2014, 10:02 pm
10 mins


It’s that time of year when the foliage has come into its deeper, fuller green, and we are reminded how densely wooded this Emerald City of ours is. Of course, we are still knocking trees down left and right for new developments and—elsewhere—for timber. Not all of that wood is going into shoddy new developments on Capitol Hill, east side McMansions and the mulched landscapes around them. Seattle this week is a good place to discover the beauty of the material in action, sometimes in ways that surprise and connect us, in spite of ourselves.

The Center for Wooden Boats

Tucked behind the Museum of History and Industry in Lake Union Park, the Center for Wooden Boats (1010 Valley St) is a quiet, charming destination that has plenty of interesting history to offer in its own right. Seattle is as blue as it is green; its importance as a port town persists, and among US cities it has the highest number of boat owners per capita. The very idea of a bunch of wooden boats nodding in a quiet corner of Lake Union may seem quaint in an age of fiberglass and steel, diesel-guzzling megayachts with sophisticated electronics, but the beauty of both the craft and engineering of some of these no so antiquated boats cannot be overstated. One is reminded of the sophistication of action required to skillfully pilot these vessels, even in calm waters.

The current exhibition Highliners features schooners that in the heyday of the longline fleet in Seattle numbered over 150. Fewer than twenty now remain, and the Center provides a unique look into Seattle’s early development and history through the maritime industry that remains culturally and economically significant to this day.

Of course maybe you actually want to go sailing, and that is also possible, whether you are an old salt or a landlubber. The Center takes small groups sailing (wind permitting) for their event series Cast Off! ever Sunday in summer. It’s family-friendly and on a hot day with the right breeze, being on the water is a beautiful change of pace. It’s best to show up early if you want to take a sail. Learn more on the center’s Web site.

Artists John Buck and Carolyn Hopkins in Pioneer Square

The word “wooden” can be used to describe someone dull, inexpressive and stiff, but wood is a lithe, living thing. Even a wooden floor has a unique character, down to its every plank, and as an artistic medium wood can have an unpredictable vitality. Sculptors like Dan Webb (represented by Greg Kucera Gallery) bring this out with beautiful linked carvings made from a single block. Paul Vexler (at Foster White Gallery) cuts thin, minimal slices of wood that curl and wind through space, and he also creates kinetic works that turn panels of wood into moving geometric wonders. (Examples of both styles are on typically on display at Foster White at any given time.)

But this month in Pioneer Square, wood takes on two very polarized forms that reveal even more diversity to the medium. Paul Buck‘s awing works at Greg Kucera Gallery (212 3rd Ave S)use wood in monumental kinetic sculpture, pyrography and relief carving, and as a tool in woodblock prints on paper. The featured image above includes a video in which the complexity of Buck’s Glockenspiel-like “Cat’s Cradle” is evident, but one must see it in person to fully appreciate it.

Across from it, “Borrowed Time” is even more startling through its use of two painted canvased that loop outward from a central, female figure whose head is a massive disc with six medallions, each of a hand holding a stylus on a black field, each trailing a carved line, spiraling toward the center of the disc. The canvases both emit a double helix intertwined with human figures in action (often violent). In all of Buck’s work, the mixture of esoteric symbols, heraldry, Medieval and Renaissance references and allegories, contemporary figures, geometry and gorgeous figurative forms are intoxicating in their density. I intend to spend much more time there until the show comes down on August 23.

Just around the corner—but at the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum— the work of Carolyn Hopkins at Punch Gallery (119 Prefontain Pl S) is more austere and meditative. During the bustle of First Thursday Art Walk, Hopkins’ installation was a quiet respite: an unstable shelter built of charred wood and surrounded by countless shards of obsidian. It recalibrated me, at least, in the midst of rushing from one opening to the next. But reflecting upon it without that rush (and especially in the context of the animated, exquisite work of Buck), the installation has a different sort of resonance. Charred wood has its own character, a peculiar sheen, and even though the Northwest is known as a wet climate, it is also volcanic. Hopkins created the charcoal drawings and video for this show, Smoke Signals, during a residency at the Blue Lake maar in the Oregon Cascades, a setting in which fire, water and wood converge in their most pristine and placid forms. (For more volcanic work, check out Ryan Molenkamp at Linda Hodges Gallery, as featured in last week’s What’s Good in Seattle.)

The works of both Hopkins and Buck deserve to be examined in isolation, but together they show the polarity and connectedness of just one medium. Hopkins work has a wabi-sabi quality and could even be seen as a sumi-e (charcoal ink drawing) in three dimensions. At Azuma Gallery, there are some fine calligraphic works in classical sumi on display (and during art walk the calligrapher was on hand doing demonstrations). On the more exquisite sculptural end, master woodcarver Robert Barratt’s work is coming to Stonington Gallery in August and, like Buck, will be rich with figurative and mythological forms, from a different cultural tradition.

Also, if you like kinetic work, don’t miss Casey Curran‘s show at Roq La Rue, which uses wire and metal and taxidermied wings to form moving tableaux of insects, flowers, berries and bits of bird in. This month more than most, there is a sense among several shows in Pioneer Square that all things are connected, in the individual works and in how they all play together.

The John T Williams Totem Pole Project

Connection, tradition, creation and loss all come together in a human form in the story of John T Williams and the aftermath of his death. Late August will mark the fourth anniversary of Williams’ tragic killing by a Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk, who shot Williams to death when Birk perceived the master woodcarver as a threat for carrying a legal carving knife. Constant, simmering tensions in marginalized First Nation communities were ignited, and Birk’s acquittal of wrongdoing was widely perceived as an injustice, as the system taking caring of its own even when innocent blood had been shed.

However, from this tragedy the Williams family—all master carvers—and the community collaborated to create a memorial totem pole. The John T Williams Memorial Totem Pole was erected in 2012 at Seattle Center, near the EMP. There is an ongoing push to fund the creation of a plaza around it. The schedule of the project seems uncertain, but for those who want to support it, one can donate on the project’s Web site. A 250 dollar donation allows you to place a named brick in the plaza, which will hopefully in the future be another communal space to reflect on the history and tradition of the region and our shared connection in the present.

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