The death of George Floyd last week and his three words, “I can’t breathe,” have sparked a revolution worldwide. At the local level names of more than 150 people of color killed by police are remembered in colored chalk along Langley’s Second Street. It is a sad and cathartic walk along the sidewalk from the Langley Library to the Star Store while mourning the lives taken away.
Art is one way we can take a breath and remember the healing power of creativity.
“We have so much to heal and clean up …” says Melissa Koch, a multi-media artist whose work opens at Museo gallery this weekend. “…Environmental justice, social justice. Our spiritual house. We need to feed people. Restore natural habitat. A constant theme in my work is caring for Mother Earth and all of her children. That’s the heartbeat that’s always there in my life and work. We need to return back to source, and slow down. Let’s take a deep breath. I think this is a time of really going inward, which is hard, because we’re not taught to spend time within the dark inner space of our being. Out of this inner space the little voices come that shed light and speak the truth. For this project I allowed myself to travel through dark spaces bringing me back into the light of truth, better understanding and awareness. The times have generated this—a re-exploration of self. What is the purpose of human life? What is the artist’s role at this time?
“I’ve been preparing for this show since February or even before. This work was an interesting journey. A whole new departure. It’s very meditative and was done very slowly over time. I really was absorbing everything that’s going on. For example, when I made the wreath (of flowers), these images flooded into my imagination. I decided to do figurative imagery that was poetic and symbolic. After I completed this piece and was contemplating its meaning I arrived at something I was not expecting: ‘Oh my goodness this is a commemoration to Mother Earth.’ There’s a lot of grief and a lot of rebirth now that we are experiencing collectively and art is a way to help guide us towards some kind of sense making and greater awareness as to the journey. The two tall pieces are called the wishing trees, are reminiscent of ancient cornucopias of abundance that the Earth gifts to us constantly potted in archaic vessels—they have this feel of being dug up—the connection of humanity to the past and what we are wishing for humanity and the Earth in the days to come. COVID has stopped our follies. Just as I’m talking with you, the winds have picked up now and are dancing in the trees. This is a subtle signal to me that this is the right direction or impulse to bring out of the story I am telling using my art as a vehicle for transformation.”
Melissa’s nature-inspired art in this exhibit, including fabric masks she designed, whose sale benefitted the Good Cheer Food Bank, have since sold out, but she is open to taking more orders.
Melissa’s exhibit is complimented by the art in human form by African-American-Nigerian artist Jite (pronounced Jee-tay) Agrbro, who will join Melissa at Museo on Saturday.
A Seattle-based artist, Jite’s art, according to her words on Museo’s webpage: “…focuses on non-verbal communication, the process of exchanging shared cultural, psychological, and imaginative cues between people. Specially, I’m interested in the way we as human beings project ourselves and our identities into the greater public space. Each of us is deeply knowledgeable in this subtle language of presentation and able to make lightning-quick judgments, even where our awareness of what we are judging is subconscious. My interest is in creating visual representations of status and using them to uncover the subtle experiences of symbolic expression. I wish to exhume the buried and unexamined assumptions by which we negotiate culture and construct our images of other people and ourselves.”
Museo Gallery co-owner Nancy Whitaker said the gallery was donating 10 percent of its sales to “Support the ongoing fight for social justice and equality. We thought we should do something given Jite’s work. We believe in the restorative power of art.” Proceeds benefit Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight and Black Lives Matter.
Meanwhile, Rob Schouten, a self-made artist and gallery owner with his poet wife Victory Schouten, was busy grooming the gallery’s sculpture garden Thursday when we met up for a chat.
The Rob Schouten Gallery opens Saturday with ‘Cats and Jammers,’ featuring the art of couple Buffy Cribbs and Bruce Morrow. The creative couple have been collaborating the past 41 years and their work is seen in island venues and is widely collected. Coronavirus safety protocols prevent wine and finger food—“At least until we get a vaccine—which probably won’t be until next year,” Rob said. “Hope everyone wears a mask.”
Mindful of the times we are in, Victory Schouten sent these words in a Friday email:
“We love our gallery, and our community, and while we were glad to be closed in order to help flatten the COVID-19 curve, we are truly delighted to be able to safely reopen.
“We represent 36 wonderful local and regional artists, and they are counting on us to help them make a living. We take that trust very seriously. Rob has worked long hours over the months we’ve been closed to completely redo our website so all of our artists’ work is available for purchase online (he is about 3/4s done). We really hope that this change will help with our sales – especially facilitating the purchase of art for our customers who don’t feel safe going out and about right now.
“During dark and challenging times I think we need the arts more than ever to buoy up our spirits, to inspire and connect us. We hope people see our gallery and garden as a safe haven. A place to come and reconnect to life’s beauty. We welcome everyone who just wants to browse and recharge. And we are of course hoping that some of those people will find artwork they love and connect with, and purchase it, allowing us to keep our doors open and support our valued artists.”
“Art can have the ability to heal,” Rob added, while tidying up the plants growing next to a sculpture. “Here in the garden, Harry Laban has helped me from the start. We have become friends.”
Harry, who has volunteered in the garden, adding his practiced eye to create flow among plants and sculpture, is distinctive with his mop of curly white hair. He said, “Gardening is a serious hobby. You couldn’t pay me to do this.”
During the state’s shuttering of non-essential businesses in March through May, Rob and Victory applied for artist’s disaster loans, he began work on a painting, and spent most of the time redesigning the gallery’s webpage to streamline online shopping. That required weighing Georgia Gerber bronzes, that the gallery sells, for instance. “UPS calculates shipping costs by weight,” Rob said, pointing to the artist’s rendition of nesting rabbits. “Actually, we were pleasantly surprised at how people supported us during the down time. People would show up at our house with a check, saying they would purchase the art in August. While I was working at the gallery, a man bought a Georgia Gerber sculpture. Most of our online sales were garden glass.”
More help arrived when the couple were given a rent break from their landlord Barbara Dahlgren. The backstory: Rob moved to Whidbey Island in 1983 and Victory in 1989. The couple celebrated 12 years last month since first opening their first gallery in Greenbank, before locating to Langley in July 2018.
“We feel so fortunate to have found this place,” Rob said, getting back to working in the garden after our visit. “So many have supported us.”
After visiting with Rob Schouten, I drove over to Bruce Morrow and Buffy Cribb’s welcoming creative space in Clinton. The chi of the place, from its garden, to its buildings, to the old truck beneath an old-growth backyard tree, felt like coming home. We sat outside talking of the times we’re living in, of art, and of galleries opening once again. For their exhibit, which runs through June, Bruce’s theme is dancers with a Western theme and Buffy’s, a snapshot of ‘Big Boy,’ a visiting black tomcat in the neighborhood.
Bruce Morrow’s ‘Dancer’ series has long been popular with fans of his art.
Bruce’s commentary, on the Rob Schouten Gallery webpage, reflects his interest in Western art: “It was about a year ago that Rob asked me if I had another dancing couple painting. I said at the time that I wasn’t sure about that. This past November we were all talking about this upcoming show, I thought what the hell.
“So, here’s a show that’s all dancers. Some are fantasy dancers, some are show dancers, or slow dancers and there are a couple of couples. Mind you, much of this transpired before social distancing became a thing. Over the years people have really enjoyed my dancing images. I enjoy painting them, and I think they are relevant in these uncertain days. They remind us that there is closeness in the world, and that we need shared intimate space. Most of us love to dance, so here’s a chance to fantasize, to visit the contra dance or go to the theater.”
Buffy wrote, in her words on the Rob Schouten webpage, “Big Boy moves through the world unaffected by news, or media, money or time. He is the embodiment of the elastic nature of space and time that we—in our current predicament –experience as we look inward and outward and become aware of the abundance in both when not viewed as commodities.
“Some time in the last year or so I read in the New Yorker about an artist in Japan. As a renowned artist, he is well known as a lover of cats, and over the course of the interview there is much discourse on the subject. Towards the end the journalist asks him just how many cats he owns, and he throws his hands in the air and says, ‘I have no cats! Too much trouble! All my cats belong to other people.’ And he laughs… Of course, what we all really know is, no one really “owns” a cat.
‘Of course there are allegorical over-tones when a black cat saunters across the stage, but Big Boy is unaware of them and hence he is simply “a cat.” And, as Kipling famously observed, all places are alike to him.
‘However, these are dark times, and there is a pestilence on the land, and much scapegoating taking place. Mis statements, mis understandings and downright lies abound, –as do sacrifice and random kindnesses. We witness Spring and other seasons, in the same way as places we have grown so accustomed to that we no longer really see them. Until all is ‘changed, changed utterly.’
“Then; Along comes Big Boy, and freedom stalks the land.”
You are invited to take a breath of fresh air this weekend, say a blessing for the George Floyds and their families of the world, wear your mask, and visit a couple of Langley’s galleries for a creative reset.
An article that advocates supporting nearly 200 Black-owned businesses can be found here. A This is Whidbey reader, Emma, writes: “I was so happy to see that people still care about helping these companies thrive!”