A trio of tales

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Sara Siestreem was “thunderstruck” to hear her ancestors speak to her through handmade Indian baskets. A professional painter, trained in modern expressionism, she was visiting a private collection of indigenous artifacts. If DNA persists in whatever we create with our hands, she realized, so must the spirit of the makers live on in them.

Her life changed in that instant. She determined to revive the lost Native arts of her people, the Hanis Coos of the Umpqua River in southern Oregon. 

But how could she discover the lost techniques of basket-making? They would have to be reinvented. Some clues lay in a 1934 recording of a tribal elder—the word winqas meant baskets, water-striders and spiders…spiders have eight legs…and a pattern woven eight times over held the basket together.

Siestreem has transformed the main gallery at La Conner’s Museum of Northwest Art (MoNA) into a visual representation of her life’s journey. Like a basket, hundreds of photos from the sidewalks of big cities enclose the visitor. Snapshots of road signs, graffiti, trash, dead animals, mushrooms, berries and distorted self-portraits record her wanderings between nature and the scattered, unfocused life of the white-man cities. On pedestals in the center rest the delicate fruits of Native art; elegant baskets made of spruce roots and grasses, dyed with berry juice and mud “from the place where the world began.”

In 1962, the textbook History of Art included no women. The three female artists presently featured at MoNA—Siestreem, Debora Moore, and Camille Patha—have reached a level of success and inclusion unthinkable then. 

Moore, a prominent African American glass sculptor, has studied Venus slipper orchids in Asian rain forests and created fragile but enduring facsimiles of them in blown and sculpted glass. She sees the dependence of such delicate blooms on a strong host tree—also sculpted out of glass—to be a metaphor of humanity’s “tenuous and essential relationship with the Earth.” (Find out more when she gives a free Artist Talk at 1pm Sun., May 21 at the space’s Benaroya Glass Gallery.)

Patha has painted during five challenging decades, from abstraction to figurative, surrealism and back again, never giving up. “The road is complicated, it’s delightful, it’s filled with agony,” she says, and despite her “personal dark vision,” she always feels in her studio as if warm arms are embracing her.

Patha has won most of the honors afforded in the Northwest, including inclusion in five major shows at the Seattle Art Museum, solo shows at MoNA (2007), Tacoma (2014), and Bellevue (1979) art museums, and has been the subject of a monograph by Matthew Kangas.

In her recent paintings on display in the second-floor gallery at MoNA, Patha employs bright colors, transparent effects, and liquid-like surfaces. Among my favorites are “A Feature Film,” using poured medium over a waffle pattern, secured by white rectangles. “You Will Never Go Back” is bold, with evocative sweeps of blue on an orange and red grid. Hidden away at the back of the gallery are several lovely “studies” displaying a difficult drip technique, which are definitely keepers, too.

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