Visual

Creative Coupling

Matched Makers at MoNA

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WHAT: “Matched Makers: Northwest Artist Couples”
WHEN: Through Jan. 1
WHERE: Museum of Northwest Art, La Conner
COST: Free

WHAT: “Meet the Artists Couple: Sheila Klein and Ries Niemi”
WHEN: 2pm Sun., Nov. 13
COST: Free
INFO: http://www.monamuseum.org

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

In “Matched Makers: Northwest Artist Couples,” guest curator Vicki Halper presents works by 28 artist pairs. To make her cut, the work of each individual had to be separately worthy of an exhibition and the couple must have been together for at least 10 years.

Interviewing the artists, Halper found most of them expressing pleasure in the success of their partner and gratitude for the positive influence he or she had on their own work. Is the Northwest environment more supportive than most places?

Few of the pairs have been actual collaborators.  Some aren’t even fond of their partner’s work. Halper asked each to characterize the output of the other: Tina Aufiero described her partner, Mark Zirpel, as “a shovel,” while he sees her as a scalpel. Michael Spafford, says Elizabeth Sandvig, is “the cymbals alone,” to her “full orchestra.”

In many cases, one member has been more successful. Some have made deep sacrifices to continue the relationship. Heidi Oberheide left an important position in Canada to become “a nobody here.” Her partner, Gaylen Hansen, later gave up a tenured position at Washington State University to paint in his own quirky style, and feels “damn lucky” to have made enough money to live on. 

In some cases, opportunities broke up the relationship. In 1934, Imogen Cunningham got an offer from Vanity Fair. When Roi Partridge refused to leave his teaching position—and what’s more, divorced her—she said, “I never thought a person so liberal would deny me this.”

One pair of images in the exhibit uncannily suggested marital friction. The cubist painting, “Double Image,” (1959), by Barbara James, depicts a pair of monochrome figures squeezed into the frame, divided by a streak of black. The left-hand figure faces the other, who looks past her toward the world. Has Barbara deliberately or unconsciously portrayed two artists, one with greater potential for fame?

Barbara quit painting. And the Clayton James painting Vicki Halper chose to place next to Barbara’s is his 1961 masterpiece, “Yellow Night.” Two radiant disks soar through a glowing sky. Everything’s going swimmingly for him!

The younger generation has been more egalitarian. Patty Warashina, married to the late University of Washington ceramics professor Robert Sperry, celebrates delight in the feminine side with “Sliding Through,” which is a delicate statue of a laughing woman using butter knives for skis and a fork and spoon for poles. Patty is a professor herself, a situation that has meant salvation for many an artist marriage, as there’s a steady income.

Of all the couples’ stories, the most unusual seems that of Ronna Neuenschwander and Baba Wague Diakite. On a trip to Mali to study elephants, this young Mennonite sculptor from Oregon met Wague in a local market and they fell instantly in love. They’ve shared a studio for 30 years and now they underwrite a cultural center in Bamako. Their ceramic sculptures reflect a playful, multicultural perspective.

Near the entrance, a banner declaring, “WE ALREADY QUIT,” drops from the museum’s second-floor balcony into a loaded dumpster.  This is Ryan Paulsen and Anna Gray’s sardonic comment that even dropping out may be considered an artistic gesture.

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