Monday, July 7, 2014

Community and Craft: Ellensburg - A History Lesson

Ellensburg may not seem like an exotic destination for someone from the Northwest but the small Central Washington town (population about 20,000) offers much in terms of its history, a beautiful location in the otherwise arid landscape, and its thriving community arts and culture.

Davidson building from 1889. Now home of Gallery One.

This year, Gallery One Visual Arts Center inaugurated a new ceramics residency program in order to reinvigorate its clay studio. I was excited to be offered an opportunity to visit and create work there, since my work of the past few years is strongly oriented towards building structures, architecture, and interaction with various communities. In our discussions about the scope of the residency with director Monica Miller, we had discovered common threads in our goals: to create an engagement between my research and Ellensburg residents, by drawing people into the studio and also by hooking me up with some members of the community, in order to mine and record some of the oral history of the town.

Kittitas County Historic Museum

My residency takes form in three stages: First stage is a preliminary research, which, by now, I have completed. The second is a community workshop, which will take place at the end of July, and the third is a public presentation in August of the pieces made in the workshop.

Barge Hall on the CWU campus

During the past week, I've been wondering around town on my own photographing the buildings, getting tours from generous and knowledgeable gems of Ellensburg residents, like David Wheeler, a local historian and building aficionado, Mollie Edson, proprietor of the historic 420 Building, and Jane Orleman of Dick and Jane's Spot, a painter.

The Art Deco 420 Building.

From what I was able to observe, Ellensburg is a combination of three things that signify the place and keep being intertwined mutually facilitating the growth of one another over the past century and a quarter: community, culture and history, - creating a perfect place for an artist.
Another facet of a small town is the unhurried way of life, and the social contract created by everybody knowing everyone (for better or worse).

After I settled into the studio and made a few tests with the materials available, I headed out in the company of David Wheeler to get my first history lesson on Ellensburg.
While the Kittitas tribes has used the valley as trade and council grounds for many decades before the first white settlers laid an eye on the beautiful location by the Yakima river, it was not a permanent settlement site until the mid 1800s. In barely more than two decades after the first permanent white settlement was established, a flourishing town complete with a bank, a few hotels and eateries, many saloons, stables, schools, stores and various other businesses was welcoming the travelers en-route in their grueling journey from the Midwest to the Pacific Coast or from the traders conducting business of cattle, and natural resources from the Columbia river northward. The Northern Pacific Railroad built a depot in 1886, and the town was growing so rapidly that in 1889, when Washington territory became a state, Ellensburg became a strong contender in a bid for the state capital. The milestone moment came 125 years ago, on the 4th of July, in the form of a blazing fire that destroyed much of the downtown core. The expansion was only momentarily stunned by the destruction, but only to rebuild with even more resolve, quickly and furiously. Much of the building materials had already been ordered amidst the vigorous expansion and these became the fundamental first-aid during the process of the rebuild, which actually happened in only 90 days!!!
In the following decades, many other events promoted the renewal and redevelopment of the town, now shaping itself to be a center of education (Washington Sate Normal School in 1891, pilot training during WW II. - now Central Washington University) and trade (a special type of hay for race horses).

Downtown street corner with mural.

Dick and Jane's Spot.
Dick and Jane's Spot.

Looking at the details of the buildings and listening to David retelling these stories, two things stand out for me from all this history: Community and Craft.

The old YMCA building now.

Both after the Independence Day Fire and upon the return of the veterans of World War I and II, or even now during the time of our current economic ailments, a strong sense of inter-reliance and shared responsibility for the future permeates all the discussions. One example for that is values and ideas represented and promoted by the stellar Gallery One Visual Arts Center and the other is the brand new community radio station.

Check out the brick work!
During my week-long residency, I've met more artists, crafts people, makers, creative-types, innovators and entrepreneurs - both living in Ellensburg or visiting, than I meet in a usual week back home in Seattle.
Another aspect of Craft comes from having only limited resources, creating a more resourceful approach to making it due with what's available. This is clearly visible in the brick work on the building fronts. This kind of resourcefulness of pushing and pulling the bricks to create endless variations of patterns is a testament to the craftsman's technical savvy and design ingenuity.

On one of my walks I found a curious looking residential home, affectionately named Dick and Jane's Spot. On the fence is a loud sign: "What is This?" - exactly a question in my mind. The next day, I was lucky enough to meet Jane Orleman, the lady of the house, for a discussion and a tour of her home. Jane gave me another chapter to Ellensburg history: from the 1970's to the present. As young artists and graduates of CWU's art program, she and Richard C. Elliott bought a run-down house, which over the following three decades they developed into a whimsical sculpture garden, equally for their own amusement and that of the tourists' who have been curiously peeking over the fence ever since.

Dick Elliott's trademark pattern work with reflectors. He developed a mathematical algorithm to produce permutations of the design. One of his public artworks is on the North part of the Henry Art Gallery on the UW Seattle campus.
Jane spoke about the local support she received in showing her then "outrageous" paintings about domestic violence and child abuse, and how Dick (who was a renowned public artists with numerous commissions nation-wide) and her considered Ellensburg their home-base and center.
Jane Orleman in her studio.

While I was working in the Gallery One clay studio many visitors made a stop for casual or inquisitive conversations.
This is one of the larger and more complex pieces. It's not directly referencing any of the buildings but still has a few design elements mixed together.

I learned about "moon gardens," the local hay business, a general lack of art education in the school system, the efforts going into making the town a cultural center and a destination, the Ellensburgians wary to utter the word "wind". (Instead you have to spell it out: W-I-N-D, in order to avoid it returning. The wind can be quite unsettling in its relentless presence. I went out for a run on a moderately windy day and got almost blown off my feet while going through the open fields. I felt like a fool out there struggling to move forward while barely keeping my balance.)

Although I made quite a few things in the studio while there, much of this experience will shape into its final form later in my own studio and during the community workshop at the end of the month. Again: Ceramics is such a process! - from start to result. Takes a while to test and get the materials ready in the beginning, and it takes a while to get the end result fired and finished.
I also noticed a certain adult bias to relegate working with clay to be either a functional craft or children's art. It may be just some shyness, the adults thinking of purpose and utilitarian product.
I hope the upcoming workshop to sway that. Here is a great inspiration:

I actually found this picture in the Ellensburg online archives. It is so intriguing. I believe the building was on fire in the dead of winter, so the water froze on it as it was being sprayed by the firemen. The ice has a visual relationship to the way I use the slip to hold the pieces together in my structures.

And below are some work in progress:
Working with slip and glaze inlays to add pattern. These are stoneware slabs, a lot thicker than my usual work with porcelain.
Little structures are going into the kiln.

Out of the kiln.