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Truth, Joy, Being, and a Symphony of Color:

The Vashon Island Spring Arts Tour 2015
Kristen Reitz-Green in her new studio
Kristen Reitz-Green in her new studio

 I’m embarrassed to say it took me 15 years to finally visit the light filled and prolific studio and factory of Irene Otis, at stop number 16, our Vashon institution of tiles and insight, color and hope. It was a challenge to stay on task and take in the art, as I so much wanted to discuss issues of joy, freedom, suffering and faith, which arose in Irene’s refreshingly candid discussion of her recent trip to a Buddhist monastery in Myanmar. We discussed art as a bonding agent in human relationships instead of a commodity, and how people all over track her down over the internet to get her tiles. Soon we found a mutual love and respect for Henry Chapman Mercer, a turn of the (last) century tile maker, who, like many a Vashon resident has done or would like to do, gave up his career as a lawyer in 1898 at age 40 to become an artist. He built one of my favorite museums in the world in Doylestown, PA and Irene had the privilege of apprenticing at his still operating Moravian Tile Works 30 years ago. There she learned methods he discovered over 100 years ago in fabricating tiles which Irene is keeping alive today. Finally, we actually looked at her tiles! They are gorgeous! Neatly stacked on her table is a recent order from a garden club of a cornucopia of fruit and vegetables tiles titled “Never too old to be a top banana, to be a hot pepper, to go plum crazy”. Each tile is still individually painted by Irene. If you haven’t visited Irene’s Tiles yet- go this weekend or next! Don’t wait 15 years like I did!

Irene is one of four artists I visited who will be on this springs Vashon Island Art Studio Tour, May 2nd and 3rd, and 9th and 10th, from 10 am to 5 pm. Brochures with maps are available at most island establishments. I also visited the studios of Karen Fox, Kristen Reitz-Green and Jiji Saunders.

Not enough northwest painters give themselves permission to capture the light, fog, dampness, colors, and atmosphere of our region. I was pleased to enter the studio of Karen Fox at stop number 5, to see a rich array of colorful  oil paintings accomplishing just that. Karen succeeds in painting these atmospheric moments on her daily commute to Seattle or in her meanderings of the island, using photos that she has taken and storing them away for years until one of them calls out to her. She captures the interplay of dawn light and street lights reflecting off a very wet First Avenue. Smaller paintings of our colorful Vashon birds are generously mixed in with landscapes of horses, rhododendrons, mountains and the Snake River. A tree in Burton comes alive with her own idiosyncratic swirls and whirls. Think Mondrian meets Van Gogh. A foggy Vashon road at dusk offers a brief respite from the rest of the vibrant color in the studio- think Turneresque nocturnes. A big painting of a tugboat party reminds me of George Bellows paintings of the Hudson River.  Another big painting of sunflowers whose boldly and confidently painted petals, like all her other paintings, are accomplished with a palette knifes- think….Karen Fox!  This is Karen’s first return to the Arts Tour since 2012 and she has been busy, with 20 new paintings along with others filling her studio.

When I entered the new painting studio of Kristen Reitz-Green, at stop number 6, an explosion of color and vitality struck me silly. Most conspicuous are the brilliant paintings of guilty pleasures: sugars and oils glisten prominently on the doughnut, bacon, honey and pancake paintings whose large scale suggests our gluttonous consumption. Then I was taken with the phenomenally well drawn figures that no newcomer to painting as recent as Kristen has a right to have mastered. I had underestimated Kristen’s insatiable curiosity. Not content to be pigeonholed as the “big food” painter, Kristen subjects herself to a disciplined tutorial of a range of subject matter born out of her love of Chuck Close, Wayne Thiebaud, Vermeer, Marc Chagall, Dali, and other respected masters. I wonder if Kristen has her own blessed version of the painter Kandinsky’s synesthesia, which allowed him to see colors when he heard music, and hear music when he painted. For Kristen spent 29 years as a rigorously trained musician from Julliard, with numerous musical scores imprinted on her synapses; living and breathing, literally with her French Horn, the inner world of arpeggios, passacaglias, the circle of fifths, and dwelling in the rich array of tonal textures that a symphony produces. Then a few years ago she stops with the music and picks up the brush, and almost immediately finds the visual equivalent of all these skills. Truly- it’s like she’s been painting for decades. Now, she’s not a savant; that would be an insult to her devoted study and disciplined craft, but my goodness, would that we all could have such a musical training to make our colors sing! Don’t miss Kristen’s latest outpouring of colorful symphonic music.

Jiji Saunders, at stop number four, plants herself firmly between the lush abundance of her enormous West Side vegetable garden and her paintings of her memories of the austere, wild and arid beauty of her Colorado youth. Just like a lot of us, both gardening and painting beckon her. “I welcome rainy days, and then I have an excuse not to preen the garden and paint instead!” She got an early start on the garden this year with the mild February weather and took care of the plants early enough to then produce- hard to believe- 120 encaustic paintings for this art tour! Jiji pares down her textured landscapes to simple elements, finding the minutest variations of cloud, tree, bush, sand, and hill, within the intersection of land and sky. The encaustic wax is thick and substantial; giving texture and immediacy to what would otherwise be a soft and filmy landscape. There is something mysterious and alluring in this prairie of her youth, and Jiji seems to be painting these scenes over and over to either revisit something assuring, or work out something haunting. Either way, issues of meta-cognition and emotional memory weave through these unassuming gems, with Jiji always questioning our brain’s need to categorize and sort out colors and shapes. And sometimes the place to do that is in the desert.  I know when I go to desolate places in Eastern Washington and lie down next to sagebrush like I see in her paintings, I can more freely marvel over existence which Jiji’s paintings allude to: The wonder of creation, the miracle of consciousness and gravity and the thin layer of atmosphere that separates us from the dark void of the cosmos.
These are just four of the 21 stops on the Spring Arts Tour. You can view and purchase a rich range of other arts, crafts, jewelry, photography and sculpture this weekend and next, May 2nd and 3rd, and May 9th and 10th, from 10 am to 5 pm. Brochures with guide maps are available at most island establishments.