ArtSEA: Seattle Art Museum floats a new show devoted to water

Plus, signs of spring at local galleries and design docs at Northwest Film Forum.

a row of children stands at the edge of the ocean, decked out in detritus

“The Boat People” (2020), by Vietnamese filmmaker Tuan Andrew Nguyen, is one of several videos included in ‘Our Blue Planet’ at SAM. In this dystopian vision, children travel South Asian seaways and collect detritus from a ruined world. (Seattle Art Museum)

This weekend brings the vernal equinox (March 20), which means spring is about to take us by the shoulders, pull us out of our winter doldrums and shout “Snap out of it!” by way of longer days, louder birdsong and electric yellow daffodils. (Related: On Sunday, local farms will give away bunches of blooms at Pike Place Market’s 25th annual Daffodil Day.)

Sure, we have more puffy coats and rainy days ahead, but the annual burst of floral exuberance is right on time — further evidenced by the powerhouse show of petals emerging on the University of Washington’s live Cherry Blossom Cam. Right now, as I watch from the camera’s high perch above the quad, a cluster of students is attempting to capture the perfect photo, taking turns jumping up in front of the pinkening trees. That’s entertainment!

ArtSEA: Notes on Northwest Culture is Crosscut’s weekly arts & culture newsletter.

Spring asks — demands, really — that we tune in to our natural surroundings. And so do several shows at Seattle galleries this month.

Downtown, at Traver Gallery, local glass artists Jennifer Elek and Jeremy Bert employ the time-tested strategy of neon to grab the viewer’s eye. Illuminated Forest (through April 2) features the duo’s vibrant take on everyday Northwest sightings, including a Steller’s jay, morel mushrooms, snails and the humble banana slug — all handcrafted as glowy neon signs.

In ‘Illuminated Forest,’ Seattle artists Jennifer Elek and Jeremy Bert present a collection of Northwest flora and fauna rendered in neon. (Traver Gallery)

At Studio e in Georgetown, Northwest artist Sarah Norsworthy shares paintings heavily influenced by the regional landscape in The Hum of Life (through April 9). Mixing beeswax into her oils, Norsworthy creates thickly dreamlike scenes of places like Thornton Creek, Deception Pass and Cascadian woodlands.

In Madison Park, at Roq La Rue Gallery, the group show Jungle (through April 9) features an array of fantastical interpretations of the theme, from frogs in Elizabethan collars (Brian Despain) to tigers frolicking with butterflies (Dewi Plass) to a cheetah peeking through thick foliage (Baso Fibonacci). And in Vashon artist Bella Ormseth’s haunting painting “The Journey,” inspired by the refugee crisis, a luminescent row of white mushrooms begins a perilous walk through the woods.

And at Artxchange in Pioneer Square, Bellingham artist Caryn Friedlander urges viewers to Make of Yourself a Light (through April 23), with large-scale abstract oil paintings on linen that capture the bubbling, shifting colors of a lake morphing through the seasons.

A collaborative effort the Erub Collective of artists on Erub Island off Australia, this life-sized 'Hammerhead' sculpture displayed at SAM is made from the garbage and "ghost nets" that litter the Torres Strait. It poses the question, which species is more lethal? (Brangien Davis/Crosscut)

The Seattle Art Museum is also sounding a seasonal call for nature appreciation — with an underlying message of urgency. The new show, Our Blue Planet: Global Visions of Water (March 18-May 30), is awash in works that span time, place and medium. The idea for the show came about as an “experiment in artistic activism,” when SAM curators wanted to engage viewers in a critical conversation about climate change.

The exhibit opens with a Duwamish welcome, recorded by Chief Seattle descendant Ken Workman, who also spoke at the press tour I attended. “We are water people,” he said of the Duwamish, past and present. “We are at sea level … we know the smells of the beaches.” Contemporary regalia for canoe journeys (woven by Suquamish artist Danielle Morsette) is included in this lively mix, as well as Aboriginal Australian artist Djirrirra Wunungmurra’s paintings of sacred waterways on eucalyptus bark.

The scope is vast, with works by 74 artists from 17 countries and seven Native American tribes, stretching from 619 A.D. through the current decade. In many cases, the artists are celebrating the power and beauty of water bodies: Ansel Adams’ photograph of the Snake River; Utagawa Hiroshige’s woodblock print of Naruto whirlpools; Derrick Adams’ joyous painting of a swimmer on a giant rubber-duck floaty.

Other artists use their work to point directly to the dangers of ignoring these precious resources: Claude Zervas’ spindly light-sculpture of the Nooksack River; John Feodorov’s Diné weaving painted with the image of an oil spill; and Ethiopian artist Aida Muluneh’s striking photographic series of brightly clothed women carrying water through a parched landscape.

Seattle Symphony's composer in residence, Reena Esmail, presents a world premiere piece inspired by the climate crisis this weekend. (Rachel Garcia)

If you’re inspired to continue the aquatic theme this weekend, consider Seattle Symphony’s Celebrate Asia concert (March 20 at 4 p.m.; available in person and online), which this year will feature several environmental works. On the program is Toshio Hosokawa’s Meditation, a haunting aural memorial to the victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, as well as Debussy’s La Mer, an ode to the movement of the sea.

And in between is a world premiere by the symphony’s composer in residence, Reena Esmail, who is known for blending Eastern and Western styles of classical music. Prompted by reflections on our ecological emergency, Esmail co-wrote a new violin concerto with Kala Ramnath to spark conversation about humanity’s role and responsibility in climate change.

Workers sweep sand off a road in Oranjemund, a town in Namibia, in the documentary 'Desert Paradise,' part of the By Design film festival. (Northwest Film Forum)

Moving from the natural environment to the one we build ourselves … the 22nd annual By Design Festival kicks off this week at Northwest Film Forum, showcasing films about the convergence of architecture, design and community. Curated in partnership with the Seattle Design Festival, this hybrid showcase (March 17-20 in person, March 17-27 online) is one of my favorite film festivals of the year.

The slate of movies is small — which is good, because they’re so intriguing you have to find time to watch all of them. This year’s roster includes Americaville, a documentary about Jackson Hole, China, a replica town built outside of Beijing, where wealthy citizens live in a carefully constructed cowboy burg that isn’t all it’s rustled up to be. There is definitely a Westworld vibe here, minus the humanoids.

For those, look to Robolove, a documentary visit to the uncanny valley where robots with rubbery skin and realistic eyelashes are learning to express emotions. “Our own existence is basically something strange and unbelievable,” says one of the robot scientists, “and by that I also mean the human beings as such.” If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, I guess?

Also fascinating: Desert Paradise, about a remote Namibian town trying to revamp itself as a tourist destination after a diamond mine closes; Touristic Intents, about the failed and abandoned Nazi vacation resort being transformed into a oceanside community; and a short film program that includes One Last Ride, a tribute to the Alaskan Way Viaduct by Seattle-based Ukrainian filmmaker Anastasia Babenko. The artist intersperses demolition footage of the bygone brutalist infrastructure with clips of contemporary dance company Whim W’Him, whose performers spin and slump around myriad other concrete interruptions to the natural landscape.

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