Artists' homes, like artists' lives, carry a certain romantic mystique in the world of laypeople. In the 19th century, the clich頷as the freezing garret Puccini


Where Art Thou?

Seattle artists fill their living and working spaces with personality and inspiration

Artists' homes, like artists' lives, carry a certain romantic mystique in the world of laypeople. In the 19th century, the clich頷as the freezing garret Puccini devised for La boh譥. Today, the funky loft space—originally a compromise chosen by artists who needed large, low-cost space in an urban environment and were willing to put in their own plumbing—has metamorphosed into the pricey "artist's loft" (read: a condo with few interior walls) currently proliferating in the real estate market. This indicates a touching, if naive, belief that the artist's home/studio creates the artist, as if living in one of these prefab wonders could tweak one's aesthetic so that, suddenly, a paralegal could become a painter.

While this is a sweet and magical idea, it couldn't be farther from the truth. Space doesn't create artists; artists create space. And most working artists' living and studio spaces emerge from their work. A creator of monumental sculpture needs more room than a portraitist; a printmaker needs a press; a ceramist needs a kiln. The artist, by making choices dependent upon material and personality, creates art; the same sorts of choices define the artist's space, making it as unique and expressive as any painting, sculpture, or print. Compromise is a given for most artists, who are likely to live, work, raise kids, and watch TV in the same general area; but the need to create a space in which to work appropriately—and to live pleasurably—drives the artist as much as it does anyone else.

Here are some Seattle artists who have created homes and studios that reflect the symbiosis between their aesthetic and their surroundings.

Juan Alonso:

A Corner of Paradise

Painter Juan Alonso has lived in the historic Ben Lomond apartment building, which clings to the west side of Capitol Hill, for more than 10 years. The structure, designed to look like a Scottish castle, seems almost typecast for Seattle's dark, rather gloomy weather. But when one enters Alonso's large first-floor apartment, the temperature seems to rise and the sun to shine. The lively, eye-filling space, bathed in brilliant tropical color, is clearly linked to its resident's large-scale paintings, in which floral shapes serve as a metaphor for emotion.

Born in Cuba, Alonso emigrated to Miami as a child. He grew up to be a nightclub singer and spent a good chunk of time in San Francisco. When he was ready for a change, he researched cities to find an interesting one. "Seattle seemed like this remote place—the Wild West—but it did seem appealing," says Alonso, whose move to the Emerald City was prompted by a synchronous event. The artist, who "does a lot of things intuitively," had just received propaganda very kindly sent to him by the Seattle Chamber of Commerce when, at a friend's house, he saw a photo of the Space Needle. The idiosyncratic structure riveted him, and he moved to Seattle in 1982, began painting, and gave up professional singing.

The move has clearly been a good one. "I don't know if I would have been motivated to work on art, to experiment, to expand and try things out if I hadn't moved here," says Alonso, who is represented by Seattle's prestigious Francine Seders Gallery. He just received a Sustaining Purchase Award from Seattle Collects 1999, an award program of the Seattle Arts Commission; and he's looking for studio space outside of his apartment so he can begin work on four large paintings that have been commissioned for the restaurant of the new Washington State Football/Soccer Stadium.

His current work space is the would-be dining room in the apartment, a small but well-lit space that accommodates a large work table. Currently on the table are a pair of paintings that he's working on for another commission: the highly visible poster for this year's Bumbershoot festival. A statue of the Virgin Mary blesses the work table from a small altar in one corner of the room; acrylic paints and media crowd the storage shelves, which also contain a TV and stereo. Compromises are being made here: When a long-term relationship ended, Alonso pared down his life, giving up a separate studio; he's now redoing the apartment, in part because of water damage sustained last winter and also as a way of reclaiming the space—making it his own—after his breakup. The walls have been painted a warm gray—"the color of wet cement"—which shows to advantage Alonso's far-from-subdued collection of art, including work by Robert Yoder, Fay Jones, Cheryl dos Remedios, Layne Kleinart, and Pehr. In the kitchen, a long plank table creates a horizon line from which to view Lake Union; a collection of brightly colored floral pottery from Pat Espey enlivens the space, as does a collection of cobalt glass.

By contrast, Alonso's bedroom is a plush, dark cave. A ceiling fan lends an exotic, tropical undertone to the windowless space. The bed is piled with luxurious velvet pillows from Darbury Stenderu, and the majority of Alonso's African art collection—"It's very important to me; African art is very Cuban"—resides here. It's the perfect retreat, as inviting on this early spring day as it must be in the depths of winter. "In this incarnation of the apartment, I wanted it to be a lot more mellow," says Alonso. "I've been more introspective the last couple of years, and I feel it should reflect that."

Stephen Hazel & Kathleen Rabel:

A Gallery of One's Own

Stephen Hazel and Kathleen Rabel, both known for their innovative and beautiful works on paper, are well woven into the fabric of Seattle's art scene. Their careers as instructors and artists-in-residence have influenced a generation of young artists studying at such institutions as the Evergreen State College, Western Washington University, and Cornish College of the Arts, where Rabel has taught since 1975; in fact, they met when Hazel was teaching printmaking at the University of Washington and Rabel—affectionately known as KR—was his student in the MFA program. "We were like two edges of the same sword," says Hazel. "What we had in common was fully formed."

Some of what they have in common is apparent in their downtown home, gallery, and studio, which they've occupied for 20 years, located in a building a few paces away from the Pike Street Hillclimb. Their reverence for Japanese printmaking techniques has led to their spare, Asian-infused aesthetic; the occasional vicissitudes of gallery representation dictated the choice of long, well-lit gallery walls, on which works in progress can be shown. "We wanted a long shot in this room," says Hazel. "We've always sold a lot of work out of here."

Their print studio, Studio Blu, is three floors below (underground, actually, and lit with color-balanced full-spectrum lights), but work in the main living space, also called "the daylight studio," requires easily moved, multipurpose furniture—including a dining table designed by Hazel that converts, with a few pegs, into a 4- by 8-foot work table. The sparseness of furnishings adds to an elegant and reserved overall effect. So does the small, lush outdoor deck, which features a container garden that includes gingko, jasmine, bamboo, roses, maple, and evergreen clematis. Remarkably, the deck is insulated from the noise of downtown. "Because it is enclosed, it is quiet and intimate—you can see the stars at night," says Rabel.

The sculptural works displayed in the gallery area are a result of the couple's yearly visit to Portugal, where they stay in a 300-year-old house in tiny village north of Lisbon. "We make sculpture and installation pieces there, " says Hazel, who describes the house as a magical place, a link between Africa and Europe. There is a stream on the property—called "the valiant little stream" in Portuguese, because it is reckoned to have stopped the Moors from crossing it—and due to the altitude and climatic conditions, one can watch clouds form just a few feet above the ground. The earthy wonder of the place provides a source of inspiration for both artists; the Portuguese language inspired the naming of Studio Blu, which is distinguished by a floor painted what Hazel describes as "Bugatti blue" after the vintage Italian car.

Open as a business for about three years, Studio Blu was an offshoot of Rabel's career as a professor at Cornish College. "People came out of school, but are they road worthy as printmakers? Do they know how to be global, how to make work anywhere?" asks Hazel. "We want to increase the influence of the voice of Seattle artists in the world."

A momentary disaster occurred last July, when a water main broke and Studio Blu was flooded; $250,000 worth of finished work and rare papers were lost. Remarkably, the studio reopened several days before Thanksgiving. Typically, they are philosophical about the flood. "We realized, when we got wiped out, that we could actually redesign things and do it right," says Rabel. That included upgrading the lights, designing and building furniture, and generally creating one of the most pristine and inviting print studios imaginable, a space in which three to five people can work comfortably for the extremely reasonable price of $75/day. On this particular day, the walls feature works on paper that Hazel is contemplating for his upcoming show "Moment of Impact," which opens May 6 at Davidson Galleries in Pioneer Square.

Looking at the whole picture—the elegant living space, the ideal work space, the summer home in Portugal—it's important to remember that this enviable situation involved time and compromise. "When we were recruited into this space by the developers 20 years ago, they had designed artist/studio spaces and wanted to gentrify the area; this was originally a low-income building," says Rabel. "It has slowly evolved into a functional space."

Margaret Ford:

The Bare Bones

The link between home and art is a straight shot for sculptor Margaret Ford. She has stripped away the interior walls of her Wallingford house and has been slowly redesigning the space for the past three years—a process that's reminiscent of her figurative sculptures, most recently seen in March at Foster/White Gallery. "If you think about my work, you're dealing with people who are stripped down to the bones. Bones define space, and this is the second house I've stripped to the bone," says Ford. She has approached the redesign of her home as she has the creation of sculpture: as a slow process. In homemaking as in artmaking, she says, "I ignore how it gets to the finished product." Choices are made slowly and fully. She feels herself in the space, deciding about such elements as the height of ceilings and the placement of doors by existing in the open and unfinished space.

Ford's irrepressible garden, a partial result of a job at Swanson's Nursery, has been part of Pacific Northwest Arts Coop's tour of artists' gardens. It's an idiosyncratic combination of Japanese and English styles: Occasional dignified stands of daffodil, tulips, and iris, along with low-level creepers and weepers, share space with round tufts of lavender and rosemary. The exuberance outside belies the austere interior of the house, which includes a large, cement-floored work space filled with vine maple collected in the foothills of the Cascades. This material forms the limbs of her hyperattenuated sculptures; the heads, hands, and feet are created from ceramic, an earlier discipline for Ford (and one in which she received both a BFA and an MFA from the University of Washington).

The word "vulnerable" comes up frequently in conversation with Ford, particularly in regard to her sculpture. Her temperament has guided her to divvy up the year into two segments: the summer, in which she turns to the outside world, works on her house, and deals with building codes and the like; and the darkness of winter, during which she makes art "12 hours a day, seven days a week."

"When darkness comes," she says, "you're like a camera—your aperture is closing down. Inside is where the action is, the doubt and the questioning." This process is where her work comes from. "My pieces have a lot of darkness in them; I feel I'm so naked in them. If you want to see them as humorous or well crafted, that's fine; but if you come to them vulnerable, you'll find the vulnerable space in them."

While construction goes on, possibly through the summer of 2000, Ford lives in her basement. It's hardly an ideal situation, but it's oddly enriching. "I have to learn to be very tolerant," says Ford. "It's like the process of gardening, and ceramics too: It provides resistance. You learn to deal with not having control." She feels this mental state is especially important for artists. "You have to learn not to impose an end onto the process too quickly. We have to tolerate a great many things that don't fit. We have to be patient with chaos, learn to resist rushing to order, to conclusion, too quickly."

A tall order. It points to the almost spiritual quality of "being here now" that must inform artmaking—or remodeling. As Ford says, "It's important that I do something I don't feel completely comfortable with. When I'm not taking a risk, I'm not being alert enough. It's a way of being present."

Lesa Sawahata is a Seattle writer and artist.

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