During this month’s Seattle Design Festival, GRAY, Totokaelo, and Pacific Bonsai Museum will present the exhibition “Shapeshifters: The Alchemy of Bonsai and Design” at Totokaelo’s Seattle storefront. The project invited artists John Hogan (Seattle), Diane Rudge (Vancouver, BC), Vince Skelly (Portland, OR), and Julian Watts (Alpine, OR) to respond to works from the Washington-based Pacific Bonsai Museum’s permanent collection with objects made from glass, fiber, and wood. On display from August 16–25, “Shapeshifters” explores the balance between nature, design, tradition, and modernity, in an exhibition that marks an alchemistical moment and forges a new expression of bonsai art.
Ahead of the opening on August 16, we asked each artist to document the process of making the work they’re creating for the show. The results are details below. Read on to learn more about the artists, and their individual relationships with nature, materiality, and craft.
Tell us a little about yourself—where you are from, your primary medium, and how you came to participate in the Seattle Design Festival.
Julian Watts: I was born and raised in San Francisco, but moved to a small town in rural Oregon called Alpine in 2018. I primarily make sculpture from wood, but also work with stone and other materials as well as drawing and painting.
John Hogan: I grew up in Toledo, Ohio, known as “The Glass City” and the birthplace of the studio glass movement in the United States. I work primarily in glass in a variety of ways including sculpture, furniture, and lighting, and most recently at an architectural scale. I was contacted by [GRAY Editorial Director] Tiffany Jow to work collaboratively with The Pacific Bonsai Museum.
Diane Rudge: I grew up in Toronto, Ontario, and made my way out west to British Columbia shortly after high school. I’ve been living [there] for the past twelve years and currently reside in the coastal town of Ucluelet on Vancouver Island. I’ve been working full time as an artist for about four years, working with fiber as my main medium, but primarily focusing on larger sculptural installations that are both woven and free-form. About a year ago, I created a large-scale woven tapestry for Totokaelo’s Seattle store, which then lead to my participation in the Seattle Design Festival this year.
Vince Skelly: I was born and raised in Claremont, California, with a brief stint in San Francisco. I spent the last nine years in Portland, Oregon. I primarily work with wood, focusing on functional sculpture. I met Tiffany Jow of GRAY Magazine at a Design Week Portland event last April. We talked about community and design. We kept in touch and she invited me to participate in the show.
What comprises your relationship to nature?
Julian Watts: Nature plays a large role in my creative process and my life. I moved to Oregon to be closer to nature, and my partner and I were lucky enough to find a property with five acres full of beautiful trees, meadows, and a creek. I spend a lot of time walking and doing chores on the property, and the constant interaction with the forms and processes of nature directly influence my work.
John Hogan: I spend quite a bit of time in the mountains here in the Pacific Northwest. I love to ski. Time spent away from the developed world provides a reset and connects us to a different time.
Diane Rudge: The West Coast of Canada is known for its wildlife, trails, and ocean. Living and working in this environment comes with an appreciation for nature. We grow or catch our food in our backyard, and so my life has become very intertwined with my surroundings.
Vince Skelly: Growing up, I spent lots of time outdoors, climbing sycamore trees, building skate ramps, and exploring. I started collecting weird-looking rocks and wood pieces and arranged them in my house. Having them around made me feel relaxed and close to nature—it’s a healthy feeling and totally necessary.
For this project, you have been tasked with working with a bonsai that has been in precise, exhaustive training for many decades. What have been some of the factors that have formed you into the creator you are today?
Julian Watts: My background in furniture-making and contemporary sculpture have been crucial to forming my specific approach to making art. My interest in nature and recent move to the Pacific Northwest have also been important in my recent work.
John Hogan: Glass is both an industrial material and a craft-based material. When you learn to blow glass, you are engaging the craft history of the material. With a medium as bizarre as glass, technique can be important to learn [in order to] to execute your ideas, but it can also lead to limitations in approach if correct or incorrect technique is overthought. I have tried to balance the pursuit of technical prowess with the excitement of the material’s rather young history in a more experimental, less utilitarian approach.
Diane Rudge: A lot of the work I have created has been a collaborative effort between myself and my clients. I have always been drawn to large, abstract, textural work. I have slowly been evolving and transforming my process and my art to shape around my clients’ needs. All these connections have ultimately brought me to where I am today as an artist.
Vince Skelly: I’ve always been attracted to the simplicity of ancient building forms and their similarity to contemporary architecture and furniture. I like how ancient stools and primitive objects look perfectly placed in the modern world. I’m influenced by found objects, too. I love finding a perfectly off chunk of wood that’s left over from an arborist site, mostly because half the work is already done for me. At that point, it simply needs some consideration, carved legs or a circular window through the side of it. I love thinking about parameters in that way.
Process is so individualized. What are the parts of your process that you require in order to create?
Julian Watts: I require a lot of time to think and draw before even beginning to create a collection of work. Drawing enables me to deconstruct and expand ideas, and my limited drawing ability enables me to discover new, unexpected orientations and reconfigurations of ideas and forms I thought I understood. Long drives and staying up late at night in my studio are also really crucial parts of my process and encourage me to really push my imagination to try to discover new shapes and ideas to carve.
John Hogan: Sometimes my process is driven by an idea or drawing, and sometimes experimental sessions guide the next drawings. Some of the designs are simple and come directly from the most basic skills in glassmaking, and sometimes the designs are pushed by mistakes or surprises the material has shown me.
Diane Rudge: I’m highly inspired by texture and movement. I love the feeling of letting my fingers guide my work. I often create sketches and have preconceived ideas or inspiration of what I want to create, but when I sit down to start and can feel the fibers in my hands, I can calm my mind and work intuitively, not worrying about mistakes and just let the work evolve. Not judging my mistakes and staying in the rhythm of the piece can often lead to something more beautiful.
Vince Skelly: Initially, I have to find the right piece of wood, then understand its moisture content and how it’s going to move and crack. This is because I usually work with green wood. It’s the scientific part of the process and I really enjoy learning about it. I use a chainsaw to rough out the form, which usually sits upside down while I’m carving it. The rough form can sit in the studio for days, weeks, even months before it’s solved. Since wood-carving is a subtractive process, knowing when to stop is very important. It can take a long time to decide where to make a cut, since there’s no going back.
A major topic under discussion through “Shapeshifters: The Alchemy of Bonsai and Design” is the dialogue between ancient and modern practice within the evolving art form of bonsai. How do you see this art form, and art at large, transforming in the decades to come?
Julian Watts: I think that the way the bonsai tradition is based around the relationship between very traditional techniques and more wild processes of nature can be seen as a really wonderful roadmap for the future of art and craft. There has been a recent resurfacing of interest in traditional, material-based craft and design techniques, and I think by combining these older techniques with the more wild and mysterious processes of nature can lead to a really profound place.
John Hogan: I don’t feel like I have enough of an understanding of the history of bonsai to fully answer this question, but with any ancient or traditional practice, contemporary approach can be tricky. Sometimes, if the work is being limited by the rules of the past, it may be necessary to coin a new term for a genre in order to free the artists. In the case of bonsai and particularly in the case of American or non-Japanese artists working in this approach to using plants in sculpture, it may be necessary to allow progress without worrying about offending the protectors of the tradition.
Vince Skelly: Unfortunately for bonsai, climate change is probably going to transform the art to some degree. On a lighter note, I think we’ll see a cultural reaction to the Information Age and more people will realize art is fundamental and we all need it to progress and heal.
“Shapeshifters: The Alchemy of Bonsai and Design” will be on view from August 16–25 at Seattle’s Totokaelo storefront. The exhibition is free and open to the public. Glass artist John Hogan and curator Aarin Packard will be in conversation about the space on August 21; to attend the talk, RSVP at email@example.com by August 19. For more information, visit the Seattle Design Festival website.