Brilliant colors blaze a trail across Sheila Crider’s dimensional art. In her mixed-media work, flat canvases may convert to billowing shapes. Textures glide from gridded burlap to subtle Japanese-paper relief. Parts may be woven or laced together. And while materials are often gathered from what’s at hand, meaning isn’t left to chance. Perhaps that’s because Crider started out as a poet.
“In poetry,” she explains, “meaning is derived from words on the page and their relationship within a poem.” Living in France in the late 1980s, speaking French but not utilizing it in poetry, Crider began looking at “the language of abstract art, and how you can use it within the body of a work to communicate feelings and impressions,” she says. “That’s when I became a visual artist.” Having recently settled into a new studio in Baltimore’s Bromo Arts District, the artist adds, “I’m trying to push that language forward in a direction I haven’t taken the work before.”
For inspiration, Crider brought along many items from her former DC studio. Among those bits and pieces were a stack of hanging file folders. After recycling their metal parts into 10-by-10-inch frames, she interwove colorful strips and scraps of traditional quilt batting onto them; she’d saved the fabric from the 2021-2022 exhibit “Intersectional Painting” at McLean Project for the Arts (MPA). Woven and stitched together, pieces in that sculpture series employed quilt batting as a metaphor for community. “It’s about how we interact with others and how we’re all intertwined,” she observes. While Crider was preparing those pieces, MPA artistic director Nancy Sausser commented that the canvases placed under the batting to absorb excess paint looked like ghost paintings.
Crider later reconsidered those canvases, working on both sides to create new pieces with flexible forms. “I wanted them to have multiple views and relationships that could change,” she explains. On her mind were shifting life situations. “Maybe you live in a place now where there’s room to spread a piece out,” she reflects. “Later, you might downsize and want to rearrange the canvas in a way that gives you a totally different painting.” Multiple grommets placed along the canvas edges encourage altering the arrangement.
Crider reshaped two of her canvases at DC’s Honfleur Gallery, where Haunting Refrain hung from the ceiling and Shape Shifter was draped on a wall in the 2022 exhibition “Color + Form = Blackstration.”
The notion of shape-shifting might apply to Crider’s own re-inventive life path. Born in Beckley, West Virginia, she moved as a child to Southeast Washington with her family. Attending public schools, Crider started learning French in third grade and later earned a degree in independent studies at University of Virginia. Finding her way to poetry, she became a founding member of Free DC: The Writers’ Workshop.
Crider first encountered art in the 1970s while working as an artist’s model at the Corcoran School. “From the podium, you could see people at work all around you,” Crider remembers. “I got ideas about how to use materials from that.”
In 1985, the poet moved to Bordeaux, where regular visits to the Museum of Contemporary Art influenced her direction—particularly a Julian Schnabel exhibit. “The series was mind-boggling,” Crider recalls, “but each piece was a work in itself. And that’s the goal: The entirety should be magnificent, while each piece has its own merits. That became important to me.”
By 1994, the self-taught artist was back in DC and selling her hand-dyed stationery and envelopes at Eastern Market. “Everything grew from there,” relates Crider, who branched out to produce additional works on paper such as collages, wall hangings, fans, parasols and eventually prints, at times commingling abstract art and words.
Artist-in-residencies followed, taking Crider from Kentucky to Canada and Paris. Her first public-art commission came in 2009, when she created a mural at DC’s new St. Elizabeths Hospital.
Glancing back on her ties to DC while looking eagerly ahead, the artist continues to transform everyday belongings into fresh beginnings. “I push myself to use what I have and see things where there may be nothing,” she observes, also reflecting an interest in limiting her carbon footprint, “and to understand how I can push that nothingness into something that people can read or perceive—through color and texture essentially.”
Sheila Crider’s art is on view through December 8 in the show “Black Artists of DC“ at The James E. Lewis Museum of Art, Morgan State University (jelmamuseum.org). For more information, visit outthecube.blogspot.com
Taking time out to talk with a visitor at his DC studio, Victor Ekpuk, born and educated in Nigeria, is asked about possible Western influences on his art. Might there be an exchange similar, say, to the influence of African masks on Picasso’s painting? Chuckling good-naturedly, Ekpuk replies, “My thing is—if I’m standing by the banks of the river, why borrow a cup of water from somebody else up the hill?”
For more than 35 years, the artist’s buoyant ingenuity has drawn from that African wellspring. Specifically, his work derives from Nsibidi, an ancient communication system still practiced in Nigeria among the elite Ekpe society. As a written language, signs and symbols are used to represent ideas; its marks appear on textiles and are painted on masks and bodies.
Ekpuk was encouraged to look into historical art forms while studying fine and applied art at Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria. “As an artist, I began to see how those symbols could inform my interest in abstraction,” he explains. “That it’s part of my patrimony was fascinating to me. I grew up within that culture. That aesthetic inspires my approach.”
Ekpuk’s upbeat graphic style mirrors his own genial spirit, as he reimagines the traditional knowledge system for today’s world. His commentary on contemporary issues isn’t new. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1988, he became a political cartoonist and illustrator for The Daily Times, a major Nigerian newspaper. “What is the essence of a story? I had to understand that and reduce its ideas to a basic expression,” he recalls. Distilling ideas continues to fuel his work, which encompasses drawing, painting, sculpture, collage, public art, printmaking and even book-cover illustrations for reissues of works by the acclaimed Nigerian author Chinua Achebe.
At times, Ekpuk’s drawings have expanded into supersized wall murals that he hand-draws, mainly with chalk or acrylic marker. One called Harlem Sunrise takes lines on a merry chase. Commissioned in 2018 by The Africa Center in Harlem, the mural is a force-field tribute to New York. Among its landscape of life forms, what might be an upside-down bird flows into the eyebrow of a one-eyed face, while a pretzel and taxi cabs, picked out in yellow, coast along below mountainous skyscrapers.
In the center, a polka-dot rooster arises with the sun. While he thinks about the overall design and composition of these works in advance, Ekpuk says that “once I get in there, I don’t control it anymore. It becomes automatic, stream of consciousness. I just have to draw.”
Mega-works are among the artist’s favorite projects, allowing freedom to express his thoughts without space limitations. And since they are based on sacred art forms, he adds, “For me, immersive pieces create a feeling of being at one with the work, in some kind of spiritual space.”
A similar environment greets visitors to The Phillips Collection, where an installation by Ekpuk wraps the main entry in jubilant energy. The artist explains its title: State of the Union: Things have fallen apart, can the center still hold? “When you come in it’s joyful, it’s beautiful. But when you look closely, you begin to see the dark side of that and some other things that have been going on,” he says, referring to an emblematic U.S. Capitol building interwoven with a clenched fist and a BLM banner. “There’s no perfect society in the world,” he observes. “The work also acknowledges that it’s still a beautiful country and has potential to be more. It is something that has to be won every day.”
The universality of Ekpuk’s art has taken him around the nation and the world. He recently visited Riyadh to discuss a future project with Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Culture. In June, he headed to Houston’s Rice University, where three of his 80-foot-high, digitally printed banners were exhibited along with his smaller sculptures. Ekpuk’s work has been displayed at Somerset House in London and at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. And it is in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where a six-foot collage painting from his ongoing series “Slave Narratives” now hangs.
In the artist’s DC drawing-and-painting studio adorned with objects from his African art collection, he points out a miniature mockup for a new sculpture that won a competition sponsored by Logan Circle Community Association. The bright-red, 10-foot-tall work in painted steel will be displayed on 14th and R Streets, NW. Its flat panels represent an abstract female figure wearing antebellum dress from one angle. From another view, she is dancing—a reference to the neighborhood’s past and current vibrancy.
Given Ekpuk’s long horizon, it seems appropriate that his studio is located in the historic Eckington School, built in 1897. He started painting and drawing there soon after arriving in Washington 22 years ago from Lagos, Nigeria, where he met his future wife, an American whose job brought them to the DC area. They now live in Alexandria, where the artist pursues his computer-generated projects, including his latest sculpture as well as The Phillips Collection’s 2021 installation.
In developing his style of written expression, Ekpuk researches time-honored symbols and aspects of the African diaspora. Still, he doesn’t intend for the viewer to literally translate every cipher. As the artist eloquently states in the museum’s wall text: “Through my ‘script’ drawings, the distinction between writing and visual art, legibility and illegibility are dissolved, allowing the abstraction rooted in ancestral knowledge and indigenous power symbols to build intuitive meaning.”
Ekpuk’s work will be on view at Princeton University Art Museum through October 8. His art is represented in Washington by Morton Fine Art: mortonfineart.com. For more information, visit victorekpuk.com.
A continuum of light surges through Rhoda Baer’s dynamic career. The stacked, pivoted and cascading glass sculptures she creates gleam with chaste beauty. Depending on the time of day or direction of a light beam, colors shift from faint to intense, or disappear completely as the viewer moves around each geometric piece. And a sense of mystery deepens.
“With what I do, there’s a conversation going on between the glass and the light,” says Baer, sitting in the living area of her luxuriously spare modern home in Bethesda. “I’m intrigued by how light interacts with glass, how light interacts with colors and how people interact with the sculpture.” Baer designed the lighting as well as the installation for her first solo museum exhibition, “View from Within,” at the American University Museum at the Katzen Art Center from June 17 through August 13.
This fascination with light didn’t begin when Baer first cut a piece of glass in 2005. At the time, she had a successful career as a photographer with a roster of corporate and editorial clients. “Photography is all about light,” she observes. “And these sculptures come alive with light.” From the moment she started working with glass at a Glen Echo Park workshop, Baer says, “I understood it and I could see the possibilities,” adding, “Everything I had learned up to that point informed the glass.”
Since then, her glass art has evolved, becoming larger—up to 19 inches tall—and increasingly complex: composites of pure, solid blocks that appear as floating volumes. At first, Baer created colorful glass panels with a feeling of fluid movement. Reflecting on these early pieces, she says, “I think my intent was always to get more sculptural; I was moving toward sculpture on a flat panel.”
In 2010, Baer took a class in color-laminating at the Corning Museum of Glass. That cold-working process involves cutting and bonding together pieces of glass; it differs from such hot-glass techniques as glassblowing or kiln-forming, the method Baer had used until then to heat up and fuse her tabletop-size panels.
Turning to color-laminating, she constructed glowing mounds from glass sections joined at narrow, colored seams. “I was exploring what happens in the intersections, how one color influences another as it interacts with the light,” she notes. Next, small disks were arranged in pillars, poised on rectangular or cylindrical bases. Like a juggler balancing elements in mid-air, the sculptor then rotated individual parts on one another or on their bases. Altering the stacking relationship, she says, “changes how light interacts with the whole piece.”
All parts come together in Baer’s lower-level studio. The soaring spaces, formerly used for photography, can easily be converted back—for example, to take the photos shown in this story.
While glass sculptures often have a shiny surface, the artist favors a soft, matte finish that scatters the light. To achieve it, she begins by using a diamond-bladed saw to cut blocks of optical glass, the purest and most transparent type, into varied sizes and shapes. Connecting surfaces are ground flat and smooth before they are glued together with a colorless, museum-quality epoxy called Hxtal. For color—blues and oranges are favorites—mineral pigments are dissolved into the epoxy, then filtered to eliminate any air bubbles or imperfections. As a piece progresses, surface refining continues with tools and hand pads embedded with diamond particles; as Baer notes, “I grind and shape and grind and shape, then I grind again.”
Describing the optics behind her enigmatic art, she explains, “Color is in the seam and only in the seam. Because of the finish, color flows through the glass.”
Once a piece is complete, its entire surface is treated again to be certain the finish is semi-opaque and identical throughout, allowing colors to disperse evenly. Baer has shared her technique with other glass artists; few give it a try. “It’s so time-intensive,” she acknowledges. “Gluing these colors down is an insanely precise process. A whole lot can go wrong and often does when I join two pieces together.” A single sculpture generally requires 12 individual laminations; each takes about seven days to harden. To ensure a uniform line of color during that stage, Baer builds wood platforms with intricate glass crossbars that protect each lamination.
On a recent visit, one sculpture on her worktable had been underway for several months. Reviewing the steps, she says, “I cut up pieces of glass and move them around the way a child would play with blocks—stacking them, taking them apart, cutting them up and stacking them in a different way.”
Photos document the sequence for future reference. “I don’t know where the ideas come from, but I know when a piece is complete,” the sculptor affirms.
Commenting on Baer’s “superlative technique,” Jack Rasmussen, director and curator of American University Museum, says, “She has perfected a way of presenting light in very simple and elegant forms. It takes the medium to a higher realm, becoming a kind of glowing presence that moves you. It’s gorgeous.”
“View from Within” is open from June 17 to August 23 at the American University Museum; american.edu/cas/museum. For more information, visit rhodabaerglass.com.
Dalya Luttwak had just returned from the installation opening for her latest sculpture on Palazzo Morgagni in central Rome. Scaling three stories on that noble façade, Root in Rosso Puro presents a brilliant-red, naturalistic contour against the palace’s golden masonry. Closer to home, another of her larger-than-life sculptures animates the Kreeger Museum sculpture garden. Viewed from the gallery’s terrace one wintry day, its sunny-yellow form appeared to dance up a distant tree. On closer look, Poison Ivy’s smooth, painted-steel surface contrasted boldly with the rough, weathered bark of an aged oak. Far overhead, its ancillary rootlets mingled with the tree’s upper branches—art and nature outlined against a milky sky.
Back in the living room of her Chevy Chase, Maryland, home, Luttwak discusses the major theme of her art. “I like the idea of uncovering roots, taking them out of the ground, revealing what nature chose not to show,” the sculptor says. Long before shaping these forms, she collected root specimens found on neighborhood walks or dug up in her garden.
One day while disposing of a late-summer basil plant, she noticed its distinctive root nodules. “Plants have such different root systems; some are fantastic looking,” she points out. “I was inspired, but didn’t do anything with it. ‘Nature is so perfect,’ I thought, ‘Who am I to even try to make anything like it?’”
Then, in 2006, she did just that. After only two attempts, Luttwak recalls, “I immediately knew that this was mine. I’m not copying nature; my aim is to create interesting visual effects for the viewer.”
At that stage, her metal-working skills had advanced. Since first taking metal classes at Montgomery College 15 years earlier, she had been designing and making one-of-a-kind silver and gold jewelry, along with pewter vessels and Judaica.
Deciding to scale up in 2006, she began to work in steel. Heating and connecting two pieces using that material produces a blobby residue, which typically is removed as an error. In her sculptures, it remains. “For root systems,” she observes, “the more weld-building that shows, the more organic and natural it looks.”
Luttwak’s works, both outdoors and in, are intended for specific sites, from the 100-foot-wide Root of Sweet Potato that courses 30 feet down the stone walls of a Sicilian castle to the attenuated, branch-like structures, echoed as shadows against the white walls of a residence in Israel.
Whenever possible, the artist begins by taking a photo of the location, printing it out and hand-drawing the sculpture on top. Designs are often constructed in her light-filled basement studio. Starting with at least five steel rods of different dimensions, she cuts them to size, heats them up in her studio forge and, once malleable, shapes them on an anvil. When the steel is red-hot, “it’s as soft as butter,” she says. “But you don’t have much time; steel becomes hard very quickly.” Formed pieces are then fused together by welding.
Each sculpture is composed in sections. For works that are too heavy, too awkward or too big to handle, the sculptor heads to Metal Specialties in Spencerville, Maryland, for help with fabrication and installation.
Since first presenting her work at the 2011 International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, she has received five public and private commissions in Italy, with more underway.
Luttwak’s ongoing fascination with roots may have been instilled early on. She was born on a kibbutz in Israel’s Upper Galilee, in a valley of relatively plentiful flora and fauna. Later attending Hebrew University in Jerusalem, she studied law before transitioning to art history and political science. “Basically,” she remembers, “I always wanted to be an artist.” A part-time job guiding visitors through the Israel Museum’s ceremonial art collection enhanced her appreciation for these historical metal forms. She met her husband in Jerusalem; the couple moved to Washington in 1972 when he pursued a doctorate.
Luttwak starts a piece by researching root systems online, unearthing their structures and exposing their hidden meanings. In Roots of Winter Wheat, a series exhibited at the World Bank, four sculptures illustrate an entire life cycle. “As the plant’s energy moves from the roots to the flowers,” she reflects,“its roots shrink. We don’t see that the roots are dying, but they are.” Her interpretation: “When we see something that is at its peak, something else has to give.”
In the sculptor’s front garden, several pieces once exhibited around the region are now on display. A cluster of bright-orange mangrove roots shoots from the earth like joyous trumpeters blaring. The long, lively Alfalfa Root at 4.5 Months ascends a huge evergreen.
Luttwak remarks, “Sometimes from inside the house, I see people stop and ask themselves, ‘What’s going on? Is it real? What is it?’” Brightening, she adds, “I like the process the viewer goes through—noticing the sculpture, thinking it’s like nothing they’ve seen before, then moving closer. I want people to stop and look and try to figure it out.”
For more information, visit dalyaluttwak.com.
In 1989, when Khánh H. Lê was eight years old, he and his family fled Vietnam. They arrived at a refugee camp in Bangkok and were granted entry to the United States nine months later. His aunt and uncle, leaving earlier, experienced a different kind of passage. Robbed by pirates and stranded at sea, they were rescued by a Dutch boat before being taken to a Philippine refugee camp. At last, they reached the U.S.
Lê, now a mixed-media artist living and working in Northeast DC, created a glittering portrait of his grandmother. She is shown standing on the shore beneath a golden umbrella, her gloved hands gently clasping its rhinestone-studded handle. Landscape and water appear as shimmering geometric shapes flowing across the scene. In the foreground against the blue sea, flowers seem to break into continents while the flat planes of his grandmother’s face come together in a warm smile.
Lê finished the picture in 2021, soon after another Asian grandmother had been attacked in San Francisco during a wave of anti-Asian incidents. That episode prompted the artist to ask, “How can we look at those who experienced life ahead of us in a more respectful and loving way, even though they are different?” She Waited for Her Family from This Point in Place is on view until February 26 at the National Portrait Gallery, part of its triennial Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. Lê’s work was among 42 pieces selected from more than 2,700 entries nationwide.
In his basement studio, the artist stands among paintings completed and underway. All derive from family photographs. He is focused on a new painting of his uncle and aunt in a refugee camp; it is paired with another showing the same couple holding their baby on the Philippine beach where they landed.
“Here they are, the first time they made it to safety,” Lê recounts. “They wanted this ceremonial—to capture the moment, and also to send a photograph back home saying, ‘We’re safe.’” Not interested simply in chronicling the event, however, Lê searched online for paintings of Mary and Jesus and Impressionist works, especially Mary Cassatt’s portraits of mothers and children. His question: “How do I convey this holding [of the baby] differently from previous holdings that have been explored in the historical context of painting?”
Lê approaches the challenge of placing his own family’s story into a broader art context in part by embellishing his mixed-media paintings with plastic jewels. Using these sparkling ornaments—which, as he says, are often viewed as “cheap and disposable”—developed from the affinity between these less traditional, more dimensional materials and the subjects of his art.
“The idea that immigrants are lesser people who come here and have nothing they can afford or to give,” the artist explains. “When I look at these acrylics,” he continues, “I feel if you give them a certain space, a certain place and a certain pattern, they shine. They exist in a beautiful form, just like any individuals living in this world.”
As Lê spends many hours sorting through bins of plastic jewels in his studio, he contemplates patterns and colors. “Creating patterns connects to my engineering mind,” he observes. “That process also enables me to generate ways in which I can deal with a lot of dramatic things.”
The first in his family to attend college, Lê earned a scholarship to study computer engineering at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, near his family’s St. Louis home. After one year, he realized his career path lay elsewhere. He gave up the scholarship and completed a degree in printmaking, later receiving a master’s in fine arts from Syracuse University. While teaching art abroad in 2008, Lê was offered a job in DC, where he now teaches art at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School.
Recalling his own student experiences—arriving in the U.S. unable to speak English, encountering what he calls the “micro-aggressions” of schoolmates—he says, “Teaching offers me the possibility to plant a seed that encourages children at an early age not to make assumptions about others, and to have conversations with people who are different.”
The artist compares his mixed-media collages to scrapbooking—a popular way to preserve memories, especially in the Midwest. Lê starts by converting photos to digital format and manipulating each image in Photoshop before it is printed on archival paper and attached, or projected and traced, onto canvas. Then acrylic paint is brushed on, often thinned and mixed with glitter. Each layer is sanded until smooth before the next is applied. As one example of this painstaking process: The five-foot-tall, seven-foot-wide portrait of his grandmother required more than 370 hours to complete.
Lê points out that the plastic jewels, glitter and archival glue he favors are generally overlooked in the hierarchy of fine-art materials. Yet they are essential in illuminating his purpose: “to make people visible when they’re invisible.” Highlighted among geometric patterns—in backgrounds, on garments, over faces—the figures in his paintings become detached from any sentimental or literal associations. “Free,” he notes, “to leave the photograph and create their own story in beautiful surroundings.”
These glittering designs obscure easy narratives and raise questions. Among them: “Are these moments that really exist? Or is this your memory trying to reconstruct that moment?” The artist reflects on these and other tricks of memory captured in his collages. “I’m thinking about certainty or uncertainty. Real or unreal,” he ponders, adding, “All these contradictions become a fascination for me in making art.” ■
For more information, visit khanhartist.com
When gifted interior designers, architects and owners come together with a single vision for a home’s future, the results can seem like kismet. Especially when that home, rising among the stately residences of Embassy Row, imparts a distinguished architectural past. Completed in 1930 for a financier whose taste and fortune rose above the Great Depression, the elegant Georgian Revival house presents a gracefully balanced façade, as well as generous, gracious proportions within.
To realize their ideas, the new owners gathered a present-day dream team including interior designers Jose Solis Betancourt and Paul Sherrill, partners in Solis Betancourt & Sherrill, along with Ankie Barnes of BarnesVanze Architects. As Sherrill recalls, “The client respected the traditional architecture of the house and wanted to embrace and restore that.”
At the same time, the family with children wanted “something a little bit more contemporary and comfortable,” adds Solis Betancourt. “They entertain, so they needed large rooms and lots of seating areas. Everyone was interested in balancing traditional and modern design.”
To achieve that balance, Barnes introduced more natural light through new bays and larger glass doors and windows along the back. These changes were matched by the designers’ monochromatic palette of very light colors, from faux limestone walls in the entry to celadon in the dining room and buttery strié in the owners’ bedroom. “We were trying to keep it very subtle and peaceful, maintaining as much lightness as possible,” notes Sherrill. A foundation of contemporary, upholstered furnishings sporting clean, classic forms mingles nimbly with gilded antique chairs, restored marble fireplaces and artwork from the owners’ collection.
A hint of what’s to come welcomes the visitor. In the entrance vestibule, modern light sculptures in graceful swirls were commissioned by the interior designers to fit existing niches. The 30-foot-long entrance hall unfurls ahead—its promenade of spaces defined by paired columns and glistening marble floors detailed with dark borders. At its terminus, a small seating area nestles at the foot of a grand staircase.
“For that space, we designed a narrow perching bench,” says Sherrill, likening its carved wood base to fluting on a column, its gilding influenced by Art Deco. Throughout the home, the designers subtly referenced classical revival elements of that period, which, Sherrill points out, “would have been high style when the house was built.” Enfolded by the staircase curve, a life-sized marble figure echoes ancient Rome while opposite, the designers choreographed twin images of ballerinas by artist Umberto Ciceri. As in a hologram, the dancers are set in motion when family or visitors walk by.
Suffused with light, this area benefits from renovations made to the four-story, six-bedroom house by Barnes, collaborating with project manager Matthew Fiehn. On the staircase landing, enlarged glass doors, newly surrounded by sidelight and fanlight windows, lead out to a sweeping stone terrace. “The connection from the house to the garden on the back was not as strong as it could be,” Barnes explains. “And to my mind the principal rooms were not as well-connected and as generously lit as they should be.” The architect admires the home’s piano nobile plan, in which primary living spaces are placed one floor up. “It means you can organize public rooms in a very grand manner, not complicated by the need to enter,” he observes. “The house is wonderful in that regard—and many others.”
The central stair leads to the main floor’s commodious hall and formal dining room, its entrance framed by symmetrically arranged, sculptural console tables. Above, large paintings by Wolf Kahn bring luminous color to the gently modulated tones that flow through the hall, dining room and living room. Underpinning all three areas, glimmering carpets were custom-woven in tempered patterns to suit the expansive spaces, including the nearly 34-foot-long living room. An archival-design Vladimir Kagan sofa was recreated for this room; its curves point the way toward a classical Crema Marfil marble fireplace.
Added onto the back of the living room, a new glass bay overlooks the verdant garden. This intimate seating area has become a favored spot for the owners to host small luncheons and teas. In addition to a thorough upgrade of the home’s infrastructure, architectural interventions ordered other spaces for modern living. One floor above, a similar glass bay extends the owners’ bedroom. Three additional bedrooms and a library-cum-family gathering space also grace that floor while on the fourth story, the architects created a sky-lit playroom.
In the informal wing on the main floor, Barnes transformed darker spaces into a procession of lofty, light-filled rooms that extend from the back of the house to the front. Replacing service stairs behind the elevator with a more compact spiral stairway gained seven feet for the new family room, formerly a 12-foot-wide office. The home’s architectural formality extends into this wing, from the family room facing east to the kitchen and delightful breakfast area on the west-facing front.
Carrara marble, first viewed on the entrance-hall floor, reappears on kitchen countertops, backsplash and deep window wells. “It’s beautiful to have this continuity and uniformity of materials,” muses Sherrill, adding that in traditional European homes it was standard practice to use local stone, with variations, throughout. That refined restraint corresponds to ideas embraced by both the architect and owners, who, Sherrill maintains, “wanted a peaceful and harmonious experience.”
Solis Betancourt concurs: “It was a real, true collaboration.”
Renovation Architecture: Ankie Barnes, FAIA, LEEP AP, principal; Matthew Fiehn, AIA, LEED AP, project manager, BarnesVanze Architects, Washington, DC. Interior Design: Jose Solis Betancourt and Paul Sherrill, Solis Betancourt & Sherrill, Washington, DC. Renovation Contractor: Zantzinger, Washington, DC.
Window Treatments: gretcheneverett.com.
Divan: ferrellmittman.com. Divan Fabric: zimmer-rohde.com. Chair by Divan: Owners’ collection. Chair Fabric: larsenfabrics.com. Photographs & Sculpture: Owners’ collection. Stair Runner: galleriacarpets.com. Sconces: bagues-paris.com. Chairs: Owners’ collection. Chair Fabric: larsenfabrics.com. Fire Screen: johnlyledesign.com. Art: Owners’ collection.
Console: kellywearstler.com. Art: wolfkahn.com; owners’ collection. Rug: galleriacarpets.com. Chair by Console: Owners’ collection. Chair Fabric: zimmer-rohde.com. Paint Color: lenorewinters.com.
Drapery Fabric: coraggio.com. Drapery Trim: cowtan.com. Sheer Fabric: Carleton House; 301-330-6400. Window Treatment: gretcheneverett.com. Curved Sofa: vladimirkagan.com through hollyhunt.com. Curved Sofa Fabric: dedar.com. Art: Owners’ collection. Sconce: wired-designs.com. Round Coffee Table: 1stdibs.com. Paint: lenorewinters.com. Sofa: lonadesign.com through johnrosselli.com. Sofa Fabric: kirkbydesign.com. Pillow Fabric: bakerfurniture.com. Side Tables: Owners’ collection. Table Lamps: vetrilamp.it/en. Painting & White Armchair: Owners’ collection. Glass Pedestal: johnrichard.com. Nesting Tables: augousti.com. Chairs by Windows: dennisandleen.com. Chair Fabric: edelmanleather.com. Corner Bar Cart: Owners’ collection. Chairs: Owners’ collection. Chair Fabric: bakerfurniture.com.
Table Top: keithfritz.com. Table Base: bernhardt.com. Dining Chairs: Owners’ collection. Dining Chair Fabric: romo.com. Painting & Chair by Fireplace: Owners’ collection. Mirrors: michaelsmithinc.com. Sculptures: Owners’ collection. Drapery Fabric: Donghia through kravet.com. Drapery Fabrication: gretcheneverett.com. Rug: starkcarpet.com. Wall Covering: phillipjeffries.com.
Cabinetry: themasterswoodshop.com; Maryland Custom Cabinets, 301-898-0357. Countertops & Backsplash: rbratti.com. Range: vikingrange.com through abwappliances.com. Hardware: baldwinhardware.com through weaverhardware.com; nanz.com. Hood Design & Fabrication: ventahood.com. Plumbing Fixtures: waterworks.com through weaverhardware.com; dornbracht.com. Bar Stools: R Jones. Bar Stool Fabric: ultrafabricsinc.com. Paint: lenorewinters.com.
Table Top: keithfritz.com. Table Base: centuryfurniture.com. Chairs: fendi.com. Chair Fabric: ultrafabricsinc.com. Chandelier: papillonlighting.eu/en through wired-designs.com. Sheers: Carleton House; 301-330-6400. Drapery Fabric: estout.com. Drapery Fabrication: gretcheneverett.com. Cabinet Design: solisbetancourt.com; barnesvanze.com. Cabinet Fabrication: themasterswoodshop.com. Rug: pattersonflynn.com. Sculpture: Owners’ collection. Paint: lenorewinters.com.
Sofas: hollyhunt.com. Sofa Fabric: pollackassociates.com; fretfabrics.com. Pillow Fabric: fschumacher.com. Coffee Table with Ottomans: James Duncan through profilesny.com. Ottoman Fabric: garrettleather.com. Rugs: starkcarpet.com. Sculpture: Owners’ collection. Table Lamp: visualcomfort.com. Prints: Owners’ collection. Paint: lenorewinters.com.
Rug: pattersonflynn.com. Bed: studioliaigre.com. Bed Fabric: zinctextile.com. Bedding: matouk.com. Sham Fabric: scalamandre.com. Pillow Fabric: hollandandsherry.com. Pillow Fabrication: gretcheneverett.com. Sunburst Mirror: Owners’ collection. Chandelier: vetrilamp.it/en. Paint: lenorewinters.com. Bedside Table: keithfritz.com. Table Lamp: Phoenix Gallery; 212-759-1153. Glass Tables: johnrichard.com. Divan: ferrellmittman.com. Divan Fabric: zinctextile.com. Divan Trim: samuelandsons.com. Chair: dennisandleen.com. Chair Fabric: hollandandsherry.com. Bench Fabric: edelmanleather.com.
If everything old is new again, then the pendulum is swinging toward Samantha Briegel’s sparkling, pixie-dust porcelains. With their lacy patterns, gilded trim and mother-of-pearl luster, her work revives the lavish tableware and rococo extravagance of Victorian days. At the same time, Briegel introduces contemporary touches. Through a meticulous process, she transfers the richness of fabric pattern and texture to ceramics, adapting the plush maze of Victorian crazy quilts. Soft curves that distinguish each vase, bowl, cup and teapot carry personal meaning.
“When you talk about a vessel, you’re talking about the lip and body and foot,” she begins. “I want to use that comparison in a kind of autobiographical way.”
Beneath the surface of her pretty, feminine pieces lies deeper commentary. “Clothes imply bodies,” says Briegel, who often recasts items from her own closet in her art. “Instead of wearing the clothes, I’m reclaiming their identities to make functional objects that provide nourishment. It’s a little bit of body acceptance,” explains the potter, who traces a long line of artists using ceramic vessels as stand-ins for bodies, from the anthropomorphic bottles of Peru’s Moche society to modern vases by Picasso and Betty Woodman.
On a recent morning, Briegel is standing in the Randallstown, Maryland, farmhouse she shares with her partner, Matt Nierenberg. After the two met online, he wooed her with an offer of studio space in his childhood home. “I moved in on our third date and never left,” she says, smiling. “It worked out.”
As light streams into her basement studio, the ceramic artist demonstrates a few steps in her rigorous handcraft. It starts with a plaster mold of her creation. To make one, Briegel takes a lacy swatch cut from one of her dresses, flattens the 11-by-17-inch fabric on a sticky surface, places a barrier of boards around it and plugs up the edges with clay. She then pours in wet plaster and waits for it to dry, generally over two days. With this technique, the potter has amassed some 40 molds, each based on a different garment or fabric border.
Using a mold, Briegel creates a clay slab formed of three layers—the first painted into the mold’s crevices with a liquid clay called slip, the second a poured slip, then a layer of rolled clay pressed on top. Once all are bonded together, Briegel peels off the clay slab. Its pattern stands out in high relief, just like the lacy fabric it came from.
Porcelain is the potter’s clay of choice. “It captures all the details of fabric texture,” she says. “Its translucence relates to the see-through fabrics I use. And it is very challenging to work with. I’ve always been attracted to challenges.”
Case in point: Building a useful object out of pieces cut from the textured slab. Like a professional tailor, Briegel plans out patterns for cutting into the clay slab before joining pieces together. A single bowl may involve 10 seams. “With porcelain, the more seams you add, the more potential places there are for the object to crack,” says the potter, who fires most pieces three times in electric kilns located in a barn near her studio.
She minimizes breakage in part by throwing a separate base on a potter’s wheel, then attaching it to the object’s upper body. “I call that quilting them together,” she says. “I like to use the same language for the throwing and sewing processes.”
When she was nine, Briegel received a sewing machine as a Christmas gift; it now holds a place of honor in her office. “I grew up in the ‘Project Runway’ generation,” observes the 31-year-old. A highlight was the show’s “unconventional challenge” competition, which involved making garments from something other than fabric. “It had a big influence on what I do now,” she reflects.
Besides sewing, Briegel was also interested in painting and drawing, and intended to study arts education upon entering The University of Tennessee, Knoxville in her hometown. After taking a pottery class and meeting graduate students in the program, her goals expanded; she went on to receive a master’s of fine arts degree in ceramics at Ohio University.
The ceramicist also learned advanced clay techniques as an intern at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Montana—“a very formative experience,” she says. Landing the first residency at DC’s District Clay Center brought her to the East Coast; that was followed by a second residency at Baltimore Clayworks. Briegel is now an adjunct professor at Maryland Institute College of Art and teaches workshops on her technique around the country. For the past three years, she has exhibited at the Smithsonian Craft Show.
Briegel continues to experiment in her studio, striving to make pieces that are ever more comfortable to use. “I like my work to be functional—but beautifully functional,” she clarifies, continuing, “Wouldn’t you want to use a beautiful mug for your morning coffee? My work is pretty indulgent in that way. It adds a little bit of sparkle to the day.”
For more information, visit samanthabriegel.com.
Remnants of plaster on exposed-brick walls in Marie Ringwald’s studio resemble the weathered surfaces of her sculptures: Humble farm buildings, sheds and storefronts, lovingly devised, appear worn by the passage of time. In a similar way, the row house in which she works has remained standing, through repairs and renovations, for more than 150 years.
Kinship between Ringwald’s studio and sculptures runs deep. When she and her husband, Michael Kerr, bought the house in Washington’s Shaw neighborhood back in 1978, they started taking down walls to open up spaces. Ringwald saved and reused building materials, repurposing its rough-hewn lath as siding on wall-mounted sculptures, influenced by tobacco-drying barns she had seen on trips to North Carolina.
“The kinds of structures I’m attracted to are built out of really simple, everyday materials,” says the sculptor. Those same materials inform her art. Made primarily of wood, her assemblages often incorporate sheet metals, rubber and some plastics, all commonly used in construction.
Ringwald compares her fascination with modest buildings to the endurance of landscapes and human figures in art. “They are such common images,” she says about the structures that have absorbed her imagination for nearly half a century. “We live in them, work in them, store things in them or have our animals in them. They’re so universal.” And as towers increasingly arise, Ringwald’s art holds an irresistible charm. Her portrayals of architecture reduced to its vernacular essence revisit a nostalgic past, connecting us to a simpler life.
Ideas for her sculptures spring from many sources. On her worktable during a recent visit, the sculptor was constructing a shallow piece 30 inches high and three feet wide, based on a warehouse image taken by Shirley True, a local photographer whose pictures of weary, utilitarian buildings inspire the sculptor. Images for future reference are stacked nearby, among them a log cabin illustrated in a news story, a plain Fundamentalist church, a vintage gas station in a photo taken by the sculptor in Takoma Park, DC.
“I like to emphasize what strikes me visually and then pare it down,” Ringwald says, while noting, “Lately I’ve been staying pretty close to the image.” Heading through her extensive workspace—past jars filled with brushes and paints stored along one wall—she reaches a large filing cabinet, pulling out a corrugated metal sheet. Used mainly for miniatures—as in dollhouses—Ringwald applied it as siding on her work-in-progress.
The sculptor typically works on several pieces at once. Constructing sculptures of different sizes simultaneously encourages reuse of materials from large structures to smaller ones, an approach often taken on actual farm buildings. “They call them dependencies,” she points out, citing the example of a small shack that might be constructed with leftovers.
Over the past two years, she has transformed reclaimed materials into a series of 74 flat, textural huts, each about five inches tall. Living and working in Washington her entire career, Ringwald also has repurposed surplus materials relinquished by other sources, from wood decking to scraps passed along by furnituremaker and friend Rick Wall. Most spectacularly, the sculptor was given sections of the original, late-19th-century copper roof—now patinated to a rich teal—from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, where she taught freshman design and mixed media for 27 years.
While many of her wood sculptures are stained in natural tones or washed with thinned paint, Ringwald notes, “I also really love color. Sometimes the color or color combinations take over as inspiration.” Brilliant hues dominate in several abstract series including Patchwork and Fractured Rectangles, as well as colorful tabletop buildings. “I think about it like quilting,” she says, “except I’m doing it with wood and metal, screws and nuts.”
During the height of the pandemic, the sculptor traveled less and painted more—including works on paper. One piece from that period was selected for a centennial exhibition of local artists at The Phillips Collection. In crystalline water-based paints and graphite, that painting depicts a row of abstract sheds, part of her Exurbia series.
Born and raised in the Bronx, Ringwald followed a fairly straightforward career path. Starting out, she recalls, “We always lived in houses, not apartments. That sense of a separate building influenced me.” In kindergarten she remembers building with giant blocks, and covering one structure with crumpled brown paper to make a cave. “In a way,” she reflects, “I always liked playing around with materials.” Benefitting from her father’s work for the New York Central Railroad, the family rode trains from Canada to Florida; as a budding sculptor, she loved looking through the window at the changing landscape.
Ringwald went on to major in sculpture at Hunter College. There, she learned to use professional power tools like the drill press, band saw and sanders that now stand in her light-filled workshop. Picking up a jagged wood scrap, she cradles it between her fingers as if it were an archaeological find. Contemplating its potential, she smiles knowingly and says, “This is the kind of thing that makes me very happy.”
For more information, visit marieringwald.com.
“It is very simple,” Jorgelina Lopez comments about a few techniques she and Marco Duenas employ in their handcrafted lighting collections. Skilled in the arts of textile design and woodworking, the two turn flat materials into translucent sculptures—making the complex process of creating their minimalist designs appear easy.
In one collection, pleated shades drop from the ceiling with the lightness of parachutes glowing from within. Linen or cotton shades cast warm ambient light, illuminating natural fibers. Each smooth, cylindrical surface becomes a canvas for bold curves or blurry stripes grounded on a wood base. These luminescent shades also may be suspended from the wall and framed by a single parenthetical wood curve.
If the couple’s contemporary designs echo the lines of Mid-Century Modernism, Lopez notes, “It isn’t intentional. We don’t start out with a collection in mind and then find a technique to use. It’s the opposite. Our collections evolve because I want to keep experimenting and exploring different textile techniques.” Their company is called La Loupe—the French word for magnifying glass—“a symbol of curiosity and discovery,” she says.
Lopez works from a small studio in the heart of Baltimore. At a separate studio in the city’s Little Italy, Duenas—her work partner and husband—cuts, shapes, sands and finishes the wood parts after they have collaborated on the designs. Duenas salvages leftover wood pieces, assembling them into abstract compositions, often applying a dash of color. The wall pieces are part of a smaller artwork collection.
Duenas also creates his own sculptures, which incorporate reclaimed industrial metal parts and found objects, and makes architectural models on a freelance basis. Both endeavors, he says, bring technical expertise to their partnership.
Lopez confirms: “I’m much more about ‘Oh, let’s create. Let’s do it.’ Marco helps me figure out how to make things work and how to make them better. The way we work balances each other.”
The couple’s journey started in 1998 when they met in Miami. Lopez had arrived from Buenos Aires seeking independence and self-discovery, while Duenas had come from Peru to pursue his dream of becoming an artist. After six years, Lopez returned to Argentina, where she earned a textile-design degree at the University of Buenos Aires. Though the curriculum concentrated on design for industrial production, Lopez recalls, “I wanted to focus on traditional craft, on the handmade process.” Her thesis proposed a collection of sculptural jewelry combining fiber and metal; she wanted to continue in a career designing three-dimensional, functional objects on a larger scale. “Lighting and lamps were a great option,” she observes. “They’re very sculptural and artistic in the way you can play with the forms and factors of light, structure and mixing fabric with different materials.”
Over the years, Lopez’s long-distance friendship with Duenas matured “like a good wine,” he remembers. Duenas had relocated to Baltimore; she joined him there in 2015. Their first collection together, Strada, came out the following year. “My main medium is fiber and textile,” she explains of Strada’s genesis, “but I really like to connect that material with other mediums, such as wood in this case. That’s how we started.”
After teaching an origami workshop at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 2017, Lopez was inspired to adapt that Japanese paper-folding technique to fiber. By backing linen with rigid polystyrene, then scoring and hand-folding the composite, she was able to duplicate the geometric volumes of origami. She applied the process to plain, off-white linen and folded, blue-and-white-striped lampshades.
To achieve those variegated blue stripes, she adapted a different Japanese textile technique, shibori. The process, like origami, starts with folding, followed by pressing and tying the folded fabric with thread. This resist method prevents dye from penetrating protected areas. Unlike origami, where geometric patterns reliably fold the same way, she says, “Sometimes there are different factors in shibori that you cannot control. Just like every leaf on a tree is different, with shibori, each piece is different from every other.”
A technique Lopez uses to add pattern actually involves subtraction. Instead of screen-printing dye onto the colored linen she starts with, the artist passes a bleaching paste through openings in the screen. That discharge method removes dye from selected areas. Once the fabric is washed, a crisp, abstract pattern remains.
Lopez takes the creative process further. At Blue Lights Junction, a garden and open studio in Baltimore, she volunteers planting indigo seeds and harvesting the plants to be used for dye. “You’re involved in the entire process behind the final piece,” she explains with satisfaction. “And it connects you with a collaborative community.”
Coincidentally, Lopez and Duenas both grew up surrounded by Mid-Century Modern furniture. They dismissed the style back then; Duenas preferred the organic forms of Art Nouveau, that late 19th-century response to industrialization, and Lopez admired the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, a Scottish architect and textile designer of the same era. They continue to love the modernist sculptures of Barbara Hepworth and fiber artist Ruth Asawa’s nature-inspired wire sculptures. And their views of now-trendy mid-century design have changed. “We didn’t go in that direction because it’s popular,” Lopez points out. “But it’s popular because that combination of simple forms and natural materials is timeless.”
For more information, visit laloupedesign.com
Eager for spring winds to chase away lingering traces of dark winter? Impatient for a blast of ravishing color? Then pause and revel in the jubilant harmonies of John Blee’s paintings.
Through his prismatic lens, impressions of spring’s balmy breezes or summer’s intense light beckon. Misty lavenders drift by. Ultramarine pools ripple along. High-energy colors build on and charge each other. Rectangles, bolting from the surface, are not simply rectangles. On closer inspection, one is a loosely constructed block of lines and slabs, a luscious batter of aubergine, mauve and teal, rising on chartreuse, blue and pink strokes. All unite in compositions of unexpected complexity and depth.
“Color is an adventure,” says the artist, sitting in the living room of his home in Washington’s Shaw neighborhood, pondering the paintings around him. “When you use a new combination of colors, it’s like going to another territory, a territory you don’t know.”
Blee has experienced faraway lands. Growing up in India and Pakistan for nine of his formative years, he absorbed the lessons of brilliant, saturated colors that stand up in the glaring sun. “There is something about India,” observes the artist. “It’s not just the light. It’s also the culture that has this extraordinary relation to color.” He recalls with delight an occasion in the ’60s, when family friends mistook one of his early artworks—painted when he was 12—for that of an Indian artist. At the time, Blee’s father worked at the American Embassy in Delhi.
During those years, the budding artist frequented that city’s National Museum, looking at exotic Chola bronzes and exquisite Indian miniatures. “What affected me most was Indian art from 1,500 years ago, going to the caves of Ellora and Elephanta near Mumbai,” he remembers, referring to those ruins of elaborate, stone-cut artworks. He also visited Delhi’s Museum of Modern Art and learned about Hinduism and Buddhism embodied in the works. “Part of Indian philosophy is a deeply spiritual energy; sensuality and sacred are linked,” he says, making the same connection in his own transcendent work.
That art happens at home. Canvases underway lean against walls in the dining room—shared with two colorful parrots—or in a studio upstairs. Using quick-drying acrylics, the artist applies one or two, or as many as 30 layers, often squeezing paint straight from the tube. He generally builds up separate hues on the canvas, rather than mixing them in advance. Though he paints one or two hours every day, his concentration doesn’t end there. “I’m always thinking about my work or judging it,” he says. “That’s as much part of the painting as painting is.” Those critical thoughts may prompt him to work on pictures over many months, or go back in to polish earlier work hanging on the walls. “I think something has to live in more than just one moment,” he notes.
Recently, Blee’s painting has taken a fresh turn. Looser, freer strokes sweep up and across five- and six-foot-tall canvases, evoking natural forms as well as his roots in the subtropics. “In the process of painting, if you’re open, sometimes things happen that you don’t expect,” he relates. “It’s like part of your soul opens up in a different way. I think it’s a matter of continually renewing.”
Blee compares the structure of his paintings to poetry, which he calls “very central to me.” At 16, he started reading the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke—an early influence—before fully understanding their meaning. Now, he explains, “Transformation is basic to Rilke’s idea of art and existence. We change. We go deeper. It’s a struggle, but there is also pleasure and magic in transformation. Those ideas stay with me every day.”
In her poem Song, Hilda Morley, a 20th-century poet and friend of Blee’s, beautifully references his “making paintings in which I wander as in the landscapes of my dreaming.”
Inspired also by Western painters, the artist singles out J.M.W. Turner’s imaginative colorations, Pierre Bonnard’s intimate interiors and especially abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler, a mentor and friend, recognized for her pioneering technique of spontaneously applying thinned paint to unprimed canvases, adopted later by color-field painters.
Blee met Frankenthaler while he was an undergraduate at Maryland Institute College of Art, then again when he attended graduate school at Hunter College in New York. He wrote his master’s thesis on Frankenthaler’s seminal art, and visited her New York home, bringing along his own work. “When I first met Helen, I was dazzled,” he remembers. “She liked me and liked my work. That was an amazing affirmation—to have the person you admire most appreciate your art.”
He asked Frankenthaler how she chose colors. “She said it was like choosing a word in a poem,” the painter recalls. “That hit it on the head for me.” Drawing on his own experience decades later, he observes. “It’s something inside of you that you kind of go for. You bring it into being for others.”
Blee’s art is on view by appointment at the offices of Moody Graham/Teass Warren in DC through May 18, and at Cross MacKenzie Gallery in Hillsboro, Virginia, from May 24 to June 30. For appointments, email [email protected]. Visit johnblee.com.
Pinned to the wall in Hillary Steel’s studio, a massive artwork rises. Intermixing striking colors in bold plaids and jagged stripes, its patterns resemble the flamboyant plumage of a bird in flight. Steel assembled the layers from cloth she had hand-woven and dyed months before, awaiting inspiration. “I love what birds symbolize,” says the artist. “I wanted it to be hopeful and uplifting.”
Standing in the studio at her Silver Spring home, Steel is surrounded by three floor looms, acquired over the 40 years she has been developing her craft and earthy, soaring-in-scale contemporary art. During that time, her richly textured wall pieces have become increasingly three-dimensional, their abstract designs continuing to express ideas arising over a lifetime.
One series came about when Steel’s adult daughters were small. Disgusted by scandals in the news, the artist began cutting up newspapers, interweaving paper strips and cotton thread into squares stitched together to form small, rough-hewn houses. “Newspaper has such a beautiful texture,” Steel comments about the approach she revives periodically. Most of her pieces, woven of cotton, reflect a strong West African influence; others made of silk or rayon glimmer in the light.
Steel views her craft as a basic human activity. “Weaving is in our DNA,” she observes. “But we’ve moved so far away from hand-weaving in our industrial society, people don’t understand how cloth is made anymore.” As she explains, weaving is simply the interlacing of two linear elements on any kind of loom. A vertical thread, called a warp, is held under tension as a horizontal weft thread goes over and under. “It’s a very, very old technology that I have a great fondness for,” the artist says.
Most hand-weavers make cloth on a loom, then use the fabric in functional objects such as blankets, rugs or clothing. Steel takes it further. “I think of weaving as a construction method,” she explains. “I create the structure—the cloth, then I manipulate and change it a lot.”
The artist begins by weaving cloth in a variety of textures, patterns and colors in lengths up to 18 yards. Later, while composing a new piece, fabrics may be interspliced and dyed again. “Eventually I’ll get it into a form that seems right and I’ll sew it together by hand,” she says. A large wall piece—like the eight-by-eight-foot work currently underway—can take nearly five years from start to finish.
To understand the roots of her art, Steel has traveled to West Africa and South America, and worked with craftspeople from Central Asia. Almost every year since 2006, she has visited Tenancingo, Mexico, to study with the late master weaver Evaristo Borboa and, more recently, Ruben Nuñez. For these trips, Steel takes along a backstrap loom. That deceptively simple device—made of sticks, rope and a strap—anchors to a stationary post at one end and wraps around the weaver’s waist at the other.
Using that loom, she has learned to weave highly complex, traditional patterns with very fine cotton thread in resist-dyed patterns. Called ikat in Malaysia and jaspe in Mexico, the technique involves isolating groups of threads that are tightly bound to resist taking on color, while the color in a dye bath permeates the untied threads. The process may involve handling and counting thousands of threads, as bundles are marked off before dyeing, then later lined up on the loom to create a pattern. “It’s a brilliant design system and a complicated, labor-intensive process that requires a lot of time, planning and math,” Steel notes. “You can take it very far.”
The artist’s proficiency offers no hint that she stumbled into the field by chance. While majoring in English at the University of Buffalo, Steel took a poetry class at a nearby college where she discovered the textiles studio. Peering through a window, she first glimpsed floor looms.
“Somehow, I signed up for an intro to textiles class. From there I took a weaving class,” the artist remembers. She taught herself basic chemistry to understand how dyes work, combed textile exhibits and learned from books and workshops. “I experimented a lot,” she notes.
After moving to Pittsburgh with her husband in the 1980s, Steel taught textile art in a high school, continuing to learn along with her students. A Maryland resident since 1994, she now teaches full-time at The Potomac School in McLean and leads adult workshops in the U.S. and Mexico.
Steel remains grateful to her own mentors, especially those in Mexico. “To be able to travel to places where the language and customs are so different, and work with people in the same area of craft, to have an intercambio—an exchange, as it’s called in Spanish—is a gift,” she observes, while recognizing her point in the constellation. “I’m not from that culture. I’m not going to produce what they produce. In my own studio, I try to take what I learn, what makes sense for me, and interpret it through the lens of my own time and place.”
Hillary Steel’s art will be on view from April 1 to May 1 at the Hillyer Gallery at International Arts & Artists in DC. For more information, visit hillarysteel.com.
Rezgar Mamandi’s earliest memory reaches back to his family home, and the vivid impression made by a huge, handwoven rug. Its central picture of sprightly fish chasing each other around a large, light-blue circle captured his youthful imagination. “I was always playing there, pretending I was fishing and swimming in the sea,” he recalls fondly. “Maybe that’s one reason I love to show fish in my painting.”
An artist with strong ties to his homeland, Mamandi was raised in the historic village of Musasir, now called Rabat, in the Kurdish region of northwestern Iran. The ancient town was a religious capital in the Mannaean civilization some 3,000 years ago.
These days, the artist works from his studio in a bright, new apartment in Sterling, Virginia. Along one wall, tiles and other ceramic forms are stacked on open racks, ready for his hand-painting. Finished works and those in progress line shelves opposite. Mamandi pulls out one 20-inch-round platter with intricate, geometric bands in dazzling black-and-white patterns. Nearby, a colorful, nearly completed wall tile shows two hunters—one pointing a bow-and-arrow at a bison, the other directing his spear toward a bull. The inky forms exist in separate quadrants divided by jagged lines, like national borders, and stand out against a terrain as fragmented as a mosaic of multi-hued stones.
Brimming with energy, harmony and folksy charm, the animals and figures recall prehistoric cave paintings. Here and throughout Mamandi’s art, main motifs are enfolded by meticulously detailed backgrounds, or framed in richly ornamented, symmetrical borders that bring a formal order to each spirited, hand-painted piece.
The painter’s exacting embellishments conjure a broad Middle Eastern past. “I always say, when we moved from caves to houses and palaces, especially with the tiles, we were telling our stories and history—with the colors, with every way we could express them,” Mamandi notes. While several of his favored subjects, from winged lions to rams and circular sun symbols, derive from ancient tiles unearthed in his village, “We can’t say this style is based on a Kurdish house,” he explains. “It’s a Mesopotamian house.”
Mamandi started drawing at an early age, never dreaming that one day he would become an artist. After studying health at Iran’s Urmia University for two years, he left school and opened a bookstore and publishing business with a relative in Sanandaj, a center of Kurdish culture in Iran. He had moved to the city to take classes with well-known Kurdistani painters, but found little time to attend. Still, he recalls, “I never stopped painting and sketching.”
During a difficult time for Kurdish activists and writers starting in 2005, Mamandi relates, “a United Nations office in Turkey accepted my case as a refugee.” Settling in Avanos, Turkey, he prospered as a self-taught painter on ceramics, exhibiting his work at one of the city’s largest art galleries. “I had a good life,” he remembers.
Four years later, the artist was offered refugee status in the United States and emigrated in 2010, at age 33. “This is the land of opportunity,” he says, “but for a couple years, it was very hard.” While working in restaurants in Chicago, he also pursued ceramic painting, researching and testing clays and glazes that he found to be different here from those he had worked with in Turkey.
Then in 2013, when presenting his art for the first time at a craft show in Oak Brook, Illinois, Mamandi recalls, “My life changed. People admired my work; a lot didn’t believe I painted everything myself.” As he traveled around the country, the artist came to a show in Gaithersburg and discovered that he liked the DC area. He moved to Virginia in 2019.
Today, Mamandi considers himself a tile designer. “That’s my passion,” he says, citing the freedom of creating sumptuous designs on expansive, flat surfaces. Recognizing, however, that “everyone may not need a tile, but everybody needs a mug, a plate, a bowl,” he continues, “I wanted to bring that culture, that design, that symmetry to this country in every way possible.”
The artist paints on blank earthenware forms, which he glazes and fires in a kiln off-site. Creating the brilliant colors and precise floral, geometric and architectural patterns of his art—inspired by Kurdish women’s clothing and rugs—may require up to six different colors dappled in one spot.
Reflecting back to his birthplace—where he was surrounded by beautiful design traditions and listened to age-old stories told by his grandfather—“I always thought that the past was maybe better than now,” the artist observes. But he remains encouraged by the future. “In a thousand years, I never thought I would come to the United States and start painting tiles and plates,” he says, brightening. “When you think about your past, you see a lot of small things happen that attach together to bring you here. Now I know why.”
For more information, visit mannapottery.com.
What I find really intriguing,” artist Rania Hassan says about her gracefully hand-knitted sculptures, “is that from a single thread, you can make anything. It doesn’t matter what that is, it’s one line of thread.”
Standing in her Washington row house on the main floor that often doubles as a studio, Hassan has assembled miniature models for her artworks, which may take shape in mammoth size. For an exhibit at Washington’s Kreeger Museum, the artist suspended a knitted web of gossamer-thin fibers in a stairwell between three floors. The piece, reaching 26 feet tall, required 40,000 stitches that Hassan knitted by hand. On site for the installation, she stretched and pivoted the airy artwork, securing it by fiber tendrils to the staircase’s solid bronze posts.
Hassan translated knitting concepts into welded steel for Marker, now prominently displayed on Connecticut Avenue at K Street, NW. The sculpture’s monumental, circular form rises 15 feet from a bed of colorful plantings. Painted knots and loops on its pierced surface reference threads coming together and unraveling; its swirling lines stand open to the sky. A joint project of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative—which brings art about women’s histories and contemporary experiences to public spaces—and DC’s Golden Triangle Business Improvement District, the vibrant piece is coated in blazing pink, suggesting a crown or the color of knitted hats worn at women’s marches.
These artworks tie into Hassan’s underlying theme of a single thread that takes many forms while binding all parts together. “My work is about connections—how we’re all connected through community, time and memory,” she observes. Ideas about continuity and identity also weave through, the artist adds, since “the stitches we use have been used by so many generations before.”
Many have turned to knitting or crocheting as comforting activities during the pandemic. However, hand-knitting has ignited Hassan’s art for more than 15 years—and her connections to fiber go back even further. Born in New York to a family from Lebanon, the future artist watched as her grandmother crocheted intricate patterns for table coverings and other beautifully useful items. She learned to knit from her mother, who stitched and finished objects in impeccable floral motifs—all now treasured by the artist.
After graduating from the American University of Beirut in 1997, Hassan pursued oil painting. A few years after joining her family in Washington in 2000, she rediscovered knitting through friends and connected online to knitting communities around the world which, she remembers, “were an inspiration.”
Her artwork soon incorporated more than fiber. “I came to this as a painter,” she explains. “My work focused on connecting those two elements.” The dimensions of her art also expanded in response to commissions for specific sites. Her largest piece appeared in 2019 at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building. As serene and see-through as a waterfall, the refined, mesh-like installation descended 40 feet from black-steel trusses overhead. Called Paths VII, this elegant structure funneled down to a narrow spindle pendulum, its tip poised just above a rising mound of gold leaf. Typical of Hassan’s artworks, the sculpture was hand-knitted of natural fibers and metal filaments, some only one-eighth the thickness of a single hair.
“I’ve always used really fine threads you wouldn’t necessarily knit with,” the artist remarks, noting too that metals “add a bit of structure that helps them hold their shape and give a little sheen.”
In her DC studio, Hassan explains the process behind Liminality, her piece for the Kreeger. She pulls out a model of the staircase where her sculpture now resides. Dangling in the center, ordinary string represents her concept of “what that shape would look like and how the points would converge,” she says. The next step was a plastic-string version of the sculpture made with a 3D printing pen.
Later, paper cutouts helped Hassan determine that the flat, knitted piece would take the form of a circle with another half-circle on top, to be extended vertically. After knitting a swatch, she figured out the size of needles and the spacing of stitches.
“I scaled it up from there,” Hassan says, with an ease that belies the extensive calculations involved. After manually documenting the smallest edge (348 stitches) to the widest circumference (1,067 stitches), she produced a massive computer spreadsheet that she referenced while knitting to track every line.
“My work is very much about the calculations I use in my structures—they’re definitely more organic than the mathematics they come from,” the artist observes. She hopes viewers encountering her knitted sculptures experience the same surprise they feel when discovering “a cool spider’s web,” she says. “It has a big presence, but it’s so intricate and delicate that you have to be really paying attention to notice it. That’s how I think of my work.”
Like an alchemist at work, artist Robin Rose stirs a cauldron of hot beeswax in his inner sanctum beside Washington’s Rock Creek Park. He mixes in damar crystals derived from natural tree resin, adds carnauba wax made from the leaves of a Brazilian palm, then blends in powdered pigment of a soft rose-madder hue. “One thousand one, one thousand two,” Rose intones, expressing the brief time it takes for the hot wax to harden.
With a sure, steady hand, he glides the edge of a brush across a linen panel, repeating the movement in a staccato style to form thin and weightier horizontal lines and splatters. A delicate salmon-colored abstraction emerges, gently molded in wax relief. As he brushes the surface with a pearlescent coat, he observes, “I’m allowing these topographical points to capture the paint and build up the surface, in the same way that sedimentary rock builds up on the bottom of the ocean, as sand piles up until all the layers fuse together.”
Rose turns the painting to determine its ideal orientation. Suddenly it seems right; scattered dots take on the appearance of bubbles rising underwater. The painter decides to wait before tackling the next stages—building up layers, then melting, scraping or carving them down to rebuild again. “I started the painting so I could mutate it,” he explains.
This quick, intense technique is encaustic, an ancient painting method that predates European oil painting by at least a thousand years. Instead of mixing pigments with oil, the binder is beeswax, and the drying time is seconds rather than possibly weeks as it is with oil. “I’m capturing that real-time experience,” says the artist. “It’s a very different way to paint.”
Luminous colors and sculptural dimensions distinguish the encaustic process. Rose carries it further. After nearly a half-century practicing this formidable art, his abstractions communicate a primal sense of earth, water and air, as if seeing nature’s patterns and richness magnified. At the same time, an elusive mystery pervades each piece: Why do those gemlike and earthy hues appear to shift color as the light changes? Are the shining surfaces opaque or translucent? What is that spectral haze rising among the crisp, white-on-white waves? “I want my paintings to be enigmas, releasing their information very slowly,” the artist suggests.
What’s clear is that Rose brings boundless experience to the task. If ripples in his paintings resemble sound waves, that’s not accidental, since he sees an internal musical mechanism at work. “When I’m painting, I know there’s a certain conveyance of rhythm, there’s a beat,” he says, blue eyes sparkling. “I’ve always done both—painted and played music.”
During high school in Ocala, Florida, Rose was in a rock-and-roll band. Soon after arriving in Washington in 1976, he played guitar and synthesizer as a member of the Urban Verbs, a new-wave group that recorded two albums with Warner. His basement studio is bounded by a collection of vinyl records, played on a vintage turntable as he paints. While the largest work he ever produced was a commission for IBM—a pair of 16-by-16-foot paintings—one of his favored formats now is a 16-by-16-inch square—about the size of an album cover.
Even today, Rose associates his art with music. He compares the layers of encaustic to multi-track recording, where separate tracks for each instrument are combined. Plus, he notes, “encaustic is additive, just like music. I can keep coming back to experience it anew.”
Water themes also splash against the shores of his art. As an only child, Rose was immersed in nature. “I loved scuba diving in rivers, looking for artifacts,” he says. “I was always collecting something—fossils, sharks’ teeth, rocks.”
While attending Florida State University, Rose started out experimenting with reverse painting on the backs of Lucite panels, following a high-school hobby of lacquering cars, surfboards and water skis in glowing colors. He went on to receive a master’s degree in fine arts at FSU under Karl Zerbe, who is credited with reviving encaustic art in the U.S. His student still uses the formula Zerbe perfected in the 1930s.
These days, Rose may be found painting in his cabin studio near the ocean in Rehoboth. There during the tumultuous early months of covid, he experienced a kind of mystical epiphany. “I’d wake up in the middle of the night and there was a word in my head,” the artist remembers. The first one that came to him was “breath.” Over the next three intense days, Rose completed a two-part painting based on that word. Of its cool, Caribbean light-blue color, he says, “It’s purifying. You can almost breathe it.”
On subsequent nights, other words appeared: Nestle, Dissonance, Lull, Spin and more, until the last, Release. All were created between March 12, 2020, and January 20, 2021, the date of the presidential inaugural. “The word was telling me what the painting wanted to be,” Rose explains. Hemphill recently exhibited the series of 19 works—not a coincidence, the artist believes, given covid-19 and other symbolic meanings of that number in the Bible, Koran and numerology.
He reflects on the long narrative that is encaustic painting, dating back to ancient portraits painted on wood panels attached to mummies in Egypt’s Fayum region. “Those painted masks were like a calling card to the afterlife,” notes Rose, whose own work imparts a timeless quality. “It’s kind of like, when did my paintings occur,” he muses, perhaps in response to the beat of a distant drummer. “Ten thousand years ago or yesterday?”
A strong wind had whipped up the waves. Clouds moved over the sun. Reaching into a folder, the artist removed a sheet of heavy paper she had pre-coated to make it sensitive to light. How long should she expose it to UV rays before washing the paper off? What imprints of blue would remain? Minutes later, she dragged remnants of plants found hanging from a nearby ridge across the paper, threw on some sand and plunged it into the waves.
The artist welcomed the roll of chance. “I’m always amazed by the drips and runs and how this happens, really without me,” Wyszomirska says modestly. “I have some control, but there’s always another set of agents at work.”
In the cyanotype process—an early alternative to photography, also used for blueprints—the paper is covered with a solution of two light-sensitive chemicals. Wherever water hits, the reaction to sunlight stops. If the paper is not thoroughly submerged, the emulsion continues to react. Depending on the length of exposure to light, blues of different intensities remain as the paper changes. “I’ll see it and think, ‘Wow, yes! I want this!’” the artist exclaims. “I’m always trying to make that magic happen again.”
Wyszomirska’s sojourn by the water’s edge is just the first step. Back in her studio in an old industrial mill in Baltimore, she adds her own handwork to the exposed paper using acrylic paints, ink and sometimes sodium bicarbonate for a whitening effect. As part of her unfolding process, Wyszomirska researches weather data from regions where she has been working. After pinning one of her cyanotypes to a studio wall, she projects NOAA satellite maps over it, tracing wind patterns with graphite or colored pencils as the imagery moves across the page. She also selects shapes from these digital files to be laser-cut and later used as hanging elements in her large installations; the remaining pieces become stencils for drawing or painting on the cyanotypes as layers build. “It’s like a dance or balancing act, letting things happen on the paper,” she says.
The series that began in Montauk on a residency at the Andy Warhol Preserve and continued in Cape Henlopen, Delaware, was shown recently at Washington’s Gallery Neptune & Brown. These mid-size works on paper typically measure 30 inches wide by 22 inches high, with larger pieces up to 55 inches tall. All share an exalted beauty and a fresh, if disturbing, immediacy. Explosive powers reign. In some, random lines and bursts of gold surge like lightning flashes against velvety blues. Dark hues shatter with torrential force, overflowing onto a base of white paper veiled with liquid drips and atmospheric daubs. This breeching of boundaries between dark above and light below suggests a horizon line where distinctions between sky and ocean are dissolving.
“I think about climate change all the time,” the artist says, referring to her driving theme. “I’m responding to nature that I see and love, and the beauty of it.” However, while working, she adds, “I don’t think about those ideas. It’s very intuitive. Everything you have and everything you know—the good, the bad—all goes into that work.”
Growing up, Wyszomirska remembers mainly drawing and reading. When her family arrived in Chicago from a small town in Poland in 1993, she was 13 and didn’t speak English. “The art teachers in school encouraged me at a time when communication was challenging,” she recalls.Wyszomirska majored in painting at Illinois State University. Not sure what should come next, she took a job building exhibits at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, then moved on to the aquarium, where she fabricated large-scale models and exhibits. “It gave me the skill of working in three dimensions and using sculptural objects in my work,” she notes.
Wyszomirska moved with her partner, now husband, to Baltimore in 2010. Exploring the city by bike, she found a studio and started working full-time on her art. During an early show when she was doing tiny drawings, someone asked if she’d consider going bigger. Trying it, she explains, “I discovered how much I liked the physicality of working large.” Recent installations—abstract views of pounding waves drawn and painted on suspended panels up to 10 feet tall—encourage viewers to walk through, with the intent, she says, “to give a physical sense of the power of ongoing changes between the land and sea, and feel how in flux that constantly is.”
Since receiving a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Maryland in 2016, Wyszomirska has taught drawing there. Then, four years ago while experimenting with different materials, she happened upon /////////////////////////////////////////////////Nature in Flux - cyanotype. “It opens up the process so much for me. It compels me to respond to chance,” she affirms.
As Wyszomirska balances slow, intimate studio work with freer, large installations, she relies on direct connections with nature—whether hiking an Alaskan glacier on an artist residency in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park or discovering a stream near her studio in Druid Hill Park. Her aim “is to capture the incredible moment that’s happening in nature. It’s all about that constant search,” she observes, adding cheeringly,
Silhouetted blackbirds stand solo or in rows, sometimes upside down. It is a world in flux and a heartening one, where bright stars hover and uplifting words glide by—love, joy, be alive. It might be a metaphor for our own topsy-turvy times. In fact, Wilson has been arranging such elements in painted floorcloths for more than two decades.
“My work has always been intimate, expressing my own life experiences or my thoughts,” says the artist, who has spent most of her years in or near Chestertown, Maryland. “I have a romantic vision of the past and the lives we have led. Certain leitmotifs have carried through.”
In her personal lexicon, a simple chair becomes a comforting place to eat, work, talk to others or daydream. Common blackbirds take their cue from Maryland poet Susan Argo, who called them the punks of the bird world. “Having grown up with a punk background in my 20s,” Wilson fondly recalls, “I love that comparison.” Like the swaying grasses and gentle waters in her work, birds signal “our spiritual connection to nature,” she notes, adding, “All of these images are almost waking dreams, transitions between here and there.”
It may seem a paradox that the artist’s universe of wistful reverie inhabits humble floorcloths—utilitarian and highly durable coverings intended to be walked on. Yet that practical blend demonstrates the importance she places on handcraft in our lives. “Your grandmother’s quilt or a bowl someone carved aren’t just objects, they’re objects with meaning. Someone touched them,” explains the self-taught artist. “I’m trying to make something functional and interesting. You can’t
help but put yourself into that.”
Wilson’s intuitive style is grounded in her early years. Raised in Latin America and California, she was surrounded by art. Her father, Lex Wilson, an abstract-expressionist painter, was also a potter and photographer. Her mother, Katherine, a docent at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, collected paintings mostly by contemporary Latin American artists.
After graduating from high school at 16, Faith Wilson was presented with two choices: go to college or get a job. “I wanted to think of a third alternative—that turned out to be weaving tapestry. I fell in love with the materials,” she remembers. Hitchhiking around Europe and in Central America, she gravitated to places where weaving was happening. When she returned to the U.S. in 1975, Wilson decided to join her sister, who was living in Chestertown. As it turned out, that sibling, Marilee Schumann, became a potter and sculptor. Both now show their art at Create Gallery in Chestertown. In recent years, Wilson also has exhibited at the Philadelphia and Smithsonian craft shows.
Along the way, the artist worked with mixed media on wall pieces. She transitioned to making floorcloths almost by chance. While married to a decorative painter, she recalls, “I learned a lot of decorative techniques and started experimenting with materials we had on hand. My first pieces were actually painted drop cloths.”
Wilson still applies those same techniques, which bring depth of color and nuanced pattern to each one-of-a-kind piece. To start, she stretches heavy canvas over plywood and covers both sides with a base coat of paint. Several layers of color mixed with translucent glazes are brushed on. Typically, five layers are built up and then partially removed with rags, folded paper or possibly the artist’s own hands. “That process is always fun and interesting,” says Wilson, who may place images on a subsurface, meant “to be barely seen, to be subconscious.”
In addition, she sometimes paints circles freehand, or stencils on moons, grasses or words. “I make all the stencils myself, so I can repeat the motifs and have a clean-edged look,” she says, observing that the words are less about their meaning than that she finds text “visually beautiful.” Her newest floorcloths introduce bold color fields that revisit her early appreciation for the paintings of post-World War II artists, especially Mark Rothko and Jasper Johns.
“Part of the satisfaction in making floorcloths,” Wilson says, is “they really can transform a space.” One recent commission proves the point. That large piece, designed for the dining room of Haitian-art collectors living in Charlottesville, references work by developing-world artists as well as her own motifs—from its central emblem, inspired by a Haitian bowl, to its checkerboard border of marching birds.
Asked how she felt about covering up that charming artwork with furniture, Wilson responds without hesitation: “That’s what it’s all about. Go ahead and put your table and chairs on it.” Calling floorcloths “one of the really true American crafts,” she describes how in Colonial times in Chestertown, floorcloths were made from the canvases of leftover sails, to replace expensive rugs imported from Europe. “At the end of the day, what gives our lives and our homes meaning?” the artist ponders. “I want to make something beautiful. I want to make something original. And I want to make something useful.”