By Debbi Kenote and Til Will
A warm rainbow of colors–red, yellow, orange, beige, white–vibrate around Til Will and I as we sit in the studio of Colleen RJC Bratton in Seattle, Washington. Sculptural paintings hang on the walls, composed of paint, wood, fabric, thread. Important details of the space inform us that Bratton’s studio is an installation in itself. In addition to the works hanging on the walls, ceiling tiles are replaced with colorful swatches, a large storage cabinet echoes the warm color palette, and little notes and swatches of colored fabric balance in curious places around the room. The backs of a few of the works are brightly painted, allowing a glow to extend onto the wall behind them, further blending the structures themselves into the studio space.
As we discuss Bratton’s color choices, we learn that her fascination with these colors was born out of a desire to “complete the color palette,” or, in other words, fill in the missing colors that she sees as lacking in the Seattle area. In addition, she sees color as a useful tool for communicating emotion. Siting the blue-grey lighting of the Pacific Northwest, the deep greens of the evergreen forests, and the sports team colors of Seattle, a portrait of Seattle as blue-green, and cool or damp, begins to form. We chuckle at the Seahawk’s and Sounder’s attempt to brighten this with the use of the lime green color. As we talk longer with Bratton, we discover that there is much more behind her work than these color investigations. A fascination with transportation permeates the work, spawning from her year spent living in New York City riding the subway, which has continued to deepen as she settles back into a practice in Seattle. She is interested not only in the ways that Seattleites navigate their surroundings, but also the people themselves that move through the city via the public transport system. As our conversation continues, we discuss other avenues and influences of her work, from installation to architecture to comics, along with her perspectives on painting and sculpture. Bratton tells us also of her role at SOIL, a non-profit artist run space in Seattle, where she both shows her work and curates. Below you will find the full transcript of our interview.
TW: Alright so we’re here with Colleen RJC Bratton in her studio in Seattle. What neighborhood are we in?
CRJCB: We’re in Rainier Valley.
TW: Rainier Valley, cool.
TW: We are looking at fabric works, a combination of fabric and plywood, that’s painted?
CRJCB: It’s on birch board.
TW: Birch board, cool.
DK: Do u call them paintings? How do you describe them?
CRJCB: Well I think that with any application, I usually apply saying I’m a painter, because a lot of my work is more interested in the history of painting than it is with the history of textiles, but I’m okay with being both textile artist and painter. I use a lot of found fabrics, so it’s not like I’m making the fabric from scratch like a lot of textile artists would be doing.
TW: Yeah I’d say they definitely have a painterly quality to them. I feel like one of the things you have going with these is the shape aspect of the painting if you want to call it a painting. They’re kind of sculptural too… I guess if you call it a painting you’re referencing shaped painting. Are you looking at anyone specifically lately?
CRJCB: I actually looked a lot at sculptors, so probably one of my favorite sculptors right now is Matthew Ronay. Do you guys know his work? His work is like wood sculptures that he paints. They’re crazy-trippy-psychadelic things that have this organic drippy quality…I don’t know how to explain it, but they look like something you’d see in a sci-fi movie, but also you’d have to be on drugs while you watch the movie or something. (laughter) His work is pretty awesome. And then also Frank Stella.
TW: I can definitely see that influence.
CRJCB: He’s a big influence too.
TW: What about your friend, Leah?
CRJCB: I was already making this work before I knew her, and so it was actually pretty cool to meet her and see that we were making work that was similar, but we’re interested in pretty different things.
DK: What’s her full name?
CRJCB: Leah Guadagnoli.
TW: it seems like you are finding a specific part of an image and then making it…or a specific part of something you observe in a given place and then making that an abstraction, kind of. How do you go about–what’s your process for deciding what image to use, or how to start?
CRJCB: So every morning, even when I lived in New York, I will use my commute time as inspiration time, like a sketching time, so I’ll sit on the bus and observe everything around me. A lot of the times I’m not necessarily thinking about composition, but I’m thinking about what’s going on socially in the environment, like how am I feeling, how are those two people interacting or how are people interacting with one another. And then based on that, I find something within the environment that mimics that, if that makes sense. So I’ll sketch it and then using my interpretations as an inspiration, then I make more aesthetic choices. So like, is this a hostile environment? Then that might affect the colors that I choose or how sharp the edges are, or is this a tender moment? Then it’ll be more soft. The same with color, so that’s why color is really important in my work because it’s mimicking those same feelings or emotions that I was having at the time.
DK: And often it’s from environments of transportation, right?
CRJCB: Yeah I’m interested in the public sphere. Originally when I moved to New York I was interested in the subway system, because I was acclimating to a new city and so I was trying to figure out my place within the environment. So maybe the first 15 works or so were about personal things, and then as you become more comfortable you start to look at other people and how do they interact with one another? How do they interact with me? And especially moving back to Seattle, because the transportation system here is changing so rapidly with the light rail that Seattle is sort of being forced to be more like New York, because the traffic is so bad, people are becoming more and more dependent on public transportation. So it’s these people who don’t know these social roles, being put into this environment and how do they respond to being around strangers all the time.
TW: So do you find your new work is capturing Seattle-centric moments, as opposed to whereas your previous work… I’m looking at three NYC subway seats turned into flat abstractions kind-of-thing. But now are you using images of Seattle transportation?
CRJCB: Yeah in the last three or four pieces they’ve started being more about Seattle. The West has this attachment to personal space whereas New Yorkers are in it all the time, so they’re more comfortable with being around people. Like there’s this one piece that’s in a show right now and it’s like the subway wall that divides people who have paid and who haven’t, and there are all these organic forms and they’re kind of pushing and pulling against one another and that’s sort of like…somebody said “hotdogs in jail.”
DK: I love that (laughter).
CRJCB: It’s like people pushing against one another, but it forms this beautiful sort of composition. Whereas in Seattle, people are not used to it yet.
CRJCB: And I don’t know how long that takes.
DK: Do you think your new work is starting to focus more, more than before, on the people that are riding the subways, while you’re in Seattle?
CRJCB: Yeah, definitely, I think the early works in this series. All the pieces are really harmonious and they’re sort of mimicking that urban harmony in New York, versus these new ones where there’s some comical aspect too–and there’s also this sort of disharmony or awkwardness I’m trying to capture with this piece. There’s humor and disharmony. There’s a big piece and then a tiny piece and yeah. So there’s components that don’t necessarily flow as well together as the earlier work, if that makes sense.
DK: How do you decide where the work ends, because I know you leave a lot of space. Like for instance, the one behind you, that you said has the aggressive red mark behind it, how do you decide what is and isn’t part of the work? And you also have the colors…things are back-painted so there’s light coming off almost like a James Turrell sort of feeling. Is there a space around it? Where does it end? Does it matter?
CRJCB: Well it’s actually interesting, originally the piece ended right below the red mark and I was almost done with it and it just didn’t feel right. So I created the extension and this huge orange back of the head section and I think it’s like what I was saying before… I have this moment or this experience where I witness something happening, or I’m experiencing something happening, and it’s like what do I need to include in the work to re-encapsulate that. Usually the sketch that I make, as soon as I have a finished sketch, it’s like that’s exactly what the work is. But lately I’ve been allowing myself more grace and being like, oh I can change this it doesn’t have to be the exact sketch.
TW: Earlier you explained what’s going on with this piece we were just talking about. It’s like essentially a big orange form in the bottom, that’s kind of curve linear, and then you’ve got this tan shape on the side holding some kind of banner it looks like, made of fabric, and then there’s this red mark in the corner. Can you explain how would you describe what this piece is based on?
CRJCB: Yeah, so the titles of the works are important in revealing that internal dialogue I was having when I made the original sketch. So the title of this one is “Marketing Vail / Where To Avoid Eye Contact.” Originally I was thinking about how when you’re sitting on the subway or the bus and trying not to make eye contact with somebody you don’t want to make eye contact with, and you don’t have a form of distraction like music or a book or cellular data. Then you just stare at the advertisements and it’s not like you’re processing the information, you’re just trying to have a place where your eyes are resting so you don’t have to look at other people, which is a big thing in Seattle too. It’s weird to look at other people on the bus and on the subway which is interesting because the streets are a whole other story. So the red mark that’s in the piece is that unwanted attention that you’re receiving, and specifically with this piece, it’s unwanted sexual attention or aggression. So when I originally had the piece and it didn’t have the orange section on the bottom, it felt strange because I wasn’t pointing to the person that was feeling uncomfortable. I think it was important for me to add that because it references the back of the head and this perfectly combed hair and in my eyes it has a kind of femininity about it, so it was important for me to put that “person” in the work so I can say this is the viewer of that thing, not like the viewer is the viewer of this thing, because I don’t know anything about that viewer, if that makes sense. So it’s adding the gender to it too.
DK: Do you think the continuing disappearance of the middle class is also creating tension with the buses? People having to ride public transportation that maybe could afford other means before?
CRJCB: Yeah that’s definitely a thing, I mean I am in an interesting position because I have to take two buses to work and I live in a very nice neighborhood, Queen Anne, and Queen Anne is like one of the oldest wealthiest neighborhoods in Seattle, and I live in an apartment building and it’s one of the only apartment buildings in that section of the neighborhood. But like, the house that was for sale down the street sold for 3 million dollars…so anyways the bus that I pick up like a 10 minute walk from my apartment is quiet and majority white, I would say. People are dressed pretty nicely and they’re just going to work downtown, so that whole bus empties out right there and then I have to transfer to the 7, which starts in downtown and goes to Rainier Valley which is one of the most diverse zip codes in the US-–I think there’s over 70 languages that are spoken–and it also traverses the government buildings where people are applying for financial need and all these different resources and then it goes through Pioneer Square where there’s the Union Gospel Mission and lots of shelters, and then it goes through international district and then it goes to Rainier Valley. So the climate and the diversity and the noise level and activity is totally changing all the time. So, even if I had a car I wouldn’t drive to work because it’s so cool to be able to witness all these different parts of the city and also to feel that intense change between neighborhoods.
DK: You really get an idea of who lives in the city. Do you think the works from New York picked up some of that as well or do you think they were more focusing on the architecture and colors and shapes of things?
CRJCB: I think they were more focused on the architecture and the shapes. Like I said before, there was such a harmony there and I only lived there for a year so I’m sure if I lived there longer I would’ve been a lot more aware of the discrepancies and things that aren’t going right, and that last piece that I made and actually this piece too, this piece called “Dark Days” is a little more…I don’t know…it feels really sad.
DK: It does feel really sad.
TW: Is this like a bathroom of a subway station?
CRJCB: No, but I can see where you can see that.
TW: Like the door…
CRJCB: This is like the door that’s at the end of the subway and it’s totally black.
DK: Where you can’t see through it and there’s a double window?
CRJCB: Yea. So this work and the one I said was ‘like a hotdog’ work, both of those are more about that dark side of the subway system; like the hotdog one even though it is kind of harmonious and there’s this composition, that was inspired by the fact that it’s something like 90 percent of fare policing, the people that are arrested are people of color. And so its like all of these organic forms trying to push through the subway gate together, but they’re constrained by it. And then this one’s like…well “Dark Days” is also the title of a documentary about people living underground in the subways and the homeless communities, it’s from the 90s, so this is also sort of like when you look out that subway window and you see someone has a tent down there, it’s just crazy.
DK: Changes the mindset you had during your commute.
CRJCB: Yea, definitely.
DK: So, I know you’ve been doing some installation stuff and you had the Color Field, right, is that what it was called?
CRJCB: It’s called Lens Therapy.
DK: Right, Lens Therapy. And also, your studio right now, the light switches are painted and the roof tiles have been replaced with orange and red and tan panels and your cabinet is like your color palette…so how do you spread out into installation with your work?
CRJCB: I think that the installation work takes away a lot of background information and makes it very simple. It’s mostly focused on color and color therapy / the psychology of color. One of the major colors that’s missing in the Seattle and Pacific Northwest are these warm red tones, oranges, yellows…when I think of Seattle I think of blues and greens and grays.
DK: Seahawks colors, too.
CRJCB: Or Mariners color, or the Sounders colors, they’re all alike..and it’s hilarious to me that the Sounders and the Seahawks try and make it more exciting by using lime green and it just looks so horrible. So yeah a lot of that is me trying to complete the color palette and complement those color palettes by bringing in these warm tones, like orange and yellow and red, you know fire, but they also psychologically are supposed to increase your blood pressure and they’re supposed to be inspirational and motivating and that’s something that I need as a Seattleite because it gets so gray here and you need that sort of invigorating color. Otherwise it can be so easy to go into the Winter stupor and being depressed and lacking vitamin D all that jazz. But the Lens Therapy one was sort of my hippie-dippie self coming out; I made like a 20 by 10 foot multicolored quilt and it had these sculptural elements that had color transparencies and then we invited…this was through Outer Space…
DK: What’s Outer Space?
CRJCB: Outer Space is this non-gallery that’s run by Forrest Perrine. Their mantra is “activating emptiness everywhere.” so they do outdoor, sometimes outdoor installations, sometimes not, but activating non-art spaces into art spaces.
TW: Oh, cool.
CRJCB: So Forrest approached me about doing this, so we set up this quasi-picnic with the blanket or the quilt and the sculptural elements and invited people to come experience it. So when people would approach us, we would hand them a pair of color tinted glasses, so they could be orange or red or mauve or whatever. And when they look through the glasses it would completely alter and change their world and also change the colors of the quilt. So that was a very simple idea: we all have a lens with by which we view society and what would it be like if that lens were to change and would we be able to better empathize with other people from different backgrounds? And that’s super optimistic.
DK: I love it.
CRJCB: I felt like it would be a good conversation starter, especially with our political environment now. We also had a publication that went alongside it, and we had nine writers from across the country write on each of the 9 colors of the quilt. It could be just on color theory or skin color or anything of their choosing.
TW: Where can this publication be found?
CRJCB: It’s on my website.
DK: I’ve been meaning to buy one. Lastly, tell us about SOIL and what you’ve got going on.
CRJCB: So SOIL is one of the longest running artist-run galleries in the nation. SOIL’s been around for over 20 years and it’s an artist run gallery, we have over 20 members, so I’m a member and we all share responsibility and share rent and we put on exhibitions and invite curators to put on exhibitions. We’re one of the only galleries in the city that pays curators to put on shows and provide them with funding and provide artists with funding too. It’s a really cool place and super experimental and I’m very happy to be a part of it.
DK: That’s awesome. And you’re going to your residency soon?
CRJCB: Yeah, so I went last August and loved it too much, loved it so much that I’m going to go back. So I’m heading back to Vermont Studio Center for the month of October.
TW: Were you involved much with the fair week in Seattle? With Out of Sight?
CRJCB: A little. I didn’t have any work with Out of Sight, but lots of friends did.
TW: You were there and saw and supported it. So is there a base of young collectors? How are people collecting artwork in Seattle? Is that a thing?
DK: And are they artists?
TW: Do artists buy each other’s work kind of like they do in Brooklyn, or is it more like, you have to seek out people? Do you think there’s a process to that or do you even care about that?
CRJCB: I definitely care about it. It is a lot like Brooklyn. It’s artists buying, or at least the people in my age bracket are buying. At least in my age level bracket or whatever, it’s mostly artists buying other artists work which is really sweet and awesome. There’s like a big push to try and find a way to bridge the gap between the tech scene in Seattle and the art scene in Seattle, so they can sort of support one another. But that’s really hard because a lot of the tech people are transplants within the last six to seven years, so they don’t have as intense of an attachment to Seattle. I’m actually curating a show in December at SOIL and there’s gonna be around 20 artists and it’s actually asking that question of, if art was actually marketed more toward the tech world would we do better? So like Leah’s actually in that show too there are tons of talented artists from around the country that are gonna be part of it. Their prompt is ‘make an object that’s responding to a tech object,’ so that way when someone heavily involved in tech or a tech company comes into the gallery they can see that artwork in a context that they understand or see everyday, and there will be an online shop platform and make it very fluid for someone to just come in and purchase work.
DK: I can see some similarities between that and the idea of putting on the different lenses for the color therapy
CRJCB: Oh, yea.
TW: I think that’s one of the difficult things right now, if you’re trying to bring other people in who don’t have an art history background, there’s so much groundwork you have to lay for them. So I feel people now are taking the approach…
DK: People don’t buy art because they don’t know what it’s about, or a lot of them…
TW: I think creating a context for somebody to, I mean that’s the reason artists buy work from other artists because it’s like, this is so in line with what I’m thinking about like I want this object because for me it fills this gap that I need, you know, but I feel like with people who don’t have this kind of artistic practice, how do you get them to understand the importance or value of emerging art?
CRJCB: I was talking with this guy Charlie Shek. He’s a stylist and a photographer and he’s really in the design scene, but then he does work for Nike and all these things that…a lot of tech people get really into design and objects and like design objects, so I feel that’s sort of a sweet spot too. I’ve seen a lot of artists go into this design realm and that’s where a lot of tech people go too, and it helps that I’m married to a tech person who’s really interested in design.
DK: There’s a definite bridge there, even in the art department at Western, (Western Washington University),where Til and I went to school, printmaking was the bridge between art and design kids because all of the design kids are interested in the art of making books and printing and then from there they slip into the art or the inverse the art can slip into the design, and if you don’t have those areas where they can meet each other and understand how someone else is thinking then…they just live different lives.
TW: Which ties back into Lens Therapy.
CRJCB: I told the artists, I gave them suggestions about what they could make, but they didn’t have to stick to them at all. It was like, if you wanna make a lanyard for an Amazon ID badge, do that! Or do you wanna make like a sculpture that somehow manages their chords of like their computers…please do that. Things there have a very specific context and you can incorporate little aspects of humor or things that you’re interested in too to that. Also VR is a good middle ground too. There are all these artists who are super interested in VR, like MSHR is a good example, they’re using this crazy technology and its like, when tech people see that they get stoked.
DK: Also the Whitney Biennial had VR, this last one.
CRJCB: There’s this technical aspect that they can understand, like programmers, ‘oh cool there’s all this math involved!’ I mean, this is me making an assumption.
TW: I think maybe we should end this interview here. This has been Collen RJC Bratton in her studio in Ranier Valley, Seattle, Washington. Thanks for having us.
DK: Open House on the road!
CRJCB: Thanks for coming!