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?”
Robin Rose’s art is available through Hemphill; hemphillfinearts.com. For more information, visit robinroseart.com.
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,
Jowita Wyszomirska’s art is available through Gallery Neptune & Brown; galleryneptunebrown.com. For more information, visit jowitawyszomirska.work
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.”
The brilliant colors of spring, and summer too, appear year-round in Baer’s Washington, DC, studio. On one canvas, a blaze of yellow is tempered by earthy undertones; on another, hot pink dominates, while flecks of aqua, blue and purple crisscross, orange notes rise and a single red streak descends. “The idea,” says the painter, “is to create a set of dynamics that keeps the viewer’s eye engaged. A piece of art should hold your attention for longer than just a glance. It should pull you in again and again.”
Other paintings produced over the past two decades have taken a similar approach: Blocks of blue may interact with areas of black or white; horizontal lines pulsate; or snowy tones blanket the canvas, sculpting the surface with paint. “I don’t have a formula in my mind as I work,” Baer reveals. “Some pieces are more about the texture of paint, rather than the color. There’s a back-and-forth thought process going on until the composition is resolved.”
Born in DC and raised in Alexandria, Virginia, Baer discovered painting in his formative years. After family visits to Cape Cod, his parents returned with works from a studio started by artist Edwin Reeves Euler, a relative, in Provincetown; they served as early inspirations. “Being creative and using painting as an outlet never felt like a choice; it’s a thread that has run throughout my life,” says Baer. As a high school student at St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes in Alexandria, he dedicated all spare time to sharpening his art skills and even sacrificed playing sports—against the urging of friends and the coach.
Baer’s achievement in art was recognized with a Virginia Governor’s School scholarship for an intensive summer program at University of Richmond. Later, he went on to study at Rhode Island School of Design, receiving a bachelor’s degree in industrial design in 1995.
That training has helped him simplify complex ideas in his work. Displayed in his home’s living area, an early still life and landscape illustrate the artist’s drift toward abstraction. While the subjects are easy to recognize, their forms are pared down to two-dimensional planes of color. Baer compares the flattened color fields to “looking at the world through a broader aperture,” as in aerial views. In fact, the artist keeps on hand a digital archive of photos he has taken on airplanes. Images of structured farmland and rugged mountain ranges seen from above, he says, “have had a big impact on me.”
Also informing his work are paintings by post-World War II abstract expressionists, especially Richard Diebenkorn, whose “Ocean Park” series lyrically explored the landscape and changing atmospheric effects around his Santa Monica, California, studio. “I love the rigor with which he kept going further and further in a series—negotiating between the illusion of depth and flatness on the picture plane at the advent of modern painting,” notes Baer. “He really captured my imagination, especially when I was younger and found that dynamic between the depth and flatness on the picture plane was possible.”
Baer’s tribute to “Ocean Park” came with “Palisades,” his first series also named for the place where he lives and works. These large canvases extend almost five-feet square. Built up in multiple layers using broad strokes, they evoke a sense of spaciousness along with what the artist calls “artifacts,” as lower layers poke through.
Starting out, Baer sets down big color tones with a large palette knife in free, sweeping gestures. He prefers oil paint for its translucence and depth, often mixing the paint with a cold-wax medium to make it lighter and more flexible, “like cake icing,” he says. He then overlays up to six layers of paint in large swaths. “It’s really so satisfying,” says the artist, describing his process. “I try to think of it holistically, working on all parts at once in a continuous dialogue between points of interest and rest for the eye.”
The ongoing “Palisades” series, started in 2004, was followed by three others—“White on White,” which explored gradations in a single tone; and “Line Theory,” composed of stacked, linear rows, often in throbbing colors that fill the entire canvas or board. Baer’s most recent series, “Shining Invitation,” places a single or group of circles on the painting’s surface.
Considering one example, in which a circular outline is inscribed equally over powder-blue and white panels, Baer explains, “I started to think about how good and evil, black and white are wrapped up in one thing. There’s a unity represented in these works; we’re all connected and part of a whole,” he reflects. “It’s the simplest representation of how I understand the universe, the choices we make.”
It’s also a painting that viewers may choose to return to for further contemplation.
Ready to return to a reimagined past studded with grand architecture, intimate interludes and a glorious bird’s-eye view across the 19th-century city? If so, then Peter Waddell—the maestro history-painter of Washington, DC—can illustriously lead you there.
To sample the artist’s visual enchantment, take a stroll south of Dupont Circle where a vivid mural fills the wall of a townhouse on Sunderland Place, NW. This public artwork shows the first two mansions built at Dupont Circle—the British Legation and Stewart’s Castle—as scenery on the stage of a colossal toy theater. The 60-by-60-foot painting is easy to see; its stage emerges from behind elegantly tasseled, trompe l’oeil drapes.
“I love the idea of pulling back the curtain on history,” Waddell says with gusto and in the broad accent of his native New Zealand. His smaller vignettes depicting local history and architecture can be found around town on the fronts of cast-iron call boxes once used to summon police and the fire department. In Kalorama, one of several call-box paintings by Waddell illustrates the six former presidents who have lived in the neighborhood, including Barack Obama, with their homes as a backdrop. Waddell likes creating public artwork, he says, “mostly out of love and my desire to amuse the public—and to help people think about the past. Knowing history is so important.”
The painter sets about recreating the past from his picturesque garret studio, located atop a stucco garage on the grounds of Tudor Place in Georgetown. As its artist-in-residence, Waddell has drawn and painted many views of the historic landmark. At the same time, he has fulfilled commissions for, among others, Mount Vernon, the U.S. Capitol and the White House Historical Association.
His series of 14 paintings for the latter illustrates views of the White House over its first century. Each scene and architectural rendering demonstrates the artist’s virtuoso handling of oil paint to capture subtleties of light and meticulous details. In one painting, Waddell portrayed the splendor of the Red Room at dusk during Chester A. Arthur’s presidency; the soft glow of gaslight delineates deep folds in the velvet curtains, burnishes the gilding on fireplace candelabras and gently highlights the fashionable flounces and trains of ladies’ gowns. The cumulative effect of these details, rich in color and texture, produces a dramatic hyper-reality, crystalizing commemorative views and narratives.
“I put tremendous effort into the actual craft of painting, so I’ll be able to do what I set out to do,” says the artist, who started out painting in a modern Expressionist style after attending art school in New Zealand. “It never occurred to me that I would end up painting with minute brushes. But as I went on, there were more and more details I wanted to include in the paintings, and they required smaller brushes,” he remarks. “Even on very large canvases, I’m working on a minute scale.”
In the White House paintings, Waddell imagines views that were never definitively drawn, painted or photographed in their own time. “People often ask for pictures of things that don’t exist,” he notes. “They want some time or place in history recreated.” To achieve that goal, Waddell may examine diaries, drawings, household inventories and invoices, or explore the buildings themselves if they’re still there. “I think of my paintings as historical documents,” he says, “but that doesn’t stand in the way of making things beautiful.”
The painter’s representation of gaps in historical imagery may have reached a pinnacle in two ambitious paintings for patron Albert H. Small and his permanent Washingtoniana Collection at The George Washington University Museum. For the first, The Indispensable Plan, Waddell notes, “I set about to show what DC would have looked like if Pierre L’Enfant’s plan had been fully realized.”
Jackie Strecker, his research assistant for the project and now the collection’s assistant curator, adds, “It was groundbreaking—the first time anyone has tried to visualize L’Enfant’s city as more than just a map.”
Together, Waddell and Strecker examined the original 1791 plan at the Library of Congress. “It was full of fantastic details,” recalls the artist. L’Enfant’s vision for canals, public spaces, military installations and government buildings found their proper places in the artist’s panoramic view across the imagined city.
It took Waddell a year and a half to create this and a companion piece, The Village Monumental, which shows how the city had developed by 1825, the year of L’Enfant’s death. Viewers will be able to see both works at The George Washington University Museum whenever it reopens.
From his first visit to Washington while on vacation with his father, the artist was drawn to the city and its history. His father, a cabinetmaker and American Civil War buff, and his mother, a theatrical costumer and librarian, passed on their respect for art and culture. When barely more than a toddler, Peter first accompanied them to the impressive municipal theater in their small coastal town of Hastings, New Zealand. “I was absolutely transfixed,” he remembers. Not long after, he appeared on that stage as a child actor—and also witnessed scenery painting for the first time.
Waddell immigrated to Washington in 1992. Once here, he was inspired to transition from the fine art of painting landscapes to historical views. Reflecting on the direction his art has taken, the painter observes, “I like to say art is about the physical—the external world—and the internal world of imagination and dreams and memory. It’s also about other art; there’s a long tradition of architectural and history painting.”
Asked about another practitioner in that great tradition, Piranesi—the Italian artist and architect who reimagined views of classical Rome—Waddell replies modestly, without making comparisons: “He was so good. That idea of being able to create a whole world out of a blank piece of paper. It’s magical.”
Asked to design a chandelier for The Valentine museum store in Richmond, she searched through the museum’s archives. Among historical objects donated by local families, Umanoff gravitated toward the toys. “I wanted it to be playful, an inviting focus for people walking in,” she recalls.
The chandelier she designed in 2014 continues to charm. Like a lighthearted scaffold, it furnishes a perch for painted-wood cardinals—alighting on top, surrounded by swirls of crystal and seen through a metal frame resembling a wire cage. The piece hints at Umanoff’s characteristic style with its blend of vintage and new parts and pieces assembled as in an airy, illuminated sculpture. “My sensibility is eclectic,” says the designer. “I love combining reclaimed and industrial pieces with modern.”
In The Valentine’s whimsical chandelier, repurposed valve handles circle the central post like rings tossed around a stake. The designer duplicated 1940s bartending tools; their twisted-metal rods with spring attachments reminded her of pull toys. Typical of Umanoff’s custom designs, all parts come together in harmony to suit the destination.
“Richmond is so rich in historical buildings and history,” says the designer, describing how the chandelier’s re-use of salvaged materials “speaks about the city’s renewal, and how much it continues to change.”
A resident of Richmond for 20 years, Umanoff refers to its “amazing resources,” including the skilled artisans who fabricate her lighting. To create her visions, she collaborates with local metalsmiths and a blacksmith, woodworkers, powder-coaters and glassblowers. Recently, she approached fine artists to paint small sconces made of reclaimed parts for a project to benefit local nonprofits during the pandemic.
Umanoff also uses a professional picker who gathers salvaged finds that inspire many of her one-of-a-kind and limited-edition designs. She has imaginatively repurposed all kinds of industrial and other materials—from auto rotors that serve as pendants to real birds’ nests preserved and transformed into chandeliers. One current project will refashion a wooden yoke used to harness farm animals as a fixture to be suspended above a client’s kitchen island. “It’s going to be so much fun,” she says.
Having one foot in the past comes naturally to Umanoff. Her father, Arthur Umanoff, was a noted mid-century industrial designer whose furniture designs have recently been rediscovered. Growing up in the modernist, wood-and-glass house he conceived in Westchester County, New York, she remembers her father sketching on tablecloths during dinner, and making her own lighting sketches while she visited his office. “Now I’m always drawing to figure out the best way to build and hang lighting,” she notes.
Umanoff made the circuit to lighting almost by chance. After majoring in sculpture at Parsons School of Design, she worked for many years styling store displays and photography shoots in New York and California. Moving to Richmond after marrying, she styled photos and wrote a column about repurposing everyday objects for the city’s R Home magazine. For one column, she recycled bed springs and pulleys into lighting. Later displayed at Strawberry Fields Flowers & Finds, the fixtures were noticed by buyers from Shades of Light, a largely online lighting source based in Richmond. That happened 10 years ago; Umanoff has been designing for that purveyor ever since.
To display her wares and, as she says, “begin conversations with clients,” she shares space in Richmond’s historic Scott’s Addition with several craftspeople, including the proprietor of Phoenix Handcraft, who forged The Valentine shop chandelier.
Umanoff’s own loft apartment, a living and work space, is also located in a converted industrial building. There, at an old mahogany desk, she enjoys doing her own shop drawings by hand. New and vintage furnishings comfortably comingle, among them an occasional table designed by her father in the 1960s and a bank of mid-century metal cabinets from his office.
“I love the open space and moving things around within it,” says Umanoff, who recently replaced a pair of black pendants made from double pulleys in her home. “Maybe it’s a reaction to covid, but I was ready for something softer and more playful.”
In place of those fixtures, she has hung oversized versions of abstracted flowers, their white petals splayed out as in an overhead fan. “I think they create a lot more dimension and whimsy,” Umanoff says of the new design, based on a tiny incense holder she found while cleaning out a drawer. As she adds with a chuckle, “Where inspiration will come from, you never know.”
Visit Umanoff’s online lighting shop at umanoffdesign.com.
Growing up in Addis Ababa, Jomo Tariku liked to sketch the furniture and artifacts that his father, a military attaché for the Ethiopian government, collected from Africa and around the world. He drew the hand-carved Asian tables and Persian rugs in the living room, the Scandinavian dining room set and the African masks, carved ivory tusks and copper trays from Zambia, the Congo, Zaire and Kenya. “Our house was like a bazaar, very eclectic,” recalls Tariku, who never imagined that his exact representations of items at home would lead to a career as a furniture designer.
Among the mix, one piece made a lasting impression: the three-legged African stool. The legacy of this useful object, he says, “seeped into my psyche. Those craftspeople had more influence on my work than anyone else.” Today, three-legged African stools are sought-after accent pieces, pictured on the pages of luxury-home magazines around the world. Some of the designs may well be his.
Born in Kenya, raised in Ethiopia and now based in Springfield, Virginia, Tariku designs furniture rooted in his African heritage. At the same time, the bold outlines of his polished pieces distill familiar forms, cutting across cultures with contemporary authority. “I’m trying to interpret what an African-based furniture design would be, always with the goal of clean lines,” he says.
Like the everyday stools of his youth, Tariku’s pieces are made of wood—solid ash and walnut from the U.S., as well as mahogany and high-quality Baltic birch plywood. Ebonized or natural finishes often interplay light against dark. In his lathe-turned Mukecha stools, rows of black rings may alternate with white or other bright colors. “I like the contrast,” he notes.
Tariku’s signature Nyala chair was inspired by the Nyala antelope native to the Ethiopian mountains. While that graceful creature has four legs, the designer’s chair has just three, each elegantly tapered and outwardly curved. Its hand-carved backrest, resembling smooth animal horns, bends gently inward at the perfect height to double as an armrest. Minus the backrest, the chair becomes a refined, three-legged stool.
“I kept looking at images of this beautiful animal,” says Tariku, describing his approach to this and other designs. “It started as a sketch; I kept drawing for more than a month or two.” Looking back, he recounts, “The sketching part was easy. Finding a builder took much longer.”
Tariku has a small wood shop in the garage of his family townhouse “to work out my ideas,” he says, but does not build his pieces full-scale. For more than two years, he had been looking for someone to construct the Nyala chair, which he hoped to introduce at the 2018 Salone del Mobile Satellite show in Milan. Happily, a few months before the opening, he met master wood craftsman David Bohnhoff at Richmond’s Craft + Design show. Looking through Tariku’s sketchbook, Bohnhoff stopped at the Nyala chair and said, “I’d like to take on that challenge.” Tariku agreed enthusiastically, and the two have collaborated on fabricating the designer’s chairs ever since; woodworkers in Rockville, Baltimore and Texas currently build his less complicated stools.
Before construction begins, Tariku uses 3-D modeling to help visualize his concepts, construction methods, ergonomics and the overall design balance of each piece. “Until you make the real thing, it’s hard to know,” he says. In fact, four prototypes of the Nyala chair were required before he and Bohnhoff were happy with it.
Tariku studied industrial design at the University of Kansas. Until entering, he had never heard of the field, intending to major in fine art. His furniture designs bridge both. “I don’t want my pieces to be only beautiful. They have to be comfortable too. They shouldn’t say ‘don’t sit on me—I’m art,’” observes the designer, who also works as a data scientist at the World Bank.
Tariku feels the time is right to extend the reach of his modern pieces. That sense is buoyed by his participation in the Black Artists + Designers Guild, a collective formed in 2018 to increase black representation in the design world. The Guild has promoted its members’ work with exhibitions in New York, Houston and High Point, North Carolina.
The art and design of those with African origins, he says, “brings richness” to the design universe. Until now, his chairs and stools have been based on sub-Saharan African influences. He hopes to broaden those references to parts of northern Africa, and to produce a full line of contemporary African-style furniture—the subject of his college thesis.
Tariku looks forward to a time when he can present his work at shows in Ghana and Nigeria, where he has exhibited before. “Do I want to? Oh, yes,” he beams. “All that’s coming.”
For more information, visit jomofurniture.com.
A long a shaded garden path beside the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, six rustic structures beckon visitors—some get off their scooters to take photos. Those stepping inside discover even greater reason to pause within these exhilarating wood enclosures.
As if in a rugged cathedral, golden-hued boards rise in staggered formation toward multiple, 14-foot-tall peaks. Walls step in and bulge out, suggesting the movement of some organic creature. Slits, peepholes and larger openings pierce the tight joints, allowing light to penetrate. The narrow boundaries encourage close-up viewing of variations in tone, texture, grain and knot patterns. These wood qualities become exaggerated on the exterior as the rough bark of raw-milled lumber projects to create a jagged, primeval profile.
“I love wood because each piece is different—its color, grain and smell. Like every person, each piece is one-of-a-kind,” says artist Foon Sham, who designed and constructed this buoyant work. Called “Arches of Life” and made entirely of pine from Boyds, Maryland, the piece is among several large-scale installations by Sham now on the Smithsonian campus as part of its outdoor “Habitat” exhibit—open for viewing at a safe social distance through December.
Exactly what kind of habitat is this? An accompanying panel describes how fallen trees take on new life as protective shelters for animals. But in its own short life, this multi-part piece has also expressed other ideas. Built in 2016 and titled “Escape,” the sculpture was then a single, 62-foot-long work representing the artist’s response to its setting on the grounds of the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, Virginia, the site of a former federal prison.
“There were escape tunnels under the prison,” Sham explains by phone from his studio, also in Lorton. As prisoners might have tallied the days until their release on cell-block walls, Sham wrote in pencil each section’s completed construction date on interior boards. The sculpture also represents a larger story of immigration, of escaping one country for another. Its craggy roofline follows map contours of the U.S./Mexico border and suggests mountain ranges of the American West.
The work reflects elements of its creator’s own history. As a student, Sham arrived in this country from Hong Kong in 1975. “The tunnel is a metaphor for the long journey to my American dream,” the artist observes. “It’s been a journey of hard work, continuing for 35 years.” Repeated openings in the sculpture’s walls indicate other possibilities. “There’s always a chance to get out; most artists do that many times in their lives,” he says. “This is an attempt to keep straight on, to reach the end of the tunnel—the target.”
Born in Macao, China, and raised in Hong Kong, Sham had little opportunity to pursue his dream of becoming an artist. Although he started drawing at age 10, the culture and education system directed students along more dependable career paths—medicine, law or computer science. Sham took painting classes at night and on weekends when, he recalls, “Learning to paint meant copying the Chinese masters. I spent four years copying. I never made a painting on my own.”
Entering the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, Sham took an introductory sculpture class and was baffled by the first assignment. “We were asked to do a self-portrait in any size and any material,” he remembers. “I was lost. My training was copying.” Living at the time with friends whose son was a carpenter, Sham picked up a band saw and some scraps of redwood, looked in the mirror and began assembling pieces into a composite head. It was the first time he had ever cut wood. “There was little opportunity to work with wood in Hong Kong. It’s a forest of buildings,” he says, chuckling.
Despite Sham’s misgivings, his portrait met with hearty approval from the teacher and class. “It changed my life,” he reveals. “That was my first opportunity to think about what I wanted to do as an artist—to follow my own DNA.”
It was the first step in his future career as a sculptor—and a professor of art. Since 1993, Sham has taught sculpture at University of Maryland while also fulfilling commissions, pursuing his own art and winning awards. Last year alone, he created three large commissions, received an achievement award and a grant from ArtsFairfax and exhibited smaller works and drawings at DC’s Gallery Neptune & Brown. Awash in luminous hues, the wood pieces on display were inspired by the colorful dress and landscape he found on a summer residency at the Arkad Centre d’Art in Auvillar, France.
While some of Sham’s works are scaled to interior spaces, others have attained monumental size. “Escape Tower,” the tallest at 36 feet, nearly touched the roof above the three-story atrium at American University’s Katzen Arts Center. Weighing three-and-a-half tons, it was created for the museum’s 2017 “Escape” exhibit of Sham’s work.
A more recent piece also proved complex. Commissioned by the Smithsonian, “Mushroom” is composed of 1,760 wood pieces reclaimed from trees that fell or were cut down during construction on the Smithsonian’s grounds: elm, oak, cypress, birch and katsura. The 12-foot-high sculpture was designed in 15 sections, each carefully color-coded and alphabetized for reassembly at the corner of 14th Street and Constitution Avenue, where it’s now on view as part of the “Habitat” show.
Sham often uses local woods but notes, “I have been chasing wood all over the world.” He has worked with camphor wood in China, and built sculptures from woods milled locally in Australia, Hungary, France and Norway during art residencies in those countries. The sculptor keeps jars of sawdust in his studio as a reminder of the distinctive colors and scents of different species.
“I personally like the smell of pine,” Sham says about our region’s fast-growing, readily available wood. However, he points out, when used for outdoor pieces, it requires regular applications of preservative to extend its life beyond 10 years. He often turns to two imported woods that resist the forces of nature for 30 years or more. “Ridge,” a walk-through sculpture in Arlington’s Oakland Park, was constructed of kebony, a treated pine from Norway; it was also sourced for his 28-foot-tall sculpture in the new REI store in North Bethesda. And recently, Sham awaited a shipment from Guyana of greenheart, a hard, dense wood intended for four new sculptures at the corners of 19th & L Streets in DC’s Golden Triangle district.
In many of his sculptures, Sham combines different woods. Plus, he adds, “You can mix wood with steel, Plexiglas, concrete, paper and cast iron,” all of which he has done. A commission currently underway interweaves brick-shaped pine pieces with real books, which were all donated. Scheduled for exhibit at the National Building Museum from November 27 through January 10, 2021, this 26-foot-square sculpture called “Maze of Knowledge” is based on childhood memories, explains the sculptor, recalling a fort near his early home in Macao. “There were different routes, multiple openings. I want as many people as possible to walk through this sculpture.”
Sham credits one aspect of his Chinese heritage for his approach. “I’m always chopping up wood into little pieces—like in stir-fry cooking,” he says good-naturedly, comparing the mix of colors and textures in both.
Looking back, he also traces his method to that first self-portrait. “It’s still my way of working. I construct by adding, building up small blocks into a giant mass to create the structure I want,” he explains. Sham remains exhilarated by shaping art in three dimensions. “You can look at or walk all the way around a sculpture, and sometimes go inside,” he observes with satisfaction. “Think about it: How many ways can you do a sculpture? There are so many possibilities. You will never get tired, never get short of ideas. There is no limit.”
Foon Sham is represented in the DC area by Gallery Neptune & Brown; galleryneptunebrown.com. Find more at foonsham.com. The Smithsonian’s “Habitat” exhibit continues through December 2020; gardens.si.edu.
During extended weeks at home, some have found comfort in returning to the earth—looking at our back and front yards, balconies and rooftops in a new way. I’ve always felt most at ease in places with sidewalks; yet over the decades, I’ve discovered the satisfaction of digging, planting and pruning—striving to reclaim from the always-encroaching wild an environment of modest beauty, rather than one serving a useful purpose.
That perspective changed this year. At the urging of a gardening friend, I took the plunge—as so many have before—finding beauty in growing vegetables and herbs in raised beds. There are abundant benefits to gardening off the ground: not having to bend down as far; starting out with enriched soil; choosing among containers from humble pots and planters to custom-designed raised beds you can construct or commission; or simply elevating and enclosing an existing garden bed.
For an apprentice, raised beds are the perfect way to start small. Best of all, for farm-to-table, you can’t beat stepping outside your own kitchen for fresh lettuce or basil to serve in minutes—clipped at eye level.
Growing your own holds special appeal in times of limited access to fresh produce. That was the case during both world wars, when the government promoted “victory gardens” and families rallied to plant crops at home, in public parks, even in schoolyards. By the end of World War II, victory gardens accounted for 40 percent of all fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in the U.S.
Back then, government pamphlets instructed homeowners on how to cultivate edible plants. For today’s beginners, I asked two experts for advice: Amanda Helin, a gardener at the U.S. Botanic Garden; and Carly Mercer of Love & Carrots, which helps clients plant and maintain vegetable gardens. To raise a garden bed, Helin advises mounding at least six inches of compost within walls—or even better, 18 inches of compost mixed with topsoil—and digging it in deeply with a garden fork; or, for a container, simply filling it with 12 or more inches of commercial potting mix. Convert grass to a raised bed by layering five sheets of newspaper, piling on compost and topsoil, and eventually digging it all together. “Adding leaf compost is a great way to go for really rich veggie garden soil,” she says.
At least six hours of direct sunlight daily are necessary for a vegetable garden to thrive. “Think about commercial agriculture in an open field,” says Helin. “That’s ideal.” Mercer suggests placing tall crops on the north side of a bed, so that shorter ones like carrots, beans and salad greens are not cast in shade as the sun moves across the sky.
Allow space for a plant’s mature size. Tomatoes, for example, can reach five or six feet tall. “If you plant five tomatoes in a space where one should grow, you’ll get five pretty unhealthy plants,” Mercer warns. “If you put one in that space, you’ll get one robust and very productive tomato plant.” She adds that tomatoes also need pruning for good air circulation along with staking, caging or trellising.
Raised beds require more water than those in the ground. In dry, hot summer weather, that may mean watering two or three times a day, according to Mercer, who recommends drip-irrigation systems to deliver water directly to the plant’s roots, where it’s needed.
When it comes to keeping out critters and pests, a 24-inch-tall bed will prevent rabbits from jumping in, while only fencing deters deer. To protect lower-growing crops, Mercer recommends netting.
Plan ahead. Mercer points out that late August is ideal for planting cool-weather vegetables from seed, such as beets, carrots, kale, collard greens and Swiss chard; or starting an herb garden, with potted oregano, rosemary, thyme, chives, parsley and cilantro available at garden centers.
“Fall is a great time to plant crops that you can enjoy into winter,” agrees Helin, naming broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, spinach and bok choy.
In my own Maryland backyard, raised planters are blooming mid-season with lettuce, chard and cherry tomatoes starting to form, as well as a towering trellis of peas beside parsley, cilantro and dill. Tending and watching the plants as they grow, this suburban novice has discovered joy each day, marveling at nature’s miracles and grateful for the link to our edible roots.
Recapturing the sense of wonder inquisitive travelers experienced long ago, Kate Norris leads viewers on a path to discovery through the gentle art of paper collage. Charming and witty, her portrayals of creatures and objects in the natural world impart more than appears at first sight. Up close, as if under a microscope, a plucky rooster, butterfly or boar breaks up into tiny set pieces—beguiling pictures or blank fragments torn from rolls of scenic wallpaper. Each is a building block in an orderly yet crazy quilt.
While the main subjects spring from old scientific illustrations, their assembled parts may send a different message derived from vintage wallpapers. Take the case of a smiling skull. Looming large at five feet tall, its head is a patchwork of light and dark tones. Embedded in its forehead, however, merry costumed figures blend among its monochrome fragments. These gentlefolk frolic alone or in pairs; a woman dances, a man plays a lute. “They are like memories in its head,” Norris notes. “I took really pretty paper and juxtaposed it against a serious image, trying to make it light and beautiful, a saccharine contrast to the idea of death.”
In other pieces, wallpaper elements support the central theme. When asked to create an artwork at the height of the #MeToo movement, Norris based her design on an old illustration of a female bat. With women’s empowerment in mind, she called it “Batgirl”—a new superhero—and overlaid it with a pastoral paper showing countrywomen at work. Within the lush landscape composition, a graceful figure dressed in a cap and apron kneels along the bat wing’s edge, dipping a cloth into the void beyond. “I think of them telling a story as I make each one,” says Norris. “There are stories within stories, associations that I make. I have fun with it.”
Tall and agile, Norris won a basketball scholarship to Stanford, where she studied fine art. She went on to receive a master’s at New York’s School of Visual Arts. Her lifelong interests connect in unexpected ways. “Sometimes I attribute my discipline in finishing a section of an artwork to the perseverance that comes with sports,” she reflects, adding, “You can be creative in sports too.”
Norris arrived at her current technique of repurposing wallpaper barely three years ago. “I was a painter forever,” she explains. Standing in the basement studio of her home in Baltimore’s North Roland Park, she indicates earlier works that demonstrate her longstanding use of cut, mixed-media paper merged into abstract paintings and charcoal drawings.
That abstract approach began to change in 2010, when she started teaching in Baltimore County, now at Parkville High School. “I had to show students how to render things—draw a portrait or paint a landscape. I found out I could do that really easily, and I like it,” reflects the artist, who also created handmade quilts in her 20s. “The way I work now is the culmination of all those years.”
Norris favors toile wallpapers that typically picture wistful scenes of bygone times. Animals and birds, flowers and monuments intermingle with idyllic figures, sometimes in exotic Chinoiserie settings. “They are like little engravings,” Norris observes, adding that once she started ripping up the rolls, “it kind of exploded from there.”
Her muse may arise from a single image or a special paper. To demonstrate the quandary of finding a suitable match, she unfurls a cerulean blue-and-cream sample. It shows a sprightly pattern of Christian Dior storefronts intermingled with shoes, boxes and fitted, fashion-plate suits of a former era. Norris held onto the paper for more than a year before discovering a large seashell image to complement it. When an identical shell rendering turned up in a large tome she bought for herself last Christmas—containing artwork by Ernst Haeckel, a 19th-century zoologist and illustrator—the find compounded her goal of reinterpreting vintage illustrations and “giving homage to some of the old illustrators,” she says.
Norris compares her art to putting a puzzle together. Embarking on a new piece, she draws the image outline on a canvas, then paints around the borders before filling in the background. Rough edges of the paper remain silhouetted against the border, she says, “to allude to old parchment.” After large fragments are placed, one piece builds on another. At the end, each work is sealed and varnished for protection.
The artist remembers returning home for vacations to Redding, California, where she enjoyed doing puzzles with her father. Her collage art poses a different kind of challenge. “You get to make it up as you go along,” she says, smiling. “I don’t know where it’s going when I start—but it always seems to work out.” For more information, see katenorrisart.com.
Inside a converted warehouse south of the James River in Richmond, a white-hot flame darts wildly from a hand-held torch. Sean Donlon, standing at a long workbench, holds the torch in his gloved hand. With the other, he coolly, continuously turns a teapot that minutes before he blew, shaped and assembled from three hollow glass tubes. The intense heat reaches 3,000 degrees, sealing connections between the pot, spout and handle while smoothing out imperfections. With the blow-hose mouthpiece still between his teeth, Donlon continues the conversation.
“I used to want to make each piece absolutely perfect,” explains the 31-year-old artist. “But when I got to that point, I thought it was a little boring.” He started changing details—exaggerating the curve of a spout, punching in and pushing out the body, “owning the ability to manipulate it to what you want it to be,” he says.
Bringing a sense of movement and life to the familiar teapot is just the first step. Equally unexpected, these clear-glass objects take on the illusion of polished silver, a look Donlon achieves by applying a reflective coating to the inside, similar to that on the back of a mirror. He removes any lingering functional associations by mounting his teapots in dynamic, sculptural wall compositions.
From a distance, the playful installations become glittering abstractions. Up close, teapot contours emerge, but not the traditional kind. “They’re misshapen, mis-formed, some are wrinkled, melting, drooping,” the artist says with affection. “I kind of look at teapots as a metaphor for people. We all have perfect parts and imperfections.”
It might be said that Donlon sees the world—and his art—in the teapot. “It’s a universal object that people of all nationalities and languages can identify and understand,” he notes. His contemporary expression has been recognized with honors. In 2016, the first year he entered Richmond’s Craft + Design show, Donlon won best in show. And at the 2019 Smithsonian Craft Show, again his first time exhibiting, Donlon garnered the award for New Directions: Excellence in Design of the Future.
The artist made his first teapot seven years ago, after graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University with a major in Craft/Material Studies. There he advanced his glassblowing techniques, using flame-working to shape molten glass rather than employing a furnace as the primary heat source. He remembers the curriculum as “very concept-heavy,” an approach that plays down utilitarian design in favor of ideas. “I thought of the teapot as a boring, mundane object,” Donlon reveals in disbelief, his crystalline-blue eyes wide open. “It wasn’t until getting out of school that I realized the teapot was actually a really beautiful, staple craft in America.”
He recalls that after fabricating his first teapot, “I was hooked.” Lessons learned as an undergraduate were not lost. Within a year, he had mirrored and hung teapot installations, realizing, he observes, “my own idea of intertwining elements of craft and concept.” After traveling on a fellowship to Lauscha, Germany, and to an invitational class in Murano, Italy, he integrated European influences into his technique.
Now working in a studio shared with seven artists, Donlon retreats to an enclosed space to assemble individual components of his wall pieces. He just completed one commission measuring 13 feet long for the Metropolitan Gallery in Austin. Another major installation hangs in Richmond’s Quirk Hotel. The circular arrangement, which comprises more than 100 teapots and teacups, appropriately adorns a dining area. Standing before the sparkling piece, Donlon comments on the way its silvery surfaces reflect the colors and activities of its surroundings. “I like that as you move close in and walk past it, you see yourself distorted in the reflections and can interact with the piece in a subtle way.”
The artist’s latest work wedges exuberant teapots into nine- and 12-inch-square frames. The exaggerated forms slink, droop and dissolve upside down in corners—an homage to the drawings of Donlon’s maternal great-grandfather, a cartoonist in Germany.
While he was growing up in Springfield, Virginia, Donlon’s parents encouraged his interest in art. His mother, a former fiber artist, had a studio at the Torpedo Factory. His father, who worked at the State Department, shared a hobby painting miniature soldiers with Sean and his brother.
Donlon discusses his own evolving art with enthusiasm. “I feel like I’ve just touched the surface of using the teapot as a sculptural element,” he says. “I’m excited to see where that goes.” He compares its potential to the myriad impressions created by his teapots over time. “As the light changes throughout the day, you can see how the piece changes,” he reflects. “It’s not always what we think we see that’s right in front of us, but what it turns into.”
Sean Donlon’s art is represented by Page Bond and Quirk galleries in Richmond. seandonlondesign.com
A spellbinding universe of majesty and wonder unfolds in the luminous paintings of Hedieh Javanshir Ilchi. As if viewed from the stars, fluid bodies interlace with exquisitely detailed patterns. Jewel-hued currents ebb and flow. Yet in these richly atmospheric works, another dimension emerges—all parts do not coexist in celestial harmony. Turbulence flares as sinuous forms collide. Lightning flashes erupt. Black holes appear.
It is an overarching perspective that is also deeply personal, a metaphor for the Persian-American artist’s own existence. Born in Tehran 38 years ago, Ilchi has resided half her life in Montgomery County. “My work is about bridging my two identities,” explains the artist. “I’m kind of split between the two cultures, pulling from their different traditions and techniques.”
From Persian painting and the art of Islamic illumination, Ilchi derives precise patterns and architectural elements. These intricate designs merge with the broad gestures of Western abstraction, particularly the pouring-paint technique associated with Jackson Pollock. “I like mixing those different systems together and creating a new hybrid,” she says.
Ilchi favors Persian art’s ornate borders—elaborately framing abstract imagery—or doorways that mysteriously float on the surface. “Looking at examples in Persian painting and Islamic illumination, there’s always that doorway or border present,” Ilchi notes. “It has a decorative purpose, but it also centers some kind of narrative, beautifying poetry or a sacred text.”
Earlier in her career, Ilchi followed that storytelling tradition, placing figures of her family and friends in the doorways and archways, which now stand empty. “I want them to be liminal spaces, almost like you’re between two worlds, in an uncertain place,” the artist observes. “The figure isn’t there, but it is actually there, because you become the figure. You become the world that those figures existed in.” The ambiguous doorways atop multiple strata conjure a pathway to dreamlike memory as well.
Seated at the work table in her Kensington studio, Ilchi points to motifs from Persian and Islamic art illustrated in oversized books, beside a volume of T.S. Eliot poems. The painter’s love of poetry echoes in the multiple layers of her art and in the titles of her works. A phrase she wrote, “I surrender to you, ashen lands and blue skies,” was the name of her recent exhibition at Washington’s Hemphill gallery.
Although Ilchi attended an art high school in Iran, she knew little about Western art when arriving in the U.S. in 1999 at the age of 18 to join her fiancé. To learn English, she enrolled at Montgomery College, also taking art classes with the goal of becoming a graphic designer—an idea that vanished once she discovered painting. Entering a new culture, she recalls, “was very difficult. With painting, I found a language to express myself and find a footing.” After completing a bachelor’s in fine arts at the Corcoran, she went on to receive a master’s degree in studio art from American University.
During her last undergraduate year, Ilchi first experienced pouring paint onto the slick surface of Mylar. “I really liked what was happening—allowing chance to take over,” she recalls.
As she continued to reimagine that unpredictable process using a similar nonporous, matte-drafting film, she began to see the abstract pours suddenly shift toward realism. “They turn out to look like extraterrestrial images—almost like topographical, aerial views of the Earth, or like photos of galaxies,” she says. To enhance those impressions, the artist studies NASA satellite imagery for inspiration and focuses on colors that resemble landmasses or bodies of water.
Each painting progresses organically. Ilchi may decide to repeat the pours, perhaps spraying on water to let the acrylic paint spread, or lifting the wood or aluminum panels she also uses as her canvas while moving the paint around. At another moment, the artist may choose among Persian patterns she then transfers and paints by hand. Later, she’ll determine which imagery to highlight and which parts to cover with transparent or opaque glazes for balance or added depth. “I’m fascinated by the process—not knowing what the painting will be at the beginning,” she says.
In the end, all steps converge in an overall sense of cosmic beauty. “I want it to feel precious,” Ilchi acknowledges, tracing that value to her early years surrounded by Iranian handcrafts, “from carpet weaving to miniature painting to woodworking,” she remembers. “I grew up with that aesthetic of beauty and attention to craftsmanship.”
Beauty, the artist believes, sparks a seductive entry for viewers who she hopes will remain to contemplate more deeply. “I’m interested in changing the viewpoint, looking at a broader image of our world,” she continues. “These painted patterns are beautiful, but there’s a tension between the very different techniques. It’s about two cultures coming together and having some beauty, some peace. I’m hopeful good comes out of the chaos.”