Markers and Buoys
At Shift through May 30
by Cynthia Hibbard
More than twenty years ago, Karen Klee-Atlin’s early morning commute over a suspension bridge in Nova Scotia treated her to the stunning sight of Halifax Harbor back-lit by the rising sun.
The spirit of those silhouetted maritime images that found their way into her art-making then has re-emerged in her newest exploration of the outdoor working world near her Ballard home in her current Shift show, “Markers and Buoys,” through May 30.
To Klee-Atlin, such utilitarian objects, often depicted in repetition, can be inherently compelling.”
In 28 print and encaustic pieces, Klee-Atlin celebrates the artifacts and utilitarian aspects of construction sites, a tree service job, airport tarmac activity and fishing port work – scenes that would be invisible to most passers by were it not for the familiar glint of ever-present neon orange markers, signs and safety gear.
That thread of orange unites Klee-Atlin’s work, weaving together groups of bright traffic cones, well-used crab pots, barnacled wharf pilings – even the nighttime water reflections of bobbing buoys.
To Klee-Atlin, such utilitarian objects, often depicted in repetition, can be inherently compelling. She also enjoys the “juxtaposition” of elevating them into art spaces.
Her references are objects “that guide us, alert us to danger, provide us with protection, display control or ownership, mark boundaries, and discretely lead to our hidden treasures.”
“There is beauty in our tools, workplaces, and the people and the objects in our surroundings,” she said. Her references are objects “that guide us, alert us to danger, provide us with protection, display control or ownership, mark boundaries, and discretely lead to our hidden treasures.”
After rushing out in the rain one day to photograph traffic cones surrounding a street repair job, Klee-Atlin produced a series of impressionistic watercolor-on-acetate monoprints, Traffic Cones I-IV, that are among her favorites in the show due to the rough, painterly quality of the marks she achieved from pooled paint drying on a non-absorbent surface and then run through a press.
This printing process – like other techniques she developed and employed in her show – was a successful experiment Klee-Atlin was eager to try. Although she’s taught art for many years, from university and adult education levels down to kindergarten, Klee-Atlin describes herself as a continuing learner who enjoys researching and carefully planning new approaches to her projects.
In a series of reductive woodcuts, Pilings, Klee-Atlin presents six iterations of the same image by varying and selectively limiting the order of color layers. Reductive woodcuts – perhaps the most exacting of wood plate techniques – challenge her to follow detailed mapping and inventive registration schemes.
In an encaustic series of airport worker scenes, Klee-Atlin scraped through layers of wax so she could add and level off dark and yellow and orange wax touches to a monochromatic palette. She could have achieved this effect in a simpler way but her idea to excavate and infill compelled her.
Admittedly a methodical, process-oriented artist, Klee-Atlin is perhaps naturally suited to her approach. She began her working career aiming to be a veterinarian and also meeting her husband, an agricultural scientist, while working a tedious job as a lab assistant extracting and examining the oils from soybeans in the service of producing a richer bean product.
Realizing that such mind-numbing tasks plus years of schooling lay ahead, Klee-Atlin switched gears and pursued an MFA in art instead. But she took with her a dedication to process that she will discuss further in her artist talk, Saturday, May 23, at 4:40 p.m. in the gallery.
“I love the process of working on art – that often has to be an end in itself,” Klee-Atlin said. At Shift, “a former salmon fisherman, the daughter of a crab fisherman, and ferry workers have talked to me about their work and mine. The ferryman told me that pilings are actually called ‘Dolphins.’ All these conversations are a lovely gift to me.”