Arts and Entertainment

On the road again: Whidbey Open Studio Tour includes 77 artists this year

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This 'Felt Pelt' designed and handmade by artist Zia Gipson is one of the many pieces of art on display today and tomorrow on the Whidbey Open Studio Tour.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Zia Gipson

Roust yourself onto the road today and tomorrow with the 77 artists participating in the Whidbey Open Studio Tour.

All roads on this tour lead to talent, and visitors will be pleasantly surprised to be led down the “free-range” road of enthusiasm and commitment that describes the personalities of husband-and-wife artists Zia Gipson and Richard Davis.

Relative newcomers to the island after many years in Seattle, the couple is now in the throes of hand-building their house and studios on a lot overlooking the Maxwelton Valley.

In typical die-hard artist fashion, they will set aside the million tasks at hand to be done to finish their home in order to participate in the Open Studio Tour.

Artists are generally a welcoming bunch, and these two are no exception.

Gipson’s light-soaked studio is one area that is up and running and is more than suitable to show off both artists’ work.

Gipson calls herself a “free-range” artist, working with a variety of materials to create pieces that fall into a variety of categories including wearable art, textile designs and two-dimensional pieces.

She works a lot with fiber, handmade felt and paper, and uses vibrant color as if it were a precious element of nature to be generously offered to the viewer for their good health.

“I dream in color and bring those dreams and musings to life in the studio. Color is the true north around which all other artistic decisions are made,” Gipson said.

She will be demonstrating the technique of hand-felting using hand-dyed merino wool, various textiles worked into the design, some water and rolling — the part which Gipson said keeps her physically engaged in her art.

“I like all the moving around I do while creating art,” she said.

Into some of her felted pieces, Gipson incorporates silk or cotton fabrics which lightens the texture of the final piece, giving it a more intricate look. Her pieces are versatile and are used as shawls, table runners or wall-hangings, among other uses.

“I’ve even seen my pieces used to line hats,” she said.

Gipson said besides enjoying the physicality of hand-felting — and her bold use of color which she said is kind of like painting with fiber with the added benefit of texture — she started to include story into her work.

Recently she created a conceptual piece for a juried show coming to the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Mass.

The show is called “The Perfect Fit — Shoes Tell Stories,” and Gipson will submit a piece entitled “9136.”

Inside a black velvet-lined box is a ivory-colored felted baby shoe with the number 9136 embroidered onto its instep. The number represents the number of innocent children who have been killed since the start of the Iraq War.

“It’s symbolic of the fact that war kills more than soldiers. We hear about and honor the deaths of combatants but not the deaths of the innocents,” she said.

Gipson said she was influenced by the images she saw of piles of shoes from the Nazi concentration camps when visiting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Additionally, she started thinking about the bound feet suffered by countless Chinese women and the punishing stiletto heels of shoes worn by some women today.

Such influences have given rise to her need to tell stories in some of her work, something she started to do in the past 10 years, even though she’s been making decorative art since the 1970s.

“I wanted to use my voice as an artist to make a statement,” Gipson said. “Being a ‘free-range’ artist, I get to tell these stories.”

Gipson’s husband uses as much color as his wife and has his own stories to tell through an art form he discovered in 1998.

That year, while spending some months abroad, Davis volunteered to help install mosaics on the front of the Craft Center Building in Nelson, New Zealand and has been making mosaics ever since.

Although he studied sculpture in college and discovered his aptitude for mosaic design, Davis spent most of his working life as a chef and restaurateur.

But life on the island is a new chapter, and after he finishes building their home and perhaps finds part-time work as a personal chef, he said he will devote most of his time to tile work and commissions.

Having traveled extensively in places like Asia, Africa and Europe, what emerges from Davis’ work is the influence of patterns of art in exotic places executed with a virtuosic use of color.

Many of his pieces incorporate found or recycled objects and tiles, often carted back in suitcases from countries like Egypt and Tunisia.

He works in both figurative and abstract styles creating not only decorative sculptural pieces, but unusual mosaic “rugs” that are inlaid into floors and may include a realistic depiction of the rugs tassles.

Davis is also influenced by his childhood fascination with the tales of the Arthurian legend, evident in his “The Sword and the Stone,” a mosaic “painting” which incorporates some of the romance of medieval Britain.

Technique aside, the couple expressed their excitement over becoming a part of such a welcoming community.

“I am looking forward to the tour so we can introduce ourselves to the Whidbey arts community and meet people interested in art,” Davis said.

Gipson, too, stressed how right Whidbey Island feels to them.

“Opening our studio is our way of saying thank you for the warm welcome we’ve received here, and we look forward to becoming contributing members of this community,” she said.

Heading north from the Maxwelton Valley up Highway 525, a stop just beyond Freeland’s town center is The Boatwright, artist Brad Rice’s boat-building mecca on East Harbor Road.

In the large converted dairy cow barn, visitors can feast their eyes on an original 1937 Chester C Class sloop, one of only a handful of boats of its kind in the world.

Rice has been hired to restore the historical 40-foot boat built in Nova Scotia, which is one of the many services he provides at The Boatwright.

He also designs and builds new boats, though not just any kind. They have to be pretty enough and designed right if Rice takes on the job.

“I look at a project as representative of my work; I want it to be pretty and as nice as it can be,” Rice said.

That’s why he said he needs the artistic side of boatbuilding and restoration to keep him interested.

The name of this particular Chester C sloop is “Westwind,” and Rice has already talked with the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Nova Scotia about having discovered the boat’s whereabouts.

“They were very excited when I told them we had found this boat,” Rice said.

He also was pleased to reunite the Brain family of Seattle with the boat, as it had been in the family from 1949 until 1960 and then sold. Owners Romney and Chris Brain are brothers who spent a large part of their childhood on the “Westwind.”

“In the last 10 years or so we started talking about where the boat might be,” Romney Brain said.

“We joked that it was probably sitting on its cradle neglected in somebody’s back yard and how great it would be to find it.”

After a bit of Craig’s List luck the family is happy to have it back and start its restoration to its former dignity.

“It’s one of those things that’s etched into you; that period of my life on the boat is an important part of my family’s history,” he said.

They estimate about three years for the project’s completion, which will coincide with their mother’s 90th birthday.

“It will be really fun to have her break that bottle of champagne on the boat to celebrate its relaunch,” Brain said.

Rice said there’s a lot to be done, but he’s happy to work on an historical vessel which he said is rewarding and a lot of fun.

The first boat Rice ever built was a Thomas Gilmer Blue Moon Yawl. That boat sits outside the shop, somewhat landlocked now, but an important memory for Rice, who was only 21 when he built it while living in Alaska.

Back then, Rice became bored supporting himself in the construction business.

Taking a hard look at his future, Rice landed at the International Boatbuilding Training College in Lowestoft, England, where he learned all the traditional handwork techniques of his trade.

Eventually, he founded his company in Seattle after working in various jobs for other shipbuilders. He also tried his hand in the fine- furniture field and used his carpentry skills for a time creating theatrical sets for the Anchorage Opera Company.

At The Boatwright, Rice established himself as a master of old technology, pleasing clients who enjoyed finer, custom-designed vessels.

His bread and butter turned out to be building runabouts, dinghies and commuter boats.

He recently completed a 40-foot, two-story houseboat built for a resident who lives on Lake Union in Seattle, but its not his favorite type of project.

“I like the smaller boats because I can concentrate on the whole magilla,” Rice said.

“I like thinking about every aspect of the boat as a whole — the interior, the structure, the engine. I want the final product to have a calming feeling; not busy or gaudy. Simple. Form follows function in the end,” he added.

If art and form are important to him, its no surprise that Rice refers a lot to historical boats of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s. But although he espouses the traditional designs of those periods, he is able to combine the beauty of those designs with modern construction.

To show what can be done with wood, Rice will demonstrate the art of steambending oak which is necessary to make the wood bendable and able to create the arc of a boat’s hull.

Ultimately, his favorite part of the process is the “lofting.”

Lofting is a carpentry technique in which curved lines are drawn on wood and the wood is then cut for advanced woodworking. It is used to draw and cut pieces for hulls and keels, which are usually curved.

“Realizing the shape of a boat is my favorite part,” Rice said.

“It’s really fun.”

Click here for info on tour tickets, maps and the artists.

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