Photo stories, ambiguous paintings and what you will at Whidbey Open Studio Tour

As the sun sets itself at a vertical point above the earth, so the island’s artists open their doors to let both autumn and art lovers inside.

Painter Mark Skullerud’s “Parallel

Painter Mark Skullerud’s “Parallel

As the sun sets itself at a vertical point above the earth, so the island’s artists open their doors to let both autumn and art lovers inside.

The equinox has passed and the upcoming Whidbey Open Studio Tour is shaping up to be a veritable carnival of art of every stripe from Clinton to Oak Harbor.

Speaking of different stripes, if photographer Steve Marts joined the circus, his act would most certainly include illusion.

His photographs are a blend of subjects from more than one shot, creating compositions with a sleight-of-hand (OK it’s Photoshop) to create irony and conceptual stories where plain reality might have bored the viewer, or the photographer.

Marts categories include “women,” “landscapes,” “water” and what he calls “alternative” photos.

One of his water photos, entitled “Swimming Pool,” looks like a homage to the great British painter and designer David Hockney. In it, a backyard pool sports a wading pink flamingo, a hungry looking shark swimming through the house’s reflection toward the seemingly unperturbed bird and a zebra, seen only through the reflection in the house’s wall of glass windows, taking a drink from the pool.

Many of Marts’ photos look as though he has a lot of fun creating playful exercises in irony, such as his “What Elephant?” in which a large, mightily tufted elephant stands in the middle of a posh living room, or the photo in which a majestic and leafless tree appears to have hundreds of milled wood boards growing from its branches and hang perilously over the face of the viewer in a photo he calls “Transformation.”

“I look at a lot of stuff, mainly 20th century to present,” Marts said, referring to his art influences.

He said he’s not interested particularly in any certain subject. For Marts, it’s more about what he can do with a shot after he has it.

“I shoot something because I know it will be a part of something else later. You’re not going to get pretty landscapes from me. I’m going to throw a monkey wrench into everything if I can,” Marts said.

His series of women is dominated by nudes who mainly pose in beds or near cars. These compositions take the style of modern-day pinups, but one female study stands out among the rest. It’s entitled “Grandma” and features a tough-looking seniorette in a baseball cap, bright pink housecoat and mirror sunglasses in which each lens is reflected a portrait of a young surfer dude catching a major wave. Radical.

It’s the conceptual that seduces Marts, and his photographs reflect an artist who does what he wants, breaks rules, makes a political statement, or not, and appears to have fun doing it.

The Greenbank artist is a documentary film cameraman by profession who started doing still photos about seven years ago, and is presently having fun with a recently purchased Canon EOS 5D Mark II digital camera.

Though he uses Photoshop, he’s not particularly computer savvy and may not know as much about using software as does the average 14-year-old. He said he makes photographs as a hobby rather than as a profession, and manages to do about 100 shots per year that are “good enough” to use.

“A lot of the pieces are stories,” Marts said.

Marts explained his process of how he scrolls through the thousands of photos he has downloaded and uses something from various photos to create the “layered” final piece.

“I feel like more of an illustrator or a designer than a photographer. I look at magazines and see a similarity in what I do to the articles that have visual pieces to go with them.”

Marts doesn’t purport to know what the future will bring, but he said he’ll keep shooting.

“I don’t know what I’ll be doing a year from now, but I hope to keep doing new things with it,” he added.

Though one artist may prefer telling stories over creating pretty pictures, you may find another on the tour who has the opposite intention.

In fact, Greenbank painter Mark Skullerud has been an illustrator by profession for most of his career. He works as a designer for Teague Design, Inc., helping to design the interiors of Boeing jets.

But, as a painter of 30 years, Skullerud is not interested in illustration, representation or telling any stories. He strives for ambiguity in his work.

“There are two ways to create a composition. One is to start with a void and add something to it, like painting on a blank canvas or taking a flash photo of something in a dark room. From nothing to something.

“The other method, which I prefer, is to start with a chaos of lines and shapes, and find order in it. This latter method has the advantage of relying less on ideas and more on the artist’s nature,” Skullerud said.

Indeed, the painter said he enjoys watching a painting grow into something before his eyes, and puts down his brush before it becomes literal.

This is a difficult exercise for someone who has been trained to illustrate, capture an image or represent reality.

“I’m not hungry to capture anything,” Skullerud said.

“I had to give up everything I knew and start all over again.”

He said it took about five years before he was ready to show anyone his paintings. But it was worth the wait. Because painting is not his main profession, he said he can afford to experiment and that has made all the difference.

Skullerud’s paintings are studies in organized chaos. Familiar forms that look like they may be animals or humans or structures are created in a busy landscape of shapes, color and light. Even the black-and-white graphite drawings, the smaller-scale precursors to Skullerud’s paintings, are infused with movement and light, creating scenes of whatever the viewer has in mind. It’s the power of ambiguity — that elusive quality of being only what the viewer sees it to be — that this painter is after, though the titles may lend certain clues. “Centaur and Birds,” “Homestead,” “Floor of the Hoh,” are titles which help to establish a starting point from which the viewer is thrust forward into the abstracted abyss of Skullerud’s lively experiments.

The thing he said makes him most happy is that everyone seems to come away with something of their own interpretation after seeing his work.

“My paintings keep giving to you; I think that’s what makes them so interesting to people. They never become like just another piece of furniture,” he said.

Tour guests who visit Skullerud’s studio will be able to watch this painter’s process of beginning a new painting.

“I’m excited about this one; I’m pumped,” Skullerud said.

“You always get pumped for the new one.”

He also said that this is his first time on the tour, and he is impressed.

“I’ve never been in a show before that is this well-organized,” he said.

The Whidbey Open Studio Tour is from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 26 and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 27.

A South End preview exhibit is open at the Open Door Gallery + Coffee in the Bayview Cash Store from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily through the end of the tour, and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, Sept. 25 through the end of the tour at the Crockett Barn in Coupeville.

The $10 ticket includes a tour guidebook, map and 15-month art-soaked wall calendar.

Proceeds from the event help provide scholarships and grants to local students and aspiring artists.

To purchase tickets online, click here, or call 221-4121 or the Pacific Northwest Art School at 360-678-3396.

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