If you stop by the Pohlman-Knowles home and studio in West Seattle, you might see Jenny Pohlman making improvements to the roof and Sabrina Knowles walking around with headphones on listening to NPR. Or maybe both of them are making their own adjustments to a new series of works inside a remodeled two-car garage that now serves as a studio. Aside from time spent in the hot shop at Pratt Fine Arts Center, all of the equipment they need to use is onsite. In the upstairs space of the studio, unfinished works adorn the walls and sit atop tables. Natural light brightens the space and a swing hangs from the ceiling. Brought together by a shared philosophical core, Pohlman and Knowles have spent the past 25 years continuously resolving their opposing aesthetics into a distinct singular vision.
“As a collaborative team the first thing you learn — and if you don’t, it won’t work — is you have to put that ego part of you aside. It can’t be me, me, me, my, my, my,” said Knowles. “It has to be a we.”
The result of their teamwork is refined works of glass that go beyond traditional pieces anchored by pedestals. Instead, much of their work hangs from the wall. In “Synchronicity” at Bainbridge Island Museum of Art (BIMA) visitors can see the progression of their work over the past two decades. Chief Curator Greg Robinson has known the pair for much of their partnership. He sees their work more as sculpture. Honoring women is at the heart of their work. The message is often subtle but it’s not hidden.
“They’re on a life journey to learn more and more and more about women all over the world,” said Robinson. “They want all the women in different civilizations that they meet to help them see better and guide them through life.”
In a new series, they’ve begun incorporating photographs of women they’ve met while traveling the globe. “Pearls, Himba Portrait series” is reminiscent of a vintage cameo broach. At two feet tall and two feet wide, Pohlman and Knowles have infused the profile of a woman within glass. The piece is surrounded by metalwork and four pearls. Getting it just right was not an overnight project. It took the duo years to perfect it.
Initially, photos taken of the Himba women of northern Namibia in 2008 were printed and displayed in their work area and home. Within a year, Knowles told Pohlman she wanted to capture the essence of the women in blown glass.
“I thought she was nuts because it was nothing we had done and we weren’t even sure if it was accessible,” said Pohlman. “She took a couple of classes and the results weren’t what she was looking for. She wanted as exact a portrait as we can get in blown glass.”
Not one to be bested by an obstacle, Knowles channeled her determined energy into finding a way. From a screen-printing technique to a crash course in Photoshop and dozens of “learning experiences” along the way, they finally solved the puzzle. The end result is an elegant portrait with a hazy finish. Several hang in the BIMA gallery, each as splendid as the next.
Pohlman and Knowles recognize that some might find it problematic that they are White women showcasing women of color in their work. The photographs are garnered through an even exchange, meaning they buy crafts from the women and get permission to take their photos. The two say they aren’t replicating what they’ve seen on trips. They are inspired by the people they meet and recreate that feeling to viewers. Both approach the cultures they’re learning about with respect and admiration.
“Part of what we’re doing is trying to share with our audience things that we have learned on foot firsthand from the people, not out of a book or anything,” said Pohlman. “Our entire goal was to make works that reflected memories or paid homage to experiences.”
Other works in the BIMA show include hanging baskets, an eye mural and a towering set of prayer beads.
Interviewing the pair about their work goes about how you’d expect. They often finish each other’s sentences; a thought coming from one trails off while the other picks it up without missing a beat. One question leads to a detailed answer, then veers off on a tangent. Knowles is the one often reining the conversation back in. Both are complimentary of the other’s skills and talents. Watching and listening to them explain their process and the trips they’ve taken, little effort is required to envision the two of them collaborating over the years.
If anyone can speak to how to maintain a successful long-term union, it’s Pohlman and Knowles. Their lives are intertwined both personally and professionally; they make art, run a business and are life partners. In 1990 they were both on staff at Pilchuck Glass School when their friendship unexpectedly evolved into something more.
“We were astonished,” said Pohlman. “We both agreed that we would make this decision and society be damned.”
Their journey as artists includes: Remaining laser focused on improving their technique; losing a studio space because a meth lab blew up on the roof causing a major fire,then surviving the 2008 market crash.
Both were attracted to the arts and when they were no longer being fulfilled by their day jobs, they made the decision to pursue the creative life. Pohlman grew up in a rural town outside Cincinnati and is a self-described carpenter’s daughter. After living in New York City, she moved to Seattle because of a cousin connected to Pilchuck. Initially she wasn’t thrilled about glass, but that changed once she realized she could drill holes and build with it.
“When I left my job, I decided that I needed to do something where I accessed my body, mind and spirit on a moment-by-moment daily basis. I knew at 28 I was not accomplishing that,” said Pohlman. “I found a way to channel my desire for poetry into a visual narrative.”
Knowles described herself as a crafty kid who grew up in Washington. She went to secretarial school, got married and moved to Alaska, where she worked as an executive secretary. Later, she returned to Seattle. Knowles said she made a lot of money but was miserable. As her 30th birthday approached, she decided to take her life in a different direction and took a chance on her art skills. She worked at Pilchuck and volunteered at Pratt Fine Arts Center. She could always count on the support of her late sister Mona. She also paid close attention to master sculptors such as Pino Signoretto, who passed away this year. Taking a class from him gave her a dose of encouragement and hope.
Years later, they’ve exhibited across the country and their love for glass hasn’t diminished.
“I love it because it’s alchemy. It’s liquid and it’s hot, and then it’s hard and it’s cold, and it’s weak and it’s strong,” said Knowles.
Pohlman continued, “And it has a propensity for curvature. If you listen to it and watch it, it’ll tell you when.”
In addition to women, Pohlman and Knowles also incorporate birds in their work. The heron is their talisman. In the “Sankofa Pot series,” the body of a bird is facing forward but its neck is craned backwards. Pohlman said Sankofa is a Ghanaian philosophy that means if there’s something in your past worth going back for, don’t be afraid to go back and get it.
“It resonated with everything we believe about the strength and grace of women and our primordial memory of maybe a more egalitarian culture,” said Pohlman. “For us, this embodies going back to get it.”
Pohlman and Knowles have gotten into a rhythm as they work together, thanks in part to a couple rules: They encourage one another’s ideas and autonomy and they both have to give the green light on a piece before it leaves the studio. “Synchronicity” is a testament to their expertise in glass making, commitment to problem-solving and bringing their point of view to fruition in an engrossing way.
WHAT: “Jenny Pohlman & Sabrina Knowles: Synchronicity”
WHEN: Runs until Sept. 30
WHERE: Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, 550 Winslow Way E.
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Lisa on Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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