ArtXchange gallery in Pioneer Square is an inviting space no matter whose work is displayed on its walls. The ambiance is akin to the living room of an aesthete who believes in the accessibility of art. The gallery serves as the perfect backdrop for a new show with the central theme of connection. “Poetic Translations: A Visual Journey” is a collaboration between Peruvian artist William Hernandez and writer Christa Kaainoa.
Hernandez’s paintings are rich in color while Kaainoa’s poems are rich in details that transport the reader into a specific scene. His vision of her work leans toward a complementary rather than a literal translation. Kaainoa didn’t give him any limitations on how to interpret her poetry.
“This is the thing that I really like about the show, because that collaboration was more like agreements for freedom,” said Hernandez. “Painting is the means of expression that most suits my life and creative environment.”
Hernandez’s paintings are often dreamlike, melancholic and humorous. “My Morning Routine” shows a typical room with hardwood floors, curtains on the window and a phonograph on top of a cabinet. In it a man has just opened a closet door to find an elephant standing in between two blue shirts, its trunk hanging over the rod. It’s an unexpected scene fit for a fairy tale, and the two aren’t afraid of one another. The accompanying poem, “Skeletons,” begins with the sentence, “If I had skeletons in my closet instead of clothes, I would pull them out of my room and we would have peppermint tea with milk and honey.” The poem doesn’t mention an elephant, but Hernandez used one rather than skeletons as a nod to a Peruvian phrase that roughly means when you have something heavy on your back, you’re always carrying it with you, whether it’s good or bad.
“I tried to translate my own experience as a Peruvian living in Portland, carrying things, carrying my culture, but I put it in a closet,” said Hernandez.
Other paintings in the show include a man lying in a field among flowers, a woman holding a pot of her tears and a boy looking into a well, and a horse is his reflection. Hernandez sometimes incorporates animals in his work to express the duality of the worlds. For him horses represent strength and beauty. Each of Hernandez’s paintings is not only beautifully executed, it transports the viewer to a distinctly different place. Hernandez creates multilayered narratives that take time to fully absorb. Kaainoa’s work explores personal relationships vividly, succinctly and stimulates one’s senses. Each line is significant.
The foundation for the collaboration between Hernandez and Kaainoa was born out of friendship. The Portland-based artists are nextdoor neighbors. A hole in their backyard fence they call a “portal” provides endless opportunities for their kids to play with one another. Kaainoa is a seventh-grade language arts teacher and one of Hernandez’s sons attends the school where she works, and they carpool. Kaainoa describes their neighborhood as welcoming and family friendly. One where stopping to chat with a neighbor on the sidewalk is a frequent scene. About a year ago Hernandez was talking to Kaainoa about wanting his next show to be about connections and relationships. He asked if she would share some of her poems that he could potentially use for inspiration. Kaainoa pulled 10 poems that fit the theme, spruced them up and gave them to Hernandez. She saw it more as a creative connecting with another creative and didn’t expect to ultimately be a part of an art gallery show.
“He’s such a generous person and artist. He could have just said, ‘Great, thanks for the poems, now I’m going to go hang my paintings,’” said Kaainoa. “It’s been very validating to me as a writer to feel like my words or work could be legitimate enough or valued enough to be included in an exhibit with artwork that I feel is world-class.”
Kaainoa went on to say that her experience with Hernandez is on par with who he is as a person and artist. Rather than keep the spotlight solely on himself, he finds a way to bring in others who can enrich the experience. Kaainoa isn’t the only person Hernandez brought into the “Poetic Translations” collaboration. Seattle artist and Latin dance teacher Vanessa Villalobos choreographed a performance for the recent First Thursday opening of the show. ArtXchange Assistant Director Lauren Davis described the night as magical.
“Vanessa was talking about how everybody in the room was a character in one of William’s paintings and the room itself is the canvas, and she asked everybody to sort of bring up their energy and to hold it and to start moving it throughout the room,” said Davis. “The dancers started responding to the paintings and it really did feel like one of his paintings was coming to life while one of Christa’s poems was being read aloud.”
“The dancers started responding to the paintings and it really did feel like one of his paintings was coming to life while one of Christa’s poems was being read aloud.”
Art caught Hernandez’s attention as a child. He would copy the masters and experiment with color. Hernandez studied at Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes in Lima. He met his wife there while she was in the Peace Corps. They got married and moved to Portland in 2009. He’s exhibited his figurative and abstract paintings in galleries and cultural centers in Lima, Portland and Seattle. He also works as a freelance graphic artist. Kaainoa is a graduate of the Attic Institute’s Atheneum Master Writing Program and is writing a memoir.
Working together for the show also revealed other similarities between the two artists.
Both like to include hidden clues in their work that aren’t obvious at first glance. “Spinners” is one example. It shows three women in a Japanese tea room setting. One of the women is holding a bowl with spools of silk. Eight strands coming out of the bowl come together to form a single strand that all three of the women are holding. The eight strands represent a close-knit group of Kaainoa’s girlfriends.
“If you know what clues to look for, you can solve the puzzle of what’s buried in the poem like a treasure hunt,” said Kaainoa. “We’re creating a show about connection, and it’s happening as we develop our own connection more, and it felt like layers upon layers upon layers of connection and relationships that I hadn’t anticipated.”
Creating connections and building relationships is important to Hernandez and is part of his personality. Davis said whenever Hernandez is in the room it’s always a party and everyone is family. Kaainoa said because of Hernandez’s extroverted nature, he’s encouraged her to step out of her comfort zone. Both artists are proud of the show and speak highly of each other’s work.
Hernandez sees the show as an opportunity to share his love of color, his culture and diversity of images. Kaainoa hopes those who come see the show use it as an opportunity to examine their own connections and where they belong.
“I just love that idea of art being something that is for everyone and having a space that is open to everyone,” said Kaainoa. “A few lucky people will buy those paintings and have them on their walls. But like maybe hundreds of people will get to experience them by walking into the gallery.”
“Poetic Translations” stimulates the imagination and the impact of the art stays with the viewer long after leaving the gallery.
WHAT: “Poetic Translations: A Visual Journey”
WHEN: Runs until July 27
WHERE: ArtXchange gallery, 512 First Ave. S, Seattle
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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